“The large and handsome mansion of Stowcombe stands in an extensive park, set on a wooded eminence of the Quantocks Hills, whose summit is decorated with the artificial semblance of a ruined castle, and commands a prospect of very considerable extent. The grounds in front of the house are disposed into various pleasing slopes, which descend from the terrace to a fine sheet of water, all around diversified by stately groves. Beyond the lake, the ground again rises, and the view is terminated by a handsome triumphal arch, and a ruinous tower atop the hill. Various other ornamental buildings are scattered through the park.”
‘Hewlett’s Guide to the Houses of the Western Counties’, 1770
He had us damming the river and flooding the valley last year, Master. What was park’s now lake. And what was a handy hideaway for a crafty pipe we need a boat to get to now. And then he’d spot us through his study window with that damned telescope.
We’ve been lugging stone up and down for his fancy London architect, Mr Flitcroft. There’s buildings going up like we’ve never seen – arches, temples with pillars and domes, fancy-arsed towers. He’s got men in from Taunton doing the carving and setting. And there’s sculptures arriving by the wagon load from Bailey the mason’s. You should see the new grotto – marble cherubs fatter than the Briggs’s baby, and naked hussies showing everything they got, and a stone God with a beard pissing water out of his mouth for no good reason … we never know what’s coming next. When we was all gathered round, me and the men and Master and Mr Flitcroft and sundry other gents, the agent waves his arm around the park and says, ‘It’s all Greek to me’.
And everyone laughed. I didn’t see nothing funny.
Master’s got us working round the clock digging. The wagons get stuck in the mud and we has to dig them out. All this rain’s cut the rides up badly and Master says he wants them smooth. Smooth as what? I asks. Smooth as Becky Babb’s thighs, Will Maggs says. He’s Master’s butler and he should know, as he’s seen Master stroking them enough when Mistress ain’t looking.
Master had us clearing clumps of rhododendrons from the slopes. Like fighting your way through a jungle. A man could go missing. Now William the gardener’s planting laurels and gaudy azaleas in cartloads. Ain’t gardening.
This new lake. When visitors do their own punting I gets nervous, and it’s a miracle none of them don’t fall in and drown – it’s sixteen foot in places out there. Still, we get good tips, specially when we lug hampers on board and chase the peacocks off to stop them making too much of a racket and pecking the ladies.
Now Master’s got us making a bridge over the stream. The Lord knows why. It’s another of his crazes. A chit could hop over it and not get his feet wet. We’ve been knocking in wood supports to take the shuttering. Mr Flitcroft was here with his plans yesterday. He lost hold of them when the wind blew up and they flapped into the trees and he had us running after them. Little Tommy caught them in the end but he tore the paper and Mr Flitcroft weren’t too happy because they was all folded and coloured and neat before and now they’re a mess.
A mess, just like this bridge’ll be the way it’s going. We’ re using flint and poor rubble stone from that quarry down by Adscombe. Mr Flitcroft says he don’t want no smooth finish, he wants his bridge rough like a ruin. Just like the hovel master rents me for a King’s ransome? I says under my breath.
Breaks my heart, him making us do all this bad work.
Robert Rigg reckons they’re playing at being poor, same as us.
Mr Flitcroft showed us the plans of the bridge we’re making yesterday. He says two arches, but he’d do just as well having us drop a few planks across for all the difference it makes. I piss more water than that stream sends down. Master never comes out this way, anyway, so why he wants some fancy bridge is beyond me, but I don’t say nothing. Better he spent his money doing up our cottage roof if he’s got it to waste. It’s terrible damp for my old girl with her bad chest.
Mr Flitcroft makes it sound like we’re bridging the Red Sea. Well, men, he says, it’s to be the piece de something or other. But I don’t think I caught it right. A rustic construction of plain rubble, he says, double span, semi-circular arches, a string course and rusticated parapets. That’s how he put it. Just like that. Like we was bridging the Thames at Greenwich for King bloody George himself. Rigg our joiner looks at me as if he hadn’t an earthly what this architect was ranting on about. Rigg’s never done a bridge before, nor have we. I said surely we don’t need a bridge here, sir. Mr Flitcroft did a bit of huffing and tells us it’s ornamental, whatever that means. Everything’s got to be sharp and pointy, and nothing straight. He wants flints poking out of the parapet like some monster dragon. Plain ugly I’m thinking, and a waste of time and effort. All our years of experience making something fancy-arsed no one’ll use. And everyone laughing at our bad work behind our backs.
Now the rain’s got the stream back in spate and we’re all splashing about. Robert Rigg’s banging the shuttering together to form the arches and Jem Quick, me and Samuel Ash are humping lumps of stone down into the water ready for mortaring.
It turns out a bad afternoon. Jem saw a convoy of carriages cross the park towards us and he nudges me and he says ‘Here we go. Visitors. Stand by your beds. The gents is doing a bit of promenading, as they call it, and out for their open air dinner.’
More likely here watching us sweat blood, I reckoned.
They took a good half hour getting here as Master kept stopping the carriages and bragging about this temple and that arch, and all the work he’s been wasting his money on.
Gubby the coachman brought the carriages round in a semi-circle and he winks at me. Then he helps a dozen or more ladies and gents down – making sure he gets his tips like he does – and they all collapse on the grass like their legs is too tired to support them.
When Hannah unpacks the hampers, they catch the smell of food and drink and all wake up. What they got through would have lasted our end of the village a month. You should have seen it! Plates of ham and beef, venison, this sort of pie, that sort of pie. They gobbled it up like they’d never had a square meal between them. And there’s us sat on the other side with a jug of cider thin as mouse piss and a hunk or two of bread and cheese to go round the six of us. Then Master totters over gnawing a chicken leg, three sheets to the wind as he always is these days since Mistress went batty.
‘On with the show, Leach’, he says. But we’re having our dinner, Master, I tells him. But he don’t care.
‘Get on with it, man, now!’
So we does. We leave our bits of cheese and go back to humping stones. Then little Davey Toop turns up limping. He ain’t been too grand lately, but like the rest of us he don’t want to upset Master now his wife’s pregnant. And so we all hump stones, picking up flint and rubble and carrying it down to the water edge. But it’s slippery what with all this rain and poor little Davey goes arse over tip and lands head first in the water. And all the gents and ladies start laughing and clutching each other and spilling their wine. We helps the poor little bugger back on his feet and he’s crying and choking, and he’s got a gash in his cheek where the flints poked him, and his nose is streaming blood … and they’re all still laughing like it was the biggest joke in the world to see the poor little sod hurt like he was! If I’d had a gun I’d have shot the bloody lot of them.
But you can’t and you don’t, do you? I don’t want to lose my cottage, and my old girl wouldn’t thank me if I did, however damp.