I was born in Batson, near Salcombe, Devon on 10th December 1886, the second son of Aaron Francis Murch and his wife Ellen Elizabeth Cranch. Two months later, dressed in a robe lovingly made by my mother from a Trants flour sack, I was christened at the Island Street Wesleyan Chapel.
After the ceremony my parents led a party consisting of some twenty friends and relatives on foot back through the mud and driving rain of a bitter February morning, my mother carrying me, my father striding beside her with my eighteen months old brother Francis in his arms.
The party crowded into our tiny tied cottage overlooking Batson Creek to partake in a celebratory cup of cider and the pasties which my mother had been baking since early morning. With their wet clothes steaming in the heat from the Lidstone range, a cheerful, convivial atmosphere soon prevailed. Mugs were raised and prodigious toasts were called for. The gifts laid out on the window seat for inspection were admired and their relative values privately compared. The cider was a present from farmer John Adams and his wife Mary, pressed at nearby Horsecombe Farm. Other gifts included a sack of potatoes from my uncle, farmer William Henry Murch of Dove Cottage, Higher Batson; a small twist of salt in a piece of brown paper from our neighbours kindly old Sam Pepperell, a retired mariner and his wife, Sarah. My grandparents James and Jane Cranch, who lived nearby, gave me a square of stout cloth to make my first pair of breeches. There were other small gifts from my many uncles and aunts which mostly took the form of contributions to the christening feast: some bottled plums; a large pat of butter; two freshly baked loaves, a quart of rich buttermilk and a tub of clotted cream. There was also, in pride of place, a bible inscribed with my name in copperplate writing, which was a gift from my father’s employer, though he being an important man, and not having the time or interest to ascertain exactly my newly given name, had inscribed it incorrectly to “James Crunch Murch”. He had added a line of instruction below this misspelling, in which he abjured me to strive always to be an upstanding, God-fearing man, lest the Devil and his sins take me. Needless to say, encouraged by contemplation of this dire epistle which confronted me every Sunday, I did my utmost to avoid such an end. The fact remained however, that his master had done my father a huge honour in recognising both his – and my – existence, and giving the gift. It was unheard of then for gentry folk to concern themselves over much in the lives of those who toiled for them. With the exception of my parents’ bible, my own was, and would remain for the majority of my life, the only book in our household.
It was said that the hamlet in which we lived was ancient, and that its name, Badestone or Batson meant “the place where a Saxon called Bada first placed his stone”. Whether ‘twas true or not, it is a fact that Batson was a thriving farming community long before its neighbour, Salcombe, was settled.
Tucked away in our little creek, nestled amongst the hills where our farm animals grazed, we were remote from the world, and saw almost nothing of the by now far larger and much more important town further down the estuary. But in the tranquil peace of our home we occasionally heard the sounds of the busy, bustling port as its inhabitants went about their business. When the wind was in the right direction we could hear shouts as a cargo was unloaded or the flap of canvas as a ship prepared to set sail. Sometimes we heard hammering, or the breeze might blow in to us from the yards at Shadycombe the sound of whistling or laughter. Once I heard a man’s voice lustily singing:
“A lofty ship from Salcombe came,
Blow high, Blow low, and so sailed we…”
But the lie of the land and the bulk of the rolling hills about us kept us remote even though the two settlements were less than a mile apart.
Buckley, where my family lived at that time was one of four thatched 17th century stone built cottages. Forming an L shaped row, with ours on the short end of the L, they sat on rising ground beside the cart track that led out of the hamlet towards what was then Iberstow, but is now known as Snapes Point. Though gas had by this time reached Salcombe with the big gasometer built at Gould Road in Shadycombe 1866, our two up two down cottage boasted no such modern convenience. Our sole source of heat came from the black leaded range in the kitchen, which in the winter was almost continually bedecked with drying clothes. Our lighting was by kerosene lamps, or occasionally, candles. Generally however we kept resolutely to the old ways, up at dawn, bed at dusk when we climbed the wooden steps to the two rooms above the kitchen, one for my parents, t’other for us boy...