I found the place dark and deeply rural; it was extremely beautiful and often inexplicable. People did not seem so much to live there as to be holed up.
– Paul Theroux
In the early 1970s Theroux moved to Britain after living abroad for years in Malawi, Uganda and Singapore. He spent the first few months over winter in a rented house on the northeastern edge of the Marshwood Vale in Dorset.
I don’t really know why he pitched up here, of all places, except that, perhaps, it called to him. The house at Bowood gave Theroux the inspiration and setting for an early novel, The Black House, a ghost story. It tells how a retired anthropologist returns to England after years of study in Africa and rents a house in Dorset. At the start of the book he gives a talk to the locals and shows them various items he has collected. One of them, a figurine, goes missing. Things get nastier from there. Over-arching it all is the brooding sense of a dark, rainy, gale-lashed winter. It’s a terrific portrait of this part of the Dorset countryside and how it can oppress, test and expel people. And how it can bind you to it in a harsh, sometimes scary way; something very far from the lifestyle dreams of summer holidaymakers.
Theroux said of Dorset: ‘Everything I had expected to find in Africa I found on the edge of the Marshwood Vale. I was fascinated but I was also a little frightened. These are the emotions that produce fiction.’
Theroux wasn’t the first writer to be ensnared by the weirdness of the Vale. It’s always been a remote, obscure place, cut off from the larger world of human activity. It took two years for news of the Battle of Trafalgar to seep through to the scattered farmsteads. It’s very wet, and in winter, the deep clay made the roads impassable (the roads still flood). People nicknamed it ‘Old Bottom’ and called those who lived there ‘stick-in-the-muds’ – as they were, literally. It was also very poor. For two years at the end of the 18th century William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived at Racedown Lodge overlooking the Marshwood Vale. They walked all over the area – Wordsworth favoured the Iron Age hillfort at Pilsdon Pen – and they were appalled by the poverty they saw. The hunger and want changed Wordsworth’s perspective and inspired much of the social commentary in his early poems. ‘The Ruined Cottage’ where ‘nettles rot and adders sun themselves’ is one of these. It speaks of ‘poverty and grief’ in:
A time of trouble; shoals of artisans
Were from their daily labour turned away
To hang for bread on parish charity,
The Wordsworths themselves were poor and had to grow most of their own food. During the hard winter of 1797, William wrote to a friend: ‘I have lately been living on air and the essence of carrots, turnips and other esculent vegetables not excluding parsnips, the produce of my garden.’
Towards the end of the Wordsworths’ second spring at Racedown, Samuel Taylor Coleridge arrived, leaping over the field stile at the bottom of the garden, having walked all the way from West Somerset. He stayed three weeks, entranced both William and Dorothy, and persuaded them to join him on the Quantocks. It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
But Coleridge wasn’t the only reason the Wordsworths left Dorset. They went there in the first place because they were offered the house free of charge. It was owned by John Pinney, son of John Praetor Pinney, an affluent Bristol merchant and member of the Bristol West Indies Trading Company. The Pinneys were slave owners who had grown rich from their sugar plantations on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Young John was idealistic – Wordsworth met him originally through his circle of radical friends. It’s thought that when hardboiled John Snr. found out the house was being let for nothing, he ordered that Wordsworth should pay rent, or leave.
Praetor Pinney’s decision might also have been influenced by angry complaints from some of his farming tenants. They claimed that Wordsworth was a wizard who had been casting spells on their cattle. Wordsworth generally composed and refined his poems by reciting them aloud while walking. Every day he and Dorothy took long walks of two hours or more across the surrounding countryside. As they walked, William muttered poetry in his strong northwest accent, pausing now and again to survey the view through a pocket telescope. The local, southwest folk couldn’t understand what he was saying, and because of the incantatory rhythms and the fact he kept pointing a strange, possibly magical instrument at their cows, they concluded he was bewitching them.
