Glimpses of an English village seventy years ago

Time brings changes, some for the better, others less obviously so, and some even for the worse.

At nearly 90 years of age, I can point to changes, some perhaps mildly interesting, in the life of an English country village on the border between Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. During the years 1920-1923.

I was a theological student at King’s College London and a stipendiary Lay Reader in a tiny country parish. The elderly Vicar coped with two parish churches, Long Marston and Puttenham, and a chapel-of-ease in the adjacent hamlet of Wilstone. The village community in which I served was a pretty remote one, and many people called me “the curate”.

The Vicar and his wife were by modern standards a quaint old couple. In his stable yard was an ancient carriage drawn by an old bay pony who looked about as old as the Vicar, but was quite indestructible. The household staff consisted of a crusty and disrespectful old man who looked after the garden and the pony, and a village girl to assist the Vicar’s wife in the kitchen. The family consisted of two rather talented daughters, living away from home, one of whom was married to an invalid husband and the other had a career in, I think, the Foreign Office. In the style of the age, they called their parents “Mater” and “Pater”. There had been one beloved and consumptive son, who became his father’s curate, and died shortly before I came as Reader.

I loved the old man dearly, but in my student days he could be slightly embarrassing. He came down to London to see me at the College wearing a long black frock coat and what we then called a “fried egg hat” and would grasp me firmly by the arm, standing in the middle of the Strand, haranguing me, oblivious of the passers-by jostling us on the pavement. Among my many causes to thank him is that one of the two “titles” which he suggested for me was the one I finally accepted, the ideal parish and ideal Vicar for my first four years in the ministry.

It still warms my heart to know that both of the two Vicars under whom I served before and after ordination suggested that I should take their places when they retired, though this was impossible in either case. My old Vicar at Long Marston was fully persuaded that young men in college were underfed. At the vicarage I was compelled to eat huge dinners. Bed and breakfast I had at the inn nearby, of which more later, and the innkeeper’s wife was instructed to see and insist that I ate large breakfasts – pork chops and Aylesbury duck eggs. It was at the inn that I learned one can shave into a propped-up book just as well as in a small mirror, in a dark corner.

The Vicar’s wife was a character in her own right, a crotchety old lady, oblivious of her looks, her hair screwed up into a tiny bun on the top of her head. She was a squire’s daughter, with all the qualities of the squirearchy of a former age. She ordered everyone about, could swear like a trooper, but was meekly accepted as one from whom this demeanour was only to be expected. She was in fact a devout old lady to whom anyone could turn in times of need.

Every Saturday morning, I took the train to Cheddington, a tiny station in the Vale of Aylesbury. There the Long Marston blacksmith’s son met me with a governess cart, a little tub on two wheels drawn by one or other of two fat ponies belonging to the blacksmith. He was under contract to the Vicar to fetch me and take me back to Cheddington station on Sunday nights, and also to supply me with a bicycle on which I did my pastoral visits in the parish on Saturday afternoons. The Vicar warned me against assuming that the homemade wines (cowslip or dandelion) which the farmers would offer me were non-alcoholic. Some farmers might have thought it a good joke to send the “curate” back tipsy.

Farmers and cottagers, from my point of view, were of two types: those who gave me a hearty welcome, and those who were merely polite. In Wilstone, which was a rather rough, there was one elderly man living alone in a cottage which stank from afar. He appeared at his door in rags and the grime of ages and, to my suggestion that he might come to church, he replied that he would if he could come just as he was. I forget my actual reply but I think it was to the effect that we should not look too hard at the outward man. He would have been conspicuous anyhow by the smell, but he never put us to the test.

At certain houses I was always invited to tea, which always meant a hearty meal of bread and butter, jam and cake, but I was very young in those days. At the largest farm, where a bachelor farmer lived with two sisters, they once called upon me to help gather cowslips for wine. In his kitchen he had a treasure not often to be seen, a complete set of pewter table utensils such as were given by King Charles I during the Civil War to the families who gave their silver for the royal funds.

On Sunday mornings I was first with the Vicar at Holy Communion at Long Marston church. Then there would be a sermon at Matins in one of the three churches, and Evensong usually at Wilstone, where my friends at the big farm led the congregation of cottage people. In the congregation there was usually a contingent of younger people from some of the rough “gypsy” families, including a big lad who periodically had noisy epileptic fits in church and had to be removed. Wilstone Church was a 19 th century building, which could almost be called a “tin tabernacle”, but it was my special charge and I enjoyed myself there.

Puttenham Church, isolated in empty fields was really ancient. The Vicar told me that Cardinal Wolsey was reputed to have preached there in his youth. Here the conspicuous character was the old verger, very deaf but with a stentorious voice. At a Christmas Service the Vicar suddenly insisted (with a dig in my back as we processed into church) that in the Wenceslas carol I must sing the King’s verses as a solo. The page’s replies came from the old verger as a solo, wildly out of tune, chased by the wheezy organ “faint but pursuing”. Nobody seemed to think it was funny.

At the centre of these memories is the village inn where I slept every Saturday night. I used to retire to the inn after supper at the vicarage and sat in the bar parlour with the customers, always the same men. The innkeeper, who conducted his house on the lines of strict respectability, was an old Royal Marine who had served in the expedition sent to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum. His wife was a dear, buxom old lady who also held the reins of authority firmly in her hands. If any customer appeared to be getting at all argumentative or noisy, the innkeeper at once reverted to his days as a Royal Marine. He would say very firmly “Now, George you have had quite enough to drink – no more! You go home quietly to your wife”. And this is what George, did at once without any fuss. Next morning after church the old lady would present my huge breakfast “pork chops and duck eggs” with a similar firmness: “Now, sir, young men can always eat a good meal”, and I duly obeyed.

My years at Long Marston, Wilstone and Puttenham were a valuable apprenticeship. The Lay Reader work was all rather tiring but did not appear to affect my Finals, and was indeed a valuable apprenticeship to parish visiting and preaching. My first sermon as a young deacon of 23 was no particular strain after two and a half years in the country but then I had all the work of a priest to learn from an ideal Vicar in my first and only assistant curacy, after which I went overseas.

by Canon C Norwood (1902-5.8.1991)
from the archives of Dick Gomm Local Historian

Article appeared in the Village News March 2008 page 18

This article is an extract from previous issue of the Village News. Any mention to events in the article have probably long since passed and are for information only.

Village News March 2008

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2 Comments on “Glimpses of an English village seventy years ago”

  • Audrey Hughes


    A fascinating story. Thank you. Are there any other archives like this?

    • TRH Team


      Hi Audrey, we have extracted releveant articles from the local village newsletters from the last 15 years so hopefully there will always be something of interest to read on the site

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