‘Tracing the footsteps of . . .’ can be such a pointless exercise, as those footsteps can often have been hidden by heavy tarmac and domestic cosmetics.
‘The birthplace of. . . ‘ does not contain sounds, and smells, familiar to Emily Bronte or William and Dorothy Wordsworth. The Parsonage at Haworth, Dove Cottage at Grasmere or Robert Burns’s cottage at Alloway do not contain their spirits. The homes have become museums, places of education. They would recognise very little in the towns whose streets they once strode. But the countryside, their natural environment, away from the commercialism, does give a sense of how they were inspired. John Clare would not recognise the interior of his home, yet many of the buildings in modern Helpston he would know, they still stand.
This walk was one that I had wanted to do for a long time, but it lay in a direction, to the east, that I so rarely took. My travels, as a rule, take me north and west, whether to my native North West England or my home in North West France. A ‘walk’ is too grand a title, it is only really an ‘amble’, and, as much as I love his poetry, I wasn’t really sure why I was there, or what I would, or would not, find.
If the poetry of Wordsworth is about Lakeland grandeur, and the great sweeping gesture, standing by the waters of Grasmere, and looking at Helm Crag and the lower slopes of Helvellyn, you feel a real sense of what inspired his verse. The mountains, with their varying hues and moods, are there. You can see them, feel them. They are awesome, in its truest sense. But the landscape which fuelled John Clare’s fire has gone, it has been wantonly destroyed, sacrificed to the God of Profit. It is now a fertile desert, the domain of the industrial farmer, with an eye to finance, and airborne, creative, photographers with an eye for arresting field patterns. The Enclosure Acts ‘did’ for John Clare’s Helpstone. The tracks and ways were obliterated by endless fields, huge, fenced, and gated, fields. The muse of his simple, beautiful, imaginings can no longer be seen.
I had driven from Epping, the approximate route of his ‘Journey out of Essex’ in 1841. Unlike Iain Sinclair’s walk, described in ‘Edge of the Orison’, this was, in reality, a meaningless exercise, I could have been anywhere. As most High Streets have become identically mundane, so most A…(M) roads are the same as they pursue their prosaic purposes. I was going from A to B. ‘Going’ not ‘travelling’. From a signpost, some way after Peterborough, indicating Glinton to the right, I turned left, along the long, straight, road towards Helpston. ‘Glinton’. ‘Helpston’. The words in books began to turn into reality. But that picture, painted in his poetry, was not the landscape I was driving through. On either side there were neat, nearly East Anglian, houses, shielding the road from endless agriculture. Nothing moved. There was no activity. The crops were yet to show. A blank canvas. Not the desolation of the Fens, but a type of desolation all the same.
Past the railway, from whose station John took his last journey to Helpstone.
I was beginning at the end. Helpston village you would hardly notice, en route to Stamford. Still a small village, clustered round a crossroads. There is a village sign, and then, at the end of Woodgate, the main street, a memorial to Clare and the venerable Butter Cross. I’m here.
Continuing to travel backwards, I start at St. Botolph’s, the parish church. Unlike its namesake churches in the City of London, where I had been yesterday, this one is open. It is Sunday and it is warm and sunny.
I would like to see the interior of the church, but the sound of psalm-singing warns me off. In the churchyard, on the grass, sit two Sunday School teachers, talking to three young children, who are listening with, smiling faces, to the stories. I browse the gravestones, enjoying this, archetypal, English, summer Sunday, scene. There is a certain timelessness. I’m being held in suspension in a nostalgic reverie. I think I can hear my England of the 1950s. But my sounds of an English summer, in those days, were on a North of England council estate, not a rural village. The National Trust, and the BBC, have conspired to erase my actual memories, and transplant them with their constructs of imagined, endless, English summers.
