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The Grandmother

by Bernadette Weyde
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Most precious of all things in my childhood is the remembrance of my grandmother. Tall and stately even to the end, she had all the dignity of some high-bred dame of Elizabethan times. In her dress she seemed to have continued some ancient usage.  Her head was covered with a night-coif and bound up with kerchiefs of red and black silk. The winding and unwinding of these was a ceremonial observance remarkable in itself. Over all these was a white hood when she went out. A “cross-over” of grey knitted wool was wrapped around her chest. A black apron and a gown of some homespun stuff, russet-coloured, made up the rest of her costume.

She seldom went abroad except into the garden to gather ivy leaves – ‘hibben’ as she called them – from the gable end. She attributed great efficacy to these for some minor ailment and would select them with as much care as any witch-doctor of bygone ages.

She delighted to trace back her ancestry for many generations, and her kindly face would glow with high spirit as she used to tell one famous tradition of her family. There was, once upon a time, a princess who came over from England and took refuge – in time of war – on the far side of the Island. All the land around Port Erin was hers. Her name was Rowena. She brought with her three little children, born to her before her exile began; and, when she departed this life, she divided the inheritance between them. Hence it is that to this day there are the three “Rowanies” – farms still bearing the name of this distinguished stranger in the land.  It was from the Upper Rowany that my grand-mother herself came. “There was she born” – a Cottier of the Rowany – and by simple lineal descent, where pedigrees and colleges of heralds are unknown, she proudly boasted a royal line and was diligent in impressing us with the importance of this interesting story.

The garden I have mentioned lay eastward of the house, and was entered by a green door from a small fore-court bounded by a low white-washed wall. When inside. you might have seen this venerable dame making her way to or from the ivied gable, along a path with bright boxwood edging – last fragment of a formal garden – and against the house wall were the old-fashioned flowers beloved in her own generation and copied in samplers. There were still lingering there, when last I saw the spot, the old white rose, the purple columbine, Canterbury bells, azalea and lilac, large globe buttercups, a patch of mint, ancient fuchsias, peonies and polyanthus. The house has fallen on sad days and has long been tenanted by a labourer, who cares nothing for flowers and has turned the rest of the garden into a potato plot to feed his bairns. But in those days there were glorious hydrangeas of ever-changing hue – pink and blue and greenish-white – on the other side of that path. I still think of them as trees, though they were only flourishing bushes. In our childhood everything seems larger to our eyes. Even the snail, that with extended horns toiled along on damp mornings from the ivy and through the boxwood on to the narrow way, was a monster of romance – more fearing than fearsome, for it took him some time to recover from the slightest touch. Tempting clusters of red currant and ripening gooseberries were allowed a place among the flowers; but all things merely useful – potatoes (priddhas) and herbs – were out of sight, beyond a double boundary of water and foliage. A little brook from the mountains traversed the garden: and then, where the low southern wall of loose stones was overgrown with green wafer-like penny-wort and its erect creamy spikes, it hurried through the gnarled remnant of an obsolete thorn-hedge over a spout at the roadside. There it served many a milk-tin, into which it tinkled up to the brim. The overflow crossed the road and made its way to a pond (dub) opposite the door of my grandmother’s house. The trees that hid this brook during its course through the garden were elders (“tramman,” as they are called), and supposed to be haunted by elves. They furnished me with many a whistle, fashioned by removing the pith and making certain cunning cuts, in which my grandmother was an adept. But she hardly liked me riding on those trees and turning them into rocking horses. Whether she was afraid for my limbs or for the look of her garden or for the supernatural inhabitants of the leafy branches, she would many times a day give me warning that “the fairies would take me one of these days.”

Opposite the fountain (where the penny-wort still adorns the wall) and outside the garden now lie the ruins of a cottage, in which lived a playmate called William Kelly. His father was then a tailor and the boy has since become a railway guard. Their home is unroofed and in decay. The great stone lintel over the fireplace and the recesses for candles (mentioned sometimes in Manx songs) are touching witnesses of the dispersion; and I remember well how the thatch was covered with houseleeks and golden stonecrop.

It was on the little green here that I saw Chalse y Killey (immortalized in Tom Brown’s poems) pursued by many children, who enraged him by calling him an Irishman. He had a high forehead, with short white hair on his head, and was as easily pacified as vexed.

