ID: HTK_014 / Herbert W. Tomkins

TitleMarsh Country Rambles by Herbert W. Tomkins - in the Country of Mehalah
AbstractMarsh Country Rambles by Herbert W. Tomkins published 1904

CHAPTER 14 : In the Country of Mehalah
Pages 200 to 222

WHEN the Rev. S. Baring-Gould wrote his novel entitled 'Mehalah,' he did for Essex almost as good a service as the late R.D. Blackmore, by his 'Lorna Doone,' did for Devonshire. I am not concerned with any comparison of the merits of these two famous books. Both are powerful novels, skilfully conceived and well written, and both have interested a multitude of readers by their presentation of very real, but very dissimilar, heroines. I cannot say whether Devonshire men and women appreciate Blackmore's great romance as they should, for I am a stranger to their beautiful county; but I know that in many a humble home in Essex you will see the familiar red covers of 'Mehalah' and will find that each copy does excellent service, passing from hand to hand as books are wont to do when once they are recognised as imperishable treasures of that fairy world of romance which has so large a share in the sweetening of men's lives.

The pleasures of a walking tour are greatly enhanced when we are acquainted with the history and legends that time has attached to the neighbourhood through which we wander. I am going to ask readers to walk with me from Peldon to Goldhanger, and as I may fairly assume that this book will be chiefly read by Essex folk, I may premise that the district through which we shall pass is emphatically the country of 'Mehalah' a country where folk live, for the most part, lives of pastoral quiet, and where many aspects of life are to-day surprisingly like those which obtained very many years ago. It is a country where the postman goes his rounds upon a bicycle, blowing his whistle whenever he approaches a house, as a call to the inmates to bring out their letters, and where the housewife, when she washes the stone before her doorway, scribbles upon it a few figures of truly Runic type, after the fashion followed in Pembrokeshire and some few other counties.

Mehalah was but the creation of a writer's fancy, so far, at least, as concerns her character and doings as a whole; but that need detract but little from our interest in her life. What man among us, voyaging in the far Mediterranean, ever troubles himself with doubts touching the personality of Ulysses? I am not, of course, going to summarize her story here, but passing reference to incidents so strongly connected with certain villages hereabouts may beguile our way.

The name Mehalah is borne by women in Essex to-day, and may be seen on a tomb in the churchyard at Great Wakering, as probably in many other places. Folk on Mersea Island will tell you that the book is a true history, and will point out persons whose ancestors figure in its pages.

The country of which I write is at no point more than a few miles from the sea; it comprises, indeed, most of that stretch of broken marshland which lies between the Blackwater and the Colne. Centuries ago it must surely have been one of the most unhealthy districts in England. We know that the dwellers on these marshes, as in other districts of which I have written, suffered terribly from ague, of a type more distressful than is known to-day. Far back in prehistoric times this disease is believed to have been so common, and so closely associated with the dank atmosphere of the lower marsh levels, that the inhabitants often burned heaps of clay, arranged them in circular mounds, and built upon those mounds the huts in which they dwelt. These mounds were scattered everywhere beside the creeks; they have been traced on Tollesbury Marsh, on Salcott Marsh, on the shores of Mersea and Pyfleet Channels. The tradition as to their origin is strengthened by the fact that, while they contain many such relics as we would look for on the site of a hut fragments of pottery and bone and rudely-chipped flint they are destitute of any human remains, and were certainly not raised as burial-mounds or barrows. Their locality will be indistinguishable in a no very distant future; for the level of the marsh has gradually risen until in some cases they are already obliterated, and elsewhere they have been levelled by man.

In spite of modern drainage, large tracts of saltings are still flooded at high-tide, and the country of 'Mehalah' is a happy hunting-ground yet for the botanist and the sportsman. When Mr. Baring-Gould was Rector of East Mersea the wild-fowl were more plentiful than they are to-day, but his description of the natural features of this semi-amphibian country is still approximately accurate, and is perhaps better than any penned since.

