Spitalfields. Altab Ali to Christ Church.

This is a return visit, as I do have a fascination with Spitalfields and Whitechapel. It’s a place, not only rich in its layer upon layer of history, but, rich in its ever-changing present. Paul has discovered that in his Jewish past, he has strong links with Brick Lane. So, we decide to meet up to ‘walk the walk’ together. I’m travelling north from my hotel in Portsmouth, and he, south, from his home in Manchester, to meet in Altab Ali Park. The appointed time comes and goes. I wait 35 minutes. There must have been a hitch. This is magnified by the fact that my ‘phone is on the ‘blink’. There is a hitch. Massively disappointed, I decide to crash on, hoping that I’ll see Paul on Brick Lane. This, unfortunately, does not occur.

The park, in itself, fits in with the ideas of ‘walking round ruins’ propounded by Geoff Nicholson in his book, ‘Walking around Ruins’. The footprint of the church which, originally stood there, the white chapel, finally destroyed by the Luftwaffe, has been developed as a feature. There are scattered old tombs. The old gate remains to remind you of its past. But, there, in the corner, stands the Shaheed Minar, a copy of the Martyrs’ Memorial, in Bangladesh, a mother protecting her children, to remind you of the future. The park is named after Altab Ali, a Bengali, clothing worker, murdered in a racist attack, in 1978. What has been created in his memory is a wonderful, urban, cross-cultural, space. It’s only 100m wide and 100m long, with the busy Whitechapel High Street, on one side, and bisected by a path bearing letters, spelling out words from Rabindrinath Tagore;

‘The shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly’.

The park is thronging with lunchtime life. There are office workers finishing their lunch sitting on the grass, girls wandering through, with the, inevitable, mobile ‘phone clamped to their ears. There are groups of Asian men just ‘hanging out’ together, talking animatedly. There is a body reclining on a bench, ‘sleeping it off’. Everything is harmonious. This is a park for local people. Every available seating space, from the benches, to the random boulders of Portland stone, to the grass, to the churches’ low footprint, is being used. This is what a park is for. The only jarring note is struck by a group of lager-clutching, shaven-headed, guys. They have a couple of Bull Terriers with them. They are exercising them by throwing sticks, and balls, onto the grass, without any apparent concern for where they land. But no-one seems to be bothered. The dogs hurtle, to and fro, snarling and chasing, but life goes on, oblivious to these ‘dangerous dogs’. Altab Ali Park is one living, joyous, ruin. I wonder what the legacy of Alan Henning, the beheaded Salford taxi driver, will be? Will someone erect a park for him, in Eccles? I hope so.

The stretch onto Brick Lane was, at one time, a muddy, dirt track, Osborne St. The street is now the preliminary for entering that ‘cut’ of pleasure, Brick Lane.
But my way lies to the left of ‘The Archers’ pub, by the side of the old ‘Frying Pan’ pub, both Victorian, down Wentworth Street.

In front of me, on the corner of Old Montague Street, before I turn, is the site of the old Bloom’s Kosher Restaurant, before it moved onto Whitechapel High St., then Golders Green and, then, onto oblivion. I ate there, on the High Street, with Mike Endlar, in the ’70s, amazed at the size, then at the price, of a ‘salt beef sandwich’! Bloom’s took the same route as its Eastern and Central European, Yiddish-speaking culture, bombed out in the Blitz. There’s no point in looking for gefilte fish, potato latkes or Lockshen soup on Brick Lane anymore. Giles Coren, the newspaper columnist, wrote “I’m furious with myself for not going one last time. There ought to be a shivah for Bloom’s. We should put a plate of salt beef on a low chair. It’s going to be replaced by some God-awful, kosher Chinese or a Indian place.” Worse, I’m afraid, Giles, it’s a fast food, burger, joint. Maureen Lipman hit the nail on the head, “Bloom’s was past its sell-by date!” But, unlike other buildings with a past, it has not become ‘something else’, something to celebrate the past, along with the Spitalfield’s Yiddish culture, it has been obliterated

On the right, 100m down this ordinary street, Wentworth St. stands an impressive arch. Like many arches of antiquity, this is not on its original site, it was re-erected here, as an entrance to a modern housing development.

This is Flower and Dean Court, and stands, roughly where Flower and Dean St. used to stand. Being Whitechapel you can guess who, it is asserted, lived here. Got it in one. Jack the Ripper. How do we know WHERE he lived, when the speculation is endless as to WHO he was? Well, a Canadian ex-policeman produced a ‘geographic profile’, well, that’s a new Science on me. Using mathematical computer models, he discovered that all the victims lived in ‘doss houses’ less than 200m. from the street, and they all drank in ‘The Ten Bells’ at the end of Fournier St. So the killer PROBABLY lived there. Well that settles that little mystery then. But as the Blitz demolished the street, we’ll never know!

Back to the red brick arch, which originally stood in Thrawl St. The last ruin of the original development. The legend, on the lintel, tells us that the arch was erected in 1886, by the company, ‘Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Ltd.’. Surprisingly, the company still exists, and functions as the Industrial Dwellings Society (1885) Ltd., owning properties as far apart as Southwark and Barnet. But, the 128 year old links are firmer than that, as the current President is Sir Evelyn Rothschild, whose ancestor, Nathan Rothschild, founded the company. Flower and Dean St. was their first enterprise and their literature stated that;

‘It is estimated that if the rentals were based on a net return of four per cent, excellent accommodation, consisting of two rooms, a small scullery and WC could be supplied at a weekly rental of five shillings per tenement and it is considered that investors will be found willing , and even anxious, to contribute their capital towards a scheme which, while offering a moderate, and safe, return, will, largely, tend not only to improve the dwellings of the poor, but also reduce the high rates now paid for the minimum accommodation.’

The company was founded as a response to a report on ‘Spiritual Destitution’, published by the United Synagogue, in 1884. Other companies, such as the East End Dwellings Company, in Stepney, followed the same route. Report-1884. Company founded-1885. Construction started-1886. This was not a charity, investors were there to make a ‘moderate and safe’ profit. A ‘win-win’ situation. How shallow this ‘response to need’, makes twenty-first century greed look. “Moderate and safe? Sod that. Screw ’em! The bigger the profits the better.” But along these, now, deep-buried streets, the Ripper lurked. I wonder what he, and Nathan Rothschild, would have made of the fact that the average rent, for a two bedroom flat, on Wentworth St., today, is £2 000 per calendar month! I’m looking at the exterior of Cleggs Buildings, on the opposite side to Flower and Dean Court, they must be a sight more attractive on the inside than they are on the outside. Still good to see the Victorian, tiled, nameplate still visible.

