Across the AONB
Valerie Belsey for AONB
From Chaucer through to the seventeenth century there are no great literary figures writing about this area even if some lived here. However, what we do have are folk tales and songs which refer to local places. Thes must have been shared at many a festive gathering, workplace and hearth.
The Elizabethan period was the age of exploration and many well know explorers came from South Devon. Humphrey Gilbert from Dartmouth was half cousin to Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh was a writer and a poet but does not seem to have referred directly to the landscape in his writings and Gilbert wrote about foreign climes but not his own. Robert Herrick wrote some memorable verse set in the Dean Prior area where he lived but unfortunately it is out of the AONB. However this is not to say that the writing of poetry and the telling of tales came to a standstill.
THE LOCAL FOLK STORY AND SONG LEGACY
There are many accounts of Mummers’ plays and the custom of Wassailing apple trees to encourage good cider production. Stoke Gabriel hosts both of these every year. The play with its Turkish knight, prince of Morocco and St. George is strange and simplistic to us now. But its message of good cheer at Christmas reminds us of how important a festival this was in our countryside which can bring us a mild shirt-sleeves day or a snow-bound feast:
‘One mug of Christmas ale will make us merry and sing
Some money in our pockets will be a fine thing
So, ladies and gentlemen all at your ease
Please give the Christmas Boys just what you please
I wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year
And plenty of good beef and barrels full of beer.’
The Dartington Christmas Boys’ Play has a character called Johnnie Jack who well illustrates how every day folk lived then:
‘Here comes I, Little Johnnie Jack,
Wife and family on my back
My family’s large and I am small
And so a little helps us all.
Songs and ballads came into the area over sea and land. The Trees they grow so high was collected by the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould in the 1870s from Miss Bidder who collected it from an unknown singer, possibly Mary Langworthy of Stoke Fleming. It is a well known Scottish ballad dating back to the seventeenth century which worked its way south. This sad little tale is an example of an arranged marriage.
The trees they grow so high and the leaves they grow so green.
The day is past and gone, my love, that you and I have seen,
It’s a cold winter’s night, my love, when I must bide alone,
For my bonny lad is young but a-growing.
As I was a-walking by yonder church wall,
I saw four and twenty young men a-playing at the ball.
I asked for my own true love but they would not let him come,
For they said the boy was young, but a-growing.
Listen in to Bill and Suzie Tresize’s recording (Audio Clips, above right) to find out the outcome of this tragic tale.