“Now it wasn’t in my time, and it wasn’t in your time. This was in a time when birds built their nests in old men’s beards.”
Nearly 20 years ago, storyteller and musician Tim Laycock spent a couple of months collecting stories, anecdotes and songs about local villages, especially Dorset and Wiltshire, from patients on the wards. The ‘Village Tales’ project captured little tales that tell how people used to live, still do live and give a sense of shared history. We have revisited these tales and presented them to you here. Either scroll down the page to read the tales, or click the map icons or village names to jump straight to that tale.
Aldbourne, Amesbury, Ashmore, Blandford, Bowerchalke, Brockenhurst, Damerham, Devizes, Downton, Fontmell Magna, Fovant, Great Wishford, Imber, Odstock, Pewsey, Piddletrenthide, Pitton, Semley, Steeple Langford, Stourton, Sturminster Newton, Tarrant Gunville, Tisbury, Tollard Royal, Wylye, The Wars
Queen Guinevere once lived at Amesbury Abbey. Her ghost is reputed to haunt the Abbey, which is now a nursing home. Local legend says that King Arthur once fought a battle at Stonehenge.
Two in one!
A man crossing a churchyard late at night fell into a freshly-dug grave and was unable to get out. At last he gave up and settled down to wait for rescue in the morning. Shortly afterwards another man came past and fell into the same grave, without noticing the first man. He also tried to get out. Then the first man said, “You can’t jump out, I’ve tried.” Well, the second man jumped out in one go!
You’re not a proper local until you’ve fallen in the river! (This is also said at Portesham, Dorset) Aldbourners are called ‘Dabchicks’
The shepherd’s hut
A lady remembers working with her father, a shepherd on the Ashmore estate. At lambing time she would spend hours in a shepherd’s hut with her father. She would feed the little stove with twigs and branches to keep the hut warm and they would eat liver and onions. She often reared lambs with a bottle. She and her father would sing hymns, she singing the tune and the shepherd supplying the bass. On Sundays she would visit her Granny, who was very religious and even disapproved of laughing on a Sunday.
The nearest Friday to Midsummer’s Day is the occasion for the Filly Loo, an evening of merrymaking and dancing around the famous pond at Ashmore. Country dancing and Morris dancing are followed by an eerie torch-lit procession where the dancers carry deer antlers
Skating in hobnails
Children at Ashmore in Dorset used to skate on the pond in hobnail boots. A lady remembers her father ‘doing a bit of snobbery’ – mending the boots on an iron last. There was also an old shoemaker who lived at Well Bottom in Ashmore and made boots for men and boys.
T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) used to race his motorbike along the Blandford to Salisbury road from Blandford Camp chasing biplanes in the early 1920s.
There’s quite a herd of white horses on the Wiltshire Downs, some very old, most cut in the eighteenth century, and a few mere foals. The Pewsey horse was recut in 1937 to mark the coronation of George VI.
The old white horse wants putting to rights,
And the squire has promised good cheer;
So we’ll give him a scrape to keep him in shape,
And he’ll last for many’s a year
The Bratton / Westbury horse was used by an RAF pilot as a landmark to help him find his way back to base. However, during World War 2 the Fovant badges were allowed to grass over so as not to provide assistance to German pilots.
Just east of Weymouth in Dorset King George III is riding his chalk horse away from the seaside!
The golden coffin
There is a story that a golden coffin was once dug out of a long barrow at Bowerchalke and sometimes at night 7 men can be seen dragging it across the downs to rebury it.
The Railway Inn has been renamed the Snakecatcher after Brusher Mills, who was an adder catcher. There is also a memorial stone to him.
The butler who saved the village
A story about West Park, where many years ago the landowner, having had far too much to drink, wagered his whole estate during a game of cards. This included the villages of Damerham and Martin. The butler, realising the situation, and knowing that his master would never have done such a thing if he had been sober, ‘accidentally’ spilled wine all over the card table causing the game to be abandoned. So the estate and the livelihoods of all the workers were saved. When the landowner sobered up and realised what had happened he rewarded the butler with a house in the village.
A case of the ratizookas!
An old farmer used to visit the doctors surgery regularly, and despite his own ailments, would always inquire after the doctor’s health: “And how be you today then, Doctor?”
