Winchmore Hill : Memories of a Lost Village
by Henrietta Cresswell
Chapter VII: THE HIVING OF THE BEES
Under the eaves of the stable were a long row of straw bee hives, old-fashioned skeps
, dome-shaped and buxom, and ranging in colour from bistre to ochre. There was nothing new-fangled or modern.
The stable was storage for the stack of birch faggots
and oak logs, which were used for firewood. The chopping block and hatchet, the garden tools, and the wheelbarrow, were kept there, and the manger was the authorised receptacle for blacking bottles and brushes, dirty boots, oil and bathbrick
. The only thorough-fare to the back door was through it, and on the white-washed wall some errand boy had scored up in lead pencil the scornful rhyme—
“Oh, Salts and Senna don’t ye grieve for me,
I’d rather go to Alabama than a Doctor’s Squash I’d be”—
a gibe levelled at the factotum
, aged twelve, who wandered slowly at his own time, round the village with the medicine basket. Birch faggots have many uses, and the arrival of a new load had its tragic, not to say pathetic, side. The stumpy remains of the old birch rod were taken down from above the picture of lilies and roses in the dining-room and consigned to the flames, and a graceful long-tailed new edition of the Word-of-Command took its place. Tickle Toby
was firmly bound together by the Doctor himself, and, though seldom used, its presence was decidedly awe inspiring. To take it down was equivalent to the reading of the Riot Act, a proceeding which is well known often to quench disturbances without the necessity of resorting to ball cartridge.
At the same time a freshly piled stack of faggots and logs was a grand play place, and the twigs smelt sweet and clean as the woods they came from.
There was a time when the Doctor kept a horse, a bit of a roarer, in this stable, which had originally been a coach house; the one small stall adjoining having been adapted to the uses of a surgery.
There was an old counter of dark mahogany, shelves of dusty bottles, and rows of drawers with mysterious glittering gold labels, Radd Quass, Cort Aurant, and Pet Nit, etc. If you wanted a cork for a fishing float it must be stolen from “Subera,” and in another drawer, labelled “Rad Zinzib,” were some pewter “squirts” like the one used by Billy Hawkins on the day so sadly remembered by little Tom Ingoldsby
. There were gallon jars of Castor oil and Mist Sennae comp, a chest of carpenter’s tools, bins of physic bottles and vials, an old-fashioned ewer
and basin of white delft, and sundries of every kind, and over all and among everything the largest and thickest cobwebs ever seen. Nothing was allowed to be dusted for fear a bottle should be misplaced, or some other damage done. In summer a species of enormous brown moth abounded such as in Devonshire is called a Witch. The window was extremely small and shrouded by a sweet-water grape vine, so that the door usually stood open while the Doctor did his dispensing, to give him some light to see by.
If Winifred interrupted him, his words were decidedly emphatic. If she cut her finger while whittling a new hoop stick out of the faggots, it was most convenient to know where to find a first-class cobweb for certain to stop the bleeding. A kitchen cut was covered at once with flour, brown sugar, or table salt, but for a garden cut a cobweb was the desideratum
, though it was known that salt healed a wound quicker than any other remedy because it hurt so at first, but it also required some of the courage of the Spartan boy who stole the fox
to use it.
Besides the bee hives under the eaves of the stable, there were others in a wooden shelter beneath the greenage tree. There was more room there, and some of the straw skeps had little hives above them, caps for virgin honey comb. The bees knew the children well, and they were seldom stung by them.
It was late May, early summer, every leaf fresh and green, no dust, and no unsightly rags. Dame Nature’s Fest Kleid
direct from her dressmaker. The beech leaves has not yet lost the marks of their accordion pleating; some trees were dressed in satin and some in velvet, and some in homely worsted stuffs. The palmy horse chestnut’s leaves had each a downward crease that showed the marks of their folding and packing, and the oaks were still golden and hung with brown tassels of bloom. The tarred fence at the end of the garden was blistered by the hot sun and the children’s fingers were stained with the moist pitch.
Winifred was seated in the garden barrow, using it as a rustic armchair, with its wheel pointing skywards and the handles down on the gravel path. Her duty was to watch the bees. She was passing the time by ill-using one of the spreading horse chestnut leaves, stripping away the soft green tissues to leave a herring bone of the harder veins.
