The Austwick Carles
You Never Know How Daft You Can Be Until You’ve Tried
There are told tales told about one village by rival villages, and none of them are flattering. This was part of the competition between communities that sometimes expressed itself in banter, sometimes in an aggressive football match, and sometimes in warfare. Another thing about some of these tales is that they have very strong legs and travel from place to place, so that the same or a similar tale might be told against several different communities at one time or another. That is something for you to bear in mind as you read these folk tales. Some people have let this slip from their minds and have then believed that these stories are true. Well, it takes all sorts to make a world!
Our present focus is on the ancient Yorkshire village of Austwick that lies a little way north of the A65 between Clapham and Settle, close to the border with Lancashire.
Carle was a word used to describe a certain kind of man. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, “The miller was a stout carle,” by which he meant that he was an impolite, unpolished man, often described as a churl, or a country bumpkin. Carles were simple-minded, and stories about them always illustrate their silliness. As I said earlier, these stories are not flattering, as you will see.
There are those who say that carles were really smart and only pretended to be fools. That idea has a long tradition in connection with the Wise Men of Gotham. This Gotham has absolutely no connection with Batman. But that will have to wait for another time. Whether or not the Austwick Carles were smart, or whether they were naïve to a fault, I leave to your judgement after you have read these tales about them.
Tale One – Keeping the Cuckoo
The carles, being observant, noticed that wherever there were cuckoos around the weather was extremely pleasant, and so they hatched a plan to enjoy summer all the year round and do away with winter altogether. You must admit that the idea itself was a very good one. They hatched a plan to make the cuckoo captive so that it could not leave, and thus the weather would remain clement and life would be a dream.
The plan was to build a high stone wall around the bush in which a cuckoo sat. They got busy and built the wall in less than a day. When the last stone was laid, they stood a while slapping each other on the back and sating what geniuses they were now that it would be summer all year round and they would bask in the sunshine when their near neighbours would be shivering and freezing to death. Their celebrations were abruptly terminated when the cuckoo, who had not been advised of their plan, few away.
Tale Two – The Lost Whittle
In the time almost before time, Austwick folk were so poor that they had but one knife – or ‘whittle’ – between the whole village. It was kept lodged between to branches of the big oak on the village green so that whenever a villager wanted to use it he could go and get it, use it, and then take it back so that it was ready for the next person. It was like a lending library with only one book! But then, oh, tragedy, Austwick lost its whittle! [We pause for a moment to shed tears. Boo hoo!]
A small group of Austwickers went over to the village of Swarthmoor to cut peat for their fireplaces, and took the whittle with them so that they could cut meat for their dinner. After they had cut up the meat and eaten it, they didn’t know what to do with the whittle to keep it safe until it was time to go home. There were no trees there, and no rock big enough to hide the knife on its top so that no happy-go-lucky person who just happened to come across it would think it was abandoned and take it home with him.
Then came the idea. You can always be sure of one thing and that is when a carle has an idea it is always interesting. Often stupid, but always interesting. The interesting idea was to lay the knife on the ground on top of the shadow of a cloud. The notion met with unanimous approval and the knife was there laid. Thoughts of a wanderer finding it had dropped out through one of the holes in their minds, so that is what they did. All they had to do now was to remember where the shadow was and the knife would be right there. As I said, interesting.
When their peat digging was finished, they loaded the rich brown blocks on their barrows and set off for home, stopping in the clearing where they had lodged their whittle to recover it and restore it to their community. Well, would you believe it! By that time there was not a cloud in the sky. Not even a wisp of a cotton wool cloud sat across the azure dome and, therefore, there sat no shadow on the ground to tell where the knife was laid for safekeeping.
They searched everywhere for it; even looking in places where they knew it could not be because, as you will know, when you know where something should be, it often ends up being somewhere you are sure it is not! But for all their chasing about all over the place they did not find the whittle. Austwick was down from one knife to no knife at all. It was whittleless!
Tale Three – Another Good Idea
In the olden times Austwick Hall, where the Lord of the Manor lived, was a long low building with a thatched roof. If thatch is not properly cared for it becomes infested with all kinds of things including grass. Apart from grass looking unsightly on a roof, it also provides a track down which rainwater will pass and drench the occupants, which is not a lit of fun, especially in cold weather.
The Lord decided it was time to get rid of the grass. This decision was probably based on the good soaking he got the night before during the thunderstorm and the cold that turned his nose red and his lungs into jelly the next morning.
He gathered some strong carles around him to discuss ways and means. By now you are probably imagining what kind of daft ideas they will suggest in order to get the job done. If so, then your mind is active and you should consider learning a foreign language, because you have the intelligence and aptitude necessary for such an undertaking. One of the carles, who would not be able to learn a new language because he struggled to speak his own Broad Yorkshire, hit on the idea of using an early form of lawn mower. A cow!
If I had been there I would have suggested that they lay the roof on the ground so that the cow could easily munch off the grass, but their minds were not as quick as mine. Their suggestion was to lift the cow onto the roof, and when it had completed the grass removal, to lift it off again. My way would have been better.
Unfortunately for those who like a ridiculous ending, the tale does not say whether they actually lifted the cow onto the roof and then off again. Sorry!
Tale Four – Securing the Cliff
Too close for comfort to the village of Austwick was a very tall limestone cliff. The villagers were anxious in case the cliff face gave way, because it could crash on top of their homes and disrupt life in general, perhaps even damage some of them to death. Eventually, a gathering of carles met to determine how best to deal with the threat.
One said they should move the village, but there were objections to that idea such as, it was too much work, their dogs would not be able to find their way home, visitors would think they had been spirited away, and the drinking carles who had a skinful of ale on Saturday night would be utterly lost. So they resolved to leave their settlement where it stood, under and in peril of the beetling crag and seek another solution.
Finally, inspiration struck the noddle of an older carle who explained it to his admiring colleagues. If the cliff was in danger of toppling onto them, why not secure it with ropes so that any movement it could make was restricted? They cheered at the notion and broke out stone jars of dandelion and burdock refreshment and drank to it.
From here and there lengths of rope were found and donated to the ‘Save-Our-Homes-And-Village-From-The-Cliff Fund.’ When these were tied end to end by a local troop of Lad Path-finders – the Boy Scouts were not yet formed – each of whom had earned his knotting badge, and the discovery made that it was twice the height of the cliff with some left over for luck.
The middle of the rope was tied around a stout oak tree that grew ten feet away from the cliff’s edge, the loose ends thrown over its lip, and secured to a pair of large boulders at its foot. The village was safe, and neither storm, nor hurricane, nor snow, nor wind, nor hail, nor any natural disturbance of the elements - rumble as they might, could cause any harm to them. As a senior carle was heard to say, shaking his fist at the sky, “Bring it on!”
However silly that might seem to you, the fact is that the overhanging cliff yet stands at Austwick, and the houses along with it.