The Three Mariners Inn, a timber frame building on Seathorpe’s ancient seafront, had been built in the year 1131, according to the signboard. The old tavern, now an antique emporium, must surely, mused Dr Who, as he stood on the sun-baked pavement before it in the summer of 1963, be one of England’s oldest buildings. Above the doorway stood a rather formidable-looking ship’s figurehead, her flowing brown tresses and bright blue drapery curiously at odds with the gimlet stare of her hard black eyes.
Glancing idly at a seagull perched on a litter bin, Dr Who pushed open the ancient, creaking door and found himself in the subdued light of a musty-smelling room, originally the bar, still fitted with its oak settles but now stuffed to bursting with a diverse hoard of memorabilia. There were brass bedsteads, papier-mâché cabinets, gutta percha chairs, trays of delicate crockery, paintings, postcards, a Victorian dress of black bombazine beaded with jet, porcelain-faced dolls in clothes of finely-worked lace, elaborately-wrought clocks, each one frozen at a different point in time. On a rough wooden shelf stood a long row of variously-sized Toby jugs – and what extremely hideous objects they were, thought Dr Who.
The place was soaked in atmosphere.
A little old man with wispy, snow-white hair was hunched over a large, leather-bound, ancient-looking tome, open before him on a desk that had pennies stuck all over its surface. Was he, Dr Who wondered ridiculously, consulting his book of spells?
The shriveled little gnome registered his presence and peered across at him with large, startled eyes, like a squirrel disturbed in the act of laying down the winter’s supply of nuts.
‘A very old volume,’ the Doctor commented, nodding towards it and fixing his monocle in place. ‘Centuries old, in fact, hmm?’
The crinkled parchment face of the superannuated old fellow brightened in a trice. ‘Oh yes, indeed. An eleventh century spell book.’
Dr Who, remembering his first thought on seeing the little proprietor, was taken aback. ‘Ah…indeed?’
‘My last look at it, sadly. It’s going to a wealthy collector in Cambridge.’ The old man sighed. ‘Ah, well, I did get a good price, I suppose…’
‘It’ll keep the wolf from the door,’ a new voice croaked. ‘Can’t eat books, can you?’
An old woman seated on a rickety chair by the counter, whom Dr Who hadn’t even noticed until she spoke, was sipping tea from a delicate china cup decorated with a ringleted lady in a lemon-coloured crinoline.
The old man looked miserably at the hefty volume. ‘There’s something in that, of course,’ he conceded, reluctantly.
‘Granny Crumble, they call me round here.’
Dr Who summoned up a polite smile. ‘Delighted, Madam.’
Granny Crumble stared at him wonderingly, as if fascinated by his words. She was a worn-looking old thing, he noted absently. The long black coat she was buttoned tightly into was in a similar condition. Her slightly untidy grey hair, gathered into a very loose bun at the back, was topped with a battered black hat, on the brim of which a few artificial flowers struggled against the odds to keep up appearances.
‘Chitty.’ The proprietor offered Dr Who his hand. ‘Edwin Chitty.’
‘Funny, really,’ said Granny Crumble.
Both men stared at her blankly.
‘Funny that everybody calls me Granny. I’ve never had no children, you know, even though my poor Harry and me was married for more than a few years before he copped it.’
‘In the last war,’ Mr Chitty explained to Dr Who, making an effort.
‘A V1 on “The Spread Eagle”. I lived in London then. Houndsditch. I’d stayed at home with my old trouble, you see.’ She paused, remembering. ‘I saw my Harry just before they screwed him down. Looked real put out, he did. Mind you, there’d still been half an hour to go till closing time when it happened.’
Dr Who and Edwin Chitty nodded gravely.
‘I’ve been on my own these twenty odd years.’ Granny drained her teacup. ‘A hard life, it’s been, but I never grumble, though I can only afford to have one bar of the gas fire on when it’s the really cold weather. I can’t even scrape up enough for a nice port and lemon now and then to ward off the palps.’
Mr Chitty sighed. ‘There’s tea left in my flask, Granny, if you’d care for another,’ he offered, reluctantly.
‘Oh, no. I don’t want to impose,’ Granny Crumble insisted unconvincingly, already proffering her cup and saucer for the refill.
‘Have you heard from your old friend in Houndsditch lately?’ the old man enquired, making a determined attempt to display polite interest as he sadly watched his beverage supply diminish further. ‘A charwoman, isn’t she?’
‘Ada Drewcock? She wrote in April. Or was it May? Rambled on about some strange goings-on during that big freeze, she did. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it.’
There was a momentary flicker in Dr Who’s eyes. He changed the subject with, ‘The ship’s figurehead above the door outside looks rather formidable, does she not, hmm?’
Old Chitty’s eyes swivelled towards Dr Who. ‘Eva? Yes, I suppose she does look rather unnerving. I suppose I’m so used to her that I don’t even notice anymore.’
The irrepressible Granny Crumble piped up again. ‘They say she comes down from there and wanders the streets. Knocks on fishermen’s doors to warn them of approaching storms, she does.’ Granny stared into her cup, already empty again. She placed it on the counter and rose unsteadily to her feet. ‘I suppose I’d better take myself off. I’m not one to wear out my welcome. Never have been.’
‘She comes every day now,’ Edwin Chitty told Dr Who, when the door had closed behind her. He sighed. ‘I suppose I should be grateful for the company, but Granny can drink an ocean of tea. She lives in the old people’s flats on Sycamore Crescent. Came to Seathorpe just after the war, as I remember…’
Dr Who interposed. ‘I’ll browse, if I may?’
