This page is for those folk, past or present "Possums" or indeed any visitor to the village, to relay interesting stories, old and new, about their time spent here:
Keith & Gillian Brignell
24th May 2020
It must be said that we had never visited nor even heard of Portesham prior to escaping to the country from the London suburbs in 2009.
However, no sooner had we arrived we began to notice some uncanny coincidences, which actually made us feel more comfortable and relaxed in our new adventure:
• Very soon after arriving we popped next door to the village hall for one of their welcoming village cafes. Gillian nudged me, recognising a face from our previous town. It was indeed the lady who used to serve Gillian some 35 years ago (circa 1985) from behind the counter of our local chemist. Having two young children at the time, Gillian was a regular visitor. We've since found out the couple lived but a stone's throw from our previous address.
• It wasn't long before we met another lovely couple in the village. Although the gentleman was brought up in Portesham (he recalls happy times as a young lad growing up in Possum), he moved and worked as a policeman in Hampton Police Station. Gillian's dear departed father was also a policeman, stationed at nearby Feltham Police Station, more or less next door. He told us that without a doubt the two of them would have crossed paths. Both families were quite often at Imber Court, the Metropolitan Police's Sports & Social Club.
• Now a dear friend, another villager tells us she used to live in the same road as Gillian and her parents in Sunbury-on-Thames.
• Our current neighbours moved here from Kingston-upon-Thames, Gillian's shopping area of choice for many a year. Not only had they previously lived in the same street as us for a while but his brother still lives but 12 doors away from our previous home in Whitton.
This village is indeed renowned for its "Kismet".
"THE DIARIES OF ARCHIE CARBERRY"
A 19th century gentleman who is catapulted briefly into the 21st century every time he meets the Witch of Portesham - who could it be?
25th June 1850
I recently took a hiking vacation across the heights that overlook the English Channel in that most secluded and undiscovered part of southern England that is the County of Dorsetshire. Here my sturdy hiking boots and blackthorn staff stood me in good stead as the terrain is steep and, in parts, stony. I was for the main blessed with dry, warm weather and would return to my hostelry in the village of Portesham every evening, much in need of the good ale that was served there. The company in the snug was friendly though of a distinctly rural character, made up of those yokels who worked in the fields thereabouts. I was regarded as an object of interest and regaled with tales of local folklore until it was time to withdraw (somewhat unsteadily, I have to admit) to my chamber. There I would mull over what I had learnt and how it would guide my steps the next morn.
One such tale was of a "Witch" whose abode was some two mile away at a farm long since abandoned by all except her. She had the reputation of being able to cure all ills with the plants that grew about her isolated dwelling, so that - despite her rather forbidding and ragged appearance - the villagers were won't to seek her out in times of sickness or for such minor ailments as warts and skin rashes. I resolved to bend my steps that way and to form my own opinion of this wayward
inhabitant of the remote ruined farmstead.
I set out after a breakfast of fat bacon and coarse bread, served by a comely wench who was unashamedly flirtatious with me, no doubt impressed by my worldly air and my generosity. After scaling the heights above the village, the path descended into a cleft between the hills and I caught the first sight of the barn below where the witch was reputed to live. Reaching the bramble thicket that surrounded the stone building, I saw an elderly woman dressed all in black, bending over a nettle bed. "Madam", I addressed her, "why do you pick nettles which are vicious plants - should you not be wearing gloves? Ah - I see you are." She looked up at me, her black hat pulled low over her brow and spoke thus. "I am gathering nettles to make a nutritious broth to tide me over until I get my delivery of organic vegetables tomorrow." Her answer took me aback somewhat but I recovered my poise and, deciding to humour her, I replied that I was sure that the broth would be very beneficial to someone of her advanced years. She said no more but her expression did not bespeak of an inferior standing before a man of the world. I pursued my path and diverted so as not to cross her on my return journey.
Comfortable as I was at the Portesham hostelry, I prolonged my stay and took frequent trips to Weymouth for sea-bathing. The water was extremely cold in April but I was assured by the locals that this was good for my health. I did catch cold though and my ramblings were curtailed for a week or so. When I next set out, I was surprised to encounter the "witch" at the hill-top above her abode. She was gathering dandelion flowers so I boldly addressed her again. "Dear lady, what is your purpose in your arduous task which requires you to bend low over the sward despite your venerable age" (For I had assessed her to be at least three score years.) Once again she eyed me boldly and without deference to my superior social standing spoke thus. "I found this recipe on the internet for making honey using dandelions - ok?" "But this plant will make you wet the bed, dear lady, as my mother would tell me in my youth" "Just because the French misguidedly name it Pis-en-lit, you don't have to believe that old wives' tale", I was, I confess, taken by surprise by her response and tipping my hat to her, I hurried on, her reputation as a Witch becoming clear to me.
