Lamplight, Wessex Heights.
Ours is a literary landscape, like much of Britain. The land has a pull on us and often, the most enduring way to express that is through words, conserving or farming it; planting woods, naming fields, woods and recording it on maps. I spoke recently at The Museum of English Rural Life with Robert McDowall, recently president of The Folklore Society, as part of a series of seminars on Land and Folk. I love The MERL deeply. It houses things I feel inextricably at home with.
We spoke about William Cobbett (1763-1835): Journalist, Politician and Farmer, his Rural Rides has never been out of print. I also read from the book I’m writing. Cobbett knew the villages & country estates here well. Were he riding around now, I like to think he’d interview me and my family. There are things he’d recognise, love & abhor. I think he would still see the aftershocks of agricultural revolution & enclosure. Cobbett was a complicated, contradictory, opinionated man. He hated the ‘game-preserves’ of grand estates and the privations caused by enclosure and land ownership which in effect had made rural labourers slaves, denying them the sustaining traditions of gleaning, commoning, gathering and working for a fair wage. He rode to see for himself the lives of the common man, woman and child, avoiding the detested turnpikes and gentrified smoothed roads. He chronicled, wrote and ‘harangued’ his way around his beloved countryside, acting as a kind of roving representative, rallier and spokesperson of a changing English countryside, often sleeping on the road even into his sixties, and giving away whatever budget he had left after meals – to those who needed it.
After our talk, The MERL’s Curator, Ollie Douglas, showed me a new exhibit – a glass case containing the clothes worn by Newbury Bypass protestor, Jim Hindle with the book he wrote about the protests, Nine Miles. It is as if he is standing there. His clothes do not look out of place.
Back home, I’m up on the downs: most afternoons, some evenings, a night. There are small revelations: a tiny grass snake, scooped from the road by a kestrel. A creature that has lived its short life hugging the earth, but, in its last seconds, is dangled 1,000ft above it, below the flared fan of the kestrel’s tail. In strong winds, rain blows up the escarpment like a reverse waterfall, hitting my chin first and running up the sleeves of my coat. Hundreds of jackdaws form a huge, diamond-shaped squadron in it, whilst others rise and fall as a curtained backdrop, through the updraft. The first fieldfare to arrive rise from a puddle, their bullfinch-grey bottoms and cream eyestripes reminding me of the season with a jolt, like a half-forgotten memory emerging. Another day I step up rabbit holes and soil rolls into a blue sky and hear the bellow of a fallow buck, and the clash of mighty antlers.
I am drawn to the hill one rainy night. The wind rocks the car and I get out. No lights are visible in the valley tonight. No one is here. Yet along the old drove track a light – a mellow, flickering glow – bobs. I follow for a while, wondering what it is. Not a torch. A will- o’the-wisp? An owl light? It bobs rhythmically as if carried by a hand; a lamp swung backwards and forwards before disappearing near the dewpond. The hint of shapes. I hurry back to my car, wondering quite what I’m doing.
On National Poetry Day, I came across (via the wonderful @JanesKintbury on Twitter) a poem written by Thomas Hardy in 1896 that I did not know.
There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, and at crises when I stand,
Say, on Ingpen Beacon eastward, or on Wylls-Neck westwardly,
I seem where I was before my birth, and after death may be.
Poems tend to find you when you are most in need of them. I knew our hill, Inkpen Beacon and its gibbet featured in Hardy’s map of Wessex, along with Kennetbridge (either Newbury or Hungerford) and I knew that Jude Fawley’s Marygreen is in fact, Fawley, home to Hardy’s grandmother and Aldbrickham is Reading with its beautiful red-brick buildings, designed by The Natural History Museum’s architect Alfred Waterhouse; one of which now houses The MERL.
But the poem resonated deeply. I felt it up there, where Hardy once felt those things on more than one occasion and wrote about them; haunted and running from the ghosts the poem explores. ‘Mind-chains do not clank when one’s next neighbour is the sky’.
We are tied in to the landscape, though we may come and go like birds.
We are more weather pattern and environment than we know; the water in our bodies perhaps last March’s snowfall, distilled in the dewpond, vaporised into summer lightning. We are the smell of the earth after rain, the frost on the windscreen, sunshine, grass. The landscape is in us. Another poem: Norman McCaig’s A Man in Assynt speaks of a place far from here as ‘a frieze and a litany’ with the sentiments I feel:
Who owns this landscape?
Has owning anything to do with love?
For it and I have a love-affair, so nearly human
we even have quarrels.
Which takes me, full circle back to William Cobbett. I would’ve liked to have met him. It would have been a squeeze in our Dairyman’s cottage where my children share a room – but we could have housed and fed his horse. I think, even after some 180 years, he would have recognised much. I know Hardy would have done too. I wonder, if we’d met, would we have spoken?