Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Ashleworth, Spring and Ivor Gurney

I have been fruitlessly trying to get hold of a copy of Edward Thomas’ ‘In Pursuit of Spring’ for some while, but that failure didn’t matter in the least today, at the end of April, when I walked around Ashleworth, following in the footsteps of Ivor Gurney. The sky, the land and the river all put on such a show, that it seemed as though I followed a perfect dream of spring; there was no need to pursue.
The blackthorn blossom, smoky and dusty in cloudscape shadow, dazzled the eye with its brilliant whiteness as the morning progressed. The Severn, too, changed from a dark, sullen, turbid force to a gentle ‘ water’s canvas’ where ‘ bright sunshine paints the picture of the day.’ The hawthorn hedgerows grew ever greener; the haze on the Malverns drifted towards some blue remembered hills, whilst Barrow Hill stood sentinel, as I walked upstream, with the Cotswolds to my right, way beyond the waters.
I didn’t see a sinner for about three hours: just parliaments of rooks; a pair of ducks taking off to destinations known only to themselves; the occasional hawk; a robin; then my first swallow of the spring, sweeping over the Severn’s surface. I even heard my first cuckoo in years, and then glanced up from the newspaper to see a swan gliding along, for all the world, just like a Viking longboat.
I don’t know if the Vikings came here but the Saxons certainly left their herring bone stonework in the church; but it is the medieval that predominates in Ashleworth: the barn; the manor house; the preaching cross; the quay, down by the pub called ‘The Boat’. The quay reminds us of how riverine transport was a darn sight easier before the age of turnpike roads and railways; equally, many of the footpaths here move in Euclidean straight lines, from village to village – unlike the constantly curving lanes and roadways.
The village post office did not have a Victorian postbox such as I saw in Hasfield, but it did have a collection box for food, ‘The Lord’s Larder’, as did St.Mary’s in Hasfield. These food parcels are for needy families in the area, coordinated by St. Mary’s in Newent. Sometimes, modernity still shocks. I used to associate Christian charity with what was once called ‘The Third World’; it is a surprise to find such alliterative support now so localised. We are, of course, all in this together.
Any road, the walk from The Haw and Hasfield down to Ashleworth was as delightful as the stroll out along the Severn’s banks: cow parsley; my first sighting of bluebells; pear and apple trees in blossom and the thought of my walking in Ivor Gurney’s wake. The only traffic I saw in the five minutes I spent waiting for the ‘bus at the crossroads in Ashleworth was a girl on a horse. I read Gurney’s poem ‘Above Ashleworth’ on the journey back to Gloucester. How much more meaning it now had, after walking the landscape.

O does some blind fool now stand on my hill
To see how Ashleworth nestles by the river?
Where eyes and heart and soul may drink their fill
The Cotswolds range out Eastward as if never
A curve of them the hand of Time might change;
Beauty sleeps most confidently for ever.
The blind fool stands, his dull eyes free to range
Endlessly almost, and finds no words to say,
Not that the sense of wonder is too strange
Too great for speech. Naught touches him; the day
Blows its glad trumpets, breathes rich-odoured breath;
Glory after glory passes away.
(And I’m in France!) He looks and sees beneath
The clouds in steady Severn silver and grey.
But dead he is, and comfortable in Death.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Searching for the Source of the Frome

