Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson


Country Playtime

‘Shall we dance to-night or shall we have a game?’ was a frequent question among the girls after Alf’s arrival. Until the novelty of the dancing wore off, the old country games were eclipsed; but their day was not over. Some of the quieter girls always preferred the games, and, later, on those evenings when Alf was away, playing for dancers in other villages, they all went back to the games.

Then, beneath the long summer sunsets, the girls would gather on one of the green open spaces between the houses and bow and curtsey and sweep to and fro in their ankle-length frocks as they went through the game movements and sang the game rhymes as their mothers and grandmothers had done before them.

How long the games had been played and how they originated no one knew, for they had been handed down for a time long before living memory and accepted by each succeeding generation as a natural part of its childhood. No one inquired the meaning of the words of the game rhymes; many of the girls, indeed, barely mastered them, but went through the movements to the accompaniment of an indistinct babbling. But the rhymes had been preserved; breaking down into doggerel in places; but still sufficiently intact to have spoken to the discerning, had any such been present, of an older, sweeter country civilization than had survived, excepting in a few such fragments.

Of all the generations that had played the games, that of the ‘eighties was to be the last. Already those children had one foot in the national school and one on the village green. Their children and grandchildren would have left the village green behind them; new and as yet undreamed-of pleasures and excitements would be theirs. In ten years’ time the games would be neglected, and in twenty forgotten. But all through the ‘eighties the games went on and seemed to the children themselves and to onlookers part of a life that always had been and always would be.

The Lark Rise children had a large repertoire, including the well-known games still met with at children’s parties, such as ‘Oranges and Lemons’, ‘London Bridge’, and ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’; but also including others which appear to have been peculiar to that part of the country. Some of these were played by forming a ring, others by taking sides, and all had distinctive rhymes, which were chanted rather than sung.

The boys of the hamlet did not join in them, for the amusement was too formal and restrained for their taste, and even some of the rougher girls when playing would spoil a game, for the movements were stately and all was done by rule. Only at the end of some of the games, where the verse had deteriorated into doggerel, did the play break down into a romp. Most of the girls when playing revealed graces unsuspected in them at other times; their movements became dignified and their voices softer and sweeter than ordinarily, and when hauteur was demanded by the part, they became, as they would have said, ‘regular duchesses’. It is probable that carriage and voice inflexion had been handed down with the words.

One old favourite was ‘Here Come Three Tinkers’. For this all but two of the players, a big girl and a little one, joined hands in a row, and the bigger girl out took up her stand about a dozen paces in front of the row with the smaller one lying on the turf behind her feigning sleep. Then three of the line of players detached themselves and, hand in hand, tripped forward, singing:

Here come three tinkers, three by three,

To court your daughter, fair ladye,

Oh, can we have a lodging here, here, here?

Oh, can we have a lodging here?

Upon which the fair lady (pronounced ‘far-la-dee’) admonished her sleeping daughter:

Sleep, sleep, my daughter. Do not wake.

Here come three tinkers you can’t take.

Then, severely, to the tinkers:

You cannot have a lodging here, here, here.

You cannot have a lodging here.

And the tinkers returned to the line, and three others came forward, calling themselves tailors, soldiers, sailors, gardeners, bricklayers, or policemen, according to fancy, the rhymes being sung for each three, until it was time for the climax, and, putting fresh spirit into their tones, the conquering candidates came forward, singing:

Here come three princes, three by three,

To court your daughter, fair ladye,

Oh, can we have a lodging here, here, here?

Oh, can we have a lodging here?

At the mere mention of the rank of the princes the scene changed. The fair lady became all becks and nods and smiles, and, lifting up her supposedly sleeping daughter, sang:

Oh, wake, my daughter, wake, wake, wake.

Here come three princes you can take.

And, turning to the princes:

Oh, you can have a lodging here, here, here.

Oh, you can have a lodging here.

Then, finally, leading forward and presenting her daughter, she said:

Here is my daughter, safe and sound,

And in her pocket five thousand pound,

And on her finger a gay gold ring,

And I’m sure she’s fit to walk with a king.