I was determined to take the train back to London where my business interests required my attention quite urgently. The charms of my location were waning with long acquaintance but I had one last ambition - to hike the coast at Abbotsbury. My host in Portesham expressed amazement that I should wish to travel so far by foot and made up a packed lunch for me. (The cost was added to the bill which was presented to me before I left the next morning..) I was in good spirits and looking forward to viewing the English Channel from a different viewpoint as I stepped forth On arriving at the shingle banks that formed the Chesil Beach, I was almost alone in that bleak landscape, apart from a dark figure all in black whom I recognised even at a distance. I made my way towards her, the pebbles dragging at my feet and making my legs feel heavy as lead. Once again, the old woman was bending low - this time over vegetation growing along the foreshore. "What are you gathering today, my dear woman? Is it some cure for the common cold for I am afflicted most grievously?" She straightened up and addressed me in tones that I interpreted as scathing of my ignorance. "This is sea-kale which I shall eat with my dinner tonight as I have been unable to book an online delivery from Sainsburys and am right out of green vegetables. You ought to try some - it will grow hairs on your chest which I suspect are sadly lacking". I refused to take the bait of this provocative reply, bade her a final farewell and turned back towards Portesham, wondering what manner of creature this was. If not a witch, then she must be a traveller from another land with her outlandish speech and her lack of respect for me. I made notes in my journal that evening and resolved to write a travel book of my experiences in this remote corner of the British Isles.
I Return to the West Country
I have made my second expedition to the County of Dorsetshire, this trip being made possible by a small unexpected inheritance from an uncle whom I had never even met. I was able to leave my business affairs in the capable hands of my trusted accountant and to travel westwards once again, arriving firstly in the village of Portesham with a room reserved at the same hostelry where I had stayed before. Mine host seemed most gratified to see me and told me that his good wife had made a new coverlet for my bed when she heard I was to visit again. The cost of the room had in consequence increased a little as had the price of meals but ‘that was a sign of the times’.I took my dinner in my room that first night but, hearing sounds of merriment in the bar below, I investigated and discovered that the local peasantry were drinking cider with gusto – this being the first pressings of the season’s apples. I tasted the beverage and found it sweet and refreshing, ideal for the thirst I had worked up on my long day of travelling. More cider was poured into my tankard when I had emptied it. Then, whenever the level dropped, mine host would top it up again.
The next morning I was aroused by a knocking at the door of my room. As I gained consciousness, I found that I was lying fully dressed on the coverlet on the floor beside my bed. Before I had time to assimilate this situation, a voice called from the corridor that my breakfast was ready and could she bring it in? Quickly I got up, replaced the coverlet on the bed and smoothed my hair. ‘Enter’ I called out and in came the maid with a tray of food. She must have been in good spirits as she was chuckling while she put the tray on the little table by the window. Once she had departed, the nausea that had overcome me when I had smelt the food worsened and I had to open the window and lean out into the fresh air. Fortunately my room was at the back of the building so no one witnessed my sickness. Several times Itried to eat my breakfast but the sight of fat bacon, black pudding and bread dipped in dripping brought back the nausea. Finally I tipped all the greasy mess into a metal case which I had brought with me for the collection of fossils. Try as I might, I still have no recollection of my journey from the bar to my room the previous evening.
It was an inauspicious start to my adventure but I was determined to adhere to my plans which meant setting off to my next resting place, it being the village just two miles away on the road going west, namely Abbotsbury. A tranter who had been one of the drinking party the previous evening had offered to give me and my baggage a lift on his cart as he was taking some crates of chickens to a farmer over that way. Still feeling rather fragile, I duly climbed up next to the tranter (whose name I forget) and we jolted along the highway for what felt like much further than two miles. If I had not been wearing my thick great-coat,I would have suffered bruising from the wooden seat to add to my discomfort.
Readers who are familiar with my first travel journal will remember that I paid a visit to Abbotsbury beach where I had my final encounter with the Witch of Portesham. This time I deposited my belongings at the Ilchester Arms before taking a perambulation through the main street hoping to find out more about this antique place. Encountering the vicar in the churchyard I engaged him in conversation. No doubt he was pleased to speak with a man of learning in this community of yokels and he told me a little of the local history. One of the wealthiest families in Dorset had been in possession of all the land and properties hereabouts since the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. I pressed him for more details but he was very busy and suggested that I ‘Googled’ Strangways. I was left gaping after him as he hurried into the church, strongly suspecting that this man of the cloth had fallen under the spell of the Witch.