The horse chestnuts that overhung the fence of Highfield Park at the foot of the garden were an endless joy to the children. One end of the swing bar was nailed to a chestnut, a strong young tree that put forth its gummy buds and pleated leaves, and reared its tall spikes of ice-cream coloured flowers before any of its neighbours.
The children had not many toys bought at shops, but in springtime the Doctor was expected to provide a constant supply of chestnut whistles. He was very clever in that way, and on many an evening might have been heard the rhythmic tap, tap, tapping, that almost sounded like a busy woodpecker near at hand. The sap flows free in Maytime, and with gentle blows, not unduly hurried and free from any sign of roughness, the bark of the slaty-grey horse chestnut branches was made to slide off in an uninjured cylinder, leaving the wood below white and smooth as ivory. The sharp knife amputated the sloped head of the embryo whistle, a slice was cut for the mouthpiece, a notch was made for an airhole in the outer skin of bark, and when this was slipped back into place all was complete. When blown, the new wood gave out sweet flute-like notes, something like the soft whistle of a blackbird. A good chestnut whistle should be about six inches long and at its lower end be decorated with a pattern of shields and dots, which are the markings of the knots on the branches whence next year’s shoots will spring. They are like the arms of the Duchy of Cornwall
. To make the flute note higher or lower the ivory piston was drawn in or out of the bark tube, and the weird sounds produced were often more like the soughing
of wind on a January night, than the music of a May morning. It required patience to watch the bees; it was nearly mid-day, and very hot even in the shade of the house, the air was full of the drowsy sound of humming insects. Winifred felt drowsy herself, as she sat in the wheelbarrow, with the dinner bell by her side, and she glanced first at the hives and then at the elder bushes against the tarred fence. From one of the hives in the low shelter there depended a dark brown mass closely resembling a head of hair in a chenille net such as the Doctor’s servant wore on Sundays. The City of Bees was alive with energy and overcrowded; it was only a matter of minutes, or moments, when the younger generation should flit to find quarters of their own.
The elder bushes by the fence were not old responsible trees like the “wedding bouquets” in the carrier’s garden, guaranteed to produce so many gallons of rich wine for the Doctor’s cellar annually, but straight, bold boys and girls of the “Elder Mother,” each trying to add so many cubits to its stature in a single year.
The young elders were toy-trees as well as the big chestnuts, for the Doctor made pop-guns out of their pithy stems, and these lasted for weeks, whereas the whistles perished in a day with the drying and shrivelling of the young bark.
The border by the fence was a pithy border, “pithy and pawky” as they say in Scotland, elder above and Jerusalem artichokes below. It was possible to make most deceptive-looking candles out of artichoke pith. A neat white taper fitted into the silver candlestick on the dining-room mantelpiece, with a little wick made from a burnt match end was sure to deceive an elderly relation sooner or later, especially if he were in a hurry and had not on his spectacles. There would be many moments of fuming and fussing because the candle would not light, but it was all very wrong indeed, and it was better not to wait till the fraud was discovered, and perhaps as well to remember the new Tickle Toby over the picture of lilies and roses.
From time to time there was a wild buzzing as a few hundred bees rose from the ever-increasing swarm at the mouth of the hive, but it was a false alarm, and they settled again with the rest. Next door to the Doctor’s house was a chapel, it had long narrow windows, the top of each opened as a ventilator. Bees frequently appear to swarm on a Sunday, on the principle apparently of the better the day the better the deed, and shameful to say, it was a joy to Winifred to accompany a Sunday swarm with all the bell-ringing possible. On one occasion the Minister protested he had been unduly disturbed while preaching. The Doctor was very grave and polite, “but,” said he, “if the bees were to enter your windows, owing to our neglecting the sounds that cause them to settle, you might find it very awkward.” The following Sunday the thermometer stood at 90 degrees in the shade, and as ill-luck would have it a small cast or second swarm left its parent hive, and the moment the first sound of a bell was heard every window of the chapel was suddenly and tightly closed, and so remained to the end of the “diet of worship” while the faithful were slowly roasted as in an oven inside.
Perhaps what they bore that day in this world may be deducted from what they were to go through, in Purgatory, in the next.
