A local appetite for sops and dripping

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A visit to a local graveyard led us to a man who loved his sops and dripping so much, he had his dripping-cup affixed to his tombstone.


Travel south of Newmarket and the land swells gently towards the rolling hills of west Suffolk and the fields are dotted with copses and dark-green thickets. The landscape around Newmarket is rather manicured, a result of its racing industry which has brought great wealth to parts of the town although back in February 1605, when James I made his first visit to the town, he described it as a “poor little village.”

 This part of East Anglia was once politically significant, close to the ancient Icknield Way which runs north-east from Whittlesford to Newmarket and onwards, up into Thetford Chase. These tracks were in use from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, forming a network of paths which helped people move between the south-west of England and East Anglia. The former Kings of East Anglia built defensive earthworks to gird the loins of what was a naturally  defensive topography: the marshy, dark-watered fens further to the north, creek-riven coastal margins to the east and the sprawling broad-leaf forests of Essex to the south all made invasion and subsequent navigation tricky.
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The small village of Wood Ditton lies just south of Newmarket and was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in an instrument of King Canute: the monarch went on to give Ditton Camoys, one of the Wood Ditton manors, to Ely Abbey in 1022 in exchange for Cheveley, a nearby village. Part of Wood Ditton’s southern boundary is formed by the Anglo-Saxon earthworks, Devil’s Dyke, which is also crossed by the Roman Icknield Way.

St Mary’s church was built on the periphery of the village, down a short track edged by hedgerows and the garden walls of its neighbouring cottages. Early records date the original wooden church buildings (now gone) back to the twelfth-century although it was once home to a monastery of an even greater age. Parts of the church were vandalised by Cromwell’s men but the fourteenth century north aisle remains.

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Enter the yard via a low gate and directly in front of you lies the church and the older part of its graveyard where tombstones patched with ochre-yellow lichens and moss lean at crazy angles. Walk down a gentle slope covered in cow parsley, primroses and the dying leaves of snowdrops and you’ll arrive at two more, partially enclosed, graveyards.

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We came here in search of one particular grave after an internet search for Newmarket Pudding led me to the tombstone epitaph of a local man who has been described as a ‘gourmand’. On the first of March 1753, William Symonds was interred in front of the church, close to the gate and, at his own request, his gravestone has a small iron dripping-dish affixed to its front, protected by a rusting iron grille. A former turnspit to the late Duke of Rutland at Cheveley in Cambridgeshire (although some records state he was a gamekeeper too) Mr Symonds reached a great age of eighty and as he lay dying of an undetermined affliction, his last wishes were that the tale of his demise should be told thus. They are believed to be his own words:

Here lies my corpse, I was the man,

That loved a sop in the dripping pan;

But now, believe me, I am dead:

See here the pan stands at my head.

Still for sops till the last I cried

But could not eat, and so I died.

My neighbours, they perhaps will laugh,

When they do read my epitaph.”

(Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary for the year 1876)

Poor Mr Symonds had endured that most terrible of afflictions for a man who loved his grub; an inability to eat coupled with a raging appetite for something comforting and indulgent as he approached his death. His dripping pan has turned to rust and the remains are barely visible behind the protective iron grille, but a faint ghost of his epitaph is visible, engraved on the thick stone slab. The words took some time to decipher in the cold bright light of a March afternoon, although the word ‘dripping’ retained the most clarity. I like to imagine that William Symonds would have been pleased by that.

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How on earth did a man of his modest means manage to eat his way to a dripping-related death though? His access to meat-dripping (or sops as they were commonly referred to) belied his fiscal and social class because dripping was generally not freely available for poorer working people. However, his love of it can be explained by his occupation as turnspit to the Duke of Rutland which seemed to have provided him with a steady supply. There isn’t a huge amount of information about him (as you might expect) but a life spent proximate to landed gentry and the dukedom means that there is some documentary evidence of his life in relation to them. In records from Cheveley Park dated 1896, he was described as “an eccentric lad” who for many years had filled an important office, helping to roast the game and meat from livestock provided by the ducal estate.

