Ronald Blythe recalls cycle rides as a boy, splashing through puddles
IT IS six in the morning. It is still dark, and raining steadily. The horses will be huddled beneath the tall hedge, their coats shining; the cats will be fast asleep in each other’s paws; the birds will be silent.
Yesterday, an old friend and I paid our ritual visit to Arger Fen, driving through the water-splash: many years ago, some tidy person wanted to put it under the lane, but we wouldn’t allow it. It would have washed away so many exploits, such as cycling through it at full speed with our legs in the air. There is a poem in an early edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, “Going Down Hill on a Bicycle” by a long-forgotten poet, Henry Charles Beeching. “With lifted feet, hands still, I am poised, and down the hill Dart . . . Alas, that the longest hill must end in a vale.”
My friend takes his time in the car so as to watch his eight acres of bluebell wood, which we are passing. We talk about Dr Grace Griffiths, a saint in our Suffolk calendar, and how she cared for the poor in those years between the wars. She never remembered their names. So it was “Father”, or “Mother”, or “Little ones”.
She had married a Welshman back in Suffolk, and she would take shelter from his complaints at Arger Fen, in her caravan, watching the uncomplaining birds and hares while her husband went to the pub.
There were nightingales at Arger Fen, besides bluebells, signs of brickmaking, and tumbling old trees, and also the sound of hidden rooks. And blackberries in season; and bluebells, which we tied to our bikes in vast bunches, leaving a trail of them along the road.
All these activities flashed briefly through the car windscreen, and we said the same things we always said when we came to Arger Fen. Naturalists tell us that it’s a fragment of the wild wood which once covered all of England. When its ancient oaks were brought low in the 1987 gale, they were left to lie in the ferns to feed the earth.
The Wild Flower Society has sent me its beautiful magazine. I once listed all the species which grew on my two acres of old farm. Mary and I also collected bog plants in Scotland, identifying them in Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica. I took him to Arger Fen — I took all my friends to that boyhood spot, and listened to its streams as they filtered to the river.
Tomorrow, I must make a start on the water which finds its way into the farmhouse: a yearly task, for which I wear deplorable old clothes. What I notice now is the lack of walkers. I rarely hear the sound of feet. No more the cheerful passing talk, when people called out “Rather you than me” as they passed. But the local hunt has sent me its programme so that I can keep the cats in. They would tremble in my arms with atavistic fears.
It will soon be time for the Wild Flower Society’s Autumn Week Hunt, and I will think of our Scottish holidays long ago, and I will open the photograph albums that Christopher gave me when we were much younger, and very nearly immortal.
Behind us is the big house, and, inside, our flowers will be identified on the table while dinner is on the way. We are midway between the Highlands and Lowlands, and the scent of heather is everywhere, and the deer will be leaping over the deer gates in joyful defiance of our fences. There will be a shelf of ancient Scottish guide-books to pore over, and the loch will remind me of a Palestinian lake where Jesus taught his gospel, and an erratic sea which could not be taken for granted.
In church, we sing Eleanor Farjeon’s morning hymn “Morning has broken”:
Sweet the rain’s new fall
Sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall
On the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness
Where his feet pass.
The relic of a long-dead archbishop proved useful to a young Ronald Blythe
SO HULL proclaims itself a city of culture. But how could it not be? Every city is a city of culture; every town a town of culture; every village a village of culture. How could they not be? I do not know who started these self-appointed accolades. When I was a boy, every entrance to my town, Sudbury, Suffolk, had huge blue enamel signs which, besides much else, told the visitor that Gainsborough was born there, and that the head of an Archbishop of Canterbury could be seen by the fortunate traveller.
His name was Simon Theobald, and he had been decapitated by Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt. Archbishop Simon’s head was kept behind a glass window in St Gregory’s, and, as choirboys, we combed Brylcreem into our hair before it, as it made a nice mirror.
Archbishop Simon was rarely still, being what would now be called the Chancellor of the Exchequer, besides being a priest, and he was a great traveller. He went to Italy and met Boccaccio, of all people.
I knew all this when I tied my choirboy’s starched ruff in the mirror made by his skull. Someone had varnished it long ago, and given it a yellow shine, but had left a few hairs. It was all sockets, and I imagined pale Suffolk eyes and a priest’s bald patch — and rather fine features, perhaps, to be seen in palaces, but last seen in the
chapel of the Tower of London, and with a terrified look as he sat in his cell.
