A Country Still All Mystery is a delightful and fascinating collection of essays about books, landscapes, writers, publishers, and the pleasures derived therefrom. Mark Valentine introduces us to his passion for old books, and recounts some of the pleasurable zig-zags this has sent him on. Readers of Machen and Hodgson will find much of interest in each article.
My notes are below.
9 September 2017
A Country Still All Mystery
by Mark Valantine.
Tartarus Press 2017
From the essay "BORDERLAND MYSTERIES: THE THRILLERS OF R.C. ASHBY"
There are perhaps few parts of England, unlike the other nations of Britain, that are truly lonely and remote: major roads and significant towns are seldom far away. But the least populated is probably the region of great moors in the most northerly part, the land around and beyond the Roman Wall, in furthest Northumberland. It is also one of the coldest areas, with frost that seldom leaves the hills in winter, and biting winds. It has historically been a ‘debateable land’, with more castles than any other county in England, its borders for centuries contested with Scotland, or between rival clans and families.
As late as the 1745 uprising, when much of Northumberland declared for Bonnie Prince Charlie, the area was the scene of skirmish, plotting, torn allegiances and betrayals. Aside from the grand sweep of history, it was also riven by local disputes, cattle-raiding, plundering, and outlawry. Feuds of blood are soaked into the desolate hills and fortified houses of the land. Yet there is also a fine beauty in the long horizons, dawns of pale gold, and purple sunsets, and a latent mystery in the brooding hills and haggard stone....
From the essay BEYOND THE BOUNDARIES: EXTRA-PAROCHIAL DISTRICTS
There are pockets of England that are set apart. They have a history of difference, of independence. Old lore gathers around them and they do not, or did not, conform. Sometimes they occupy great swathes of territory, more often a few acres holding only a single house. In this essay I shall explore an obscure anomaly in the mapping and ruling of this country that has long fascinated me, but which remains relatively little-known: the question of extra-parochial districts.
The land shapes its own boundaries: rivers, hills, marshes, hollows, plains. Early peoples knew natural landmarks intimately well. Ancient charters delineating grants of territory often cite streams, trees, even bushes to mark out where things extend, and end. The naturalist and historian Henry Massingham thought that the division of Anglo-Saxon England into villages and hundreds and wapentakes and shires was one of the most remarkable administrative achievements ever. We still know very little about how it was done or what influences those early clerks and surveyors followed, but we do know that much of it has endured a thousand years later. Massingham also thought that boundaries, though they might be man-made, were often imbued with legend and local repute.
The sense of belonging to some ancient, marked-out terrain, still runs deep in us. However, alongside these communities with their known shapes and limits, there have always existed places that don’t belong, that were left out: the land beyond the boundaries. In legal parlance they were called ‘extra-parochial districts’ or some variance on this: extra-parochial areas, places. They were extra to, in the sense of outside of, the network of parishes. They have always been oddities: and some have attracted curious legends to account for their existence.
Thirty years ago I liked to wander on my bicycle among the villages of my home county, the little-known Northamptonshire. At first, apart from churches, it was hard to see evidence of history or legend, to link the landscape to the lives of the past peoples who lived there. The area had no storied monuments, like the Rollright Stones across the border in Oxfordshire. There was no dramatic scenery, such as the lakes and mountains other regions possessed. And yet there were quiet relics still to be found. Holy wells, for example, often simply little springs with at most a few stones around them, could be discovered in certain woods or fields. A triangular patch of land bounded by three minor lands had once been the scene of a splendid medieval fair, and there had been carved here in the grass a labyrinth, the Shepherd’s Race. Elsewhere a few ridges and humps in the ground reached by a web of footpaths revealed all that was left of a deserted village.
And then I discovered in a Victorian county directory for the county  the existence of ‘extra-parochial districts’. These were estates, or little pieces of land that lay outside the usual civil and ecclesiastical boundaries. Most villages, hamlets and even smaller settlements in the country belonged to a named and recorded parish: these didn’t. And that had certain advantages. They paid no tithes, nor rates, nor any other fees or dues. Indeed, in some instances, they even claimed to be outside the Common Law.