I stayed in my room that evening, my constitution still recovering from the after-effects of the Portesham cider. I had disposed of my breakfast at a pig-sty down a farm track though felt a little uneasy about feeding pork to a pig. The animal had no such qualms and ate it with enthusiasm. I slept well then settled my dues with the landlord before boarding a cart going in my direction. The driver turned out to be the owner of the pig which I could have deduced by the stench that hung about his person. We reached the foot of Abbotsbury hill where I was obliged to descend and hike to the summit whilst the cart carried on with my luggage. As I trudged along I became aware of the view of the coastline in either direction and paused to admire its beauty, making notes in my diary of poetic words that could be used if I were ever moved to compose verse. Then, as my gaze wandered over the scene, I saw a remote cottage with smoke rising from its single chimney. The sight drew me down the track towards it when, whom should I encounter but the very person I had sought to avoid, that familiar figure, the Witch of Portesham.
Too late to turn and retreat, I greeted her by tipping my hat and remarking on the fine weather and how surprised I was to deduce that there was a fire in the hearth of yonder cott. ‘It’s for smoking the mackerel caught by myself yesterday down on Abbotsbury beach. Home-smoked without any additives - they are highly marketable’. She must have seen me wet my lips at the thought of her mackerel for she beckoned me into the garden, saying that I could try some if I wished. I needed no encouragement and sank down on a bench under an oak tree. When she had brought the platter of fish, I made bold to ask her why she had changed her dwelling place. ‘I wanted to down-size and free up some capital’ was her perplexing response. ‘I also make health drinks from the local hedgerow fruits. These drinks will cure many ailments and protect against many others. I shall fetch you a glass’. The drink was of a colour so rich and with such depth that I made further notes so as not to forget its magical appearance. I gladly accepted the offer of a second glass then, feeling drowsy in the sun, must have dozed off.
When I awoke, I struggled to recollect where I was and why I was there. I was propped on the ground against my knapsack, the bench had disappeared, the oak tree reduced to a sapling and the cottage in a state of disrepair, the thatch ragged, the walls covered in ivy which smothered the windows. I cursed my stupidity in trusting the hospitality of the Witch, the more so when I checked my purse and discovered that one gold sovereign was missing. In the purse was a scrap of paper, hand-written, stating that the fish lunch was £15, the two glasses of Blackberry Vodka £10 and VAT (whatever that was) of £5 making a total of £30! The word ‘Paid’ was scrawled at the bottom of the bill.
Shaking my head to clear my thoughts, I staggered to my feet and started on the long trek to the Bull Inn at Swyre where I was to stay the night. The cart had not waited for me but had hopefully deposited my trunk at the inn. When I finally arrived there, I collapsed with exhaustion on the doorstep. The first person to find me was a young lad no more than twelve years old who hauled me to my feet and shouted to his father to come out and get me into the inn before I ‘gave it a bad name’. I addressed the young hooligan with as much dignity as I could muster and asked him if he knew who I was. ‘Yeah – you’re that guy from London who can’t ‘old ‘is drink and doesn’t know his arse from his elbow’ he replied boldly. His father then appeared and I told him about the ill-manners of his son. ‘Cheeky monkey’ he chortled. ‘Gets it from his old Dad’.
My final destination was to be Lyme Regis as I had visited the British Museum and seen the fossil finds of a certain Mary Anning. Evidently if an uneducated woman of low birth could find such treasures, I should surely do better. However, my enthusiasm for this expedition was wearing thin with all its setbacks. I resolved to return to London, carry out more research and buy more suitable equipment – such as a geological hammer and a flask for water – then arrange a third foray into this uncivilised corner of the British Isles.
The Witch of Portesham
As readers of my last travel journal will recall, I left Dorset with the firm intention of returning after carefully equipping myself with all the necessary implements and knowledge to make a collection of fossils from the beaches of Lyme Bay. I was however reluctant to stay in a local hostelry following some unfortunate occurrences at two such establishments on my previous visits. But, as I puzzled over this problem, ensconced at my Club in town to partake of supper one evening, who should walk in but Tubby Brown! He had attended my alma mater, Eton College, at the same time as me and we were drawn together by our failure to distinguish ourselves on the playing field or indeed in the schoolroom. ‘Butty’ he called out on spotting me in a quiet corner of the lounge ‘What news? I heard your old man had shuffled off his mortal coil leaving nothing but gambling debts behind him’. I winced at my old school nickname which had caused heads to turn and stare at me. I had only recently found out why the other boys had called me Butty - apparently it was because I was the butt of all the jokes. Whereas Tubby – I forget his real name – was the fattest boy in the school which made him very popular. He would confess to any misdemeanour committed by a class-mate as he was able to insert a folded jacket into his ample trousers without the schoolmaster detecting the extra padding as he caned the boy. Tubby was rewarded with sweetmeats from the hampers sent to us from home once a week - and thus we found our roles in the hierarchy of that enclosed domain.
