The Salamanca Corpus: Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree (1928)

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The Salamanca Corpus: Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree


Author: Walter Raymond (1853-1930)

Text type: Prose

Date of composition: 1928

Editions: 1928

Source text:

Raymond, Walter. 1928. Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree. A volume of Rural Lore and Anecdote. London: Folk Press Limited


Access and transcription: August 2006

Number of words: 63,936

Dialect represented: Somerset

Produced by José Antonio Órtiz

Revised by Maria F. Garcia-Bermejo Giner

Copyright © 2011- DING, The Salamanca Corpus, Universidad de Salamanca

Under the Spreading

Chestnut Tree










  5. THE HEARTH ... 33

  6. “MILLER TOOP AT HOME” ... 45




  10. THE WOOING OF TILLY ... 76

  11. THE RIGHT TIME ... 83

  12. THE OLD HOUSE ... 96

  13. THE OLD GRIST MILL ... 103

  14. A REAL LADY ... 110


  16. A TALE OF THOMAS ... 123

  17. THE EVE OF THE WEDDING ... 130


  19. AN IDYLL OF A SMOCK ... 150


  1. FAREWELL, SUMMER ... 156

  2. AN A-LOST ... 162



  5. BACK TO BITTLETON ... 182

  6. SENTIMENTS ... 195


  8. ON A DAY TO BE COSY ... 209




  12. DRAMA IN BITTLETON ... 238


  14. JOSIAH AS SCRIBE ... 258



Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree


I WILL frankly confess to a predilection for chestnuts. Whether munched plain under the branches of a spreading chestnut tree, or eaten fresh-roasted upon a hearth, surrounded by a merry company, or merely used as stuffing to some more important comestible, a good old oft­-repeated yarn does not arouse in me the derision it awakens in a truly superior mind. It comes as an old friend and its familiarity does not offend. With many people it seems to disagree. I just laugh at it.

Almost everybody to-day, of sufficient leisure, collects something old. Pewter-pots, Toby toss-pots, little china dogs and houses, the heads of club-poles and buckles "off shoes," all make appeal to the tenderest emotions of some human heart and move the soul to tears. My fancy has been for chips of ancient lore and old fireside tales—for quaint lingering customs and strange beliefs, such as for the most part passed away amid


the great social changes which took place in English rural life during the earlier part of the last century. There seems a sufficient reason why, in a collection of old things, one should scarcely be expected to exhibit anything new.

Why a twice-told anecdote should be called a "chestnut" nobody knows. Many origins of the name have been suggested, but Mr. Murray himself is not sure. It appears that the term first came into use in America. In his "Reminiscences of J. L. Toole," Mr. Hatton tells us:

"In America they call an old story a 'chestnut' and several sticklers for novelty carry what they call a 'chestnut bell' which they ring—tinkle, tinkle—whenever in society or elsewhere any gentleman indulges in a twice-told tale. Out West the other day one of these worthies found himself almost for the first time in church though he had a fair acquaintance with the best of all books. In an oratorical application of his text the preacher began to tell the story of Jonah and the Whale, whereupon the new-comer rang his chestnut bell."
But while we are on the origin of terms how many people now remember the true meaning of the word "stickler" quoted above? The digression is pardonable, since the word was once in daily use in association with one of the most popular of ancient rural pastimes. When at fair or market two cudgel-players or back-swordsmen stood up before each other, on either side was a "stickler"—one who watched to see fair-play

and had power to interfere if any rule of the game was broken. In a sense they corresponded to seconds in a duel. They raised objections, argued fine distinctions and decided debatable points. "A reg'lar stickler," became a common rural phrase to describe the over-punctilious, and this application of the word alone remains in literary English.

The most widely accepted explanation of "chestnut" is given on the authority of Mr. Joseph Jefferson, the celebrated "Rip van Winkle." In an old melodrama entitled "The Broken Sword" are two Characters—Captain Xavier, a sort of Baron Munchausen, and Pablo, a comedy part. Between these occurs the following dialogue:
XAVIER: "I entered the woods of Colloway when suddenly from the thick boughs of a cork tree—"

PABLO: "A chestnut, Captain—a chestnut."

XAVIER: "Bah! Booby, I say a cork tree."

PABLO: "A chestnut. I should know as well as you having heard you tell the tale these twenty-­seven times."

At a stage dinner a comedian, William Warren, well known in the part of Pablo, interrupted a guest in the telling of a venerable yarn with the quotation—

"A chestnut! I have heard you tell the tale these twenty-seven times."

"And that," says Mr. Jefferson, "is, I truly believe, the origin of the word 'chestnut'."

