Remembering the Bellots

Remembering a young man from our road who died in the Great War recalled a mystery that we had solved ten years ago.

We moved to the village of High Ham in Somerset in February 1967.  Our house was the last in a line of council houses built in 1926.  Beyond our house, the road passed between open fields before reaching High Ham windmill, the only thatched windmill in England.  It had stood semi-derelict for years, before being restored by the National Trust in the early 1970s.

It was said in the village that the mill and its house and cottage had been left to the National Trust by a Professor Bellot in memory of his son.

It had been assumed that the son concerned had died during the First World War and a search of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website produced a quick result, Bellot not being the most common of names:

In Memory of

Lieutenant BRYSON BELLOT

1st/1st, North Somerset Yeomanry

who died age 24

on 27 March 1918

Son of Hugh H. L. Bellot, D.C.L., and Beatrice V. Bellot,

of High Ham, Somerset.

Remembered with honour

On the Great War commemorative plaque in our village church, Bryson Bellot is the first name amongst the eighteen from our little village who died in the Great War.

Finding Professor Bellot’s Christian names on the CWGC website meant being able to search for him on the Internet and a Wikipedia page confirmed, “In 1969 Professor H. H. Bellot left the windmill, cottage and garden to the National Trust in his will”.

Professor Bellot must have been a great age when bequeathing the mill to the Trust; in his nineties, at least because his son had died in 1918 at the age of 24, so had been born some seventy-five years before Professor Bellot’s death. Who was this man who had lived to such a great age in our village?

Papers held by the Somerset Archives in Taunton suggest there was deep involvement in village life, but how did Professor H.H. Bellot remain around for so long?

The answer became clearer on the website of University College, London.  Professor Hugh Hale Bellot had been born in 1890, he could not have been father to Lieutenant Bryson Bellot.  The UCL website even has a photograph of the man who was once our neighbour.

The University of London has a catalogue of the papers left by Professor Bellot, they include: “Photograph of Bryson Bellot (Bellot’s brother) in a military uniform” and “Bryson Bellot: Documents and letters of Bellot’s brother who died in Abbeville on March 17, 1918.”  So Professor Hugh Bellot was brother, and not father, to Lieutenant Bryson Bellot.

Bryson Bellot’s father was, however, also Hugh Bellot.  An obituary for the Royal Historical society shows that Professor Hugh Hale Bellot (1890-1969) was son of Hugh Hale Leigh Bellot (1860-1928).  The DCL (Doctor of Civil Law) after H.L. Bellot’s name in the casualty records should have been a hint, Hugh Hale Bellot was a history lecturer, a search for Hugh Hale Leigh Bellot reveals him to have been a barrister and law lecturer.

Professor Bellot must have been a interesting figure in our little village: an obituary for a former pupil describes him as “Professor H. Hale Bellot, an old-fashioned gentleman and a rather anachronistic figure, even in 1953”.

Of course, the real mystery is how a prominent academic family from Surrey came to be living down our road.

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Firework night

The cartoon in The Times depicts John McDonnell, the Labour shadow chancellor, asking for a penny for the guy; the guy in the cartoon is his party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It is a cartoon that would presumably have resonance among older readers for guys have become a rare sight.

Even when I was a child, fifty years ago, guys were not common. I can remember only one year when when assembled a figure from sticks, newspaper and old clothes, in order to set fire to it. The last time I saw anyone asking for a penny for the guy was at the entrance to Kew Gardens Underground station in 1982.

Firework Night now has become a movable occasion. Displays take place between 31st October and 5th November, according to local preference – and whether or not it is a weekend evening.

Firework Night was never a big deal when I was young; the fire was built from the dead cuttings from trimmed hedges and the pyrotechnics came one item at a time; one Roman candle, one Catherine wheel, one rocket, each of them was savoured.  However ordinary in retrospect, the occasion was special at the time.  Perhaps we were easily pleased.

Special moments in the year weren’t too frequent – Christmas; the annual village outing to Weymouth; going camping in Devon, the next county; but every one of them was remembered and pondered for long afterwards.

Perhaps the inflationary principles that apply to money, apply also to experiences.  The more the money supply is increased, the less worth each banknote has.  In a similar way, perhaps the more the supply of experiences is increased, the less memorable each of those experiences has become.

On the other hand, perhaps the passing of the years has magnified memories, perhaps they did not occupy then the place they now occupy in the landscape of reminiscence.  Maybe the memories remain clearly, but the moments themselves – with the exception of Christmas – were approached without a great sense of anticipation and were marked without a significant awareness they might be of the stuff that would be recalled decades later.

As there are moments in those distant decades that remain as vivid as a rocket bursting in the night sky, so there will be moments as significant and intense for children today as were the special moments of the past. Perhaps the landscapes of their memories are dotted with many more moments than enjoyed by schoolboys fifty years ago, but in fifty years’ time, there will be someone remembering vividly Firework Night this year (whichever night it falls on).

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An ascetic life

The village name means “the big island,” looking at a BBC aerial photograph of the village in the winter of 2014, a picture showing the village surrounded by flood water that isolated it for five weeks, it is not hard imagine what Muchelney may have been like in former centuries.

