Tag Archives: Spring

Inklings of Spring

Inklings of Spring Bardic Showcase, Hawkwood College 31 Jan 2015

Inklings of Spring Bardic Showcase, Hawkwood College 31 Jan 2015

Last night I hosted another bardic gathering – this one at Hawkwood College in honour of Imbolc, the Celtic Festival of Spring. This always feels like a particularly poetic time for me because the festival is associated with the goddess Brighde (various spellings; Christianised as St Bridget) – goddess of poetry, smithcraft and healing. And words of healing brightness were certainly forged in the main hall of Hawkwood on Saturday night with a fine array of poets, storytellers and singers.

After I introduced the evening, my partner Chantelle sang a beautiful Manx Gaelic Invocation to St Bridget, sung traditionally on the threshold to welcome her into the hearth. There followed a splendid mix of bardic contributions from some of Stroud and Bath’s finest bards. Peter Adams got us to turn out the lights to do his owl poem, complete with sound FX; Fiona Eadie did a thrilling tale about the Cailleach and Brighid; Robin did a fine nature poem; Kirsten told us about her trip to a Native American reservation; Peter Please recited a scintillating vignette, and his superb ‘fly’ poem; and Marko finished off the first half with the Dick Gaughan classic ‘Both Sides o’ Tweed’.

After the break Jeff Cloves brought the evening back into the 21st Century with his tour-de-force about the bombing of a bookshop in Baghdad; next we had Kirsty Hartsiotis’ fine rendition of St Melangell and the hare; Tim Bannon followed with his mindful and affirming poem; Jehanne and Rob Mehta performed a lovely February song; Gabriel Bradford Millar shared her ‘absinthe-like’ poetry; and then we had some good contributions from the floor (including Katie’s lovely song praising an island off Mull); before finishing impressively with Anthony Nanson’s tales of St Bridget; and Marko’s stirring rendition of ‘The Bright Blue Rose’. All in all it was a beautifully gentle and heart-warming evening – one of a series of events leading up to the Bard of Hawkwood contest. We have a plethora of local talent in Stroud and the Five Valleys, and my hope is that many will step forward to either enter or support the Chair in some way. This is their platform. The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood belongs to its community; and in this day and age I think it is more important than ever to champion (creative and mindful) free speech.


Advertisements

Mad March Hare

Last week saw me jinking about like a Mad March Hare – clocking up around 900 miles on my Triumph Legend motorbike, as I whizzed from the end of the land to the Midlands.

After a pit-stop at my friends in Totnes to break the journey, on Saturday 8th I gave a paper on ‘Borderlands: fairy and liminality in the Scottish Borders’ at the Haunted Landcapes Symposium, Falmouth University. The paper relates to my current research project – I can say no more than that! The Symposium was very stimulating with some excellent papers – notably Prof. Ronald Hutton’s keynote speech on the ‘Greenwood’. After a late night, very early start and several hours of panels, my mind felt as though it had run the London Marathon, so it was a pleasant contrast to ride over to Plymouth afterwards and hang out with my old school buddy, Lee Auburn, who is now a manager of Waterstones and budding writer himself. The next morning we went for a greasy breakfast down at Cap’n Jaspers on the Hoe, before I hit the road. I caught some rays down at Wembury Point – the sun glinting off the bay – before heading over the lonely roads of Dartmoor, the wide open spaces reminding me of Scotland.

It was good to get back, but I had another big day to prepare for…

On Tuesday I set off early to get to Northampton – for I was booked to run a morning of storytelling workshops in my old Middle School, Delapre. I hadn’t been back since I left, in July 1982 – so it was incredibly special to return there as a visiting author and professional storyteller. The classrooms and corridors were as I remember them – there was even one of the teachers still there! My hostess was Yr 5 teacher Anna Letts, who is the daughter of Mr Letts, the Deputy Head during my time. Her pupils are working on a Robin Hood project at the moment, so she was keen for me to focus on relevant stories. It just so happened there was one in my Northamptonshire Folk Tales book (Robyne Hode of Rockingham). I performed a couple of tales in Assembly (held in my old art room – where my imagination was kindled) before the whole year group, before running my Climbing the Beanstalk workshop in the respective classes. I ran one of these in my actual old classroom – which was a poignant experience. The kids were attentive and enthusiastic – and it was so satisfying to see them stand up at the end of only one hour and perform the story back to me without a text.  The morning went all too quickly. I left on a high – what a precious opportunity. The next day I got this lovely message from Ms Letts:

Hi Kevan

Thanks so much for your visit last week, the children enjoyed it and I certainly learnt a lot, I”ll be using the beanstalking technique in future.