As if to emphasise that cultures disappear faster than buildings, on the corner of a Brick Lane and Fournier St. stands the ‘London Jamme Mazjid’, a mosque holding
3 000 worshippers. It started life in 1743 as the ‘Neuve Eglise’, a chapel for the fleeing Protestant, French, Huguenots. It then became a Wesleyan Chapel, bought, in 1809, by the ‘London Society for promoting Christianity among the Jews’. In 1819 it became a Methodist Chapel, but, in 1897, the building bade farewell to Christianity, becoming the ‘Machzike Hadath Great Synagogue. By the 1970s the Jewish community had, largely, moved on, and the building became the thriving mosque that stands before me. The lane, here, is crowded, not with tourists, but men in Islamic religious dress, leaving prayers. It takes little imagination to translate the scene into black coated men wearing yarmulkes, tallis and tzitzis hurrying to celebrate shabbas, a century ago. The language may have changed from French to Yiddish to Bengali, but the sights and sounds of another culture are not foreign here. This is normality, and it still feels as normal, in 2014 as it did in 1714, 1814 and 1914. But the acceptance of another culture will be sorely tested in the immediate future, after the, cowardly, beheading of Alan Henning. There has been outrage, amongst British Muslims, as well as amongst the rest of the community. As I watch, a lot of the men are young men, they are a English by birth, but Muslim by culture. I pray that they are as outraged as I am, and that they don’t bear the brunt of the blame, which is not there’s to accept. To be a devout Muslim is good, to be an assassin is not. It is reminiscent of 1948 Manchester, when the news of the hanging of the British Army Sergeants, by Zionist murderers, resulted in innocent English Jews having their shops, homes and synagogues attacked. It’s strange how this cultural enigma rises in the most unlikely places. Back in Giles Coren’s article on Bloom’s, he says that he misses Jewish cuisine, as modern Kosher restaurants tend to serve Israeli cuisine, not traditional Jewish fare. Culture? Nationality? Religion? A hideous tangle.

Turning into Fournier St. This was, until the 1890s, Church St., but was renamed after a Huguenot silk weaver. These elegant Georgian houses have seen wave after wave of immigrants, who arrived with little or nothing, but hope, and thus, couldn’t afford to drastically alter them. They have housed Huguenot weavers, Jewish garment firms and Bengali textile workers. Now they are worth about £2m each and are home to the artists Gilbert and George and Tracey Emin, the TV presenter Dan Cruikshank and the actor, Jonathan Pryce, lives round the corner in Princelet St. Big bucks these days. The stories of these immigrants flows through history. When I worked in North Manchester, in the 1970s, Idi Amin threw the Asians out of Uganda, with the clothes they stood up in. Many of them found their way into the poorer parts of the city, like, soon-to- be-demolished, Harpurhey. In Uganda, affluence. In Harpurhey, literally, nothing. The Protestant Huguenots were ejected from Roman Catholic France because they wouldn’t convert, and like the Ugandan Asians, applied themselves to making a new life. The Ashkenazi Jews and the Bangladeshis have followed the same pattern. The ‘ruins’ of the Huguenot civilisation can be seen here, on Fournier St., in the second floor ‘weavers’ windows’. But the growth of the London Docks and the rise, in availability of cheap imports, saw off the Huguenot weavers. The same fate lay in wait for Lancashire’s cotton trade. It isn’t surprising that it was in the 1840s that the currently overused, and misunderstood, term ‘nationalism’ began to be coined, as the trade in cheap foreign goods started to effect the home economy and labour market. How current is that? Nigel Farage’s little gang’s roots stretch back a long way into history! In such a small area, Spitalfields, you look into the past, to see the future.

The first house, Number Two, is the Rectory, built in 1726, and what a rectory! The building records survive, so we know that the house cost £1 300 to build, and that the bricklayer, Thomas Lucas was paid £239 9/4d between 1725-1731 and Thomas Dunn, the mason, was paid £297 4/2d. But it was the carpenters who were ‘quids in’ they were given the leases of the buildings, for 98 years. Numbers 4 and 6 were originally one house, given to Marmaduke Smith, who was the first occupant. The next occupant was Peter Camport, a ‘weaver of striped and plain lutestring, mantua and tabby’. In 1745 he undertook to provide 74 of his workmen to resist the ‘Young Pretender’, Charles Edward Stuart. The Londoners were panicking. The Scot’s were coming! James Lardant, at Numbers 8 and 10, a ‘silk, mantua and tabby’ weaver promised 27 of his men. The Rector of the French Church, Rev. Du Bewlay lived at Number 12. It is interesting that the Huguenots of Spitalfields would provide so many men to defend London, but then, knowing how their Roman Catholic compatriots had treated them, ‘back home’, perhaps it isn’t so surprising. The street has a really elegant Huguenot feel to it, even today.

At the junction with Commercial St. stands the magnificent Christ Church, built by Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1714 and 1729. An Act of Parliament was passed, in 1711, to demonstrate Anglican authority, which ordained that 50 new churches should be built. This is one of them. They were built to neutralise the Protestant/Dissenter areas, as the majority of people there, owed no allegiance to the Church of England, thus, none to the Crown either. Strange that the Protestant weavers were to raise so many men to defend London. In the end only twelve of the churches were built. Eight of these twelve bear Hawksmoor’s stamp. As two of the commissioners were Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh, it does smack of ‘jobs for the boys’! But nothing changes. This is a sacred space of white and light. The spirit is here, in this huge, bright, basilica. I don’t feel the dark, oppressive weight of a cruciform, Gothic cathedral. No feeling that I am being awed into frightened obeisance, or crushed by the weight of darkness. I just sit, quietly, and feel the spirituality of the room. “‘Scuse me. Can you go and sit over there? We’re setting up for a concert.” An abrupt awakening. Two men are re-arranging the chairs. Everyone, and there are several others, sitting quietly in contemplation, must go and contemplate, ‘Over there’. I like this room, it seems to catch, and hold, light like a stone lens. Outside, on the steps, a small coffee stall has been set up, there are people congregating in the afternoon sun, some in animated conversation. All relaxed. It’s a different ‘relaxed’ to the feeling inside the building, but Hawksmoor would be happy that 300 years on, his design is a focal point.

From artistic Georgian elegance to prosaic Victorian utility. Over the road is Old Spitalfields Market, built in 1887. The iron-girdered hall stands on the ruins of markets held there since 1638, it could easily be a Victorian train shed, like Temple Meads or Paddington. Instead of steam, it was filled with wholesale fruit and veg., until 1991, when the business moved to Leyton. It reminds me of visits in the Sixties, with Reid Skipper, to Smithfield, in Manchester. Porters, shouting, jokes, trolleys, cases of oranges being dropped. Noisy and vibrant. This market has been revived. Where there was noise, there is now colour. Where there was bustle, there is now browsing. It’s Arty Farty handbags, jewelry and shoes. It’s street food, allegedly, from all corners of the globe. It’s stall holders who have spent ages, making their wares, setting up their stall, dressing the part, but don’t look like selling anything, busy themselves. This is not my sort of place, there are no books or music. Great that an old building has been saved, and is being used by ordinary people. But . . .

