Peter Rhodes on social mobility, a pongy profession and chuffing back to nostalgia

By Peter Rhodes | Peter Rhodes | Published:

Corfe Castle, Dorset. I have travelled a bit and learned a few things but not until I came to Corfe Castle did I know that the mediaeval peasants who collected human faeces from the houses of noblemen to spread on the land as fertiliser were known as “gong farmers.”

Desh this esh. Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter

The National Trust looks after the castle, and the paths around here are punctuated with information signs containing snippets such as the above. Sadly, there is no further explanation. Why “gong?” Is it a mistranslation of “pong?” Or does it tell us that his lordship, using a fine bronze bucket, produced a sound quite unlike the peasant with his hole in the ground? Just off for a gong, Lady Ethelfreda...

WE took a trip on the Swanage Railway, a steam-hauled step back into history. The staff wear uniforms, the guard has a green flag and a whistle and the locomotive lays extravagant carpets of smoke and steam across the meadows between Corfe and Swanage, startling the lambs. This is real Famous Five territory and for 20 minutes or so you can do what the English do best, pretend it’s 1953.

PERHAPS the greatest triumph of the steam age was to turn the gritty bits into something romantic. You can’t have steam without ash, and if you haven’t got ash you don’t get Brief Encounter. In the iconic movie, Celia Johnson gets a piece of ash in her eye but , in the cut-glass accent of post-war England, pronounces it as esh. Oh, desh this esh.

AT first it strikes you as odd that, while huge modern railway companies try but fail to provide a decent service, a little private organisation like this keeps its trains running to split-second perfection. Then again, the Swanage Railway charges £13 for a 10-mile return trip and, unlike private companies, has 500 loyal volunteers.

IN the wicked world beyond Dorset, life goes on as brutally and stupidly as ever. I am not sure whether Michael McIntyre was dafter for wearing a £15,000 Rolex in the first place or, after being robbed of it by a moped gang, announcing that he’d got a new one.

IF you doubt that once we lived in an age of social mobility, look no further than the Daily Telegraph obituary page shared by Harold Wilson’s humble-born widow, Lady Wilson of Rievaulx, and Peter (even humbler-born, plus prison) Stringfellow.

IN Corfe church there is a tablet commemorating a former parish clerk, an all-round good bloke and dedicated servant who not only overcame being born with a difficult surname but persuaded a girl to marry him and accept his name as hers. He was James Shitler and he was certainly not a gong farmer.

I WOULD like to report that in the early 1930s, in order to avoid more centuries of offence and sniggering, the Shitler family changed their name by dropping the initial S. But life rarely produces perfect yarns and I made that one up.

Peter Rhodes

By Peter Rhodes

Award-winning columnist and blogger. Keeping an eye on the tribulations and trivia of a fast-changing world


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