Tubby made his way over to my hideout, pulled up a chair and sank his portly frame into it. I explained that my Pater had made some risky investments following the advice of one of his card-playing companions. Hence my income was much reduced and the house in Surrey had been sold to cover costs. At this point, a fellow standing with his back to the fireplace holding forth to several chaps near him, raised his voice and shouted out ‘There’s Tubby and Butty!’ I recognised him as the all-conquering Captain of the 1st XI cricket team, Head Boy and the most dashing fellow of our time at Eton. We were therefore obliged to move into his orbit to hear him proclaiming his good fortune in being betrothed to the daughter of one of the wealthiest people in the country. His future father-in-law had handed over to him the Ceylonese tea plantation which he owned and the newly-weds would be departing for that far-off land next month.
I was full of envy at the fellow’s luck as I longed to travel beyond Albion’s shores myself (though the idea of having a female travelling companion filled me with horror) but, circumstances being as they were, I was confined to seeking adventure in the West Country. I expounded my recent experiences to Tubby and confided in him my difficulty in finding suitable board and lodging in Lyme Regis on my forthcoming expedition. ‘Well that is a coincidence’ Tubby exclaimed. ‘My Mater has a villa in that very town. Pater bought it when she was suffering with a nervous complaint but strangely, since he died, her nerves have completely recovered so she rarely goes to the villa. You could stay there – the housekeeper would see to all your needs. I shall write to her as soon as I get home tonight’.
I could not believe my luck – the fates were on my side for once! I accepted Tubby’s kind offer and set off back to my lodgings in Bayswater to finalise my plans. I had sent my trunk on ahead so I arrived outside the villa carrying just my knapsack and blackthorn staff. I knocked on the door, waited a few minutes then knocked again somewhat louder. After waiting a while, I noticed that the door was slightly ajar so I pushed it open and entered the vestibule. On a side table I espied a note addressed to me and informing me that my room was the first door on the right at the top of the stairs and that supper would be brought to my room at 7 o’clock and that I should make myself comfortable.
The villa was modern and my room well-furnished with a view of the sea. By the time I had settled in and made my journal entry for the day, it was 7 o’clock. At precisely that time, there was a knock at my door and a female voice informed me that my meal was outside on the console table. By the time I had opened the door, the messenger was nowhere to be seen. I carried the platter to my table at the window and was rather put out to find it was a baked dough circle covered in cheese and tomatoes. I assumed this was a local delicacy and believing that I should embrace all new experiences, I began to eat. The dish was pleasant enough but sadly lacking in meat. I could not eat all of it so threw pieces out of the window to a flock of noisy sea-gulls. They devoured it greedily amidst a cacophony of shrieks and calls. There was also a tumbler full of a delicately pink-tinted liquid which was delicious. On finishing it, I was overcome with sleep and knew nothing more until the morn.
On descending to the dining room, dressed and prepared for a day of fossil-hunting, I found a note telling me to avail myself of the buffet breakfast. I selected buttered kippers and coarse crusty bread which I much enjoyed. I let myself out of the villa and started to walk down to the sea-front. And there, coming up the hill towards me was the figure of a woman – she was dressed all in black and was carrying a wicker basket of provisions. Her identity was beyond doubt – it was the Witch of Portesham! Having no desire to engage in conversation with her, I hurried past but heard her call out something about the tides and landslips, the noise of the gulls drowning out most of her speech. I raised my hand in acknowledgement and continued down the steep hill. It was a delightfully warm and sunny day so a walk along the beach was a pleasure. I pursued an easterly path as I had read that fossils were most prolific along that part of the foreshore. I reached an area where there had clearly been a recent collapse of the cliff and with some excitement, I began my search.
I suspected that others had been there before me as I had very little luck.
After a few hours of fruitless searching, I stopped to gaze out to sea. It was then that I realised that my route back to the town was cut off by the rising tide. The cliff towering behind me was a forbidding obstacle – I realised that I was trapped. It was then that I spotted a small rowing boat not far off shore. I gestured towards it hoping that the lone oarsman would see my plight and rescue me. The boat duly headed my way and got close enough for me to see that the ‘oarsman’ was in fact the Witch of Portesham. She instructed me to wade out and get in which I did with some reluctance as the salt water would spoil my leather boots which were new and rather expensive. Anyway, once on board, the Witch rowed across the bay heading for the stone jetty to the west of the town. The waters had become choppy and I became aware that I was becoming nauseous. Noticing my pallor and discomfort, the Witch indicated that I should lean over the side of the boat. I was then copiously sick, regretting my choice of kippers for breakfast. By the time we reached the jetty, my legs were weak and shaky as I made my uncertain way up the steps to land, much to the amusement of a group of uncouth fishermen lounging on the harbour side.