Over the crossing and there’s the ‘Ten Bells’, beloved of Ripper Tours, and Geographic profilers, one of his victims disappeared from here. It does have that Victorian ‘basic’ look, but I prefer my pubs, well, a bit more ‘pubby’. Turning right into Hanbury St. and . . . he’s here again. He ‘did’ one here. Thankfully the grizzly scene has now been covered by a 1960s extension of Truman’s Brewery. There’s just a ‘Flemish bond’ brick wall to look at, whilst voyeuristic imaginations try to run riot. As they stare they may not realise that behind them, is a blue plaque, Bud Flanagan, or Chaim Reuben Weintrop, as he was born, before changing it to Robert Winthrop, was born here in 1896. Who? Well, he was almost before my time, but he was a leading member of a national institution, around World War Two, The Crazy Gang. They were a comedy act in the heyday of variety. Somehow, this plaque seems apt, as a marker that many Jewish East Enders found their way out, via the theatre.

The junction of Wilkes St. and Hanbury St. is a choked mess of honking cars and, involuntarily, stationary vans, whilst two lorries negotiate for priority rights, in, and out, of the packed building site, where Truman’s Brewery stood. Lots of pointy fingers and “If you went theres…..” and dirty looks. This is a real Mexican stand-off, but the smiles, on the faces of the passing pedestrians, make it all worthwhile, unless you are one of the unlucky, static, motorists. Where’s the Congestion Charge when you need one? As I go down Wilkes St., there’s another amateur photographer, busy snapping away. He sees I’m on the same mission. Snap.”Wow! How brilliant is this?” Snap. “Look at that door!” Snap. “What a fantastic place!” Snap. “Yeah,” I drawl, feeling like an old hand,”Unspoiled Georgian is always good for a picture. Have you been down Fournier St. yet?” “Which one’s that?” All of sudden my three previous visits give me a, sort of, status. How sad is that? Here, 260 years ago lived the Bouilliers, M. Duthoit, who was a Captain in the ‘Trained Band’ and M. Deheul, who promised to provide the Band with 47 men. 1745 was ‘payback time’ as far as the French Protestants were concerned, I wonder if they actually wanted the Jacobites to reach London, to give them the opportunity to give the Roman Catholic, French sponsored, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ a bloody nose?

I turn down Princelet St., it used to be called Princes St. I wonder why the change? The Huguenot, Fournier St., is only round the corner, but the atmosphere here is, undoubtedly, more Jewish, although Huguenot families did live here, from the period 1705-1720 when the houses were built. French names such as L’Amy, Durade and Allard were among the early occupants. People still live here, in fact, Number 13 is a holiday let. The first house you notice, though, is Number 4, with its pink, peeling, paintwork. There’s a film on ‘You Tube’ which shows its almost unchanged interior, bare, dark, a little ruinous and wooden, consequently, much in demand as a film and TV set. Over the road, at Number 17, the door lintel still carries its Georgian, carved number.
But, I am interested in Number 19. Originally it was a Huguenot house, owned by a Peter Ogier, but, in 1869, it became a synagogue, and remained a synagogue until the Jewish community had gone, in the mid-Seventies, and is now a, rarely opened, museum. My particular interest is the attic, because this is the site of Rodinsky’s Room. David Rodinsky was the subject of a fascinating book by Rachel Lichtenstein. He was a shadowy, Hassidic, figure who disappeared suddenly. He lived in the attic room of the synagogue, forgotten, until the room was ‘found’ and, inside, was a terrestrial ‘Marie Celeste’. Food on the table, tea in the pot, paper waiting to be read, but no sign of David. In the book, ‘Rodinsky’s Room’, the mystery is solved by Rachel, who, along the way makes some startling discoveries about her own family’s background. The door to the house is locked. Thwarted for the third time! The street is not all beautifully reconstructed, indeed it looks, outwardly, rather shabby. On the wall at the end there is some colourful graffiti, not really graffiti, a political noticeboard, history which will be eventually layered over or stripped off. On a door a life-size, stickwoman, in a black burqa holds the hand of a white stickman. No caption required. A poster of George Bush, and Osama Bin Laden, which states, ‘Greed for oil causes war’. Two posters proclaiming ‘Debt dependence is addictive, don’t start.’ and ‘Consumerism causes child labour’. Finally, a circular motif, of a child, on a seesaw, trying to balance with a bomb, in a twilit ruined scenario. All pertinent to our age, signs of the times, which time, itself, or the Council, will eventually erase. What will ‘Time Team’ find, in 800 years time, to give clues of how we, the ordinary New Elizabethans, thought or lived?

Once more down the ‘Curry Pleasure Canyon’, in search of a coffee. I turn right down Hanbury St., a street that is rich in street art, I hesitate to call it graffiti. Mysterious winged figures, underwater scenes, staring-eyed zombies, all temporary, appealing female heads, all marvellous. All will disappear, hopefully to be replaced by the next generation’s creativity and voice. At the bottom of the street is a coffee emporium. All things coffee are on sale. The smell of the roasting beans draws me like a magnet. It’s that smell that’s supposed to sell houses. Inside there are a myriad of coffees for sale, not in ‘grab-your-eye shiny bags’, not proclaiming that they are ‘Free Trade’, but in plain, brown, paper, bags. ‘Smokey flavour. Medium strenght (sic)’. ‘Arabica. Light body. Sweet flavour.’ What more do you need to know? And each coffee is clearly described, for a coffee-loving, non-expert coffee drinker, this is perfect, I know just what I am buying, this isn’t the usual lottery. In the back room is a bewildering array of coffee making technology, from the cheap(ish) lump of plastic to the convoluted piece of engineering that Billy Bean would have had, on ‘Children’s Hour’, all those years ago. It’s a gadgeteer’s dream. I can now disclose that the coffees that I chose were an absolute delight. I shall return to the end of Hanbury St., to this Aladdin’s Cave.

