Robert Burns, Tam o’ Shanter (1791)
The Auld Kirk, Alloway, 1895 (which looks the same today)
Last month I wrote about my recent trip to Dunure in Ayrshire (see Looking Back), when I visited some of my childhood haunts, including the village of Alloway, famous for its association with the ‘ploughman poet’ Robert Burns. Next month I shall be returning to East Coker, the Somerset village where my father spent his wartime childhood as a London evacuee (see East Coker), and which also has a connection with a well-known poet, albeit of a very different kind and millieu. Yet – perhaps even because of the two poets – the similarity does not stop there. Both these attractive conservation villages surrounded by farmland have also been prey to post-war housing booms and thus at risk from being swallowed up by the nearby county market towns of Ayr and Yeovil respectively.
Had my father consciously been aware of the similarities between the two places when he’d first visited the site for the soon-to-be built bungalow in Alloway? On that day in July 1963, when he’d set out along the tree-lined road from Ayr, the sun had shone on the parks and green spaces, and it had shone, too, on Alloway’s small main street, with its handful of stone cottages, two shops, village hall and war memorial. Opposite the post office – like the proverbial jewel in the crown – was Burns Cottage, birthplace of the Scottish Bard two hundred years previously, with its thatched roof reminscent of many of the buildings in East Coker.
Burns Cottage and Alloway Village (looking north) today
Alloway, Village, Ayr (looking south) c1904
Walking up Doonholm Road, past the older and grander houses of Alloway, to see where the new Weir’s estate was being built, my father would have observed the red sandstone village school with its air of Victorian respectability. Then there was the rather imposing Burns Monument Hotel which overlooked the river, with its posh upstairs restaurant, and the flagstoned cellar bar (where old men used to gather round the open fire with their sheepdogs and penny whistles). The idyllic setting of the old hotel was further enhanced by the backdrop of the local Burns Monument and Gardens and the famous medieval hump-backed Brig o’ Doon. Both the old bridge and the nearby ruined Auld Kirk were immortalised in Burns’ poem Tam o’ Shanter where a drunken Tam tried to hurry his horse, Meg, over the river to escape the witches who were chasing him (as they were believed to be unable to cross running water).
Burns Monument Hotel c1970
Burns Monument Hotel and Gardens c1940 (from the Brig o’ Doon)
Brig o’ Doon (with hotel gardens), early 20th C
Our road was named after the Doonholm Estate and ‘big house’ which it led to (and where Robert Burns’ father had worked as a gardener two hundred years previously). It was one of the first to be developed in the village, and before the Ayr bypass was built in the 70s was still a rural byway, rather than the rat run to the A77 that it eventually became. In those days it was the main access from the village to the outlying farms, including Mount Oliphant where the Burns family moved to when Robert was young. Sheep were still driven along it to graze in the field opposite our house, and on occasion stray cows could be found wandering down the road. In fine weather local riders passed by on horseback as did a rather eccentric old spinster on an outsize tricycle who taught Sunday school to the children of the farming communites. My father had remarked on the appeal of this country road to my mother when he went to visit the house, perhaps because it reminded him of Burton Lane in East Coker, which led to the old farmhouse at Burton Farm where he lived for most of the war.
Further up from our house, where the Doonholm Estate began, was an old railway bridge underneath which summer trains would run out to the local Butlin’s Holiday Camp (a place I loved as a child). These were the last gasp of Britain’s steam trains which followed the remains of the Maidens and Dunure Light Railway, then a sixty-year old branch line which had been in decline since the 1930s. On Saturdays my father used to take me up to the bridge and hold me up to let me watch the trains pass as they blasted and hooted their way to the coast, taking holidaymakers to their week at the camp. Previously the line had run all the way to Turnberry hotel and golf course (now belonging to Donald Trump) until the hotel was requisitioned during the war as a military hospital and the golf course used as an airfield. There had been several small stations along the line, including one at Alloway and Dunure, as both were local tourist destinations. In Alloway the remains of the old Victorian station (disused for many years) had been reduced to a pile of rubble, which we explored as children.
On a daytrip to Butlins with our Skelton Grandparents c1968
This was 130 years after the first steam train line in London was laid – the London and Greenwich Railway, which was also originally designed as a day-tripping route. I have written about this line before (see A Riverside Rest) as it ran close to my great-great grandfather’s house in Bermondsey and, like many at the time, was no doubt fascinated by the idea of this new form of travel. It feels strange to think that I was able to witness the last of the working steam trains that James Skelton would have once found so modern. As my sister once said when we were walking through Beamish Open Air Museum near Newcastle and looked up to see an early steam-powered locomotive with its large black chimney chugging along in the distance: What would it have felt like to have clapped eyes on that for the first time! It must have been quite a frightening sight.
Not long after the last stretch of our local railway line was closed in 1968, I found myself of an age where exploring outdoors with friends took up a large proportion of my free time. The old railway (as we always so earnestly called it) was an ideal place to build dens, search for wildlife, and walk our dogs. Later – along with several other teenage girls in the neighbourhood – I exercised a local farmer’s ponies on the route. But already by then it was becoming boggy and overgrown, and parts had become impassable, while further out many sections had been incorporated into farmland.
