I am reading Mark Norman’s thought-provoking book on Folklore; ‘Telling the Bees – and other customs – The Folklore of Rural Crafts – The History Press’. There is much to think about stemming from this book not only during our current locked down state, but in normal times and throughout history.
I am privileged to live in a house that was for many generations a working hill farm on Brendon Hill, the eastern edge of Exmoor. From the local 1841 National Census the Coles family were farming here and by the 1891 census a branch of the Vellacott family worked this land. Later, in the nineteen-sixties, the farm was sold by Dickie, known as ‘Two Shovels’ Vellacott, its land amalgamated with neighbouring holdings, the house left in other ownership retaining a few acres.
We find much evidence here of yesterday’s crafts, often lying where they fell, pieces showing a blacksmith’s skill at the forge – gate fittings, door latches and other pieces – all beaten out from a single piece of iron, not to mention many horseshoes and items that had once been part of ancient agricultural machines. These items bear current witness to the skill of craftsmen long departed.
An interesting fact seen in local Victorian census returns is the growth and decline of the population brought on by the opening and later closing of the adjacent Iron Mines and the rail connection to export iron ore off the hill through Watchet harbour to South Wales. In 1861 there were 164 residents living hereabouts in 29 dwellings, in 1881 there were 262 residents in 52 dwellings, but in 1891 only 111 residents in 22 dwellings. Of interest in the1881 return there were many Cornish names recorded as miners on the Withiel Florey census returns.
In the 1990s I was at an agricultural sale and, on impulse, bought a farm cart, a single axle Somerset Tipping Putt. It was made by the Thurloxton village wheelwright Jim Porter, evidenced by his name still visible on the backboard. In the 1950s our family lived in the then late wheelwright’s cottage, hence my impulse to buy the cart. All the timber work, including the tall iron-bound wooden wheels, were made by Jim Porter while the metal fittings, there were many, were made by Walter Winslade the nearby Shearston village blacksmith. After the sale I spoke with Percy Adams in his nineties who as a teenager had taken his working horse from his farm near Bridgwater to collect the cart on the day of the Armistice in 1918. After its working farm life of more than seventy years the cart was still in sound condition in its original, but faded, paintwork, maybe the odd floor board replaced, a testament to the skill of those two rural craftsmen. After a further twenty-five years idle parked up in a barn here, the cart went back to Thurloxton to be owned by the village marking the centenary of the Great War Armistice and of the cart on 11th November 2018.
As well as rural crafts Mark Norman’s book speaks of the folklore of bees. A few years back we had a swarm visit us unannounced until I noticed the steady traffic in and out of an enclosed compost frame. Lifting the lid, a superb wax ‘home’ was revealed, the size of half a rugger ball fixed to the bin lid, a wonderful piece of architecture its hexagonal cell wax lacework ball evidence of the bees’ craft over millennia. Later a local beekeeper collected the swarm in a hive-sized basket.
A joy we have had this spring into summer has been the return of ‘our’ house martins. These small birds are, in the main, the ones that have bred here in the last couple of seasons. Since then they have travelled down into Africa and returned to the precise place of their hatching. As soon as they were back, they set about repairing, or in two cases building anew, their superb rounded nests under the house eaves, craftsmanship of the highest order. In the spring drought it was hard to see where they were getting the mud to fashion their nests, but after one or two false starts the rains came and they succeeded. Since then they have laid eggs, now hatched and are forever feeding their next generation. These birds represent just one of the animal kingdom’s superb craft working skills, one that humans ignore at our peril as we exploit the riches of our planet and the universe beyond.
Thank you, Mark Norman for a fascinating book and inspiring these few thoughts.