The abbey at Muchelney dates from Saxon times, established during the time of Ethelred. Perhaps the inaccessible location was part of the motivation for the choice of location, perhaps a place cut off for weeks and months of the year corresponded to the ascetic ideal of those aspiring to a monastic life.

The abbey at Muchelney never grew to become a significant house, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, there were just ten monks at the abbey, even at its height there were no more than twenty. Perhaps the dampness of the location and the smallness of the community made the abbey an unattractive place to be, when there was majestic abbey at Glastonbury to attract novices, who would wish to join the religious community at Muchelney?

The monks of Muchelney seem to have compensated for the smallness of their numbers by creating a house that was not lacking in comforts. The British History Online website tells of a visitation of the monastery that found living conditions well removed from the monastic ideal:

In 1335, Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury wrote to the abbot concerning the comperta, the things discovered, at a recent visitation of his. He says he found the monks living in luxury and enjoying private privileges which were quite unauthorized. They were not content with the simple cubicles in the dormitory but had made themselves larger beds in the form of tabernacles, which were too ornate and richly covered. They were in the habit of leaving the convent without permission and rode on horseback through the country, and some were wont to take their meals in private and not as they should, in common with the others in the refectory. Secular men, women and girls were allowed in the cloister area. In the refectory the utensils were far too costly and good for the simple life that should be lived there. All this was to be corrected by the festival of St. Michael. He forbade the monks to leave the precincts of the abbey unless they had obtained the abbot’s permission, and if the abbot was absent, they must obtain the licence of the prior, and this licence was only to be granted for very good reasons.

Compared with the realities of daily life for most people in the Fourteenth Century, being at Muchelney seems not to have been a bad choice to have made.

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Batten down the hatches

At the end of each summer, my mother would say, “it’s time to batten down the hatches.” Battening down the hatches meant putting away everything that was not needed over the winter months and firmly securing everything that might be shifted by a gale.

None of us was ever sure why we talked as though we were at sea, the nearest port was at least forty miles away, but we understood the need for a very firm battening down. Everything needed to be packed away; doors needed to be securely locked; windows closed against draughts; nothing should be left exposed. The arrival of the season against which we guarded was announced by a mournful whining of the wind through the electricity cables that passed by on the other side of the road.

Once, while my father had been working at the air station at Lossiemouth in northern Scotland, it had been our community in Somerset, six hundred miles south, that had been hit by a severe storm.

Our garage was an asbestos structure set on a concrete foundation, secure on summer days but uncertain in winter. As the storm arrived and the wind built up, the entire garage began to lift from the ground. If it took off, or even turned over, the asbestos walls would be broken and everything inside would be exposed to the elements. I was sent to fetch Mr Croot, a mountain of a man of prodigious streng, who would know what to do. He drove quickly up from his house, bringing with him lengths of webbing and long steel spikes. The spikes were driven into the ground either side of the garage and the webbing was passed backward and forward over the roof. Mr Croot’s rescue equipment remained in place until the following spring, when the garage was much more securely concreted down.

Had we shown any reluctance to participate in the activity of battening down, my mother would say, “do you remember the time the garage took off?” Of course we did, how could we have forgotten it?

Perhaps, if we searched through the meteorological records, we could locate the date of the storm, perhaps it was not as severe as we remembered, but gusted along our road at speed because we lived on an open hillside. Whatever the historical facts regarding the storm, it left a fear of the coming of autumn for years afterwards, a sense of vulnerability.

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Story times

Asked to sit and read quietly, most Year 7 students will take out the same reading book they have had for weeks, or simply sit and stare into nothingness: reading does not seem to capture the imagination. Perhaps there is a need to read to them

The best times at primary school were those when the teacher would tell us to put away our books and to sit quietly and listen. In infant days at Long Sutton Primary School, there would be a rest time after the daily school dinner. Individual jute mats were handed out and the class was expected to lie quietly and listen to the radio. Perhaps it was the BBC Home Service’s “Listen with Mother” programme that provided the daily fare for the silent five and six year olds, perhaps it was one of the BBC schools programmes. Storytelling became associated with quiet attentiveness.

Throughout the primary school years, listening to stories was part of the educational experience. The final term at High Ham Primary School was spent with a new teacher, Mr Britten, the long-serving Miss Rabbage having retired at Easter. Perhaps it was the novelty of a new teacher with his new car and new ways that made the moments memorable, but forty-seven years later it is still possible to remember the book he would read to the class at the end of each school day, a tale of a sheepdog on Dartmoor, “Bran of the Moor.” The final days of hearing a story read came in the first year at Elmhurst Grammar School in Street, Miss Stanley would read pages from “Dr Syn,” Russell Thorndike’s tale of smuggling on Romney Marsh.

In the years that followed, BBC Radio 4 was the only place to which one might turn if one enjoyed stories being read. At least twice a day, there would be a chance to hear someone reading from a book. The BBC managers responsible for programme schedules knew that the spoken story still had a power to hold a listener in the way that no other programme might.

What is it about stories that makes them compelling, even stories with neither introduction nor conclusion? Perhaps the person telling the story is important, but perhaps more important is the story itself. Perhaps stories hold us because we can stand inside them, we can identify with the experience being described; perhaps stories hold us because something of them is inside of us, the feelings felt by the characters are the feelings we would feel ourselves. Perhaps discovering the power of stories would make the students into readers.

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