The country story was by nature perennial; but to understand the reason for this it is necessary to glance back upon the old social life of the village and the homestead. Rural folk were not without opportunities for the exercising of their tongues. There was the grist-mill, a regular centre of gossip. There was the market in the neighbouring town. "Measter" kept his markets, rain or shine, even more regularly than he kept his church. The smallest holder of land was "Measter" in those days and the good-wife even when she "wore the birches" always spoke of her husband as "my measter." There he learnt what things "vetched" and thus improved his mind, even when he had nothing to sell or to buy. Once on her back his old mare carried him safely home, for there were wonderful old mares before the days of steam. A good friend of my boyhood was invariably lifted in to his saddle in the inn-yard, drank one more grog, as they said "to kip un there," and arrived home full of news. His old mare was so "waywise "'and understood him so well that he never suffered an accident, and his "Missus" was always waiting to help him down.

"He's that stiff like vrom his rheumatics," she used to explain. Thus should mishap befall a neighbour he felt entitled to become censorious. He became a moralist and could not for the life of him understand how a man could get so drunk. It filled him with wonder and regret.

"I never couldn't abear to zee a man zo lower hizelf as to get in drink," said he.

No discredit whatever attached to an occasional

inebriation if not on an unsuitable occasion. Quaint phrases were in use to describe the exact degree of insobriety to which the reveller attained. "Market-fresh" signified no more than a pleasant joviality from the bar-parlour. "Just a bit intosticated" was a little on the side of fine talking and might rightly be spoken of one who carried his drink with dignity. "Tookt by the head" and "A bit staggery like in the lags o' un," explain themselves. "Staring drunk" and "surly drunk" rather indicate mental idiosyncrasies than the extent of the potations. Of one who had attained to the highest degree of incapability they said, "The fellar could neither stan', zit, nor lie."

My own particular spreading chestnut tree did not shelter merely a little smithy. Its limbs extended over a whole country far and wide. Wherever there were tongues there were chestnuts. In places populous or solitary—if there were but two, myself and another—there was the chance of a yarn. On the height of Dunkerry among the whortleberries and the ling, I have heard weird stories of "Jack-a-Lanterns" and of "Men a-lost" and on the lowlands around Athelney of floods and drownings and of packs of phantom hounds that hunt in the air of a winter night.

In the days before machinery, when the horse-rake was a rarity and the reaping machine unknown, at haymaking and harvest women worked in the fields with the men. Then, when they all gathered under the shade of some ancient oak in

the grassfield, or on the bank under a tall hedgerow by the arable ground, arose a charm of voices, followed by a hush of listening attention to some tale or oftentimes a song. For cider was abun­dant, and even in my day, a relic of a custom fast passing away, meals were sent out to the field. The working-day was long and had no definite limit when everything had to be done by hand. It lasted from daybreak through noon and "dimmet" to the verge of "darknight."

Judging by the names of them, meals were numerous. To begin the day well the labourer took a "dew bit" to stay his stomach against the morning air. That did not count and there was breakfast of course. There was also "vorenoons," often called "ten o'clocks," and "lebem o'clocks" which must surely have been the same thing. There was also "nommit," a contraction of noon-meat, and "nunch," which was a hunk of bread and cheese taken at an odd time when "a leary belly seemed to outrun the han's o' the clock like," and a great meal at three o'clock. But wherever there was meat and drink it was seasoned with lore and story.

So my chestnut tree spread everywhere over grass and plough and mead. And where, in the silvery dew of summer morning or the long cool shadows of late afternoon, the herd gathered in the corner of the meadow and milkers tucked their heads into the hollows behind the cows' ribs. And where by the garden hatch opening into the village street, "golden chains" bent over the purple "laylock" and the voices and laughter of lads

and maidens went on until one after another came the slamming of cottage doors, and the lighting of windows as day melted into the still of night. Also it must have overhung the thatch and gables of the solitary homestead midst its stalls and ricks and stacks, or how could there have been such a wealth of chestnuts around the hearth?

Now that the years are passing, strange little unimportant incidents of my early life arise out of the depth of oblivion and stand out vividly in my recollection. They are clearer than yesterday and might be trivial if they did not seem so real and human. The joy and the suffering of my childish days mingle in my memory, until I hardly know whether they bring smiles or tears. But I will write them down—yet only such as have to do with rural life and village people. It was in consequence of misfortune that I was born in a town, but my heart was always in the fields and with the folk.

