Ritual Britain: Curse keeps the flour flowing to country kitchens: Marianne Macdonald sees villagers gather to claim a historic right

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THERE can be few charities as ancient, and few curses as dramatic, as that attached to the Tichborne Dole, which was distributed yesterday from the steps of Tichborne Park, near Alresford, Hampshire.

It began in the 12th century when Lady Mabella de Tichborne, a near cripple, begged her husband Sir Roger to provide for the village poor after her death. He, a rough and ready soldier, pulled a torch from the fire and cynically promised to give the yield from all the land she could encircle before it burnt out. To his astonishment the dying woman struggled from her bed and managed (some say with divine aid) to drag herself around 23 acres of land. A field is still known as The Crawls in her memory.

Yesterday was Lady Day, the day on which she demanded the yield from this land be annually distributed to the poor. If it was discontinued, she warned, seven sons would be born to the family, then seven daughters, whereupon the name of Tichborne would die out and the house fall into ruins.

For 600 years the family distributed the dole of bread from its own corn. But by the 18th century so many vagrants were coming for the freebie that in 1794 Sir Henry (who had seven sons, and should have known better) discontinued it.

The curse fell. Sir Henry was imprisoned by Napoleon and the house was demolished; five of his sons died without issue and his eldest produced seven daughters. Edward, the heir, changed his name to Doughty to gain a much-needed legacy. The dole was revived by Edward but Lady Mabella was still not mollified. Roger, his eldest nephew and heir, drowned in 1845; worse, he was then impersonated by an Australian who claimed the estate and was only unmasked after a costly court case.

Bread rationing during the Second World War caused the dole to lapse again - despite an outcry and gifts of over 500,000 bread coupons - and the Tichborne family, who still live in the house, suspect they are still suffering the curse's effects.

Anne Loudon, nee Tichborne, was forced for financial reasons to let the house to a tenant this year after her husband left her - and the death of her father, Sir Anthony, without a male heir has resulted in the extinction of the baronetcy.

Undeterred, however, Mrs Loudon continues to live in the north wing of the rebuilt Georgian house and, with the help of her stockbroker son, Anthony, and her sister, Denise, yesterday doled out flour to parishioners from its steps; a messy business for all concerned.

But there have been certain changes. The flour is now acquired from a local mill on a sale-or-return basis and, because so many claimants drive up to collect it in Jaguars and BMWs, a collection is also made for Cancer Relief.

'I'm determined to hang on to the house because it has been in the family for so long. What Anthony does with it is his own business,' Mrs Loudon said cheerfully yesterday. 'But I've told him to marry a rich American or make a lot of money.'

(Photograph omitted)