Back onto ‘The Strip’, and on to the site of Truman’s Brewery. The rear is a hive of building activity and the resultant traffic chaos is still evident, on Hanbury St. One lorry is discharging its load and is being serviced by a small group of Chinese workers and their, female, foreman/forewoman/foreperson(?). It seems strange that the whole crew are Chinese. It will be interesting to see what transpires here. This is about to become a ‘destination’. It is a destination for books and music now, at ‘Rough Trade’ and an art gallery is being prepared for an exhibition of, wait for it, Lego-built sculptures. Art knows no bounds. At the end of the Yard is an alfresco, coffee stall, with its own ‘Door Supervisor’. Besuited, muscly and huge, he, actually, has no door to supervise, but he still does look suitably threatening to the sole customers, an extremely safe looking, teenage, couple. Still, you never can tell! ‘Mr. T’ does not look overly concerned by their threat, though, as he is in a deep, meaningful, conversation, on his mobile ‘phone, for a good five minutes.

My next destination is the former Bishopsgate Goods Depot, by the viaduct. En route I pass Quaker St. Just a workaday street which at one time did have a Quaker Meeting House. Unlike the Huguenots, the Jews and the Muslims, the Quaker footprint is very light. Anti-Quaker feeling ran high, at the end of the seventeenth, and beginning of the eighteenth centuries. They were a bit different, I suppose, and a smattering of religious difference, mixed with a soupçon of ignorance, generally leads to persecution. No change today either. The Meeting House was, consequently, attacked. As the law stated that places of worship could not be defended, the Quaker community installed a tenant, so now this dwelling house could be defended. To no avail, the Meeting House fell down, of its own accord, in 1745. Now all that remains is the name of the street.

To my disappointment there is no way into the Goods Yard. So, it’s underneath the arches onto the less exotic end of Brick Lane. The two remaining Bagel shops are up there, sitting amongst normal shops, almost hidden, not ‘shouting’ that they’re there. Then, I notice, it crosses Bethnal Green Rd. and now I’m out of E1, into E2, on the boundary between Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. Here is just low cost, modern, terraced housing. I’m out of THE Brick Lane and onto the bit of Brick Lane where people live, it’s only 200m. long but it is still Brick Lane.

Time to retrace my steps, because I want to go to the second of my parks, Allen Gardens. This is so different to Altab Ali. It’s a huge expanse of grass. It’s not near a main road, although the London Overground runs alongside it. It isn’t crowded and there are all sorts of activities going on. But I know where I am, there is a strong smell of curry, the ‘pleasure zone’ is just behind me. People are, with the exception of a group of Jamaicans, in the corner, either alone or in pairs, and that changes the atmosphere immediately. Couples lounge on the grass, it’s still warm. A Dad walks his, uniformed, son back from school. Another Dad is playing with his children, on the swing park. Why aren’t they in school? The bench that I’m sitting on has a more recreational purpose, later in the evening, as the area behind me is littered with beer cans. Here the dogs are of the more amenable variety. No terriers here, there’s a Labrador, walking quietly on a lead. There’s a Border Collie, chasing a shop-bought projectile, hurled by his owner, for quite a distance, as well, but the collie is up for it. In fact, the owner ‘draws stumps’ before the dog is ready to finish. It’s hard work this throwing! A young woman takes her little . . . ‘what is it, past me. Curious, I ask her what breed it is. No reply. She has her throbbing ear plugs firmly wedged in, she’s oblivious to my question. . . or isn’t sure whether she wants to answer the suspicious-looking guy asking it anyway. A jogger. He must be 75, if he’s a day. He’s wearing a bright yellow Adidas top, light blue, brief, shorts and black trainers. How can he go out with so little jogfashion sense? He should be told. Mind, he does look as if he’s struggling a bit. Nevertheless I always feel a pang of regret that my running days are over, made even worse when the runner is, palpably, older than me. What is he doing in the centre of the park? There’s a half-naked man doing his yoga exercises and, I’ve got to say, making a bit of a spectacle of himself, every passer-by turns to look. But unabashed, he carries on, or, perhaps, he enjoys being abashed! This is not the Spitalfields of the Ripper, this is a modern place of relaxation, a place of repose. It has a calm atmosphere everything here is ‘cool’. There isn’t even the usual collapsed drunk, ‘sleeping it off’. This a park is in any town in the country.

My final destination awaits. The last of my parks. I plunge back into the ‘Brash Slash’. Down Princelet St. and into Puma Court, once Red Lion Court, which joins Wilkes St. to Commercial St. There are two, two-storey, yellow brick buildings, standing behind railings on the right and there is a stone inlaid; ‘These almshouses were erected in the year 1860 for poor inhabitants of the liberty of North Folgate in place of those built in the year 1728 lately taken down for the new street.’
The ‘new street’ was a widening of Commercial St., due to the increase of traffic into London Docks. This was an endeavour to alleviate some of the abject poverty, in mid-century Spitalfields, unlike Flower and Dean St. this was not a ‘for (reasonable) profit’ venture. Each of the inhabitants, lodged in the 16 rooms, received 2/6d per month, a ticket for a loaf of bread each week, 6cwt. (Hundredweight, for the under 30s! 20cwt. made one ton) each December 21st. (officially the first day of Winter) and materials for a Christmas Dinner. They were a place for those who were struggling to earn a living, and were in extreme poverty. Unlike today, the poor, whoever they are, were not reviled, efforts were made to ease their burden, witness the developments in other parts of the East End. The 21st.century has so much to learn from the 19th. That is not to say everything was perfect, it was certainly not, but the well-to-do did seem to have an awareness of what went on, beyond their gilded doors.