In fact, the Directory was rather peevish about them:
Besides the parishes and their tythings, or townships, there are many places in England not contained within the limits of any parish, and thence called extra-parochial. These places are found usually to have been the site of religious houses, or of ancient castles, the owners of which did not permit any interference with their authority within their own limits; and in early times the existence of such exemptions from the general government of the kingdom is not surprising . . . extra-parochial places were neither taxable, nor within the ordinary pale of civil jurisdiction; and the inhabitants are still virtually exempt from many civil duties and offices, served not without inconvenience by others, for the benefit of the community at large (page 73).
There has been very little study of these anomalies. The only recent substantial discussion of them is part of a much wider work. This was in K.D.M. Snell’s Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity and Welfare in England and Wales, 1700-1950 (2006). The author, in discussing the role of the parish, took a side-glance at places outside the parish structure, and carried out a survey of known examples: this identified over 700. Snell summarised the reasons why land might be outside the usual civil and church organisation, and these reflected the remarks of my county directory.
A place might typically be outside parish authority because it was in the possession of a higher authority. Abbeys, priories and other ecclesiastical lands, whether or not they still had extant buildings or officials, were often extra-parochial: and country houses made from the domains of ruined abbeys often inherited this privilege. The extensive royal forests in parts of the country had their own laws, courts and officers too, and places within their bounds were also often extra-parochial, even after they were no longer part of the crown’s estate. In London, the Inns of Court preserved the privileges of lawyers to rule themselves outside the city authorities....
From the essay "THE WIND IN THEIR FACES: THE AFTER-LIFE OF BECKET’S ASSASSINS"
They are said to haunt the shore, plaiting sand; or to ride at night from an isle where they lie unshriven; or to walk always with the wind in their face; or to fly as dark birds from the lonely ruins of a stronghold they once owned. None, it was thought, would break bread or take drink with them when they were alive, talk to them, or travel with them: they were outcasts; these, the four knights who murdered Thomas Becket in the dying of the year in the midwinter of 1170. And their reputation still lingers on in the far corners of England.
Some years ago, I visited the village of Alkborough, North Lincolnshire, with two friends, to thread the paths of the turf maze there, which looks out from the high bluff on which the settlement stands, over the estuaries of the Don and the Trent and towards the broad waters of the Humber. Although surrounded by the industrial territory of Scunthorpe, Alkborough has a remote and characterful atmosphere. After we had been to Julian’s Bower, the labyrinth, well-maintained by the village, we made our way to the church, where a replica is laid out in tiles on the floor.
It was growing dusk by now, and the church had just been locked for the night: but the churchwarden, whose house was opposite, saw us, and came out to let us in. He showed us the church’s treasures (including a Roman foundation stone concealed beneath a small trap door, and a clock made by the makers to the Admiralty). And then he asked if we knew that the church had been built, or rebuilt, by three of Becket’s murderers.
For penance, he said, these knights had been ordered by the Pope to go to Jerusalem, then in Saracen hands. This they all took an oath to do. But they were more cynical, and more cunning, than that. One of them knew that a part of the village of Alkborough had always been called Jerusalem, and so there they went. There is still today in the village, he said, a house called Jerusalem Cottage. Though quite modern, it was on the site of earlier buildings of that name. The heraldic shields in the church, he added, were shrouded on Becket’s feast day.
This was not the first time my travels had taken me, quite by chance, to a place associated with the Canterbury assassins. Only a year before, I had stayed in Dorstone, a village near to the book town of Hay-on-Wye. The inn there had a framed notice saying that it had started as a hostelry for the men building the parish church, which had been founded by one of Becket’s murderers.
Soon after, on a visit to North Devon, I learned that the spirit of a Becket knight was said to haunt the shore, owing to an association with the church at nearby Mortehoe: without knowing this legend, I had indeed found the churchyard creepy whenever I had to pass it in childhood holidays. The spirit has, in legend, impossible tasks to complete, such as weaving a rope of sand: and a black dog undoes what he makes.
There was one further link to the assassins. I had once passed the crumbling stone crown of Pendragon Castle, Westmorland, on its mound above the river, and, impressed by its remote position and melancholy atmosphere, had tried to find out more about it. And one thing I found (via the impressively-named owner of the ruin, Raven Frankland) was that it had been a refuge of a Becket knight who had built or owned it, when it was then known as Mallerstang: and its desolation was said to be due to the taint of his visit. He is said to appear there in the form of a dark bird, forever circling the ruins....
