A couple of miles outside Stroud on the Slad road is a small hamlet called the Vatch. This area – the Slad Valley – was made famous by Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, but to me the place first meant and still means Ian and Ian.
The Ians were a pair of Antiquarian Booksellers; friends of my parents, who lived and ran their business from the evocatively named Upper Vatch Mill. Ian Hoy was ‘Little Ian’ a Scot and former actor, who had a wonderful, gossipy way of sharing stories of his recent and distant adventures in the theatre and book trade. I always thought he looked a bit like the Oxo Dad from the long running series of ads with Linda Bellingham.
‘Ian Ian’, his partner, was Ian Kenyur Hodgkins, tall, thin, luxuriously bearded and, like Ian Hoy, an excellent raconteur. As a fellow founding (or at least very early) member of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association, he and Mum and Dad had known each other for a long time.
Both Ians smoked Dunhills from – what seemed to me at the time – deliciously stylish red packs with beveled edges. On occasion Ian Hodgkins would also use a long cigarette holder, which leant him a Noel Coward-ish air; although most of the time because of his height and beard I saw him as a sort of raffish wizard. Ian did give up smoking for a while, but later told me that ‘now he was past sixty’, he had started again, as he was ‘officially old and it didn’t matter’ (of course it did matter in the end and perhaps inevitably, cancer took him a few years later).
The Ians speciallised in books on the Pre-Raphaelites, 19th Century Illustrated Books, Fine Bindings, Fairy Tales, Children’s Books and other related subjects. Typical booksellers, the Ians’ house was filled with books, some of them were stock, but many in piles and on shelves were their own, some of these stretched along spare surfaces on the upstairs landing, or spilled into odd stray nooks and corners around the house. I remember Ian Hodgkins on the way upstairs once wafting a long finger at a copy of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and urging me to read it.
Back in the early 1990s, when I was a student, I would spend a week at a time during Spring and Summer breaks at Upper Vatch Mill doing gardening for Ian and Ian to earn a little extra cash. My Dad would drop me off on a Monday morning and stay just long enough for cup of tea and to devour vast amounts of cake, much to the horror of our hosts, before driving back to Bristol.
Most of what I did at the Vatch wasn’t really gardening as such, more odd jobs in and around the grounds, about two acres of which stretched gradually uphill away from the back of the house becoming wilder and more unruly the further and higher it got. As the slope increased, lawn and flower bed gradually ceded territory to marching ranks of persistent nettle, dock, forget-me-nots, cow parsley, ragwort and the like.
My job was to help tame the garden by variously chopping and hacking at shrubs, pruning apple trees, dogwood and hawthorns, trimming borders, pulling out hedge bindweed, cutting back brambles and over eager ash saplings. My most memorable task was rat burning.
The Ians kept a few geese and chickens, which could wander freely about the grounds during the day. At night they went to their houses safe from foxes, but rats, were an occasional problem, so poison and traps were set out beneath the wire and wood frames of the coups. One year, a mound of garden rubbish waiting to be burned was bulked out with the corpses of several rodent victims of poisoning. With a stick I’d poke them deep into the pile, but couldn’t entirely avoid catching the odd glint from a cold, unblinking eye.
Dead rats aside, there was one area of the garden that always made me feel uneasy. As the name suggests, there was once a mill here. Upper Vatch Mill was one of several in the area and reputedly the highest around Stroud, at seven storeys. In the late 18th century it was a paper mill, but by the 1820s had become a working cloth-mill. By the end of the Victorian era, the mill was gone for good.
Although the Ians referred to their home as Upper Vatch Mill, it had actually been the coach house for the Mill. The house was still an impressive building, a solid rectangular slab of Cotswold Stone, with leaded, arched Gothic windows, gabled roof and a hefty, carved double wooden door. Outside, traces of the Vatch’s industrial past remained.
When I used to visit, away to one side of the garden there was a dark and overgrown area of watery ground at the rear and to the right of the house – this marked the approximate site of the old millpond. I often had to cart wheelbarrow loads of garden cuttings to a compost heap in this place. I don’t know why really, but I never felt happy spending time there and would race in and out of the area whenever I had reason to be in it. There was something eerie about the spot, not obviously bad, more an indefinable sense of vague discomfort. It was a dark corner as well, tangled foliage threw long shadows and even in August it was never warm.
The small pond that was there in the 1990s, wasn’t the original millpond; I think it may have been an abandoned swimming pool. However, close by, the millrace had once been fed by a leat from the Slad Brook, presumably powering a great wheel. Today, the watercourse vanishes into a culvert somewhere beyond the outer edges of the property, by the neighbouring cottages, before reemerging on the surface some distance later in a wooded area to the south.
