Mike Hobbs’s Journal
26th March. Reading Services. __Left South Wales at 8:35 P. M, on 24th March, arriving at Pilning early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Pilning seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible.
The impression I had was that we were leaving the Wales and entering England; the most Eastern of splendid bridges over the Severn, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the traditions of Taff rule.
We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Swindon. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem. get recipe for Mandy.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called “Soup,” and that, as it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the M4.
I found my smattering of English very useful here, indeed, I don’t know how I should be able to get on without it.
Having had some time at my disposal when in Swindon, I had visited the Museum, and made search among the books and maps in the library regarding Lard island; it had struck me that some foreknowledge of the country could hardly fail to have some importance in dealing with a nobleman of that country.
I find that the district he named is in the extreme North West of the M25 Corridor, just on the borders of three states, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire , and Cambridgeshire , in the midst of the Watford gap; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe.
I was not able to light on any map or work giving the exact locality of the Lard Island, as there are no maps of this place as yet to compare with our own Ordnance Survey Maps; but I found that St Albans, the post town named by The Lord of Lard, is a fairly well-known place. I shall enter here some of my notes, as they may refresh my memory when I talk over my travels with Mandy.
In the population of St Albans there are four distinct nationalities: Iceni in the South, and mixed with them the Chavs, who are the descendants of the Oiks; Catuvellauniin the West, and Trinovantes in the East and North. I am going among the latter, who claim to be descended from Dick Whittington. This may be so, for when the Chavs conquered the country in the eleventh century they found the Oiks settled in it.
I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the M25, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so my stay may be very interesting. (Mem., I must ask the Lord of Lard all about them.)
I did not sleep well, though my bed was comfortable enough, for I had all sorts of queer dreams. There was a dog howling all night under my window, which may have had something to do with it; or it may have been the paprika, for I had to drink up all the water in my carafe, and was still thirsty. Towards morning I slept and was wakened by the continuous knocking at my door, so I guess I must have been sleeping soundly then.
I had for breakfast more paprika, and a sort of porridge of maize flour which they said was “breakie”, and egg-plant stuffed with forcemeat, a very excellent dish, which they call “foreign crap”. (Mem.,get recipe for this also.)
I had to hurry breakfast, for the train started a little before eight, or rather it ought to have done so, for after rushing to the station at 7:30 I had to sit in the carriage for more than an hour before we began to move.
It seems to me that the further east you go the more unpunctual are the trains. What ought they to be in China?
All day long we seemed to dawdle through a country which was full of beauty of every kind. Sometimes we saw little towns or castles on the top of steep hills such as we see in old missals; sometimes we ran by rivers and streams which seemed from the wide stony margin on each side of them to be subject ot great floods. It takes a lot of water, and running strong, to sweep the outside edge of a river clear.
At every station there were groups of people, sometimes crowds, and in all sorts of attire. Some of them were just like the peasants at home or those I saw coming through Bristol and Swindon, with short jackets, and round hats, and home-made trousers; but others were very picturesque.
The women looked pretty, except when you got near them, but they were very clumsy about the waist. They had all full white sleeves of some kind or other, and most of them had big belts with a lot of strips of something fluttering from them like the dresses in a ballet, but of course there were petticoats under them.
The strangest figures we saw were the Lorry Drivers, who were more barbarian than the rest, with their big cow-boy hats, great baggy dirty-white trousers, white linen shirts, and enormous heavy leather belts, nearly a foot wide, all studded over with brass nails. They wore high boots, with their trousers tucked into them, and had long black hair and heavy black moustaches. They are very picturesque, but do not look prepossessing. On the stage they would be set down at once as some old Oriental band of brigands. They are, however, I am told, very harmless and rather wanting in natural self-assertion.
It was on the dark side of twilight when we got to Newbury, which is a very interesting old place. Being practically on the frontier–for the M4 Corridor leads from it into Reading –it has had a very stormy existence, and it certainly shows marks of it. Fifty years ago a series of great fires took place, which made terrible havoc on five separate occasions. At the very beginning of the seventeenth century it underwent a siege of three weeks and lost 13,000 people, the casualties of war proper being assisted by famine and disease.
Lord Lard had directed me to go to the Golden Pound Hotel, which I found, to my great delight, to be thoroughly old-fashioned, for of course I wanted to see all I could of the ways of the country.
I was evidently expected, for when I got near the door I faced a cheery-looking elderly woman in the usual peasant dress–white undergarment with a long double apron, front, and back, of coloured stuff fitting almost too tight for modesty. When I came close she bowed and said, “The Welshman?”
“Yes,” I said, “Mike Hobbs.”
She smiled, and gave some message to an elderly man in white shirt-sleeves, who had followed her to the door.
He went, but immediately returned with a letter:
“My friend.–Welcome to the M4 Corridor. I am anxiously expecting you. Sleep well tonight. At three tomorrow the diligence will start for St Albans; a place on it is kept for you. At South Mimms my carriage will await you and will bring you to me. I trust that your journey from Wales has been a happy one, and that you will enjoy your stay in my beautiful land.–Your friend, Rich.”
28th March–I found that my landlord had got a letter from the Lord, directing him to secure the best place on the coach for me; but on making inquiries as to details he seemed somewhat reticent, and pretended that he could not understand my English.
This could not be true, because up to then he had understood it perfectly; at least, he answered my questions exactly as if he did.
He and his wife, the old lady who had received me, looked at each other in a frightened sort of way. He mumbled out that the money had been sent in a letter, and that was all he knew. When I asked him if he knew the Lord of Lard, and could tell me anything of his home, both he and his wife crossed themselves, and, saying that they knew nothing at all, simply refused to speak further. It was so near the time of starting that I had no time to ask anyone else, for it was all very mysterious and not by any means comforting.
Just before I was leaving, the old lady came up to my room and said in a hysterical way: “Must you go? Oh! Young master, must you go?” She was in such an excited state that she seemed to have lost her grip of what English she knew, and mixed it all up with some other language which I did not know at all. I was just able to follow her by asking many questions. When I told her that I must go at once, and that I was engaged on important business, she asked again:
“Do you know what day it is?” I answered that it was the 28th of March. She shook her head as she said again:
“Oh, yes! I know that! I know that, but do you know what day it is?”
On my saying that I did not understand, she went on:
“It is the eve of St. Lard’s Day. Do you not know that to-night, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway? Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?” She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally, she went down on her knees and implored me not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting.
It was all very ridiculous but I did not feel comfortable. However, there was business to be done, and I could allow nothing to interfere with it.
I tried to raise her up, and said, as gravely as I could, that I thanked her, but my duty was imperative, and that I must go.
She then rose and dried her eyes, and taking a crucifix from her neck offered it to me.
I did not know what to do, for, as an Welsh Churchman, I have been taught to regard such things as in some measure idolatrous, and yet it seemed so ungracious to refuse an old lady meaning so well and in such a state of mind.
She saw, I suppose, the doubt in my face, for she put the rosary round my neck and said, “For your mother’s sake,” and went out of the room.
I am writing up this part of the diary whilst I am waiting for the coach, which is, of course, late; and the crucifix is still round my neck.
Whether it is the old lady’s fear, or the many ghostly traditions of this place, or the crucifix itself, I do not know, but I am not feeling nearly as easy in my mind as usual.
— with apologies to Bram Stoker