WICKHAM, at the southernmost end of the Meon Valley, does not feature largely in the guidebooks. Mention will be made that it’s the birthplace of William of Wykeham, Chancellor of England from 1367 -71. A few lines will probably follow about the historic Village fair, granted by Royal Charter in 1267. A passing reference, maybe, to the Chesapeake Mill, constructed from the timbers of a warship captured during the Napoleonic War; possibly the quartering of Queen Anne’s troops in Bridge Street. And that’s probably as much as you’ll get. There is, however, a rich oral tradition relating to the village, seldom finding its way into the history books and rapidly passing out of existence with the older inhabitants who used to tell such tales.

Legend, for example, has it that at the beginning of time God had a little bit of land left over. Unsure what to do with it, He created Wickham. The villagers interpreted this as the establishment of a second Paradise. Others felt differently. “Little Hell” taunted the Botley boys when they gathered at Harry Boyes’ tollgate at the top of Winchester Hill. To which the Wickhamites responded “Hang him up and cut him down!” This dated back to the time just after public executions had been abolished. One of the spectators at the last such event offered to demonstrate how it was done in the bar of Botley’s Bugle Inn. Just as he placed his head in the noose a band passed by. Everyone rushed to the window leaving him to choke to death.

Harry Boyes was one of several village stalwarts whose tales were passed down from generation to generation. F.W. Clarke, the village draper, was another. He’s said to have played the violin with Paganini and, whilst in India, to have stopped a charging bull in its tracks with a single glance. Then there was Jimmy the Saint who regaled passers-by with pieces of worldly wisdom at the top of Bridge Street, Stitch – the Squire’s Coachman who once served at the Court of St James, ‘Do Nothing’ Rasheigh, one of the rectors whose deeds have passed down to posterity, and a Mr Baxter whose moral impropriety upset the villagers. Declaring a “skimmington” they gathered before his house in the square by night and day banging saucepans and kettles till he and his mistress took flight. Smugglers, though, known locally as “owlers”, were regarded as heroes. They came up the Meon secretly by night bringing their contraband through passages said to exist beneath the Square. One third of the cost of their goods could be saved through such activities, but those caught hung in chains at Portsmouth dockyard till three tides had passed over them.

The 1780s was a time of war with France. One of their agents, Henry Lutterloh, used the village as his base when spying on Portsmouth dockyard. His activities were incorporated into Thackeray’s final novel Denis Duval, his trial by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities.

Another local character was Walter West, the village butcher, whose shop is still existence in the Square. Walter had other civic responsibilities: town crier, lamplighter, Sexton, bell-ringer and public weather forecaster. He was given the nickname of ‘Birdie’ on account of his high-pitched squeaky voice. “If each before his own door sweeps, the village will be clean!’ he chirped twice daily, ensuring that individual boundaries were preserved. Not that this made much difference in the wilder parts of the village. At Hundred Acres they crept out regularly by night to shift one another’s boundary stones. Once, when told by the Squire to announce the establishment of a frozen meat company, Birdie – not eager to advertise a rival – turned a deaf ear. Another of the traditional village officers, the constable (in the shape of Mr Price, the grocer) was sent to arrest him. Walter was handcuffed, brought before a jury, and fined a bottle of port – which they all drank together in the Kings’ Head.

Evidence such as this may not be as factually accurate nor chronologically as sound as more conventional approaches. It speaks, though, to a deep need within each one of us, establishing who we are, where we belong, whence we came and the values we should hold dear. But it’s fragile in the extreme. As a landscape disappears, the stories that coalesced around it first lose their context, then their vigour, finally their meaning. When, in a mobile society the landmarks are uprooted, the folk dispersed, who will be left to tell their tales?

David Warwick

For details of David Warwick’s novel Chorus Endings, set in post-war Meon Valley, contact dww019@gmail.com