‘Oh, yes, indeed. By all means do,’ urged the old ancient, rising above the curtailment of his reminiscence and slipping back into shopkeeper mode.
Dr Who noticed a stack of old comics and magazines and examined the top ones. A copy of the Radio Times had a wide-eyed blonde on the cover with a caption announcing the return, on Monday, of Lucille Ball in The Lucy Show. An issue of TV Comic held his attention briefly as he read through an instalment of Fireball XL5 on pages two and three.
It must be quite a task, he mused, to have to continually invent new plots. Eventually, he supposed, the editor would be obliged to replace Steve Zodiac’s adventures with something else…
He ran his fingers along the spines of a row of Rider Haggard volumes, bound in brown leather with embossed titles in white. King Solomon’s Mines.The Witch’s Head.Mr Meeson’s Will...
'Are these volumes from a collected edition of Rider Haggard?’ he asked old Chitty.
The proprietor shook his head. ‘Alas, no. As far as I’m aware, there is no complete set of Rider Haggard’s works. A great shame, is it not?’
Dr Who turned the leaves of She.‘L Horace Holly,’ he muttered. ‘I visited him once. He was a poor, broken old fellow by then, I’m afraid. Still mourning that adopted nephew of his…’
Edwin Chitty was entranced by Dr Who’s words. ‘Leo?’
‘Holly showed me two thick notebooks, tightly bound in parchment. The pages were of an extremely thin, tough paper, and each book contained quite a number of sheets.’ The Doctor paused. Then, ‘They were the original manuscript of Wisdom’s Daughter.’
By now Edwin was convinced that, if he served behind his counter until he was a centenarian, a customer as intriguing as this one would never cross the sill of his door again. ‘It was in Rider Haggard’s own hand, then?’ he enquired breathlessly.
Dr Who darted a sharp look at him, then smiled enigmatically. ‘Rider Haggard’s? Oh no. Oh, dear me, no…’
Old Chitty stared, opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again.
‘You have some most interesting Victorian coins here.’ The Doctor studied a double florin with Queen Victoria’s jubilee head, dated 1889; several ‘bun’ pennies, including one from 1860 in extremely fine condition, with every detail of the Eddystone lighthouse discernible; and a ‘Godless’ florin of 1849. ‘I don’t suppose you have an 1839 ‘Una and the Lion’ five pounds, hmm?’
Chitty shook his head regretfully. ‘That was proof only, wasn’t it? I’m afraid an example has yet to pass through my modest little establishment.’
Dr Who waved a hand expansively. ‘An atmospheric little building, if I may say so. No doubt, in common with many an ancient edifice, it possesses some intriguing features?’
Edwin leaned forward eagerly. ‘Indeed it does. It’s riddled with secret passages, and hidden cupboards too, where contraband was once hidden in the days when smuggling was rife. My little storeroom upstairs is supposedly haunted by the spirit of Lady Elizabeth Gurney, though I’ve never seen anything myself.’ A shadow crossed his lined old face momentarily. ‘At least - not up there.’ His eyes met Dr Who’s for a moment, then he quickly sought and recovered his thread. ‘Lady Elizabeth’s body lay for the best part of two centuries on an old iron bedstead in that room, which had no door. The chamber was discovered in 1894 when Orlando Ferrers, the landlord of The Three Mariners at that time, discerned the outline of a small window for which there was no corresponding room in the inn.
‘Lady Elizabeth – she was eventually identified via a monogrammed ring on one finger – had, as research by a local historian established, been a passenger on the Fanny Salt, a vessel that was wrecked on the rocks at Needle Head, half a mile along the coast from here, at the end of the 1600’s. Eva - the figurehead, you know - is said to be from that ship, which still lies at the bottom of the bay. Most of the crew perished. Five of the bodies were recovered and laid out in the parlour here – it’s through that curtained archway in the far corner. A cold, bone-chilling room to this day, the old parlour. Decidedly eerie, too. It’s very easy to visualise a row of roughly-made coffins in there. Very nice Dutch panelling on the walls, though, dating from about 1700…Where was I? Oh, yes. Lady Elizabeth was found alive, but badly injured, on the beach by the sons of Alice Stevenson, a somewhat flint-eyed widow who kept The Three Mariners then and ruled her boys with a rod of iron. They told no-one of their discovery, brought Lady Elizabeth to the room upstairs and the Widow Stevenson looked after her assiduously – though always with one eye on the jewellery she had been wearing. When her ladyship died, the Stevensons appropriated the jewellery, apart from the ring I mentioned, which would presumably have been too identifiable a piece, and sealed up the room.’
Dr Who was staring intently at the old dealer. ‘You said you had seen nothing upstairs, but implied that you had seen something elsewhere. What were you referring to, hmm?’
Edwin Chitty indicated the chair vacated by Granny Crumble. ‘Sit down, my friend.’
As Dr Who lowered himself onto the rickety seat, the old fellow moved towards a fitted black corner cupboard decorated with brasswork. The top of the cupboard was flush with the low ceiling. Old Chitty stood precariously on a little wooden stool in order to open the door, reached inside and produced a well-filled decanter.
‘Shall we take a glass of sherry wine?’ he enquired.
The tall signboard proclaimed, in faded red letters on a background that had once been white, the availability of JUGS OF TEA FOR THE SANDS. The idea appealed to Dr Who, for the glass of sherry had far from slaked his thirst on this hot day. He had no time, however, to indulge in a cup of Rosy Lee, on the beach or elsewhere, and he continued to walk steadily along the seafront thoroughfare known as Marine Parade, which was more or less thronged with largely noisy examples of humanity intent upon enjoying to the full that somewhat doubtful institution, the summer holiday.