A Living Reminder of Times Past
Set among the rolling hills and narrow river valleys of North Devon, with Exmoor to the East, the little village of Bratton Fleming has quietly gone on from generation to generation since at least Saxon times. In fact, archaeological remains nearby indicate the presence of humanity in the proximity of Bratton Fleming long before Saxon times. The village is mentioned in The Domesday Book: the first over-all census of England, completed before 1086 as an inventory of William the Conqueror’s newly-gained possession.
Bratton Fleming was the village that my paternal grandmother, Melia Ann Parkin, came from, where apparently she lived with her father John Parkin and her mother Ann till she was married at the age of about eighteen, after she had met and fallen in love with a tailor named William George Hewlett.
As far back as we can trace, Melia’s Parkin forebears had come from Bratton Fleming or its immediate surroundings. Her mother, Ann, whose maiden name was Walters, was born in a village not far from Bratton Fleming: the village of Charles.
My early knowledge of Bratton Fleming came from stories and sayings passed on by my father, who had heard them from his mother. When I was just a small boy I gained a visual impression of the North Devonshire area from pictures in a National Geographic article entitled “Down Devon Lanes.” I was permitted (or encouraged) to use one of the pictures accompanying this article, cut out and framed, as a gift to my grandmother. One other picture that I may have seen on my grandmother’s wall and that I later saw often when visiting Aunt Grace, was a picture of Button Bridge, where, not far from Bratton Fleming, my grandfather proposed to my grandmother.
Bratton Fleming came to live in my mind through sayings in the Devon dialect that my father passed on to me, and stories about villagers, like the woman who had the best-tasting candles in the village (presumably tallow candles).
When I had the opportunity as a young man to visit Bratton Fleming I had as my guide my father’s first cousin, Olive Parkin of Barnstaple. A most suitable guide she was, for Olive had written her own memories of her grandparents’ Bratton Fleming and of stories her grandmother (Ann Parkin) had told her of times even before their days. The resulting little book by Olive Parkin was not a history but rather a nostalgic account of the village and the stories told by her grandmother. (Unfortunately, the nature of the genre has not always been understood by those who came to read her book, and it was critiqued as a history. Read as a piece of literature it is obvious that it makes no pretence to be an academic history, but rather as nostalgia and an account of stories passed on for their worth as stories and their insight into the nature of village life. )
It was a very gratifying experience to be shown my great-grandfather Parkin’s house, with the building behind which had been his tailoring shop, and the churchyard with his gravestone and that of his wife; and the church tower which, according to Olive, my grandmother Melia had climbed to the top of; and the little school building where she had attending school.
No doubt many changes had taken place in Bratton Fleming between the time my grandmother lived there and the time I came to visit it as a young man of twenty-five. But I think it seemed to me, as it did on succeeding visits, as though it was a living example of a time past in my family history. And though I now realize that it is quite a modern village, it thankfully still has the house where my great-grandfather and mother lived, the little church, with its churchyard full of graves of villagers past, and the little building where my grandmother attended school. And not far from the village, in a somewhat decaying state when I visited it, is Button Bridge, where the proposal was made which resulted in the union of Melia Ann Parkin and Walter George Hewlett, who (along with their children), like so many others of their time, undertook the adventure of immigration to the distant colony of British Columbia in Canada.
The Devon sayings repeated by my father stuck in my memory, and always had a fascination for me. Like the physical remains of the village, they spoke of a way of life that had passed. Of course the sayings as given by me are third-hand: my memories of memories that my father had of my grandmother's sayings. Only once, just before the stroke that resulted in her death, do I remember my grandmother repeating any of these sayings in my hearing. Still, at the risk of dialectal innaccuracy, I will record the Devon sayings I remember. (I have submitted them and they have been posted on the BBC-related website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/discovering/dialect/your_dialect.shtml .)
Here is a dialogue-saying: "Where be gwine you?" "Up to Crane's [store] you." "What fer you?" "A ha'penny-worth of zalt, you." "Why done-'ee buy it more at a time, you?" "Coz mither do like it frash and frash." --A small joke, indeed, but interesting to me as a family tradition. [On the BBC dialect discussion board I asked whether it was Devon or Dorset dialogue, but in retrospect I am quite sure that it originates in Devon. In Dorset Grandma (Melia Ann) lived in town where dialect traditions would be weak. Besides, I believe the dialect fits other Devon dialect I have seen reduced to print.]
"When fermer John Aggis's friends were a-sot, a-smoking their bakky and drinkin' the pot, and the wind whistled through the key-ole of the door . . . ." [Obviously the beginning of what could have been a thrilling story, but I may never hear the rest of it, unless someone else with a knowledge of Devon sayings and a long memory fills me in on it.]
Another saying, applied to Aunt May (though this could have been in the very similar Dorset dialect): "Thit maid's got a face like a puddin'. "
Another saying (Devon or Dorset), used by boys indulging in the cruel sport of squeezing a grasshopper till the juice came oput: "Spit tobackee or I'll kill 'ee. "
Apparently a villager living by himself had--like others in the same situation-- acquired the habit of conversing with himself. His name was Farmer Gammin (a name that I have discovered among the engravings on tombstones in Bratton Fleming). He was apparently overheard addressing himself thus just before sitting down to a meal:"Sit ye down, Farmer Gammin. Do 'ee help yourzel'. Don 'ee rise up hungry." Gossip about village characters such as this no doubt was a common form of entertainment.
