The White Arse

The wheatear comes here at this time of year. It’s a small bird with a white rump, which is where its name comes from. The original English name was White Arse, but the Victorians thought that was a bit rude. Here is the story of how a White Arse pie saved lives. 

The birds come to these parts in the Spring, on their way from the winter warmth of Africa to their breeding grounds in the north. They hide by rocks and in rabbit holes and feed on insects. They had to hide in the past, because they were food to the people who lived here. HA Bryden records in Nature and Sport in Britain that in one season 1,840 dozen birds were caught by the shepherds on the Downs, who would set traps and catch 50 a day.

They would fetch a penny each, and when people wanted a wheatear they would go and find a trap, take the bird and leave a penny for the shepherd. Or not, presumably.

The story goes that Squire Wilson of Bourne Place, an Elizabethan mansion near the town of Bourne, as it was then called, was suspected of being a Royalist during Cromwellian times, and visited by a certain Lieutenant Hopkins with a troop of men on horseback. They were supposed to arrest Wilson and search the house. His wife Mary said to them, “Please do not disturb my husband, he is ill in bed.” This was true. He was suffering from gout. However, she was also playing for time.

To distract the troops still further she served them a large pie stuffed with wheatears, which they tucked into gratefully. Whilst they were eating, she went upstairs to her husband who gave her some incriminating papers to burn in the hearth, hurriedly. By the time the pie was finished, all evidence of his loyalties had vanished. The officer was invited upstairs to the bedroom, but he and his troops found nothing incriminating in their search. Their orders had been to take the Squire away, but they had no grounds to do so.

Mr Wilson had kept his head down for fear of being found out as a Royalist, having a wife and six children to take care of, but he lived to see the monarchy restored, and celebrated with bonfires on the hillocks between the town of Bourne and his house, where “a hogshead of claret and a pipe or two of strong ale” were brought out and “all loyal people of the town and adjacent neighbourhood were entertained by him.” He said: “God be thanked, I think my estate my own again, and hope that every many of you will think the same.”

Mary died in 1661. Wilson asked a clergyman in Kent to educate his children and wrote: “It hath pleased God for my sinnes to take from mee my dear wife, one of the best of women, as being too good for me.”

The squire was made a baronet by Charles II, and lived until 1685. Wheatears were chosen as part of his coat of arms.

The house was taken over in the 1700s by Sir Spencer Compton, treasurer to the future George II, and renamed Compton Place. It became a language college in the 1950s.

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

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