Christ Church Gardens is where I intend to sit and take stock of today’s walk. The small garden sits adjoining Hawksmoor’s church. 40m x 20m? An intimate space, surrounded by shrubs, with a tree at its centre. A totally different experience to both Altab Ali and Allen Gardens. I sit on a bench under the tree, in isolation, and look at my notes, and photographs, writing down my final, on site, thoughts on what I’d seen. But I was not alone. Concentrating on what I was doing, I didn’t notice the man who came and sat next to me on the bench. I had seen a sleeping bag under the shrubs at the back of the park. I presumed it was abandoned. It wasn’t.
“I’m not going to ask you for money, I just want to talk to someone.” He’d left his sleeping bag under the bushes.
“I saw you were writing, and thought you looked like a person who would give me a conversation.” His English was eloquent, but clumsy, and delivered in what seemed like an Eastern European accent.
“I’m not going to ask you for money. Nobody usually speaks to me. I think that they are frightened.” I agreed with him, they probably were, in fact , I was nervous, but I had no need to be. He wasn’t scruffy. He didn’t smell of drink. He wasn’t aggressive.
“Where are you from? You aren’t from London.” He was questioning me! I explained that, although I was English, I lived in France, and asked him where he was from?
“Poland. But I came here with my parents, in 1950. They did not like the new Poland. I have been back much times, but I prefer it much here in England. I still prefer it here in England. I don’t like the new new Poland.”
“Whereabouts in Poland?”
“Cracow.”
I knew that my Great Uncle Moreton was buried there, he had died in a POW camp in 1944. He was one of the survivors of Dunkirk, who was not picked up off the beach by ‘the small boats’. There were many of those, who were to perish in captivity. I asked him if he knew of the cemetery, where Moreton could be buried, but he didn’t. I asked him where he lived now, but he didn’t seem to want to tell me.
“Have you got a home?” I persisted.
“No. I’m a alcoholic. There is no trust.”
I had moved on, from talking to someone sleeping rough, to talking to a guy in a park. A normal conversation. In fact, not a normal conversation because we talked about his Roman Catholic beliefs and my own beliefs. We talked about philosophy. We talked about why he felt that the English people were so welcoming, and how guilty he felt that he couldn’t hold down a job. He even talked about the differences between London and Cracow. He was an educated man. We talked for nearly half an hour. I had to go, and stood up to leave. I was the foreigner and he was the local. I know he had said that he wasn’t asking for money, and he didn’t, but I felt that I’d like to give him a tenner, for whatever he needed it. I offered him a note.
“I didn’t want your money. I wanted to talk.That’s all.” He turned and went back towards the bench. No further words. I left. This was a man that I would have avoided, perhaps been a little afraid of. There must be so many people out there, in the same boat, all they need is a chance, a chance to show that they are normally functioning people, not shuffling threats to be avoided. It was an experience humbling, and illuminating, at the same time. I’m so glad I met him, and I never even asked him his name! Throughout the ensuing hours, and days, I was asking myself whether I should have done more. He left and I felt that my response had been inadequate. I did feel, though, that the encounter had given me a deeper understanding of the cultural story of Spitalfields.

I had decided to finish my day with a meal. But it wasn’t going to be a curry.
On Hanbury St. there is a cracking little Fish and Chip shop. Haddock, chips and mushy peas. Bliss. The meal was delicious and the batter on the fish perfect.
“Who made the batter?”
“I did.”
The voice came from behind the range, in a non-London accent.
“Marvellous. Really crisp and tasty. But you’re not English are you? Where did you learn to make batter as good as that?”
“It’s easy when you know how. Just practice.”
No batter secrets were going to be divulged here. It bore all the secrecy of the Northumberland leek growers fertiliser!
“And we’re Kurdish.”
He returned to the range, he had more important fish to fry, than talking to me, much as I would have enjoyed it.

The traditions of Whitechapel, with its cultural ebb and flow, which has gone on for centuries, continue. Tide after tide of immigration has washed over, and enriched, the area. Spitalfields has been the starting point for numberless stories of assimilation, an assimilation which has given more than it has taken. The descendants of each wave have spread, and thrived throughout the country. No longer are they immigrants from Asia or Europe, they are members of our society. And walking through the East End, today, this life-enriching process continues.

Advertisements

Ivor Gurney. The Gloucestershire genius.

To search for the places that inspired poets can be rewarding, although, if you are looking for the soul of John Clare, you won’t find it in the huge, enclosed fields around Helpston. I went to Gloucestershire to search for the countryside that inspired Ivor Gurney, and it’s still there. There are many similarities between the two men, in particular, they both escaped from Lunatic Asylums, and they both died incarcerated in one. They both wrote about the areas where they lived with clarity and emotion.

‘The Boat’ is a small, red brick, pub on the banks of the River Severn, at Ashleworth Quay. There was a chain ferry over the river until 1916, and it was to that ferry that Ivor Gurney would walk, or cycle, from his home, in nearby Gloucester. It was a small pub at the turn of the last century, when working boats plied the river, and it is a small pub still, now that the traffic is purely pleasure craft.

On this warm, October, day this is where I am beginning my walk around Ivor Gurney’s Severn meadows. Sadly the pub is, temporarily, shut. It was overrun by the river, which must have risen ten feet or more, in the January floods, earlier in the year. The worst flooding since the snow-melt of 1947. It did reopen, but closed for refurbishment in June. I’m informed that the owners are now looking for a new landlord. It really does look inviting with a small beer garden abutting the old brew house. But this pub has history, although it wears it lightly. It had been owned by the same family since the seventeenth century. The story goes that the future Charles II, fleeing from the Battle of Worcester, in 1651, was ferried across the Severn by a man named Jelf. At the Restoration Charles rewarded the Jelf family, by granting them the rights to run a ferry and sell ale from their farmhouse. There is, there always is, an alternative legend that the pub goes back even further, to the time of Edward IV, who, whilst fleeing from the Lancastrians, was helped by the Jelf family. Whatever the truth, the family are still there, and, in this remote spot, both legends are totally believable.

Ivor Gurney did drink here,he did cross the ferry as well, and wrote a poem about it. He wrote it in 1925, in the Asylum at Dartford. Memories of Gloucester, as well as his time in France.

Since Roman had gone there, Dane also gone
Surely it was before the old path of Briton-
Many had gone before me with music had foregone.
And I who had passed from the city once all Roman,
By ways of Dane, by a church named of Saxon.
Looked over to Ferry, hailed and shouted on
Till the boat came – and where Harpers had often ferried;
I was also rowed on Severn, Severn me bore and carried;
(Who had written verse at Dane Rouen, music near Roman Vermand)
To see the tithe barn so noble, the church by time scarred.
Ashelworth the name as musical as any in the Severn-land.

But it is more recent history that catches the eye. Against the back wall, facing the ferry, is a bench, with a brightly-coloured, tub of flowers, alongside, dedicated to the memory of Jacquie Nicholls, who had kept the pub until her untimely death, at the age of 54, in 2003. She was a niece of Irene and Sybil Jelf who had run the pub for over 25 years, until Sybil’s death in 1990. This is a true family concern.

History isn’t always paper, or bricks and mortar. On an outhouse wall, facing the lane are two metal advertisements, ‘Ask for Red Bell Tobacco. The old favourite’, and ‘A1Light’, which, I can only assume, is another brand of tobacco. Tobacco advertising that has escaped the government’s health strictures. This is living history, the People’s history. Opposite inlaid into the ground, with pebbles, in front of the garden gate, another memory of an, obviously, much-loved, landlady, ‘Rene and Jacquie’s Garden. The Boat Inn.’ I am determined to have a pint in this lovely little pub when it re-opens.

