The latest in a series of posts exploring the background to Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree, set in an alternative history in which Hanoverian kings never reigned in Britain, despite attempts to usurp the Stuart throne
We last saw Dido Twite flitting between Tegleaze Manor and Dogkennel Cottages in an effort to ensure Captain Hughes’ recovery from illness and a road accident while also attempting to get an urgent dispatch to London. We now turn our attention to the West Sussex town of Petworth, where Dido meets more obstacles. In addition it’s the town where Joan Aiken herself had a strong connection, as we shall discover.
Petworth was, and still is, a small market town in the present county of West Sussex (originally the western part of the historic kingdom of the South Saxons). Fourteen miles from Chichester and just five miles from Dogkennel Cottages, this is where Dido goes for medicines and a set of crutches for Captain Hughes.
This was an area Joan Aiken knew well. Between the ages of five and twelves she’d been brought up in nearby Sutton, but it wasn’t until she was in her thirties, in 1957, that she was able to buy White Hart House in Petworth. Here she lived with her family until 1977 when she bought and restored The Hermitage (accessed from East Street). The delightful 1967 Puffin Club film, viewable on the author’s website, gives readers an opportunity to see both exterior and interior of White Hart House during the time she was drafting The Cuckoo Tree, though this novel wasn’t published till 1971.
The Fighting Cocks Inn
Dido approached Petworth from the south, along the present A285 which becomes Pound Street as it enters the town. It’s possible that before reaching Park Road she would have slipped along Saddlers Row to enter Market Square dominated by the late 18th-century Town Hall. Passing around the north end of the hall she’d have spotted Godwit’s ironmongery in the square before passing east along New Street and turning right down Middle Street.
The Fighting Cocks is found “at the end of Middle Street”. Yan’s uncle George (“Jarge”) Gusset is the innkeeper, and his wife Sarah or Sary is a reliable nurse, well able to attend solicitously to Captain Hughes when he is brought for safety from Dogkennel Cottages. This inn (there actually was a cockpit in the courtyard) is what became The White Hart, sited on the High Street opposite the southern end of Middle Street. According to the Closed Pubs website the pub was identifiable as such by 1911, and a photograph by Leslie Whitcomb showed it still functioning in 1938; but it closed in 1939. When bought by Joan Aiken in 1957 had clearly reverted to residential use.
On November 5th 1973, two years after publication of The Cuckoo Tree, White Hart Cottages — consisting of two dwellings, now White Hart Cottage and White Hart House — was deemed a historic building and Grade II listed. The listing tells us that it is 18th-century or older with
two storeys and attic. Four windows. One dormer. Faced with roughcast. Modillion eaves cornice. Tiled roof. Casement windows. Two doorways with flat hoods over at the head of six steps with iron handrail.
Other Petworth locations
Back in the Market Square a fair is, almost literally, in full swing. Though the internal chronology puts this at Saturday November 5th, traditionally the annual Petworth Fair took place on November 20th, St Edmund’s day; in the 17th century it was literally a nine-day wonder. This is where Miles Mystery has set up his puppet theatre; this is also where Tobit gets accused of stealing a shubunkin goldfish before being imprisoned in the town jail, after a hue and cry up Church Street and back down Lombard Street.
Petworth jail was on the outskirts of the town, by a windmill (which is where Miles Mystery orders that Tobit be done away with). A redbrick structure, it overlooked a pigsty, a yard and a well, down which last feature Tobit was forced and where Miles eventually met his end — a neat bit of poetic justice. John Constable visited Petworth House in 1834; here, among several watercolours and drawings, he painted Petworth church and windmill, with Petworth House beyond, a work which is now in the British Museum.
Petworth’s 13th- and 14th-century church is dedicated to St Mary, partially restored in 1827. On the south side facing Church Road is the section of the graveyard where Dido has an unsatisfactory chat with her father, Desmond Twite (him as was Abednego), the pair of them sitting on a tomb. The top of the tower was added in 1827 with a spire above, as seen in Constable’s watercolour, though the spire was removed in 1953, before the Aiken family moved to Petworth.
Angel Street is of course named after the historic inn that still stands there. Miles Mystery lodged at The Angel but appeared to abscond without paying. The truth of course was that he’d had a “bad falling off”.
Three businesses facing Market Square are, I suspect at the bottom end of Lombard Street, which slopes uphill towards the church. These, as it happens, belong to three Hanoverian plotters whose premises sit side by side. First, and the one nearest the square, is the apothecary Wm Pelmett, Chymist & Chirugeon. (Lombard Street apparently had an apothecary listed in a directory here towards the end of the 19th century.) In the middle is Godwit & Sons, Ironmongers & Conspirators — its always handy to advertise your sideline as well as your main business. Last but not least is Pickwick, FitzPickwick and Wily, Solicitors and Attorneys-at-Law, the lawyers’ office noted as being uphill.
In a glass-fronted case attached to the wall of the office is the Tegleaze Luck-piece: an oval picture painted on a piece of ivory, visually enlarged by a powerful magnifying-glass. Conceivably it could have resided in the doll’s house that Cousin Wilfred was so fond of in Tegleaze Manor.
The picture showed a very high tower, encircled by a spiral ramp. Hundreds of little people were rushing up and down the ramp, were occupied in building the tower, climbing ladders, at work with trowel and buckets of mortar; others were setting bricks, wheeling barrows or consulting plans. […] The painter’s name, P. Bruegel, was neatly written in one corner.
Even if we can’t always agree about the spelling of the painter’s name we’re familiar with Breughel’s Tower of Babel, particularly with the version now in Vienna, its resemblance to the Colosseum in Rome rather striking. But the author’s choice of this image ties very strongly with the Hanoverian plot to slide St Paul’s Cathedral, with King Richard IV in it, down into the Thames: here we can see Nimrod the king with some of the tower, on the banks of a busy river, already collapsed, no doubt a closet reference to the conspiracy.
Tower of Babel (1563) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dido also notes other details in the miniature: many of the workers
were arguing, or even fighting, presumably about how the tower should be built; and in any case the tower had been struck by lightning and was falling down, so a great many people were trying to escape from it and trampling over each other in the process.
These details too prefigure some aspects of the coming coronation in St Paul’s, as when the cathedral starts to rock on its foundations, and especially the induced panic when Miles Mystery’s glove puppets appear to come alive, as least as far as that part of the congregation which has ingested joobie nuts is concerned. The evil-looking marionettes indeed are like the “devils, down below, [which] were finding the whole affair very funny indeed.”
It’s well-known that Bruegel painted three versions of the Tower of Babel, the so-called Little Tower of Babel now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, this one in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and a miniature on ivory. The location of the miniature is unknown — it was last known to be in the collection of one Giulio Clovio, a Croatian domiciled in Rome — but we now know where it eventually returned: Tegleaze Manor.
In the next related post we shall follow Dido all the way from Petworth to London