This is, at this very moment of writing these words, a virtual exploration of the source of the River Frome. It will eventually become real, booted and begrimed, but until I get my head around Cotswold Green's rickety-rackety 'bus timetables, this riverine search takes place on the laptop on the kitchen table, rather than on (or is it in?) a water table. I know I have to get up to Nettleton, near Birdlip, and Climperwell Farm, near Brimpsfield: what watery poetry is contained within these names! Two groups of springs issuing forth in 'Nettle-ton' and 'Climper-well', near 'Brim-(p)sfield'.
These two trickling lines join together at Caudle Green, near Miserden, where the water is honoured with the name, 'Frome'. For some, 'Frome' is derived from the Celtic river-word, 'fram'; this certainly seems to make sense along what was once also called the Stroudwater, with Frampton, Framilode, Fraherne and so on. Do we walk this river in the company of shadowy, dripping and muddied dark-age ghosts?
Whatever. But it is certainly a beguilingly deceptive river as it drops down to Sapperton, disappearing, as it does, at times. No wonder King George 3rd became confused in 1788, when he started talking to trees. It was probably his visit that year to the canal tunnel wot done it: where's that river gone? It was here a minute ago.
But we are more interested in the origins of this river - its first cause, as it were; its ability to spring from nothing in a sort of duck and egg conundrum. I know that geology and hydrology help explain the pattern of springs; I understand that gravity and scientific laws explain why water flows in the direction it does. But, at the same time, isn't there something magical, alchemical and beyond imagination about it all? The John Keats as well as Isaac Newton trope sort of thing; I'm not invoking a deity - just metaphorically standing jaw-dropped at the is-ness of it all.
For there we have the confluence of two springs, determined by the shape and content of sky and landscape, dropping down to Caudle Green. Here on a delicately balanced watershed, on the finest of lines, gravity's scales of justice direct some water west via the Frome, to the Severn and the Bristol Channel; other droplets drift eastwards via the Churn to Cricklade, then on to the Great Wen and the English Channel. Conjoined droplets of water, slipping apart to opposite points of the compass, yet still conjoined by history and language: the Celtic 'fra', denoting a 'brisk' river; the Celtic 'chwern', indicating a 'swift' flow.
When I was a child, a popular junior school essay was 'A Day in the Life of a Penny'; what about, instead, 'A Tale of Two Oozes'?

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Church Walk

It was a sunny enough April day but the chafing easterly wind cut your cheeks to shreds. People in the streets of Stroud had donned hats of every shape, size and elevation, in the forlorn hope of keeping heads and ears warm, but their faces bore the tell-tale brunt and burden. Everyone was wondering when spring would finally and decisively take its place amongst us – or would this bitter winter defiantly and continuously persist?
But as the day progressed and the sun rose higher in the sky, so the patches of blue grew ever wider, and the clouds changed shape to ‘traveller’s joy’. Snowdrops were still abundant, but primrose, violets and even a solitary cowslip reminded us of how Spring will, every year, eventually hammer the final nails into Winter’s coffin.
And so it proved, as we walked out from Arts and Crafts Sapperton to St. Mary’s at Edgeworth. This is a church well worth a visit. The path takes you past Pinbury Park, once the home of John Masefield, then through hollow-ways, green lanes and four-ways-went. There is a distinct DMV vibe about the rolling greensward here; so many paths intersecting in the middle of nowhere; big sky country with the occasional big ploughed open field; the ghosts of medieval peasants turning up the stones: “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”
The contentment continued at St. Mary’s: a carved Saxon stone in the porch; a stained glass window from betwixt the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt; a local cured of leprosy at Canterbury through the Thomas a Beckett cult; pews marked ‘Manor’ at the front of the nave with ‘Cottagers’ at the back; a plethora of 17th century gravestones and a wooden seat in the sun. What more could you ask for?
Only to visit this place again. The village is ‘said to be the most remote in the Cotswolds’; it is about 8 miles from Stroud and 8 from Cirencester. This makes the church feel even more adrift in time and space – but death linked even this isolated village with the Bay of Bengal and also with the Great War. The Empire and the European Balance of Power are present even here, with melancholic inscriptions, in this wind-blown graveyard, high up on the wolds.
Also present were memories of our recent trip to Cusop, near Hay on Wye. There we had linked arms around thousand year old yews: it took 6 adults to encircle one of those venerable trunks. That worked out according to my rough mathematical arboreal abacus at about 160 years per adult. We had also looked at the 12th century frescoes at Kempley, near Dymock, the day before. 5 adults did the trick there. It seems as though we may have a ready reckoner similar to the hedgerow calibrator - I’m sure you know about the old adage of 100 years for each species of tree or shrub in a 30 metre stretch of country hedgerow.
We returned to Sapperton via the Daneway: as good a pub as you can find on as good a walk as you can make. Tea and beer were taken before walking along the canal, the vanishing Frome and through the field where the horses and donkeys were led as the bargees legged it through the tunnel. Perhaps King George 3rd became as perplexed as we did about the whereabouts of the Frome, when he visited here in his annus horribilis of 1788, and so began to first lose his mind.
But it was near here that my aunt and father used to play when they moved to Frampton Mansell after the First World War. This was one of their favourite spots. My Auntie Kath wrote the following poem some 50 to 60 years later.
For My Brother