I move on. By the side of St.Botolphs, across the narrow lane, stands the Georgian, square fronted and sandstone, ‘Exeter Arms’. As with all the ‘Devonshire Arms’ around Chatsworth, the ‘Norfolk Arms’ around Arundel and the ‘Cavendish Arms’ around Cartmel, the name derives from the family name of the local landowner. The Marquis of Exeter lived at nearby Burghley House, and owned the pub, as well as swathes of land! I stood outside the neighbouring barn, which had served as a ‘lock-up’, to take a photograph. There is a sense of tranquility and well-being, perhaps because the pub is shut! Then, around the corner, careered a man in a hurry, straight into shot. He immediately realised what he’d done, profusely apologised, and scuttled back round the corner.
I followed, to reassure him that no harm had been done, but he had completely disappeared. John Clare’s memory of the pub came to mind;
‘I heard the old alewife at the Exeters arms behind the church (Mrs
Nottingham) often say that she has seen from one of her chamber windows
many as fifteen together dancing in and out in a company as if dancing reels
He is referring to Will o’th’ Wisps or Jack o’ Lanthorns. I wondered if I had actually seen one! One of Clare’s Will o’ th’ Wisps. He did seem to vanish into thin air. It was to this pub that his body was brought, from the asylum at Northampton, in July, 1864, where he had died, aged 70. He had been there, in Northampton since his ‘Journey out of Essex’ in 1841.
This corner of Helpston does hold an echo of the past. Church Lane bends away in front of me, flanked by cottages, some single-storey, whilst, behind me, the walls of a large Georgian house, and the church, opposite, curve darkly, behedged, towards the main road. The sole nods to modernity are; two cars parked outside the church, a lamp post and a satellite dish on the Exeter Arms.
I retraced my steps, past the church, still murmuring sounds of devotion. Clare would also have passed quickly by, as well, he was not a churchgoer, not to St.Botolphs at any rate.
‘I have often abstentet my self the whole Sunday . . . nor coud the chiming
Bells draw me from my hiding place to go to church, tho at night I was sure to
pay for my absence from it by a strong snubbing’
That beautiful use of dialect. We don’t need to know what a ‘snubbing’ was, but it is so easy to imagine!
In March 1825, he embraced Primitive Methodism. He became a ‘Ranter’. John was was attracted by a real, practical, religion, a religion promoted by John Wesley, which particularly appealed to the real lives of the labouring classes. Strangely, a hundred years later, the same religion appealed to my own grandmother, a cotton weaver, in the Moscow Mill, at Oswaldtwistle, near Accrington. But she was attracted by its severity. Parson Mossop’s stiff, Anglican, services had sent John to sleep, and his attitude to the congregation, and established religion is made obvious by :-
‘If every mans bosom had a glass in it so that it’s secrets might be seen
what a blotted page of christian profession and false pretensions
would the best of them display’
But, he was roused by the singing of hymns, to folk tunes, and the fact that services were, often, held out of doors, amongst ordinary working folk. Primitive Methodism held the spirituality of Nature to be important, God was all around, he knew that and the new religion appealed to John’s very soul. On Palm Sunday, 1825 ;
‘I went to the woods to seek some branches of the sallow palms for the
childer called them geese and goslings and Cats and Kittens’
This was where his God lived, not on Church Lane. In ‘Sabbath Bells’ he wrote;
I’ve often on a sabbath day
Where pastoral quiet dwells
Lay down among the new mown hay
To listen distant bells
That beautifully flung the sound
Upon the quiet wind
While beans in blossom breathed around
A fragrance oer the mind
‘A fragrance oer the mind’. What a glorious phrase.
On Woodgate, the main street of Helpston, my thoughts strayed back to an earlier walk through Selborne, in Hampshire. Parson Mossop and the arrogant Parson Cobbold seemed to be chipped from the same block. Divorced from the ordinary man, religion for the Middle Class on its collective knee, in a church, on a Sunday, in ‘Sunday best’. The ‘Old Rectory’ commands the entrance to the old village, just as the vicarage of Selborne threatens the church by its very proximity. Here in Helpston the rectory stands two hundred metres from the church. It is a three-storey, fine Georgian building, with a courtyard, surrounded by a tall wall. The two-storey cottages and houses in the rest of the village stand in its, metaphorical, shadow. This is the Anglican Church in all its, superior, ‘Keep Out’ grandeur.
