Friday, 17 February 2012

Pilgrimage To "Reuben's Corner"



If you were paying attention yesterday then you might just have noticed a remark about Walton's Park in Ashdon being familiar to me though I had never been there. Its familiarity is solely through reading a book a long time ago.

It's one of those tatty little paperbacks that has hung around for a long time, has been picked up on countless occasions and is now looking rather the worse for wear. It's a simple story of Spike Mays' childhood in the early part of the twentieth century. The reviewer from The Sunday Times, no less, thought it a better book than 'Cider with Rosie', so it's a mystery why it has so long been out of print; though second-hand copies are available at very reasonable prices. And Mr Mays just happened to grow up in Ashdon, in Steventon End, Ashdon to be precise. I've long wanted to pay a visit to see if anything remained of Reuben's Corner.

Walton's Park was where Spike Mays worked as a houseboy on leaving school. By poking a camera over the top of the wall I was able to get a view of the house.

Walton's

I walked on past Place Farm, where he worked later. In the prologue he remembers the farmhands walking to work in the early morning - Toe-Rag Smith, Walt Stalley, Poddy Coote, Wuddy Smith - their cheerful voices and the plod of their hobnailed boots on the gravel road. No sound of boots now; everyone had driven off in their cars to work in town. Instead a woman jogged by in pink running shoes!

Place Farm

But, thanks to the book I suppose, Wuddy is not forgotten - Wuddy's cottage on the corner now bears his name....



....and Walt Stalley's remembered too....


....though of The Bonnet pub, which the author recalls fondly, the only evidence is now the sign on the wall of what is now a private house.


I wonder how often the inhabitants of these idyllic country retreats think about the real lives lived by the former occupants. For the book documents a lot of suffering too - the malnutrition, the poverty, the dreadful price paid by many in the First World War.


The windmill which is mentioned in the book is still to be seen looking down over the village. The postmill has now been fully restored to something like its former glory.


Wandering on, lost in my thoughts - and lost geographically too, as it happens - I strayed down beside the little River Bourn. What a wonderful place to spend ones boyhood even now. Especially now, in fact, when good food, good housing and a good education can be taken for granted by so many. I promised myself that I would return in spring or summer.


I eventually arrived at where I'd hoped to be, the village church. I didn't find any gravestones inscribed with the name of Mays, but several other surnames mentioned in the book were there. There was just one more place I'd hoped might still exist and my way out of the village would lead me to the site. And there it was....


....Ashdon Halt, where the railway once passed near to the village. The cinder trackbed was still there with the platform alongside, as well as the old railway carriage (the remains of it, at least)that once served as a waiting room....


.....inside someone had made a sign: "ESTIMATED TIME OF ARRIVAL 1886"

Take care.

23 comments:

  1. I love this post - Place Farm and the cottages are wonderful. I haven't read Reuben's Corner but shall acquire a copy without delay. It's my kind of book.

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  2. wonderful! How great to go and visit and place you once read about and seek out history - I've never heard of the book but it sounds very interesting so I will look out for it!

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  3. I'm afraid I haven't read the book, but judging from the excellent photos here, the place at least must be a wonder to visit.

    PS Thank you for the nice comment!

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  4. What a great day out John...and to find these places written about in "Rueben's Corner" would have been extra special. Yes! you must return to the River Bourne in Spring ... it would be a delight.

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  5. Wonderful post, John. And when you return in spring or summer, please take me along with you, in spirit at least. Jim

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  6. And thanks for getting rid of that dreadful verification hurdle!

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  7. What a wonderful tour you have taken us on

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  8. Sounds like my sort of book ...I think it was a wonderful journey you took ..I enjoyed tagging along.

    I have just had my usual catch up ...cant believe how many posts with so many wonderful photos in just over a week ...the music one brought back memories ..the records with no middles usually meant they were ex-duke box ones ...and they were cheaper ...it was cheap also to buy the middles ...think it was called a spider. I remember Eddie Cochrans death the year later, when I was twelve. I didn't get my record player until I past my 11+ and was not into Buddy but my first records were 78's but soon we had 45's. ...ah memories.xx

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  9. Thanks for the opportunity to tag along, John. A good ramble, great pictures, and a nice narrative. By the way, I think it's "quaint" how you folks in Britain call so many watercourses "rivers;" the River Bourn would hardly qualify as even a brook or creek here in the United States. Maybe you're in the headwaters here and the river becomes more expansive further downstream. No offense intended.

