Social history is so out of date


In the previous Weasel, I wrote about a walk around Corfe Castle, a place one might consider timeless. The piece below, written in 2011, illustrates how quickly things change. Apart from the sheep and the Purbeck stone houses, little remains the same. Not a single shop exists today in the same format. In less than ten years, most have been replaced by estate agents offering an opportunity to purchase a piece of something that no longer exists. How difficult it is to get a grasp on history


In East Street, greenery clambers up the Purbeck stone facades of cottages that wait for the appearance of roses and camera-laden tourists. Raised flower beds edge the worn slabs of the pavement and just as I’m inspecting the faded daffodils and a few early bluebells, Joan appears with the Malacca cane which once belonged to her mother; a gift from a long-passed brother who brought it back to Corfe from his travels to Sumatra. Joan will be ninety years old in August and, having lived in Corfe since she was eight, this seems an early and serendipitous opportunity to discover first-hand the ways in which the village has changed.

However, as is often the way with those who are seldom asked to recount their stories, I learn more of what is interesting to the narrator than to the quest of the interviewer. I hear of Joan’s scholarship to the grammar school at Swanage necessitating a daily journey by steam train and bus and of her subsequent employment in the cordite factory on Holton Heath. Her first week’s wages were spent on a Hercules bicycle which had no gears but which was an essential purchase in order to travel to and from her job. Thus is Joan’s account underpinned by the methods employed to both escape from and come home to the isolation of Corfe; a neat update to Hardy’s notion of the departure-arrival-return narrative. With regard to the village, little, she claims, has changed although many cottages are now holiday homes and therefore empty in winter.

Long before Nash was here, Treves had described the village of Corfe as a symphony in grey: ‘the houses, all old, are for the most part low; the roofs of crumpled slabs’. In this respect it’s true that nothing much has altered; any obvious changes concern the current usage of many of these buildings. For example, the butcher’s shop, which sold delicious game pies, has disappeared and with it, my lunch. It’s been replaced by an establishment called Delight which seems unable to decide what to sell apart from things that no-one needs and probably no-one wants as it’s closed. Peering into another bowed window, I see that the Purbeck Practice – Health and Beauty is also shut, reflecting a possible lack in demand for facials, waxing, eye-lash tints and pedicures on the part of the villagers. The sloped roof of number fourteen hangs precariously over Cherry Heaven, a shop displaying expensive clothes for babies in one window and a random selection of kitchen implements in the other. Such is the indecision which prevails in a place apparently devoid of position on a temporal line. Even The Fox, the oldest pub in Corfe, circa fifteenth century, has lost its sign. Perhaps it’s gone to be re-painted in readiness for the forthcoming season. Members of the Ancient Order of Marblers, whose antecedents worked in the quarries of Purbeck, still meet here every Shrove Tuesday to run through the village, mug in hand, without spilling their beer in order to celebrate a tradition whose meaning has become lost in time.

Across the way, the parish council notice board announces that the first meeting to prepare for the Queen’s diamond jubilee will take place in June. Underneath, Rachel is offering pottery classes for all abilities. Elsewhere, I discover that the allotment association is close to signing a new lease on additional plots and building of the new surgery is about to commence. Of course, what currently predominates in Corfe, along with most of the country, are the events to be held to mark the royal wedding. The Greyhound, entry to which is still through the porch that Treves noted supported a small room like a miniature house, will be hosting a royal brunch with celebrations available for viewing on two screens, to be followed by a Tom Jones tribute in the evening. If this is not to your fancy, the British Legion is holding a William and Catherine look-alike competition followed by prize bingo. The owner of The Ginger Pop Shop, who leans heavily and profitably on Enid Blyton’s links with the village, has temporarily dismissed the Secret Seven from her window and replaced them with a wedding display. The William model sports a curious beard and wears gold sequins on his RAF uniform as he observes a raggedy coach and horses alongside some other indeterminable regalia.

I am surrounded by the sounds of the still invisible birds as I commence the steep climb to the castle but, as I reach the Butavant Tower half way up, the pleasant background song has been replaced by the rasping of ravens. These birds first became resident in medieval times and appear on the castle’s seal. However, in 1638 they left abruptly only to return eight years ago, since when they have established a permanent nest in the castle’s keep. A sign informs me that a trap door once existed at the foot of the tower through which prisoners were thrown into the dungeon where ‘their screams turned to hoarse croaks’. Perhaps it’s the ghosts which I can hear and not the ravens. Either way, the noise is subsumed by the chatter of a school party which has paused nearby for a picnic lunch.

Soay sheep also live here. They are primitive, but domesticated animals, descended from those in the St Kilda archipelago. They are accompanied by Dexter cattle, the smallest of the European breeds and originating in the south west of Ireland. Together, these animals graze the hilly pastures of the castle mound .This return of animals and birds, the latter a result of nature’s idiosyncrasies and the former a deed of man, occurred long after Nash wrote and painted here. For him, there would have been nothing tangible in the way of residency; merely the shadows of falconers and fletchers, blacksmiths and masons. The absence of man or fauna would have been of little consequence to him.

And little tangible in the way of residency today: nothing save shadows of the past.