Caught by the River

What to Wear in the Countryside

4th May 2024

From tweeds to owl heads, platted rush hats to suits of burr, Sean Prentice ponders the correct countryside attire.

Image: Rachel Frost, ‘Big Topper’, graciously given by the maker.

And wend with you I will · till we find Truth;
Put on me my clothes · patched-up and ragged,
My leggings and mittens · ‘gainst cold of my nails,
Hang my seed basket at my neck · instead of a scrip,
And a bushel of breadcorn · bring me therein 

Oh, how gaily I doff’d my costly gear,
And put on my work-day clothes.

For the last few years, I have been walking the fields of the Herefordshire village of Colwall navigating only by the 1841 tithe map. As an incomer, somebody who lived in cities for most for the previous three decades, somebody with no ancestral connection to this landscape, I feel the need for stealth, to blend in as I commune with lost fields and grubbed up orchards. It is not enough to have a dog, to be seen to be walking with purpose. The disguise is always imperfect however, incomplete, and doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. I feel I am observed and found lacking, an imposter, and interloper. The true countryman can tell that my tweeds are eighty years out of style.  That my brogues too scuffed or not scuffed enough. That my trousers worn too short. The check of this or that checkered shirt is all wrong, too citified. The size too big wax jacket clearly scavenged from the last village jumble sale. I can never get it completely right, if my overall outfit scans as authentic it fails in other ways. I am not warm enough. I am too hot, too overdressed. I step out wearing a belted overcoat, which ends far below the knee affording a near magical protection, which is for the best, as I perceive the threat as almost supernatural, something ancient and unknowable, the soil itself, but straight off I catch the hem on barbed wire at the entrance to Ashen Meadow, snagging the wool badly. I feel undone, more vulnerable than ever.

Today I walk through Fish Pool Leys, through Six Acres and across Mill Lane which takes me to Mill Meadow, there are houses where the mill pool once was and the mill itself is a hundred years gone. This is the hardest of routes in which to imagine the before-now-time village. It is late July. The wheat is just past my knee in Six Acres, still green, the sod parched, to my left pines have been planted as a windbreak. In The Harvesters painted in 1565 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum, New York City, the wheat is anachronistically head high. It is the long straw used for thatching and the making of skeps. The Harvesters depicts a scene of lived experience recorded in detail, where peasants scythe whilst others thresh tirelessly, a third group take a break under a young tree, enjoying a meal of bread, cheese and buttermilk porridge. Those depicted are alive and plump and human, and unaware that they are being viewed. Bruegel was reputed to have disguised himself in peasant garb so he could mingle at fairs and markets and celebrations so he could better and more easily study his subject. The well-to-do inquisitors employed by Henry Mayhew to observe and gather testimony for his voluminous work London Labour and London Poor (1851) would also don the clothing of the metropolitan poor they wished to observe, interview, and record verbatim. They laundered and ironed their ragged disguises beforehand, rather negating the subterfuge. They rubbed shoulders with beggars, prostitutes, pickpockets, rat catchers, chimney sweeps, mudlarks, crossing-sweepers, bone-grubbers, pure-finders (collectors of dog excrement), long-song sellers, bootlace sellers, walking stick sellers, comb sellers, rhubarb sellers, the barefoot seller of birds’ nests in yokel smock  “I am a seller of birds’-nesties, snakes, slow-worms, adders, “effets” — lizards is their common name — hedgehogs, (for killing black beetles), frogs (for the French — they eats ’em), and snails (for birds) — that’s all I sell in the Summertime.” 

Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, best known by her pen name George Sand (1804-1876) regularly dressed in male attire so she might circulate more freely and be afforded access to areas of Paris usually out of bounds to women of her social class. Grappling with nineteenth century gender fluidity Victor Hugo writes, ‘George Sand cannot determine whether she is male or female […] it is not my place to decide whether she is my sister or my brother.’ Sand is the documenter of the uncommon and preternatural in the same manner as Mayhew was the recorder of the disregarded and everyday. In Légendes Rustiques, her 1858 collection of folk tales and lore, Sand categorises lubins as creatures who are not quite werewolves, they are ‘sorrowful, dreamy and stupid spirits’ she writes, ‘they spend their lives chatting in an unknown language along the walls of cemeteries. In some places they are accused of breaking into the field of rest and gnawing on bones. In the latter case, they belong to the race of lycanthropes and werewolves, and must be called lupins. But in the case of lubins, manners soften with the name. They do no harm and escape at the slightest sound.’

In the 2012 television comedy-drama Being Human the incognito werewolf, played by Russell Tovey, is named George Sands. Both George Sand and George Sands dressed as what they were not for ease of movement, to become invisible, to become equal. If Bruegel ever encountered a werewolf, it is not recorded; certainly the European countryside was full of werewolves in the fifteenth century. Neapolitan writer Jacopo Sannazoro, in his pastoral poem ‘Arcadia’ (1504), imagines a community of shepherds tending their flocks in a dreamlike countryside. One character boasts that on certain nights he transforms into a wolf and he undergoes this transformation not to ravage the flocks and terrorise the neighbourhood but rather to run with the pack and discover their intentions, his reasons those of espionage. A spy in the world wolves. Or did his observations extend to the society of foxes also? Italo Calvino, in Invisible Cities asserts that ‘The city of cats and the city of men exist one inside the other, but they are not the same city’ and I wonder if the rural landscape has its equivalents?  I slip through the kissing gate to the Mill Orchard neither tourist or spy but perhaps flâneur.

