Sir Humphrey of Batch Magna – Peter Maughan
This is the second of a series of five books, all reissued last year by Farrago, chronicling the life and times of Sir Humphrey Strange, call me Humph, and the motley collection of eccentrics who populate the village of Batch Magna, supposedly on the border of Shropshire and Wales and nestling on the banks of the River Cluny. I found this one even more enjoyable than the first, perhaps because I had got to know the main characters.
There is not much in the way of a plot, rather it is a collection of episodic events which sort of fit into a satisfying whole. What it lacks in overall structure is made up for by Maughan’s gentle, occasionally ribald, humour and his understanding and lyrical descriptions of the countryside in this wonderful part of the world. He portrays a sleepy village, where not much generally happens but where, occasionally, the ugly realities of the modern world intrude, only to be batted back by the resourceful residents, keen to preserve their idyllic way of life.
The book opens on the day of Humph’s wedding, to the Honourable Clementine Wroxley, or Clem to her friends. They settle down to life at the Manor but their finances, and that of the estate, are on a knife-edge. The village’s spinster and amateur sleuth, Miss Wyndham, in her search for a rare flower which will make her reputation at the local nature society, discovers some badger baiters in the act of digging up a set. She summons assistance and Humph and local heavy, Sion Owen, have a set to with the miscreants. We will meet them later in the book.
Clem discovers to her horror that she has lost a jewel that has been in the Strange family for over 400 years and according to family lore if it was ever lost, that would be curtains for the family and the estate. As if on cue, the estate’s finances take a dip as the pheasants contract a disease and the river becomes so polluted that the fish begin to die. It seems that the only way out of the Strange’s predicament is to sell the estate putting an end to the rural idyll. Naturally, there is a willing buyer.
I won’t spoil the resolution of the book but, suffice it to say, it involves the badger baiters and the plucky spirit and investigative nous of Miss Wyndham. Her appetite for detective fiction gives her clues as to how to act when she finds herself in a dangerous situation.
One of the funniest parts of the book features the disastrous attempts of local ne’er do well and crime writer, Phineas Cook, to launch a punt business offering romantic, moonlit trips along the Cluny to gullible outsiders. I particularly like the Commander with his collection of glass eyes for all occasions and one who is always up for a jolly. Much alcohol is consumed during the course of the book, lots of wine and, of course, pints of the local firewater, Sheepsnout.
A glorious romp and well-paced. I would encourage you to discover the charms of the rural backwater that is Batch Magna.