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The Old Woman of the Tarn

Today the hamlet of Talkin in north Cumbria sits astride the quiet road which connects the villages of Hallbankgate and Castle Carrock. Although secluded and well away from busy highways, it is now home to a variety of people from many walks of life. The area was rich in minerals, particularly coal and lead, and during the nineteenth century provided a living for hundreds, possibly thousands, of miners and their families. Talkin would have been one of the busy communities around which the lives of these people revolved. This is all gone now of course, the main attraction of Talkin is its two popular Public Houses and the adjacent golf course. The nearby Tarn with its surrounding of natural scenery and extensive walkways provides recreation for many who come to practice water sports or just to sample the quiet beauty of nature.

It was not always so.

There was a community here long before any extensive mineral extraction had been developed. It was not however on the higher ground where the existing village stands, but in the hollow where the Tarn now lies. In medieval times it was a tiny hamlet of a few families literally hiding away in what would have been a fairly densely forested region. The need for a certain amount of concealment of their existence was critical. The whole region was virtually without any real semblance of civilised control up to and for some times after, the union of the English and Scottish Crowns in 1603. Certainly in earlier times living was precarious. The small settlement could expect to be raided on a regular basis by a variety of freebooters who might be from the neighbouring villages or from as far as the Scottish borderlands. Murder, rape, theft and arson were the usual results of such visits. The little hamlet, in common with many such communities, tended to be introvert and defensive.

Nevertheless the community thrived and by mid fourteenth century most of the inhabitants were employed in a variety of occupations. Most had livestock of course, mainly pigs and cattle, which grazed in common, and provided a self-sufficiency for their owners with some to trade to others. There was no tarn, simply a village pond fed by a small spring. The considerable woodland provided employment for charcoal-burning, probably one of the earliest exports. Some coal would be extracted from local small drift-mines even then, and the village would have had tradesmen such as shoemaker, blacksmith, carpenter, possibly even a tailor. The market at nearby Brampton was an outlet for surplus produce and also provided a link with the outside world.

One of the village's elderly inhabitants, probably its oldest, known simply as 'Old Martha', was one of those who regularly visited Brampton. She would walk there early in the morning with a pack which contained butter or cheese she produced from the two cows she owned. No one knew her business as she was intensely secretive and given to direct language and frightening tantrums if crossed. She had no known relatives in the village or elsewhere although she had had a husband who had died in agony from some unknown illness some thirty years previously. Whispers abounded, she was said to be in communication with something evil and most people, particularly the children, avoided her. It is entirely likely that the death of her husband, the lack of a family or any supportive friends, and the difficult circumstances in which she lived, may have contributed to her strange manner and solitary lifestyle. In a more enlightened time she might have had sympathetic support and consideration. In the superstitious times in which she lived she was an object of derision and fear.

One market day Old Martha did not go to Brampton. Later that day she was seen bringing her cows back to the small hut in which she kept them and in part of which she lived.

She looked unwell and her face and neck were swollen and covered with a red rash. She made it clear however that she wanted no sympathy or assistance, and indeed her appearance and manner were such that few would have offered help in any case. Old Martha was seen only occasionally over the next few days, usually on her early morning visits to the spring that filled the pond which was the community's main water supply. For some days her visage was frightening but she appeared to improve and become more active over the next week or so as the swelling subsided leaving her horribly disfigured with great red blotches on her face and neck.

The children tended to stay near the village. It was hazardous to stray away from the protection of their elders. There were wolves and other unpleasant things they could encounter in the woods. Older children would of course help with the animals but the younger children spent much of their time playing near the small pond around which most of their homes were situated. The pond was a convenient source of water for washing and for the pigs and other livestock. It also provided drinking water for the village, especially when periods of drought caused the spring to fail.

The children were the first. The horrible swelling of the neck and the awful red rash which turned black in a few days precluded a terrible death, the "plague" or "black death" it came to be known from the appearance of the corpses. And then the adults. For weeks the almost daily treks to the little graveyard on the Brampton Road became more pathetic and agonising as parents buried their children, their husbands and wives, until eventually some families were almost eliminated.

The people asked who had done this? Why? Had they been cursed by some evil spirit? The murmuring increased. Old Martha had been seen with this terrible affliction. But she was still alive. She had brought this catastrophe! She must be a witch! And she still visited the spring for her water supply. Old Martha kept her own council however and if she was aware of the feelings of the villagers she made no sign. The murmuring grew louder, the people more hysterical, until the inevitable happened. Someone said the plague would not leave while Old Martha still lived. Mob rule took over. Old Martha, on her daily trip for water found herself confronted by a group of angry villagers. The demands for her immediate departure were probably the longest communication she ever had with most of her neighbours. She was confused. Her hearing was not good. She did not understand what she had done to bring this hatred. She tried to make her way back to the safety of her small home. A stone flew from the crowd. Then another, striking her arm and causing her to step back towards the pond edge. More shouting, then more stones. Old Martha fell backward into the water, followed by more stones. As she surfaced again she seemed to be calling something. It sounded like, "water", "clean water", "you must use clean water". So that was why she always trudged up the hill to the spring, why she never took water from the pond as did most of the village. She had poisoned the water in the pond! As she attempted to regain dry land the stones increased until she finally disappeared. Her last words seemed to be "more water". The mob became quiet again. Then the justifications began. She had caused the deaths. Hadn't she admitted she had fouled the water. They should have got rid of her long ago. She was evil. Things would get better now. They returned to their various homes subdued but convinced their drastic action was absolutely necessary.

That night it rained. It rained like they had never seen before! The village was absolutely waterlogged. And there were now two springs supplying the pond. By the next evening there were three, then four! And the level was still rising. Those houses near the water were hurriedly evacuated. Within days the entire village was submerged. They saved what they could but their homes were gone. After a few weeks of wretched conditions in what shelter they could find the erstwhile occupants accepted that their village was no more. They now had a tarn instead. The more energetic looked to the future and began rebuilding on higher ground, the beginning of the present day Talkin village.

It is said that during a visit to Talkin Tarn on the anniversary of that awful time when Old Martha tried to warn of the danger of drinking contaminated water it is possible to hear the words, "clean water, "more water", repeated over and over again until finally the noise of the Tarn itself seems to drown it out.

James Henderson



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