The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Undiscovered history

old lead toyOur cottage was owned by basket weavers until 25 years ago. Mr and Mrs D lived the simple life. They kept pigs and chickens and grew their own vegetables. I am told that they made their own wine and welcomed the village children to visit as they had none of their own. Sometimes I work with a man who has lived in the village all his life. When he mentions Mrs. D his face always softens.

The D’s were traditional villager craftsmen. It sounds romantic but I reckon that it was a tough life.

In their heyday there was a village shop for groceries, a post office, butchers, bakers and two pubs. They didn’t have a car and didn’t need one. Everything was on their doorstep. Mr D even had his own tankard in his favourite pub, which he visited every evening to down just the one pint. People came to buy their baskets. The D’s didn’t need an outlet such as a market stall. Supermarkets and farmers’ markets just didn’t exist.

Gradually the local shops closed. By the time they’d both died only the village shop and one pub remained.

When Mr D died his wife soldiered on. She had no income from the baskets and I doubt whether she had any pension. Leafing through my cottage papers I discovered that she sold the cottage to someone who would allow her to live there until she died. She didn’t have much choice and got a reasonable price.

The summer that I bought the cottage a young man knocked on the front door on a sunny Saturday afternoon. A beautiful boy in his mid twenties with curly black hair and large eyes. He was holding a tapestry.
“I’ve brought you this tapestry. It portrays the cottage and was worked by Mrs D.”
As I made enthusiastic noises over the unusual, slightly moth eaten tapestry he blurted out.
“This cottage rightfully belongs to me. I inherited it from Mrs D but when she died. But the relations wouldn’t listen.”
I invited him in and heard the sad story. He had grown fond of her, visited every day and enjoyed her company. Then she had told him that he’d inherit the cottage when she died.

One morning he opened the front door to an unnerving silence.
“I went upstairs and found her lying on the bed. She had an overcoat over her nightdress. She must have got up to let out the chickens and then sat on the bed and just died.”

He was only sixteen at the time. He’d walked through the garden on a scary wave of grief and joy. As her beneficiary, he had to ring her relations and carry out her last wishes. She had an old dog that was pining for her so he had the dog put down.
“I buried him under the willow tree at the bottom of the garden.” His lips trembled.
He’d looked at the land with different eyes as it now belonged to him. That first step is a wonderful moment for anyone. The butterflies are rippling and the birdsong is playing on your small patch of land. Just above and way out of reach the skylarks are calling. No one every really owns land but you have the chance for husbandry and privacy and space.

“Then the relations arrived. They said that she hadn’t left a will. They didn’t care about her promise and sold my inheritance.” His voice was cold and clipped.
“They gave me that tapestry as a keepsake.”

Just like his relations, I didn’t tell him that she had sold the house years before she died.

He had such fond memories of her. And these gradually unravelled as we walked around the garden and he explained how it had been before.
“That’s where they filled in the entrance to the cellar. The pigs were living over there.” He glanced back tentatively. “It was a peaceful place. And she was wonderful – she made me feel so special.”

After an hour or so he left. He didn’t want the tapestry and, although I accepted it with thanks, nor did I. It lies somewhere in the cottage – a testament to a cruel, false promise. I have no idea why Mrs D misled this boy. Perhaps she was lonely and frightened and needed to guarantee that someone would drop by every day. For the last ten years I’ve turned the situation over and over in my mind. It’s still as raw as the day I heard the tale. Nothing can justify her actions.

I sometimes see the lad in Newmarket, still stunningly beautiful and now with a wife and family. He never appears to notice me.

The cottage was modernised after Mrs D died and a bathroom was added. The pig sties were knocked down and dug into the ground. The garden was laid to lawn.

When I battle with the pig pen bricks and ballast that lie below the surface of the garden I am always reminded of his anger and hurt.

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  1. Oh what a lovely sad story Fiona – and how kind of you not to tell the boy the truth. I feel sure everyone is right that she didn’t deliberately trick him; it must have been desperation or dementia. You said the old man’s face always softened when he heard her name and she must have been kind to the children for them to keep coming. Also with this young man’s affection for her the overall picture is of a sweet old lady not a manipulative one. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. Made by Cara

    Wow – that must have been a hard afternoon for both yourself and the boy, as he was then. Thank you for sharing it – and doing it so eloquently too.

  3. Beautiful but sad story. I think it’s quite possible that Mrs D perhaps had dementia or the early onset of Alzheimers – both cruel diseases that trick the mind. I like to think that she genuinely meant it when she promised the house to the boy.

  4. Such a sad and interesting story, beautifully told. I now have such an interest in your lovely cottage, with so much history revealed, I would love to see a photo of it on your blog one day.
    As always, many thanks for your lovely daily blog. I visit it each morning with anticipation..

  5. samantha winter

    Our past is often more interesting than any novel. A sad story and it must have stayed with the boy and shaped at least part of his life.

  6. I’m thinking this: she promised the house to the boy, because she loved him. Then fell on hard times so had to sell the house and break that promise, and she was wearing a coat in bed, because she needed to keep warm.

    Maybe she was too proud to tell him the truth and admit she’d broken her promise.

    Whatever the actual truth – I think you did the right thing by not shattering his memories.

  7. What an extraordinary story. Interesting to read about the harshness of the basketmakers’ life: my first house – 12 feet wide, a two-up two-down with a cellar and virtually no garden – belonged to basketmakers … when I went to check the Victorian census returns for the house, I found that the couple lived there with their seven children. I never ever again complained about having too little space.

    We are, in so many ways, so fortunate to live where and when we do


  8. magic cochin

    Beautifully related Fiona. Like the plot of a Thomas Hardy novel – the cottages and land around us must hide a multitude of such stories of hope and heartbreak,promises and disappointment.


  9. City Mouse/Country House

    It’s a truly sad story, and such a strange and interesting one. I wonder if Mrs. D knew what she was even saying, or if like both you and Fiona mention, she needed to feel assured that she would have company. I suppose human companionship can be a powerful motivator when you have none. Thanks for the post – really beautifully told.

  10. michelle sheets

    Hi Fiona,
    What a sad story. I wonder if it was a combination of the panic of being alone, and a touch of dementia that made her tell her lies. My grandmother went through a long peroid of irrationality and not quite lies, but a very distorted view of the truth. Maybe Mrs. D thought she had the right to give her house away, maybe she “forgot” she sold it all ready.
    I feel for the boy, I wonder why his parents didn’t go with him for a visit to see what Mrs. D was saying to him, to warn him not to get his hopes up.

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