Richard Warner (1763-1857), A walk through some of the western counties of England by the Revd. Richard Warner … 1800
September 6, 1799
Warner walked to Minehead from Glastonbury by way of Axbridge, East and South Brent, Pawlett, the ferry over the Parrett to Combwich and Stogursey. This extract begins at Brent Knoll, and is interesting because it contains an account of a pedlar – woman who sold pottery round the villages.
Brent-Knoll affords protection to another small village immediately opposite to East-Brent, and called from its situation South-Brent, as it lies immediately under the southern steeps of this hill. Thither I directed my steps, to the quiet retreat of S–, who had promised to relieve the gloom of solitude for a short distance, and be my companion during two days. The only curiosity of SouthBrent is its little church, which has many vestiges of antiquity both within and without. Its seating is particularly curious, being certainly anterior to the Reformation. Instead of pews, it has (like the Russian churches) a regular series of plain Oaken benches, with a back to each, running from either side towards the middle of the Church, at right angles with the wall. The flat boards which form the terminations of these seats; are curiously and variously carved with subjects most grotesque and ludicrous ; such as a fox or an ass in a mitre; a pig roasting, and a monkey acting the part of turnspit; a party of geese hanging a pig; a monkey at prayers; a pig-preaching, &c. These caricature. carvings I should consider as instances of practical satire by the parochial clergy against the mendicant orders ; for it is well known that the most inveterate antipathy subsisted between the parish-priests and the friars, in consequence of that considerable influence which the latter had obtained by their absurd vows and itinerant preaching. Doubtless, at the period when these sculptural representations were made, their meaning and allusions were well understood, and being always before the eyes of the congregations, they kept alive, by the powerful means of ridicule, that contempt for the Dominicans and Franciscans, which all the oratory of the parochial clergy would not probably have been able to excite; so true is the excellent observation of one well versed in history of the human heart:
” Ridiculum acri
” Fortius et melius magnas plerumque secat res.”
The font also lays claim to a considerable antiquity, being deep and capacious, intended for the total immersion of the infant to be baptized. This, you know, was the ancient mode of performing the ceremony; and only disused within these two centuries, when good sense getting the better of prejudice, the custom almost universally disappeared, to the great benefit of population; since the chances must have been very considerably against any infant which was thus, within the month, unmercifully plunged over head and ears into a bath of cold water. Little accidents, indeed, frequently occurred, whilst the practice continued, to the poor half-drowned children; one of which has been thought of sufficient importance to be incorporated into the page of metrical history. It relates to King Ethelred, the miserable ideot [sic] whose inglorious reign saw the Danish power established in this country. Archbishop Dunstan had the honour of baptising the royal babe; but shook or the fright, occasioned by the immersion, produced the infant the most unseemly and offensive effects. The prelate, whose olfactory nerves were probably somewhat distressed by the circumstance, returned the child to its nurse in a passion, exclaiming at the same time, “Per Deum et matrem ejus, Ignavus homo erit !? By God and his mother, this will be a most scurvy scoundrel;”* a prophecy which subsequent events compleatly accomplished.
After experiencing the hospitality of the Parsonage, I took the road (accompanied by S?) to our present-quarters, the Shoulder of Mutton inn, in the village of Pawlett. A flat country offers to the traveller little or nothing picturesque, since no variety can occur in one uniform level; no intricacy, in ground divided into regular quadrilatural inclosures, or moors intersected by rectilinear canals. Our walk, therefore, was not diversified with much change of scene. This part of Somersetshire, indeed, exhibits the province of Holland in miniature; a resemblance which is strengthened by the appearance of the women, who, like the Dutch females, have mostly very white teeth, and fair complexions.
