Wednesday, 28 October 2015

"Reuben's Corner" Once Again.

About three-and-a-half years ago I went on a walk which took me through the village of Ashdon in North-West Essex and it sparked memories of a book I'd read a long time ago. I wrote about it on this blog and it received lots of nice comments from regular readers. But over the years there's also been an occasional comment from strangers to the blog, but not strangers to Ashdon or to the book. So here's the original post once again with welcome interjections from those unexpected visitors.......

"Reuben's Corner" is 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.

I don't usually take much notice of Anonymous but I was glad to receive this information: 

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. 
(non-British readers may need to know that The Only Way IS Essex is the name of a TV programme in the UK - no, you don't want to see it!)

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.


This moved Penelope to share this snippet:

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! 

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!

More recently, 14 July 2015, Jan Pearson added a comment:

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!

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.

Kathy Bowry commented on 16 December 2013 

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

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 still haven't done that).

Kathy Bowry was back again on 2 April 2015 to give a further recommendation:

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.

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"

Chris Cornwell added on 19 January 2014

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..... Finally may I recommend Out of Essex by James Canton, particularly the chapters on Shakespeare and J A Baker.

Thanks again to everyone who has visited and commented.

Take care.


  1. Interesting to re-read this with the extra comments. It still looks like a place I'd love to visit and I now realise that in the mid 1970s I only lived 4 miles away in Saffron Walden! My time was occupied with two small boys then though so exploring local villages wasn't high on my list of priorities:)

  2. John, as usual your post is a mine of information with photographs to back it up. Looks such a fascinating place. (and book)

  3. The English countryside is really an incredibly attractive. Your photos are lovely.

  4. Great photos of the countryside and interesting buildings.

  5. Now I want to try to find the book. Your post has sparked my curiosity.

  6. I bet those books are good books, specially for people from that area. I had seen Cider with Rosie, but had not heard of the other one. Checked my library for both and it has neither one. They are the type of books I like to read.

    Oh, how I love that Place Farm...and would love to see a thatched roof for myself.

  7. I love to visit a place connected with a book and look for familiar things. Even just look out at the landscape that the characters saw. It was really fun to read the comments interspersed.

  8. Ashdon Halt is my favorite -- barbara

  9. John, you have such intelligent commenters! From now on I am going to be afraid to add any of my own drivel to your comments.

  10. My first time reading this post. I found it very interesting and I too would like to read the book. It must have been fun to visit the places mentioned in the book. We like doing that with TV series and visit the villages where they were filmed.

  11. I have just finished reading this lovely book and discovered your web-site via Google. What a wonderful article and such lovely photos!

  12. Out of curiosity I was looking up house prices in Ashdon, my home village,Spike Mays was my uncle, and Poppy in the book was my Mother,the delight of hearing of the people I new well, Wuddy,Poddy Coote,and not forgetting Walt Stally,such memories,the book is available on Amazon.


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!).