I’ve written a blog post, so have a few of the children:

http://year5l.delapreprimaryschool.org/

http://year5t.delapreprimaryschool.org/

 So, from doctorate research paper to a Primary School workshop (and teaching undergrads and evening classes inbetween) – I love the diversity of my life. Certainly keeps me on my toes!

On Thursday I was on the road again, riding through the morning mist up the Fosseway to Leicester, where I have been commissioned to write a piece of historical narrative non-fiction, having won an AHRC award. I met up with the core team – including Dr Corinne Fowler (Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester) and Gino at the Phoenix, who was co-ordinating the digital side of things (the 8 commissions will be turned into an App, website and projections). I spent the afternoon exploring the Cultural Quarter on foot, taking photographs and making notes. Then in the evening I caught up with my old friend Lesley, who kindly put me up. The next morning I met up with Simon, head of Special Collections, who took me to a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ type warehouse where the Leicester Mercury archives were stored. We rifled through the stacks and found some relevant files, which I took back to look at in the David Wilson Library – a swish new resource on campus. Finally, I visited HQ on Charles St – a graffiti art store, to connect with the owner, making a useful contact. I left Leicester with plenty of material to kickstart my commission. The ride back down the Fosseway in the afternoon sun was a pleasure.

Yet – no rest for the bardic, I had to prepare for my creative writing dayschool in Devizes the following morning. I put together my workshop plan and handouts and tried to get some rest. The next morning I was up and off early – running my writing class from 10.30-4.30pm. By the end of the day I was running on empty, but fortunately I had a lovely meal waiting for me in Wroughton, and a great evening of entertainment – a charity benefit at the local working mens club (!) with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull headlining, supported by my partner’s band, Talis Kimberley, and an R’n’B outfit. I kick-back and enjoyed a well-earned pint. What an amazing week! Spring is definitely springing!

Wild Hearts and Wellingtons

4-7 May

Merlin didn't wear wellingtons

Over the May Day Bank Holiday weekend I took part in two seasonally-themed events. The first was the Wildheart Gathering, over in West Sussex – this small festival, run by the Spirit Horse Foundation, is the ‘first of the season’ and we hoped it would be a chance to ‘raise the May’. It turned out to be a be a complete mud-fest, as the rain did not let up, but still there was a warmth there – in the instant community created around the ‘village green’, a kind of ‘fellowship of the mud’. The taking off and putting on of wellies became a ritual practice over the weekend (the sound of one leg hopping), as we boldly went on our yurt-trek. The daytimes were dominated by the many interesting workshops (we were offering our own respective ones – mine on ‘Writing the Land’); the evenings, by lovely music from a range of talented people. On Sunday a big Beltane Ceremony took place – celebrating the ‘start of the summer’ (which begins on the 1st of May, in theory…). The Jack was crowned alongside his May Queen and together they blessed everyone there – a great finale to the weekend, for us at least – for we set off straight after, keen to get back to hot baths and soft beds!

The second was on Monday – the annual Hawkwood Open Day – where Jenni and I were also running workshops. After a quick turnaround we ‘rebooted’ ourselves back out of the door and up the hill, to the lovely grounds of Hawkwood College (originally a Jacobean House called the Grove until renamed after the English military hero Sir John Hawkwood in the 30s). Various talks and workshops were in full swing, as well as an assortment of stalls to peruse. I set up for my storytelling workshop in the ‘sitting room’ – and this co-created tale (in embryonic form) was the quirky, spontaneous result:

The Legend of Hawkwood

A long time ago, so long ago it seems unlikely to have happened at all – but the land remembers and there you are – there was a big pile of fresh hills, waiting to be named and told what to do. These were divided into two by Sabrina, goddess of the river – who liked things to be tidy. One side became England, the other Wales. The edge of the hills on the English side were garlanded with springs. Ten of these bubbled up in a wood frequented by hawks. One in particular stood out from her sisters – protected by a grove of old, old trees. This was the Spring of Summer and the nymph who lived in it was particularly lovely. Her hair was like sunshine on a summer’s day, her eyes as blue as cornflowers, her skin as smooth and pale as cream – you get the general idea. All the animals of the forest loved to drink at her spring – for the water had a special magic to it, making you feel good inside. Not wanting the animals to have all the fun, the two-legged ones cottoned in on the act and were soon making pilgrimage to it from far and wide.