Almost directly opposite the Vicar’s Mansion is the ‘Blue Bell’ Inn. This place John Clare would have recognised. It now has a Car Park and benches outside, but, it still exudes ‘proper’ country pub . . . and it’s open . . . and busy. He worked here as a pot boy and ostler, as well as drinking here as well. This was his ‘local’. The interior is modern, but friendly and welcoming.this is my first real touch with John Clare. It was here that he first worked;
‘a next door neighbour who kept the Blue Bell public house got me a week or
two to drive plough for him, having a small cottage of 6 or 8 acres , and
knowing me and my parents he usd me uncommon well . . . His name was
Francis Gregory . . . he was a single man and lived with his mother . . . they
both used me as well as if I was their own . . . my master was of very bad
health and dyed a year or two after I left.’
Francis actually died of tuberculosis in 1811. John wrote of him;
‘He was fond of amusement and a singer tho his notes was not more varied
than those of the cuckoo as he had but 2 songs for all companys one
called ‘ the milking pail’ and the other ‘Jack with his broom’ his jokes too
were like a pack of cards they were always the same but told in a
A modern pub landlord, a la Al Murray? John’s description is instantly recognisable today. But his effect on young John was profound, he brought him into the masculine, adult, world. His first move into the world of work involved him moving only as far as . . . next door, but his next post was with the Marquis of Exeter at Burghley.
The cottage where John Clare was born stands, blisteringly white, in the early summer sunshine. Well-scrubbed. Neat. Immaculate thatch. Hygienic History. The Trusts who run these properties have a real problem. To show them, as they were, ‘in the day’, would mean comparative squalor, decrepitude, dirt, smells and all those facets of normality, in their respective centuries. The ‘Chocolate Box’ that is Ann Hathaway’s, the ‘shrine’ that is Dove Cottage and even the pristine cleanliness of Styal Cotton Mill, all would have looked very different to their well-known inhabitants. In their original state they would attract fewer ‘passing tourists’, with all the associated financial issues. They need the cash! The Staff of Clare’s birthplace are helpful, cheery, enthusiastic and keen to inform about John. The tearoom is well-stocked, reasonably priced and the food is good. These ‘birthplaces’ are important. They must be kept ‘ticking over’ to be there when we need to touch the genius that lived there. To listen to what they had to say is important, to put modern life into some sort of perspective. Clare’s attitudes to the countryside, and it’s subsequent despoliation, are pertinent today. Then, the landlords were free to wreck the nature, and Nature, of England, for their own profits, is that still not true today? With the extortionate price of rented accommodation and the relaxing of Planning Laws, it’s the Wild West all over again, as in the 18th. and 19th. centuries. The lessons are all around Helpston, and the ‘draw’ is the cottage.
But the ghost of John Clare is not there.This building is about education and awareness raising, admirable aims in themselves. It is difficult to imagine the reality of his early life, his childhood. The parlour is, perhaps, the closest it gets.
He writes about himself:
‘I never had much relish for the pastimes of youth . . . instead of going out on
the green at the town end on Winter sundays to play foot ball I stuck to my
corner stool poreing over a book in fact I grew so fond o being alone
at last that my mother was feign to force me into company for the
neighbours had assured her mind into the fact that I was no better than
crazy . . .’
And you can visualise, in the nook, John sat there, alone. But the size of the building means that it would have been cramped, solitude almost impossible to obtain. There must have been smells, clatter, everything associated with the hub of the household. In my youth the kitchen was the centre, it was never quiet. In modern Breton households the kitchen is the focal point, and the most used item of furniture, the kitchen table. This is what the cottage misses. It isn’t for the lack of enthusiasm, or effort, on behalf of the Staff, the task of re-creation is virtually impossible, but if visitors go away, perhaps with a book, and want to read his poems, explore his ideas, muse on the issues of mental health or relate his life to modern times, then that is a result.
