I could see the house where the murders had been committed from where I was waiting, on the opposite side of the river Avon. It was visible because it was two-storeyed and stood some distance from the other cottages that formed the hamlet of Rownham Passage, on a muddy spur of rock that was washed by the river at full tide.
Surprisingly for one who was not a native of Bristol, I knew its history. It had been one of the stories told to me by my long-dead first wife, Lillis Walker, and for some reason it had stuck in my memory.
Fifty years and more ago, two women — a mother and daughter who had lived there — had hacked to death the tyrannical husband and father of the household, throwing his mutilated body into the river. Unfortunately for them, the corpse had been trapped by those underwater rocks that make the Avon such a treacherous river to navigate, and instead of being carried out into the Severn estuary on the receding tide, it had floated on the next incoming tide right into the heart of the city. In due course the two women had been arrested, tried, found guilty and suffered the horrible fate of being burned alive …
‘You waitin’ for this bleedin’ ferry or not, then?’ enquired an irate voice that made me jump.
The ferryman had returned from the opposite shore and beached his skiff on the narrow mudflat skirting the towering escarpment behind us — an escarpment that reduced human life to dwarfish proportions. Similarly, on the other side of the river, Ghyston Cliff made the huddle of cottages at its foot look like a handful of toys tossed down by a careless giant.
‘You goin’ to stand ’ere all bleedin’ day?’ demanded the ferryman, growing ever more frustrated by my lack of response. ‘There’s a storm brewin’.’ He nodded towards a bank of dark clouds, marring the perfection of a warm, early-June morning.
‘Sorry,’ I apologized, heaving my pack and cudgel into the skiff and seating myself in the stern. ‘How much?’
‘Penny.’ The ferryman took the oars, looking me up and down in a disparaging sort of way. ‘Although for a chap as big and heavy as you, it ought to be more. You’re a weight, you are.’
‘Blame my wife. She feeds me too well.’
The man grunted as he pulled away from the Somerset shore and the Lordship of Ashton-Leigh.
‘Leg-shackled, are you? You look married. Any children?’
‘Three,’ I admitted with a sigh. ‘A daughter from my first marriage.