Following it so far? Good.

Well, there was a Lord, scarred by wars, who decided he wanted to keep it for himself – so he caught the nymph and locked her up in a stone tower next to the spring. Here, he made his home and his name was Lord Hawkwood. He invited his sister to move in – she was to winter what the nymph was to summer. The place became chilly and gloomy – which suited Lord Hawkwood’s mood. They were happy in their misery – keeping summer under lock and key.

You can boo at this point.

Well, everything has a knock on a effect. Around these parts they say when Lord Hawkwood sneezes, the rest of the West Country catches cold. The villagers of Warmley were in the frontline of this blast. It became very chilly there. Nobody could get warm and everyone wondered where summer had gone – for the year was taking too long to warm up, and poor Old Grannie – well, it wasn’t doing her chillblains any good. There was a meeting – in the draughty village hall – and everyone added their coughs and sneezes to the proceedings. Mutters and grumbles rubbed shoulders with one another. No one seemed to know what to do but everyone enjoyed a cathartic moan.

Then Willow – Grannie’s grand-daughter – piped up. She had an idea. ‘Sshhh!’ they said. This was serious adult business. But Willow was wilful and wouldn’t pipe down. ‘Why don’t we just go to the Spring of Summer and bring some of its water back here?’ Silence descended and everyone stared. Why had no one thought of that? Well, who was going to go? Everyone found an excuse – it’s my knees; it’s the cat; it’s the this, it’s the that. ‘I’ll go,’ said Willow, much to their relief. They showered her with advice and sandwiches and blankets, flasks and kisses.

And off she set – on a motorcycle fuelled by lemonade: pop – pop – pop, it went… all the way up the Severn Valley, along Sabrina’s flanks, who was pretending to sleep but was secretly enjoying the whole thing. Willow started at dawn and rode through the whole day and night. At noon she stopped and let the sun warm her bones – it was not so chilly once she left Warmley. The meadow she lay in was covered in yellow flowers which looked like a cloth of gold. She decided it was and picked it up, wrapping it around her shoulders. ‘That’s nice,’ she thought. ‘I’ll keep hold of it – just in case.’ And she carried on her way, until dusk – when the sun set and the moon rose, lacing the trees with silver thread. Willow stopped again and gathered some of this up – ‘That’s nice too – and it might come in handy.’ And she carried on her way, cheered by the sight of the moon. But the moon leapt over the sky and slipped down the edge of the land, like a coin down a drain, leaving only starlight to light her way. The stars glittered like buttons in the sky and so Willow stopped and reached up – picking some – for everything she took a shine to was in risk of ending up in her pockets. The stars glittered in her palm. ‘Pretty – and who knows, they might come in useful.’

And so laden with her useful things she carried on her way.

But by now it was very dark – no moon or stars shone her path. She was a bit lost, and then a lot. She pulled up and chewed her lip. What was she going to do?

Suddenly, there was a shuffling and a snuffling and a badger shambled into view. ‘Hello,’ he grunted, ‘I’m Bertie, how do you do?’ The badger, as you can gather, was friendly and offered to show her the way through the wood. He seemed a kindly sort and so Willow leapt back on her motorbike and followed him – which took some doing, as Bertie scurried off pretty sharpish.

Soon, they had arrived at another bunch of trees. ‘Here we are,’ said Bertie.

‘Where are we?’

‘The wood of the three hawks. You can ask them for help – if you can find them. Good Luck!’

Hawkwood! Willow thanked the badger with a kiss on his wet nose, who went on his way rather pleased with himself at receiving this fine treasure.

Now all she needed was find the hawks… Willow peered up into the dark branches – black against a blacker sky.

She was in the dark.

Suddenly, a figure appeared in a cagoule, wielding binoculars. ‘Hello, little girl,’ she twitched. Blinking through her field glasses she added: ‘Are you lost?’

‘Yes, who are you?’

‘I’m an orni …’ Twitch. ‘An orni…’ Twitch. ‘A bird-watcher. Can I help?’

Indeed she could – with the watcher’s help they soon spotted the three hawks. Willow thanked her new friend, giving her a sandwich and a flask of tea.

