A couple of stories from my travels yesterday.
Jack O' Legs
I know, I've got a bit of an obsession with village signs! The one in the village of Weston depicts a very large man shooting an arrow in the direction of the village church - but why? There, as they say, hangs a tale. And just under the sign is where the tale hangs. In an act of generosity and a certain amount of laziness, I've photographed it for you so you can read it in the original - and I won't have to type it out!
Well, we'd better make our way to the church and see if it's true.
And there it is, just inside the gate, the grave of Jack O' Legs, the Weston giant. The two stones mark his head and feet. He was certainly a big lad. Those stones are 14 feet apart according to my stride!
Obviously the story has become exaggerated over the years, but can there be even a grain of truth in there somewhere? Giants occur often in the folktales of these islands; there are both good giants and bad ones. In the case of evil giants, if you substitute "powerful landowner who bullied all the peasants in the area" for "giant", then the stories usually make sense. For good giants, like our Jack, the explanation is usually a man who was brave enough, or foolhardy enough, to stand up to the bullies.
The road between Baldock and Graveley is to this day known as Jack's Hill and there's a field nearby still known as The Cave. It seems likely that Jack was a highwayman who operated along this stretch of road. And anyone who robbed the rich would soon become a hero to the poor whether there was any re-distribution of wealth or not.
Jane Wenham, on the other hand was very real. She lived, for most of her life, in the village of Walkern. She was poor but generally regarded as a wise woman. She was also feisty and argumentative. And that was enough to get her a unique, but unenviable, place in history.
Here is her story:
Jane was born in about 1642. In 1696 her first husband, Philip Cooke, died suddenly in suspicious circumstances. Within two months she had married Edward Wenham. After a couple of years Edward deserted her and shortly after that he too died suddenly. Rumours began to circulate about Jane.
In 1712 she asked a farmhand, Matthew Gilson, for a handful of straw. This was probably for her to make into straw plaits; these were made by many poor people in the area who then sold them on to the hat-makers in Luton. Gilson refused and Jane walked away muttering to herself. According to Gilson he then felt strangely compelled to run to Ardeley to gather straw from a dungheap. The farmer, John Chapman, denounced Jane publicly as "a witch and a bitch" for casting a spell on his farmhand. And that might have been that.
But Jane went to the local magistrate to bring a charge of defamation. The local vicar intervened and suggested that the farmer pay her one shilling and advised her to be less quarrelsome in the future. Jane was not content with this and said she would have justice "some other way".
Then the vicar's servant girl chose that moment to twist her knee. She was sent to the local bone-setter to get it fixed but she was found later with a bunch of sticks wrapped up in her gown and a tale about having been met by an old lady who cast a spell which sent her running about the countryside, in spite of her bad knee. The vicar told her to throw the sticks on the fire and then, according to the superstitions of the time, the witch would appear.
In walked poor old Jane.
In order to establish whether she was a witch or not she was made to recite the Lord's Prayer. Out of nervousness she stumbled over the words. At this point some kind of mass hysteria seems to have overcome the local population and all kinds of odd behaviours were noted - there were unexplained deaths, a sudden increase in the number of village cats and previously respectable people acting strangely and standing on their heads - all of which were blamed on the old woman.
The judge at her subsequent trial, Mr Justice Powell, was said to be a jolly old fellow who clearly didn't believe in witches. When told that Jane had been seen flying he remarked that there was no law against it. However the jury found her guilty and the judge had no alternative but to condemn her to death.
But, despite the widely held belief that she was the last person to be put to death for witchcraft, that was not to be her fate. The judge quickly got a royal pardon for her from Queen Anne and as a result she was able to live out the rest of her natural life - though she wisely chose not to do so in Walkern.
The cottage above is often known, erroneously, as The Witch's Cottage. She certainly lived in this road but not apparently in this house. As you can see below the name of the cottage may well have added to the confusion but Wych Elm, a tree, has nothing to do with witches.
Apart from the nameplate you can also see some nice pargetting, or decorative plasterwork on the photo above. But that's enough of giants and witches; it's time to hit the highway (or rather by-way) once again.