by Frank E Earp:
The story of the Fair Maid of Clifton bears all the hallmarks of an ancient legend. There are many versions of the story, but I will tell it here in its most simplest of forms, as it has always been told by the folk of Clifton, a true folk-story.
Long ago, at Clifton, there dwelt a young milk-maid. Margaret was her name. Some say that she was the fairest maid in the entire county, others that she was the fairest in the land. Many is the lad that sort to court her and win her hand, but she refused them all. Each day she would take the milk from her father’s cows to Wilford, where she would cross the river to sell it at the market in Nottingham. The ferry-man was a handsome young man by the name of Bateman. Very soon, after many trips back and forth across the river, the young couple fell madly in love. Every spare moment, they spent together. Each evening, when Margaret retuned from the market, Bateman would walk her home. Hand in hand they would go, along Clifton’s famous Grove.
They became the talk of the village, Margaret and her Bateman. Every man was jealous, but none more-so than German, a wealthy widower who had desired the beautiful girl since his wife had died. Then came the day that broke young Bateman’s heart. His lord and master was going away to some far foreign land and needed his services. That evening as the two lovers walk along the wooded path his heart was heavy with the news he must tell his dear one. As if in sympathy, the summer air was heavy too, with distant rolls of thunder. Margaret knew there was something wrong that night but dared not break the silence between them. When they reached the highest point along the Grove they stopped beneath the trees and Bateman took her in his arms. A distant church clock chimed the hour of midnight and a roll of thunder echoed the last chime. Bateman gazed into Margaret’s eyes and with faltering words broke his news. Margaret choked back her tears as another roll of thunder ripped the sky. Bateman took the gold ring from his finger and cut it in two. Half he gave to his love, and the other he placed in his pocket. Together they plighted their troth. Margaret would wait for Bateman’s return and then they would be married in the village church at the end of the Grove.
The two thought that their words together that night had been heard by only God himself. But they were wrong. A grey-haired old women had stood close by, unseen by lovers. She was the village ‘wise woman,’ the midwife who had delivered most of the young folk of Clifton, including Margaret. Some called her a witch, but she called herself the guardian of the Grove, this sacred place of lovers. She was pleased with what she had heard, for she had kept an eye on the fair Margaret all her life, and thought Bateman a suitable match. It was a sad day when Bateman departed and Margaret was only consoled by the fact that when he returned they would be married. Among the throng of villagers that watched him go were two who had their own thoughts. The grey-haired old woman looked forward to the happy day of the wedding, but German looked on with averous eyes. Now he could make his move.
The very next day German went to see Margaret’s father and asked for her hand in marriage. He was not a particularly wealth man, just an average tenant farmer. He had not much approved of his daughter’s choice for a husband, Bateman the lowly ferryman. Now he saw his chance. If he could persuade Margaret to marry the wealthy German, he and his wife could have a happy life in their retirement. Each day, for a whole week, German called at the little farm house and every time Margaret would refuse to see him and each time her father and mother would rebuke her. Finely, on the Sunday, she relented and agreed to marry German.
The very next week the couple were married and all the village rejoiced, except for the grey-haired old woman who would not enter the church. For a year and a day young Bateman had been away and now he walked along the Grove to his beloved Margaret’s home. Clutching his half of the gold ring and with joy in his heart he strode up to the door. But from her parents he heard the news that Margaret had married German and not only this, she was ‘with-child’.
Some say that the broken hearted Bateman hung himself at the door of his feckless lover, but I will tell you a different tale. Bateman returned along the Grove his mind in turmoil. When he reached the highest point above the river, the very spot where he had plighted his troth, he chanced to meet with German coming the other-way. The two began to argue and then to wrestle. They fought and wrestled for a whole day but neither could best the other. Finely, the ground beneath their feet gave-way and the two plunged into the foaming Trent. Watching the fight was the grey-haired old women, who returned to the village to report the events.
An immediate search of the river below the Grove was made, but of the two protagonists, only Bateman’s hat and German’s shoe were ever found. When Margaret heard the news her heart was full of fear. She knew that by breaking her oath to Bateman that she had caused the deaths and God would punish her. She knew too that Gods justice would not be meted out whilst the innocent babe was in her belly. Where others women looked forward to the birth of their child Margaret lived in mortal fear.
When the time for her confinement came her friend and relatives took her to the village church. Here, they locked and barricaded the doors. Whilst Margaret’s mother and the midwife prepared for the birth, the rest, with the minister, prayed for the poor girl’s sole. The night was a stormy one and thunder and lightning went the air. The innocent babe was born safely just before the hour of midnight. The little congregation were so tiered from their night of fervent prayer they all fell into a deep sleep. Their sleep was as short one, a sudden loud clap of thunder shook the church. All awoke, except the new born babe who slept the sleep of the innocent in his grandmother’s arms. To their surprise Margaret was gone, but the doors were still locked and barred.
Out into the night they rush, headlong into the wild storm. Soon, they reached the highest point of the Grove. There stood Margaret on the very spot where she had made her promise and from which Bateman and German had plunged to their deaths. Now above the winds howl they heard the clock begin to stick the hour of midnight. As the watched, from out of the dark skies, two frightful demons appeared. Swooping down, they ceased Margeret by the arms and carried her aloft. On the last stroke of the hour, down they plunged into the foaming waters bellow. That was the last that any one was to see of Margaret, the feckless ‘Fair Maid of Clifton. What happened to her child? The tale does not say.