‘Be polite to them. They are old and wise. Support the RSPB! Goodbye!’

Willow paused for effect and then stepped up to the first. ‘Hello. I am looking for the Spring of Summer. Can you help?’

‘The Lord of Winter wants to feel the sun,’ said the first mysteriously.

‘The Lord of Winter wants to dream the moon,’ said the second with equal clarity.

‘The Lord of Winter wants to hear the stars,’ added the third, just to confuse matters further.

Willow pondered these odd statements for a moment – they didn’t seem to be directions … or perhaps they were! All three birds were staring in one direction … Willow followed their keen gaze … to a tower on the brow of the hill, it’s windows glowing like … well, hawk eyes.

Thanking the three hawks, she set to work – she took the cloth of gold and sewed on the bright buttons with the silver thread. By the time she had finished she was rather impressed with her handiwork. With this splendid cloak she walked up to the Manor of Lord Hawkwood and knocked on the door.

Heavy footsteps came down the echoing corridor; there was the sliding of bolts and the rattling of chains, and finally the door opened. ‘What is it?’ Before her stood Lord Hawkwood – tall, pale and wintry, a sour look in his dark eyes.

‘Please, your Lordship – my village is feeling the cold and missing the sun. Could you spare some water from your magic spring?’

Lord Hawkwood curled a lip in contempt. ‘My child, why on Earth would I want to do that?’

‘Because I have made you this nice cloak – why don’t you try it on?’

And so he did. He didn’t get many presents. And, you know what? It suited him fine – in fact, he was rather taken by it. ‘How do I look?’

‘Dazzling,’ said Willow, and he was. It brightened him up no end. Death, with a makeover.

Lord Hawkwood’s gaunt face broke into a smile. ‘My child, you are a wonder. I feel … lighter some how. Here, let me open the spring.’

Lord Hawkwood took the cold iron key from around his neck and led the girl down to the big tree which grew by the spring. He bent down and unlocked the strong wooden lid that covered the spring – to stop anyone just coming up and helping themselves.

Up burst the nymph – delighted to be released. She showered her blessing on them both and the world seemed brighter. Indeed it was a new day and warmth returned to the land.

‘Take as much as you like,’ said the Lord, and so Willow did, filling up several five litre containers with the special spring water. These were lashed to her bike and, waving her thanks, off she set back to Warmley – bringing the summer home.

To celebrate there was a big party – May Pole dancing (for it was the start of summer), stalls, music, fine food and revelry. The people wore their brightest clothes and light returned to their eyes. Neighbours practised their smiles on one another. Beaming became a popular past-time.

Willow was praised by everyone for her courageous act – and was given a year’s supply of lemonade, enabling her to go on further adventures.

Lord Hawkwood continued to live at the spring – letting any who needed it take the waters, for healing and inspiration. His wintry sister thawed out and kept him company. When he finally passed on, she looked after the place by herself – it got a bit much, and so she asked for the help of the nymph and together they created a holistic college, which stands there to this day.

The End

Created with participants of ‘The Legend of Hawkwood’ workshop, Hawkwood Open Day.

Kevan Manwaring 7 May 2012

This workshop proved to be a pleasant taster of the full-day one I’m running there on Sunday 20th May: Climbing the Beanstalk – storytelling in easy stages; and the longer course I’m scheduled to run in the Autumn – the Storyteller’s Journey.

A bit of nonsense? Perhaps the honouring of place is worthwhile, as is creating a space for creativity and imagination to flourish – honouring our own personal genius loci. Thomas Moore, in his classic Care of the Soul said: ‘Storytelling is an excellent way of caring for the soul. It helps us see the themes that circle in our lives, the deep themes that tell the myths we live.’

 