It was high noon. The shadow cast by the plum tree had got less and less, till at last, between the boughs, a brilliant shaft of sunshine fell full on the brown chenille net. The meshes appeared to widen and part, and with a roar of sound the mass of bees separated and rose in the air, circling and zig-zagging like a black snowstorm, black in the shadow, rich red brown in the sunshine, their flight so rapid, there appeared to be a network of long brown lines against the blue of the sky.
Winifred sprang from her seat and began a steady tang, tanging, of her bell. The sound brought the Mother to the doorstep, the Boy, with long fair curls upon his shoulders, rushed out into the garden, secure in the fact lessons were fairly over for the day. The maid came from the kitchen and the lad from the stable. The grandmother mounted the ladder from her garden next door and looked over the wall. All was excitement and there was no Bee-Master, the Doctor was out! He had left careful directions where he might be found in case of emergency, and Bill was soon dispatched to let him know the bees were swarming, and that he was wanted at once.
At first they rose high in the air, the whole swarm drifting now in one direction, and then in another, in an apparently aimless way.
It was a breathless moment. Her Majesty the Queen Bee is an erratic lady, and it is impossible to say whether she will choose the highest bough of the greenage tree or the lowest of a black currant bush. If bees mass themselves upon a branch it is easy to shake them gently into a hive, but if a firm support is chosen, such as the post for the clothes line, they must be brushed into it, with the hair brush the maid uses for the stairs, and it is far more uncertain whether the queen in the centre of the swarm will be got safely in or not.
This was a very heavy swarm.
“A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay.”
i.e., between £2 and £3 at old time prices. It was late in the month, but the hot weather had come with a rush. The bees were believed to think that a storm was coming when they heard so much noise, and therefore would try to settle and protect the young Queen. Learned people tell us now that they are deaf, but we did not think so in the old days, when it was considered a duty to tell the bees of deaths, and births, and family events in general. Two bells were ringing a terribly discordant peal, and scattered drops of water were being splashed in the air from a painted American pail. A light shoot of the apple tree had already a bunch upon it like a black egg, which grew with incredible speed to the size of an orange, a cocoanut, a negro’s head. The bough drooped lower and lower under the strain of the weight, then suddenly there was a sharp snap, and the branch hung broken from the tree, and with a roar of rage and panic the whole swarm was again in the air. Higher and higher they rose. They flew up the garden towards the house, over the stable roof. A procession in wild pursuit rushed after them, through to the front garden. Everything now depended on keeping the bees in sight. The children ran and shouted, ringing meanwhile a peal that might have roused the village, and the Mother came panting behind in a large garden sun-bonnet, and armed with a bundle of barege of a purplish grey spotted with red, to be used as a bee veil, as she had a terror of stings.
The swarm must on no account be lost! It was a veritable bee hunt, across the road, across the fields. Bees travel in a bee-line, but the children scrambled through the rough fence at the back of the carrier’s garden, and the Mother had to go round in the other direction to enter by the five-barred gate. The field was blossoming with buttercups and the hedges white with late hawthorn above and with fool’s parsley beneath, the oak trees were still golden with spring foliage, masses of wood anemones, tall and white were to be seen at the edge of the wood, still pretty to look at, but shabby to gather, and the fern was uncurling among the brambles on the bank of the boundary ditch.
It was hard work and hot work to keep the swarming bees in sight. Another field was crossed, then a rabbit-holed bank, and a timber fence, to the public footpath of the wood. The children scrambled over a high spile gate, into the most private part of the estate. Luckily it was not padlocked, or the Mother would have been hopelessly out of the hunt. She was already far behind them, and the rough road and brambles hindered her sorely; her low, flat shoes were full of grass seed and pebbles. Every briar on the way knew she was out of her element, and reminded her that when she was a child she did not race like a mad thing through the wild places of the earth, but solemnly trundled a wooden hoop in a lady-like manner in the garden of Trinity Square, or walked by the dark Tower Moat with her maid. Through bushes and brushwood they went for a quarter mile further, but Winifred had kept the bees in view, and in the shade the pace slackened; the cloud of insects lowered and circled round a holly bush, wreathed with a garland of flowering honeysuckle, the creamy yellow woodbine that loves the shade and has the rich perfume of the Azalea.
