A Walk through Hythe in 1600 – Part Five

Skirt round this scene, turn right and carry on in a westerly direction. There are several narrow lanes leading to closes or to the back lanes which run parallel to the main street.  On your left is the lane leading to the Mount, which despite its promising name is actually a raised gun emplacement, with good views of the sea. Here people like to ‘take the air’. If you want to take the air there, do not use the lane to your left.  Despite the corporation’s best efforts to deter them, people use it as the town’s unofficial public latrine. Use a more circuitous route.

The next lane on the right, which leads uphill again looks, and smells, more promising. You venture in and walk the short distance up to the lane running parallel to the main street. Here there are smaller houses, just one storey, with no visible chimneys. They are all thatched and huddle together so that it is difficult to see where one begins and another ends. A fire in one of these would spread like – wildfire.  As you pass, you see an open door. Mostly the doors are shut, because the fire in the central hearth needs to be drawn through the roof and not out of the door, but one is open. Step inside. The single room has a few pieces of furniture – a bed, covered with blankets, but no sheets, and a pillow, a trunk in the corner, which hold a couple of towels and a tablecloth, and some cheesecloths. There are some basic items of clothing in a press.  By the cold fire are an iron stew pot and a spit, on the table a candlestick and a frying pan and a couple of pewter plates. These householders are poor, but not destitute: hanging on the wall is a side of bacon; there is a kneading trough for bread which shows signs of use, and there are the tools of a labourer near the door, some pails, a shovel and a mattock. This is the house of someone who is able to work for his living and provide, if not luxury, then the necessities of life.

As you leave the house, a very young child runs past you, sobbing, stumbles and falls on the rutted mud, cries louder and carries on running. You watch as he turns into what appears at first to you to be a dilapidated lean-to shed at the end of the row of one storey cottages. It is, in fact, his home. Look inside. There is nothing that could be called a home comfort: a straw mattress, some soiled ragged blankets, a couple of pots, some spoons and wooden dishes and a pail of water. Outside are the remains of a fire. The ‘householder’ must cook outside. You cannot imagine how they manage to keep warm in winter. The child throws himself onto the pile of rags on the bed, and a face emerges. It is the child’s mother. Her wasted face and exhausted eyes tell you that she is sick and probably on the verge of starvation.  There is no hope for these two.  Seventeenth century poverty is cruel, and particularly cruel to women and children.

There is nothing you can do. You are only a chimera. Return to the main road, and continue your walk.

A small group catches your eye, gathered around a very old man who is been resting in the sunshine on a stool brought out to the pavement for him. John Warde is reputed to be over ninety years old, and his great age has made him something of a local celebrity.  He still holds the rank of captain, and has done for over sixty years.  The next generation of the family, in the person of Ambrose Warde, at present drinking with his cronies in the ‘George’, is less respectable. Ambrose is a convicted murderer and an alleged smuggling mastermind.

Some of the group, you see, are sharing a small pipe of tobacco. It is not a cheap habit, but its devotees claim it is good for the lungs.

You are nearing the western extremities of the town now. The houses thin out a little but their place is taken by barns, stables, granaries, orchards and gardens. These last are for growing vegetables for the home, and are rented by those who do not have a plot attached to their homes. You see vegetables you recognise – cauliflower, celery, artichokes, turnips, and cabbage, spinach, radishes, chard, beetroot. Herbs are grown too, for the pot and for medicinal use: several sorts of mint, chives, pennyroyal, chervil, and hyssop.  In one plot there are some rhubarb crowns, but these are grown only for medicinal purposes: their roots are a powerful purgative, and purging is a standard treatment for all manner of ailments.

The road now takes you over the bridge spanning the town ditch. This is not particularly pleasant on a summer’s day, and you hurry over and carry on westward past the Green on your left. This is the site of the town’s two annual fairs. Backing onto the Green are some more artisans’ houses, a wheelwright’s, a rope-maker’s and a blacksmith’s.  Outside the blacksmith’s forge you see the beer cart which earlier had caused so much trouble at John Oldfield’s brewery. One of the horses has thrown a shoe, and John Gately, the blacksmith is replacing it.  The driver has just bought a mug of ale from Phillis Gately, John’s wife. She has no licence to sell ale but the authorities turn a blind eye to this sort of casual transaction. Phillis has now gone to feed her infant son, William. John Gately is newly arrived in the town.  He was obliged to situate his forge on the outskirts of town, to minimise the fire risk inherent in the blacksmith’s trade, but it is also   ideally situated to attract trade arriving from, and in this case going to, the Romney Marsh. John will prove to be an astute businessman, as eventually will little William.

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