Following a fall from a Trailer, the farmer developed rheumatism which he called the ‘ratizookas’, and he would say to the doctor “Ooh, my ‘ratizookas’ been playing up!”. One day he inquired after the doctor’s health in the usual way and the Doctor said “I’m like you, Walter; my ‘ratizookas’ is playing up too”. Walter looked straight at him and said “Well, if you can’t cure yourself, what hope is there for the rest of us?”
The Downton cuckoo
The Cuckoo comes in April,
The sings her song in May,
At the end of June she changes her tune,
And in July she flies away,
The Cuckoo Fair at Downton is a celebration of Spring. It used to be held at the end of April, but has recently been moved into May. The cuckoo brings the spring; and the story goes that some villagers once tried to keep a cuckoo penned up in a hurdle cage to keep the spring for as long as possible; but it didn’t work, for one night the cuckoo escaped and along came summer!
The Wiltshire moonrakers
Wiltshire people are still known as moonrakers because of this famous story. It goes back to the old smuggling days of the late eighteenth century, when a gang of smugglers were making their way at dead of night through the Wiltshire lanes and byways, carrying small kegs of brandy. As they approached the pond in Devizes they realised that the Excisemen were on their trail and they hid the barrels, linked together by ropes, in the pond. The moon was full and shining down on the pond. The smugglers just had time to hide when the Excisemen rode past and on towards Marlborough. Believing themselves to be safe, the smugglers began to get their brandy kegs out with long rakes; but the Excisemen came back and asked them what they were doing. The leader of the smugglers pointed to the reflection of the full moon on the water and said, “We be trying to rake out this girt round cheese!” The Excisemen laughed at the ‘stupidity’ of the country folk and rode on. The smugglers recovered their brandy safely!
As a postscript, there are about twenty ponds in Wiltshire that claim to be the Moonraker’s pond and the story is also told about Ashmore pond!
The missing bells
Two of the bells from Shaftesbury Abbey were hidden before King henry’s men could get them when the Abbey was dissolved. The bells were taken by horse and cart and buried secretly in East Compton. They were discovered by a farmer ploughing his field in the early 18000’s and when St Andrew’s Church in Fontmell Magna was restored in the 1840’s. the bells were hung in the tower there. So you can hear two echoes of the old Abbey of Shaftesbury in Fontmell Magna.
The Fovant Badges
The Fovant Badges were mostly cut into the chalk by soldiers from regiments camped at the foot of the Downs during the First World War. They were allowed to grow over with grass during the Second World War so as not to provide landmarks for the enemy aircraft. They have now been renovated to their original glory.
Oak apple day
The residents are woken at 4am on Oak Apple Day to go to the woods to collect wood. The pub is appropriately called the Royal Oak. People used to wear a sprig of oak on the 29th May to remember King Charles hiding in an oak tree as he escaped after the Battle of Worcester. But was the King just following in the venerable footsteps of Robin Hood and the Green Man?
Standing among runs patched up with breeze blocks only the church remains intact in the village of Imber. During the winter of 1962-63, the weight of snow on the power lines cu off the electricity to Iwerne Minster. The Christmas carol service at St Mary’s still went ahead as the hand pumping mechanism for the church organ could be pumped at different speeds according to the complexity and volume of the music being played!
The gypsy’s curse
Joshua Scamp was a gypsy who used to pitch his tent at the Yews near Odstock. His only daughter married a man who stole a horse and left a coat belonging to Joshua at the scene of the crime. On this evidence, Joshua was condemned and hanged in Salisbury; he refused to plead his innocence to protect his daughter. His fellow gypsies commemorated his sacrifice by erecting a gravestone and planting a rose hedge in the churchyard at Odstock and each year the travelers made a pilgrimage to the grave.
In time, these annual visits degenerated into a drunken celebration and the rector, the clerk and the churchwarden decided to stop the visits. They did this by locking the church and breaking the hedges around the grave. This so enraged the gypsies that Joshua’s daughter put a curse on the place as follows: “that the man who did this deed might die, that the churchwarden might never prosper and that the parson might never speak plainly again”. All these things happened within a year.