Who brought his head to Suffolk? Some relic establisher? Some member of an oratory he founded in his home town, hoping for pilgrims? And why, unlike St Thomas of Canterbury, did not a bejewelled shrine arise?
The enamelled sign on the entrance to the town, which went many years ago, did not tell the traveller anything about the Archbishop’s martyrdom. Why did it fail to attract pilgrims, as in Bury St Edmunds? Perhaps it did, although all that is left of his existence is his stall in the choir at St Gregory’s, and his skull.
The stall is on its original hinges, and comes up with a slam to reveal a perch for the Archbishop’s bottom during long prayers — and his carved dog. This dog is now transferred to the town flag, and flies above the town hall, whereas its owner’s countenance was visible only in my imagination. But this is the bone that carried the features to Paris and Rome, to courts and palaces. Somebody took the Archbishop’s dog as his emblem, and the carving of it can be seen under the miserere choirstall where he sat.
Coming downstairs, my two cats look rather as though they came from under a seat somewhere. One is named Alice, after the girl in Wonderland, and she sees life through golden eyes, and spends her nine lives perfectly idle, doing nothing as a way of perfection — not unlike that of the saints.
Dame Julian of Norwich lived with a cat, and was taught many important things by it, and I am my cats’ pupil, to a degree. They have taught me to be quiet and idle sometimes, not to be always busy; so I look out of the window at the early autumn, and a rainbow suddenly appears, although there is no rain, and a leaf floats down past the window. The seasons are about to change, but nothing happens. Everything is quiet, really.
We have a harvest festival, something started by Parson Hawker, in Cornwall; and now our food is given — to my amazement, since I have not seen it myself — to people in towns near by who go to foodbanks. It seems extraordinary these days that such things appear. People have to pay enormous rents, which is possibly why they’re so poor and have to have our food.
I am given a vast home-made cake by the farmer’s wife, and put it in the deep freeze for Christmas.
And so country life continues in this strange mixture of the past and the present, and nothing much happens. Flowers — cyclamen and primroses — bloom in the garden, waiting for the spring.
Ronald Blythe thinks of a Hardy novel, and of walks on Cornish cliffs
NEXT Sunday is harvest evensong, the churchwarden Meriel says. I must tell my old farmhouse. There is so little to remind it of its ancient purpose: the barns, the stackyard, the threshing floor. Just my garden and the tall ash trees which were once worshipped in Suffolk. But the church will be full of sheaves and fruit, fat vegetables, and generous gifts for poor folk in Colchester. Some of them hardly know how to exist in our economy. As for the fields, which face me, they feed horses for the most part. I see idle animals silhouetted at first light; then in full sight the morning sun shines on them.
When I was a boy, Father and I would tramp over stubble fields to his village church, where it was often hard to get a seat for harvest festival, then called harvest thanksgiving.
And I think of Parson Hawker, of Morwenstow, in Cornwall, who invented it, in a sense. Among much else which brought the faith to his wild parish, he suppressed the bacchanalian goings-on in the barns, and replaced the traditional harvest home with Christian gratitude for the fruits of the earth. Which nobody liked.
Maybe we shall see him in Poldark. His flowing blonde hair and nudity in the sea turned him into a merman where the locals were concerned. He was a wonderful poet, and an authoritarian priest who hoped to put a stop to wrecking, the cruel business of luring ships on to rocks and killing their crews in order to steal their rings.
Parson Hawker’s treatment of drowned sailors was to give them Christian burial in his churchyard and to make his parishioners come to the funerals. He wrote much debatable folk history, and also the ballad “The Song of the Western Men”, which includes the line “And shall Trelawney die?”
I remember dreaming about him as I walked the dizzy cliffs of north Cornwall once on Christmas Day, when a gale urged me along the narrow cliff paths, with the crashing Atlantic Ocean below me, and the screaming seagulls around me. They were scenes from Thomas Hardy’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, a wonderful book, which I want to re-read.
It contains the original cliff-hanger of fiction, when his heroine’s lover falls over a cliff and she tears her dress into strips so that she can make a rope to haul him to safety. It was serialised — just like Poldark — and readers had to wait a month for the next instalment and to find out whether the young man from London would escape death. He is a bourgeois prig: he is shocked to see his sweetheart’s body through the drenched skirts.
A Pair of Blue Eyes was Proust’s favourite Hardy novel. Hardy met his first wife in Cornwall. When she died, in 1912, he returned there for the first time to write some of the finest love poetry in the language.
