Saturday, 3 January 2009

The Devizes Moonrakers - throw 'em in the Crammer

Devizes is a charming town in Wiltshire, a little way east of Bath. You know you've left London when you open the car door and hear, "Well 'allo, Arthur, 'ow you been keepin, my love?" bellowed across the supermarket car park. I was visiting to investigate some local folklore.

In the 17th-18th century, when 24-hour drinking meant 24-hour drinking, Government decided to add a tax, excise duty, on luxury goods, such as tea, coffee and alcohol. Much like today, people weren't impressed. But instead of bemoaning the price of a pint, our canny forefathers took to smuggling. God bless ingenuity. If they could get the gear past the excisemen, the government could whistle for their duty. Hundreds of years before Roger Moore had even started practising eyebrow lifts for his 1979 Bond adventure, the Moonraker story was writing itself into Wiltsherian legend.

A group of men from nearby Bishops Cannings left home one night under a bright moon. They met at Orcheston on Salisbury Plain to pick up their goods: enough barrels of brandy to satisfy their hometown for at least a few hours. And homeward they travelled via Devizes, near the Crammer pond. They were probably singing a jolly tune, having quaffed some local ale.

A-smugglin' we will go
A-smugglin' brandy kegs
And no-'ne they 'll know
Cos we'll only leave'em dregs
Stric'ly that's not true
Cos dregs 're more often found in wine
But we've between us sunk a few
And that looks like an excise...man

Cunning as university-educated foxes, the men deposited the brandy barrels in the Crammer. Down they went until the surface returned to its calm self. Only the reflection of the beaming moon showed. What a great idea, they thought, we''ll keep these ol' smuggled barrels in this 'ere pond.

The smugglers returned under full-moon and began raking the Crammer to salvage their booty, when who should they see but their old friend the exciseman. Like a bored traffic warden, he ambled over. He asked the men what they were doing. "Raking this lurvly pond," they replied. Why? "Cheese."

Cheese? The group's slowest-witted member had spoken. The others sighed, to the suspicion of the exciseman. "Cheese?" he asked. "Yes," replied the leader, shaking his head, unconvinced, "You see, there's the moon, and we're...raking it...for the cheese." All the men stared at the pond. The exciseman squinted at the shimmering reflection of the full-moon and exploded with hearty laughter.

He toddled off, full of that warm brandy-like feeling of superiority. Behind him the smugglers raked their brandy from the Crammer and headed for home, with that even warmer knowledge of superiority. And later that warm brandy-like feeling of brandy.
Of course this is an embellishment. A mighty fine and entertaining one, yes; but a dressing up nonetheless. Whether it's enhancing fact or fiction it's unlikely we'll ever know. You see, I heard five variations of the moonraker story during my time in Devizes. From those I chose my favourite parts and made this one. The sixth.

Whether true or not, I love the tale. But don't go around calling people from Wiltshire Moonrakers. Try Wiltsherians - I'll lend you the term.


Thanks must go here to writer Christophe Philipps, who first mentioned the Moonraker story to me.

A lot of my information came from the helpful Lucy and friends at Devizes Books and Stella and friends from Devizes tourist info - thank you!

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