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For William, it must have been extremely arduous work in unpleasantly hot conditions. Indeed, records of the Tudor turnspit boys who worked at Hampton Court give some idea of the travails turnspits endured because when they divested themselves of their upper clothing to cool down, they were commanded to ‘no longer to go naked or in garments of such vileness as they do now.’ William would have required every drop of that meaty sop in order to build the upper-body strength and musculature required to keep the spit turning for hours on end. It is not a surprise to learn that a small dog was especially bred to turn these spits too. First mentioned in documents from 1576, these dogs were trained to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit and to make them run faster, a coal might be tossed into their metal cage. By 1850 they had fallen out of popularity because of the creation of  inexpensive, mechanical spit turning machines, called clock jacks, and towards the turn of the century, both human and canine turnspits had become obsolete.

Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
 Sops were commonly known as pieces of bread which would be dipped into the drippings from the spit-roasted meat. These juices were collected in a pan placed underneath the spit. Another type of sop came from bowls of pottage or gruel. When the bread had ‘sopped up’ and was soaked in liquid, meat juices or fat, the trick was to convey the sop as swiftly as possible to the mouth before it disintegrated in the hand. The word ‘soup’ derives from sop or sup (meaning the slices of bread onto which broth or cooking juices was poured) although Joan of Arc liked to sop her bread with wine instead of cooking juices. Wealthier people in the Middle Ages threw their trencher bread (so called because it functioned as an early plate for meat and sauce) out to the dogs, despite it being sopped in a good sauce. Sometimes the trencher bread would be cast out to the waiting poor too.

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (in the book ‘A History of Food’) tells of St Patroclus, a third-century saint from Troyes, who managed to survive on barley bread dipped into water and sprinkled with coarse salt. In this practice, he was anticipating the early days of soup when a crust or piece of bread would be placed at the bottom of a low bowl and the gruel or other liquid then poured over it. We can see the origins of the Tuscan bread-thickened soups, the French garbures and onion soups and the Spanish gazpacho. There’s echoes of sop what we call French toast (pan perdu) in a fifteenth-century Italian recipe for suppa dorata, where pieces of bread are dipped in beaten-egg, sugar and rosewater, then fried in butter and served encrusted with more sugar. Think of zuppa Inglese too, where the bread is replaced by sweet cake which is then soaked in wine or rum and blanketed in thick custard. Still in Italy, food historian Ken Albala tells of a sturgeon-based dinner in his book, The Banquet that took place in 1584. Wealthy guests feasted upon sturgeon eggs and beaten flesh of the fish, the latter in a thick soup and served with sops, followed by sturgeon meatballs in a spicy sauce. There were sixteen sturgeon-based platters of food to get through in total, a mighty feast where some of the courses possessed a more humble culinary etymology.

At the humbler end of the scale, there’s dripping cake- or bread- which was once eaten in many British regions, although it is rarely heard of now. The Gloucestershire version of this bread, baked in the oven from  dripping, flour, brown sugar, spices, currants and raisins, had a toffee-like layer at the base of the cake which formed as it baked. Dripping cake gets a mention in Tom Brown’s Schooldays:

Tom, by a sort of instinct, knew the right cupboards in the kitchen and pantry, and soon managed to place on the snuggery table better materials for a meal than had appeared there probably during the reign of his tutor, who was then and there initiated, amongst other things, into the excellence of that mysterious condiment, a dripping-cake. The cake was newly baked, and all rich and flaky; Tom had found it reposing in the cook’s private cupboard, awaiting her return; and as a warning to her they finished it to the last crumb.

Sop-style platefuls are found wherever meat forms part of the diet. Go to Hungary and you’ll find that they have their own version of mucky bread which is known locally as fatty bread: goose fat from the well-known Hungarian goose is spread on bread, sprinkled with paprika and eaten with finely chopped peppers and onions. And there’s variations on a theme too such as Smokeworks in Cambridge, who have taken this straightforward ingredient and stirred it into mashed potatoes to make their legendary beef-dripping mash.