This interpretation of Wordsworth’s behaviour was logical since the locals themselves used charms on their cattle. As late as the mid-20th century, many of the older farmers still used ‘charmers’ to cure warts, ‘red water’ and adder bites. I heard about this from the farmer who now owns Racedown Farm, opposite the house where Wordsworth lived. In the 1950s and 60s his father was a vet in the Vale. He often came up against folk remedies. Sometimes the farmers called the vet when a cow was ill, and sometimes they went to the charmer. When telephones first came to the Vale, they proved very good for the charmers’ business. Several farmers had phones installed not because those solitary men wanted to chat to anyone – whom would they speak to and about what? – but so that the charmer could talk directly to the cows without the bother of a visit. On more than one occasion the vet turned up to a farm to find a cow in the kitchen with the phone speaker held to its ear so that the charmer could whisper the magic words direct.
We might laugh at this. But who can say that in some ways those sibilant charms and Wordsworth’s muttered poems were not magical incantations? The Anglo-Saxon root of the word ‘spell’ means ‘speech’ or ‘story’. Wordsworth was accused of putting a spell on the land as he walked, but what if the opposite were the case – that the land put a spell on him, which he expressed in the lines he composed as he walked?
It was a story – a spell – that brought me to West Dorset.
A long time ago, when I was a student, I came across a thriller called Rogue Male. Oh how we all laughed at the title: Rogue Male. It became an in-joke – we called an unfortunate friend ‘rogue sausage’ because of his many girlfriends. We built a story around it. That’s how stories work – they flow into us and create new stories. It was a while before I actually read the book itself – and then I was amazed. It was so gripping, so taut, and it seemed to me to be about more than it appeared. There was something totemic in it about the countryside, about the landscape. Time passed and I forgot; the story became buried in my mind. Then I moved to West Dorset, an area I didn’t know at all, and ended up in Powerstock, where some of the scenes are set. Much later I found out that Powerstock was where the author, Geoffrey Household, had lived. With a slow sense of waking up I realised where I was, and it was like a dream soaking into reality.
Rogue Male isn’t a joke. It was the first of a whole genre of tightly plotted action thrillers, before James Bond, before Len Deighton. It tells how an unnamed anti-hero tries and fails to assassinate a Hitler-like figure. He survives an attempt to kill him and flees for his life. There’s a nerve-twisting hunt on the London Underground, which prompts the hero to ‘disappear’. He chooses Dorset; literally burying himself in the landscape. He digs a den in an ancient hedgebank, or holloway, overlooking the Marshwood Vale and holes up, hoping to evade capture. He goes feral and lives as a beast, relying on cunning and instinct to save him from death.
Published in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War, the novel can be seen as an allegory for beleaguered Britain, retreating into its island fastness and ultimately defeating the foreign enemy with a combination of toughness and intelligence. Nearly 80 years later, there are other ways to read his story (apart from the Brexit analogy). Psychologically, the anti-hero is seriously repressed, even by the standards of the time. He sublimates all his emotions and sensations, refusing to give in under torture. In doing so, of course, he reveals to the reader how damaged he is, and how his emotional state has forced him to take refuge in a deliberately ‘uncivilised’ mode of being. In this sense, his retreat into the landscape in search of safety and salvation from the horrors of the modern world follows the same path as neo-romantic artists of the 30s and 40s. I’m thinking of Paul Nash, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Eric Ravilious. In their paintings the landscape is a state of mind. It has a definite sense of place, a sense of the numinous about it.
Numinous. Comes from ‘numen’.
A numen is the spirit or divine power presiding over a thing or place. It’s a Latin word but it embodies a concept deeply embedded in prehistory, before Ancient Rome or Greece existed. Here in Britain we once had many wayside shrines to the small, local gods, symbols of the vivifying numen. They were part of the genius loci, the spirit of the place.
I think we all have a sense of numen. It’s not the same as religious belief. You could regard it as quite a straightforward thing; a reaction that comes from attuning ourselves to the natural world. It might be what we feel when we a faced with the strong perception that there is a real, living reality outside of ourselves, and that we are a small part of it.
Numen is also used by anthropologists to denote the idea of magical power residing in a totemic object: an object like the African figurine that goes missing from the anthropologist’s collection in The Black House. But the Vale, like all nuministic places, has no need of fictional objects and imported ghost stories. It has its own historic totems.