At high-tide the appearance is that of a vast surface of moss or Sargasso weed floating on the sea, with rents and patches of shining water traversing and dappling it in all directions. The creeks, some of considerable length and breadth, extend many miles inland, and are arteries whence branches out a fibrous tissue of smaller channels, flushed with water twice in the twenty-four hours. ... In summer the thrift mantles the marshes with shot satin, passing through all gradations of tint, from maiden's blush to lilywhite. Thereafter a purple glow steals over the waste, as the sea-lavender bursts into flower, and simultaneously every creek and pool is royally fringed with sea-aster. A little later the glasswort, that shot up green and transparent as emerald glass in the early spring, turns to every tinge of carmine. When all vegetation ceases to live and goes to sleep, the marshes are alive and wakeful with countless wild-fowl. At all times they are haunted with sea-mews and royston crows; in winter they teem with wild-duck and gray geese.... The plaintive pipe of the curlew is familiar to all who frequent these marshes, and the barking of the brent-geese as they return from their Northern breeding-places is heard in November.
Mehalah - S Baring Gould

The country slopes upward abruptly from the west of Mersea Channel, and on the summit of this slope is scattered the village of Peldon, which sustained a vigorous shaking from the earthquake of 1884. Midway between the village and the channel stands an old windmill ; near by, on the opposite side of the way, is the Rose Inn, said to have been standing there a century ago, with a vine scrambling over its red-tile roof, and on the tiny green that still fronts it a standard sign displaying a huge rose. To this inn, as the story runs, came Mehalah in search of employment and of protection from the loathsome courtship of Elijah Rebow. It is a pleasant enough spot when at high-tide the sunlight sparkles on the waters of Mersea Channel, or smiles upon the green hillside that stretches beyond, crowned by the battlemented tower of St. Mary's Church. When, early in the year 1903, I crossed over from Mersea Island by the Strood causeway, the clouds were threatening rain, and before I reached the village the shower burst. It was mid-day; no soul appeared abroad, and for some time I sought in vain for any house of rest. At length I saw an inn some distance away, and it was long before I had finished looking at the old sporting prints upon the wall and chatting with the landlord, who related his memories of wild-fowl-shooting on the adjacent marshes. He told me, too, that the church at Langenhoe, less than two miles distant, was entirely destroyed by the earthquake already mentioned, and that a new stone building was erected soon afterwards in its stead.

By repute I knew the district between Peldon and Virley to be out of the beaten track; before dark I was to find it a country where wise folk, when journeying thereabouts, secure their lodging betimes. I had been walking on Mersea Island many hours; on leaving Peldon I wended my way towards Great Wigborough. It was growing dark ere I saw the old Church of St. Stephen on the hill-top: I met few persons on the road, and heard few sounds saving the bleating of sheep and the cawing of a long tangle of rooks as they sought their refuge on the tree-tops. I do not think I was ever so weary in my life before; I was, as folk say in the new novels of adventure, 'dog-tired.' How this had come about I cannot say, for I have often walked very much farther without discomfort; but the fact was only too palpable, and I felt that I must call a halt.

I thought to obtain tea at a cottage, and, if I liked its inmates, to lodge there for the night if possible. I had reached the confines of Virley Marshes, and coming presently to where a light shone from a casement, I rapped boldly at the door. The goodwife, as the event proved, was above-stairs, and was very deaf. No other person was in the cottage, and I knocked in vain. After a while I assaulted the door with a violence comparable to that of Richard the Black Knight when he summoned Friar Tuck, and the assault was successful. Footsteps, not of fairy lightness, were heard upon the stair; the fastenings were removed, and the good wife thrust her head round the half-opened door. She was sorry, but she 'never made no tea for strangers.' Did she know where I could rest awhile and get a meal? No! nobody in those parts took lodgers. How far was it to Virley? Nearly two miles, and unless I was very careful I should miss my footpath by the burrows, and find myself quite abroad. I thanked her civilly and withdrew.

