Sunday, 23 October 2016
Blood-spattered signposts, and transportation for life
Not far from West Chelborough and Evershot is one of Dorset's small number (only three?) of red-painted signposts, all known as 'Red Posts'. Although not in the most modern style, they are all at any rate twentieth-century, because they have the Ordnance Survey grid reference on them - in this case (ST) 553040. But of course they replace a series of older posts.
Why are they red? Well, legend hath it that in days of yore these were the spots where a gibbet stood, and where local miscreants, condemned for stealing the odd turnip or worse, would, after rough handling, be hung in chains or an iron cage until released from their sufferings by death. Any relative or friend who brought them food or drink at night ran the dire risk of arrest and quite possibly joining them. Naturally blood from the condemned person's wounds (man- or bird-inflicted) would trickle down and stain the gibbet red, and in later times, when local hangings went out of fashion, the signpost inherited this ruddy tradition. So men say.
Or rather what a local gentleman (who seemed like a man who knew his facts) said to me down at nearby Benville Bridge. I'll have to rewind the tape a bit. A couple of hours earlier, on my way to Evershot and The Acorn Inn (to cancel my Christmas booking, but staying for lunch), I drove across Benville Bridge and noticed a plaque set in the brickwork. Coming back that way, I made a point of stopping close to the bridge and having a better look, armed with my camera. This was the plaque:
Really? Transportation for life - presumably to Australia - just for doing something to this bridge? Gosh, times were hard in the eighteenth century! And doing what? Painting seditious slogans on it? ('King George is a very bad man and much too Hanoverian') Sticking scandalous leaflets to it? ('Squire Benville is a seducer, cheats at cards, and must not be elected') Or chipping away at the brickwork? (In hard times the poor burned bricks, if they couldn't get coal)
And this wasn't an important bridge. It was on a country road. A road that might have been the best in the local area, but not a major through route. The bridge itself was a modest affair, spanning a little stream, and the stream was merely a parish boundary. Here it is:
In the last picture, you can see where I parked Fiona. A man in a newish BMW had come along while I was photographing the bridge, and had stopped next to my car. You can see him getting out. He was an older man, rather smartly dressed, well-spoken. He even wore a cravat. I smelled money and education. His manner was kind. He asked me whether I was lost. (People often ask me that. I wonder why. Perhaps I look vague and scatter-brained, the sort who would wander aimlessly down country lanes and take an extreme, childlike interest in whatever they chanced to see - like a little girl might)
No, I said. I told him about spotting the plaque earlier and wanting a closer look. 'Ah,' he said, 'That's a proper plaque, but not the original, which is now in a museum. It's a replica. There were attempts to steal the original plaque, so they made a copy and put it away safely. In fact two copies have so far been hacked out and spirited away.' Well, if you could do it, it would make a fabulous souvenir of rural Dorset - although obviously you'd be risking transportation for life. To Australia.
'I've just seen one of those red posts, up the hill,' I said to him, changing the subject. 'Ah,' he said, and he explained to me why it was painted red. He now saw me as a keen student of Dorset history, and was taking me very seriously. So I have every reason to accept what he told me. I casually mentioned that I'd been lunching at The Acorn Inn. 'Ah,' he said, clearly approving. I could almost hear him thinking 'My goodness, a charming lady who is a keen student of curiosities, a discerning food lover, and a Volvo driver to boot!' However, such people are commonly met with on country lanes in Dorset. I was but one of a large, seething crowd of dilettante bon viveurs. We gave each other cordial farewells.
So there you are. It really pays to follow-up any unusual thing you might see.