Wight Life

Seven Sisters Corner

by John D Whitehead

Picture of Spring Cottage

Spring Cottage (once 'Duck Cottage')

SUPPOSE, if you are a, mile-piling motorist, you must be excused from noticing Spring Cottage, or St Lawrence Well, or even the corner itself dedicated to the Seven Sisters. They all suffer, these days, from their location at the end of one of the few stretches of road along the Undercliff which may invite your foot to be going down or coming up according to which direction you have come from. In either case they will all be gone in a blurr of background that escaped your concentration. But then it's only a very ordinary, small, natural stone cottage; a well that you will have to search for among the undergrowth; and so little of a corner that you could be forgiven for not seeing it from a car.

Once it was notorious.

Before 1864, when Mr Charles Anderson Pelham had the 'new' road laid, the way you have just sped gaily along bent treacherously through a muddy hollow, then wound inland to twist back and forth, up and up to the 'old' village of St Lawrence, passing what was, in days gone by, the smallest parish church in England. The junction that Mr Pelham's new road formed was christened 'Seven Sisters Corner' after seven great elm trees that stood almost trunk to trunk in the very apex of the corner. They are all gone now but I can remember, as a lad, admiring the tremendous height and girth of four of them, though even then three had already succumbed to old age. I remember thinking their intertwined branches looked as though they had arms fondly around each other's shoulders, and wondering what great events those sisters must have seen. An elm may live for five hundred years, so they might well have been saplings when Henry VIII was busy dissolving monasteries and divorcing wives. Quite certainly they would have swayed before the same gale that ravaged the Spanish Armada. Now there is a bus shelter where their roots once were, built as though it was a shrine to their memory.

Perched on the back across the foot of the 'old' road is the parish hall which originated as the parochial school in days before education depended upon television and student teachers. Next to it is a modern intrusion, of terraces and imitation stone which must (but surely MUST!) have got there before - Town and Country Planning. And then, tucked humbly into a nook of trees and shrubbery, is Spring Cottage.

Once upon a time it was the village post office. Before that it was called 'Duck Cottage', whereby hangs a tale. Earlier still it was known far and wide as 'Smuggler's Retreat' which is quite another story.

Beside the gate, in the old stone wall, overhung by a riot of wild flowers, a little stream bubbles into a pool which drains out, piped beneath the road, into St Lawrence Well which is so insignificantly buried among the undergrowth across the way. Before 1864 the water ran unconcerned to form that muddy hollow which was notorious for bogging coaches and a scourge to-unwary riders.

At one time it was thought that the source of the spring was the pond in the yard of a farm (probably Dean Farm) over a mile inland from the top of the inner cliffs towards Whitwell. The farmer was a keen breeder of ducks, and from one brood there emerged a duckling of such peculiar colouring that it became the family pet, feeding in the kitchen and preening its brilliant plumage in solitary state upon the farm pond whilst its mates were confined in pens for fear they did it harm. It is understandable that a hue and cry should ensue following the discovery one morning that the favourite duck was missing.

The sad news spread quickly round the neighbourhood, more quickly, I shouldn't wonder, than local news travels today with all our communications systems. Next morning, a breathless lad reached the farm at a run. He had found the duck, alive but somewhat ruffled, on the pool 'down-alongyonder' by St Lawrence Well! 'Rubbish!' cried the farmer, 'That is not possible!' But it was possible; when he reached the pool, there was the duck.

Naturally a celebration followed in the cottage beside the pool which was where the lad lived. Endless theories were offered but the most acceptable one was that the only possible way the bird could have made the journey was to have been sucked down the outlet of the cattle pond and travelled the whole distance through the underground water course.

Preposterous! — ridiculous! You may think so but it was sufficient excuse to change the name of the cottage from 'Smuggler's Retreat' to 'Duck Cottage'.

But, of course, such a name was hardly seemly, when, in due course, the place was elevated to the distinction of a post office. Imagine Victoria Regina's postal service emanating from Duck Cottage! So they refined it into Spring Cottage.

And why 'Smuggler's Retreat' in the first place, you may ask? Well, so many stories could be told about that (many in very dubious taste) that our Editor's blue pencil would tremble. Suffice itto relate thatinthose eighteenth century days, the humble cottage, smaller even than it is today, was a famous 'shebeen' or pop shop where smuggled spirits could be obtained at the cheapest rate and where most of the local 'free traders' (and that meant three quarters of the village, including the parson and the squire) would congregate from time to time. Oh, those were the days! But the place was unlicensed and, eventually, endeavouring to amend the morals of the village, Mr Pelham (who had been raised to the peerage as the Earl of Yarborough) had the Smuggler's Retreat closed by an Order of the Court.

Which brings to mind a ludicrous footnote. A very few miles away, on the far side of Bonchurch, there exists today an establishment which is called 'The Smuggler's Haven'. It has signs for your information (never mind the desecration of the scenery) and a car park for your convenience (yes, and those too!). You can't help noticing it even if you don't stop. Yet it is a fraud — no smuggler ever knew it; indeed, in the days of free trade, it did not even exist.

Yet the real thing — the honest-to-goodness genuine article — is tucked under the trees by Seven Sisters Corner and you pass at forty or fifty miles an hour without the flick of an eyelid.