In a Norfolk bookshop, I found The Diary of a Country Parson by James Woodforde, this edited version printed in 1949, inscribed as such by fountain pen at Holt Rectory. Reading James’s life manifest, £3 worth of time travel, left a mosaic of yearning memories.
From rural Somerset in our youth, we rode to Oxford by post-chaise meeting the sort of people you might meet travelling today, dining at inns while ostlers changed horses. On one slow stage, a woman’s boxes crowded our limited space over rough roads through England’s greenery.
As students we skated on the frozen Thames, air deliciously chill, played cricket, watched bear-baiting, and attended the trial of a highwayman. Upon graduation our fellows, radicals who drank and smoked excessively, broke down our doors to carry us off to Stow-on-the-Wold, a wild night ride of celebration shattering the silence, setting hounds a’howling.
After James’s one disastrous love affair he was granted the living of Weston Longeville and we settled there, the new vicar and I. Later, his niece, Nancy, became our permanent house guest. She never received a suitor, became known as Great Aunt Ann in old age. Her brother, Sam, a painter, was elected to the Royal Academy.
Although sexuality was not overtly displayed on parsonage evenings, we could be hyperactively fun-loving. We also read Tobias Smollett and Miss Burney after gorging on enormous meals: venison, hare, pheasant, even swan. Anything that moved. I became aware of my cholesterol as years flipped by filled with bucolic burping. Such variety of meat at a sitting made me curious of what meagre victuals the unschooled villagers spooned from their bowls.
James brewed his own beer, obtained spirits tax-free from his blacksmith (and smuggler) John Buck. Naughty, but human, hooch-hiccuping vicar who gave sixpences to the poor on St. Thomas’s Day. Servants fetched newspapers from Norwich that I hearkened to for Australian reports following 1770 and 1778, discovering only a reference to some prints of Cook’s adventures for sale in London years after his death. The news proclaimed Pitt’s taxes, and the war with France, the nation united against the dastardly French. We saw Pitt once, at an inn, warming his bum, held up for want of fresh horses, as were we.
The vicar’s man paid four guineas per annum, spoke his mind when drunk, forgetting his place, unaware of his insubordination, like his income, would become a diary entry. Peasant immortality. Family members married, died, and undertook arduous trips between Weston and Somerset via London, which hardly featured in our innocent lives. Towards the end, Nelson, a son of Norfolk, was lionised, inflation became a problem, the price of wheat impossible. We shivered through increasingly harsh winters with no inkling of the future greenhouse effect.
Footnotes fascinated. The vicar lived until sixty-two, until the first day of 1803. I turned the last of 622 pages with heightened reluctance, trying to save this man, this ordinary citizen, from his final journey to Weston church, imagining telling him of changes the world has seen, and how some things, like the endings of all our stories, never change, but he died at ten in the morning, the same time I closed the book, sat overlooking my familiar view, staring blankly, sensing loneliness, slow to start anew, traversing our lifetime together.
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