King’s Hampton was the sort of little town that should have had a Minster or the ruins of an Abbey. But it didn’t. It didn't have a King either - though the people who lived there said different.
During the Civil War, villages in the area had chosen sides by habit, guided by custom and jealousy. Politics were irrelevant; religion led by landowners. So, when Ham, the biggest and grandest market town for fifty miles around, sided with the King - nearly everyone else opted immediately for Parliament and laid it under siege. The hill, with its moat-like river, its water meadows and distant views, had once seemed like a fortress. It turned out to be a prison. The citizens were starved into submission.
For a couple of hundred years after that, it lumbered un-dramatically on; little visited, very little known. That is, until Mr Dukes decided to sell his house. One of its major selling points, he said, was that the King had sought refuge in it (disguised as a parlour maid) around 1645. Cromwell's troops, getting scent of the ruse, marched in and told all the women in the household to strip off their clothes. The King vanished, the women were humiliated - and, in 1845, Mr Duke's managed to double the value of his property with little more effort than an essay in the Journal of the Ham Historical Society and a timely letter to the newly established local paper.
Over the years, rather remarkably, other home owners discovered that the King had played the same trick in their properties. Charles the First, it seemed, had spent almost the whole of his reign disguised as a woman in Ham and the name mutated to 'King's Hampton'.
Not much else had changed though. The hill and the river were still there, of course, as were nearly all the mediaeval and Tudor buildings the King might have been familiar with if ever he'd really visited; and Mince Street was just as full of shoppers as it ever had been. Men with vegetables and clothes and pots and pans shouted and swore as they forced their vehicles through the crowds - except nowadays they were heading for chain stores and supermarkets and there wouldn't have been gift shops in the seventeenth century, not in the same way, and The Lamb was now 'The King's Arms'.
All the well known stores bordered the high street - but they were in miniature and more 'refined' than in other places - dusted up to please the council, the preservation society and the smattering of tourists that stopped briefly on their way elsewhere. Stephen passed Jessops half way up Ox Hill and glanced in through the rotating doors of Woolworths where a polished wooden floor stretched the length of the pick-and-mix counter right down to kitchen-ware. There were pomanders in the bow windows of Boots and un-seasonal baskets of flowers in front of MacDonalds. Next and Dixons were squashed into listed buildings, their displays blurred behind pebbled glass; and the coffee shop beside the National Westminster Bank was a replica of an old Lyons Corner House.
There were traffic lights at the top of the hill and exhaust fumes and a maze of junctions because that was where all roads met - and, branching off - Charles Street, with its quiet, undistinguished, red brick Victorian villas and, on the left, about a third of the way down, one, narrow, Georgian town house beside a small patch of grass where a walnut tree grew. The front door was open. There was a brass plate:-
and a glass swing door.
Stephen went in.
For the post before this - Twenty-Two