With these general observations I intended to have closed my letter, but a character has just presented itself to our observation, which exhibits such a compleat specimen of independence in spirit, and energy in action, that I cannot resist giving you a slight sketch of it. It is, I must confess a piece of humble biography, but it will not be less interesting to on that account. Materials for moral instruction are to be found as well in the cottage as in the palace ; and although the peasants’ life cannot, like the hero’s, display those brilliant but pernicious exploits which dazzle and astonish mankind, yet may, an often does, exhibit such examples of patient suffering and industrious exertion, as would have a better effect, if held up to publick observation, on the moral character of a nation, than all the pompously-written lives of the destructive conqueror, or the refined politician. Whilst S– and myself were chatting over our tea, we heard a horse and cart at the door of our caravansery ; and immediately afterwards the sounds of a female voice, neither very gentle or very melodious, calling to the ostler, roused our attention. On going to the door, we discovered “a thing of shreds and tatters,” intended for a cart, and drawn by a small poney, not much larger than a large Newfoundland dog. In the centre of this machine sat a female figure, brawny but short, who seemed to have weathered nearly sixty winters. She was recounting to a man who stood by, the labours of her little mare, which had dragged her loaded car twelve miles to market in the morning, and brought it safely the same distance through the moor in the evening, when she herself could not discern the road. As there appeared to be no reserve on the part of the lady, S– asked her some questions relative to her history, situation, and manner of life, to which she readily gave answers to the following effect:
That she was a native of Huntspill, in the northern part of Somersetshire, where she had always resided, but being the fruit of an illicit commerce, had come into the world under rather unfortunate circumstances. Born in the poor-house there, she continued for some time the property of no particular person, but a sort of fixture or heirloom, that descended from one master to another, without enquiry or regard. The education of a village workhouse, you know, is not very liberal or extensive, you will not be surprised, therefore, that Johanna Martin (for that is her name) left it for service at the age of’ twelve, with a mind as uncultivated as her body was scantily clothed—the former a perfect blank, the latter with a ward-robe consisting of one ragged gown. The term of her servitude being expired, Johanna married a labourer, and settled in life. Unluckily (as she expressed herself) she took terribly to breeding, and in the course of seven years presented her husband with as many children. Two of them, however, died in their infancy; but while she was big with an eighth, it pleased Providence to take her husband from her. Shortly after his death she became once more a mother, and found herself a widow with six infants, and not a shilling in the world to feed them with. In this dilemma Johanna applied for relief to the officers of the parish, but “they relieved no out-paupers, though they had no objection to receive the children into the poor-house.” Johanna had herself experienced the comforts of this mansion, and was not prejudiced enough in its favour to trust her offspring there; she therefore declined the offer, and determined to depend upon nothing but Providence and her own activity for the support of her numerous family. But no common exertion was sufficient for this. ” For many a long month, gentlemen,” said she, ” have I risen daily at two o’clock in the morning, done what was needful for the children, gone eight and ten miles on foot to a market with a large basket of pottery-ware on my head, sold it, and returned again with the profits before noon.” By this more than horse-like labour, Johanna, in- the course of a twelve month, amassed the sum of one guinea and a half; when, being under the necessity of quitting her cottage, she resolved to build an house for herself. But though a famous architect, and a very good workman, the undertaking was too great for her individual labour ; she therefore hired a man of the place to assist in the building, and to work they went.
You will hardly suppose that Johanna’s riches were so great as to form an object of plunder; but nothing is beneath the notice of petty villainy; the one pound eleven shillings and sixpence were yet untouched, being reserved to defray the expences of building. Her treacherous coadjutor had marked the spot in which the treasure, carefully wrapped up in a rag, had been deposited; and one fatal morning, when the unsuspecting Johanna was gone to a distant market, the villain seized the little deposit, and decamped, taking with him at the same time a few planks which had been provided for the intended building.
Can you conceive a disappointment more severe than that which the poor Widow must have experienced on returning to her plundered dwelling? Or picture to yourself a situation more likely to have produced the gloom and listlessness of despair? But our heroine’s mind was above the reach of fortune, and superior to the attacks of casualty. ” To be sure,” said she, ” I did curse the rascal that robbed me, a little but knowing that fretting would not bring the money back again, I wouldn’t waste tears about the matter. sides, I had not leisure to grieve ; the children wanted bread, and I was the only person to provide for them. I determined, therefore, ” to work harder than ever for some time, and to let the Cottage alone, till I had gotten a little before-hand, and then to finish it myself, that I might not be robbed a second time. To be sure, the children and I were obliged to sleep for several weeks in the shell of the tenement, with no other covering (for it was not roofed) than a dew-board. ** but twas summer-time, and for the matter of that, we were warm enough, for all six slept in one bed.
Well, gentlemen,” continued she, ” with the assistance of a. good GOD, I was able at ” last ‘to finish my cottage, which (though I say it myself) is a very tight little place; and after some time, having saved another trifle, I bought the old cart I am now in, and the little poney you see, with which (though I only gave heifer-guinea for her) I would not part for the best fifty shillings that ever were told. I wanted them had enough, for what with smartish work, and not very good living, I began to find my legs give out; and that I could not walk thirty miles a day now so well as I walked them twenty years ago. With these, however, I am able to carry pottery to the different market-towns round about, and drive a pretty briskish trade. To be sure I be’nt very rich, but what I have is all of my own getting. I never begged a halfpenny of any soul; I brought up my children without the help of the overseers; I can now live without being obliged to them; I maintain myself, and don’t care a farthing for the Pope or Keeser (Caesar.)” Saying this, Dame Johanna Martin smacked her whip, and drove off, leaving us in admiration of a character equally rare and exemplary–a mind unconquerable by disaster; a spirit which preferred contending with difficulties almost unparalleled, rather than to submit to the shackles of dependence.
