My father must have bought this little book at a used bookstore because, although it lists no copyright date, it was probably published in the early 1900’s. It goes back to a time when there were no hikers or even walkers, but ramblers and wayfarers. The author belonged to a Rambling Club and wrote this guide to the sights of the English countryside for city and town dwellers who ventured into unfamiliar territory. It is illustrated with lovely line drawings by the author and, betraying its vintage, proudly boasts of including four color plates. Here you can find familiar symbols of the rural past like watermills and stiles, village sights like stocks and ducking stools, and architectural features like lychgates and thatched roofs. But there are also unfamiliar oddities and curiosities like cruck-houses, frith stools, and love spoons. One chapter covers country workers like the stilt man who tended tall hop plants on stilts eighteen feet high. The difficult skill was handed down from father to son for generations. I wonder how many restless sons ran away to join the circus?
Many of the sights the author finds on his rambles lead to fascinating stories, part history and part legend, like this Biddenden village sign commemorating the Chulkhurst sisters, twins who were supposedly joined at the hips and shoulders. Mary and Eliza were born around 1100 and died at the age of thirty-four just six hours apart. They left a plot of land to the parish to finance a dole for the poor. Every Easter Monday the Biddenden Maids Charity handed out bread, cheese, Biddenden cakes, and beer. The event became a tourist attraction and by the eighteenth century was so rowdy that the Archbishop of Canterbury forbade the distribution of beer. Historians disagree about all this of course, some dating the sisters to the sixteenth century; some claiming the whole thing is a legend. But all agree that the Biddenden cakes are inedible. Made of flour and water and stamped with the image of the sisters, they are still baked in the village for souvenirs. They give us some idea of what was considered suitable food for the poor in centuries past.
The Wayfarer’s Book is perfect for dipping into for a few pages any time you feel the need for an escape from the busy round. I was surprised to find that it is available in a 2011 edition by Laing Press, specialist in republishing classic travel books.
(Note on the hazards of Spell Check: as I typed this the word cruck-houses kept changing into crack-houses).