For ‘Isabella’ a ring was formed with one of the players standing alone in the centre. Then circling slowly, the girls sang:

Isabella, Isabella, Isabella, farewell.

Last night when we parted

I left you broken-hearted,

And on the green gravel there stands a young man.

Isabella, Isabella, Isabella, farewell.

Take your choice, love, take your choice, love,

Take your choice, love. Farewell.

The girl in the middle of the ring then chose another who took up her position inside with her, while the singers continued:

Put the banns up, put the banns up,

Put the banns up. Farewell.

Come to church, love, come to church, love. Farewell.

Put the ring on, put the ring on,

Put the ring on. Farewell.

Come to supper, love, come to supper, love,

Come to supper, love. Farewell.

Now to bed, love, now to bed, love,

Now to bed, love. Farewell.

With other instructions, all of which were carried out in dumb show by the couple in the middle of the ring. Having got the pair wedded and bedded, the spirit of the piece changed. The stately game became a romp. Jumping up and down, still with joined hands, round the two in the middle, the girls shouted:

Now they’re married we wish them joy,

First a girl and then a boy,

Sixpence married sevenpence’s daughter,

Kiss the couple over and over.

In that game the Isabella of the sad farewell to whom the sweet plaintive tune of the rhyme originally belonged had somehow got mixed up in a country courtship and wedding.

A pretty, graceful game to watch was ‘Thread the Tailor’s Needle’. For this two girls joined both hands and elevated them to form an arch or bridge, and the other players, in single file and holding on to each other’s skirts, passed under, singing:

Thread the tailor’s needle,

Thread the tailor’s needle.

The tailor’s blind and he can’t see,

So thread the tailor’s needle.

As the end of the file passed under the arch the last two girls detached themselves, took up their stand by the original two and joined their hands and elevated them, thus widening the arch, and this was repeated until the arch became a tunnel. As the file passing under grew shorter, the tune was quickened, until, towards the end, the game became a merry whirl.

A grim little game often played by the younger children was called ‘Daddy’. For this a ring was formed, one of the players remaining outside it, and the outside player stalked stealthily round the silent and motionless ring and chose another girl by striking her on the shoulder. The chosen one burst from the ring and rushed round it, closely pursued by the first player, the others chanting meanwhile:

Round a ring to catch a king,

Round a ring to catch a king,

Round a ring to catch a king ——

and, as the pursuer caught up with the pursued and struck her neck with the edge of her hand:

Down falls Daddy!

At the stroke on the neck the second player fell flat on the turf, beheaded, and the game continued until all were stretched on the turf.

Round what ring, to catch what king? And who was Daddy? Was the game founded on some tale dished up for the commonalty of the end of one who ‘nothing common did or mean’? The players did not know or care, and we can only guess.

‘Honeypots’ was another small children’s game. For this the children squatted down with their hands clasped tightly under their buttocks and two taller girls approached them, singing:

Honeypots, honeypots, all in a row!

Who will buy my honeypots, O?

One on each side of a squatting child, they ‘tried’ it by swinging by the arms, the child’s hands still being clasped under its buttocks. If the hands gave way, the honeypot was cast away as broken; if they held, it was adjudged a good pot.

A homely game was ‘The Old Woman from Cumberland’. For this a row of girls stood hand in hand with a bigger one in the middle to represent the old woman from Cumberland. Another bigger girl stood alone a few paces in front. She was known as the ‘mistress’. Then the row of girls tripped forward, singing:

Here comes an old woman from Cumberland

With all her children in her hand.

And please do you want a servant today?

‘What can they do?’ demanded the mistress as they drew up before her. Then the old woman of Cumberland detached herself and walked down the row, placing a hand on the heads of one after another of her children as she said:

This can brew, and this can bake,

This can make a wedding cake,

This can wear a gay gold ring,

This can sit in the barn and sing,

This can go to bed with a king,

And this one can do everything.

‘Oh! I will have that one’, said the mistress, pointing to the one who could do everything, who then went over to her. The proceedings were repeated until half the girls had gone over, when the two sides had a tug-of-war.

