The Finest Meal That I Ever Ate

Neil Lanham continues his tales of adventures into deepest Suffolk in the 1960’s in pursuit of the Tradition.

In the late 1960’s I was out one day recording when I met another person with a taperecorder and his name was George Ewart Evans. I knew who he was because he had written some excellent books, mainly around the Suffolk traditions, and particularly about Horsemen. We became friends and swapped informants. He put me onto Sam Friend, a horseman who sung and I put him onto Jimmy Knights also a horseman. He was doing a programme about Suffolk farmworkers going up to Burton on Trent after the harvest to help in the breweries and Jimmy had been up there and went on to appear on his radio programme and Anglia TV.

One day a card came through the post from George Ewart Evans saying ‘See Horry White of Ringsfield, Nr Beccles’. Now normally one would go and knock on the door, see people, get to know them and get accepted so that they know you were genuine in your pursuit and you have their confidence. I did not have the time at that moment, so I just sent a card and a return card came back ‘Come up Saturday - bungalow near the crossroads’. Well I got to this crossroads and I could not find a bungalow anywhere and then I saw two railway carriages side-by-side and I noticed the name ‘Amor’. This was Horry’s ‘bungalow!’. Horry had been a fisherman and Amor was the carved wooden nameplate off a fishing smack that had been wrecked when they were fishing off the Goodwin Sands and had been washed ashore with a dog on it. He gave it to me and I have it hanging in my kitchen to this day – a treasured possession.

Horry had been given a little piece of land by his grandmother in the 1920’s. He had dug his own well and had these two railway carriages put sidebyside. They had their traditional leather straps on the door and brass ‘T’ handles and no electricity. He was an absolute mine of information telling me all sorts of things such as all the old games they played in the pub like mot, pitch, toss, hole in the seat, skittles, quoits, fox and goose, buzznap, spoof, big morry and little morry (nine men’s morris – you will now find it in modern compendiums of games) but this according to him had been the game of the Suffolk Horsemen who’d play it on wet days with half beans and beans scratched out on top of meal bins. It is a game that has been carried locally in the oral tradition from time immemorial – possibly the Romans.

Horry, who had ended his days as a Coypu catcher, produced for me a whole load of old broadsheets of local murders and ballads like the shocking murder at Wrotham, Near Diss and talked of riddles, and sung things like:

Two legs sat upon three legs, one leg in his lap
Up came four legs, he bit two legs, run off with one leg understand
Poor old two legs hopped off of three legs, he threw three legs after four legs
That’s how the poor old two legs got his one leg back

I am sure that a lot of you will know that this, of course, a man sitting on a stool, which he throws after the dog, who takes his leg of mutton from him etc.

He told of stories like the one about the pub in Holton St James that had been closed in the early part of the century as being beyond control. It was apparently the meeting place for all the local poachers, who would gather towards closing time, when you would find as many as 40 hammer shotguns leaning against the bar whilst their owners and dogs refreshed themselves in readiness for the nights fray. One night, after the landlord was having his sign freshly repainted, the poachers waited until it was all nicely finished then as they left the pub for their night’s excursion every man jack of them tested their poaching weapons on the new sign and blew it to smithereens. The pub was closed by the authorities later as being ‘out of control’.

He told of the agricultural workers rebellion and how he reckoned Joseph Arch gave rise to the word communism in a speech at Sibton Green ‘we are all commonists’ he said. ‘Vote, Vote, Vote for Joseph Arch. Kick Lord Salisbury out the door’ he sung. He then sung several songs ‘A nobleman courted his own servant maid’, ‘Boozing jolly well boozing’, ‘McCatherty’, ‘Here’s good luck to the scarlet and the grey’, ‘Said the soldier to the sailor Amen’, ‘Watch us triggers’, ‘Heave away the trawl my boys’ and others that you would expect from the repertoire of a fisherman. On my CD of East Coast Fisherman I have him telling the following yarn:

‘In the 14/18 war, our fishing smack was commandeered by the Navy to go minesweeping and they put a Jonty on board’. ‘You know what that is don’t you’, ‘No’ I said. ‘Well a Jonty is a Naval Lieutenant and this young Naval Lieutenant was still wet behind the ears and I suppose being put on this boat was sort of his first command. At the helm was old Smiles who’d shook more water off his oilskins than this young puppy would ever sail in. He told Smiles to set the course south sou-west and they hadn’t been going far up the coast when this Jonty said ‘Smiles’ he says ‘Where’s the ships head?’, ‘That’s sou-west sir’ said Smiles ‘Hum’ said the Jonty ‘Next time I speak to you I want another S on that’. Well they go a bit further up the coast. ‘Smiles’ he said ‘Where’s the ships head?’, ‘It’s south south west, bearing sou-westerly into a Southerly wind says Samuel Smiles of Somerlyton, Suffolk’ – that gave him some S’s boy’.

Then he sung:

An Englishman, a Scotchman and a Hebrew they were sentenced to be hanged upon a tree.
An Englishman chose an oak tree and died happy, as happy as happy it could be.
The next one to come was a Scotchman who said ‘any old tree it will do ‘cos I don’t give a jot and I don’t care a lot so hang me on any old tree’.
On an apple tree they went and put his light out then they came to Mr Eikinstein the Jew
He said ‘hang me on a gooseberry tree its my dying request you can see
My dying request is the tree I love best just hang me on a gooseberry tree’.

For the judge said ‘surely you know, that a gooseberry tree is too low’
‘I know’ said old mose ‘I can wait till it grows, just hang me on a gooseberry tree’.

When I asked him about stepdancing, which was my interest, he said how they did it in his local pub, Shadingfield Fox to the Yarmouth Hornpipe (Pigeon on a gate), but at Brampton Dog he said they had four men doing what he called a four handed reed. He said they preferred the tune being diddled rather than being played and he said they would sing it.

‘How did it go?’ I asked.

Old Mrs Riley fell into a ditch with her heels cocked up in the air
The donkey he took fright in the middle of the night coming home from Southwold Fair
And their young ones tittered the old ones chauffed
To see the little pretty girls and make them laugh
Mind you don’t get tight keep upon the square
Mind what you’re doing at the Southwold Fair

It has a further four verses.

He took me out into his shed where in a polythene bag he had a full length fur coat. Now Coypus as you probably know, before they were eradicated by men like Horry were like massive rats. They were not a native of this country and had escaped from fur farms where they were bred for their fine furs for ladies coats. They were eroding the banks of the broads and the government had put a bounty on them. Well Horry had caught a lot of those Coypus, cured the skins for himself and assembled them into what appeared to be a magnificent coat. It was massive, it stretched to the ground and was larger than anything I had ever seen in films about the ‘Yukon’. It was lined in silk. He explained that he had procured this silk lining when some airmen bailed out of a plane, which had been shot down near his house during the war. Would I give him a fiver for it? So I did.

I wore it several times to everyone’s amazement, and amusement, then it sat on the peg at home until I eventually swapped it with an antique dealer friend, John Tasker. John, like myself, insisted on wearing it but he too found that dogs in the street used to bark at him. He did quite well out of it come the finish because the river swole up and his house was flooded and his much revered coat got wet through. As it dried out in front of the fire the furs pinged off like seeds popping. It seems that Horry had not stitched a single fur and only glued them onto the parachute silk. John nevertheless got a tidy bit of money from his insurance company and was well satisfied.

The memory of this day with Horry though I shall always cherish for when it started getting dark his wife came in with the oil lamp and said ‘would you like a fresh herring boy, mite of bread and butter, drop of tea?’. That meal in this railway carriage, lit by oil lamp was the best that I have ever tasted. For as Banjo Patterson says in one of his excellent bush ballads ‘The foods that is given with right goodwill is the sweetest food to eat.’

Horry can be heard on the Double CD Comic Songs of the Stour Valley and East Coast Fishermen.