The closest you get to John is in the garden. There stands a life- sized statue, I’m not so sure that the artist isn’t the same Italian who sculpted the young ballet dancer outside the Royal Opera House, in Covent Garden. From my six foot height he appears really small. Suddenly something about the man has sprung to life. He did write about his home;
Thou lovely cot where first my breath I drew
Past joys endear thee childhoods past delight
Where each young summer pictures on my view
And dearer still the happy winters night
When the storm pelted down wi all his might
And roard and bellowd in the chimney top
And patterd vehement against the window light
And oer the threshold from the eaves did drop
How blest Ive listend on my corner stool
Heard the storm rage and hugd my happy spot
While the fond parent wound her wirring spool
And spard a sigh for the poor Wanderers lot
In thee sweet hut I all these joys did prove
And these endear thee in eternal love
The kitchen garden is a delight. Today I’m the only visitor in it, that helps. There is a bench in the shade of a tree, where you are invited to muse, and enjoy the silence.
I do. The spirit of John Clare is here. I’ve been told that the adjacent meadow is closed for redevelopment. In its present state, poorly husbanded, unkempt, the meadow fits well. This, today, feels like a solitary place, much as he would have known it, if not a little too well- kept. A Veolia bin tucked behind a sandstone wall. The entry and cafe are tasteful additions, but no matter how tasteful, they are additions.
But, sat on that bench, there is a definite feeling of a lightness of spirit, John Clare would have liked that, I think. For the emotionally fragile John, he needed a haven. In this century the garden is an oasis, a refuge for the troubled mind, but in John’s time, the garden was the place where the food was grown, the surrounding countryside was his haven, his heaven. In the heaths outside Helpstone, in the copses and hedgerows he found solitude and was ‘at home’.
‘ I love to wander at my idle will
In summers luscious prime about the fields
And kneel when thirsty at the little rill
To sip the draught it’s pebbly bottom yields
And where the maple bush it’s fountain shields
To lie and rest a swailey hour away
And crop the swelling peascod from the land
Or mid the uplands woodland walks to stray
Where oaks for aye oer their old shadows stand
Neath whose dark foliage with a welcome hand
I pluck the luscious ripe and red
As beautys lips – and in my fancys dreams
As mid the velvet moss I musing tread
Feels life as lovely as her picture seems
It would be impossible to find anywhere within striking distance of Helpston,
to which this picture of Clare’s Helpstone refers.
I leave the cottage bearing purchases of books with John Clare at their centre, so the visit has been positive, it has been useful after all. I have been stimulated to learn more, so, perhaps, the ‘raison d’être” of the cottage has been achieved.
Woodgate is still a quiet lane, but, like the cottages of Selborne, have passed from the ownership of farm labourers, and artisans, to that of the well- heeled. Some have been ‘tarted up’. A four square, ‘ two up, two down’ now has brick cladding on the Ground Floor and on the First Floor a colourful patterns, achieved with broken tiles. It does look sort of interesting and decorative, but its original owners would have been more concerned with it being a home, rather than what it looked like from the street. There is a ‘chocolate box’ thatched cottage. Pretty floral garden. Immaculate thatch. Colourful. Scrubbed clean. A real ‘ des res’.
A four square house, which would have been identical to the tiled confection, butts onto the thatched cottage. This house, in the time of John Clare, was called the Bachelor’s Hall. Surprisingly, for such a small village, in John’s time there were three entertainment venues, the ‘Blue Bell’, the ‘Exeter Arms’ and this modest house. The joy of the company of others was a vital facet of country life in the 18th/19th centuries. The name derived from the fact that two bachelor brothers lived there, John and James Billings. It was a meeting place for the young men of the village. A place of story telling, song , smoking and drinking. A place to ‘hang out’. Times do not change!
‘I used to spend many of my winter nights and sabbath leisured when I grew
Up in the world at a neighbours house of the name Billings It was a sort
a meeting house for the young fellows of the town were the usd to join for
ale and tobacco and sing and drink the night away the occupiers were
two Bachelors and their cottage was called bachelors hall it is an old ruinous
hut and has needed repairs ever since I knew it for they neither mend up the
walls nor thatch the roof being negligent men but quiet and innofensive
So much for the traditional stories of diligent countrymen! The house now has a more prosaic, but obviously more effective, slate roof. The symmetry of the house has been ruined. The centrally located front door has been bricked up and the original window, to the right of the door has been replaced an ‘ad hoc’ piece of Everest double glazing. Times do move on, I know, but surely a bit of thought could have come up with a better solution for extending the Front Room? Something a bit more sympathetic with the original. Where are the planners when you need one?