Our harvest festival has taken me a great distance from the Stour Valley. It is what great local poets do to landscape — take you out of your own territory into theirs. Gazing at this border, I can hear the Atlantic at Land’s End.
It is Trinity 19: “The long long Sundays after Trinity . . . neither feast-day nor fast”. They are spacious, however, and they invite a wide vision, while that on TV is a horribly narrow one at this moment. Syria. Bombed hospitals. The sufferings of children. All of it cold-blooded and useless. How strange it is that we should keep our balance from whatever it is that prevents us from despair. The Psalms, all 150 of them, do this with their strong lessons on joy and hate. They were the Lord’s hymn-book, and how amazing it is to hear him singing, as so many did, as well as talking, especially on a warm English October afternoon, when there is no birdsong or wind to carry the Lord’s song to me, across the years.
The changing season leads Ronald Blythe to think of two artists
THERE are degrees of summer passing and of autumn arriving, subtle though they can be. Walking in the garden early, there are a few fresh leaves on the grass, but, at the same time, a promising warmth. I remember that it is a quarter day, when farm rents were paid. Quarter days, as they were called, were fixed in 1480. They are: Lady Day (25 March), Midsummer (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September), and Christmas (25 December).
They talk of Michaelmas daisies, and I remember their tall show in Cambridge college gardens, their shades of blue and their great height — and I think for the first time how strange it is that there are no Michaelmas daisies here. Next year!
Peter is edging the stone path. I hear a scuttling of rabbits, and feel the cold inside my shirt. Someone has sent me a packet of Victorian drawings of our village, thinking they could be by John Nash, who lived in my house; but they were made before he was born.
He came here, his wife said, because of the different soils in the two-acre garden. It meant that he could grow all kinds of things, but she wondered how she could exist in an ancient house through which a stream made its way to a pond, while her husband exulted in the abandoned orchards and forsaken beds. He was an official Second World War artist at that time, in Scotland, and she was running a canteen for the troops.
He would eventually cut out a palette-shaped flowerbed here, and she would cycle to and fro from Colchester to scrub brick floors, persuade men — including German prisoners of war — to decorate Tudor rooms, banish rats, and hang curtains. The result was what one might call “Eric Ravilious”: he was a young friend of theirs. Stationed in Iceland, one day he flew away, never to be seen again. He was 39. His witty drawings are performing at this moment.
This unemphatic September afternoon would have matched his watercolours. When he vanished from Iceland, and the dreaded telegram arrived, Christine Nash cycled nearly 20 miles to comfort his widow. It was a fragile world, costing little in pounds, shillings, and pence, and everything in love and friendship. A Ravilious drawing, meticulous in its brushwork and vision, describes it perfectly.
As a boy, I remember cleaning paraffin lamps and stoves — not to mention ashtrays, because they all smoked. I never did, and not for any moral or health reasons. It never occurred to me to do so.
September spiders climb the bathroom pipes. One is marooned in a vast enamel universe at this moment. I take them into the garden, where they run off in what seems to me an insect exultancy. The cat sisters are almost too beautiful to describe; they keep each other warm.
I find a lesson for matins. Jesus asked the Pharisees “What do you think of Christ? Whose son is he?” They answered, “David’s”. After this, “neither durst any [man] from that day forth ask him any more”. We sang “God is our hope and strength,” and our blackbirds flock south.
Ronald Blythe considers a young map maker who recorded country houses
ROBERT MORDEN was 32 when he published his map of Suffolk. It was covered with a rash of green spots, i.e. the parks of the nobility and gentry. There was no other geographic information. No windmills, no herring boats being blown along by Zephyrus, and certainly no farms. Morden was an ambitious young geographer who was aiming his map at the country house, where such industries had to be beyond the pale. Or out of sight.
Not long after abbeys and priories became palaces, a process of emparadising began, which walled, or fenced off, farming, and the peasantry in general. There was no rough husbandry in the Garden of Eden, just fruit trees and seed-bearing herbs, and a lovely river (the Euphrates). God walked in it during the evening to chat with his highest creation, Adam.
In parks or enclosed, “country house” was a word first used in 1535. To call this house “a seat” first appeared in 1607. Such dwellings became rural hubs of taste and learning, and rural power-bases. Park fences and brick walls ran for miles round them; a Suffolk feature is the serpentine, or crinkle-crankle wall.
