What Planet is This?

10 Aug 2005

King's Poet

At the urging of someone I told this anecdote to recently, I'm writing it up in further detail. In the late '90s we'd gone to stay with some of our family in Oxfordshire, a few miles outside a small town. I really love the English countryside, but this place was pretty boring as far as things went. Just about the coolest thing about it was the old local story that the "King's Poet", Chaucer, had once walked through the village. Though it's impossible to prove, it's said to be historically very likely that he did. I find that more interesting now, though, than I did then.

So anyway I'd brought a few books and such along, but it's not as if I was going to read the whole time. There was no cable on the TV, shock horror, and though the back garden was nice and there was a football, there's only so much amusement that that can provide. There were several times, too, when I came way too close to breaking the greenhouse with it.

On the evening of the second night there, I think, we ran out of milk. In any English family, this is an absolute nightmare because it means you can't drink tea (unless you take it black), so I offered to go and get some more, not least to relieve the boredom. The shop was just a small villagey affair that seemed to be open to crazy hours of the day, probably because the owner had nothing better to do either. We weren't quite in the village, and it was a five or ten minute walk down a hedged lane to the shop, though it would've been quicker if the road didn't curve round a huge field.

Off I trotted, and it must've been late autumn because it was really dark. When you're used to electric streetlights all the time and then all of a sudden you're going down a hedged country lane with the odd horse snorting at you from the other side, it's quite an experience. Luckily the moon was out so I was okay and I was soon at the shop.

The shopkeeper, a nice old lady whose name I forget, kept me talking for yonks, but eventually I paid for the two pint bottle of semi-skimmed. I was a bit worried that it'd become too warm given that I got it out of the fridge before the conversation, but it was frosty cold outside so it would probably be frozen into a milk brick by the time I got back anyway. In fact, it was so cold out that I was beginning to regret traipsing about in the dark in the first place, so I had what is in retrospect not the best idea ever. I took a shortcut across the field.

I'm not sure if there was a public right of way across the thing, but my family were on good terms with the owner and there were no crops growing in it or anything, so I was pretty sure that I was okay to cross it, and frankly with the cold I don't think anyone would've blamed me. I stepped over the stile on the village end (a stile, from the Old English word of the same spelling, is a kind of wooden plank put through a fence to let people over it but keep everything else from crossing), and clambered through the field. The moon must've gone in or something because it seemed way darker in the field, and the ground wasn't as even as it had looked from the house. By the time I was about half way, I was thinking perhaps it wouldn't save much time after all.

Then, crash! I walked straight into what I thought was a scarecrow. The milk flew out of my hand, and I fell on the ground. Thankfully it wasn't soggy, though it was a bit frosted so it kinda hurt. It's not exactly what you expect either so I was a little shocked. I felt around for what I'd knocked over, finding the milk in the process, but... that was odd. There was nothing around that could've been what I hit. It was about me-height, and seemed pretty big, and it made quite a racket as we both went over. But there was nothing there. If it had been a person or an animal it wouldn't've made so much clatter, and moreover if it had moved away I'd've heard it. So what on earth was it?

At first I was pondering it fairly rationally, but when I decided that there was really no trace of it and that I was stuck out in the middle of a rather dark field with some mysterious vanishing clattering contraption, I thought I'd better complete the rest of my journey with fleetness of foot. So I legged it, and got home rather quickly in the end after all. I vaulted the wall at the edge of the field, scarpered across the road, and flew in through the front door.

Of course, everybody asked what had happened since I'd been so long (talking to the lady in the shop) and had made a rather swift entrance, so I told them what went on. They confirmed that the field was absolutely empty, and said I was lucky not to have fallen in the ditch behind the wall. Given the way I was running, I think it's quite likely that I just strode over it, which is just as well since I'd forgotten it was there. The guest bedroom I was in had a window facing the field, and I spent quite a bit of the rest of our stay scanning it with the binoculars. I didn't find anything, and after we'd left, my family even told the owner of the field about what had happened, and she was just as mystified as the rest of us.

So that's it, that's where the matter still stands. I've had a few other weird things like that happen, but that's probably the most interesting one to read, and it's pretty confounding. I think it's just one of those things that must have some rational explanation, but one that's so bizarre we wouldn't contemplate it. If you've had any similar experiences, or have some theory about what happened, feel free to let me know.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "King's Poet", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/kingspoet


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For the benefit of your readers from outside the UK/US Fred Flintstone Measurement System Co-Prosperity Sphere, you probably ought to explain that two pints is more or less one liter. When I was in Montreal last week, the young salesclerk I talked to at a coffee store (an obvious native anglophone) literally did not know what a pound was.

Luckily, I had long ago memorized these convenient conversions: a liter is 10% more than a U.S. quart but 10% less than an Imperial quart; a meter is 10% more than a yard; a kilo is 10% more than two pounds. So I was able to convert the quarter-pound of coffee I wanted into 100 grams (it's actually 113 g, but close enough).

John Cowan, Wed Aug 10 08:29:36 2005


Periodical essays on linguistics, history, and much more, from Shakespeare to post Romano-​British findings. Like Notes and Queries sans the queries and solely antiquarian disposition.

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