A footpath runs parallel to Woodgate, in the direction returning to the main road. It exemplifies the changes that the Enclosure Act brought to Helpstone in 1807. The Act was designed to maximize the Landowners’ profits, but also meant the loss of common land. The centuries old open field system, where villagers worked side by side, fostering that unique sense of community, disappeared and now gates and fences sprang up, boundaries were straightened and streams and ditches had their courses changed. John Clare saw this as a real turning point, not only for him, but for all his fellow labourers.
Ye injurd fields ere while so gay
When natures hand displayd
Long waving rows of Willows gray
And clumps of Hawthorn shade
But now alas your awthorn bowers
All desolate we see
The tyrants hand their shade devours
And cuts down every tree
And that is the landscape round Helpston today, a waste of cultivated land, overbearing in its uniformity. The ‘God of Profit’ has triumphed over the ‘Green Spirit of rural England’!
The path that I now follow is surrounded by high hedges, the ‘Keep Out’ hedges of Middle Class England. Somewhere to my right is Clare’s cottage, hidden away from this side, private. In his time John could, probably, have walked from his kitchen garden directly into the countryside that he loved so much. No longer.
The boundaries bind you, direct you, command you. The turns in the path are right angles. Right. Left. You cannot deviate. This isn’t a Labyrinth it’s a delivery chute, but it does have a name, Crossberry Way. To the right, behind the hedge, the village. To the left, behind the hedge, a Housing Estate.
As with all profit-centred projects, like the Enclosure Acts, there were winners and losers. The landlords, of course, were the winners. They could introduce more mechanical, more industrial, forms of agriculture in their huge, new, regulated fields. The day of the agricultural labourer, the rural poor, was drawing to a close, at least it was the beginning of the end. That poverty could be diminished, for some, was good, but at the expense of away of life of the majority, I’m not so sure. This was happening all over rural England and, for other reasons, rural poverty is still a fact of life in the English countryside today.
In 1807 the labourers were about to be replaced by machinery. Their food sources would be taken away, with the loss of common grazing land for their animals, and the woods and fields where they would forage, disappeared under the axe and plough. In rural France, where I now live, foraging is still a way of life. Mushrooms, of dubious appearance, walnuts, a multitude of berries, dandelion leaves, nettles, and those mysterious foods gleaned, by secretive old women, in blue pinnies, with sickles, from the depths of ditches. The fruits of the seasons are respected. With the destruction of the woodland, the rural poor lost their source of winter heating, the gleaned wood. Not for the last time in History the poor were about to become poorer, losers again. Not for the last time in History the rich were about to become richer. Landlords were given ‘carte blanche’ almost a Licence to print money. Sound familiar?
The walk started in the sunshine of the main street of Helpston and finished in the gloom of a claustrophobic footpath behind the village. This was almost an allegory of John Clare’s life!
I approached my Start/Finish point, passing the sole Village Shop and the Village Hall, outside which a couple of lads were kicking a ball about. ‘Ronaldo’ in his Manchester United shirt and ‘Messi’ in his Barcelona shirt. This must be the new Bachelors Hall. Over the road the ‘Plink! Plonk!’ of the Tennis Club. Summer Life goes on to the sounds of John Betjeman! At the end of Woodgate, where I had parked my car stood a beautiful , old, cottage, which could, at onetime, have housed two labouring families. The garden, an English cottage garden, grew flowers and vegetables together. What a delight, but this is more BBC rural England.
I wasn’t really interested in John Clare’s grave, it wasn’t the stone, or the epitaph, that he wanted anyway. But I did want to see the inside of
St. Botolph’s, now that the service was over. I made my way across the road, through the graveyard and into the porch. It was locked. How apt, as a signal of modern Christianity. A place of worship barring entrance on the Sabbath. But being locked out wouldn’t have bothered John Clare, in fact, he would have relished the enforced freedom. Do you know? So do I! I’ve enjoyed the day.