On my trip back this summer, I discovered that the secton of the old railway line by Doonholm Road has incorporated a new feeder road to the bypass, ironically taking traffic away from our old home. But it has also opened up all the fields beyond to vast new housing developments which seem out of place so far from the compact centre of Alloway. In many ways, the Somerset village of East Coker has fared better, despite the recent plans for the controversial new Keyford Estate. This is possibly because it had more of an actual village centre to begin with, and was surrounded by grade 1 agricultural land once used in the booming flax industry.
By contrast, a great deal of the farmland near Alloway was not ideal for growing crops (as Robert Burns and his father discovered), and in 1754 the whole area had been sold by the burgh of Ayr to help pay off debts. Thereafter it was held by several wealthy landowners, most of whom had made their money through trading in the West Indies and who rented out the least profitable parts of their estate to tenant farmers. In fact, our house in Doonholm Road was built on what was once an orchard belonging to the Rozelle Estate (named after one of the owner’s Jamaican plantations). Eventually Rozelle’s remaining parkland and ‘big house’ were bequeathed to the local council to be used for recreational amenities, as was the neighbouring estate of Belleisle with its large Victorian golf course (see On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot).
Playing ‘Pooh Sticks’ by the golf course in Belleisle c1969
Yet it was Doonhom Estate which continued to exert more of a fascination on me due to the fact that it was off limits to the ‘common folk’. Regular forays into the grounds were organised by the local brownie and guide groups – usually a treasure trail through the woods which ended in a sausage sizzle on the banks of the river where we were all bitten alive by midges. Then there were rainy, summer fêtes in the grounds, and it was at one of these events that I first rode a pony and tasted honey, instantly becoming hooked on both activities. When I was about nine or ten I also had the fortune to befriend (possibly I engineered this friendship) a girl whose family rented the old servants’ quarters on the estate. So for a few halycon months I was able to roam the grounds, including the stable block, and was given as much honey to eat as I liked!
Doonholm House, Alloway c1905
When I first visited East Coker in 2005, there was still a feeling of community replete with ‘local characters’ (akin to Alloway’s tricycling Sunday school teacher). This was something that Alloway appeared to have lost during the mass building of houses which went on throughout the 70s and 80s. Maybe that is why my mother and I were so captivated by the place on our first visit. Although it saddened my father to return almost half a century later and see the changes time had wrought, for us it was a delight to discover what seemed such a quintessentially English village with thatched cottages whose gardens were full of summer flowers, including Eliot’s ‘hollyhocks which aim too high’. Even as we approched the village on the bus from Yeovil as it descended through the hollow lanes, it felt like entering a green doorway into a magical world.
Hollow Lanes and Thatched Cottage, East Coker
As a child I never really felt we truly belonged in Alloway as a family, despite the fact we were all involved in the community in our own way. This was in part beause we had no relatives nearby and our house had no history to speak of. Everyone else we knew at the time were mostly also incomers into the new estates. Like myself, nearly everyone I went to school with has left the area, as have most of their parents – if only through death and illness. On our recent visit, I noticed, too that the place has a different feel these days, with Range Rovers parked in front of the local shops (where once we tied up our ponies to buy ice creams on summer day), and the local pub turned into an award-winning restaurant with an emphasis on upmarket weddings. The cellar bar has of course long gone, as have the men and their dogs.
I have discussed this feeling of impermanence in our family before (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers) when I mooted the idea that it had perhaps been unknowingly passed down the Skelton line. Poverty and two world wars created much upheaval for my father, grandfather and great-grandfather’s generation. Before that, there was my great-great grandfather, James Skelton (see The Tailor of Horsleydown), who came from a family which was very much rooted in the Yorkshire Dales.
James Skelton was born in 1799 on the cusp of a new and exciting century of progress, and so like many of his generation headed to one of the booming industrial centres to make his way in the world. But why did he choose London, rather than a town or city closer to home? Was there a family connection which helped him to secure a foothold there? Or, like myself over 150 years later, was he simply attracted to the glamour of the capital and the thought that all of life worth knowing would be found there?
Despite the fact that the Skeltons have been mostly living in South London for two hundred years, North Yorkshire is the place I have now come to think of as their spiritual home. Compared to the history of land use and ownership in Alloway and East Coker, the area has followed a different direction thanks to its unique geography and the creation of the Yorkshire Dales National Park in 1954. There it is still possible to freely traverse the ancient paths which link up villages and hamlets, and to feel as if you are part of a timeless landscape. If James Skelton were able to return to the land of his ancestors he would no doubt recognise much about the area – something that could not be said about his South London neighbourhoods.
The Yorkshire Dales – our spiritual home?
It is a part of the country I have recently started to visit in conjunction with my genealogical research, and with which I have also begun to feel a strong connection. So I am pleased to announce that I will soon be turning my attentions to my family’s Yorkshire beginnings. But in the meantime I am looking forward to my upcoming trip with my cousin to East Coker to visit our aunt (our fathers’ sister), and the opportunity to gain some additional insights into the more recent family history.
The Incidental Genealogist, August 2019