Articles - Highdown and Highdown Farm

Rare Inscription uncovered at Pirton 

By Richard T. Whitmore 

An interesting and rare discovery has been made at “Highdown,” Pirton, the 350-year –old home of Mr and Mrs Peter Spencer-Smith.

“Highdown”, which stands about two miles from Hitchin, a little way off the Hexton Road, is virtually hidden from the casual explorer.  It is reached by means of a long drive, which winds uphill through trees to the old and rambling house.

This discovery was made by two decorators, Mr England and Mr Legate, who were at work in one of the gabled bedrooms, stripping off sheet after sheet of wallpaper.

Above one of the windows, when they reached plaster, they came across an inscription written on the old plaster.  Mr and Mrs Spencer-Smith, anxious to have the writing translated, were put in contact with Mr George Evans, the Hitchin librarian and museum curator, who went over to “Highdown” and took an impression of the lettering.

He says that the inscription is almost certainly contemporary with, or very little later than, the original building of the house at the beginning of the seventeenth century.  It is painted in “black letter” and apart from some indistinct letters is still quite legible.

It is, Mr Evans says, a misquotation from Ovid’s Tristia, and it reads:

Ut fulvum spectotur in ignibus ourum

            Tempore sic duro est espresenda fides. 

There is a spelling mistake in the first line (spectotur should read specatur), and the last line ought to read Tempore in duro est inspicienda fides.  The whole can be translated:  “As yellow gold is tried in the fire, so the test of friendship is in hard times.”

This quotation may refer to the difficulties in the early seventeenth century experienced by the Hertfordshire Docwra family who were Papist and Royalist, in a strongly Puritan and Parliament district.

One can, however, imagine an elderly Docwra searching out the rusty Latin of his student days, and not making too bad a shot at it.

Quotations such as this one at “Highdown” are extremely rare in this type of inscription.  Instead of being taken from the classics, as is this one, they are usually

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