Another story says that the gypsies threw the key to the church door into the River Ebble so that the church could not be locked against them. The church was exorcised some years ago. The inscription on the grave reads ‘In memory of Joshua Scamp who died April 1st 1801. May his brave deed be remembered to his credit, now and hereafter.’
Fish paste lights
Pewsey has a famous carnival in the autumn. In times past a lady remembers that you always knew that the carnival time was approaching by the appearance of fish paste lights – candles in Shiphams paste glass jars, wired onto the railing around the bridge by the statue of King Alfred. There was a carnival bank called the King’s Korner Band.
The king in the daffodils
Another memory of the English Civil War can be found in the woods by the village of Piddletrenthide in Dorset. The wood is a mass of daffodils in Spring and is known as King’s Grove after royalty that hid there in the roots under a bank to evade capture. This happened three or four hundred years ago.
Harvesting by moonlight
Farm work was a common occupation for men and women, Haymaking and harvesting often went on into the might, working by moonlight to stack up the sheaves. When the last sheaves were cut in the middle of the field, the rabbits and hares would run out, only to be knocked down by the harvesters with a nobbly stick.
Broad beans and elder sticks
Other tasks on the farm were hoeing mangels and cutting ragwort with a riphook. If you got the pollen of the ragwort on your hand it could cause werts (warts). There were many cures including rubbing the skin with the inside of a broad bean pod; and Granny recommended counting the warts and then cutting the exact number of notches into and elder stick and burying it. As the stick rotted, the warts would go – and they did!
If the cures already mentioned don’t work you could try hitting the wart with a bible; rubbing it with a piece of raw meat, which you then bury, as the meat rots, the wart will go; or cutting a potato in half, rubbing the wart with one half and then burying the potato – the other half should be thrown away.
Warts from Aldborne
An elder stick should be taken and nicks cut in it to match the number of warts and the cuttings allowed to fall into an outside privy. This got rid of the warts.
Even more warts!! From Tisbury
There use dot be two old ladies who always dressed in black. One had a wooden leg. They could cure warts; you had to steal a bit of raw meat and give it to them. They would then say some words to make the wart disappear.
The Semley riot
At Pyt House near Semley, there was a riot in the 1820s when threshing machines were broken and hay ricks burnt by desperate farm workers. The Militia were called in and the riot suppressed. The rioters were taken to Fisherton Jail. One of the rioters, a Tisbury man named Turner, was transported to Tasmania. He later became Mayor.
Ghost of Stourton
When an old chimney was un-bricked to reveal an inglenook fireplace, the skeleton of a girl was discovered. Ever since then the farmer has been woken to go and do his morning’s milking by the touch of a girl’s hand on the back of his hand. She has a lace cuff on her sleeve and is believed to be a former servant of the house.
The gravedigger and the poacher
Grandfather was the sexton and gravedigger at All Saints Steeple Langford many years ago. There was a local character called Grabby who was often out late at night poaching. Grandfather often got up very early when there was a grave to be dug. Very early one misty morning he was down at the bottom of a grave finishing off when along the church path came Grabby clad in a long coat which bulged suspiciously! Grandfather said “Morning Grabby” in a deep sepulchral voice. Well, poor Grabby! His goods went all ways! There was rabbits and pheasants everywhere and he said “Oh my God John, you nearly gave me a heart attack!” Yes his goods went all ways!
The invasion of Piddles Wood
Piddles Wood is near Sturminster Newton. During the Battle of Britain, rumours circulated in North Dorset that the Germans had landed in Piddles Wood. A man in Okeford Fitzpaine heard the news in the village. The truth is that a Hurricane pilot bailed out and landed in the wood on his parachute. His plane crashed into the banks of the River Stour. The Home Guard took charge of the crash site, but local boys who knew the area managed to evade them and collect some souvenirs from the wreckage. They were later obliged to return these objects; but much to their disgust, the soldiers simply threw the souvenirs into the river. Other local incidents remembered by an Okeford man who was a schoolboy at the time include a Lancaster bomber that crashed in the grounds of what is now Clayesmore School at Iwerne Minster; and a German aircraft that crashed almost intact on the Beech above Iwerne. A high explosive bomb aimed at the Somerset and Dorset railway at Shillingstone missed its target and exploded harmlessly in a field between Shillingstone and Durweston.