‘The Old Woman from Cumberland’ was a brisk, business-like game; but most of the rhymes of the others were long-drawn-out and sad, and saddest of all was ‘Poor Mary is A-weeping’, which went:

Poor Mary is a-weeping, a-weeping, a-weeping, Poor Mary is a-weeping on a bright summer’s day.

And what’s poor Mary a-weeping for, a-weeping for, aweeping for? Oh, what’s poor Mary a-weeping for on a bright summer’s day?

She’s weeping for her own true love on a bright summer’s own true love. She’s weeping for her own true love on a bright summer’s day.

Then let her choose another love, another love, another love. Then let her choose another love on a bright summer’s day.

‘Waly, Waly, Wallflower’ ran ‘Poor Mary’ close in gentle melancholy; but the original verse in this seems to have broken down after the fourth line. The Lark Rise version ran:

Waly, waly, wallflower, growing up so high.

We’re all maidens, we must all die,

Excepting So-and-So [naming one of the players]

And she’s the youngest maid.

Then, the tune changing to a livelier air:

She can hop and she can skip,

She can play the candlestick,

Fie! Fie! Fie!

Turn your face to the wall again.

All clasping hands and jumping up and down:

All the boys in this town

Lead a happy life,

    Excepting So-and-So [naming some hamlet boy, not necessarily present]

And he wants a wife.

    A wife he shall have and a-courting he shall go,

    Along with So-and-So; because he loves her so.

He kissed her, he cuddled her, he sat her on his knee, And he said ‘My dearest So-and-So, how happy we shall be.’ First he bought the frying-pan and then he bought the cradle And then he bought the knives and forks and set them on the table.

So-and-So made a pudding, she made it very sweet, She daren’t stick the knife in till So-and-So came home at night. Taste, So-and-So, taste, and do not be afraid, Next Monday morning the wedding day shall be, And the cat shall sing and the bells shall ring And we’ll all clap hands together.

Evidently in the course of the centuries ‘Waly, Waly, Wallflower’ had become mixed with something else. The youngest maid of the first verse would never have played the candlestick or been courted by such a lover. Her destiny was very different. But what?

‘Green Gravel’ was another ring game. The words were:

Green gravel, green gravel, the grass is so green,

The fairest young damsel that ever was seen,

Sweet So-and-So, sweet So-and-So, your true love is dead,

I send you a letter, so turn round your head.

And as each name was mentioned the bearer turned outwards from the middle of the ring and, still holding hands with the others, went on revolving. When all had turned, the girls jigged up and down, shouting:

Bunch o’ rags! Bunch o’ rags! Bunch o’ rags!

until all fell down.

Then there was ‘Sally, Sally Waters’; who ‘sprinkled in the pan’; and ‘Queen Anne, Queen Anne’, who ‘sat in the sun’. The local version of the first verse of the latter ran:

Queen Anne, Queen Anne, she sat in the sun,

She had a pair of ringlets on.

She shook them off, she shook them on,

She shook them into Scotland.

Which seems to suggest that the Queen Anne intended was Anne of Denmark, consort of our James the First, and not the last of our Stuart monarchs, as sometimes supposed. When the founders of the new royal house first arrived in England, there would certainly be gossip about them, and Queen Anne would most probably be supposed to favour Scotland, Scots, and things Scottish.

The brisk and rather disagreeable little game known as ‘Queen Caroline’ must have been of comparatively recent date. For this two lines of girls stood facing each other, while one other one ran the gauntlet. As she dashed between the lines the girls on both sides ‘buffeted’ her with hands, pinafores and handkerchiefs, singing:

Queen, Queen Caroline,

Dipped her head in turpentine.

Why did she look so fine?

Because she wore a crinoline.

An echo of the coronation scene of George IV?

Contemporary with that was ‘The Sheepfold’, which began:

Who’s that going round my sheepfold?

Oh, it’s only your poor neighbour Dick.

Do not steal my sheep while I am fast asleep.

But that was not a favourite and no one seemed to know the whole of it. Then there were ‘How Many Miles to Banbury Town?’, ‘Blind Man’s Buff’, and many other games. The children could play for hours without repeating a game.

