Ah, the speed that gossip travels round a village.
It is the key to Agatha Christie’s Marple mysteries: a village is a hotbed of the whisper and the undercurrent. “”In St Mary Mead”, reads the text of Christie’s 1930 novel ‘Murder At The Vicarage’, “everyone knows your most intimate affairs. There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”
Is this not true? Have we not met Marples in every small community we have ever known, razor-sharp, mouse-eyed quiet types who acquire definiteness when they perceive injustice?
I know one. Who sees everything that passes the window: who knows, without being nosey, when all is right with the world and when it is not. She gives a new meaning to our Neighbourhood Watch organisations, here in the UK. Watch she does; and while she may not take on the world herself, she can alert someone to attend to injustices and untidy situations.
Never is society safer than when these ladies meet regularly.
And I suspect the Duke of Wellington knew this. Even he, great warrior that he was, felt safer because of a meeting which would go on regularly at the abode of his mother, the Countess of Mornington.
The Countess had a rather lovely grace and favour house, apartments in that most self-absorbed and privileged of villages: Hampton Court.
She lived on the ground floor of the North East Angle. And on the East Front – the grand facade so different from the Court’s Tudor brick underbelly- was a favourite seat, below a picturesque window, where all the ladies of a certain age gathered to chat.
Wellington called it “Purr Corner.”
It was where the ladies gathered to exchange news. And what news that village did proffer, if you knew the right people!
The nook dated from around in the time of George III: but one cannot help wonder if the ladies had been there a great deal earlier; indeed, from the earliest days of this royal village.
I wonder if their eagle eyes spotted the errors of the hasty stonemasons who were ordered, after Anne Boelyn’s death, to change all the former queen’s crests, and replace the ‘A’ which had been linked with Henry VIII’s ‘H’, with a ‘J’ for Jane Seymour?
Did their laconic gazes take in the ‘A’ which remains even today, in the archway under the clock tower?
Their sharp eyes will have picked out the book Charles I dropped as he left Hampton Court in the custody of the roundheads.It was entitled ‘The Broken Heart”, a Royalist-sympathising tome which would not have found favour with his captors. Yet somehow it survived and, mud-stains intact, it sits in the Kings Library at the British Museum to this day, volume 100.
They must have followed Sir Christopher Wren with cautious optimism as he gave the old Tudor court a facelift its occupants would never forget: and celebrated the new court centred around a lavish fountain when it arrived as quite The Thing. A veritable Versailles.
In 1871, when the Fountain Court was excavated to provide modern drainage, one older female resident at the Court was unsurprised when two skeletons were found under the cloister.
The Lady in question lived on the West side of the court. “The stupid board of works,” she is recorded as saying, “has at last found the two wretched men who, I have been telling everyone, have been haunting me for years!”
She had been accompanied often, it seemed, by two ‘presences’ and been bothered by the sound of people rapping on the panels for years.
The ladies may not have paid for the roof over their heads but heating and lighting were costly, and the great flights of stairs prohibitive. The good gentlwomen would travel about the court in ‘The Push’ – an old sedan chair on wheels, drawn by a man.
Yet all-seeing as they are, even the most long-lived could not live forever. When James I’s wife died the tittle-tattle would have it that the great clock struck the hour, and stopped.
And thus was born a legend with no foundation: perhaps fuelled by a yearning for a little immortality in that village of seething undercurrents. For it is said that whenever an elderly resident dies, the clock strikes at the moment of death: and then stops.
I prefer to think of the hawk-eyed ladies who keep the gossip alive, to this day, in this most privileged of villages.
My main source today is a little old book I found in a second hand bookshop: Strange Tales of Hampton Court, by Sheila Dunn and Ken Wilson.