Country Matters: Everyday stories of cider country folk

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The Independent Online
PEOPLE down our way know that, in the old days, country cider was 'sharp enough to cut the throat of a graveyard ghost', and that the best brews were those made by farmers who slipped pieces of beef into the barrel as the apple juice fermented. But how many know of the occasion on which a score of rats fell into a hogshead and drowned?

That cider, by common consent, was the finest of the season - and when the barrel was finished, not a trace of a rat remained. 'It had yut 'em, see?' explained the farmer. 'You'd drunk 'em,' said his companion. 'It had yut 'em,' the farmer agreed, 'and we had drunk 'em. Comes to the same thing.'

Such is the flavour of Roy Palmer's excellent The Folklore of Gloucestershire. Far more than a mere collection of curious facts and anecdotes, it presents a splendidly clear picture of country life in days gone by.

Cider features strongly - as in the story of the carter at Chipping Campden, who, having drunk 17 pints in three hours, remarked, 'This be doin' I no good. I'll try a pint of beer.'

What emerges most clearly is the harshness of rural life and the robustness with which country folk accepted their lot. It was not just that women had to labour in the fields, picking stones, hoeing turnips and, at haymaking, dragging wide wooden rakes with iron tines to collect any stalks that the men had missed. At home, without electricity or running water, their existence was one of endless drudgery.

Any woman who did not measure up to her husband's standards was liable to be summarily disposed of - as in 1838 when Thomas Barnett sold his wife in Gloucester cattle market. A vivid contemporary account describes the woman being led in, with a halter round her neck. ' 'Who be her?' the pig-dealer asked. 'Her be my wife,' the would-be vendor answered.' They had agreed to part, he said, because he could not stand the 'cussed rattle' of her tongue - and very soon she was sold to the highest bidder for 18 pence.

Life was short, premature death frequent. From country churchyards come many memorable epitaphs; and none more to the point than one alleged to have existed, but not actually seen by the author, in the village of Dymock:

Two sweeter babes youm nare did see

Than God amity gave to we,

But they were ortaken bee ague fits

And yur they lys as dead as nits

Lacking knowledge of science or medicine, country people were at the mercy of superstition, and in particular took care to protect themselves from the devil. Churches were defended from evil influences by glittering weathercocks above and yew trees below. Coffin-bearers carried their burdens over streams, because they believed that Old Nick could not cross running water. Some folk believed that pigs could see the wind, and that humans could acquire the same ability by running backwards round a church seven times. Hazel sticks were valued because they kept witches at bay.

Some stories seem to carry echoes of witchcraft into everyday affairs - as in that of the farmer who became infuriated by crows eating his pears, and coated the branches of the trees with birdlime. Finding themselves stuck fast, and seeing the farmer on his way back with a gun, the crows 'made sich a tremenjous desperate flapping that up come all five pear trees by the roots, and whiffley, whiffley, whiffley, off they flies, pear trees and all, over along the river towards Tewkesbury'.

The high spots of summer were the wakes, revels and fairs held in villages. Whatever the official programme at such an event, the point (for the young men) was that it offered a once-a- year chance to settle scores with neighbours, and after lowering gallons of ale or cider, the First XI would come out fighting.

Those were the days. Or were they? It is impossible to know how happy or wretched our forebears were. But I suspect that in spite of all their hardships most of them were more content than people today, for their expectations were not being continually raised by the inane babble of mass communications.

The Folklore of Gloucestershire by Roy Palmer is published by Westcountry Books, Halsgrove House, Lower Moor Way, Tiverton, Devon EX16 6SS, priced pounds 19.95.