In Pursuit of Spring

Dymock & Daffodils & Days of Song

27-28 March

Dymock Daffodils

Saturday I set off ‘in pursuit of Spring’, alluding to the classic book by First World War poet Edward Thomas, who in 1913 (21-28 March) recorded his literary pilgrimage from Clapham to the Quantocks – the home of Coleridge. My destination was Dymock, where, during a brief time leading up to that fateful conflict, a coterie of poets, their spouses and offspring, gathered: Lascelles Abercrombie; Wilfrid Gibson; John Drinkwater; Edward Thomas; Robert Frost; & Rupert Brooke – the Dymock Poets, as they became known afterwards. Their story, charged with poignancy in the shadow of war and the tragic death of two of their key members (Thomas and Brooke – who enlisted, and never returned), inspires and moves me. Nearly a hundred years on it seems more relevant than ever in the shadow of current conflict and the all-too-common reports of young men and women meeting their fate in a foreign theatre of war. Yet it was with joy I set off early on Saturday, having prepared the night before for a couple of days away. The forecast was good – the early reports were of heavy rain, but the nearer the time came, the more they improved, until I was fortunate to be blessed by a weekend of Spring sun. It made the ride up to just south of the Malverns a real pleasure. It was great to leave the city, and my week of toil, behind. When the sun is shining it is important to – seize the day! A sunny day is not to be squandered – they are ‘golden’, like the heart-breakingly brief days of bliss the Dymock poets shared together: the summer of 1914.

Twas in July
of nineteen-fourteen that we sat and talked:
Then August brought the war, and scattered us.

Wilfrid Gibson, The Golden Room

Following the precise directions to the wonderfully named village of Redmarley D’abitot, of Janice – whose writer’s retreat I had booked for the night – I soon arrived at Mellow Farm: a charming cluster of red-bricked and beamed style farm buildings distinctive of the area. Janice’s husband answered and didn’t seem to be aware she was running a writer’s retreat – but eventually Janice was able to pull herself away from her cooking and shown me my room, in Courtyard Lodge, which had lovely views towards Dymock Woods and May Hill – two numinous poetic ‘hotspots’. I was shown the meditation room, but not how to work the shower. Still it was a comfortable roomy place  – all to myself. The charming garden vibrated with daffodils and birches – similarly associated with the Dymock Poets. Sitting in the window seat later, enjoying the late afternoon sun, I wrote:

‘The Spring sunlight – the banks of daffodils – creates a ‘golden’ effect; dazzling after the gloom of winter. Now have the brighter days come!’

View from Courtyard Lodge, Mellow Farm, Redmarley D'abitot

Yet on my arrival, I didn’t have time to linger. Shedding my biker gear, I headed off to the village hall, where the Friends of the Dymock Poets were gathering for their annual Spring Day. The first item on the programme was a walk to Cobhill Rough, the location of the famous altercation between Robert Frost and a gamekeeper.

I entered the hall – which was brimming with Senior Citizens in walking gear, ‘warming up’ for the ramble, ie expelling hot air. Although it’s nice to be the youngest one present, it did feel a little odd. Still, I was warmly welcomed and signed up to the Society there and then. And off we set! The walk wasn’t very far – a couple of miles – but it took somewhat longer than it should have because the narrow track we took was ‘boggy’. This proved a navigational hazard for some and so it was requested the men present offered assistance. And so I found myself up to my ankles in mud, helping OAPs scrambled along the sides, offering encouragement and motivation – like some Assault Course for geriatric poet-lovers. This obstacle overcome with teamwork, we had ‘bonded in peril’ and carried on in affable, ambling manner to the site of the gamekeeper’s cottage in the corner of Cobhall Rough (a sign on the way in warned: PRIVATE SHOOTS Please keep to Rights of Way & Dogs Under Control). Here, Frost and Thomas, while out on one of their customary perambulations, was accosted by a bullish keeper called Bott. Frost didn’t take kindly to his manner and put his fists up in defiance. For a tense moment a kind of standoff took place – between the Old and New World – feudal know-your-place politics vs the Land of the Free. Until, that is, Bott pulled down his hunting gun from the wall. After that, they ‘moved off pretty sharpish’, according to an eye-witness. Frost’s blood was up, indignant and incredulous at such treatment. Thomas felt even worse – as though he had acted cowardly in some way – this, speculated our guide, might have influenced his decision to enlist soon after. The incident certainly ruffled feathers. Apparently Gibson was entitled to walk the lands owned by the Lord of the Manor, Beauchamp, but not his guests – this put Frost out somewhat and spoiled their friendship. Still, it was an iconic moment, echoed in his poetry, e.g. ‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening’:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