As well as the country games, a few others, probably as old, but better known, were played by the hamlet children. Marbles, peg-tops, and skipping-ropes appeared in their season, and when there happened to be a ball available a game called ‘Tip-it’ was played. There was not always a ball to be had; for the smallest rubber one cost a penny, and pennies were scarce. Even marbles, at twenty a penny, were seldom bought, although there were a good many in circulation, for the hamlet boys were champion marble players and thought nothing of walking five or six miles on a Saturday to play with the boys of other villages and replenish their own store with their winnings. Some of them owned as trophies the scarce and valued glass marbles, called ‘alleys’. These were of clear glass enclosing bright, wavy, multicoloured threads, and they looked very handsome among the dingy-coloured clay ones. The girls skipped with any odd length of rope, usually a piece of their mothers’ old clothes-lines.

A simple form of hopscotch was played, for which three lines, or steps, enclosed in an oblong were scratched in the dust. The elaborate hopscotch diagrams, resembling an astrological horoscope, still to be seen chalked on the roads in the West Country were unknown there.

‘Dibs’ was a girls’ game, played with five small, smooth pebbles, which had to be kept in the air at the same time and caught on the back of the hand. Laura, who was clumsy with her hands, never mastered this game; nor could she play marbles or spin tops or catch balls, or play hopscotch. She was by common consent ‘a duffer’. Skipping and running were her only accomplishments.

Sometimes in the summer the ‘pin-a-sight’ was all the rage, and no girl would feel herself properly equipped unless she had one secreted about her. To make a ‘pin-a-sight’ two small sheets of glass, a piece of brown paper, and plenty of flowers were required. Then the petals were stripped from the flowers and arranged on one of the sheets of glass with the other sheet placed over it to form a kind of floral sandwich, and the whole was enveloped in brown paper; in which a little square window was cut, with a flap left hanging to act as a drop-scene. Within the opening then appeared a multi-coloured medley of flower petals, and that was the ‘pin-a-sight’. No design was aimed at; the object being to show as many and as brightly coloured petals as possible; but Laura, when alone, loved to arrange her petals as little pictures, building up a geranium or a rose, or even a little house, against a background of green leaves.

Usually, the girls only showed their ‘pin-a-sights’ to each other; but sometimes they would approach one of the women, or knock at a door, singing:

A pin to see a pin-a-sight,

All the ladies dressed in white.

A pin behind and a pin before,

And a pin to knock at the lady’s door.

They would then lift the flap and show the ‘pin-a-sight’, for which they expected to be rewarded with a pin. When this was forthcoming, it was stuck with any others that might be received on the front of the pinafore. There was always a competition as to who should get the longest row of pins.

After they reached school-going age, the boys no longer played with the girls, but found themselves a separate pitch on which to play marbles or spin tops or kick an old tin about by way of a football. Or they would hunt in couples along the hedgerows, shooting at birds with their catapults, climbing trees, or looking for birds’ nests, mushrooms, or chestnuts, according to the season.

The birds’-nesting was a cruel sport, for not only was every egg taken from every nest they found, but the nests themselves were demolished and all the soft moss and lining feathers were left torn and scattered around on the grass and bushes.

‘Oh, dear! What must the poor bird have felt when she saw that!’ was Laura’s cry when she came upon that, to her, saddest of all sad sights, and once she even dared to remonstrate with some boys she had found in the act. They only laughed and pushed her aside. To them, the idea that anything so small as a mother chaffinch could feel was ridiculous. They were thinking of the lovely long string of threaded eggshells, blue and speckled and pearly white, they hoped to collect and hang up at home as an ornament. The tiny whites and yolks which would come from the eggs when blown they would make their mothers whip up and stir into their own cup of tea as a delicacy, and their mothers would be pleased and say what kind, thoughtful boys they had, for they, like the boys, did not consider the birds’ point of view.