To my great surprise, as I presently crawled round a corner, utterly worn out and faint for lack of refreshment, I came to an inn at the parting of the ways. The landlord was the embodiment of civility, and I was soon cosily ensconced by a blazing fire, busily discussing an excellent meal. I thought of Hazlitt drinking a whole goblet of tea, and letting the fumes ascend into the brain and could sympathize with his happiness as I have seldom done before. Two other men came in whilst I was enjoying my rest, and talked continually on so many topics foreign to my experience or reading that I insensibly wearied, and at length fell asleep. When I awoke they were still at their glasses, and were both talking at once; but I got their attention after a while and stated my troubles. I learned, much to my relief, that I could probably get a bed at the Sun at Salcott, a village on the creek, opposite what was once the village of Virley, which has now almost disappeared.

So I pulled myself together and went out into a darkness that might indeed be felt. I found the footpath to which I had been directed, and stumbled on until I came to the ruins of Virley Church. Thence, crossing the little bridge that spans the creek, I passed down the street of Salcott, and saw before me the Sun, formerly known as the Rising Sun, and as such immortalized in the pages of 'Mehalah.'

Early in the morning I walked out to view the ruins of Virley Church the church where Mehalah Sharland was married to Elijah Rebow by the Rev. Mr. Rabbit. The description of this wedding should be read by all who would know how marriages were sometimes ' solemnized' a century or more ago; for, ludicrous as the description is, it is drawn by one learned in all ecclesiastical and parish lore, and is probably more accurate in detail, as a reproduction of the past, than many more pretentious narratives. The passage is far too long to quote, but I may summarize its points.

We have first a description of the church. The 'nots' in the Decalogue had been erased by a village humourist; a worm eaten deal table did duty for an altar; the curate's red cotton handkerchief was the only altar-cloth. The floor of the chancel was eaten through by rats; the bones beneath were exposed to view. The congregation consisted chiefly of a few young folk, who snored sonorously, or cracked nuts, or adorned the pews with rude sketches of ships. On the wedding-day a motley crowd assembled to see the fun, and the tiny church was crowded. In the west gallery boys dropped broken tobacco pipes on the heads of persons below; a sweep, unwashed, pushed forward and took a seat beside the altar; the Communion-rails were broken down and the chancel filled with a noisy, squabbling mob. Pen and ink were with difficulty found, while the sight-seers exchanged uncomplimentary sentences aloud in the presence of the Rev. Mr. Rabbit. The bridegroom was arrayed in a 'bluecoat with brass buttons and knee-breeches'; old Mrs. De Witt, a queer character, had thrown a smart red coat over her silk dress; on her head was a 'broad white chip hat,' tied with ribbons of sky blue ; in her frizzled hair was a bunch of forget-me-nots. Mr. Rabbit sneezed loudly as the party gathered before him; a squabble ensued as to the correctness of the responses; the ring had been forgotten, and the bride was eventually married with a link from an iron chain. Then the whole party retired to the Red Hall. The story is still very real in the eyes of folk at Virley and Salcott.

The parish of Virley takes its name from Robert de Verli, concerning whom I know nothing. Mr. Miller Christy states in his 'Handbook for Essex' that the dedication of the church was to the Virgin Mary, but Mr. Baring-Gould says emphatically that its dedication is unknown, and asks, 'Who among the holy ones would spread his mantle over worshippers who were smugglers or wreckers?'

As we have seen, the same writer supposes the church to have been in a ruinous condition more than a century ago, but its present aspect of bare, fragmentary, unroofed walls must be of comparatively recent date. Mr. Christy, writing of its condition nearly twenty years ago, mentions nave, chancel, and bell-turret, adding that it is 'no longer used.' Recently, when at Tolleshunt D'Arcy, I was told that the last parson of Virley used to live in that village, and my informer added that her father drove him to the church almost every Sunday for fourteen years. There was but one service, sometimes in the morning and sometimes in the evening. How long the building has been disused I cannot say. The remaining ruins are almost entirely mantled with ivy; behind what was once the altar the periwinkle flowers upon the wall; a rose-bush grows in the nave. The chancel arch still stands, supported by a band of iron; there is one window on each side of the nave, and two on each side of the chancel. Hens and chickens scratch and cackle among the ruins; nearby lie the oak timbers of an old windmill; beyond, facing the creek, stands the White Hart Inn. The creek is here so narrow that only one barge can float up with the tide as far as to Salcott. It was formerly much used by smugglers.

