Dido and the Elephant & Castle

Sussex from an old map, showing roads, railways and canals

In Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree we saw Dido Twite in the West Sussex town of Petworth coming to terms with plaguy coves and being aided by kind well-wishers. Dido now has to find a way to circumvent more shenanigans to ensure that the urgent naval dispatch she has been guarding for Captain Hughes gets to London before the coronation of the new King Richard IV.

This post follows Dido’s course by road and her smuggler friends the Wineberry Men’s journey by canal from Sussex to St Paul’s Cathedral, and back again.

Map of part of West Sussex showing Stane Street (red), Wey and Arun waterway (blue) and Dido’s route to Petworth and Stopham Bridge (green)

When Dido first set off from Chichester in the direction of Petworth her route started following the line of the old Roman road called Stane Street (that is, “stone street”, alluding to its permanent surface) but it soon diverted towards the downs around Tegleaze.

Her present need is to head east from Petworth on the road to Pulborough, riding through Fittleworth and stopping at Stopham Bridge (not far from that same Roman road). She has realised that that naval dispatch (carried now by the Wineberry Men on their barge) is in danger of being intercepted by Hanoverian conspirators. The smugglers are travelling along a ‘secret canal’ which we now know as the Wey and Arun waterway. Their boat, called Gentlemen’s Relish, is hauled by two mules called Mercy and Charity (or ‘Moke’ and ‘Chock’): the barge — which takes its name from an anchovy paste created by John Osborn in 1828 — will earn the honour of being ‘By Royal Appointment’ after the whole crisis is over.

The Wey and Arun Navigation
The Wey & Arun Junction Canal opened in 1816, linking the Wey Navigation near Guildford to the south coast via the Arun Navigation, the intention being to provide a waterway to link London with the dockyards at Portsmouth.
The end of the Napoleonic wars and railway mania led to the decline of the Wey & Arun, and it closed in 1871.

The canal joins the Arun river just north of Pulborough at Pallingham, passing Billingshurst, Wisborough Green, Loxwood, Dunsfold, Cranleigh, Bramley and Shalford just south of Guildford before linking with the River Wey near Woking. Around Byfleet it’s joined by the Basingstoke Canal before debouching into the Thames beyond Weybridge.

But the smugglers’ ‘secret canal’ has yet more secrets: somehow, according to The Cuckoo Tree, there must an unknown extension that goes past Esher to join up with the River Wandle flowing through Wandsworth, South London. It’s here, at The Rising Sun in Allfarthing Lane on the banks of the Wandle that Dido catches up with the Gentlemen’s Relish, disguised as a floating hedge.

When Dido gets to the River Arun at Stopham Bridge, just west of Pulborough, she is scrobbled as she’s surveying the scene, the lighted windows of the White Hart Inn on the opposite bank glinting in the dark.

Stopham Bridge and the River Arun, from the north bank

When she comes to she finds she is trussed up in Lord Plantagenet Sope’s octagonal gazebo. She is then rescued from Tante Sannie’s not so tender ministrations thanks to his lordship’s tiger Sunflower — Sope appears to have a wildlife park in his gardens — and an intervention prompted by a note from Dido’s wayward father. The “handsome grey stone mansion” that Lord Sope owns appears to be Stopham Manor, part of an ancient estate.

Stopham Manor, from an old print

Lord Sope arranges for Dido to travel overnight in Rachel the Indian elephant’s howdah, his regular conveyance to London: “I usually reckon that it takes nine or ten hours to reach London,” he tells Dido, “with the usual pause for refreshment, of course.” By modern roads it’s almost 60 miles; Rachel mostly goes across country, following the canal.

Elephant & Castle: sign of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers

Dido and her elephant and ‘castle’ follow the Wey and Arun waterway as far as the Rose Inn at Run Common. This pit stop is south of Guildford, between Shalford and Bramley, by the River Wey. After this she’s off to the Ring o’ Bells at Ripley, between Guildford and Woking, reaching here in the grey of dawn. At both places she finds she has not long missed the Gentlemen’s Relish. Rachel stops for a short nap in a hazel wood near Esher. By this stage they’ve wandered eastwards from the canal and are heading for Stane Street, which they follow through to Merton village.

From here they head north along the River Wandle to The Rising Sun at Wandsworth, “a small, ancient village not unlike Dido’s native Battersea, situated about a mile south of the River Thames, and perhaps eight or nine miles up that winding river from London Bridge”. (‘Battersea’ here must surely be an unconscious slip for ‘Southwark’, which is where we first met Dido in Black Hearts in Battersea.) That inn, “a tiny, gabled public-house in Allfarthing Lane, on the banks of the River Wandle” is hard to locate now, but the pleasant little park on the west bank of the Wandle appears to be King Georges Park (ironic, as the Hanoverians didn’t reign in this alternate history).

Rachel takes Dido and Yan Gusset over Wandsworth Bridge and along the King’s Road, Chelsea, past Dr Furneaux’s Academy of Art, across Sloane Square, through Belgravia, across Green Park to Lord Sope’s club (Toffy’s) in St James. Then Rachel follows Sir Percy Tipstaff’s curricle along Piccadilly, the Strand, Fleet Street, Ludgate Hill and then left, up into St Paul’s Churchyard. Dido would have had a view of the cathedral from her former home across the Thames, in Rose Alley, Southwark — all as recounted in Black Hearts in Battersea — a home she hadn’t seen since 1833.

