Thursday, 1 September 2016

Cricklade to Lechlade: Time travel by foot and canoe

I arrive at William Cobbett’s rotten borough of Cricklade:
‘I passed through that villainous hole … the labourers look very poor, dwellings little better than pig beds and their food nearly equal to that of a pig. This Wiltshire is a horrible county.’
But last January, Cricklade looked like a Thomas Hardy film set,
A gently rising hill of a quaint and prosperous street,
All purposeful early morning bestirring,
Inns, butchers, bakers and - who knows – candlestick makers,
While beyond the bridge, fritillary water meadows,
With light like pewter - steel grey clouds - shafts of sunlight,
Aspen and willow, silver light on rippling water,
Sepia post card Victorian baptisms at Hatchett’s Bridge;
Today, the first of September,
‘Where are the songs of spring?’ –
Mists from Keats over the river,
Gossamer webs; plump, ripe apples …
Mellow fruitfulness and cider oozing from the presses;

But the trickling Ray wanders down from the Downs,
To offer the Thames its tribute,
And the sunlight trips through time:
Saxon peasants till the harvest fields,
A numinous presence in the mist-lands;
King Cnut crosses the various watercourses,
Crushing the yellowing leaves, slashing the blood red hawthorn.

The wind soughs in the reeds,
As I cross the line of battle, to reach
Castle Eaton’s seeming quietude,
Once the scene of Dark Age carnage:
The clash of sword on sword,
The cries of pain and anguish,
The crimson ground and river,
The runes and riddles of death;
Today, an army of house martins,
Betwixt Mill Lane and the church.

We cross back into Wiltshire,
Along an ancient bridleway’s grassy track,
Dividing two open, brown ploughed fields,
A tractor working its way across the broad expanse,
While cows chew the cud and the barns fill with hay bales.

We walk past ridge and furrow and nettled old thoroughfares
Of the deserted medieval village of Inglesham,
With its 13th century church
(St. John the Baptist, originally Saxon),
Wall paintings guarded by William Morris.

A wave of weeping willow,
Roundhouse on the river,
Confluence of canal and river,
Where I used to swim as a boy,
Mum too in her gilded young days.

Broad, confident river, now,
Girth increased by the Colne and Leach,
Halfpenny Bridge by the old wharves,
Linking the Midlands, the West Country, London,
Hubbub of clanking, scraping, lifting, carrying,
Rattle of toll coins, babel of banter, accent and dialect;
There: iron, copper, wool, cheeses, brass, coal and hides,
Stone for St. Paul’s and Cobbett’s Great Wen,
But over there, in the quiet solemnity of the churchyard,
Shelley composes his summer evening verse:
‘The wind has swept from the wide atmosphere

Each vapour that obscured the sunset's ray,
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair

In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day:

Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,
Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.

They breathe their spells towards the departing day,

Encompassing the earth, air, stars, and sea;

Light, sound, and motion, own the potent sway,
Responding to the charm with its own mystery.
The winds are still, or the dry church-tower grass

Knows not their gentle motions as they pass.

Thou too, aerial pile, whose pinnacles

Point from one shrine like pyramids of fire,
Obey'st  in silence their sweet solemn spells,

Clothing in hues of heaven thy dim and distant spire,

Around whose lessening and invisible height

Gather among the stars the clouds of night.

The dead are sleeping in their sepulchres:

And, mouldering as they sleep, a thrilling sound,

Half sense half thought, among the darkness stirs,

Breathed from their wormy beds all living things around,

And, mingling with the still night and mute sky,

Its awful hush is felt inaudibly.

Thus solemnized and softened, death is mild

And terrorless as this serenest night.

Here could I hope, like some enquiring child

Sporting on graves, that death did hide from human sight

Sweet secrets, or beside its breathless sleep

That loveliest dreams perpetual watch did keep.’
(Shelley, Mary Godwin - future author of Frankenstein - and Thomas Love Peacock were at Lechlade, about to abandon plans to explore the country by river and canal. Shelley had been rusticated from Oxford for writing The Necessity of Atheism; the churchyard plaque doesn’t mention this…)
While Shelley was developing his radical ideas, Allen Davenport had left his Ewen -Thames obscurity behind, and was in the thick of the action in London, as we have already seen. 
Here’s another snippet about Mr. Davenport:
 He penned republican poems,
Would have been part of the 20,000 strong-crowd at Spa Fields in 1816,
Stirred by the speeches of the Watsons:
‘The Land is the People’s Right!’
‘The produce of the land belongs to those who cultivate it’,
‘Will Englishmen any longer suffer themselves to be trod upon, like the poor African slaves in the West Indies, or like clods or stones?’
He might have pinned up some of the 5,000 planned for posters:
The Whole Country waits the Signall from London to fly to Arms! Haste, break open Gunsmiths, and other likely places to find Arms!! Run all Constables who touch a man of Us. No Rise of Bread, No Regent! No Castlereagh. Off with their heads. No Placement Tythes, or Enclosures! No Bishops, only useless lumber! Stand true or be Slaves for Ever!

I met Jim Pentney at Lechlade – he had made the journey by canoe – and I placed Jim’s carving of our Allen Davenport stone from Ewen on the table with our afternoon tea. It was like Livingstone and Stanley: ‘Mr. Pentney, I presume.’
Another stage completed on the journey of the stone to the Reformers’ Memorial at Kensal Green – a very different landscape from the flooded and impassable fields of last January.

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