On a shelf above the fireplace sit the three volumes of the St Winifred’s Well Cottage Visitors Log. On our first evening, we got them down and started to read.
Among the earliest entries (11 April 1992) is that of the now-infamous Mrs. Nicholson. Her even cursive densely covers eight full A4 pages and provides a breathtaking illustration of how St Winifred’s might have been viewed by Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, if that person had been from Edinburgh. If you dropped Mrs. Nicholson in Paradise in autumn, she would take exception to the unraked leaves upon the lawn, turning them into a metaphor for the decline of the Anglican church. The grandiloquent ramblings of an articulate but small-minded self-righteous bigot make nauseating and yet compelling reading. You plow on, hoping she alights on the moment when she realises she’s wasting her time constantly trying to find fault with beauty and with her own good fortune, living comfortably in a land that values its green spaces and preserves its history with such care. But no. Just as you think, “At last! A redemptive sign of sensitivity and compassion,” she finishes it off with a dash of, say, casual racism. Because no one could properly appreciate springtime in a secluded dell when being intruded upon by the Wrong Kind of Pilgrims, could they.
I won’t do her the honour of transcribing the last half-page of her entry pictured above. Instead, I will simply point out the amusing footnote after her signature and that of her husband - “Alas, poor Mr Nicholson!” Many subsequent entries reference Mrs Nicholson with varying degrees of amusement and horror. There are plenty that pay her no heed at all, but I suspect that none were written without being influenced by it. Perhaps the compulsion to compensate for her painful and verbose review has helped to produce some of the lovelier tidbits, like these sketches.
A fine pen sketch of the exterior of the cottage. “St Winifred is clearly the patron saint of something ‘Arty’ since all who hover here wax lyrical within hours. She certainly stirs the imagination...this view is unobtainable! [which is why I drew it - to save you the pain]. --John Pumfrey”
“Perhaps a little path to see this view and the view in your postcard would make this lovely place even lovelier? -- Goa Pumfrey” 16-20 April ‘07
A fantastical colour pen sketch sketch of the cottage flanked by kingfisher and daffodils. Two floating personages, one male and one female, pour water into the well under the cottage, which forms the number 20. “Jon & Elke - Anniversary - 22-6-2012”
A pencil sketch, ¾ view, of a curly-haired woman reading a book. “Mina Reading” 31-8-01
Quick fine pen sketch of a dog curled up on a blanket. “Tonight. Shadow after his biggest walk ever.” 5-7 April 2010
Some entries strive to be educational.
Colourful sketch of the coal and wood burner, with step-by-step instructions for lighting the fire for townies.
A rather imperative list of activities to be done at St Winifred’s, centred on a detailed sketch of a greenfinch. “Walking along the canal (laminated map left in bookcase), twitching, relaxing in garden, drinking (lots), washing in well (look out for frogs), eating at the navigator is poo (only drink at this pub)...cook at home.” 17-21 July 2006
And some are simply charming.
Dave and Owen’s Marvelous Mediaeval Weekend, 29 Jan - 1 Feb 2010. “...being enchanted by the mediaeval when we arrived...shopping in Oswestry...two bookworms by the fire..singing Kate Bush songs whilst making soup (what did St Winifred put in that water???*)...taking long moonlit walks...learning to light the fire...learning all about Saintly Saxon Sisters of Shropshire...burning the Daily Mail (that we found in the storeroom) in the fire (take that you homophobes!)...”
* Blood, darlings. Blood.
The log's pages are sprinkled with poetry, quoted and original.
For the Latin lover, an illustrated quote from Horace, 65 BC.
“Hoc erat in votis
modus agri non ita magnus
horta ubiet tecto vicinus
iugis aquae fons
et paukum silvae super his foret.”
Translation into English courtesy of a Google search (here)
“This is what I prayed for — a piece of land not very large, where there would be a garden, and near the house a spring of ever-flowing water, and also a bit of a wood.”
For the less erudite poetry appreciator, a bawdier composition.
“This log has many useful tips,
And plenty of amusing quips,
But pilgrims shouldn’t be too shocked,
Nor priests have cause to be unfrocked,
When we enjoy our skinny dips. --Anon”
There are repeat visitors, too. I hope we’ll count ourselves amongst their number in future.
“24th-29th April 2009
Our second visit, with a gap of 13 years and it was relaxing & beautiful as ever.
Lesley Alan & Doyle the border collie
These people have been coming to the cottage at least once a year for over a decade. Usually they only sign with the date, their initials and an ankh, so this is unusually verbose entry for them.
“October 2002 11=18 BNW ♥ ABH Happy Anniversary Wednesday 16th
Thank you again St W, Mrs Phythian-Adams*, Mr & Mrs S** and our 5 cheery pilgrims who came in from the rain
For Ketut and Dewah Bali X”
* The previous owner of the cottage
** The housekeepers
Mrs Phythian-Adams, who donated the cottage to The Landmark Trust when she realised she could no longer keep it up and couldn’t afford the necessary repairs to restore it, saves up to visit the cottage once or twice a year. Her entries, written in small neat ballpoint script, always include old photos and memories from her life there. Her personal history and her love for the place permeates the logs. Seeking out her entries was a pleasure. I include transcriptions of two of them below.
“November 20th-24th 2006 Here I am on my first birthday in 1938 on the doorstep here. This visit has been wet, wet & very wet. No kingfisher, but not surprising as his perch is above the overgrown watercress so any fish must be out of sight. Rainbows, though, aplenty. In to Oswestry each day for food, fuel & charity shops - Market on Market Day. We have read & been happily lazy. --Margaret & MaryAnne Phythian-Adams & Tess*”
* Tess is the dog.
“September 24th-28th 2012 Very wet, we almost had to swim here & I’ve never seen the stream & pond so full - both the same level. This time I thought Uncle Frank Taylor [photo included] should be remembered. He was brought up in Cumberland, near the Scottish border where his father was Rector of Kirk Andrews. Frank also went into the church & was rector here, West Felton, from 1914-1928 when he died. He it was who acquired St Winifred’s Well & left it to his niece in his Will - she being 19 at the time. She (my mother) went & drove down to Shropshire from the North in her little car, filling it with cottage-y furniture on the way & bringing plants for the garden.
“As usual, MaryAnne & I have done nothing, just enjoyed being here. Tess is getting a bit old for mining, a little dipping here & there. We are booked again next March. --Margaret & MaryAnne Phythian-Adams & Tess”
I wanted to add to the log’s tradition of effortful entries in my own small way, so I sketched the view of Humuhumu in the big bed from “my” armchair by the fire.
“Our first Landmark Trust property, booked for F’s birthday, and our first as a family of three. (A. pictured above, asleep in the bed aged 16 weeks.) We’ve enjoyed the cold clear nights tucked in the chairs by the fire, reading, dozing and eating by turns. Beware the bog in loose-fitting wellies. Escaped, but only just. Body intact - dignity, not so much.”
We’ll be back with Humuhumu one day.
Read Part 1