Sunday, 11 November 2012

Remembrance Day Walks

Now let’s have a look at some other Remembrance walks and pilgrimages that we could make. I think an amble to a local church is a good idea – apart from a war memorial, one often discovers Commonwealth War Graves and also Great War family graves and tombstones. These family memorials, in some ways, are even more melancholic and mournful than the official Commonwealth War Graves. They seem to catch the mossy, dripping, atmosphere of Remembrance-Tide and the shared despair of the final line of Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth - “And each slow dusk the drawing down of blinds.”
 I visit Rodborough Church Yard: there are a number of Commonwealth War Graves scattered about but the family tombstones and memorials are in the higher part of the churchyard. It was a dismal, dank, October day when I visited and I had trouble deciphering the words on the Apperly memorial. I’ll do that next time I visit.
When you wander through the churchyard, you will see family memorials and tombstones with commemorations for : William Henry Stephen Winn, Killed in Action, 1917, aged 24; Lance Corporal F. Critchley Cordwell, killed Ypres, 1917, interred at Dickebusch Military Cemetery – “Into the field of battle He bravely took his place And fought and died for England And the honour of his race.”; Samuel Huntley Powell, killed in action, France, aged 25, March 25th 1918, Pro Patria Mori; Alfred H. (Eddie) Spencer, killed in France, December 1917, aged 20; Private William R. Carter, August 22nd 1917, aged 33; the broken cross for  the Bennett  family commemorates Captain Theodore John Bennett, Indian Army, “who fell in Palestine”, September 7th 1918 (the base of the cross has the famous Rupert Brooke lines: “If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England”) and Harold Stanley Bennett 2nd Lieutenant RCA “called to rest” April 25th 1915.
The war graves themselves, of course, do not express family heart-felt loss, but they still a tale that stirs the reader’s heart.  You will find the following names and implicit stories: Private RMLI HC Nicholls, Royal Naval Division, 15th October 1918; Private L Phipps, Gloucestershire Regiment, 26th January 1916; Private WL Allen, Gloucestershire Regiment, 23rd December 1917, aged 21; Private W Stevens, Gloucestershire Regimen, 26th December 1918, age 23; Private R Bick, Gloucestershire Regiment, 7th April 1915; FA Bartlett, Chief Petty Officer, RN, HMS “Vernon”, 28th August, aged 49. After making a few notes, I entered the Church and bought a jar of marmalade for Church funds; I then studied the memorial tablets for WW1 and WW2, placed on opposite walls. Rodborough  Church and Churchyard is well worth a visit.
If you want to make a pilgrimage, rather than take a walk, however, then let’s go to Framilode and also to Brimscombe, in the footsteps of Ivor Gurney. The more obviously atmospheric trip is down by the river, but the trip to Brimscombe might be a more demanding one for any empathetic reconstruction, and therefore equally enriching. We’ll start with the river, however: the Severn Way is an obvious pilgrimage-route; you can park by St. Peter’s Church, Upper Framilode, but before heading downstream, walk back to find the lock-keeper’s cottage ( Lock House, near where the Stroudwater Canal and the River Severn clasped hands). This is where Gurney kept his boat and where he and Will Harvey enjoyed so many happy hours. Now walk until you find a good vantage point for gazing downstream, so as to lose your mind, as it were, in the view and river-scape. (“When I saw Framilode first she was a blowy Severn tidy place under azure sky…Adventure stirring the blood like thunder, With the never forgotten soft beauty of the Frome, One evening when elver-lights made the river like a stall-road to see”.)
Will went missing on a reconnaissance mission in no man’s land in 1916, and a distraught Gurney, thinking his boyhood friend dead (he was, in fact, captured), wrote “To His Love” ( Harvey had become engaged to a nurse, Sarah Ann Kane). It might be right to declaim this whilst staring downstream.
“He’s gone, and all our plans Are useless indeed, We’ll walk no more on Cotswold Where the sheep feed Quietly and take no heed.     His body that was so quick Is not as you Knew it, on Severn river  Under the blue  Driving our small boat through.    You would not know him now…  But still he died  Nobly, so cover him  With violets of pride  Purple from Severn side.  Cover him, cover him soon!  And with thick-set Masses of memoried flowers - Hide that red wet Thing I must somehow forget.”