I squelched back to the villa, deposited my boots and socks in the vestibule for the servants to deal with, and took refuge in my room. At 7 o’clock came the knock on the door and I opened it quickly to thank the maid who had brought my supper to me. However, I was more than a little taken aback to find the Witch standing there. ‘Madam, do I understand that you have moved house yet again and now reside in this fair town of Lyme Regis?’ She chuckled and replied ‘I own this villa but I do not live here – I let it out to holiday-makers to supplement my income’. Again, I was left bewildered as Tubby had assured me that the villa was in the possession of his mother. I stammered out my thanks and retreated back into my room. The meal was again the cheese and tomato confection from which the gulls benefited far more than I. Thankful that I had booked just two nights at the villa, I repaired to my bed and slept well.
Rising the next morning, I packed my bags, left a forwarding address on my trunk and descended the stairs to take breakfast. This turned out to be a cold collation of sweet pastries which did not satisfy my hunger. I firmly believe that a man needs meat if he is to maintain his strength. There was no sign of any servants or the Witch so I decided to depart forthwith. My boots and socks were still in the vestibule, untouched and wet, with a bill addressed to me resting on the side table with each cost listed – B & B for 2 nights at £100 a night, 2 Pizzas at £15 each, 2 glasses of Rhubarb Brandy at £5 each, a Boat trip round Lyme Bay at £30 and finally, and most aggravatingly, £30 for Cleaning the Room – this last because I had smoked a pipe in there! On this last item, my attention was drawn to the Terms and Conditions of the ‘Holiday Let’ which stated ‘non-smokers only’ – as if such guests existed! The total bill amounted to £300 which I calculated was the equal of ten gold sovereigns. With ill grace, I left the money on the table and shook the dust from my feet as I left Lyme Regis.
I vowed never to return to Dorsetshire but to take my adventurous spirit to a more enlightened and civilised part of southern England - the Isle of Wight, of which I had heard nothing but praise. Our glorious monarch, Her Majesty Queen Victoria, is fond of spending time with her family there at Osborne House and the climate is considered salubrious, the local population deferential and accommodating. Firstly I would need to attend to my finances and, with this in mind, to publish the third part of my Dorset journal and hope that it would sell well. I think my Club would purchase a copy for its library and I have an aunt in Tunbridge Wells who plays bridge with several ladies of Independent Means who could be persuaded to buy my book as, in the past, my aunt has regaled them with tales of her nephew’s adventures. I should be solvent again by next summer – and with this optimistic thought, I set off for London,
‘Tempt not a desperate man’ (Romeo and Juliet by Wm. Shakespeare)
It is necessary for me to relate a succession of unfortunate events which have had the unintended result of my fourth sojourn to that outpost of civilisation, Dorsetshire, and in particular to that part of its coast which was the scene of my earlier adventures. These are described in three short volumes which the discerning reader may wish to purchase (available at booksellers throughout London).
I had left Lyme Regis last September vowing to seek new ground for my adventures, namely to travel to the Isle of Wight. This plan had been thwarted by my much-reduced income and a somewhat depressing interview with my bank manager. I was at a loss to see a way forward and mulled over various career options, none of which suited my talents or my qualifications. The Church was the most appealing as it seemed to involve generally one day’s work a week with the occasional Christening, wedding or funeral to take me from my interests and studies. I made enquiries through a fellow I knew from Eton College whose father was a Bishop but there were no vacancies apart from those in poor parishes where the incumbent’s income would be insufficient to maintain the gentleman’s lifestyle which I had always enjoyed.
Thus it was that I found myself in my usual place in my Club gazing in despair at the bill which had been brought to me with my glass of Scotch. Under the total amount due (which was a considerable sum), I read ‘Payment within 7 days or legal action will be taken’. I could prevaricate no longer – my only course of action was to marry Miss Boothby whose main charm lay in the wealth of her father, a successful businessman.
She had professed to being enamoured of me at a ball when, in lieu of dancing (not my forte), I had consumed two bottles of an excellent claret. For several months I had courted her but the thought of living with her as man and wife was one that I pushed firmly aside. Now on my uppers, it was time to bite the bullet and wed her as soon as possible. With that goal, I left the Club and hurried to her London residence. To cut a short story even shorter, she consented to be my bride.
A month later, I was waiting at the altar feeling as if arrows were shooting into my back from the small congregation behind me. A stiff Scotch administered by Tubby Brown, my Best Man, from a hip flask had strengthened me for this ordeal though I was well aware that once the reality of married life hit home, I would need a great deal more than whisky.