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‘Mucky Fat’

In Yorkshire the same dripping is spread onto good bread and goes by the name of ‘mucky sandwich’ although this habit is not unique to this fine region. My grandparents who both hailed from the Midlands kept a large china jug in the fridge, full to the brim with beef dripping from the Sunday roast, the fat solidifying into a creamy layer over a good two inches of rich beef jelly. Over the week it would be used to enrich gravies and pastry or was spread onto hot toast and allowed to melt. On an especially good day, I would be given a plate of fried bread, golden and caught around the crust and heavy with melted dripping and jelly. My grandfather would reminisce about after-school football as a lad where, at half-time, he would wolf down a ‘bread and fat’sopped sandwich with a spreading of his mother’s home-made piccalilli to cut the grease. That Sunday joint kept the family in clover for most of the week.

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Library of Congress: The Prince of Wales (George IV) asks “Dear Mother, pray let me have a sop in the pan.”

In classical literature, a sop was clearly so prized that it was deemed to be a suitable bribe for Cereberus, the three-headed dog of Pluto which guarded the gates of the infernal regions in Virgil’s Aeneid. When a person died, the Greeks and Romans would put a cake in their hands as a sop to this fearsome creature, who might therefore allow them to pass without molestation in exchange. Here we see the sop gains a secondary meaning as a bribe or salve. There exists the possibility that Mr Symons recognises that his much-prized sops might ease his suffering and might also provide him with a swifter, and easier, passage to eternal life. Or might he have been trying to bribe death to not come for him? We cannot be sure about that, but I was told that my own grandfathers sop sandwiches were so coveted by his footballing friends that he could probably have arranged to have the match thrown in exchange for a few bites- the equivalent of having Cereberus in goal.

I feel warmly towards Mr Symonds. Whilst Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary takes a dim view of ones vices being ‘considered a fitting subject for perpetuating in stone’ when it published his epitaph, and indeed Mr Symonds acknowledges his own excess of appetite, I am inclined to approve of a man who wanted to cheer-up his own neighbours whenever they visited the graveyard and church. Clearly the locals of Wood Ditton appreciate his little joke too, because when the original stone was accidentally broken during wedding party festivities at St Mary’s Church around 1871, it was removed and repaired. The stone was re-erected with the original dripping-pan in place.

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Great Livermere- a walk through its ghostly past

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Extending along Ampton Water and just a few miles from Bury St Edmunds, the little village of Great Livermere boasts two famous ‘sons’: William Sakings and M.R. James, writer of the quintessential English ghost story which were sometimes set in the village, of which more later. Sakings was a falconer to three Kings in succession during the seventeenth century and he is commemorated by an engraving of a falcon on a hanging sign in the village. He lies beneath a tombstone in its graveyard marked by an inscription of the date of his death (1689).

The village takes its name from the reeds and lake which was channelled by local landowners in the 19th century and its name ‘Livermere’ was first recorded in the year 907 a.d, making it one of the earliest recorded to survive. Translated as ‘the lake where rushes grew’ from the pre 7th century Olde English ‘laefor-mere’, these rushes were widely used domestically for heating, flooring and roofing and the waters are made up of Broad Water and Ampton Water.

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Great Livermere is located on the bottom of a flat valley grassland with peat and silt underfoot as you approach the water. This gradually yields to the flint pocked friable Breckland soil as the footpaths rise upwards towards the Brecks proper, a landscape of gently rolling plateau and free draining sandy soils overlaying drift deposits of either glacial or fluvial origin. These were left behind by the Ice Age as it pushed back from East Anglia. There is chalk, but acid sand is the more common and these dry mineral soils and the general absence of watercourses further into the ‘Broken Lands’ gave rise to extensive areas of heathland or acid grassland that, historically, were used either for sheep grazing or for rabbit warrens. The buildings scattered around the church tell this geological story with the red bricks of south east Suffolk giving way to the yellow, buff and white of the north west, matching the colour of the fields that swell uphill from the village. Flint is also widely used in Breckland as a walling material and there is plenty of evidence of it, half buried in the rough two lane track that skirts the mere.

