| Dom Moraes: Ringing a bell
Odecombe, Sept. 7: The picturesque Somerset village of Odecombe, set among undulating green hills in the west country, witnessed the unusual spectacle last night of two Indians lecturing residents on their own culture.
Residents of Odecombe packed the village hall to hear about Thomas Coryate, their most famous son of the soil who walked most of the way from England to India in 1613.
Authors Dom Moraes and Saraya Srivatsa launched their book (published by Penguin India), The Long Strider: How Thomas Coryate Walked from England to India in the Year 1613, which is “affectionately dedicated to the people of Odecome”.
They also presented the village with a small portion of a brick from what is said to be Coryate’s grave in Surat, where the Englishman died “a horrible death” from disease in 1619. The brick was shaken loose, said Moraes, in the Gujarat earthquake two years ago.
This morning in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, where Coryate’s father, George, was the Rector at the time of Thomas’ birth in 1579, the brick was given to worshippers. It will be fixed on a wall, next to a stone replica of Coryate’s boots carved to mark the millennium in 2000. The original boots hung in the church until they disappeared in 1702.
The church also has a precious copy of Coryate’s Crudities, an account of Coryate’s 1975-mile walk to Venice during an extensive European walk in 1608.
The entire manuscript of his book on India, where he met the Emperor Jehangir and quarrelled with the first English ambassador to the country, Sir Thomas Roe, was lost at the very beginning. All that remains are five letters written from India by Coryate to his mother in England.
Coryate was probably England’s first travel guide writer and serious walker and to this day, Odecome retains its tradition of walking. Though a few of the older residents are knowledgeable and proud about their most famous son, frankly not many would pass if home secretary David Blunkett were to set a question on Coryate as part of his British citizenship test.
Reginald Warr, chairman of the Odecombe Walkers’ Association, said that when he telephoned local newspaper editors and told them, “We will be honouring Thomas Coryate in the village hall tonight”, one responded: “What time is he arriving — we will get a photographer down there'”
Three years ago, when the authors went to Odecome to begin their research, a taxi driver advised them helpfully: “If you are so keen to find this bloke, why don’t you look him up in the phone book'"
One villager, who admitted last night that his children and their friends had not heard of Coryate, commented: “It’s sad that someone has to come all the way from India to tell us about one of our biggest heroes.”
Moraes, who is an irritable 65, bluntly told his hospitable and generous English audience how even ordinary Indians he encountered when he and Srivatsa were seeking to retrace Coryate’s steps in India knew so much more about him than the average person in England.
He rubbed home his point: “It’s sad that people in Somerset don’t know as much about him as people in India. I don’t know how that is.”
Moraes said he had been fascinated by Coryate ever since he had first read about him 50 years ago. In his village, Coryate had acquired the name “the Odecombe Leg Stretcher”. Unlike other Englishmen who had gone to India either to trade or as imperialists, Coryate’s best quality was that he had wanted to mingle with Indians, learn the local ways and languages and write a travel book on the country.
He found that walking was the best way of achieving his aim. He died before he could write the first travel guide to China.
“He is one of the bravest men I have heard of,” declared Moraes. “Do you know much suffering he went through' He is one of the most remarkable men ever to have been born in England. We would like more people to hear about him.”
In the audience was Archibald Dean, who was Rector of the local church for 30 years.
Dean said: “I had not heard of Coryate until I became Rector in 1961.”
Dean, who will be 90 shortly, told Moraes to hurry him with the book “because I want to read it before I go”.