The holly grew in a mass of lily of the valley leaves; the wild lilies were shy bloomers, and it was always a triumph to pick three or four spikes of the sweet-scented blooms.
At last the swarm settled, and massed themselves round the grey trunk of the tree. The little Bee girl gently “rang them down,” while the Mother rested on a bank of moss to get her breath. It was more than half-a-mile from home, and just dinner-time, but no one heeded that; the great question was, “Would the Doctor arrive in time to hive them before something started them off again?”
A full half-hour of anxiety was passed in the beautiful woodland. The cuckoo’s note was almost ceaseless, and even in the noontide heat a thrush from time to time uttered his restless “Do be quick,” “Be quick,” “Do be quick,” or a blackbird whistled plaintively among the undergrowth.
The Boy with the fair curls wandered happily in the Enchanted Forest of forbidden ground. No gamekeeper was to be feared or trespass board to be considered when following bees. Indeed, the head keeper himself, a severe-faced old man with a nose like an eagle’s beak, appeared to inquire what was taking place, and retreated again, with a respectful “Good morning” to the Doctor’s wife, carrying his old muzzle loaded in the hollow of his arm and calling his dog to heel.
Presently a quick step was heard, running lightly over moss and dead twigs. It proved to be Bill, who had found his master half-way to the World’s End. He reported breathlessly that the Doctor was coming with all the necessary paraphernalia for the taking of the swarm. The Mother started to meet him, and sent the lad home for a supply of bread and cheese and mutton sandwiches to feed the hungry children. Soon the Bee-Master arrived; not in his long frock coat and professional tall hat, but bareheaded and in his shirt sleeves, bearing the hive, the bee board, etc. The skep had been rubbed and brushed with a bunch of fresh green balm and other sweet herbs, and smeared inside with a modicum of honey, that the Queen Bee might rejoice in the smell thereof and be willing to accept her new residence. The Mother swathed herself, sunbonnet and all, in the grey barege, and with thick gloves on her hands prepared to hold up the hive for the Doctor to brush his bees into it. He wore no protection, being nearly stingproof.
Down came the humming crowd, and the Mother stood her ground gallantly, though her heart was in her mouth the whole time. The skep was very heavy, and gladly she gave it into the Master’s hands while the bees buzzed around them both in an angry cloud. Quickly it was placed on the board, with small sticks under the straw edge so that no insects might be crushed by its weight. In a comparatively short time the busy multitude had crawled under the dome, and it was evident her Majesty was safely within. Soon all was quiet, except for a faint humming and a few lost bees flying around. A picnic lunch was eaten. The Doctor enjoyed a well-earned pipe, and went home to do his dispensing, but the bees could not be moved till the cool of the evening. So a long and happy afternoon was spent keeping guard over the hive. In the soft summer twilight, when the nightingales were singing as if their hearts would break, the Bee-Master returned, and a tired and happy party wandered home by way of the village, Winifred especially proud that she had not lost the bees, the finest swarm of the whole season.
People in Chapter VII
A twelve year-old that wanderered around the village with a medicine basket.
The chapel Minister
The maid from the kitchen
The Lad from the stable
The Head Keeper
Places in Chapter VII
The Doctors dispensing area in the single stall in the stables
Additional Bee Hives were kept under the Greengage tree
The tarred fence at the end of the garden
The Horse Chestnut trees that overhung the fence of Highfield Park
The Carriers Garden containing fruitful Elder bushes.
The Chapel next door to the doctors house.
The Grandmothers garden next door
The Carriers Garden
The public footpath of the wood
Events in Chapter VII
Henrietta describes the birch twig used usually as a threat of punishment kept above the fire.
She describes how cuts were treated with flour and brown sugar, amongst other things.
The childrens toys were rarely bought, every year the doctor would make a flute from the new Horsechestnut shoots and pop guns from the Elder bushes.
Henrietta is tasked with keeping track of the bees, should they swarm. She describes how they chase the swarm through Winchmore Hill until they finally settle and are returned to a hive by the doctor.
Henrietta describes how she would sometimes make a false candle from artichoke pith as a joke.
Wildlife in Chapter VII
Enormous Brown Moth called a Witch in Devonshire
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