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There are well defined stands of trees dotting the landscape; some Alder Carrs and a few plantation woodlands, the latter in the classic rectilinear pattern and the traditional pine lines that are typical of the Brecks make dark slashes against the horizon. Today the sky is high with the fields rising up to meet it, a change from the all too recent crepuscular grey skies of the winter which pressed down on the land like an upturned pudding bowl. The light is pale blue and clean; the contrasts between the darker ploughed earth with the paler set aside, the olive of the pines and the straw colours of the deadened grasses are easily discernible.

Back beside the Mere, the low trees and scrub cling to the margins of the mere, roots lumpen and risen in the manner of the more tropical mangroves and the mud of the Mere is embossed with the footprints of the thousands of birds which live and breed nearby. Between the church and the Mere lie reeds and sedge in tones of creamy sand and buff that camouflage the stone of the church on a hazy day. There are clumps of gorse that provide cover for the many pheasants that are bred for the local shoot. The winds swirl and flatten the grasses, blow them this way and that ways whilst the rough pathways give way underfoot to diddering East Anglian bog and metal gangways lead far out across the lake, ending in bird hides used by shooters.

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Typically, the Norman church is guarded by tall yews planted by its metal gates. As in many many church yards, the yews were planted to provide the right materials to fashion long bows with, their combination of strong rigid wood with a flexible fibrous layer made the best kind of bow and the trees are unpalatable to livestock and imbued with folklore. Outside, looking up we can see that the semi completed tower is topped by a weather-boarded belfry. The architecture is democratic with windows from almost every period, but the heart of the church is its Norman nave, despite the north side windows with their stolid traceries of wood which line a battlemented vestry in a kind of homely version of Gothic. The church itself is solid; it lacks the delusions of grandeur that are the affliction of many an East Anglian place of worship and seems a good example of a ‘does what it says on the tin’ kind of church. The curious local light easily penetrates inside as there is no stained glass to interfere with its trajectory. The ghosts of elderly wall paintings can be seen on its walls and these are slowly being uncovered and restored, my fingers traced the vestiges of a cross and a fleur de lys in ochre and siennna. Lead paned windows have deep stone sills where someone has scraped a ‘W’ (or might it be a ‘M’?) and the view is of graves.

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MR James is understandably in this church from the memorial in the chancel to the existence of his own fathers period of time spent here as Rector circa 1865. James grew up here and used the village as a setting for many stories including his last one, ‘A Vignette’ (1936) based upon Livermere Rectory where the prose tells us of ‘an iron gate which admits to the park from the Plantation’, and a ‘wooden gate with a square hole’ which an apparition peers through’. Also set in Gt Livermere is ‘The Ash Tree’ and in the graveyard of the church can be found gravestones inscribed with the name ‘Mothersole’ which is the name carried by the ghost of that same tale.Should you have time to spare, travel a few miles to nearby Bury St Edmunds and discover the places he wrote about as an academic, (the Abbey) and the inscriptions on the graves of the monks in the Chapter House within the ruins of the Abbey which he was responsible for.

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James may have been conventional in his beliefs and his younger life especially  ran a deeply conventional course as a Christian scholar that informed his work. His ghosts, while usually malign, were embedded within stories that considered themes of good and evil. The ‘veinious spiders’ of his tale ‘The Ash Tree’ terrified me when I read it with their creeping and silent object of terror spirited up by the ghost of a young woman (Mrs Mothersole). She haunts those (the squire) who wrongly executed her for witchcraft (the place of execution would have been Bury St Eds) and her story continues to haunt me to this day. MR James, in response to questions about his own beliefs regarding haunting, stated that he was prepared to consider the evidence but his last story, ‘A Vignette’ published shortly before his death and about a young boy who recounts an experience of being watched by a ghost through a hole in a gate is in the first person and is deeply suggestive of a personal encounter. Never denied or confirmed, this mystery only adds to his effectiveness as a teller of great ghost stories.

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He was sensitive towards, and able to respond to, the strange and macabre undercurrents that permeate the Suffolk landscape and allow such folkloric tales to gain a foothold by the firesides of locals as they gathered during long dark winters to tell stories. MR James mastered the art of creeping unease; that sense of eeriness and dread that humans are susceptible to, and he understood how to embed unease into the landscape so that a glance out of the corner of an eye or a second look turns the familiar less so.