Jumping for the Olympics
A girl was dared by her friends to go into the farmer’s orchard and scrump apples. The orchard was surrounded by a 5’ high wall. As she reached out to pick a particularly fine apple, the farmer suddenly appeared from behind a tree saying “Got you, you young varmint!” or words to that effect. Well, she turned and ran and cleared that wall by 3’ – she could have jumped for the Olympics!
The speeding coach and horses
You can still see the pillars that mark the entrance to Eastbury House, once a huge mansion designed by Vanbrugh. There is a story about a corrupt steward at the house who was eventually caught stealing his master’s money. He rode at break neck speed from Longton through the lanes to Eastbury where he killed himself in the library. He was buried in the church in his yellow and blue livery but when the coffin was opened 100 years later the body had not decomposed at all. He is reputed to still drive the coach and horses through the lanes; but this may well be a story promoted by local smugglers at the time to keep people safely indoors at night!
Wartime memories of Tisbury
During World War II a schoolgirl in Tisbury remembers being taken out at might and shown a red glow in the sky. It was Portsmouth burning, blitzed by German bombers.
Her mother told her that if she saw an aeroplane approaching with crosses on the wings, she should go behind a hedge, into a ditch or just drop down immediately to take cover. One day a German plane did fly over and the girl and her friend dropped down, straight into cowpats! They had to go home and get scrubbed down!
American servicemen were billeted in the old Tisbury workhouse during WW2. One hundred and twenty seven of them were killed on D Day during the following campaign in France. For some months in 1944 Tisbury was full of life and then suddenly they were gone and the village felt dead.
Tisbury has several old tunnels, perhaps escape routes from the time when Catholics in the area were in constant fear of arrest. When the old fireplace was removed in the Laundry they found a tunnel that lead through the hill to Gosh Manor. The Old Vicarage also had a tunnel.
Potatoes in paradise
The allotments in Tisbury are on a piece of land called Paradise by the older locals; this was the site of the burial of plague victims in the 17th century.
A daylight ghost
A lady in Tisbury, returning from the hairdresser at 10.15am saw someone approaching in Church Walk. The figure seemed familiar, even though the face was hooded and not visible: but as the lady moved her shopping trolley to let the figure pass, it turned left and went straight through the wall. Monks and nuns used to live in houses near St John’s Church.
Well, in those days you had to make your own entertainment, didn’t you? At Tollard they held Sixpenny Hops in the village hall, where you could dance all night for 6d. The music was provided by a lady who played the concertina. Among the dances remembered were the St Bernald waltz, the Polka, the Foxtrot, the Merry Widow Waltz and the Gay Gordons. One of the songs sung on these occasions went:
If I had a cow that gave such milk
I’d dress her in the finest silk
Feed her on the best of hay
And milk her forty times a day
The ground got up and ran away!
The big local estates all employed gamekeepers. At Ashcombe house near Tollard Royal here were five men whose main job all the year round was to keep the rabbits down. There were so many that the ground used to get up and run away.
Weeping Cross / Airman’s Cross
The Weeping Cross in Salisbury was the place where relatives and friends used to wave a tearful goodbye as the Stagecoach disappeared down the old coach road towards London. Another local landmark is Airman’s Cross or Corner, marking the the site of an an aeroplane crash on the A360, just north of the A303. Did this happen during the First World War? The site is marked with flowers and the stone has been moved slightly to allow for changes to the nearby road junction.
The haunted mill
Fisherton Mill near Wylye is reputed to be haunted. The old miller, sitting outside the mill at night used to hear a lady approaching, accompanied by clanking chains. She would then sit down next to him and sigh heavily before getting up and disappearing.
Shaving in cocoa
An old man had to break the ice on his shaving water, but he explained that he didn’t mind as he used to shave in cocoa while serving in the trenches in WW1 (there was sometimes not water to wash in but plenty of cocoa).
The gas mask choir
Girls attending Gillingham Grammar school during World War II had to carry their gas masks at all times. One day they were larking about with the masks in the classroom, when Mrs Perks the music teacher came in. She made them all keep on the masks and sing ‘Nymphs and Shepherds’. When they had finished she commanded “Respirators Off!”
The old Gillingham school song:
Good 400 years Grice the Free school founded
This his name is all we know
So let his name be sounded!