St Paul’s Cathedral and the Thames, from Smith’s London map 1830 (credit http://www.mapco.net/): Wardrobe Court and Rose Alley marked in red

It would have been nice to think that she would have partly followed Stane Street towards London Bridge (a route that would follow the A3 along Clapham Road through the district now known as Elephant and Castle) but no, that’s not the case. However, when Dido, Cris and Tobit, along with Owen Hughes, head back on Rachel next day to Sussex she takes them “over heath and common, through woods, fields and copses, straight as a bird to Stopham House.” That return journey — as the crow flies — suggests they take the Roman road after swinging “through the outskirts of London at a rattling pace”.

A note about Elephant and Castle, as I’m sure this theme must have inspired the author to create Rachel and her role in The Cuckoo Tree. Originally a smithy was established in the manor of Walworth south of the Thames, in the village of Newington; the blacksmith was perhaps associated with the Worshipful Company Cutlers whose coat of arms bore an elephant; it’s very likely that handles fashioned from ivory, for knives and other such cutting implements, gave rise to the symbol.

We know too that the smithy must have given rise to an inn in the 16th century, for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has Antonio saying “In the south suburbs, at the Elephant, | Is best to lodge.” From the 18th century the area became known for its dance palaces, penny gaffs, music hall and theatre, and by 1829 was served with horse buses.

Stane Street
The course of Stane Street was described by Ivan Donald Margary as part of his monumental study of Roman roads in Britain. He designated Stane Street No 15 in his survey and no doubt this London to Chichester route may have been a favourite of his — as a Sussex resident he was associated with securing the site of the Roman palace of Fishbourne in Chichester for extensive excavation.

Newington stood on the line of Stane Street, which began south of the Roman bridge across the Thames, a little to the east of the later London Bridge. The road passed through Southwark, along Newington Causeway, Newington Butts and along the present A3. This continues through Clapham and Tooting, crossing the River Wandle by Merton Priory. From Morden through Ewell (near Nonsuch Palace), Epsom and Leatherhead it becomes the A24, and then the A29 from Dorking, bisecting Billinghurst before reaching Pulborough. While not exactly “straight as a bird” all along the way — there are definitely kinks and deviances — it’s tolerably so, as the map shows.

St Paul’s Cathedral, London

St Paul’s
The medieval structure of Old St Paul’s Cathedral lasted until the Great Fire of London of 1666. Christopher Wren had put forward some plans for restoring and rebuilding parts of it, but the conflagration changed everything. The Hanoverian conspirators give the new structure the cryptic name of the Wren’s Nest, referring of course to the architect of the new building that we see now.

After the capture of Daisy Lubbage’s rat by, fittingly, Tobit and Cris’s cat’s cradle, Tobit follows it through Wandsworth, along the south bank and over Blackfriars Bridge, then down into the cellar of a house, along a tunnel, finally emerging in a space “big as Tegleaze Park” under the cathedral crypt, where giant rollers are in place to roll the building into the Thames.

Meanwhile, Yan and Dido, after fruitless discussions with officialdom, have arrived at Wardrobe Court (now Wardrobe Place) a little to the southwest of the cathedral: “a tiny enclosure” with plane trees and “peaceful little old houses” all around. At No 4 resides Yan’s Aunt Grissie (Griselda?), which is where the rest of the Wineberry Men eventually arrive, having sailed their barge down the Thames from Wandsworth. From Wardrobe Court Dido and Yan work their way back to St Paul’s Churchyard and in through the north door of the cathedral where people are congregating for the coronation the next day.

As the climax of the story comes, King Richard IV lifts his voice “in a tuneful rendering of Metrical Psalm Twenty-three, “The Lord’s My Shepherd”, and very apt it is too given how much of The Cuckoo Tree is given over to shepherding themes. Colonel FitzPickwick then elects to end everything — the plot having failed — with a “bad falling off” from the roof over the west front of Wren’s Nest.

And when Dido finally gets back to Dogkennel Cottages in Sussex, she is unaware that her friend is coming across the pasture, up the chalk track, “through the beech grove, across the saddle of down, along the yew-hung path” to where she sadly sits, feeling friendless, nested in the “little crooked, aged Cuckoo Tree”.


Still to be discussed: the timeline for the novel (which will be complicated by many imponderables and inconsistencies) and themes (in this respect the novel is no different from the others in the Chronicles, riffing on similar ideas while still maintaining a distinctive character).

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2 thoughts on “Dido and the Elephant & Castle

  1. Pingback: Dido and the Elephant & Castle — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

    1. Thanks, Dale, for continuing to not just tolerate but support my obsessive picking-apart of each and every one of the Chronicles!

      I know the characters and the narrative are the things to treasure, but I do think part of the attractiveness of the series is Joan’s ability to create this richly detailed paracosm, a landscape and timescape that Dido and her friends can freely wander in.

      I also like to think that there’s both rhyme and reason behind the details she includes, that as well as the whimsy she’s drawing on a cloud of tangential thoughts, what-if ideas and personal experiences and laying them out for us like a kind of Kim’s Game. It’s another reason why I rate her so highly.

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