The Last Broomsquire – an Introduction to My Novel
If you grow up in the shadow of an exceedingly beautiful upland like the Quantock Hills there is a strong likelihood that the great eminence will, in some way, affect your development. Such a large physical feature in the landscape maintains a constant presence simply because of its size and scale, but there’s more to it than that: the mere curvature of the hills seems to echo thoughts and memories, and the distant winding coombes that disappear into the red sandstone bowels of those hills never fail to inspire thoughts of mystery and excitement.
For the imaginative child growing up in the vale nearby, the hills become that “other place”. They are a realm of the subconscious. They are a constant, and yet their secrets remain aloof and unknown. They are with you always – but, for the most part, only as an idea or whim.
Over time, this idea evolves and grows. As a tiny child you might be taken up to the ridge by your parents to see the views, later you will explore their forests with boyhood friends after long wearying walks up from the vale. Then the legends and tales of the hills begin to have their role. But strongest and most formative of all, there’s the influence real stories have, because they’ve been told to you by real people.
My first Quantock memories are, somewhat inevitably, linked with food. My grandmother would serve delicious whortleberry pie and tell of how she and her sisters would, as children, pick the tiny fruit up on the heaths above Crowcombe. If the unique flavour and colour of that pie live long with me, more powerful still is her tale of the broomsquire. He had come stalking up to where the sisters were kneeling at their labours in his long blue cloak and caused such fright that they took to their heels and didn’t stop running until they passed the Carew Arms way down in the village. My grandmother’s fear of this strange, almost supernatural person called a broomsquire has haunted me ever since, just as it haunted her. I shall forever hold in my mind an image of those sisters running down that white dusty road outside the pub, where the old men laughed and jeered with delight as the panicking girls passed in a blur of skirts and screams.
Years after she told me the story my old editor – Jack Hurley, at the West Somerset Free Press – would tell me more about broomsquires. He said very little was known about them, but that his predecessor – a man called Herbert Kille – had done some investigations in the early 1900s. Jack’s favourite story concerning them was that one of their number had achieved notoriety by killing his wife.
I can still see old Jack, with his 60-fags-a-day rasp of a voice describing the scene when Johnny Walford is taken into The George for a final meal. The place was surrounded by a great press of silent villagers peering through the windows. I imagined that dark room and that hush – as Jack sat there wreathed in cigarette smoke in his own dark room. I can still see the single beam of light coming through the window to illuminate the blue billows emanating from his “gasper”.
Never before had I heard a real story about a real person that was so filled with the terror of the inevitable. A yarn pregnant with the sense of unavoidable doom…
And never before had I heard a story that provoked so much visual imagery. The tale of Johnny Walford’s last journey – and the way it was halted at Nether Stowey by a wild and angry throng – seemed to me to be an English version of something you’d see in some exotic Italian or French movie.
But for me it was filled with more vivid imagery than anything a film could provide. As a young reporter, I knew the village, I knew the pub, and I knew the place which, to this day, is called Walford’s Oak.
Then there were the tales of the Romantic Poets, told to me by my own journalist father who loved nothing better than to explore the hills and write about their crop of famous poets. Indeed, since he told me about them, I’ve been nourished by the idea of these extraordinary men who, as far as I can make out, invented the very concept of walking in untamed countryside simply for pleasure and inspiration.
And yet always lurking in my mind was the question of how strange it was that Coleridge and Wordsworth should have lived in the very same parish as the doomed broomsquire…
Added to this, it was my father who took me to Fyne Court and showed me the lightning rods which had been hoisted into the trees by the Wizard of the Quantocks – copper rods that that still remain aloft there to this day.
You can imagine how powerful the great Quantock story became when my father told me that some people believed that Andrew Crosse had been the main inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story. Later I took a television camera down the pot-hole near Fyne Court where The Thunder and Lightning Man collected the pure water for his experiments and saw his rusting implements lying amid the stalagmites. As far as I know, I am one of the few living people to have gone down there, and so spooky and cramped was it I’d never dream of returning again. Indeed, I’ve now been told the pot-hole has been capped by the landowners so that no one will ever be able to go down that dark hole.
And here’s another feature of the great Quantock yarn that came my way… As a newspaper journalist I have spent years writing features about the mud-horse fishermen of Bridgwater Bay and their strange sledge contraptions. Also, I’ve waxed lyrical about the smugglers of Kilve who had a revenue-dodging horse who was trained to bolt when told to stop, and stop when told to run…
It is hardly surprising that this rich seam of yarns and anecdotes have been building in me. Over half a century those hills of my youth – those near-yet-far, beautiful, mystical eminences – became, in some ways, more tangible, in others more ethereal.
For me the tale of the Quantocks has become a romantic weft and weave – a mental tapestry draped across a very real backdrop. Which is what The Last Broomsquire is all about. A series of fairly real pictures, based on authentic situations and occurrences, weaved together to form a whole that I am the first to admit is far from being historically correct.
If you are a stickler for accuracy, best not read the Broomsquire. If you demand hard-and-fast dates to run in a genuine chronological order, then this will be a yarn you could shoot down in flames.
But if you are fascinated by the idea that just a small handful parishes huddled around some scenic hills could play host to so much that was amazingly romantic, thrilling and intriguing – then read on…
(picture of my and my book by my good friend Richard Austin)