....They remain on the outer margins even of the black pantheon of Britain’s villains. It’s not impossible that all their haunts have still not been found: hooves at night may not be a highwayman; those dark wings may not be a crow’s; and if you spare a word for a wandering stranger, who knows what may follow?
From the essay "AGAINST THE ABYSS: CARNACKI THE GHOST-FINDER"
....‘The Whistling Room’ and ‘The Hog’, are amongst the most powerful and intense depictions of personal terror in the face of supernatural evil by any author in the twentieth century.
....The Carnacki stories were written at what might be called a transitional point in Hodgson’s writing career. He had three published books already to his name: The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig’ (1907), The House on the Borderland (1908), and The Ghost Pirates (1909), all written, most probably, when he had time to himself at Glaneifion, the house at Borth, mid-Wales, overlooking the sea, that the family rented. They had won some acclaim but had not been the great literary or commercial success Hodgson had anticipated. So now he was turning his attention more towards the demands of the market. Indeed, he never wrote another full-length novel ( The Night Land , published in 1912, had been written earlier). Instead, he aimed his work more at the periodicals, who would pay for a striking short story. It is likely that the Carnacki stories represent the first signs of an increased understanding on Hodgson’s part about the best way to enter these literary markets, and the need to place his far-flowing visions into a form readers could more readily understand. They were followed by a regular supply of stories, especially to The Red Magazine , including a further series character in the shape of the nautical Captain Gault....
From the essay ‘WHO COULD DAMN THE HARDEST’: A MUGGLETONIAN INFLUENCE UPON ‘CASTING THE RUNES’?
....The Muggletonians were named after their founder, Lodowicke Muggleton, but he was soon joined in the leadership of the movement by his cousin, John Reeve, who was vigorous in spreading its teachings. Both were regarded as prophets. One of their more peculiar practices, though it seems to have been highly effective, was solemnly to pronounce damnation on their enemies, that they might soon perish and be condemned to eternity in Hell (which the sect envisaged as Earth after the sun, moon and stars had been extinguished).
Some of those so cursed did indeed die during the appointed time (it has been observed that perhaps those who didn’t were less proclaimed): [Augustus] Jessopp notes many ‘were fellows given over to drink and debauchery, sots who had not much life in them anyway’, but adds, ‘it is quite conceivable that the sentence may have hastened the end of many a poor wretch who had nothing to live for’. The damnation was portentous, because it could not be revoked, and moreover if it turned out to have been wrongly pronounced upon an innocent person, it redounded to the same effect upon the issuer of it: thus, though it was threatened freely, it was only used weightily.
Jessopp describes a battle with two rival prophets which came down to, as he says, ‘who could damn hardest’. One repented, but the other was obdurate. Then, reports Jessopp, ‘John Reeve uttered his testimony, denouncing him as a false prophet and gave him a month to repent of his misdeeds’. When the month had elapsed Reeve wrote the sentence of eternal damnation upon him ‘and left it at his lodging’. The rival died soon after, drowning in the Channel, admittedly on his way to Jerusalem.
This robust practice of damnation calls to mind aspects of M.R. James’s story ‘Casting the Runes’, from More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), and makes one wonder if James took a hint for his tale from Jessopp’s Muggletonian essay, which describes the damnation aspect with some relish. Here, of course, ‘three months are allowed’ rather than one, and there seems to be no opportunity for repentance. Karswell, like Muggleton, has ‘invented a new religion for himself’. We are told, indeed, that Karswell is an alchemist. But in a major study of the milieu from which the Muggletonians grew (Blown By the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil War England, 2004), David R. Como points out that alchemy and antinomianism like that of the Muggletonians ‘often went hand in hand’. Indeed, he notes that a contemporary seventeenth-century denouncer of the same sorts of sects as the Muggletonians included amongst them the ‘Rosey-crosse Wolves’, who were clearly regarded as being of like mind....
....what gave James the initial idea for his tale? It is unlikely he got it from authentic accounts of medieval witchcraft, where Runes are conspicuous by their absence. Could aspects of the story—the forceful damnation of enemies, the allowing of a period of grace, the ritual delivery of a paper, the frightful effect upon its victims—perhaps have derived from his friend Augustus Jessopp’s trenchant descriptions of a not-dissimilar procedure in his essay on the Muggletonians?