Two hundred yards down the narrow lane, I am deep into Medieval England. A barn, a house and a church, huddled closely together. The barn is a Tithe Barn (a tenth for the Church) and, as Ivor says is a ‘noble’ building, a mighty place of toil. It’s owned by the National Trust and, oddly for them, it’s open . . . and free. This magnificent barn was built at the end of the fifteenth century, by the monks of St. Augustine’s Abbey, in Bristol, in local, blue, lias, stone. It’s double-fronted, both doors having quartered gates. The interior is cathedral-like in its proportions, and is the medieval equivalent of that other mighty space of labour, the Turbine Hall, at Tate Modern, in London. There are two threshing floors. This would have been a place of great agricultural activity. Where there is now sepulchral silence there would have been torrents of ‘agricultural’ language. Sound is difficult to preserve. Much sweat has been generated here. But people, of that age, were also aware of the fact that they shared the land, and that everything had its place. High in the gable end they built in an ‘owl hole’, to provide the nocturnal predator with access to roosts and, also, to allow them to perform their ‘pest control’ duties. But men (I can only assume that it is men) have left their mark in other ways. By the doors, etched into the walls, are centuries of graffiti, men’s timeless need to scratch their initials onto buildings. The need to be remembered. Well, ‘HDT 1673’, consider yourself marked for posterity, whoever you were! Of another age, this is the history of the people who lived, toiled and died here, and their hard, hard, lives.

The church of St. Andrew and St. Bartholomew stands around the corner, not, as Ivor describes it, ‘time-scarred’, at all. The Church of England has the habit of locking its churches, (“You look like a thief. Begone!”) but, again, I’m in luck, this one is open, and what a gem. The cultural genocide perpetrated by the Normans is in evidence here, of course. In the South wall you can see where a Saxon doorway has been filled in, and replaced by a Norman one, but they did leave some Saxon herringbone brickwork. Unlike many churches, not every Saxon trace was expunged. Much of the building belongs to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but there is a feeling that this is a vibrant parish community today. At the east end of the South aisle is a beautifully painted, Royal, coat-of-arms, ‘E R’. This could be for Edward VI. If so, that it survived the efforts of Mary, to return England to the Roman Church, is unusual, and very rare. The South aisle is tiled in Victorian tiles and also contains the, coffin-like, Parish Chest, the centuries old repository for the parish documents. The Filing Cabinet and Safe.
In the West wall there is a door, above which is a painted text from an epistle of St. Peter, ‘But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer’. This is the door through which the coffin bearers entered and left the church. This is, literally, ‘Death’s Door’.

The church is in closer proximity to The Lord of the Manor than it is to the village, closer to the money than the souls, that is. Over the wall is Ashleworth Court, built at the end of the fifteenth century. It now pays its way as a Bed and Breakfast. Two large lancet windows suggest that there is a Great Hall lurking indoors, but, unfortunately, it is private property, I’ll never know, but it is a beautiful looking, and well-kept, house.

Before I strike off into the fields I pass the graveyard. It has an, inscribed, lych gate. ‘To the memory of Eveline Anne Savage 1877-1945 who resided in Ashleworth during the raids on Merseyside. Erected by her husband.’ The dates here do not seem to make any sense, in connection to the reference to the air raids. Was she a long term resident? Did she come here to escape the Blitz? In her sixties seems a bit old to be an evacuee? Through a gap in the hedge, there, close together, in death, the gravestones of Ms. Nicholls and the Jelf sisters, from ‘The Boat’. Rest in peace Ladies.

Straight in front of me I can see Barrow Hill. This was a favourite walk of Ivor Gurney, up, its shallow slope and into the small wood on its top, I hesitate to call it a summit, from here he could see for miles over countryside that he loved. I walk alongside a hedge through which, to my left, I can see a manor house, built in 1460, as a retreat for the abbot of St. Augustine’s. He wouldn’t have had long to enjoy it before his monastery was dissolved, but then he wasn’t to know that, was he? Ashleworth Quay must have been a hive of building activity, at that time, with men engaged in construction all over the hamlet. It’s hard to imagine this quiet place as a ‘hive of activity’ but with construction, labour-intensive agricultural methods and the river traffic, it must have been. Quaint old hamlets they may be now, but, centuries ago, this is where people lived and worked, there would have been noise and bustle. Their rude homes didn’t have the ‘staying power’ of the stone-built manor houses, but they were here. There are similarities with searching for our own working class roots. The terraced houses where my family lived and worked have gone. Covered with trading estates or new developments, and they lived there only a century ago. Brick-built to last? I don’t think so, it isn’t always the ‘wrecking ball’, but the ‘wrecking ball’ of time that sees them off.

The hedge alongside which I’m walking is a feast of colour, even at this late stage of the year. The hawthorn berries are still a vivid red, setting off the black of the sloes on the blackthorns, delicate flowers nestle in the hedge bottom, yellow and blue, whilst, above, the hazels are thick with nuts. Higher still the walnuts and chestnuts bear a rich harvest. I wonder if the locals are as keen on foraging as their Breton counterparts? Crossing a lane Barrow Hill is before me. Over the road, follow the path and then the path disappears, I can’t see any discernible track across the next field, nor a stile in the opposite hedge. Ivor, in his walking, would not have encountered barbed wire, that was something which he would become well acquainted with, in France, during the war, but here hedges and fences would be his most difficult obstacles. Farmers would respect people’s right to roam then. I don’t think I’ll chance it, I’ll take to the lanes.

As well as well-defended fields, there is one other thing, at this spot, and he must have stood here, that he would not have recognised, the power lines and their huge stanchions. They spread their feet wide and hum as you pass. It was the view from near here that evoked, in ‘Winter Beauty’, written at the Front in February 1917 ;

I cannot live with beauty out of mind
I search for her and desire her all the day
Beauty, the choicest treasure man may find
Most joyous and sweetest word his lips can say
The crowded heart in me is quick with visions
And sweetest music born of a brighter day.

This gives an example of the poet’s art and craft. This verse was written on two bits of paper stained with bully beef from a spitting fire. He said ‘these two disgracefully dirty scraps of paper I am sending contain two of my best things’. Six months later he redrafted them into;

I cannot live with beauty out of mind;
I seek her and desire her all the day,
Being the chiefest treasure man may find,
And word most sweet his eager lips can say.
She is as strong on me as though I wandered
In Severn meadows some blue riotous day.

But the animals remain. There are cows in the adjacent field and, further over, a flock of sheep graze. But, as I follow the wire, a pair of grey horses a mother and daughter I think, follow me. When I stop they come over I but when they realise that all they are going to get is a stroke, rather than some food, they quickly lose interest and wander off.

The farmer has tried to mettle the way to the lane with some broken bricks, to give the tractor some purchase. I pick up one of them, hoping for a clue to it’s origin and there, stamped on it, is the word ‘Fletton’. An old brick from an old company? The remains of a demolished cottage? Not a bit of it. ‘Fletton’ is the generic name for bricks fired from Lower Oxford Clay. They are actually named after the village, near Peterborough, where the benefits of a brick, fired with lower fuel costs, was first recognised. In 1923 the giant London Brick Company took over the firm, and production was moved to Marston Vale, in Bedfordshire, where millions of bricks were produced. Most of us, of a certain age, will remember the huge brick kilns which ran alongside the M1, near Junction 13, for many years before their demolition. In fact, they are, probably, remembered with fondness by many. The northerners last fleeting glimpse of industry on his way into the rural south. Massive disappointment.

