Tuesday, January 05, 2010

If you think it's cold now, read about 1888 on the Nene

In 1888 the river Nene was frozen over, For six weeks my father could walk to work over the river instead of going round by the bridges. On the ice at Lilford, Lord Lilford roasted a bullock on the river for his tenants and farm workers, and all the fields which had been flooded had frozen hard.

It took the men all their time to keep the stock fed and watered on the farms and the turnips or "mangold worzles" had to be crushed with a mallet before they would go through the cutters. At Thrapston a man took a waggon and horses on the river under the nine arched bridge; my! but it was a winter to remember.


So wrote a Mrs Julyans in her recollections of country life in the Nene Valley at the end of the nineteenth century. I came across them as an appendix to the book "A Summer on the Nene" by BB, alias Denys Watkins-Pitchford, once the art master at Rugby school.
I have read other books by BB, about fishing, so when I found he had written a book about cruising the Nene I put it on my Christmas list.
Sadly, it's not the best book he ever wrote. Despite his efforts to describe the sights, scents and sounds of the countryside his prose failed to fully convey (to me at any rate) the magic of this lovely river. He is however a knowledgeable countryman and devotes quite a bit of space to descriptions of the bird life. He could certainly was able to identify far more species of birds than I, although I daresay there were more species in evidence when he wrote the book in the 1960s.

BB is truly one of the old school, and I fear something of a Colonel Blimp. In defence of public schools he writes "Britain will certainly be a much less virile nation when education is the same for everyone" Later, he complains of a "mob of long-haired youths in tight blue jeans". I wonder what his pupils at Rugby thought of him.

Apart from appendix, the best parts of the book are the retelling of local tales from the villages of Wadenhoe and the surrounding area. These were fascinating and I shall, certainly re read them when I revisit.

The appendix is the real gem though. Eleven pages by Mrs Julyans. Written in a very direct style without a lot of superfluous adjectives, she gives a vivid picture of country life a hundred years ago, the work, the food and the home life. Wonderful.

I suspect the whole book will seem better on re reading. I get impatient with purely descriptive passages when they don't grab me and I suspect I skim read too much.

BB has a lot of fans. There is even a BB Society comprised, I imagine, of a lot of anglers who liked the old days. His best book, which I also have, is "Confessions of a carp fisher". Now in that book his powers of conjuring up an atmosphere of a hidden pool at dawn are at times chilling.
A Summer on the Nene was republished in 2005 by published by The Little Egret Press in a limited edition of 600 copies. Mine is no 535 so there can't be many left. Older copies can be found on ebay and the like.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Radio 4 ran a fascinating documentary last year about the old winter fairs on the Thames (roasting Oxen on the ice by the Tower of London sort of thing) - hard to believe that it was ever that cold in the Southeast, or maybe not......

Sue, Indigo Dream

VallyP said...

Lovely stories there. We didn't get to that stage last winter here, but it was great to see people skating so freely on the ice. It made me think of a Lowry painting or one of those illustrations of people skating on the rivers in England. Here in Holland, everyone gets out on the ice as soon as it's given the OK. True there are a lot of accidents, but it's a national sport so nobody would dream of stopping it. I'm glad about that.

I hope you are surviving the cold and snow ok?