Otters and the Vestry


A member of the East Sussex Record Office recently telephoned last month to say that they were about to acquire some parish papers relating to Catsfield.  Up until the creation of parish councils at the end of the nineteenth century local government, at least in the countryside and small towns, was in the hands of the church wardens and an elected group known as the vestry.  As well as having to maintain the church building they were responsible for things such as road repairs and poor relief.  Regrettably the advent of parish councils led to the destruction of many of the old records, but a selection of Catsfield ones relating to the eighteenth century were discovered in a recent house clearance.  At some point there will be a published publicity picture of the papers being handed over whilst I gaze on in admiration!


Crowhurst also cropped up in a surprising way.  I was reading The Sword in the Stone, by T,H.White, which is basically the story of the young King Arthur being educated to be a good king by the wizard Merlin.  The young Arthur first meets Merlin when he is lost in the local forest and stumbles upon his home.  There is a delightful description of the upstairs room of the cottage, which among other things houses hundreds of thousands brown books in leather bindings, stuffed birds, the claws of a tiger, live grass snakes in ‘a king of aquarium’ and a couple of skulls.  Remarkably there is also a notice in Roman print reading CROWHURST OTTER HOUNDS.


In their heyday the Crowhurst Otter Hounds were quite famous. They were founded in 1902 and continued up until 1959 when they were disbanded, due to the decline in otter numbers caused by polluted water in the area.


Otters are protected and cared for now, but most of our ancestors would have felt very differently towards them.  In the middle ages they were hunted, due to a desire to protect the inland freshwater fisheries.  In an era when it was expected that you abstained from meat on Fridays, the day of the cross, and only ate fish it was vital to ensure a local supply if you were any distance from the sea.


Speaking personally I developed a soft spot for otters on reading the delightful tales of the riverbank folk in Wind in the Willows.  I also loved the story of Gavin Maxwell and Edal the otter up in Scotland.  Sadly I have never seen one in the wild, but have enjoyed seeing them at the Norfolk Otter Trust Head Quarters.


Otters don’t sadly feature in the Bible, but they do make an appearance in the historical writings of the Venerable Bede (670-735AD).  Bede, one of the most brilliant men ever to live was a gifted historian among other things and it is thanks to him that we know anything of the Saxon church in England.  Among the attractive stories he preserves are those about St Cuthbert (640-687), Bishop of Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland coast.  Cuthbert poured out his love on others, but fuelled it all by fearsome disciplines of prayer and fasting.


Bede describes how whenever possible he would stay up all night praying.  He would walk into the cold sea, around Lindisfarne, so it kept him awake. Once another monk spied on him and witnessed the shivering Cuthbert emerging from the sea at dawn.  A pair of sea otters then came up out of the water and wrapped themselves around Cuthbert’s feet to warm them.


Otters may not appear in the Bible, but the prophet Isaiah (65:21-25) looked forward to a time when all might become friends and that the wolf and the lamb might lie down together.  Those who are in harmony with God and with their neighbour do seem to have special affinity to nature; somehow the natural world is not threatened by them.  Harmony and peace are great things and the fruits of a deep experience of the beauty of God.


Fr Michael


Posted By: valerie

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