The whole incident was described memorably by our guide, Barbara Davis – who knew somebody who had witnessed the incident as a child, (a 10 year old boy, visiting a friend of his grandmother’s) all those years ago! A living link with literary history. We had a stirring rendition of a ‘Lincolnshire Poacher’ by Roy, which some joined in with (it is customary for the FDP to pepper their walks with ‘guerrila’ poetry recitals. After inspecting the ruins of the keeper’s cottage, we finished with a stirring reading of a poem by Wilfrid Gibson ‘To John Drinkwater’ – which was interrupted by a man on a quad bike, rattling along like a Gatling gun. The spell broken, we continued on our way. The temperature had dropped and so, woolly hat on, we walked up through Ryton Firs, the setting for another classic from the Dymock Poet cannon, this time by Abercrombie – the first to move to Dymock and the last to leave. Returning there, after the War, he discovered a favourite wood of his had been felled for pit props, leaving a scene reminiscent of the ruined landscapes of the Trenches:

Ryton Firs, like Europe, fell…

At the edge of the woods, before we turned back to the village, our guide speculated on the repercussions of the incident and Wynne read ‘The Road Not Taken’, which had extra resonance and meaning now. As I lingered, gazing at the track. The secretary, Cate Luck, said this could have been the very tracks Frost referred to. Certainly his phrase ‘the yellow woods’ could certainly describe the wood that day, brightened by daffodils and Spring sun. It was a tantalising thought.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken


Poets Path 1, edge of Cobhall Rough

We returned to the village hall, where people dispersed for lunch. I ate my sandwiches in the sun, then wandered to the local churchyard, fond a grassy gravestone, and promptly had a nap in the warm spring sun – a local cat curling around my legs. The early start – and my cold – had taken its toll. I was wiped out!
Yet my cat-nap got me through the rest of the Spring Day – the afternoon consisted of two talks – one about ‘Dymock Poets: Wives and Muses’ by Sue Houseago; and then ‘Swords and Ploughshares: rivals and reputations in pre-war poetry’ by Dr Lynn Parker. Both were interesting, but I started to flag towards the end – despite being shored up by tea and cake.
I left the hall and returned to my lodgings – running the gauntlet of some lively young bullocks, who insisted on seeing me off their muddy field, despite their scaring easily whenever I turned and waved my arms. The two little grey goats in the horse paddock were cuter – as were the two dogs belonging to the family who lived in the main house. I made some tea and sat in the sunny window seat, reading up on the Dymock Poets in Linda Hart’s book, Once They Lived in Gloucestershire – I was about to go to Ledbury to buy a copy when I found one on the shelf in my bedroom, inscribed by the author to the hosts. Gratefully, I curled up with it – recharging batteries for the evening jaunt.
‘Colour and Savour of Spring’ was an evening of ‘Dymock poets and friends in music and words’ at St Mary’s, Dymock. I set off in good time but hadn’t reckoned on the labyrinthine backroads and lack of signs for Dymock – there were signs for Ledbury, Gloucester, and Newent but not my destination. Taking May Hill as fix, I struck out along the most likely lane on my Triumph Legend. It was dusk – the trees silhouetted in the deepening sky. Bats flitted past my helmet – some looked huge! DH Lawrence’s poem came to mind – a visitor to the Dymock Poets:

Dark air-life looping
Yet missing the pure loop
A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight
And serrated wings against the sky,

Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.

from Bats by DH Lawrence

I eventually found Dymock – lost in its own becloaked timewarp – and pulled up opposite the church, from which a promising glow exuded. I jogged over to the doorway – it was 7.30pm – and burst in: to a packed congregation and a concert in progress. The ‘stage’ was right by the door, so everyone looked at me. There was no way around it – I had to walk passed the performers and down the middle of the aisle to find somewhere to sit. Rather than waiting for a suitable gap – which would have been the sensible and polite thing to do, I strode to the back, hoping to look like I knew what I was doing. A man accosted me halfway – Bob May – the organiser. I gave him a tenner and he handed me the change later. He found me a seat, bless him – a row of ladies had to shuffle up – and finally I ensconced my bardic behind on the hard church pew. The children of what sounded like ‘Am Dram School’ were in full song (turned out to be Ann Cam School) – but I’d only missed a couple of tunes – four seasonal songs by Eleanor Farjeon. This was a May Pole, of all things, set up in the middle of the church – and I surmised the evening must have started with a dance. There followed some cute poems by the pupils. Next up, a little skit on the Friendship of Eleanor Farjeon and the Dymock Poets; then something on a poorly-tuned cello (that’s how it sounded to me) by a lovely young lass; Heroes & Heroines by the St Mary Singers – again, lyrics by Farjeon – and this time accompanied by a ‘fancy dress’ parade of each of the respective historical figures: Devonshire Drake; Grace Darling; Wellington; Florence Nightingale. After an interval – when refreshments were served and I picked up copies of the Poets Walk maps – there was a presentation of prints. Then a reading by a local poet about daffodils – daffodil doggerel – and an extra contribution from another ‘local poet’ of similar quality.