As I reach the lane it occurs to me that, thus far, I haven’t seen a single vehicle or met a single person, and I’ve been walking for well over an hour. It would not have been so quiet in Ivor Gurney’s day. The walking on Gloucestershire lanes is not dissimilar to walking through the bocage countryside of Normandy, high hedges to weatherproof the lanes and only glimpses of the neighbouring land.

Eventually, through woods and fields, I reach the ribbon development that is Wickeridge Street. Hardly noticeable, just farms and the odd cottage. Gurney’s thoughts were constantly drawn back to Gloucestershire, and it’s countryside, whilst he was in France. He identified French villages, or their remains, with these villages. He could have been writing about this village in his poem ‘Riez Bailleul’;

Riez Bailleul in blue tea-time
Called back the Severn lanes and roads
Of hawthorn leaves turned with night’s rime
No Severn though nor great valley clouds.

Here we have Lime Kiln Farm, not too difficult to imagine the origin of its name. My dream of local bricks made with local lime was quashed miles back! Berrow Farmhouse could once have been ‘Barrow Farmhouse’ as in the hill. Yew Tree Farm with it’s gloriously huge yew. And there is ‘ ——– Cottage’, a small, timber framed Seventeenth century building, and it’s for sale. I wonder? A quick look at the Estate Agent’s blurb, perhaps;

‘Though Gloucester took a hard blow from the Recession that it has yet to recover from, this home has been a solid investment making estimated gains of 6% to
£263 785 since it was last purchased in July 2004.’

So the present ‘investor’ has lived there for ten years, having paid £250 000 for it. What about the location, the interior decor, the size? Is it a ‘nice little earner’ or a home?

‘The neighbourhood will be almost all white British residents as there is a bit of a lack of diversity (sic).’

What? What year is this? Where am I? What message is this giving to what audience? Is this sort of stuff still allowed in 2014? Obviously it is among this firm’s clientele. Doesn’t mention gays, so we’re probably alright on that front as well!

‘and an average age of 48, so you may not see so many children running round.’

Well that’s a relief! None of those noisy little oiks enjoying themselves in the fields during the holidays? And, probably, no Lambrettas, Vespas, Suzukis and Yamahas (motorcycles rather than organs) either. But it doesn’t rule out geriatric bikers on their Harley-Davidsons, does it? Mmmmm.

‘Nearby residents tend to be well-educated with over 25% having a university degree’

So three-quarters of the population are from the uneducated classes, well it doesn’t actually say that, but I shall feel superior with my ‘lower second BA’ in Theatre Design from the University of West Wombleshire. And it doesn’t say 25% of how many. But who’s interested? It’s only a jolly good number anyway.

‘And they say (to nosey Estate Agent’s clerks, at any rate) that they are in relatively (generally, usually, at times?) good health, overall.’

Oh, excellent. We shan’t be bothered by ambulances and their sirens or
lane-jamming funeral corteges. And there may be half a chance of immortality! Of course, any house viewer would notice those nasty, woolly, furry things over the road. They, cleverly, haven’t mentioned them, but we’ve seen them.
(Nudge. Nudge). Do they make those bleaty sort of noises all night? And they do clear up their own mess . . . don’t they?

I really am in a world that Ivor Gurney would not recognise, and would not want to recognise. Those quotes are real, they have been taken, verbatim from the Internet. I can’t believe that these are the criteria upon which homes are bought. Yet, to stand and look, this is a working, farming, community. Something there about appearances being deceptive. These buildings were there in his time, he would have known them. He would have respected them. This has been a rudely catapulted re-entry into the money-grubbing, status-conscious, world that is twenty first century England.

Then left onto a Private Road or driveway. A multitude of ‘Keep Out’, ‘Strictly Private’ signs. This is a threatening roadway. Then, the road is gated. Without thinking I move through, at least ten paces towards a Victorian, Gothic, mansion. Ten paces is all it takes, “Can I help you?” (“What the hell are you doing here?”). I can see that this is an impressive pile, with an impressive view, I’m standing at the side of the house. “Well?”(Are you dumb?). This is Foscombe House, built in 1866 and on the market for a cool £3.5m. Sir Nikolas Pevsner was mightily impressed by it, as an ‘unspoiled Victorian fantasy’. The Bramah family had lived there. Who?
The inventors of the fountain pen, the beer pump and the water closet. Those Bramahs? An author called Derek Marlow lived there as well. You know, the one who married Suki Phipps, the daughter of Sir Fitzroy Maclean. He wrote an episode of ‘Murder She Wrote’. Yes, him. He did have some great advice for aspiring writers,
“Never think too hard about what you’re going to write – just jump in. I’ve never known the end of my book, nor even the middle, until after I’m halfway through.” Maths was obviously not a strong point. But, and here we do get closer to my present predicament, in the 1980s it was owned by Charlie Watts. THE Charlie Watts. There were reports that he was going to sell it for £200 000 in 1983. A reporter from the Western Daily Press was despatched to investigate. No sooner had our correspondent set foot out of the car than a pack of dogs were on him, closely followed by a yellow track-suited Rolling Stone, who invited him to leave, or words to that effect. And he seemed like the nicest of the Stones! “Well? Come on. Move off.” (Move. Now.). “I’m looking for the track to Ashleworth.” “Out of that gate and turn left.” Well at least there were no dogs!

So down the indicated track I went. I got the impression that I had approached the house by the original back entrance, and that I was now walking parallel with the original main drive, heading for the front of the house. The rôles were now reversed. And, to be honest, although I’m not a huge fan of Victorian Gothic, this did look pretty spectacular.