The Right to Roam campaign was established with the aim of reinstating the public as part of nature, to be included in the landscape not excluded, a distance from it. In 2022 Right to Roam activists engaged in a Dance of the Commons, a peaceful mass trespass across the Englefield Estate in Berkshire, which contains land that was once common, before the Enclosures Act. Enacting the kind of freedoms that should already exist, which were once stolen. In this manner the pedantry of wearing fluorescent and piebald costumes, anthropomorphic masks and heads, including the sheep and owls of the Boss Morris dance troop, both rejoice in a wildness and through guising protect the wearer from the gaze of malevolent forces. In this way the carnivalesque element of the Right to Roam has kinship with the old festivals of misrule, which sought to upturn and thereby correct a feudal ordering. Like George Sands, incognito they go where they please. Negotiating a landscape within a landscape, as I in turn seek to walk lost prelapsian fields. I leave the dead ponds of Fish Pool Leys behind, with Sparrow Hill Wood on the near horizon, that without warning brings to mind an installation by the artist Annette Messager titled Les Repos des Pensionnaires (1971-1972). Les Repos des Pensionnaires, which roughly translates as ‘Boarders at Rest’ is a work which comprises dozens of taxidermy sparrows clothed in tiny garments, hoods, shawls, pullovers, jackets, matinée coats which Messager has tenderly knitted for them. The sparrows, presented in rows as in a natural history museum exhibit, appear as if in a cosy slumber. They are at once macabre scientific specimens on parade and anthropomorphic characters from a battered storybook. Whether they are permanent tenants or are visiting for a time as temporary guests is unclear. I think of Sparrow Hill Wood forever now as a place of boarding houses, flophouses, Airbnb, rentals for all occasions and purses. Through Upper Grove Meadow, to the fenced boundary of what once was White Pippin Orchard where the present custodian has planted the beginnings of a new hedgerow, punctuated with old variety plum saplings. It seems only fitting. The boundary oaks skirting the field edge hold the memory of former times within them — at least I like to think so.  

I work on my own badger hat and my own winged knitted balaclava against the elements, elementals, and werewolves. I think of the seed and burr rich Burry Man, I think of the Whittlesey Straw Bear and peruse early twentieth century photographs of haystacks and wonder if the haystack would be the most covert country guise. I remember the thatched costumes, aprons, skirts, cloaks, and tall pointy hats of the Skekling tradition of the Shetland halloween, going door to door, faces covered and voices disguised. It was hard to tell if they were neighbours or an unknown nature spirit. To turn them away was to invite bad luck so the correct course of action was always to invite them in. Equally on nights when the restless dead wander abroad it is wise to hide your true identity, to keep safe from harm. I go down sartorial rabbit hole after sartorial rabbit hole admiring the woven headgear made by historian and hatter Rachel Frost which draw upon basketry traditions of using wayward and obscure weaving materials.  Before I disentangle myself  I become enamoured with a tall rush topper, then a black boater hand platted from freshwater bullrushes gathered from the Thames. It is love at first sight in each case. Then sideways thanks to Frost I discover the bespoke “at one with nature” garments of contemporary fashion designer John Alexander Skelton. This is familiar territory I am back in; a glitched version of the eighteenth or early nineteenth century with a displaced rural parallel to the urbane environments perambulated by Mayhew. The just short of nine minute film by Rei Nadal, Collection X (2021), showcases the exquisite and sometimes melancholy threads crafted by Skelton, shot in a bleak Yorkshire landscape, part inspired by photographs of the pit village of Fryston by Jack Hulme (1906-1990), part informed by his own Yorkshire childhood. The film, which might be a new form folk art in itself, is an intimate affair which uses the poetry of his brother Ryan recited in voices of family members and friends. I learn first off what I always suspected; that a green stained face is expedient, that pigments should be foraged from the land, and “twigs in my arms […] in the company of an elm tree” is “primal bliss” and that the only narration needed is “the slow, the mysterious, the inarticulate, wondrous amazement that the soil and land can undulate without a vocal cord.”  But sadly Skelton-designed garments would make for costly work-day wear: an ethically sourced, hand dyed, hand pulled silk screen printed, and hand sewn hemp shirt, let alone waistcoat or jacket, is far beyond my own modest purse.

I am still no nearer to knowing what to wear as I commune with the past life of the landscape but at least I have a dog, for as there is nothing as suspicious or in need of closer attention than a solitary walker without a dog. I mutter a Royston Vasey “Are you local?” to myself.  The swifts are hunting low over the freshly cut pasture of Horn Piece. Clover Ground and Maple Fields, now one. Great Maple Orchard consumed and divided. All is re-ordered. Long Meadow undulates down towards the hollow of Old Castle Farm and up towards Herefordshire Beacon. As the way steepens and I turn back at the usual point, the wispy ghost hedgerow fringing Hallfield is as far as I can manage today. An ascent, like the correct countryside attire, will have to wait.


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