At the dub – which is now dried up and no longer to be seen, the children went by to school every morning, but I never knew where that school was until forty years after.  It was then a hen-house.

My attention was attracted to one Nell Taylor, who wrote a very delicate “Italian hand,” but could take her pint and smoke with the men at a Hollantide fair. Her whisky-bottle of brown earthenware, highly glazed and adorned in relief with a house on one side and a hunting scene on the other is still in existence. But she was much respected in spite of this failing. She knew more than her neighbours, for she got the only English paper and so had all the news. Her skill in herbs gave her a reputation almost equal to old Mrs. Sansbury’s, of Aristine (Eairystane) – the wise woman who could put a charm on any complaint; and for ringworm put a ring on the spot, used a dismal incantation, and then made the poor child swallow a worm!

There was a mystery that hung over all the region up that road. It was strewn with blocks of white quartz which served me for white horses when driven from the “tramman.” These were tasselled with grey moss and decorated with golden lichens. They are now all gone. But there was a sudden bend in the road, which led up to “the mountain,” where (I was told) men might perish of hunger: and at that corner was a deep, round well – some 30 feet down — containing (so I was told) a goblin called “The Glashtyn.”  My Uncle William, who sometimes visited us and set me on his knee and deplored his own bad habit of incessant smoking, had actually seen this tenant of the well. He described him as dressed entirely in leather and having eyes behind his head as well as in front.

It is true that I occasionally passed this dangerous spot in company of my aunt, when she went to draw water from a moss-grown well in a bit of waste ground; and that there was a house there, in which a friendly giant called Bill Corrin sold sweets to us both. But I never ventured there alone more than once. It was with beating heart and with courage screwed up to the sticking point that I crept round the west end of our house and through the stack-yard (haggart), with a wooden sword made expressly for this perilous adventure. I trusted in that stout blade and a clear conscience; and prayed for strength to do battle with a fire-breathing Apollyn as I drew near that well. But nothing came out of it. I had the daring even to look down, yet more daringly to throw a stone down; but no appalling vision arose. If I had not seen, I had at least come and conquered. Yet there is still (and ever will be) something weird and uncanny about the winding of that road to “the mountain.” It was with the apprehension of an explorer in some African forest that, in mature life, I turned that corner – though the well is now filled up and the goblin buried at the bottom of it –  and traced the way up to the heather and the gorse.

It is time for us now to return to the old house and describe the interior. The staircase ran straight up. On the right was the parlour – seldom entered – with a creaky wooden floor, a few albums and books on the table, and a window at the side (as well as the front one) half smothered with ivy and filled with fuchsia plants. Behind this was the dairy, dark and cool. But the main room, in which my grandmother and aunt lived, was on the left. It was floored with cement, healthy and clean and grey in colour. The large open fireplace was furnished with pot-hooks and hangers (slowries) innumerable. A shelf high up was adorned with a shepherd and shepherdess embowered in flowers, a red copper powder horn of antique make, and some mysterious copper parts of a ship always glowing with ruddy colour. Above these was a gun-rack, on which were loaded muskets and a blunder-buss to give a warm welcome to burglars who never came.

It was up this chimney that the fairies escaped when my grandfather – the ” William Gale” whose name is on a slab over the door – turned back one night after going upstairs to bed, and so took there by surprise. It was a very unlucky thing to do, far this kitchen was known to be one of their favourite haunts: but he saw the whole place was full of light and thought something must he ablaze. He coughed slightly before opening the door, but they did not take the hint and were busily baking cakes. His candle went out, and they flew up like so many sparks: but ever after he could never tell one cake from another – his sense of smell was taken away – for he who sees the fairies when he shouldn’t must always “lose one of his gifts.”

The fireplace was flanked by deep cupboards – vividly green like the garden door. They contained all manner of groceries in stiff blue bags, a stock of cracknel biscuits (a speciality from Castletown), and jugs filled with ancient banknotes. Inside one of the doors was “The Plan” of the preachers and exhorters at the old Wesleyan Chapel up the lane at the garden end. The front window was filled with prickly cactus plants, several of them in glorious bloom, but all in earthenware pots dark with age and mossy with neglect.

