Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The tale of the yew trees

We meet young Frank Fry in the Vestry Minutes for 1914, planting some of the yews that are still in St Petroc’s churchyard at Lydford.  He was born with the century, and so just a lad of 14.  He would probably have been a thatcher if he had lived.  That was the trade followed by both his father Frank and his grandfather Edmund; in fact Edmund had been thatching one of the Lydford cottage roofs in 1903 when he slipped, fell off and died.

Edmund was not a local; he had originally come from Cornwall, presumably in search of work.  He brought with him the traditional songs, not all of them polite to the ears of Victorian gentlefolk, which he had grown up with; and no doubt sang them to some of his Lydford friends, who had their own repertoire from Devon.  Sometimes the squire-vicar of the neighbouring parish of Lewtrenchard, the tireless Sabine Baring-Gould, would form an audience.  Baring-Gould built his own country house-cum-rectory, fathered 14 children, wrote Onward Christian Soldiers and other hymns, and produced over 100 books – one of them being Songs of the West in which, long before Cecil Sharp, he collected the folk songs he heard in Devon.  The world in which Frank Fry spent his boyhood was homespun.

There was little money in rural Devon in those years.  To judge from old photographs, village people were none too particular about the state of their roofs, many of which had holes in; they couldn’t afford to be.  But eventually there came a point when the roof needed renewing.  Thatch was picturesque but, from the village point of view, outmoded.  Tiles were cheaper and needed less looking after.  You could get stone ones from the parish of Coryton, next door to Lydford, although they would flake in a storm.  And mass-produced concrete tiles had come onto the market.  So these were difficult times for thatchers, as for other people in Lydford.  Frank Senior made a little extra by looking after another type of thatch: he cut hair for 6d a time. 

Some time before March 1917, young Frank went down to Plymouth and enlisted with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, who put him in a reserve training battalion.  He was then posted to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.  I’m not sure that he got overseas.  He is recorded as having died from pneumonia on March 24, 1918 – probably the victim of what was to prove an even deadlier killer than the shells, bullets, bombs and mines of the Great War itself: Spanish Flu. 

He is Fry, F.W. on the war memorial; his grave lies in Lydford churchyard, near the yews that he planted.  I have yet to see the stone.  Perhaps it will add to the story.

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