Fortunately, the standard picked up again with a masterful recital of Brooke’s immortal poem, ‘The Soldier’ by actor Peter Thorpe. More tuneless cello. Then the reading of ‘The Golden Room’, once more by Thorpe – but this time he didn’t stand so close to the mike and the power wasn’t carried so well. When I had read this earlier that day I was deeply moved by the vision it presented – of a brief, fragile flowering of fellowship:

Was it all for nothing that the little room,

all golden in the lamplight, thrilled with golden

laughter from hearts of friends that summer night.

Wilfrid Gibson, The Golden Room

The penultimate act was a pleasant surprise – a whole bevvy of young lovelies got up (pupils of St Mary’s School, Worcester) and sang Brooke’s trio of sonnets entitled The Dead in haunting falsetto voices. Thorpe returned to the mike for his version of Edward Thomas’ ‘The Sun Also Shine’; and the evening ended with a singalong to ‘A Song for Gloucestershire, by Johnny Coppin. There followed lots of thank yous and the handing out of bouquets – the contributors getting well-deserved applause for their efforts: a fine community event.

Afterwards, I browsed the display at the back of the church about the Dymock Poets – deciding to return the following day to read it when I was more awake.

It had been a lovely evening of poetry, song and music – it was wonderful to see the Dymock Poets honoured in a such a way. They have clearly been taken to the heart of the locals and their words have become also liturgical in the way they mythologize and sanctify the local landscape. And quite rightly so – that is the true poet’s role.

I walked out into the night – taking in the sky full of stars, the moon shining merrily. The interior of the remarkable Norman church of St Mary’s reminded me of the abbey on Iona – and so to did this experience – from sacred space to Sacred Space: the cathedral of the Stella Maris. The change of scale, and interiority to exteriority, brings about an oceanic feeling of amplification. Looking up, it feels like you could fall forever – and be drowned in the night.

Before I floated off into infinity, I popped to the Beauchamp Arms next door for an ale – needing to ground myself and enjoy the atmosphere of human company before I struck out alone once more into the dark (‘Yes I have been acquainted with the night’, Frost).

I supped my pint and made some field notes.

And then off I went, fortunately finding it easier to get back – a needle in a haystack – to my dwellings. I gratefully fixed myself a hot drink and retired to bed with a book – not the liveliest of Saturday nights, but certainly fulfillingly wholesome. I felt like I had drank from a purer font – took a road not travelled (by many) – and that, I hope, makes all the difference.

on the Poets Path

The next day I  visited the various dwellings of the Dymock Poets, (Gallows Cottoage – Lascelles Abercrombie; The Old Nail Shop – Wilfrid Gibson; Little Iddens – Robert Frost; Old Fields Farm – Edward Thomas) which was particularly moving – from such humble, unassuming places came words of such power. No blue plaques adorned their walls – all were private residences – no tourist signs pointed snap-happy hordes to their doorsteps. At Old Fields Farm, Thomas’s residence, a woman came over to see what I ‘wanted’: ‘To pay my respects to Mr Thomas’, I said. She was friendly enough after that. I said they must get fed up of all the people traipsing by – some do think the footpath runs through their garden, which it doesn’t. But she replied that ‘surprisingly few’ walk in the area.

An English heaven - Old Fields Farm, with Little Iddens and Glyn Iddens in distance (homes of Thomas, Frost and Farjeon).

I made it to Dymock in time for the afternoon ‘Daffodil Walk’ – a permanent marked trail that has become an annual tradition – a way of seeing in the Spring. Dymock is very proud of its daffodils. At one time there used to be a special train between Gloucester and Ledbury called the Daffodil Line, which was popular with Spring spotters (local lads used to collect bunches of daffs – a bakers’ dozen in each posy – 39 would get a tanner). First I had stow my togs – I couldn’t walk in my leathers now, could I. I found a place to stash them in the church – my helmet, trouser,s and jacket – in the pulpit! I joined the group of two dozen tourists just as they set off from the lych-gate of St Mary’s. We went on a relaxing hour’s amble to simply … go and look at daffodils, as though we don’t see them anywhere else (they’re coming out in my garden). Folk took photos – and yes, I did too, caught up in the herd instinct and photo-frenzy.