No one in authority told them that such wholesale robbery of birds’ nests was cruel. Even the Rector, when he called at the cottages, would admire the collections and sometimes even condescend to accept a rare specimen. Ordinary country people at that time, though not actively cruel to animals, were indifferent to their sufferings. ‘Where there’s no sense there’s no feeling,’ they would say when they had hurt some creature by accident or through carelessness. By sense they meant wits or understanding, and these they imagined purely human attributes.

A few birds were sacred. No boy would rob a robin’s or a wren’s nest; nor would they have wrecked a swallow’s nest if they could have reached one, for they believed that:

The robin and the wrens

Be God Almighty’s friends.

And the martin and the swallow

Be God Almighty’s birds to follow.

And those four were safe from molestation. Their cruelty to the other birds and to some other animals was due to an utter lack of imagination, not to bad-heartedness. When, a little later; country boys were taught in school to show mercy to animals and especially to birds, one egg only from a clutch became the general rule. Then came the splendid Boy Scout movement, which has done more than all the Preservation of Wild Birds Acts to prevent the wholesale raiding of nests, by teaching the boys mercy and kindness.

In winter in the ‘eighties the youths and big boys of the hamlet would go out on dark nights ‘spadgering’. For this a large net upon four poles was carried; two bearers going on one side of a hedge and two on the other. When they came to a spot where a flock of sparrows or other small birds was roosting, the net was dropped over the hedge and drawn tight and the birds enclosed were slaughtered by lantern light. One boy would often bring home as many as twenty sparrows, which his mother would pluck and make into a pudding. A small number of birds, or a single bird, would be toasted in front of the fire. Many of the children and some of the women set traps for birds in their gardens. This was done by strewing crumbs or corn around and beneath a sieve or a shallow box set up endways. To the top of the trap as it stood, one end of a length of fine twine was attached and the other end was held by some one lurking in a barn doorway or behind a hedge or wall. When a bird was in a favourable position, the trap was jerked down upon it. One old woman in particular excelled as a bird-trapper, and, even in snowy weather, she might often have been seen sitting in her barn doorway with the string of a trap in her hand. Had a kindly disposed stranger seen her, his heart would have bled with pity for the poor old soul, so starving that she spent hours in the snow snaring a sparrow for her supper. His pity would have been wasted. She was quite comfortably off according to hamlet standards, and often did not trouble to pluck and cook her bag. She was out for the sport.

In one way and another a bird, or a few birds, were a regular feature of the hamlet menu. But there were birds and birds. ‘Do you think you could fancy a bird, me dear?’ a man would say to his ailing wife or child, and if they thought they would the bird would appear; but it would not be a sparrow, or even a thrush or a lark. It would be a much bigger bird with a plump breast; but it would never be named and no feathers would be left lying about by which to identify it. The hamlet men were no habitual poachers. They called poaching ‘a mug’s game’ and laughed at those who practised it. ‘One month in quod and one out,’ as they said. But, when the necessity arose, they knew where the game birds were and how to get them.

Edmund and Laura once witnessed a neat bit of poaching. They had climbed a ladder they had found set against the side of a haystack which had been unthatched, ready for removal, and, after an exciting hour of sticking out their heads and making faces to represent gargoyles on a tower, they were lying, hidden from below, while the men on their way home from work passed along the footpath beneath the rick.

It was near sunset and the low, level light searched the path and the stubble and aftermath on either side of it. The men sauntered along in twos and threes, smoking and talking, then disappeared, group by group, over the stile at the farther side of the field. Just as the last group was nearing the stile and the children were breathing a sigh of relief at not having been seen and scolded, a hare broke from one of the hedges and went bounding and capering across the field in the headlong way hares have. It looked for a moment as if it would land under the feet of the last group of men, who were nearing the stile; but, suddenly, it scented danger and drew up and squatted motionless behind a tuft of green clover a few feet from the pathway. Just then one of the men fell behind to tie his bootlace: the others passed over the stile. The moment they were out of sight, in one movement, the man left behind rose and flung himself sideways over the clover clump where the hare was hiding. There was a short scuffle, a slight raising of dust; then a limp form was pressed into a dinner-basket, and, after a good look round to make sure his action had not been observed, the man followed his workmates.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00