A couple of other sayings that I heard from my father have come to mind. A response to a query about someone's health elicited this cheerful comment: "Fair to middlin'. Weak in the legs and lungs and that, can't sleep at night and that."
A rather crude encouragement to gluttony: "Better belly bust than good mate [food] be lost."
A Poem About Bratton Fleming
by Olive Meech Parkin (of Barnstaple)
from her booklet Down in Devon
O Bratton, green and warm and kind,
Your former days I call to mind;
Those favoured, happy, childish times,
The hill whereon the village climbs..
But gone are all my own dear people,
They sleep beneath the old church steeple;
And hourly chimes the hoary clock
Above “ the Parson “, and his flock.
* * * *
Grandfather sits beside the fire,
Smoking his ancient well loved" Brier,"
The while he feeds the flames with sticks,
My cousins teach the dog his tricks,
And conversation wise and kind
Impresses on our childish mind,
While Granny in the kitchen bakes
Those fragrant curranty .. Yeast Cakes."
And callers one and all shall be
Invited to a cup of tea.
Then greetings most respectful meet
“ The Parson " down the Village street.
.. Ting-tang, ting-tang " from blacksmith's forge,
They're shoeing horses, Jim and George.
Now rumbling wheels the echoes wake
As onward goes the Village Brake,
Which good old Arthur slowly drives
Well filled with buxom Bratton wives,
Who nodding o' er their baskets tell
The bits of news they love so well.
A sudden clatter down the street,
The rush of clumsy little feet,
" The School is out," the mothers say, "
We'll boil the kettle, get the Tay,"
With clanking pitchers off they go
To pump, or cisterns water flow,
And lamps and candles shed their light
As sinks the sun below our sight.
On Sunday morns they wend their way
To Chapel or to Church to pray,
The bells chime out to bid them come
From every humble cottage home,
Without, they hear the songs of birds
As " Parson " speaks the sacred words,
Though well he knows each sinning one,
He preaches Peace through God's dear Son,
* * * *
Farewell O happy days of yore,
We love to tell them o'er and o'er.
The lives of all were known to Heaven
And rich reward will soon be given.
Yet still beneath the chiming clock
“ The Parson ” sleeps beside his flock.
An Excerpt from The Book of Bratton by Olive Meech Parkin:
I must not omit to mention an old forefather of ours, I
believe he was my father's Great-grandfather*. He was known
in his time as .. Duke Tallyn," merely of course a nickname
for the old "spendthrift," for such he certainly was. He
squandered two fortunes in his lifetime, altogether amounting to
£15,000, which in those days represented a big sum of money,
and would of course be worth about six times that value today.
He lived in the .. Great House," kept hounds, gambled and
drank, and so got rid of his money. I've been told that he
would mount his horse, have one glass at the back door and
another when he rode round to the front of the house, He was
friendly with one of the old sporting parsons (1 think named
Radford). I remember a story of a gamble on snails put on a
board to race, and I think it was Tallyn who lost the race,
because, waxing too enthusiastic at the progress his snail made,
he happened to touch it, and of course it drew in its horns at
once, and stopped its progress.
Tallyn was evidently a well educated man for those times,
as in his later years, when means evidently failed, he kept a
school and taJ.lght boys what he knew. There was an old man
who lived below our family in the same row of houses when I
was a very small child, and I believe he had been one of old
Tallyn's pupils at his school. The schoolmaster suffered from
"chalky gout," so called, and was able to write on the black-
board with his own knuckles. He taught even when bed-
ridden, and to punish the boys compelled them to come and
kneel on his bed, I suppose on the frame, which was very
painful, and one wonders how he could have mastered them so
firmly considering his disabilities. He must have been a terrible
old character. His daughter evidently lived with him, and he
used to call "Mary prithee come hither " when he wanted her.
The " prithee" was evidently a bit of old English and rather
interesting. In his palmy days he would take out £5 notes to
light his pipe, and would hand another to a man probably in
his employ, who wisely kept a supply of pipe-lighting matter
ready, and pocketed the £5 notes for better use! I know
nothing of Tallyn's family, but suppose they must have been
well known in those days, but he evidently brought all the
prosperity to an end, and gained a fit reward for his debaucheries
by becoming a ."parish pauper," and I have a hazy idea that
he died in the workhouse. At any rate, he was a warning to
all his descendants, and I suppose that was the reason why my
Grandfather had such a horror of seeing a pack of cards and was
so severe and straight a man himself. Once Granny went to
the china cupboard and took out an old wooden salver, which
she very impressively told me came from the Great House, and
related about the squandered fortune-" fifteen thousand
pounds," said she, "and it was all a kindidelled away," and
then she added briskly, "ought to have belonged to you and
On one occasion Tallyn was attacked by a highwayman on
Roborough Hill, near Barnstaple, the old road of those times.
The man seized the horse's bridle and demanded money.
Tallyn replied, "I've no money but a valuable gold watch which -
I suppose you must have." He pretended to be unfastening ~
this while the man still held the rein, then suddenly lashed out ~
at the highwayman's wrist with the heavy brass studded riding
crop he carried, and as the man dropped the rein, T allyn
galloped away leaving his adversary howling with pain,
* Olive M. Parkin is correct in her belief that this man was her father's great-grandfather. Census information, courtesy of Lorraine Trudgian's research, would idedtify "Duke Tallyn" with John Tallyn, born 1779, father of Harriet, who married Hugh Parkin