Daffodils ... this way!

We bimbled in a long, lazy line back to the church. I went to get a cuppa at the village hall, where the Spring Fair was taking place – realizing my change was back in my bike trouser pockets I went back to the church, and found, to my surprise – a young waif curled up asleep on top of my togs. He drowsily awoke. ‘Sorry to disturb you,’ I said. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Ryan.’ I gave him my hand and introduced myself. I asked him where his folks were. His mum was in the Spring Fair next door – good, he wasn’t homeless then! Perhaps still rumpled from his nap, he did look a bit of a ragamuffin: like Master Robin Goodfellow, in fact – the spirit of Spring himself – awakening from his winter’s sleep! I said I didn’t mind him using my things as bedding – the pilot jacket, with its thick fleece lining, would make comfortable bedding, as I know. I apologised by disrupting his siesta – his afternoon nap, I explained – and went on my way, charmed by this lovely encounter. How special!

St Mary's Church, Dymock

I got myself a drink from the pub – the thirsty walkers had all arrived and there was quite a queue – and sat in the sun, preparing for my journey home. It had been a very pleasant weekend and I felt very relaxed. Peaceful. Dymock had worked its magic on me – I had something of an epiphany of the hill overlooking Thomas’ place: I had a glimpse of an ‘English heaven’ – as Brooke put it; here was a little corner of England, to paraphrase his classic poem, that will be forever sanctified by the lives and words of the remarkable Dymock Poets. Briefly, during that last summer of peace, the sun did shine in the golden glow of friendship and inspiration.

The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted

Edward Thomas, ‘The Sun used to Shine’


Snowdrops

Snowdrops
27th February

When the snows cleared a couple of weeks ago the snowdrops were there. They had already raised their timorous heads before this Cold Snap and had survived its harshness, despite, or maybe because of their small frailty. Too insignificant to be noticed by the frost giant? The snow gods? And yet easily trod underfoot.
Snowdrops are a welcome sight – the first tenuous signs of Spring, although that may be weeks away. Their white petals add a bright firmament to the gloomy days of winter. There is a collective yearning for the light at this time – in the Northern Hemisphere – as we slowly escape the point of singularity of the solstice. Imbolc seems to be its particular event horizon – once we have crossed it, we are free of winter’s gravity. Snowdrops cluster around its edges like stars pulled into a black hole. And yet they reach in the opposite direction, pushing up from the dark earth. Growing out of death, like the Simbelmynë flowers that grow on the barrow graves by Edoras of the Rohan in The Two Towers, called in the common speech of men ‘Evermind’: ‘They blossomed in all the seasons, like the bright eyes of Elves, glinting in the starlight.’ (A Tolkien Bestiary, David Day, p215)
At the weekend I met up with a friend at Nympsfield long barrow, high up on the Cotswold escarpment overlooking the Severn plain. Returning for tea and cake to her lovely cottage, similarly situated, we passed a country churchyard at Edge filled with white flowers amongst the stones.
Life determinedly returns, however transient, though its roots cling to mortal clay. Something makes it grow, despite its brief life. Or perhaps because of it. It feels the impulse more urgently. Every day is more precious, sweeter the dew. Whatever may have befallen us in the past, whatever ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ it is hard not to feel some sense of renewal, of a new chance, with the virgin year before us. All things are possible on its tabula rasa. Snowdrops are a symbol of that most precious commodity, hope. In these bleak times, when the economic house of cards crashes down around us, it seems foolhardy to be hopeful and yet more imperative than ever – if we are not succumb to the riptide of gloom. In a speech made by President Obama in the light of the economic crsis, the Guardian said that ‘he has undammed the springs of hope.’ (‘The Springs of Hope’, Guardian, 26.02.09) If we listened to the news every day, with its tales of ‘toxic debt’, banks going bust, big firms going under, fat cat payoffs, nuclear folly and celebrity cancer, it would be hard not to surrender to despair. But nature quietly, insistently, tells us, not to give up. That the world will keep turning whatever we do to it, or ourselves.
To feel better, all one has to do is walk out into the garden of Spring and enjoy the morning of the year. The world is still beautiful.
‘Sing cucu, sing cucu now.’