In the chimney corner farthest from the window, towered the old high clock with its apple-cheeked sun-face rising and setting every day – with the same perpetual smile. Along that side of the room extended the dresser, fashioned by the village carpenter according to traditional curves and furnished with rows of blue willow-patterned plates and dishes. Underneath were soup-tureens, a wooden butter-dish, and large vessels of a deeper blue displayed in open arches. On the shelves above, the smaller plates came first and in front of them were glass, teapots (either bronzed or gaily-flowered) and cups to match. Here also were the wooden egg-cups and the hour-glass with the pewter mustard-pot. On hooks from the edge of each shelf hung the pepper castor, scissors, the button hook, and keys on a string through a reel. On the third shelf came the basins upside down, with rude suggestions of green leaves and damask roses on their sides; and cream jugs adorned the hooks. Still higher were the larger plates: and rows of jugs, bronzed and otherwise, were hung in front – about eight inches apart – in progressive scale, “beginning from the least unto the greatest.”  It was among all this domestic paraphernalia that my shipwrecked boats were put to dry.

In another corner (right of the dresser) was a sort of open cupboard, fitting triangularly in it and painted an ivory white. Here were the choicest “chaney” tea things – a complete set of old cottage ware adorned with interlacing arches of purple lustre, and in each arch a crimson pimpernel with sprigs of venetian red and touches of green or blue. These were only used on state occasions in my grandmother’s days: but, when she was gone, they came into common use and were broken one by one” until none remained “but the capacious tea-pot. Some years ago I bought two cups and saucers of that make at York for three shillings a set: and not very long after my heart leaped for joy when, in a jeweller’s window, I saw a perfect set of them, secured them all for one guinea, and in due season was able to restore that vision of my childhood. In ten years’ time they were all set up in a similar cupboard and thus was one of the dreams of my life fulfilled.

A great settle, panelled in three compartments, was drawn up to the fireside in front of the clock; and there my Uncle William sat and smoked. The rafters above were pierced with double hooks, on which hung bacon flinches, strings of Spanish onions, and bundles of marjoram and sage.  Such was the setting of our merriest days.

Once a week my aunt went to market. There was much turning out of the old jugs in the cupboard: and she set out for Castletown with a curiously-woven oblong basket with two flaps. This was my grandmother’s golden opportunity. Then she became young and frollicsome. Her eyes shone with glee as she said “Now, Christopher, come and let us make knobs.”  This was a signal for our crowning delight. In a moment she brought out the round table-worn with a thousand bakings of oat and barley-cake or soda-bread – and its three straggling legs were in position before the fire, which she stirred up into a blaze. “I’m thinking,” she would say, “your aunt will never guess what we are about.”  Then she would go to the old green cupboard and bring out the ingredients –  the brown sugar, the butter, and the rest – and we were in for all the fun of what is called a “Toffee Spree.”  Memories of her girlhood must have quickened her into hilarity as she set the pan upon the fire and waited till the mixture turned a golden-brown. Then it pleased me to see her pour it into a square tin, and dexterously pull it with flour-covered hands, and finally twist it into one long roll, to be cut up with scissors into “knobs – that most delicious of home-made confections.

She would now and then express some anxiety lest Aunt Janet might return too soon and catch us at this game. But, when my aunt returned indeed – her quaint basket laden with household necessities – and was tired with her negotiations, she was as pleased to partake as we were to regale her with these dainties; and I well remember how, when she turned out her silken purse on the table, there were old-world coins now seldom seen; among her change. Not only Georgian pennies and Irish halfpennies, but some with the Derby crest – the eagle and child – dating from 1709, the first coinage of the old Manx realm. Every halfpenny is now worth its weight in gold: and for the dear remembrance of old times I would not grudge to give it.

The dear old grandmother lived to be 83 and made a good end.  Her dresser was burnt for fire wood and the last bit of it I saw forlorn in the deserted dairy; but the table on which the toffee was made is still in existence; still mine.


source: Written by Rev Christopher Bell and published in 1928 in Ellan Vannin, Vol 3, #9; courtesy of A Manx Notebook.  Photograph is of a Manx cottage and unknown woman, taken c.1901/1902, courtesy of imuseum.

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