This week I had coffee with Laura Potts, Media Relations Manager at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, where I teach history. Laura lives in an old house with her husband and children in a village not far from the university. They bought it in May 2014, in a fairly dilapidated state, and have been doing it up ever since.
Judging from what Laura tells me, the white-painted brickwork suggests it might be a nineteenth-century house, but the builder’s opinion of the now-exposed beams is that the core structure predates that. The door frame is also a non-standard size, and an unusual shape, which apparently points to construction in an earlier era, although until somehow who knows their stuff gets in there, we don’t know how much earlier.
One summer day, a couple of months after the renovations began, Laura noticed, to her surprise and delight, a dusty old shoe sitting on the mantelpiece over one of the recently opened-up fireplaces. How it had got there was a mystery until the electrician, who at that time was rewiring the house, told Laura that he had found it up the chimney. Here it is:
Not long after that – I think it was in the autumn of 2014 – Laura contacted me as the go-to witchcraft guy in the university, to ask my advice. (She also told me that they had also found a couple of dried up rats in the roof of a lean-to, but everyone now seems to think that they just died there, probably after being poisoned, rather than ending their ratty days as deliberately placed ritual deposits.)
My advice to her was not to destroy the shoe or sell it or anything, but to keep it close to where it was found. I don’t think I’m particularly superstitious, but it seemed right that the shoe should stay put. It belongs to the house now, doesn’t it? Laura said that when we both found the time she would bring the shoe to the university so that I could have a look at it.
That time came this week. Laura arrived at the café with a big red biscuit tin under her arm. Obviously this was to protect the precious shoe, but it also served to heighten the suspense: the shoe concealed and revealed, concealed once more.
It’s a strange little object, the soft boot of a child or small adult, with a side opening, perhaps originally fastened with studs or a shoelace. It has a thin leather sole with a hole worn through it – in fact, as you can see, the whole thing had seen heavy wear by the time it was deposited in the chimney.
Like the house, it’s maddeningly hard to date – for this novice anyway. The fabric it’s lined with looks like relatively modern machine-woven fabric, suggesting nineteenth- or even twentieth-century manufacture, although the shoe itself has a curious design. Again, an expert will doubtless solve this one in a few moments.
Laura and I had fun discussing the shoe, and just having there in front of us on the table, in the genteel, arty surroundings of the Sainsbury Centre, gave me strange pleasure. It was telling us so little about itself, but seemed oddly alert – or maybe that was just me imagining things each time I threw it a glance during conversation.
When the house is finished, Laura plans to display the shoe in a little glass case over the fireplace. It can’t go back up the chimney, of course, but it’s good that it will be on show as near as possible to where it was found, and more to the point where, at some unspecified point in time, back when the world was different, it was hidden by some fearful or perhaps hopeful person. The further it travels, it strikes me, the weaker its significance – its historical magic. You can seen how forlorn it looks.
Laura still has an upstairs fireplace to strip back, in the room immediately above the one where the shoe was found and connected to the same flue. They wouldn’t have hidden another upstairs, would they, asked Laura with a mixture of doubt and anticipation. But you know, something in me suspects that they did. I’d say that the shoe told me, but then of course you’d think I was going mad…