Winchmore Hill : Memories of a Lost Village
by Henrietta Cresswell
Chapter IX: Ford's Grove Cottage
In the new bookcase—it is not more than eighty or ninety years old—is a dear friend of Winifred’s, the pre-historic alphabet book of Peter Piper.
It begins “Andrew Airpump asked his aunt her ailment.” A tattered and torn, patched and mended little book more than a century old, with hand-coloured prints and a mottled paper cover. When she first had it more than fifty years ago, Ford’s Grove had tall untrimmed hawthorn hedges, trees meeting overhead, and broad grass and running water on either hand. It was called Busk’s lane in those days.
Justice Busk lived at Ford’s Grove House, and to Winifred’s mind it would have been more suitable if Justice Ford had resided there, and his brother magistrate removed to Old Park. She always thought of Andrew Airpump, Billy Button, and the rest of the Peter Piper family as belonging to the old cottage beyond Busk’s bridge, that Davy Doldrum had slept in one of the casemented attics when he dreamt he drove a dragon (The Green Dragon was not far off, with a lively portrait of the same), and Humphrey Hunchback caught his hundred hedgehogs in the garden and fields. The Indian image Inigo Impy itched to possess was among the parlour curios, and possibly Captain Crackskull had been a crony of Captain Tills.
Once upon a time, when Winifred had been a walk with the Doctor over “Williamses” bridge and round by the Oak apple Pond, they found the old merchant sailor leaning over the white gate of the cottage. He asked them in, and gave the little maid an old toy book of his own, and that was Peter Piper.
All walks with the Doctor were pleasant, and the oaks and elms made the lane green and shady. In the wide ditches were sticklebacks and frogspawn, and wonderful caddisworms, housed in tiny pieces of stick or collections of little gravel stones. Water rats splashed and swarm under the banks, and in places the mud was painted scarlet with masses of thread worms. An ivy-covered trunk which leaned across the road by the cottage gate was so picturesque that later an iron chain was put to support it, that it might not fall. In a heavy gale some trees were blown down, and the fallen trunks lay for long on the grass by the wayside. It was a favourite stroll for lovers and old folks in the summer evenings, and they mostly sat upon the logs to rest, and listen to the nightingales who sang rapturously in the snow-white hawthorns. Mrs Busk noted this, and in kindness placed a rough bench there when the trees were carted away, and ever since there have been rustic seats in Ford’s Grove.
Captain Tills was a sweet-faced little old sailor man with a fresh colour and silver hair and whiskers. The path up to the house passed between gay flower borders sweet with white pinks and clove carnations, and backed by a long row of pink cabbage-rose bushes. Mrs Tills was a tall pleasant old lady, who might have stepped out of a picture as she stood in front of the ancient cottage, with its diamond-paned leaded windows and mossy roof of shingle tiles, every shade of rich red and brown, bright near the eaves with yellow patches of poor-man’s-pepper, light green mosses, and huge rosettes of house-leeks. It all looked so peaceful, but sad trouble had visited it. The only son had been killed at the siege of Delhi, and his father never recovered from his loss. Under the great walnut tree in the garden he built a sort of cairn of stones, which, from the descriptions that had been sent him, he imagined resembled his son’s grave in India. It was a curious erection with a stuffed bird perched on the top, and by his special wish the Doctor sketched it and painted a picture of it for him. Captain Tills used to sit by his shrine and meditate on all the mysteries. Why the young die and the old are left alive, and why a nation’s rejoicing should so often mean a nation’s mourning? The peace and quiet of the garden and fields comforted him with the healing it always brings to out-door folk. The walnut was a magnificent tree at the back of the house, grouped with oak and ash and a dark yew, whose ivy-girt trunk was surrounded by a rustic seat. There were weather-boarding barns and outhouses with tiled roofs, and the vegetable garden was bordered by hedgerow elms.
