The receptionist at the Lucy Walter Arms greeted me by name; she was of a certain age, willowy with hands like claws.
‘We’re not busy’ she said moving like a chicken pecking at insects. ‘As you’re our only guest we thought you’d appreciate the Bridal Suite, no extra charge.’
A little off the road between Wookey and Cheddar, the hotel was close to Wells yet under an hour’s drive from where I had to go in Bristol. Although it had a grand entrance supported by modestly draped caryatids, more ostentatious than dignified, the building might have been created by knocking five old cottages together.
My room was spectacular, but tenebrous. Daylight struggled to find its way through the single lead light window glazed with antique glass that obliterated the sun and distorted the view.
The bar had an vast selection of Scotch, enough single malts to make choice challenging. I tried three.
Given that I was the only guest, the set menu was surprisingly varied. I opted for moules marinieres followed by guinea fowl cooked with Madeira and red currents. The crème brúlée with raspberries was irresistible and being so near Cheddar, I could hardly pass up the cheese board.
‘Excellent choice. Our mussels come direct from San Michel Bay’ muttered the old crow in an avian croak. She could do with fattening up by eating a few herself.
As she pushed open the door to the kitchen, I saw the chef swigging from the neck of a wine bottle. She was as wide in the beam as my hostess was narrow.
Dinner was superb. I washed it down with two bottles of Beaune and finished with three large brandies. Strange beds are not conducive to a good night’s sleep, but I had no trouble on this occasion, doubtless due to the quantity of alcohol I’d consumed.
Sometime in the early hours, my stupor became a drama. I dreamed that I was in the public gallery of a courtroom with the Royal Coat of Arms prominent behind a red-robed judge. Everything else was in monochrome.
In the dock were the couple running The Lucy Walter Arms, the fat and thin contrast exaggerated to emaciated and obese. Although the details were unclear, it appeared that the jury had returned a guilty verdict and the judge, a rascally looking fellow with the florid complexion of a habitual drinker, was about to pass sentence.
I looked towards the bench and focussed on his coarse features. He was ugly and repulsive, but something in his expression suggested that he might frequently suffer intense, crippling pain. He spoke with a Welsh lilt, not the mellifluous undulations one expects, but harsh, cruel sounds with each consonant expelled as if it were poison.
Instantly awake, I immediately realised where the nightmare had taken me. It was set at the time of the Monmouth Rebellion, these were the Bloody Assizes and sentence was about to be passed by the vindictive Judge Jeffreys.
A notoriously cruel man, he believed that law-breakers were vermin. He jeered at the guilty and laughed in their faces and at their fates. The more the condemned wept, the better he liked it. He could be relied on to inflict excessive punishments on the convicted, stimulated by the agonies he suffered from kidney stones.
Jeffreys had a spectacular career. He started practicing law in 1668 at the age of 23 and quickly earned a reputation, both as a bully and aggressive cross-examiner. He went on to become Baron Jeffreys and Lord Chancellor before James 11 appointed him to conduct the trials of those who’d supported his bastard nephew, the Duke of Monmouth.
The Bloody Assize opened at Winchester and went on to Salisbury, Dorchester, Exeter, Taunton, Bristol and nearby Wells where 99 people were executed and 283 transported. While the hearings lasted only four weeks, some of the sentences, hangings, quarterings, whippings and transportations were not only extreme, they took months to execute.
Although I remembered that The Lucy Walter Arms was named after Monmouth’s mother, I couldn’t understand how I had found myself back in the seventeenth century. I was sweating profusely, but a shiver ran through me as Jeffreys sentenced the women who had prepared and served my food.
‘You shall be taken to the place from where you came and from there be dragged, tied to a cart’s tail, through the streets, your bodies being stripped from the girdle upwards, and be whipped till your bodies bleed’ he said.
I jumped from the bed and went to the window. When I moved my nose close to the opaque glass I saw the sinister Jeffreys staring back, his eyes glaring and his features inflamed with alcohol and gluttony.
‘Sir, your foulest actions are scarcely consistent with sanity’ I said to the window. ‘Your lust for cruelty has reached pathological heights.’
‘Piffle. I am a man of my time and merely breathing death like a destroying angel and to sanguine my ermines in blood. I’m saner than you are, Sir, and more sober. You’re stupefied by drink.’ His response was a yell of fury.
‘Your questions from the bench are a travesty of cross-examination’ I said. ‘No more than mental torture that can only reduce the accused to such pitiable wrecks such that nobody could believe their answers to your questions be true. You are presiding over an obscene travesty of justice.’
Pleased with my castigation of the man and his methods, I leaned closer to the window, but the judge’s face still glared back, his eyes blazing fury. I was horrified that the reflection was as much my face as his.
I wrested to open the window, but saw nothing beyond the glass. Wind was gusting through the trees whose trunks were bending to accommodate a storm.
Rain was lashing down and I closed the window. The subsequent silence was oppressive; all I could hear over the raging weather was the irregular sounds of my panting.
Further sleep was impossible. I perched on the edge of the bed and stared into space. Had Jeffreys stayed here when he presided at Wells? How had the hotel got its name? And for how long had it been identified by the name of Monmouth’s mother?
In the morning I felt terrible. My skin was a mass of angry blotches and the pads under my eyes morbidly grey and puffy. I hoped my hostess would put my appearance down to over indulgence rather than lack of sleep.
‘You enjoyed a comfortable night, Sir?’ she said. Clearly she hadn’t been dragged through the streets stripped from the girdle upwards. I forced a smile and nodded.
‘Tell me, for how long has this establishment had been known by its current name?’
‘For as long as records show.’
‘Lucy Walter was the one-time mistress of Charles ll. She was Welsh, born at Rhosmarket near Haverfordwest’ I said. Where had those facts come from? Until I’d discovered the hotel on-line, I hadn’t heard of Lucy Walter yet alone known she was the mother of the Duke of Monmouth.
‘When we acquired the hotel 11 years ago we thought she was just a lucky local girl who’d married well and become a landowner’ she said.
I forced myself to despatch a full English breakfast, packed my bag and settled the bill. As I started my car I looked up towards the bedroom and my lead light window. It felt as if someone was looking down at me, but I couldn’t be sure.
When I’d turned the car round, I looked again. There was no mistaking it this time. My window was open and a noticeably inflamed countenance was leering in my direction. I blinked the face disappeared.
Relieved, I started towards Bristol. A minute later I was forced to brake as a pheasant wandered aimlessly into my path.
‘Idiotic biped, you don’t deserve to live. You should be taken from here to the place from where you came and there be plucked alive and throttled to a slow end before ending up in a pie that will be paraded through the streets as a trophy of human virtue. Damn you’ I said.
My words were cut off as a wave of pain hit my back and left side. It was gone the second after I became aware of it.
Just before I turned towards Bristol, two boys kicked a football in front of my car. I rejected evasive action and instead accelerated towards those irresponsible striplings forcing them to dive for safety in the bushes either side of the road.
‘They should be captured and scoured until the blood runs from their naked shoulders. It’s cold at this time of the year so see that their bared bodies are warmed thoroughly. What a generation of vipers do we live among.’
I laughed to myself until the second wave of pain hit me, this time in my lower abdomen and groin. I gasped.