Chapter 32: Rabbit-Felt Velvet
Familial chaos burst the quiet morning. Sylvie leapt into the back with the two kids, contorting past the car seats to cram between. The kids provided a noisy soundtrack, startled by the sudden disruption and the strange man in the car. Animated introductions had to be shouted. Then Ollie, the dad and driver, neatly explained hitchhiking through the rearview and the noise subsided.
Everyone was excited. I to be on my way; they to have a stranger in their car. Ollie and Sylvie were full of youthful parenthood, on their way to Clare to stomp about in the mud of a park for a while with the kids. They’d moved from Stoke Newington recently and liked the countryside, liked the area and liked the world of having children. With their own place, things were working out. They talked about getting the kids into good schools and planning for the long term. It was all in front of them. Ollie was still doing IT and Sylvie was at home raising the kids, taking time out of work, “But they’re a handful for everyone,” Ollie laughed. “Yes buddy?” He’d say, looking up into the rearview again as the kids said daddy. Then he’d explain some other abstract question to the children with the precision only parents talking to children have.
“Do you come from a big family?” Sylvie asked me enthusiastically. I said I was one of four. “I could tell you come from a big family!” They both were too. Maybe they were heading that way but two kids were enough for now. Their horizon had only recently shifted from outward London life to the inward family one with all its nuclear joys and troubles. They were enjoying it and it was nice to be around.
I left them in Clare and went to walk about town. It’s one of the most beautiful towns in the country. Idyllic in a good way. Not much was open but the sun was out which made up for it.
The church was open and it was handsome. A couple inside were sitting in the pews chatting, obviously visitors from their wide eyes. I snooped about myself, looking at the plaques and local history exhibition.
“There can be few places in which the unfolding of history can be so clearly traced as in Clare,” a historian informed me in a photocopied book. I read about Normans, castles, Lords and Ladies, riches from wool, markets and Flemish competition. The once great wool industry breathed its last breath in 1825 with the last weaver and the railways swept the market away.
I read the stone plaques with grand names and floral swags. They told me who was in the vault below. Sir General George Digby Barker was the big cheese who relieved the besieged in Lucknow in 1857. 24 got VCs that day including William Hall, the first black man to get one. A massacre followed the relief but none of that was on the plaque. Barker’s wife and father were though. So was the fact Barker served in the Persian war, was commander-in-chief of the forces in China, governor of the Bemudas, JP for Suffolk and Essex, and churchwarden of this parish. Requiescat in pace.
The couple were leaving. “Lovely church!” They said with a smile and I smiled back as they shuffled towards the big wooden door. “Just got to work out how to get out now!” They opened the door and left. Strange thing to say I thought. It’s funny how we interact by saying things that have no meaning. Like conversations with old friends. What you say is usually totally pointless. But then that’s not the point.
I went down towards the castle and got sidetracked by an old beamed building. It was a second-hand vintage store full of sparkly trinkets and big coats. I went in. It was like entering Narnia without the world beyond. There were things everywhere. The clothes were so close I was practically trying them on the second I stepped in. Old shoes poked the floor and beams were hung with lights and clusters of old labels, like grapes or wisteria.
The proprietor looked up from her desk in the old fireplace and we got chatting. She and her husband had run the shop since 1969, right there in the old building. It was 16th century apparently. They used to run it as a second-hand bookshop but Amazon did away with that. Now they sell clothes from the decades they used to sell books. 70s lambswool and 80s tweed, pairs of 90s trainers. 20th Century Fashion at Trinders, the shop was called.
Rosemary told me not much had changed in Clare all that time. Places like Sudbury up the road had seen influxes of East Enders in the 60s and the M11 sliced up the country further west. But Clare was spared all that. A few things were different of course. The edges of town were built up and houses cost a lot more than they did. “The yellow cottage opposite was for sale at £1000 the year after we arrived,” Rosemary said, “God knows what it would be now.” But Rosemary knew changing house prices is hardly substantial change.
I picked up a black hat hanging on a rail. It was a rich rabbit-felt velvet that you could stroke and shone blue. It was broad-rimmed and tall with a crown that slanted back and it had a long purple feather. Rosemary said it was the sort of thing Roy Strong would have worn, or Quentin Crisp. I would have bought it had it not looked ridiculous on me.
I told her how I'd wanted a proper hat ever since I’d seen one not long before. It was a perfect hat. Grey wool felt, wide and perfectly shaped. I asked the owner to try it on and it fit so well it felt like I had a crown on. It held your head in a way you didn’t think you needed until that moment and then you realise it’s the only thing in the world you’re missing. The owner had made it herself and I tried to get her to make me one, whatever it cost, but she said she had too much going on. She needed to spend time self-reflecting and sorting things out. She couldn’t be making more hats.
I left the vintage shop and went to the castle up the road. It was an old motte and bailey, with a beautiful view across town. The castle wasn’t much more than a few flint walls with a child or two clinging to the bottom but it used to be Elizabeth de Clare’s so I felt like seeing it. I’ve told her story probably close to a thousand times as a tour guide punting up and down the Cam and this is how I’d tell it:
Elizabeth de Clare was a French princess. Sometimes I’d say she was an English princess, niece of Edward III if I was in a particular mood, but it made no difference. “…And Elizabeth de Clare was the richest woman in the world at the time…And the reason she was so rich was because she was very good at marrying people!” The tourists would laugh a little here. “When she was just thirteen years old, (I’d grimace and so would they) she was married off to a very rich man who died!…within a year - and left her all his money.” Then I’d add, as if to myself, “Probably served him right to be honest.” Sometimes tourists would pipe up with something at this point which was annoying as it interrupted my flow - the best was yet to come - but I’d have to laugh along with them anyway.
“…So she was married off again, to another very rich man, who also died - within a year - and left her all his money. So she was married off a third time…And no prizes for guessing what happened to him! *laughter* He died - within a year - and left her all his money. So by the time she was just twenty-seven! she’d been married three times, all her husbands had died, and they’d all left her all their money, so she was the richest woman in the world!” People would laugh again, and they'd say something like that’s the way to do it. The more inquisitive might inquire how they died, (“two of them died in battle, the other of typhoid - so it really was just bad luck…or good luck. Depends which way you see it…”) They would make a few more jokes and then I’d come in at just the right moment with, “Of course, no one wanted to marry her after that… so she lived the rest of her life known as the Black Widow of Cambridge!” The biggest laugh of all turned into an interested Eeohhh.
She was the founder of Clare College hence why she was on the punting tour, founded it in 1338 (or refounded it in truth). Elizabeth was quite a woman by all accounts. There were no doubt a few inaccuracies on my tour, but it was close enough and that’s all that mattered.
A family came up onto the castle mound. “Morning,” I said catching their eye, “Just got to work out how to get down now…!”
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