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  10. Nice showing of winter aconite amongst the trees. Walt's Cottage seems to be suffering from the inevitable sagging and bulging here and there that we experience as we get older. As our countries have become more prosperous and more social safety nets have been put in place, our perception of what poverty is has changed. Today people blame obesity on poverty; when I was young the poor in our village were thin because they didn't have enough money to overeat on any kind of food. So much has changed in the last hundred years and for most people it wasn't "the good old days" back then.

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  11. My favorite is the village church, with the gravestones in the foreground... moody and an isolated feeling. Will you consider entering it in my 'Weekly Top Shot' meme? We're on Week #18 and I'd love to see you share with me and my readers! Here's this weeks' link: http://www.theviewfromrighthere.com/blog/?p=6331

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  12. Your posts reflect your love of rambling along on long walks. This one was particularly interesting. I have never heard of the book and never would if I had not stumbled across your post. I enjoy following your strolls.

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  13. A wonderful post, - thank you for taking us along, John. You have cheered up my February blues quite miraculously, - at least momentarily.

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  14. Thanks for all the coents and I hope you will be successful looking for second hand copies of the book. Amazon and Abe books both had copies of the paperback at very reasonable prices.
    Scott, thanks for your comment, it may well have sparked a post on placenames at some stage in the future. Historically I don't think many local people would have refered to the watercourse as the River Bourn but rather as the bourn (southern variant of the Scottish "burn", basically a small stream). "River" Bourne may well have been added by mapmakers at a later date. The names of many British rivers and streams mean "river" or "stream"! Avon, Exe, Ouse, Usk, Esk, Bourn and so on.

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  15. What a delightful series of images, John. I was born in Essex but migrated with my family to Australia at the age of 3, so clearly have no recollection of the area. Thanks for sharing those scenes. Happy week!

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  16. Used to live in Ashdon as a small child (my father built four bungalows there, and we lived in one), and have followed the hunt across the land belonging to Waltons Park. Wonderful memories! Thanks for reviving them! Penelope

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  17. If you weren't aware, Mays's book has recently been republished (by Abacus) with a 'Misery Lit'-style cover and cringeworthy renaming: "The Only Way /Was/ Essex". Available now from all good booksellers, tax-dodging online retailers and doubtless an aisle in Tesco, alongside all those other identically-marketed "We was poor but happy" memoirs.

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    1. Well, Blast me! Oo'd a thought it! Oi thought yew was a-pullin me leg but thas true, roight enuff!

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  18. My mother Marion Weir 'found' Spike for Eyre Methuen when general book editor there and editing Colonel AD Wintle's diaries. (Spike was his batman in the Royal Dragoons). All Spike's books are still a brilliant read and it is marvelous that he is still in print.

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  19. I came to this site by reading the book (the reprinted The Only Way Was Essex version) and being sufficiently struck by it to Google Spike Mays. I'd highly recommend the book as what appears to be a very genuine reflection of how life would have been for many living in rural areas in the early 1900s. Only a couple of generations away. For those interested there's quite a bit of detail about the local flora and fauna, agricultural methods, the personalities in the local community written in an informative but entertaining style. I live around 10 or so miles from Reuben's Corner in a similarly rural area, albeit only 50 miles from London, so it gives a fascinating insight in to the life that the previous residents of this area would have lived. Spike Mays only died in 2003 and what this book demonstrates as much as anything is the extraordinary changes in the way we live, that have taken place in less than 100 years.

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  20. I also bought a copy of The only way WAS Essex only to find it was a reprint of Reuben's Way itself (presumably) a reprint of Reuben's Corner. I also googled Mays to find your excellent account of your "pilgrimage". I will be following in your footsteps . . . Richard Church in the Foreword mentions S L Bensusan who wrote about estuary life in Essex. Do you have any information about him? Finally may I recommend Out of Essex by James Canton, particularly the chapters on Shakespeare and J A Baker.

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  21. Spike also co-wrote a book with his best friend Chris Ketteridge 'Five miles from Bunkum: a village and its crafts' also published by Eyre Methuen, published 1 January 1972.

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  22. I have just discovered this - albeit a bit late in the day - and was delighted to see Toe-Rag Smith get a mention. He was my great Grandfather!

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Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).