The Sun at Salcott is not the house to which, as the story runs, Mehalah walked in search of employment after quitting the Red Hall. The present inn is a flat-faced building of brick; the old tavern was 'a mass of gables, a jumble of roofs and lean-to buildings, chimneys and ovens, a miracle of picturesqueness.' But the inn is still patronized by the old folk of the village and district, who are learned in all the lore of Salcott and Virley, and are not loath to impart it. They told me of strange deeds done here in the smuggling days, and of a truly Gargantuan escapade of a different character, which is worth repeating.

It seems that one night, whilst the men of Salcott slept, a boat crept stealthily up the creek and a small body of men landed near the church. Entering the building, they ascended to the tower, removed the bells, carried them to their boat, and before daylight were well on their way towards Holland, where they hoped to find a ready market for their unusual booty. I suppose their design was frustrated, or the facts would hardly have become known; but I have never met with any written record of this escapade, and merely relate the story as I heard it.

I heard, too, of the once popular fair, when all Salcott was en fete, and unlimited supplies of pork and apple sauce were at hand for all concerned. In the evening I joined a small party in the little cosy parlour; a copy of 'Mehalah' was produced, and we read together the story of the wedding, and of the dinner which Rebow gave at the Red Hall his home upon the marshy pastures near the sea to Farmer Coppin, mine host of the Rising Sun, the Rev. Mr. Rabbit, and several others. It was a solid Essex 'feed' such a meal as Spurgeon warned his students against indulging in too freely, commencing with dumplings which, as Mrs. De Witt said, 'were round, plump, and beautiful as cherubs' heads on monuments.' An old man, taking his evening pint in the tap-room, was pointed out to me as one who had for years worked the decoy nearby 'when the game was worth the candle' but I missed the opportunity to interview him, and have regretted it ever since. I apologize for my inherent dilatoriness; c'est plus fort que moi.

There are many villages and hamlets within a three-mile radius from Salcott, and all have a story to tell traditional or historic. I have read that Salcott Creek ran much farther inland many years ago, into the heart of the extensive territory which preserves, in its local nomenclature, so many traces of the D'Arcy family.

Less than two miles north-west from Salcott is a spot called Barn Hall, where an old farmhouse (unless lately demolished) stands on ground whence you may overlook Mersea Island and the sea beyond. Barn Hall was originally built by the D'Arcys: an old story attributed the selection of the site to a cause which shows how marshy the neighbourhood was in olden times. They had wished to build a castle at Paines or Paynes near by, at a spot bordered by the creek, which they could have utilized as a way of approach to their stronghold. 'But it could not be. The masons built all day, and at night the earth sucked the walls in. They worked there a whole year, and they brought stones from Kent, and they poured in boulders, and they laid bricks; but it was all of no good, the earth drank in everything they put on it, as water. At last they gave it up, and they built instead on the hill where stands the Barn Hall.' This tradition is put into the mouth of Elijah Rebow by Mr. Baring-Gould, and there is nothing improbable in it. But there is a stranger story extant, which you may read in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1820. There Sir John Lawrence narrates that he once visited the old church at Tolleshunt Knights, which stands nearly a mile to the south from Barn Hall. There he saw an ancient monument of soft stone, supporting the prostrate effigy of a knight in armour. The knight, he adds, was believed to have quarrelled with the devil touching the future site of Barn Hall, already in course of erection. The devil was very wroth, and insisted that the house should not stand on that particular spot ; so he visited the spot each night, and pulled down whatever had been erected during the day. Moreover, Satan was minded to have the body of the knight, 'whether he was buried by sea or by land, in church or churchyard.' But the knight's family managed to evade the terms of this declaration: they buried him in the north wall of the church, and, as this could not be considered as burial in the church, the devil was successfully frustrated. Folklorists and other like-minded persons may compare this story with that concerning Piers Shonkes of Brent Pelham, of whom I have written elsewhere,* for the two stories have curious points of resemblance. When I passed Great Wigborough on the evening referred to, I met an old man near the church. He inquired whether I had ever been 'up to Tolleshunt Knights' where the devil pulled a beam out of the church and flew off with it, exclaiming:

