Almost a century before the arrival of the island’s founding families, a British convict ship, bound for Virginia, was caught up in a violent storm and blown several hundreds of miles off-course. Fortunately, though some might have said otherwise, the ship ran safely aground on the fog-bound rocks that generously punctuate the coastline around Hopeless, Maine. Although the captain, guards and crew tried valiantly to contain their captive charges, it soon became obvious that any hope of rescue was unlikely and either the convicts would have to be released, or left to drown in chains when the ship eventually broke-up completely. So, having absolutely no idea where on earth they were, the collection of shipwreckees struck an uneasy truce and made their way warily inland.
It must be remembered that those felons transported to the Americas and later, Australia, were not, by and large, hardened, dangerous criminals. Such people were swiftly despatched at the end of a rope. More often than not, the unfortunates who found themselves banished to the colonies had been forced into petty crime and prostitution by the simple requirement to survive in a time of great need.
Over the following days and weeks partnerships developed and little clumps of like-minded people found themselves drifting away from the original company. Some built shelters from rocks and driftwood, while others took advantage of the ready made dwellings that they found, mysteriously abandoned and in varìous states of disrepair.
Other survivors, it must be said, disappeared without a trace. There was a nervous but optimistic assumption by the rest of the company that they had simply gone their own way without a word of farewell. Anyone remotely familiar with the viscious nature of the fauna – and indeed, some of the flora – of Hopeless would recognise this as a perfect example of the triumph of hope over experience.
Twenty or so of those with a more adventurous disposition took themselves to the far north of the island. In the shadow of a range of hills that they later learned were known as the Gydynaps, they were surprised to discover a small, friendly and somewhat inbred community that appeared to have resided there for generations. Even more surprising was the fact that these people conversed in something approximating to Old English.
Those interested in the history of the island have spent many hours scratching their heads over the origins of this little community. The general school of thought is that they were descendants of Saxon slaves brought over by the Norsemen who settled on Hopeless a thousand years ago, or more. There is no indication that pre-Norman Conquest Britons ever knowingly ventured this far west. Such a voyage – to all intents and purposes to the very edge of the world – would have been either founded upon foolishness or desperation, or, more than likely, a combination of both.
Unsurprisingly, it was here that the remains of the convict ship diaspora, a rag-tag band of whores, petty-thieves and sailors, decided to stay. While most of the sailors hoped for rescue eventually, the convicts were happy to call this place home. There were some empty buildings and even an inn, of sorts, although the beer was inclined to be flat, warm and cloudy. On the upside, they had at last found something to remind them of England!
A short distance from the inn was a church. This will come as no surprise to anyone who grew up in a village where the juxtaposition of religious disapproval and earthly delights is all too common. After all, robustly assuaging the thirst and then sanctimoniously staggering into church to purge the soul has a certain logic.
This church, however, was long deserted (organised religion has always had a tenuous hold on Hopeless. Even Saint Brendan gave up trying while he was here). Anyway, for whatever reason, the place had not heard a hymn or a prayer for decades.
It seemed as good a place as any for the small band of ‘ladies of the night’ to call home and resume business – and the sailors, being sailors, tended to agree. On an island where money has little meaning, it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to find a suitable reimbursement for the various services transacted but somehow both parties concerned managed to reach a agreeable arrangement.
Over the next few years the newcomers became fully integrated with the descendants of the earliest visitors, whose language gradually became diluted and transformed. Although it is now many years since anyone spoke in that tongue its legacy may still be found in various landmarks, place-names and surnames north of the Gydynaps. Indeed, the very name of these hills gives every indication that they were once sacred.The word appears to be derived from the Old English ‘Gydenu’, relating to the presence of a god or, more likely, a goddess. Given the reputation for mystery that the hills still have, this is hardly surprising.
Another example worth mentioning is the family name of Negelsleag which eventually mutated into Nailsworthy, a name regular readers will recognise as being that of our current and much-loved (from a distance) Night Soil Man. Being the last of his line, it is sad to reflect that when Shenandoah dies this ancient moniker will die with him.
Similarly, the way in which archaic words evolve is generally believed to have given rise to the origin of The Squid and Teapot. Many hundreds of years ago an ale-house would often have been identified by a nearby landmark, the owner’s name or even a description of the landlord. The rough tavern, beloved by those living north of the Gydynaps, was no exception and had, for many years, been fondly known as The Swætan Tæppere, or, roughly, The Sweaty Tapster (or innkeeper), doubtless a homage to a risible but unfortunate characteristic of one of its long-dead landlords.
The newcomers found this name alien, unpronounceable and somewhat uninviting so, in time The Swætan Tæppere became jocularly known The Squid and Teapot and the name stuck. (Another, no less interesting but somewhat disappointing theory is that the inn was so named after someone discovered a small cephalopod comfortably ensconsed in a kitchen vessel of the spouted variety, generally used for the concoction of herbal infusions).
Over the years the building was added to, spreading outwards and upwards, until it became the imposing tavern that it is today.
As for the deserted church that was reincarnated as a bordello, ever since that time it has been home to a number of young – and not so young – ladies, all of whom have been happy to make whatever sacrifices necessary in order to enjoy the shelter and security that its stout walls provide. Many years would pass before the establishment was granted a whiff of respectability by the enterprising and philanthropic lady who called herself Madame Evadne, a pioneer who, euphemistically, marketed it as being a lodging house for discerning gentlemen, which in all fairness, it was and still is. But that, dear reader, as I have often said before, is a tale for another day.
Art by Cliff Cumber