Miss Boothby, whom I had now to call Philomena, appeared beside me and I was obliged to smile at her, twisting my face into the required expression. The service started on its inevitable course and we arrived at the part where we had to take our vows. I took a deep breath and quavered ‘I, Archibald Marmaduke Carberry, take thee…’ but I got no further.
She shrieked my names then ‘AMC! I cannot marry you’ and she turned and fled from the church. In the confusion that followed, Tubby said ‘Lucky let-out there, Old Fruit!’ which I felt was a little unsympathetic in the circumstances. He escorted me back to my lodgings and poured more whisky into our glasses. After a while I began to recover and to feel rather indignant about the precipitous flight of my erstwhile betrothed. Some hours (and drams) later, a letter was delivered to me from Miss Boothby herself. I shall transcribe it in full.
"Dear Archie, I owe you an explanation for abandoning you at the altar and thereby breaking your poor heart. You must understand that I did not know your middle name until that moment and, realising that your initials were AMC, I had no option but to flee. You see, when I was taking a sea-bathing cure in the resort of Weymouth last summer, I had my fortune told at a fair by an old gypsy-woman. She was dressed all in black and sat enthroned in a small tent, a strange device in her hand. She read my palm and said that I would marry and have many children but I must never consent to be the wife of a man with the initials AMC because that would bring me a lifetime of misery and regret. At that moment, the device emitted a bleeping noise and she raised it to her ear, speaking into it. She gestured to me that I should leave so I deposited a silver threepence on her lap and departed.
I hope you will forgive me, Archie, for taking to heart the ramblings of a witch – for I am certain that she was one – but her words had made an indelible impression on me.
Yours sincerely etc
So there you have it – I was a bachelor still but nearly insolvent with only a tiny income from the sales of my travel journals to keep the wolf from the door. I wrote to my aunt in Tunbridge Wells, explaining that I had a temporary difficulty and could she see her way to bailing me out? I added that my next book would be dedicated to her as I thought that would give her a greater standing amongst the high society in which she moved. By return, I received a bank order for fifty pounds and a stern rebuke for my ‘profligate ways’. I felt this was rather unfair but I was glad to get the money. I paid off my bill at the Club, packed my bags and took the train from Waterloo Station with the plan to stay one night in Southampton before taking a ferry to Cowes. I celebrated with dinner on the train washed down with a bottle of champagne. Replete and a little inebriated, I fell asleep to the soporific noise of the train.
When I awoke, there was a guard standing over me informing me that the train had reached its final destination and I must disembark. Gathering my wits and my bags together, I descended on to the platform. I stumbled to the exit and handed over my ticket. ‘This is for Southampton – you will have to pay the extra from there to Weymouth.’ ‘But I don’t want to go to Weymouth’ I stammered. ‘Weymouth is precisely where you are, Sir, so you will have to pay the extra, like it or not.’ I paid up of course and cursed the fates for bringing me here of all places. It was too late to find a bed for the night so I lay on a bench on the esplanade all night long, lulled by the lapping of the waves on the sand. Tomorrow I would get to the Isle of Wight come what may.
The shrieking of sea-gulls brought me to my senses as dawn broke. I was cold and hungry so set out to seek warmth and refreshment. I entered a tavern down a side street, drawn in by the smell of bacon and beer. Not my usual fare but most welcome and very cheap. Restored to my habitual self, I got talking to the locals, an unsavoury-looking bunch but cheerful enough. I had another beer then set off back to the station – only to discover that there were no trains running as a tree had fallen on the line at Dorchester. Yet another setback!
Back I went to the sea-front and there I espied a small conical tent with a board outside saying ‘Fortune-teller’. I was pulled into it as if a magnetic force, even knowing that I should find the Witch of Portesham therein. Sure enough, there she was - just as Miss Boothby had described – dressed all in black and with a strange device in her hand. She showed no surprise at seeing me, taking my hand with her right hand (still retaining the device in her left) and inspected the palm briefly. Then she spoke these words. ‘The future is not the one you seek but another far more rewarding and happier.’ Just then, the device made a strange bleeping sound and she held it to her ear. She waved me away and I stepped back on to the esplanade wondering what life held for me.
Perhaps the Witch had been on my side all along? I set forth to meet my future with mixed feelings of confusion and anticipation. I headed back to the tavern to share my good news with my new friends and to ‘buy a round’ – as I had heard it called. Yes - I thought I would fit in nicely once the locals got to know me.