If you buy or borrow a copy of Eleanor M. Rawling’s book “Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire Exploring Poetry and Place”, then you can follow this walk in much more detail. She comments: “Walking the Severn Way, at the present time, along this very stretch of river, it is possible to experience the sights and sounds of the river very much as it was in the early twentieth century, and to imagine the white sail of the little boat and the glorious feeling of freedom this must have given Gurney.” Standing at The Pridings, you could recite a few lines from “Near Midsummer”:
“Severn’s most fair today! See what a tide of blue She pours, and flecked away With gold, and what a crew Of seagulls snowy white Float around her to delight Villagers, travellers, A brown thick flood is hers In winter…Low meadows flooding deep With torrents from the steep…Blue June has altered all – The river makes its fall With murmurous still sound, Past Priding’s faery ground, And steep-down Newham cliff…”
Then when you return, perhaps the following might be appropriate, from “On Somme”, linking as it does, the Severn with the Somme:
“Suddenly into the still air burst thudding
And thudding and cold fear possessed me all,
On the grey slopes there, where Winter in sullen brooding
Hung between height and depth of the ugly fall
Of Heaven to earth; and the thudding was illness own.
But still a hope I kept that were we there going over
I, in the line, I should not fail, but take recover
From others courage, and not as coward be known.
No flame we saw, the noise and the dread alone
Was battle to us; men were enduring there such
And such things, in wire tangled, to shatters blown.
Courage kept, but ready to vanish at first touch.
Fear, but just held. Poets were luckier once
In the hot fray swallowed and some magnificence.”
A hard act to follow, but we will, with a nocturnal stroll on the spring line above Brimscombe. Choose a clear, starry night and feel the presence of Ivor Gurney , for he made a similar night-walk , pausing to take in Brimscombe.
“One lucky hour in middle of my tiredness
I came under the pines of the sheer steep
And saw the stars like steady candles gleam
Above and through; Brimscombe wrapped (past life) in sleep!
Such body weariness and ugliness
Had gone before, such tiredness to come on me —
This perfect moment had such pure clemency
That it my memory has all coloured since,
Forgetting the blackness and pain so driven hence.
And the naked uplands even from bramble free.
That ringed-in hour of pines, stars, and dark eminence.
(The thing we looked for in our fear of France).”
Another pilgrimage one might make to link the Great War and Gloucestershire lies beyond the Five Valleys but is do-able by public transport. I used the train to Gloucester and the bus to and back from Dymock for some Edward Thomas reverie. I went in late October and the water table was quite high in the red clay fields near the River Leadon; the Poets’ Path I took - number 2 of 2 Poets’ Paths; there is also a Daffodil Way walk too - was well marked but ran into impenetrable stinging nettles when skirting a field of sweet corn. I know that Rodborough Tabernacle members used to bike out to Dymock for the daffodils at Easter donkey’s years ago, and I think that Easter might be the best time to visit Dymock – especially as Edward Thomas was killed at Arras on Easter Monday 1917. By the way, there is a little bit of old England in St. Mary’s Church, right by the ‘bus stop and the Beauchamp Arms, with a beautiful display about the Georgian Poets; don’t miss that.
I trudged through the quagmire for an hour or two (the Paths are 10 miles and 8 miles long), but the weather was unprepossessing and so I returned to the church when confronted by the nettles. Mist shrouded the Malverns and May Hill: the sun-dial at the church denoted no time, the aspens were still and the smithy long silent. Even so, it was impossible to be unreflective and uninspired. It was here, after all, that Thomas moved from prose to poetry and where Robert Frost’s company led Thomas to enlist. He joined up on the day that my mother was born and for that reason I have always felt a bond with him. My mother was named Nancy Mary Lorraine “In honour of our gallant French allies”; she was born on July 14th 1915, Bastille Day.
Edward Thomas’ poem, “For These”, explains his reasons for enlisting:
An acre of land between the shore and the hills,
Upon a ledge that shows my kingdoms three,
The lovely visible earth and sky and sea
Where what the curlew needs not, the farmer tills:

A house that shall love me as I love it,
Well-hedged, and honoured by a few ash trees
That linnets, greenfinches, and goldfinches
Shall often visit and make love in and flit:

A garden I need never go beyond,
Broken but neat, whose sunflowers every one
Are fit to be the sign of the Rising Sun:
A spring, a brook's bend, or at least a pond:

For these I ask not, but, neither too late
Nor yet too early, for what men call content,
And also that something may be sent
To be contented with, I ask of Fate.
I sat down on the bench in front of the church, remembered giving mum a framed copy of the poem for her birthday one year, ate my cheese and chutney sandwich, then penned a few lines on the back of my walking guide. The excellent Friends of the Dymock Poets’ website has these walking guides for free.
Dymock, October 24th, 2012
I drew up there in Dymock,
(On the 132 bus to Ledbury)
The ‘bus stopped,
I coughed and got off,
No-one else did.
I came for Edward Thomas,
And also Robert Frost,
But there are two Poets’ Paths in Dymock,
Diverging in a yellow, autumn wood.
I take the one more travelled,
The one that leads to France,
The one that leads straight
To the last lines of a war diary,
“Where any turn may lead to Heaven
Or any corner may hide Hell
Roads shining like river up hill after rain.”

W.H. Davies, later to live at Nailsworth, and earlier befriended by Thomas, wrote an elegy for him. Here is the last stanza:
“But thou, my friend, art lying dead,
War: with its hell-born childishness
Has claimed thy life, with many more:
The man that loved this England well
And never left it once before.”

The last walk I made during Remembrance-Tide was along Tinkley Lane, from Forest Green to Nympsfield. The road can be busy at times; it is also muddy, puddle-pockmarked and narrow. The views are wonderful, however. At times, it feels as though one is in the Yorkshire Wolds: high up in big sky country, but with the Severn to the west, and the Downs above Swindon, on the Wiltshire-Berkshire border, to the east. Forest Green were at home on the day I chose; it was quite busy when I returned from Nympsfield. Green Union Jacks, a band playing, a football ground along a street named “Another Way” – I’ll have to go sometime. The ‘bus to Stroud (46/93) runs every thirty minutes, but, to be honest, it’s not really a walk I would recommend. Whereas “Another Way” might be an example of nominative determinism, Tinkley Lane is lane in name only. Busy Thoroughfare might be a better description. Why not get the number 35 that runs Monday to Friday and goes to Nympsfield?
The war memorial has a plaque with an inscription that reveals why it is worth visiting: see below. After making my notes, I had lemonade in the Rose and Crown, a walk around the Roman Catholic Church, and then wandered over to the village football pitch for a think. Whilst pondering, the local team arrived to change and run out for a kick-about before the start of the match. This coincidence of time and space serendipitously and subsequently determined my writing.
The war memorial stands at the cross-roads, right by the road-side, and is attached to the old chapel house. The plaque stands below Christ on a crucifix, with an octagonal base and the names of the fallen. It states:
Haiku for Nympsfield War Memorial
As I write these lines,
The young men of the village
Arrive for the match.

Nympsfield village,
Catholic sanctuary,
High-up on the wolds.

And at the cross-roads,
A sentinel-crucifix
Honouring the dead.

This cross, once shattered,
Lying in some forlorn hope,
Out in No Man’s Land.

Brought here from the Somme,
Repaired and resurrected,
Life and Death conjoined.

Last gasp on a fag,
Then it’s out over the top,
Ref blows the whistle.

The laughter of youth,
Innocent carefree minutes –
Who would think of war?

Just as once before,
Those memorialised names
Played, too, in the sun.

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