Great Livermere is a place where the thin veil between matter and spirit, an idea much espoused by the Victorians, appears to be alive in the landscape, suffusing those stories told by locals of hauntings and strange inexplicable happenings. The village is redolent with them and within two minutes of leaving my car, I was approached by villagers keen to tell me of the places reputation as ‘most haunted’ and about local resident Beryl Dyson, who has spent decades researching and retelling the many accounts of ghostly happenings- at least fourteen documented phantoms according to her- which she believes are attracted to the village because of its Mere. This place with its luminous clear light, distinct eco system and habit of swallowing noise only to replace it with the sound of wind brushed grasses and bird cries is where, she says, the conscious mind becomes uncoupled from the thoughts driving it. As MR James wrote,the Mere is where we go to lie beneath the waving fern and beetle hum, where ‘from off the mere, above the rooks the hern/ come sailing, and rooks fly calling home.’

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Dog walkers from the village have been somewhat discombobulated to find a ghostly figure of a woman walking next to the churchyard wall in the early hours of the morning and Beryl has written of making her first acquaintance with beings from another dimension aged between six or seven when she saw a strange male figure near the rectory gates. Describing him as “a little chap…who wore the clothes of a jester, the collar had points on it and he had a shaven head and stood in front of me and grinned” in her book,  Great Livermere a Parish with Ghosts, this is an image much beloved of folklorists and a common Celtic trope or motif.  Other villagers concur that they have had similar experiences. From monks, incongruous ploughing horses and grey ladies to the common ‘Black Shuck’ of Suffolk and bicycle riding ghosts, the apparitions have been varied. Interestingly, Dyson believes that MR James may well have seen the same ghost as her, the jester, and imagines it as the ghost that haunts ‘A Vignette.’

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Beneath an unusually trenchant early spring sun and unseasonal temperatures of 17 degrees, we walked through the gate at the back of the St Peters churchyard and entered the grassy rim of the Mere which runs parallel to the church. We walked along gangways through the sucking mud until we arrived at the waters edge and looked back at the church through seas of cornsilk sedge and pollarded clumps of dogwoods growing new red shoots. We could see the metallic grey blue of the water blinking as the rays hit it, a million tiny pinpricks of diamonds glittering on the surface, broken only by Vs of water fowl, the white fronted geese, coots and common and Arctic terns. We saw and heard water rails, common pochards and swans and the ungainly Egyptian geese as they tore up great gouts of muddy grass. The plumage of the shelduck with its white chest, brown barred body and tan striped wing appeared enamelled by the sun, as shiny and poreless as sealskin as we watched it through our binoculars.

11019576_1606444612926510_8150682106061838482_nLaying on my back on the track I watched a goshawk spread its wings out to the sun and hover, seemingly motionless before returning to the cover of the nearby pines whilst four kestrels soared in a double helix as the thermals pushed them ever upwards until they were out of sight of even the binoculars. Pied wagtails worked their way into thickets of dead brush and a buzzard dipped in and out of fields blanketed in the chaff of last years harvest. The light was clear and penetrating and it would be a good dusk for hunting.

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The track continues past the feeding stations, birds turning tail hysterically at our approach, stretches out towards farmland, bears right onto a shady track through a copse then takes us to a bridge that edges a rectangular body of water (Longwater) on the left. The official footpath on the right as you approach Longwater has been blocked by deliberately torn young trees, apparently discouraging walkers from rounding the near side of the water where the birds are encouraged to congregate. As you walk towards the west side of the Mere, the deeply rutted track opens out onto the wider landscape with flinted half ploughed fields and plantations spiked by a few lonely cedars of Lebanon surrounded by mixed broadleaf. The horizon ahead of you is a soft crest of a hill bisected by the track which will take you on a four mile loop around Ampton Water, Oldbroom Plantation, across Gt Barton road and back to the war memorial in Gt Livermere, your original start point.

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