My earliest rural education began in Marston Magna. As an infant in arms dying of typhoid, my mother having just died, I was carried there and nursed back to life. That was before the dawn of memory. By daybreak my grandfather was gone, the farm was given up and my grandmother was living in the school-house, her only remaining daughter having been appointed mistress to the school. My grandmother, deprived of the activities of her life, would sit silent by the fireplace

or at the window, and, when I was present, she made me sit on a little oaken footstool by her side and never ceased to stroke my head. My aunt, as fearful shrieks testified, was constantly administering corporal punishment in the school. There I spent the summers of my early boyhood. There my education commenced. My tutors were the village boys. My headmaster, given an occasional penny to look after me, was called Bill. His strong point was natural history.

Bill knew everything about "yalls." He used to take me to a muddy but fascinating millpool beyond the meadow to the east of the church. We carried beansticks, string, worms, and a penny-worth of eel-hooks. Bill caught "yalls" but to me only came bites.

"I wonder, Bill," said I, one day, "where all the 'yalls' do come vrom."

"What, doant ee know? Why they be nothen but hosshair. In the vust gwaine off, 'tis hosshair that do turn into yalls—every hosshair a yall. An' the hosshair that do get in the river do come to yalls, but to try it in a bucket don't act."

It was not for me to doubt the statement of one who could catch them.

We used to go bird's-nesting. Bill had a collection and found nests daily, of great variety and always with eggs. I found only thrushes' nests of the last year and filled with dead leaves. Bill climbed the highest trees to rob the kestrel and the crow and I stood below and quaked, not at all from fear lest he should fall—Bill could not fall—but from imagination of myself clinging to a

swaying bough at such a giddy height. At last came a moment of triumph. One morning in a hollow in a bank under a hedgerow I found a robin's nest with five eggs mottled with red lying within, dim in the shadow. A real nest alive and warm all my own—

"Doant ee tich o' 'em. If you do all your vingers'll goo zo crooked as a dog's hinelag. What, doant ee know that:

"The bobby and the cutty-wren

Be God A'mighty's cock and hen."

and if you do take 'em you be sure to break a lag or a arm avore the year is out or otherwise one o' your near kin'll die so zure as the light. Maybe your grandmother."

The nest might just as well have been filled with dead leaves. I did not take the eggs. My respect for the learning of Bill was too profound to admit of my incurring the risk of such dire penalties.

We used to cut out ships from walnut shells and float them down the brook in the shadow of the church and the poplar trees. We called it racing. We started them side by side in the same eddy. It was an incomprehensible fact that Bill's walnut always outstripped mine.

Near the church-gate under a spreading tree stood the village stocks. We used to play at constable and rogue. I was always rogue and he would put me in and run away. It seemed unkind but it was in the game. Then I discovered that by not lacing up my boot it became possible for me to

slip my foot out and so the tears dried up. This outwitting of Bill filled me with secret pride. He did not detect this trick, but the game no longer pleased him, and was given up.

But always in my little breast lurked a secret humiliation, that troubled me deeply whenever my thoughts dwelt upon it. The illness had left me a weak and nervous child and I was afraid of cows. A uncontrollable terror kept me of an afternoon within the little schoolhouse garden, watching in safety above the corner where the roads met, until the milky sweet-smelling herds passed slowly by on their way to the stalls and after an interval slowly back. Then for that day the load was removed.

Bill was now old enough to drive stock and proud of it. One summer day towards evening Bill with his billycock trimmed up with honeysuckles came round the corner at the tail of the hindermost of his father's beasts.

"Come on down," he shouted up at me.

"No," said I.

"Why not?"

"I don't want to," I replied.

"You be afeared o' the cows."

"No I beant."

"You be I tell ee."

"I beant then."

"You be a little coward I tell ee. Come on down."

"I beant then."

"You be a little liar. You be afeared o' cows—

afeared o' cows"—and he pointed at me with two fingers.

Accused and self-accused I leapt at an answer. "I beant then—not cows. But one o' the cows is a bull."

Smarting under the taunt of lying I shouted it at him in a fury, for one of the cows was a bull.

Maidens popped out of cottage doorways and ran laughing into the village street. Children gathered on the opposite causeway and jeered. My aunt came out. The children vanished. I was marched indoors.

A universal curiosity, a desire for the identification of that cow, spread over the whole parish. Everybody inquired for her in the most friendly way, and asked whether she was a good milker. A kind old farmer with cheeks as plump and red as a peony and smiling from every wrinkle around his eyes, lured me by the gift of a couple of early stubbards. He bent down and asked me in a whisper:

"Now what colour wur thik cow o' yourn sonnie, a urd cow or a spark'ed?" The apple so juicy, so saturated with summer, turned to dust and refused to be swallowed. It would not go down. I ran away into the field and in the passage between two hayricks hid myself from the injustice of all the world. One of the cows was a bull.