Fanciful lodges and gates flaring with heraldry permitted entrance to wonderful horticulture, architecture, music, “society”, local government, and often the parish church itself, this having occupied the holy place since the Saxons cleared the wood to make the first field; and it would still be adjacent to the mansion which occupied the site of the wooden halls.
Most of Morden’s worlds remain in situ, although searching for a few of them would lead to the ghostly grandeur of forsaken gardens and owl-visited ruins, such as the incomparably sad Houghton House, in Bedfordshire, which was said to be John Bunyan’s “House Beautiful”. One finds them by the straight lines of airfields from the Second World War, these telltale fragments of pride driving into the concrete runways.
At Stoke by Nayland, which I glimpse through a framework of oaks as I walk down my farm track, and all of five miles distant, the medieval park remains, but its hall has vanished. The youthful John Constable passed these miles of fencing many times. The gamekeepers were instructed to “Pray permit Mr Constable to draw the trees.”
The hall-owners commissioned Constable to paint portraits of their houses, and were angry when he included farm animals. His landscapes, with their agricultural content, were too “low” for a gentleman’s drawing-room, and were not bought. Having spent a fortune keeping the village out of sight, one was hardly likely to hang views of it on one’s walls. A student of agriculture, however, might equally find a Constable questionable, because it was often emparadising what was happening to the workaday countryside, which was at that moment in starvation and ferment.
And yet the great artist was not deceitful; as a boy, he had witnessed farming harmony and prosperity in the Stour Valley, and his work was a declaration of how things should be. He watched the park-owners run away to their town houses for safety because the haystacks were being fired and the labourers were starving.
The map-maker’s green rings are confident. They declare park rule and park civilisation. They cluster, for the most part, in west Suffolk, and the Blything, a hundred miles to the north of the county, and great stretches of Suffolk, are parkless. The oddest thing about Morden’s map is that many place names are printed as they are pronounced, not as they are now spelt: Laneham for Lavenham, for example.
Park walls are an architecture in themselves, and a vast undertaking. There are still lots of them to walk around, both inside and out. Plants, insects, birds, creatures of every kind occupy them like an abandoned city.
My stackyard was walled in to stop the animals from getting out. A few yards of it remain, and here and there is a stout buttress supporting hanks of ivy. Tall nettles green the mortar. I quarry it for rubble for handmade edging bricks for the garden. Our squire’s hall is on high ground, and is sheltered by trees. Constable’s Uncle Abram rented it for many years. Our churchyard wall leans out — owing, they say here, “to the dead having a stretch”.
Ronald Blythe attempts to get some work done, in spite of the sunshine
I HAVE always, to some extent, responded to Shakespeare’s answer to the work ethic — only such a description of toil did not exist in his day. “Who doth ambition shun And loves to live i’ in the sun. . .” “And turn his merry note Unto the sweet bird’s throat.” A songthrush’s throat? A robin’s throat?
I do, indeed, love to live in the sun, especially in this wonderful September weather. But it plays havoc with my writer’s discipline, such as it is. It has just growed, like Topsy, without plan or purpose, the words putting themselves in order on the page. Behind them, keeping them straight, are the day’s demands: the liturgy, the shopping list, the delayed answers to often wonderful letters, and fragments of songs.
One of the latter is a little hunting song which we sang as children, and which might suit a neighbour who has called to tell me about the October meet. Absolutely against blood sports as I am, I can hardly grow indignant about today’s rituals. But, given the autumn dates, I make a note to keep the cats in. Bloodless as these hunts will be, a shiver runs through the valley when the bugle sounds, and the neighbours, clad in pink, and 40 or so horses and as many hounds pour down the farm track.
Andrew is scything the orchard, his blade cutting its way under the fruit trees, and he himself tall and elegant beneath the plums. In orchard terms, you get some and you lose some. There are fewer neighbours than there used to be, calling out things such as “Rather you than me.” Passing strangers always feel the need to be witty about ordinary things. But their gardens are immaculate, and their season tickets at the station are astronomical; whereas I haven’t taken a train for ages.
The rail journey is better for me, more enchanting: Paddington to Padstow, the joy of it. This is the line that Betjeman immortalised. Comfortable under his pork-pie hat, he sang the miles to Cornwall.
I travelled for Christmas rail journeys in the holidays, and, on September days like this, it is good to stay on the Suffolk border. Suddenly, the west country would run out, and princely Cornwall would declare itself. When old friends go to heaven, and rail tickets for them cease to be valid, the long journeys are cut out of our diaries.
