I first encountered the name of Mucky Porter on one of Norfolk Green's buses; they often commemorate famous local characters on their vehicles. Recently I saw the Ouse Washes Molly Dancers doing a dance with the same name. A little bit of research uncovered the tale which I re-tell below....
When the day drew to a close and the men gathered in the pubs, the spirit of story telling would descend as suddenly as November darkness on the misty fens. The labours of the day, the trudging behind the plough, the pursuit of wildfowl on the undrained marshes, the gathering of reeds for thatching, would be forgotten in the glow of the fireside. Words would stitch together the tattered remnants of history and make a handsome tale. Listen.
In the village of Southery there was just such a pub, but, on the long-ago night of which we speak, strangely empty and quiet. No one knows which pub it was. No, that's not true. Everyone can tell you which pub it was; they just don't agree on the matter, that's all. So in this pub, which might have been this one or might have been that, the innkeeper was totting up his takings at the end of the day. If the sparse coins glinting in the candlelight foretold his fortune then the future looked bleak indeed. But just then his melancholy thoughts were cut across by a sharp rat-tat on the door.
He opened the latch to find two fine gentlemen, such as you seldom see in a village like Southery, standing at the door. "Excuse our intrusion upon your domain, good sir. Would you be the man they call Mucky Porter?"
"I might be" said the fenman "Depends who's asking."
"Tell me, what do you think of Cromwell?"
"Not much. Truth to tell he'll be the ruin of me. All my customers are off fighting with him instead of spending their money with me."
"And what about the King?"
"Not much either."
"We are persuaded that you're the finest man in the area at finding the way across these treacherous and uncertain swamps. Would you be prepared to guide the King and his companion to Huntingdon."
"Depends how you ask" said the shrewd innkeeper.
The gentleman took out a bag of gold coins and laid it before him. "S'pose I might be able to help then. Tell the King to be here at first light."
"The King is already here" said the gentleman smiling.
"In that case we'll start right away. Now first you got to leave that gold here; I don't fear the marshes but if things go badly in Huntingdon I might not be returning, then who will provide for my family?"
"But how do I know I can trust you?" said the King. The innkeeper reached into his pocket and took out a feather and a knife. He then split the feather with the knife and handed half to the King. "This is a feather from the grey geese who winter out on the fen. All true sons of the fen will help any other fenman who carries one. It's a matter of honour. Now outside to the barn with you, we'll need some old sacks to cover them fine clothes if we're to get anywhere without being noticed. Your two fine horses will have to stay here too and you can ride on my old mare. If we're challenged say nothing. And always, always look down at the ground as if you're an old fen-slodger like me."
So they set off in the darkness, winding this way and that through the marshy ground, avoiding the villages and going where few would dare to venture. When they got near to Huntingdon they learned that Cromwell's men were surrounding the town. Of course they were intercepted. Mucky Porter reached into his pocket and took out the split feather. "A poor traveller struck down with the ague," he said pointing to the sack-draped figure, "we need to get help." Cromwell's orders had been to let no one through but seeing the feather they waved him past.
The King was quickly reunited with his dukes and Mucky Porter slipped out of the town unseen as only a fenlander might. The King's fared less well however and he was taken prisoner and sentenced to death. The night before his execution he asked for and was granted a meeting with Cromwell. "I know that you must do what you must do" said the King "I only crave that you grant me what is my right" And the King produced the split goose feather.
Cromwell, as a fenman himself, knew the meaning of this and that he should help the King. He pondered on the problem all night but in the morning, having not reached a decision, the execution went ahead. When Cromwell's men heard the story they threw their goose feathers at Cromwell's feet and went back to the fen.
And that might have been the end of our story. But some years later, when Mucky Porter was having an afternoon nap, there came another knock at the door and an even more elegantly dressed gentleman stood at the door. "I've often heard the tale of how you helped my father find his way across the fen and I should like to reward you properly" said the gentleman "Come with me"
The innkeeper knew who the gentleman must be and went to get his horse. The young King stared in astonishment at the fine horse on which Mucky Porter was mounted. It was, of course, the offspring of those two horses left in the stable long ago.
They rode out to the newly-drained land. "Now how much of this land would you like?" asked the young King.
"I reckon I'll have from this track here to them trees in the distance. How much land is that?"
"I believe you have several acres there. Take it. It's yours."
And to this day that bit of land is known as the Methwold Severals and is still farmed by a family by the name of Porter.