Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Big Talk at Wreyland

I mentioned Cecil Torr (1857-1928) a while back - see Small talk - and he's definitely one of my role models, a wide-ranging polymath whose copious thoughts ran from personal biographical trivia, through Devon life and folklore focused on Wreyland (a hamlet near Lustleigh), to wider historical research on antiquities of Rhodes, ancient naval architecture and Hannibal's route over the Alps. If weblogs had existed then, he surely would have maintained one.

I've just been reading Big Talk at Wreyland, the further compilation of Torr's inimitable notes put together in his final years after the First World War. Torr definitely hasn't lost his touch: as the Times obit said on Dec 20, 1928, the subjects are "so diverse and so many that few readers (and no reviewer) could resist the fun of seeing how incongruous a list could be made out of them".

My eye was first caught by Torr's interesting background on the Dutch-influenced architecture of Topsham, arising from its origin as a settlement transplanted brick-by-brick, as ship's ballast, by refugees from the mediaeval Friesian town of Torptsen (a.k.a. Dorpsenn, Torpen, Torperen, Torpsum, Turphum, Turschum) as the latter was flooded by the Dollart during the now little-known civil war between the Vetkopers and Schieringers.

Nor did I know the full story of the subtropical microclimate of mid-Devon, both in its ability to support fauna ...

After motoring over to Moreton from Okehampton, a distance
of twelve miles, a man told me that he had met no horses all
the way[;] a camel and an elephant were the only beasts he met.
- Small Talk at Wreyland

... (obviously not native, but nevertheless thriving in breeding numbers following escape from private zoological collections) and on flora. Big Talk expands on how this climate gave rise to a flourishing hemp industry that provided maritime rope and clettering twigs, but with such inevitable and widespread misuse that, as Torr reports:

Parson Davy in his System of Divinity, vol. xix, page 235, which he printed at Lustleigh in 1803, spoke with indignation of "the immeasurable use of that too fashionable and pernicious plant, which weakens the stomach, unbraces the nerves, and drains the very vitals of our national wealth ; to which nevertheless our children are as early and as carefully enured, from the very breast, as if the daily use of it were an indispensable duty which they owed to God and their country."
- Small Talk at Wreyland 1

There is a strong tinge of regret to Big Talk, as Torr saw the end of an era. By the time he reached middle age, Devon hemp farming had all but ceased. Already burdened by various taxes and duties after lobbying by the cider producers, it had never recovered since the entire rootstock was devastated by caryatid (Canephora) infestation in the unusually wet summer of 1879 2. This lovers' charm had become a curiosity of folklore journals:

Hempseed I sow, hempseed I mow,
She (or he) that will my true love be,
Come rake this hempseed after me.
- cited in Devon and Cornwall Notes & Queries. Published by S.N.., 1911

Rural festivals such as the raucous Bodmas 3 were no longer celebrated, and Devon was becoming increasingly mechanised. In 1918 he had written:

This valley has seen another innovation since I last wrote things down. An aeroplane passed over here, 9 September 1918. It was only a friendly aeroplane, just out for exercise; but nothing of the kind had ever been seen from here before, not even a balloon.

The first time that a motor-car was seen here (which was not so very long ago) it stopped just opposite the cottage of an invalid old man. He heard somethin' there a-buzzin' like a swarm o' bees, and he went out to look, although he had not been outside his door since Martinmas. It was a big car, and he said that it was like a railway-carriage on wheels.

He was also fascinated by Wreyland's use as a location for the Devon-set "Westerns" briefly in vogue

And now, recently, a cow-boy on a buck-jumper came galloping down the lane here, firing off his pistols in the air. It was for a film; and the rider (as I learned afterwards) was The Thrill-a-Minute Stunt King himself. 4
- Small Talk at Wreyland

In Big Talk he writes of how, less than a decade later, even after the film studios had closed down, Wreyland had so many motor vehicles that it suffered from, as he put it, "a complete reticular blockage" and furthermore several of his neighbours owned aircraft, including Charles and Flora Fairford. He rented them land for their airstrip at a generously low rate, suffering from obscure guilt after they related to him the story of the latter's great aunt, as a girl in Sussex, suffering a terrifying hallucination after accidentally sampling a sponge cake containing Devonian hemp. The wealth of such digressions and connections make Big Talk a fascinating account.

As I mentioned before, the three volumes of Small Talk are available on the Internet Archive: Volume 1 / Volume 2 / Volume 3. They are greatly worth exploring as a taster.

1. Davy's work was a fairly obsessive exercise in self-publishing (see Literary Labour And Perseverance in The European Magazine, and London Review, 1815, for the story). Nevertheless it must have taken root somewhere, as the diatribe also appears in the 1815 Family lectures: or, A copious collection of sermons, on faith and practice here, lifted wholesale for a sermon by Patrick Delany DD.
2. "The buds, instead of ripening, turned into a glagolitic mass", Torr writes. The weather was the cause of widespread agricultural collapse, as noted in Gladstone's diary, with rainfall for the season not topped until 2007.
3. A fertility rite thinly-disguised under Christian trappings and a retrofitted association with the highly obscure St Bode. Typically eccentrically, Torr rejects the standard etymology for "Bodmas" (from "bode" - to preach the gospel, derived from OE. bodian, f. boda messenger) but traces the name, via Phoenician and the Sgroliau'r Mor Marw found at Cwmbran, to Tibetan roots, mentioning in a letter to Notes and Queries that "Bod-ma" means "female Tibetan" (see The Classical Tibetan Language, by Stephan V. Beyer). Incidentally, Jean Veber's painting Women Wrestling in Devonshire, c. 1898, depicts typical Bodmas activities.
4. The stuntman Charles "Hutch" Hutchinson, then filming Dimpsey on Dartmoor. A romance in which a farmer's son is pitted against the leader of the corrupt ranching clan who killed his father, based on RD Blackmore's Lorna Doone, it was remade in 1950 as Twilight in the Sierras.

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Grrr!

    I've spent fifteen minutes Googling "Jean Veber's painting Women Wrestling in Devonshire" which I urgently want to see. All I find is links to your own page on Topsham.

    ... on which page I find the quote (unrelated to wrestling women as far as I can tell), "so-called "growling beans" - emit a gently growling sound."

    Ahhhhh! All this time, I was thinking that he growled because he was grumpy.

    Beans, beans, good for your heart
    the more you eat,
    the more you ... growl.