What might not have been expected from a character like this, had its advantages been greater, and its sphere of action more enlarged? Birth and education might have raised Johanna to an equality with the far-famed Semiramis of the ancient world, or the celebrated Catherine of modern times. She might have headed armies, and addressed senates; have scattered smiling plenty over distant nations, and given equal laws to an hemisphere. But on the other hand, powerful talents like hers might also have been perverted. She might have ruled the kingdoms with a rod of iron; have let loose the dogs of war o’er half the globe; have raised her glory on the destruction of her subjects, and cemented the fabrick of her power with blood and injustice. Providence therefore, in its wisdom, allotted to Johanna a ” destiny obscure,” but bade her, even in this ignoble station, not be without her use; exemplifying in her little history the certain happy consequences of a pious trust in and dependence upon the goodness of God, seconded by invincible perseverance, and the diligent exertion of those faculties. which it has pleased our .Creator to bestow upon us.
Adieu, Your’s, R. W.
TO THE SAME.
Minehead, Sept. 6th
OBEDIENT to ” the breezy call of incense-breathing morn,” my companion and I were early to-day on our way to the passage-house on the banks of the Parret, about two miles and a half from the Shoulder of Mutton inn, which had last night given us Shelter. A fog remarkably thick shut out all the surrounding country from our view, but the loss was the less to be regretted, as it is marked by a similar character of uniformity with our walk of yesterday afternoon ; being a continuation of the same dull level stretching itself quite to the borders of the river.
A comfortable little cottage, which, though not a publick-house, holds out hospitality to the traveller, afforded us an excellent breakfast; after which, parting with S-, (for I was here condemned to lose my late valuable acquisition) I ferried over the river Parret, at that time quite at ebb, and not more than a quarter of a mile across. This stream, one of the most considerable in Somersetshire, rises at a town (called, after itself,South-Parret) in Dorsetshire, lends a name to another place on the border of Somersetshire, passes South Petherton, sweeps by Langport, gives trade and commercial animation to Bridgwater, and discharges itself into the Bristol Channel at the Start-Point. As I had been informed that it was remarkable for the impetuosity with which the tide enters its mouth, I waited about an hour and a half, till the commencement of the flood, in order to observe the phaenomenon. Its approach is announced by a distant roaring sound, which gradually increases upon the ear, until the cause itself appears; a volume of water, like one vast wave, sometimes rising to the height of four feet, (though when I saw it, not more than two) rushing on with irresistible violence, and covering instantaneously the steep banks, which had been left dry by the recess of the tide. It is called a Boar, in allusion, I presume, to the formidable sounds which this indomitable animal emits; and affords no bad idea of his violence and noise, when roused to fury by the spear of the hunter, or the attack of his dogs. A similar appearance, you know, occurs in many other rivers in different parts of the world; owing, evidently, to a huge volume of water, from particular circumstances of situation, being suddenly propelled into an estuary, where amplitude is not sufficient to afford room for the spreading of the Waves. But in none is the Boar. more remarkable than in the Ganges, where, with a rage adequate to the gigantick stream in which it exerts itself, it frequently overwhelms the ship and its navigators in one general ruin. In the Parret it acts upon a smaller scale, and with diminished violence; though it has been known, when strengthened by a spring tide, to have overturned large boats in its furious course.
I observed, with satisfaction, that the country now began to drop that tame formality which had so long characterized it: the shore became more bold, and the interior more irregular; the lofty hills of Quantock running from the heart of Somersetshire to lose themselves in the Bristol channel, crossed the country before me, and introduced a bold variety into the picture. In a pleasing sequestered situation, on the eastern side of these eminences, lies the ancient village of Stoke-Courcy, called by a barbarous corruption Stogursy. The first of these names is a Saxon appellative, signifying a village; but is the agnomen was imposed by the noble Norman family of De Courcy, which in Stephen’s reign became possessed of this place, and made it the head of their barony. That this distinction conferred some consideration on Stoke-Courcy in the feudal times, there is no doubt; it being denominated in ancient records Burgum; and having once, in the reign of Edward III. returned members to the national senate: but its importance is now extinguished–one long straggling street, with some interesting lanes, mark the outline of its ancient population; and an old cross evinces that it formerly possessed, what it has long since lost, a regular market. From what multiplied sources, my friend, is instruction offered to us, if we will not proudly contemn it! Every object in nature afords to the thinking mind some moral hint; ” On every thorn delightful wisdom grows, in every rill a sweet instertion flows,” and all the works of art, whether flourishing, or sinking into ruin, appeal to the thoughtfulness of the soul, and rouse the slumbering powers of reflection. The revolutions and decay even of the little town now before us give energy to the moral principle, by teaching to pride a lesson of humility; by whispering to human conceit, that all the glory of man and his works ” is but vanity and a lie.” …
* W. Worcester. Lib. Nig. Scag. p.530, ed 1728
** A few temporary planks thrown across the cottage, from wall to wall, to defend them from the dews of night.
After this, Warner noted Fairfield, the house of John Ackland before reaching Quantockshead and St Audries, before finally arriving at Minehead.
Transcribed by Tony Woolrich.