When we were young and full of fun
And all our days were carefree,
Do you remember that September
We climbed the old pear tree?

The finest crop grows at the top,
That bramble jam we ate,
Our mother made and carefully laid
On shelves with name and date.

We took a stick and went to pick
The biggest blackest berries,
Pulling down to near the ground
Clusters hung like cherries.

Remember the gate where we used to wait
For the early morning light,
To show in the field the wonderful yield
Of mushrooms, gleaming white.

The nuts we found so full and round,
And filberts too, so rare,
That lovely autumn on Sapperton Common,
What joy we used to share.

Wild harvest brings a host of things,
Mushrooms, nuts and fruit,
But best of all, with every fall,
Comes memory, absolute.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013


I was out on the allotment about 6 o’clock in late March, thinking about our walk the evening before. We had wandered out, in the gloaming, to a 17th century secluded Quaker burial ground and returned in a gathering owl-light. It was easy to imagine Quaker candles flickering in draughty casements, as the western gleams grew ever fainter in the vast sky-scape.
I had just read Richard Mabey’s “Turned Out Nice Again” before leaving for our Painswick ramble and we talked about his reference to Coleridge’s ‘Playbills’ notion: ‘announcing each day the performance by his supreme Majesty’s Servants, the Clouds, Waters, Sun, Moon, Stars.’ I mentioned that I thought that my own sensibility and susceptibility to the impact of the intrinsic beauty of the sky, in daylight, appeared to be more acute at this time of the year and just before dusk.
These memories returned to me the next evening on the plot, as I leaned on my fork and gazed westwards. The tracery of the branches of the trees and the silhouettes of the chimney stacks all added to the wistful feeling of a lingering spring transition from sombre afternoon to mournful evening. At this point, I began to find it easier to recreate the lives of those 17th century radicals we had visited the day before than I had when in situ, the day before. My imagination was belatedly vivid. This was odd. Why?
The time of the day was one factor– fading light stimulates the flight of fancy. But that hadn’t happened the evening before, so what was different today? My musing led me to the idea that perhaps such historical empathy can be triggered by practical and solitary activities - the same types of daily jobs done by our ancestors for time immemorial. Here I was digging down deep and it was hard graft in inclement weather, not a recreational bit of playing – was this the reason why it was becoming easier to visualise past lives and present revenants?
 Reading, studying and talking, necessary as they are, might just be helped by the occasional bit of solitary hard graft once in a while; spade and fork aid historical imagination. A sort of archaeology of the mind opening the museum doors of perception sort of thing, I suppose. Evening light: dig for memory.

Rolled-sleeve, break-back, pounding chest,
Up here, just below Butterow West;
Where I dig and plant and study and sow,
While neighbours wander to and fro,
Past rusting barrows, ramshackle sheds,
Oil drums, baths and compost beds,
With sticks and string to seed-space measure
For next year’s crops to plot and treasure,
As rain drops drip on mouldering fruit,
And deep-dug spade and couch grass root,
While I look down to canal and town,
And railway shed Great Western brown,
And watch the ghosts of gramp and dad:
“Breathe the air ‘fore it’s breathed on lad”,
By the stretched-out cloth on tenter-hook,
Proud Stroud scarlet where the ghosts just stood,
And feel the past pulse through my veins,
Digging the future, in mist and rain;
A time to come and times past-present,
This is my harvest on Rodborough allotment.