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Secret Places XV & XVI

Two more chapters of The Secret Places (Elkin Mathews & Marrot London 1929) - a chronicle of the 'pilgrimages' of the author, Reginald Francis Foster (1896-1975), and his friend 'Longshanks' idly rambling in Sussex, Kent and Surrey. See our posting of the first chapters for more on Foster and this book, including a contemporary review in The Tablet.

XV

THE WITCH OF WALLAND

Longshanks is a man of Kent, and because of that he quite properly has no love for Sussex. Nor, despite my great skill in argument, can I persuade him that my county is a sacred place. He concedes that she may have been holy once, but now she has been defiled by the horde of novelists and poets who have adopted her as their own and driven forth her true sons to consort with barbarians. And that, of course, is true.
  And so, having come to Rye above the marshes, we considered whether we would go over into Kent, and because I was disgusted with Longshanks’s maudlin sentiment I gave in, and we descended to the flats of Walland, northward of the Ness of Dunge, where, because of the shingle, men use boots that look like snowshoes.
  I knew at once when we had come to the boundary. So great was my sense of loss that my throat became constricted, and also Longshanks burst suddenly into song and frightened a dozen lapwings into screaming flight. Stagnant water lay everywhere in that dismal place, and the sea-wind shrilled among the reeds. I cursed the marsh of Walland in my heart, and, sighting the Woolpack Inn, I led my companion thither that I might find comfort. And afterwards we went out into the cold morning air, somewhat warmed, and, having crossed the noisome Kent Ditch, we made our way to Brookline, where the steeple of the church is on the ground (it having jumped from the building centuries ago in surprise that a Brookline couple should bother to go through the rite of marriage) and then wondered whither we should go next.
  That, having left Sussex, we were without aim is proved by our turning due south from west. Crossing countless ditches, which in that place they call brooks, we came finally to Rabbiting Farm by way of New Cheyne and Little Cheyne. And in that desolate place, under a dwarf oak, we met a witch.
  She made no secret of it. She said that she lived at Birdskitchen, which is in Romney Marsh hard by, that her name was Sally Gubbins (which latter word, as everybody knows, has an esoteric and a sinister meaning), and that she wrought spells. Longshanks promptly said that he had no tobacco, and would she produce some for him? She pointed to a bush of Old Man’s Beard, the sticks of which are smoked by country folk as are cigarettes of paper and tobacco; and the amazing thing was that Old Man’s Beard grows only in hilly country. Then she said that if we would pay her she would show us her hovel (her own words), and so we went with her to Birdskitchen and saw the place where she worked her spells.
  I admired the old lady’s artistry, for her hut was just what one would expect to find. It had its skull, its bones, its cobwebs, its black cat, its broomstick for Sally’s frequent excursions on business, its cauldron, in which an Irish stew was simmering, and its herbs hung from the ceiling. In short, it was a real witch’s abode.
  Then, seeing that we were not tourists and that we admired honest enterprise, she told us that, despite its solitariness, her hovel was a showplace, and that her agents in New Romney and Appledore and Rye managed to persuade many motorists to visit her. She said that they were told to park their cars at Brookline and proceed thence on foot, and that the toll she exacted from them was honestly, and indeed commendably, gained, inasmuch as those tourists had their small adventuring from the main road and its consequent thrill to talk about therafter, and for many a day.
  She gave us some of her Irish stew and some ale that had a strange quality which I cannot (and would not) describe, and then, leaving the hut, we returned to Brookland, crossed the railway, and went north to Appledore, which is a pleasant place, and beyond the island which the soldiers’ ditch makes of the marshes of Romney and Walland. And now Longshanks began to warm with the delight of home-coming, for, he said, although they were so marked on the map, the marshes between the ditch and the shallow sea to the south are no part of Kent at all. But I think that, as usual, he was lying.

XVI

A DÊNE-HOLE IN KENT

I hesitated to tell Longshanks that I wanted to return to the marshes south of the soldiers’ ditch, but when we had got to Appledore and fared adequately on that Kentish delicacy which is known as dodger (though why I do not know), and which is a stew of some sort, I felt that the flatlands had their allure, after all, and I had to tell him so. We went, therefore, Longshanks being complacent, back across the ditch and journeyed crookedly by way of Ivychurch to New Romney (which is very old) and so came to the sand dunes that fringe the Channel west of the Dymchurch sea wall.
  The sky was holy with evening, and a mist lay upon the shallow sea. The water moved uneasily in the ebb, but made no sound. So great was the silence that it hissed in our ears. Eastwards a solitary Martello tower made a blackness against the sky, and a smear of smoke from a kelp-fire on the beach cut its bold outline in two, Longshanks, who being an artist is rather obvious, said that it was a fine evening.
  A man with a gun topped a dune and turned seawards to look for the morrow’s weather, Then he whistled his lean dog to heel and spoke to him. Finally he gave us a good night in a strong voice and, shifting his gun to his other shoulder, dropped into a hollow and made towards the village.
  We stayed there in the silence until the Martello tower was taken into the darkness and a lighthouse winked across the shallow sea. Then, shivering a little in the cold, we went eastward, intending to seek hospitality that night with the soldiers at Shorncliffe. But because the mist drifted in from the Channel we failed to find the road, and after we had suffered much from the rough ground and the coldness of the water in the ditches, we came at last to a solitary house on high ground, out of the marsh, and knocked boldly at the door.
  A quaint little man in ancient clothes and a skull cap answered our summons and invited us in. He told us that the house was the oldest in England and that he was a descendant of its first owner, a man who had taken part in the famous Beggars’ March London (I think he meant Jack Cade’s Rebellion) and who was no longer a beggar when he returned.
  But that was not all. When we had eaten of some excellent baked meat, served by a man-servant as quaint as our host, and had washed the food down with a thin red wine, which the little man said he imported from some foreign place or other, he took a great lantern and led us out of the house by the back way and across a paddock. The heavy sea mist had failed to lift to this high ground, and I saw that we were in a walled garden.
  Our host held his lantern aloft and pointed,
  “A Dêne-hole,” he said.
  A shaft as wide as a cottage room slanted into the earth. I was fearful of following him into the place, but I did not want Longshanks to know that. I went after him, therefore, and my friend was emboldened to do like-wise. A little way down the shaft ended. We were in a dug-out shaped like a conventional rose. Two others of similar shape led out of it.
  The little man let us stay there for five minutes only, then he began to climb the shaft again, and because he had the lantern we hurried after him. But he went so fast that we did not catch him up until he had reached the house, for it would have been cowardly to run.
  “What is a Dêne-hole?” I asked politely, when we were inside.
  “They say it was a place of refuge from the Danes which the Saxons dug,” he answered briefly, “but that is not necessarily true.”
  Then, before I could ask more, he rang a bell, and when the manservant came, our host told him to get the dogcart ready.
  “He will drive you to Charing,” he said to us.
  Finally he toasted us in a glass of his red wine. But although the wine was thin, it was very potent, for despite the cold, we fell asleep afterwards in the dogcart and did not awaken until the manservant shook us. We were too stupid with sleep to ask him any questions, and he drove off, leaving us standing in the road, outside an inn.
  I know no more about that Dêne-hole than I have said, and I do not understand why its owner was so mysterious about it. Nor could I find his house again if I tried. It was a most surprising adventure–at least, I think so.

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