Their repetition was part of the excitement. The other day, I thought how odd it was to take the train to St Ives with no one waiting. Ages ago, my hosts were clad in duffle coats waiting for me. They were as anxious to know about Suffolk as I was about Bodmin Moor. On Sunday, I was taken to the early service in a slate church with damp hymn-books. And all this long before Poldark.
My friends would boast of warm Februarys in Cornwall, but I found them chilly, with drizzle. On Boxing Day, we had wine with Malcolm Arnold, plus a foot-long pie. And between these festivities I would walk on the dizzy headlands, thinking of Thomas Hardy.
He met his wife in Cornwall when he was repairing old churches, and, when she died in 1912, after what most of his world called “an uncertain marriage”, he wrote the marvellous poems which we all read with awe. If nothing else, they describe the unexpected nature of love.
Once, on a picnic in Cornwall, this extraordinary couple lost a picnic glass in a Cornish stream. Once I put my hand in this stream, half believing that it would fall into my hands. But it did not, and it is there to this day. No sooner do I imagine Hardy than I love to read him all over again, to enter his universe and be caught up in his language. He was criticised for abandoning the conventional church services of his day, but just read his Winter Words. Remembering that Hardy came to Suffolk, Benjamin Britten set these winter words to music. It was a marriage of Suffolk and Dorset.
Ronald Blythe recalls feeling cold as a youth, on a visit to Aldeburgh
WE DRIVE to Aldeburgh. The weather is like the Ephesians: neither hot nor cold. I show my friends three graves in the churchyard — Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and Imogen Holst. There they lie, close in death.
The sea flashes through the gothic porch and on to the house where M. R. James, the author of our greatest ghost story, “Oh, whistle, and I’ll come to you,” lived. I passed it every day in my youth — a fine marine residence, as such Aldeburgh mansions were called. The church is scintillatingly clean, all polished and shining. There is a lovely memorial window by John Piper for Benjamin Britten, and any number of lichened stones for drowned fishermen. Long ago, they lit bonfires on the tower to guide sailors home.
We have fish and chips in the pub where I sat by the fire in the winter, writing short stories. The shingle rattles outside. I wore a duffle coat and several yards of knitted scarf when I walked on the marsh paths. Should I meet Ben, it was etiquette not to speak, because he was at work, music filling his head. Ditto with Imogen Holst, who was orchestrating this music as she lunched at the Cragg Sisters Tearoom for 3s. 6d. Writers rarely forget the economy of their beginnings.
Laurens van der Post wrote his books in the lookout tower. The only warm house in Aldeburgh belonged to that wonderful photographer Kurt Hutton, where European standards prevailed. It is odd how the cold of one’s early years blows through one’s memory. I’m never cold, now.
Off to church, where I see the cyclamen in its full white blossom under the tall holly tree. Cyclamen always makes me think of the flowers that D. H. Lawrence released from gardening and set free to fill the human soul. It does this in many churchyards. Its lesson to me is not to miss anything; to keep my eye to the ground as well as to the past, and to the future.
It is time to tidy the back of the house, which stands in a waterless moat and has a famous catslide roof made of pantiles, and many tottering roses below in which, in that rich mulch, one might almost trace the birth of next spring’s flowers. The ancient horse ponds, too, are both gathering this year’s debris and next year’s bloom. My song thrushes are now fully established as duettists, never missing a note. A neighbour comes to warn me of the October hunt: a ritual that scares everything, but destroys nothing.
At matins, I preach on gardening, beginning with Mr Middleton, the radio gardener. The bookshelves burst at the seams, although, with George Nicholson’s wonderful Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening, 1889, there really is no need to add any further volumes. I wish I had thought of it for my Desert Island Discs, instead of Boswell. It has glorious colour-plates protected with tissue, and, together with Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, makes all the rest of garden writing obsolete — although who can say this, when gardeners yet unknown may be as wonderful with a pen as with a spade.
Philosophy and faith come into it. Voltaire’s advice to “cultivate your garden” is never more needed in our world: one that so often seeks to destroy the human spirit. Or so it seems.
Did Christ sometimes visit a non-tragic Gethsemane — a cultivated spot where the flowers and olives were a pleasure, and his family and friends sat in their shade? In that green masterpiece Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich makes the Lord a gardener.