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Monday, 19 July 2010

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A Monument Yesterday. The Isle of Wight's Obelisks Amply Repay Intensive Study

Last Thursday's Meeting of the Back of the Wight Antiquarian Society furnished the gathered members with a fascinating and entertaining series of glimpses into Compton, Brook, Hulverstone and Mottistone in bygone days, as well as a wider view of the Island's historical panorama, as they enjoyed an "Obelisk Evening", writes Poetry, Lace, Crime, Transport & Antiquarianism Correspondent, Giles Farmer.

The Reverend Ninian Buttermilke, Vicar of Mottistone, Brighstone and Brook, gave a talk on "Wight Obelisks Through the Ages", which provided a whistle-stop tour through the Island's treasury of monuments. Reverend Buttermilke took us back in time, as he speculated on the techniques used by the ancient beekeepers who would have tended the Bembridge Neolithic Beehive. He also brought us bang up to date, describing how the Worsley Monument, at Gat Cliff, Wroxhall, was damaged by lightning in 1831 and restored to its former glory in 1983.

Miss Pleading, of Hulverstone, spoke about her maternal great-grandfather, George Varnishe, who was employed man and boy (the boy was a gypsy lad who used to follow him everywhere) for the Ffish-Effinghams at Mottistone Manor, in the far-off days before shoehorns and macassar oil were wrapped in history's muslin shroud. George worked as a scarecrow and hat-stand, before he was promoted to the coveted position of Chief Spittoon-Bearer, in which he had to crouch beneath the family Butler, Crumple, when the old retainer read out the names of the guests at the start of the monthly balls which were attended by all the Ffish-Effinghams, the Frothingham-Fishwickes and the Shushingham-Freshforths. And finally, lest anyone should question the relevance of all this to the island's obelisks, Miss Pleading gave a moving account of how George Varnishe's name came to take its rightful place on the list of Chief Spittoon-Bearers etched into the famous Ffish-Effingham Plaque at St Paul's, Mottistone.

During the tea interval, Mrs Ingot's angels on horseback and quince cordial went down well, though it would be stretching a point to say the same about her hare pancakes.

Suitably refreshed, the members settled down to hear the Hunkering sisters give the annual "Obelisk Roll-Call" , and all were reassured to learn that the island's obelisks were still very much "present and correct". A brief report was given on the condition of each obelisk, and the sisters ended with an account of the "disappearance" of the Pepperpot (St Catherine's Oratory) from St Catherine's Down in November 1823. A Blackgang carter, Dickon Limpett, had reported that the medieval lighthouse had been "took by brigands". A subsequent investigation revealed however that it had merely been shrouded in a sea-mist, and that Limpett had "breakfasted heavily" at the Buddle Inn, Niton.

The highlight of the evening was a lecture by Mr Wince of Brighstone, who posited that "The Longstone Is Not as Long As It Used To Be". Mr Wince discussed the influence of weathering on the Longstone at Mottistone Down, and produced the results of a 33-year measurement study he has performed in his spare time, which revealed that the Longstone appears to be 28/37 of an inch shorter than it was when he first measured it at 15:43pm on September 22nd 1977. This remarkable loss of height, Mr Wince suggested to a rapt audience, could only be the result of one of three possible developments, viz:

  1. The Longstone is getting shorter
  2. It is sinking into Mottistone Down
  3. The ground around it is rising, perhaps as a result of surging vegetation

Mr Wince said that the prospect of the Longstone gradually losing its property of what he called "Longness" (to distinguish it from the common property of "length", which can be applied to more mundane articles such as pieces of string, queues and boats, etc, as distinct from the grandeur of monuments) was indeed a sobering one. He promised to become, if anything, even more assiduous in his observations and to report back to the Society at regular intervals.

After this gripping tutorial, the Chair, Mr Wacklady of Yafford Mill, rose to thank all the speakers and bring the evening to a close. It had been a full and gratifying meeting, and the only regret was that there was no time to see Mr Wince's slideshow "The Longstone In All Its Moods", but perhaps that delight might be reserved "for a rainy day".

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