A Traveller No More
The day after my encounter with the Witch in her tent, I awoke to the realisation that, once again, I was without visible means of support. This knowledge, combined with a headache possibly caused by over-indulgence, sent me into a deep melancholy. I had no plans, no income, no family, and my only friend Tubby Brown had hardly been the source of wise advice as to my future. However, I cheered up when I strolled along the esplanade and saw the tent in its usual place. This time I would seek advice from her whom I had once considered to be an old crone of low intelligence and dubious diet. I would ask her to point me in the right direction, to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Accordingly, I raised my hat and addressed her as Madam to convey my new-found respect for her. I explained that I was alone in the world and ill-prepared for a life of penury. She must have understood that my spirits were low for she took my hand and, with a small smile, quoted thus: ‘La vie est triste, helas, et j’ai lu tous les livres’. When I looked non-plussed, she said ‘Stephane Mallarme, French poet. Oh – sorry. Poem written in 1884 so a little ahead of your time’. ‘Madam’ I replied, ‘how is it that you, a mere woman, can speak French and have a knowledge of French literature?’ Her answer was most perplexing. ‘I studied French and European Literature at UEA – the University of East Anglia – in my youth.’ Of course I had to remonstrate with her and point out that, firstly, women were not admitted to university and, secondly, that UEA did not exist. She did not deny this but asked me why women were not allowed to attend university. ‘It is because they do not have the intelligence of men. It is well known that the male brain is significantly larger that the female brain.’ At this, she replied quite sharply – saying that men may have much larger egos and generally more physical strength than women ‘though you may be an exception as you seem to have not a muscle in your body. Women’s brains are equal to and often superior to those of men as will one day become apparent’.
This was not progressing my cause so I gave a little bow and suggested we returned to discussing my future prospects. ‘Get a job, any job, but preferably one that exercises your puny body and pays enough for you to eat but not enough to get drunk every evening. That is your first step – when you have taken it, you will encounter me again – but not here on Weymouth seafront.’ Her strange black device which had lain on the table between us then bleeped and I knew it was time for me to leave.
I decided to walk down to the harbour to seek employment. The fishing boats were unloading the day’s catch and the smell coming from their nets and lobster pots was disgusting. Watching the boats rocking by the harbour wall brought back the memory of my trip across Lyme Bay and I had to admit to myself that a life on the ocean waves would be deeply unpleasant. Perhaps a career in agriculture would suit me better – I rather liked seeing the cows grazing in the pastures and the golden haystacks in the fields. There was a rural idyll out there of which I could be a part and the first place that came to mind for pursuing this course was the ancient village of Portesham where I was known and, dare I say it, accepted as one of the community. Thus I set off to walk there along the coastal road with a light step and a song in my heart.
It was a long weary trek so I was glad to accept a lift in a cart that was travelling my way. The yokel who was driving it recognised me and greeted me in a very familiar way, with a total disregard for my status as a gentleman. ‘So you’re coming to work at the farm then’ he chortled ‘and get your hands dirty. T’will get rid of those airs and graces and make a man of you – about time too.’ It was on the tip of my tongue to admonish him but, bearing in mind he would be a fellow-worker, I merely asked him how he knew about my employment as a farm-hand before I knew about it myself. He tapped the side of his nose and winked mysteriously and I was none the wiser. He drove past the inn where I had lodged on previous occasions and took me to the row of farm cottages just down the road. ‘You’ll be staying with old Tom and Mary. You’ll be well-looked after’ he chortled again. His chortling was beginning to get on my nerves so I was relieved to say goodbye to him.
The cottage was really a hovel squatting low in the mud while hens pecked and clucked outside. I simply could not see how three people would fit into such a small space. I, who had been used to having a spacious lodging in London and, until recently, a country mansion in Surrey, had reached a new low. I opened the door and several hens scurried past me into the kitchen. An old woman swept them out again with her besom and eyed me up and down. ‘So you are my new lodger. Bring your baggage in and I’ll show you where you’ll sleep.’ To my horror, she opened a cupboard door and inside was a space just big enough for truckle bed and nothing else. ‘You’re lucky I can put you up. Previous lodger, he took ill and died a week ago. Was about your age I reckon. Weak chest. Supper is rabbit stew – the dog brought bunny back from the fields just this morning so tis fresh.’
I resigned myself to eating peasant fare for the next few days and, actually, as the savoury smell filled the small room, my mouth watered. It was most appetising, tasty and satisfying so I congratulated Mary on her cuisine and asked for the recipe so that I could ask my cook to prepare the same dish back home. Then I remembered that I no longer had a cook or indeed any servants – but I would soon be back on my feet once I had worked a day or two in the fields. I had seen chaps reclining against the haystacks drinking flagons of cider and it looked very jolly. I curled up in my cupboard and was fast asleep when there was a bang on the door and Mary called out ‘Time to get up, Lazybones. Them there cows need milking’. I looked at my timepiece and it was 6 o’clock in the morning. I replied that I would rise at 7 and start work after breakfast. ‘You’ll do as you’re told and get your . . . (she used a word which I cannot repeat) out to that milking parlour.’ I could tell she was not going to listen to reason and decided that I would establish the ground rules that evening.
