Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

Perhaps because of our proximity to the Welsh border, this is a truly historic part of the country. Strictly speaking, every part of England is as old as every other part, but there are some places in which you feel the weight of history. That is true in spades for Herefordshire and Shropshire; indeed you have only to read the property section of the Hereford Times to realise it.

Take this marvellous item last week about a 16th-century house called Vauld Farm, on the market at £625,000. "Dating back to 1510 although parts could be earlier, the property was owned by King Henry VIII, who gave it, and the parish of Marden, to his Queen, Catherine of Aragon. More recently, Roy Harper extensively renovated the property."

I love that seamless combination of the portentous and the prosaic: Catherine of Aragon - later to lose favour with Henry, who, desperate for a male heir, forced a schism with the Roman Catholic church when Pope Clement V declined to sanction a divorce, which in turn led to the king's excommunication and the dissolution of the monasteries - did her bit with the house and then, give or take a few centuries, it was over to Roy Harper.

All of which brings me to St Peter's church in Stanton Lacy near Ludlow, another building with a fascinating past. In 1968, a man popped in to take some photographs for a historian friend but was so overcome by an "eerie feeling of terror" that he scarpered. He then went back with his wife, but again got a bad case of the willies, so contacted the vicar, the Reverend Prebendary LJ Blashford Snell, who accompanied the man into the church and witnessed his hair standing on end.

This story, which made the national press in 1968, is told in the preface to a fascinating new book called The Temptation and Downfall of the Vicar of Stanton Lacy (Merlin Unwin Books, £12), by Peter Klein. It was not Prebendary Blashford Snell who suffered temptation and downfall, but the vicar from 1660 to 1678, the popular Rev Robert Foulkes, who had an extramarital affair with a parishioner, Ann Atkinson, and in January 1679 was hanged at Tyburn having been found guilty of the murder of their illegitimate child.

Klein has uncovered a cracking story and tells it brilliantly. It has all the elements of a really good News of the World splash - an adulterous 42-year-old vicar, his long-suffering wife, a 26-year-old mistress, an unscrupulous publican, prurient villagers, a murder, even a Peeping Tom - with the added bonus, not available even to the News of the Screws, of redemption on the scaffold. "You may see in me what sin is, and what it will end in," Foulkes told the assembled crowd.

He was certainly pretty sinful, reportedly carrying on not only with Ann but also behaving "very ymodestlky, rudely and undecently" with "severall loose, idle, and incontinent persons of the female sex, att unseasonable and unfitt houres".

Whether there were perfectly seasonable and fitt houres in which to behave ymodestly, rudely and undecently, the book does not record. Whatever, the vicar's fate was sealed by the testimony of one Somerset Brabant, who swore that at the Talbot Inn in Worcester - which is still there, incidentally - he had peeped through a hole and watched Foulkes and his lover "stirring and labouring as in the very Act of uncleanness" and later "kissing and clipping with much vigour and earnestness".

There had already been an unsuccessful attempt to prosecute Foulkes, but Brabant was the witness that the prosecuting lawyer, Richard Cornwall, had been praying for. Nor was Ann's increasingly obvious pregnancy good news for the vicar, so, in desperation, he seemingly killed the baby soon after she had given birth. Both he and Ann were then brought to trial, but she did a nifty bit of plea-bargaining and got off, while he was hanged.

As I say, it is a heck of a story, and whether you live in these remote parts or not, I recommend the book wholeheartedly. There's no mention of Roy Harper as far as I can see, but you can't have everything.

'Tales of the Country', by Brian Viner, is on sale now (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

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