Moneycontrol PRO

The Tippling Point | Who is a moonraker and how did they get here?

True love, as Shakespeare said, and dream runs with contraband alcohol don't run smoothly, without impediments.

July 02, 2022 / 12:47 PM IST
One night in 1791, a few smugglers of booze in Wiltshire were caught red-handed by the police. Their explanation for what they were doing there at that time of night is now the stuff of legend - and this column. (Representaional image: Javardh via Unsplash)

One night in 1791, a few smugglers of booze in Wiltshire were caught red-handed by the police. Their explanation for what they were doing there at that time of night is now the stuff of legend - and this column. (Representaional image: Javardh via Unsplash)

Any James Bond fans out there? Oye, you might already have splurged much of your precious time on that Roger Moore flick Moonraker, watching it again and again on different platforms. But have you ever met a moonraker in your life? What is he? What has he got to do with the moon shining up in the sky? Last question: How could he find precious space in our Tippling Point?

manu-remakant-logo-the-tippling-point-logo1-R-258x258To unravel the mystery, let's take a journey to South West England, precisely to Wiltshire county, the proud abode of the prehistoric monument - the Stonehenge.

Now take yourself to one of the streets and ask a native who a moonraker is before you run for cover!

Going by the dictionary, a moonraker is a silly person, a dimwit, a fool, who would take the moon for a roll of cheese. Know this, It was exactly from Wiltshire that the word acquired its meaning. Yes, you are at ground zero. Here's the story.

From the 15th to the 18th century, the county of Wiltshire was famous all over the Continent for its top-quality wool. Dutch and Flemish merchants ran offices in Swindon, a town in Wiltshire, to make the most out of the trade. What was their favourite drink during the time? Hollands Gin. But it was hard to come by and very expensive after the hefty import duty slapped on it.

Close

Wiltshiremen like any other people in the world going through similar stress came up with an instant solution to evade taxes. They began to smuggle in barrels and barrels of spirit under the cover of darkness. As soon as the barrels reached the quiet coves on the coast of Hampshire, the locals began to carry them up to Swindon during nights when excise patrolling was at the bare minimum. In the daytime, they stashed the barrels in church crypts and village ponds under the cover of green algae. The moment the sun set, Wiltshiremen gathered in small numbers to head on to the nearest secret place to wet their whistle. The adventure which had now grown into some sort of tradition continued undisturbed for more than 200 years.

But true love, as Shakespeare said, and such dream runs with contraband alcohol don't run smoothly, without impediments.

One night in 1791, a few local smugglers were merrily making their way to a nearby pond to savour the taste of forbidden sin. They didn't know that excisemen had somehow got wind of 'some untoward incident' happening near a pond and were hot on the trail (someone might have tipped them off. Rats are not a modern phenomenon). Taking the cover of lush foliage and darkness they waited for the poor Wiltshiremen to arrive to claim their booty. The moon was high up in the sky, hardly knowing its imminent role in the lives of a few men down below.

Hush! Here they come, the Wiltshiremen with long rakes, with which they soon began to displace the green algae to retrieve the barrels of spirit submerged in the pond! Freeze! Police! Sorry, Excise! The poor locals froze. They realized they were done for, with the excisemen apprehending them red-handed, with long rakes in hand.

Blitz! The moonlight! A flash of inspiration. The Wiltshiremen turned towards the men in uniform wearing one of the dumbest expressions they could gather in a mo. Why! What did we do!

Why are you here! What are those rakes for!

This! They looked at what they were holding. "We were raking out gurt yaller cheese in yonder pond.” Which means, 'we are trying to get that great yellow cheese out of the pond.' The excisemen looked towards what they were pointing at.

The big yellow reflection of the moon on the river.

Wiltshire had already acquired a reputation for its fair share of fools figuring prominently in many jokes going around at the time. This new incident would go perfect with the image. The excisemen looked at one another and burst into laughter. What fools these Wiltshiremen are! Were they seriously trying to pull in the moon taking it as a giant roll of cheese! Even when they left the scene bidding good luck to the local simpletons they still couldn't suppress their amusement.

Wiltshiremen had the last laugh that night but inadvertently they had already rewritten their name (Today, a moonraker is a person from Wiltshire).

Let the moon up above the pond shine on. Throwing enough light for the Tippling Point that is still raking apart the algae to take a peek at the bottles buried below 300 years ago.
Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog — A Cup of Kavitha — introducing world poetry to Malayalis. The views expressed here are personal.
first published: Jul 2, 2022 12:45 pm
Sections
ISO 27001 - BSI Assurance Mark