One evening after work, all nursing Gin and Tonics as we chatted, I mentioned my discomfort at the old pond. Aha said the Ians. This didn’t surprise them. My hosts then proceeded to tell me about an incident a few years earlier involving a group of builders who had been working on the old cottages next door to the main house. Some of these date to the 17th century and would have once housed millworkers.
One summer afternoon, on an apparently bright day, a group of the builders working around the Vatch, suddenly downed tools, left the site and refused to come back. The foreman was initially reluctant to reveal why, but eventually let on that the workers had seen a woman, by the pond.
At first they thought she was a walker who’d strayed from a local footpath, one of the men had approached her, but as he drew near, she simply disappeared. The others, thinking it must be someone playing a joke, made a brief search of the area but could find no sign of the figure. They ran and refused to return. Work was stopped for a week and a new crew were assembled to finish the job.
Perhaps even more than a castle,there’s something about a pond that seems to attract ghosts, or at least ghost stories. Ponds are I suppose quite liminal places, at once brimming with life and potentially bringers of death. Local legend and recorded history across the British Isles throw up numerous examples of millponds, fishponds, fulling pools, village ponds and more, each with their own tales of tragedy, suicides, drownings, accidents, murders…
Further west in Gloucestershire, near the Welsh border, Swan Pool in Redbrook is supposedly the haunt of several ghosts; these include a drowned woman and child, another tall woman and a black dog. Some accounts even claim that a lady in a white gown had been witnessed here rising from the pool, covered in green weed; although as Andrew Green puts it in Phantom Ladies: “If a ghost can walk through a door it is hardly physical enough to carry a weedy shroud is it?” Closer at hand, just up the valley in Slad, is the mill pond where Laurie Lee recollects poor eccentric Miss Flynn drowning herself in Cider with Rosie.
In Folkore, ponds of all kinds throughout the British Isles are populated with a varied cast of spirits, Genius Loci and mythic figures. In the words of Sue Clifford and Angela King “The mysterious abode of Jenny Greenteeth, Will O’ the Wisp and Jack O’ Lantern, no pond is quite like any other”. Ponds, as Clifford and King also point out, are often brimming with life and the living, noting that ‘there are more species of pond-living water beetle in England than there are resident birds‘
As for the millpond at the Vatch, who knows its true history? I can’t find any reference to a ghost in any other source, but I suspect somewhere in the past there may have be a sad story that could explain things, now long lost to us.
In the days after hearing the story of the workmen, my trepidation around the old pond grew. On one occasion, obviously now expectant because of what I had heard, I had a brief, intense, sense that I was being watched. I bolted from the spot, returning later for the wheelbarrow, but I never saw her myself. Ian Hodgkins’ brother, whenever he was over from New York, used to make a point of pacing around the spot where the ghost had been seen, hoping for an encounter, but so far as I know he never had one.
The one apparition I was lucky enough to see appeared to me on the opposite side of the garden. A moment I can still recall quite clearly. I was weeding out a patch of ground near some roses, listening to the Pixies’ Where is my Mind? on a walkman. A wire fence a little ahead of where I stood marked the boundry between the house and the paddock beyond. A cow mooched into view, just beyond a large hawthorn and stood chewing a while, before, in an astoundingly fluid and rapid movement, giving birth to a calf. As I watched, transfixed by this field birth, the wet calf flopped on to the grass, chest moving lightly as its mother turned immediately and began to lick.
Links and References
England in Particular: A Celebration of the Commonplace, the Local, the Vernacular and the Distinctive by Sue Clifford and Angela King, Hodder & Stoughton
Phantom Ladies, by Andrew Green, Bailey Brothers and Swinfen Ltd, 1977
A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 11, Bisley and Longtree Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1976.
“The highest mill in Stroud, Upper Vatch Mill, (fn. 260) was named as a paper-mill in 1824 (fn. 261) and had presumably been occupied by Francis Chapman, paper-maker of ‘Vatch Mill’, who was mentioned in 1776, (fn. 262) and by William Ward, described as late a paper-maker at Vatch Mills in 1794. (fn. 263) It is likely, however, that Upper Vatch Mill was used as a cloth-mill from before 1824 and that it can be identified with the mill with fulling-stocks at Vatch owned and occupied by Edward Mason in 1822. (fn. 264) Upper Vatch Mill was rebuilt in 1830, and in 1833, when the ground floor was used for fulling by water-power and the upper floors housed weaving-shops, it was owned and worked with Vatch and Peghouse Mills by N. S. Marling. “