I duly dressed ready for a few hours’ work. ‘You better wear those boots – chap that died don’t need them no more. Your fancy footwear is no good for farm-work. And take that cap from the hook or your golden curls will be spoilt.’ She chortled as I donned those items. ‘Now you look the part. Off you go!’ She virtually swept me out of the door, her besom seemingly kept handy for hens and men alike. Old Tom was waiting at the gate with ascruffy-looking hound which growled at me, baring its yellow fangs. ‘Take no notice of old Shep – ‘is bark is worse than ‘is bite. Or is it the other way round?’ He chortled – a reaction I seemed to inspire in all those I encountered. Anyway, the cows were already trooping to the gate to enter the yard and go to the old shed which I assumed was the milking parlour. I was unprepared for the size of the lumbering beasts and the strong smell which they exuded. Perhaps this choice of job was unwise after all – but I had no time to indulge this thought as I was set to work immediately, learning how to milk a cow.
From thence forward, I worked all the hours of daylight with the other farmhands
who, at first, were amused by my ignorance and lack of muscular strength. I put up with their teasing and became determined to be their equal although I ached all over and fell into bed exhausted every evening. There was no time to write my journal, the only breaks from work consisted of sitting down in the field to eat the bread and cheese and drink the cider that young maidens brought out to us labourers. I looked forward to this as the girls were a sight for sore eyes in their muslin dresses and bonnets. They flirted quite shamelessly with the men but one seemed more modest, not joining in with all the banter though she had a sweet smile as she gave me my refreshments. I learnt that her name was Hannah and that, unusually amongst the villagers, she could read and write – having been taught by the vicar’s wife who had a soft spot for her. When I glimpsed her coming over to us in the field, inexplicably my spirits would be raised and my aches and pains diminish.
On Sundays, it seemed that the whole village went to the old parish church for the morning service or Evensong. When I told Mary that I would not be going as I was an atheist (an unbeliever, I explained to her), she snorted and said ‘us be all unbelievers but we still go along just in case and, besides, we put on our Sunday best which would otherwise never be worn. Hannah will be there in her best dress of course, - and her new fancy bonnet.’ She looked sideways at me as she spoke, as if to judge my reaction. To my mortification, I felt the heat rising in my face and quickly bent over my journal. Oh, how I regretted my decision not to attend church that first Sunday! I did not make the same mistake the next Sunday, getting dressed up in my old clothes from my previous life – which seemed remote and unreal now.
The service was as long and tedious as I remembered those of my youth but I was
rewarded by finding a place in the pew just behind Hannah. I could have reached out and touched her shoulder – if only I could have done so. As we all trooped out, she happened to follow me so we were able to speak. I stumbled over my words, blushing to the roots as she looked up at me with that sweet expression that made my knees go to jelly and my heart to race. What was happening to me? Had I fallen in love with a country wench? She was so far below me in social status that it was really quite unthinkable. But there was no denying my symptoms and I began to realise that she sought out my company as I longed to seek hers.
One Sunday afternoon. in a state of confusion, I set out to walk over the hills above the village to try to clear my thoughts. I had never considered myself the sort of man that a pretty girl would look at twice though my work on the farm had built up my physique and tanned my face and arms to a deep brown. I was also aware that my social status no longer applied and that this was actually a huge relief to me. Perhaps I was becoming the person I was meant to be before the strictures of my upbringing took away my spirits and undermined my confidence. I would ask Hannah to walk out with me next time I saw her, I resolved. Then immediately, I felt this to be an impossibility and despaired.
As I went down the old track to Blackdown farm, I was so wrapped in my thoughts that I jumped when a voice called out to me. Looking up from my reverie, I saw the Witch picking blackberries from the hedgerow nearby. I greeted her warmly and thanked her for the advice which had led me to my new life in Portesham. She remarked on how well I was looking and said that she had been obliged to speak briskly to me on our encounters as she felt I lacked guidance. ‘This is our last meeting’ she said ‘and there is just one more thing I must say to you – you must promise me that you will follow this course of action. Return to the village and pursue your budding relationship with Hannah. She is your destiny and you are hers. Now, on your way.’ I stammered out my gratitude for her wise words, bade her farewell and turned to go back up the path. I had gone a few yards when I swung round and called out ‘You have never told me your name. I would like to know it’. ‘My name is Hannah. I was named after my great grandmother.’ With that, she waved and whisked away round the corner and out of sight, leaving me staring after her – nary a witch but a time traveller from the future.
My way was certain - I walked swiftly back to Portesham, to my love and my life.