'Where this beam fall
Shall stand Barn Hall.'

Thus much by way of legendary lore.

* 'Highways and Byways in Hertfordshire,' chap. xiv.

Whitethroats were singing softly in the hedges, as is their wont, as I made my way towards Tolleshunt D'Arcy. Beneath, among the long grass that overhung the deep ditches, thousands of red campions and greater stitchworts made a brave muster by the wayside. The village lies on high ground ; its dominant aspect is one of exemplary tidiness. This pleasing trait was very noticeable as I paused before the Thatchers' Arms and turned to look round. On the open bank by the roadside, in the heart of the village, grow wall-flowers and forget-me-nots; there are glimpses of well trimmed lawns and of houses beautifully covered with creepers. At the south end of the village stands Tolleshunt D'Arcy Hall, an imposing house. The moat that surrounds it is still full of water; the buttressed walls which rise sheer above it are partly covered with ivy. The moat is crossed by a stone bridge of four arches, bearing the arms of the D'Arcy family and the date 1575. The hall contains much fine carving and panelling. Adjoining it is the Church of St. Nicholas, which I was glad to find open. In the vestry a lady was arranging a quantity of white blossoms for service on the morrow. She drew my attention to some quaint brasses and inscriptions in the D'Arcy Chapel, one of which I copied.

'Here lyeth Thomas Darce of Langbrooks
in Tovlshvnt Darce, ye yongest
sonne of Brian Darce of Sincklers
Hall in St. Osithes, who departed
this life ye 21 day of March
in ye year of his Saviovr 1624.'

This 'Sincklers Hall' was evidently the 'St. Cleres' to which Norden refers in his list of 'Howses having speciall names'; it was occupied in Norden's day by 'Jo Darcye.' In the map issued by the Camden Society it is spelt c Semtlers' Hall. St. Clere's was held by an Essex family of that name from 1334 to 1454. About a century later the property passed to the D'Arcys, who seem, as a family, to have enjoyed common tastes in matters regarding the structure and adornment of their houses. Like Tolleshunt D'Arcy Hall, St. Clere's was a moated house, but the bridge over the moat no longer exists. Mr.Barrett found in both houses many quaint mouldings and other antique features. But this is a digression. In the south porch of the church, worn almost to obliteration by the feet of many generations, lies a slab on which is relieved across, with floriated extremities, such as covers the dust of many a Knight Templar in English churches. In one of the south windows of stained glass I saw the famous tulip, concerning which much ink has been spilt. It has been assigned to the early part of the seventeenth century, and is attributed, plausibly enough, to one of the many Flemish Protestant refugees who settled on the East Coast of England towards the end of the previous century, engaging themselves in the manufacture of the famous cloth known as Bays and Says. Near it is the water-bouget, the D'Arcy badge.