For hundreds of years the old house at Bettiscombe Manor belonged to the slave-trading Pinneys, Wordsworth’s hosts. According to legend, when plantation founder Azariah Pinney retired, he brought back some slaves with him to England. One of them was old, and he fell sick in the cold, damp air of the Vale. During his last hours this slave made Azariah promise that when he died, his body would be shipped back to his family in the Caribbean so he could rest in peace. If Azariah broke his promise, the slave vowed he would never leave him or his family alone. He then died and Azariah promptly bundled him into a pauper’s grave in the churchyard nearby. For the next three nights the manor house was disturbed by unearthly screams. On the fourth night, when all the Dorset servants were on the brink of leaving, Azariah gave in and opened the grave. He found the skull, miraculously picked clean, and took it into the house, whereupon the screaming stopped.
It’s true there is a human skull in Bettiscombe Manor. In the 1960s, the then owner, Michael Pinney, had it formally examined by an archaeologist from the British Museum. He concluded that it was very much older than the 18th century, probably in fact Iron Age, and most likely that of a woman. The skull has a smooth, brown patina of limestone, possibly the result of spending centuries underwater in a spring. Further investigation by Michael Pinney into the slave story revealed that it wasn’t a piece of old Dorset legend at all, but a tale made up in the 1830s by his ancestor, Anna Maria Pinney. She wrote it soon after the bill to abolish slavery in the British Empire was passed. Seen in this light, the story becomes a figuring forth of the buried guilt of her family.
Some places invite responses from the deepest part of the unconscious mind. Dig down through the strata of fiction and history and layers of story and spell will appear.
If stories are, literally, spells, then what are ghosts? I’ll say straight away that wondering whether ghosts exist rather misses the point. Coleridge summed it up when he said: ‘A lady once asked me whether I believed in ghosts and apparitions. I answered with truth and simplicity: “No, madam! I have seen far too many myself.”
There’s a distinction to be drawn between ghosts and spirits. Ghosts, supposedly, are apparitions of dead mortals, be they people, animals, or dead people taking the shape of animals – headless highwaymen on headless horses, legendary black dogs or murdered queens. Or they inhabit objects – like the Screaming Skull. They are trapped between worlds, craving release.
With personality comes human character and history. Each ghost trails its story; its his-story or her-story, without which it would mean nothing, and therefore be nothing. The fear of a ghost story resides in the telling of that story – the gradual, creepy uncovering of buried and forgotten truth. In M.R. James’ classic ghost stories the trigger is often the unearthing of an actual buried object – a whistle say or a crown – which then releases retribution. It’s significant that the objects are historic and that they are buried in the ground. We are back with the anthropological meaning of numen as a sacred object of special power, and the notion of burial in the landscape. Psychologically, we’re back in the Vale, where people, as Theroux wrote, ‘don’t so much live as hole up’.
Spirits, however, are immortal, insubstantial entities, which may not ever have been alive in the same solid sense as the beings who became ghosts. They belong where they are found. In other words, spirits are emanations of place, whereas ghosts are personifications of history.
On the wooded hill at the back of Bettiscombe Manor there is a massive, tilted standing stone set on a peculiar hump with a natural spring bubbling out below. It’s called the Wishing Stone and is said to slide down the hill on Midsummer’s Eve, to return the following morning. It’s not on a public right of way and few people know about it. Michael Pinney was convinced that it was a sacred spot. Sometimes I go there and sit on the wooden bench next to it. The stone points out across the Vale as if it is beaming some kind of invisible ray over the land. Perhaps it is.
Sara Hudston is a writer and editor living in rural West Dorset in an old house with tarpaulins on the roof. Occasional newts in the downstairs bathroom. Guardian Country Diarist.
First: ‘A View from Marshwood’ by Derek Harper (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Second: ‘Byway on County Boundary – the Holloway gets even deeper’ by Chris Reynolds (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Paul Theroux quoted in The Sunday Times, ‘A haunting story in the Wessex Hills’, winter 1986/7