I avoided Bill. He was now at work and looked down upon me. I avoided mankind, yet suffered a longing for companionship. One morning,

without understanding of what he might be doing, I saw the village sexton in the churchyard digging a grave. He was not frivolous like the rest of the parish. He was not insulting or unkind. He just went on pitching out shovelful after shovelful of earth. After a while he climbed out and stood by my side. He was a spare, wiry, grizzly, little man with a short whisker on each cheek and of a solemn respectability. By trade he was a carpenter and made coffins.

"There!" said he to himself, "that's a beaudivul dry grave—and to goo to one out o' the parish. Brought to Marston at her own wish. Never wadden no good to we. Never didn' spend nothen here, not so much as the price o' her coffin—all we've agot vrom she is her carpse. That's the beaudivulest, dryest grave in all chich-yard."

Then he looked up at me: "In my mind like I 'loted thik grave to your granny. Your granny have a-bin auvis greatly respected."

There was such-evident friendliness in his intention that I attached myself to him and took to watching him at work in his shop. Nobody objected. The parish spoke of him as a man never known to let a "word o' trumpery pass the lips o' un." And I loved to see him ring the three bells for church. He stood on one leg with the other foot in a sort of stirrup he had knotted in a bell-rope. Then, with a rope in each hand, he set to work—Ding, dang, dong—Ding, dang, dong, with great precision and evenness. To that music we marched past the stocks, through the porch,

and up the alley to our pew. My admiration for the bell-ringing determined me to grow up to be a man and a sexton. But the summer visit came to an end. It was deemed inadvisable for me to stay at Marston any more. They said I was learning to talk so badly, and sent me to school.

To the majority of observers of village folk and their "manner o' spaken" this title may probably appear to be a repetition of terms. In my opinion this is not so. True dialect in only a portion of the speech of dialect speakers, and many of the most amusing utterances of country folk cannot strictly be brought under that term. The real thing is archaic, and has come down "by word o' mouth" with little or no change from our Saxon ancestors. Humble rural people read very little. Many of them could not read at all. True dialect therefore is a direct inheritance and the rest an accretion, in the main leaving his every-day speech little altered.

There is an interesting instance in connection with the number seven. Seven is "zebem." Seventeen is "zebemteen." Twenty-seven is "zebem an' twenty," or probably—and this is where the point comes in—"a score an' zebem." Yet seventy with a true old dialect speaker was not "zebemty," but "seventy," though seventy­-seven would be "seventy-zebem."

The origin and history of this carries us back to primitive life and is interesting.

The earliest form of counting was by aid of the

fingers—a method even to-day not altogether abandoned. This led to enumeration by tens. But some races carried their simple arithmetic further and continued to count upon their toes, thus arriving at twenty before recommencement. The Teutons stopped at ten. The Celts went on to twenty and a relic remains in the French "quatre-vingt." When the defeated Britons were brought into servitude many of their methods as to the work of everyday life remained unaltered, and the Saxons gave a name to the British twenty and called it a "score" because a notch was cut to keep count of the twenties. In homely village matters the custom remains until to-day. Garden plants are bought and sold and the weight of the fat pig is still estimated by the score. "The days of our years are threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore—" Gradually the other form asserted itself, and seventy was accepted as it came and pronounced with a sharp "S."

The introduction of long words of Latin origin to the dialect contributes largely to rural speech. It is often very amusing. Mr. Elworthy, probably in that wonderful Word Book which abounds in characteristic phrases to illustrate the exact use of dialect words, gives an instance. The sexton of Withypool expressed his opinion upon concentrated chemical manures something after this manner:

"I doant hold not wi' these here new-vangled consecrated manures not vur the getten o' crops. Gie I good wold rotted dung."

But to be sure the wonderful linguistic performances of Mrs. Malaprop are not confined to any one section of society. There is the good old chestnut of the provincial Mayor. His Worship, about to travel by train, having annexed a corner seat in a compartment, being fond of literature visited the bookstall. Although he left his hat to assert possession a lady had removed it and occupied the seat—recognising her error she apologised.

"I fear I have deprived you of your seat."

"No depravity, Madam," bowed his Worship.

An elderly gardener who worked for my father when I was a youth expressed himself in the richest dialect. His brain was a mine of wealth. I do not think he could read and it is certain that his writing was illegible; but, for all that, he was a scholar and did not sign with a criss-cross. His name was Thomas. We never called him otherwise nor shall I. Descendants are plentiful in the locality where Thomas Bourished, and they may be inclined to resent anything that may look like derision of their forebear. But laughter is not always derision; and I can only write of these "wold voke agone," the friends of my youth, with love from the bottom of my heart.

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