One who rambles in the country of 'Mehalah' because of its associations with the book that bears her name will do well to turn aside at D'Arcy local folk drop the 'Tolshunt' and take the south-east road that leads to Tollesbury and the adjacent marshes, creeks and channels. There, on the Old Hall Marshes, at a spot near Bull Bars Creek, stood the Red Hall, where Elijah Rebow kept his elder brother in chains, and where Mehalah passed a few weeks of wretchedness. The Hall has long since been in ruins, but its remains are still pointed out. A more desolate situation for a homestead can hardly be conceived, and its position between the creeks doubtless rendered it, as Mr. Baring-Gould represents, a secure hiding-place for 'run' goods. His description of its surroundings holds good to-day 'There was not a tree near it. It rose from the flat like a tower. . . . The horizon was bounded by the sea-wall; only when the door was reached, which was on a level with the top of the mound, were the glittering expanse of sea, the creeks and the woods on Mersea Island and the mainland visible.' The neighbourhood is of much interest to geologists and antiquaries. The writer of an excellent leaflet on Tollesbury refers to the submerged forest that lies near the mouth of the Blackwater; he repeats the tradition that the Buxey Sand, south of Mersea Island, owes its name to the fact that deer were formerly hunted where ships now sail, and adds that trees are said to have been standing at the spot as late as the close of the eighteenth century. The fishermen of Tollesbury draw from the deep other spoils than 'finny fish'. Mr. James Appleton dredged up an ancient vase coated with tubes of Serpula; Mr. Harry Redhouse obtained one covered with barnacles; Mr. Harry Pettican found the tusk of a mammoth. Moreover, a very fine perforated axe-head, belonging to the Neolithic Age, was dis-covered in the river - I suppose the Blackwater - by Mr. Drake. The leaflet to which I have referred bears no author's name, or I would gladly thank him for these interesting records.

This neighbourhood is in the heart of the Marsh Country, but the village of Tollesbury itself stands on a slight eminence, and its inhabitants boast of its healthy climate; indeed, the whole district is very much more salubrious than in the old days of the 'ager.' In that charming book, 'An OldEnglish Home,' Mr. Baring-Gould tells us that he once said to a yeoman in Essex, 'What ! nine or ten miles from a doctor?' The answer was, 'Well, sir, yes, it is ten. Thank heaven we all in this parish mostly dies natural deaths.' The same writer adds a curious story which I may repeat in this connection. He was once told by the wife of an Essex farmer that when her lungs were trouble-some she swallowed some small shot from her husband's flask. 'You see, sir,' she explained, 'my lungs ain't properly attached, and in windy weather they blows about. You know how you've got the curtain at the church door weighted with shot? That's to keep it down. Well, I takes them shot on the same principle to keep my lungs down.' I recently took shelter from a storm in a cottage on one of those marshes, and chatted meanwhile with an old man who had passed his life in the country of 'Mehalah.' He told me that sixty or seventy years ago the ague was in 'most ev'ry fam'ly' throughout the Marsh Country; he assured me that the neighbourhood was then more thickly wooded, and attributed the prevalence of the ague to the white mist that frequently hung over it almost throughout the day. Sometimes this malady took a chronic form. In such cases it was called the 'long ague' and perhaps lasted for three years. The older victim could do little except crouch over the fire, when he had one, shivering intermittently, and raising a hand from time to time to wipe away the cold sweat that gathered upon his forehead.

The afternoon was still young when I left Tolleshunt D'Arcy; the atmosphere was unusually clear, and as I approached Goldhanger by way of the 'Cricketers' the view across the Blackwater was very pleasant. I did not go down to the big decoy near the waterside, being warned that the way thither would lead me 'right round by Gore Creek,' and that there is now little to be seen. Long ago immense numbers of wild-fowl were taken in this decoy; now, as I have mentioned in an earlier chapter, it is but little used. Here, as around Tollesbury, it is sweet enough to wander upon the marshes or along the wall in summer, when careful search for the rarer flowers of the Marsh-Country will very possibly be successful, and a good field-glass may help you to study the long-legged wading birds in their native haunts. But it is a perilous land in which to expose yourself inadvisedly in rough wintry weather; and at such times I would advise the rambler to gain the confidence of cottage folk, from whom there is often much to be learned.

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Chapter 16 - Mersea Island

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AuthorHerbert W. Tomkins
SourceMersea Museum