Mrs Tills had two daughters; the eldest, Charlotte, though modest and retiring to a degree, was a clever woman, in many ways in advance of her time; the first girl in the Village to try and turn her talents to account and add to the slender income of the home. Mrs Todd of Uplands made it possible for her to attend the Female School of Art in Queen’s Square, then quite a new departure, and twice weekly she journeyed to and from London by the omnibus, and worked very hard at drawing and designing. She won several medals, especially for designs for lace. That was not a time when girls might have studios and study in peace—all she did at home was hindered and trammelled by the life of the family. She sketched and painted in the parlour, and it was full of difficulty, as while she was drawing a bunch of grapes the Captain would be helping himself to “just one more,” till what children call her “copy” had almost ceased to exist.
Ellen, the younger daughter, was sadly deformed, a careless servant had left her on the top of a chest of drawers when an infant, and the result had been a fall, causing paralysis, which crippled her for life; but in spite of one arm being cramped close to her body, she was a marvellous needle woman, knitting the bags and purses of microscopic beads that have been so much imitated of late, and netting fine silk purses.
The Doctor always used a long silk purse, and the mother made them for him, but her netting was not so fine as that of Poor Nelly Tills. Both she and Charlotte excelled in Irish crochet, making the finest rose point lace collars for sale. The death of their soldier brother was a bitter grief to his sisters. The Mutiny was not a history book story in those days, but a horror of yesterday, even wiping the sufferings and terrors of the Crimea off the slate.
Captain Tills died early in the sixties. Not long after his wife followed him, and Ellen, who had always been an invalid, died a few days after her mother, so Charlotte was left in the old cottage to face the world alone. I do not think she had a relation in the world. She took up her life bravely with such pupils as the Village could give her, and was an excellent teacher, endowed with endless patience and good temper. Winifred at ten years old became one of her pupils, and many a happy hour she spent at Ford’s Grove Cottage. Two of the Vicar, Mr Frost’s daughters, and some others used to meet on Saturday mornings for the lesson. Winifred must often have been a trial of patience, as she usually arrived breathless and dirty, having made a bee line across Highfield Park over muddy fields and mossy walls, but she was sent to wash and never scolded, and worked for the love of it to make up.
When Miss Tills removed in 1871 to the low white house on the north side of the Pond, which had been Miss Watkin’s and later Miss Tebb’s school, the cottage was taken by Mortiboy, the cow-keeper, and became very different from what it had been with the old furniture, china, silver, and curios of its former in-dwellers. Gradually it fell into worse and worse repair, suffering the decay of old age and neglect.
One of the people always to be seen in the lane was Ned Mitcham, Mr Busk’s cowman. He appears in numbers of the Doctor’s sketches in company with the Ford’s Grove donkey cart. When the Doctor first came to the Village, Mrs Mitcham, his mother, was still alive, and she described her three sons as “One what worked, one what kept hisself clean, and one what did neither.” Ned was the one what worked, and he certainly did not fulfil the other condition.
In its long existence the old cottage must have seen many changes and had many tenants. Some people date it so far back that those who dwelt there may have seen the marvel of the making of the New River, and viewed it as we now regard such innovations as wireless telegraphy and aeroplanes, or as the inhabitants of the old Village looked on the coming of the railway or the lighting of their roads with gas. When Winifred’s great-grandfather had been from Maidstone to London and seen a short length of street lit with coal gas as an experiment, he came home saying:—“It was a pretty toy, but could never be any practical use.” How little we know what changes may come in fifty years, and how strange would Winchmore Hill to-day appear to those who dwelt in Ford’s Grove Cottage when it was first built. Did Billy Button live there who bought a buttered biscuit? and where did he buy it? at a shop that was the forerunner of Mrs Binsted’s or Water’s? Was it in some war-time famine that Enoch Elkrigg was reduced to eating an empty egg-shell? Who can tell us?
“A fameless house of nameless men,
A backwater upon the tide
Of Life, the house was once a home
By love and friendship sanctified.
And when I see an ancient house
In summer sun or wintry rime,
I feel amid the present peace
The mystery of the olden time.”
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