I actually join the drive outside the confines of the main gate and head down the main road into the village of Ashleworth. The name is probably Saxon, ‘the enclosure of Aescel’. I just love researching the derivations of place-names. This has the feel of a real village. The village post office next to the village hall. A mix of housing because it seems that many older buildings have been, I nearly said ‘preserved’, but they are still in active use, alongside their more modern counterparts, which seem to fill natural, rather than contrived, gaps. The population is, about 550. It was 553 in 2001. In 1971 it had dropped to 300, from a high of 590 in 1861, the mechanization of agriculture? But, due to new building it seems to have stabilised. I go into the Post Office for some refreshment after my walk, and it’s everything a village shop should be, selling bits of everything, sweets for the kids and a few papers. The lady behind the counter, probably the owner, was cheery and chatty. I enjoyed spending a few ‘bob’ there. These places, desperately, need preserving, they are quintessentially English, never mind Maggie’s market forces! Society needs them. Oh I was forgetting, there is no such thing as Society. Well, yes there is, and I’m in it! There’s a solid looking, early nineteenth century, red-brick, pub, selling food and real ale. In itself a history lesson. The window, in the middle, on the ground floor, used to be the front door, the middle window on the first floor has been restored, after it had been bricked in. Perhaps a victim of the Window Tax, introduced in 1696 and not repealed until 1851. So would it have been built between these years with an extra window. One for the ‘House Detectives’. The ‘Queens Arms’. More essential ‘Society’. I like this place. My road now led back to Ashleworth Quay, a downhill mile. An unremarkable mile, except for the group of church, barn and manor, which I have enjoyed on my way out.

So I’m back at the deserted ferry, river and pub. There used to be two pubs here, ‘The Boat’ and ‘The Wheatsheaf’ and five or more dwellings, a small settlement. Of them, save ‘The Boat’, there is no sign. With exception of a few people, and the odd car, in the village itself, this has been a solitary walk. I sit, for nearly an hour, reading and musing about Ivor Gurney. A lone river cruiser passes on the Severn, and the helmsman acknowledges me with a wave. I think that I have seen something of what drove him to recall this place, in verse, whilst he was fighting in France. The rural isolation that appealed to him, where he was free to inhale the air of poetry and song. I can recognise his desire to return from Dartford, to the green of Gloucestershire, and it seems a crime that he was not allowed to. I have only touched on his poetry but he was a gifted musician as well. He must sit, with John Clare, as one of those Englishmen with great, unsung, genius, who at last are beginning to be recognised and fêted.

Above Ashleworth

O does some blind fool stand on my hill
To see how Ashleworth nestles by the river?
Where eyes and heart and soul may drink their fill.

The Cotswolds stand out eastwards as if never
A curve of them the hand of Time might change;
Beauty sleeps most confidently forever.

The blind fool stands , his dull eyes free to range
Endlessly almost, and finds no word to say;
Not that the sense of wonder is too strange

Too great for speech. Naught touches him; the day
Blows it’s glad trumpets, breathes rich-odoured breath
Glory after glory passes away.

(And I’m in France!) He looks and sees beneath
The clouds in steady Severn silver and grey
But dead he is and comfortable in Death.

Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney. Dreaming of Ashleworth.

To search for the places that inspired poets can be rewarding, although, if you are looking for the soul of John Clare, you won’t find it in the huge, enclosed fields around Helpston. I went to Gloucestershire to search for the countryside that inspired Ivor Gurney, and it’s still there. There are many similarities between the two men, in particular, they both escaped from Lunatic Asylums, and they both died incarcerated in one. They both wrote about the areas where they lived with clarity and emotion.

‘The Boat’ is a small, red brick, pub on the banks of the River Severn, at Ashleworth Quay. There was a chain ferry over the river until 1916, and it was to that ferry that Ivor Gurney would walk, or cycle, from his home, in nearby Gloucester. It was a small pub at the turn of the last century, when working boats plied the river, and it is a small pub still, now that the traffic is purely pleasure craft.

On this warm, October, day this is where I am beginning my walk around Ivor Gurney’s Severn meadows. Sadly the pub is, temporarily, shut. It was overrun by the river, which must have risen ten feet or more, in the January floods, earlier in the year. The worst flooding since the snow-melt of 1947. It did reopen, but closed for refurbishment in June. I’m informed that the owners are now looking for a new landlord. It really does look inviting with a small beer garden abutting the old brew house. But this pub has history, although it wears it lightly. It had been owned by the same family since the seventeenth century. The story goes that the future Charles II, fleeing from the Battle of Worcester, in 1651, was ferried across the Severn by a man named Jelf. At the Restoration Charles rewarded the Jelf family, by granting them the rights to run a ferry and sell ale from their farmhouse. There is, there always is, an alternative legend that the pub goes back even further, to the time of Edward IV, who, whilst fleeing from the Lancastrians, was helped by the Jelf family. Whatever the truth, the family are still there, and, in this remote spot, both legends are totally believable.

Ivor Gurney did drink here,he did cross the ferry as well, and wrote a poem about it. He wrote it in 1925, in the Asylum at Dartford. Memories of Gloucester, as well as his time in France.

Since Roman had gone there, Dane also gone
Surely it was before the old path of Briton-
Many had gone before me with music had foregone.
And I who had passed from the city once all Roman,
By ways of Dane, by a church named of Saxon.
Looked over to Ferry, hailed and shouted on
Till the boat came – and where Harpers had often ferried;
I was also rowed on Severn, Severn me bore and carried;
(Who had written verse at Dane Rouen, music near Roman Vermand)
To see the tithe barn so noble, the church by time scarred.
Ashelworth the name as musical as any in the Severn-land.

But it is more recent history that catches the eye. Against the back wall, facing the ferry, is a bench, with a brightly-coloured, tub of flowers, alongside, dedicated to the memory of Jacquie Nicholls, who had kept the pub until her untimely death, at the age of 54, in 2003. She was a niece of Irene and Sybil Jelf who had run the pub for over 25 years, until Sybil’s death in 1990. This is a true family concern.

History isn’t always paper, or bricks and mortar. On an outhouse wall, facing the lane are two metal advertisements, ‘Ask for Red Bell Tobacco. The old favourite’, and ‘A1Light’, which, I can only assume, is another brand of tobacco. Tobacco advertising that has escaped the government’s health strictures. This is living history, the People’s history. Opposite inlaid into the ground, with pebbles, in front of the garden gate, another memory of an, obviously, much-loved, landlady, ‘Rene and Jacquie’s Garden. The Boat Inn.’ I am determined to have a pint in this lovely little pub when it re-opens.

Two hundred yards down the narrow lane, I am deep into Medieval England. A barn, a house and a church, huddled closely together. The barn is a Tithe Barn (a tenth for the Church) and, as Ivor says is a ‘noble’ building, a mighty place of toil. It’s owned by the National Trust and, oddly for them, it’s open . . . and free. This magnificent barn was built at the end of the fifteenth century, by the monks of St. Augustine’s Abbey, in Bristol, in local, blue, lias, stone. It’s double-fronted, both doors having quartered gates. The interior is cathedral-like in its proportions, and is the medieval equivalent of that other mighty space of labour, the Turbine Hall, at Tate Modern, in London. There are two threshing floors. This would have been a place of great agricultural activity. Where there is now sepulchral silence there would have been torrents of ‘agricultural’ language. Sound is difficult to preserve. Much sweat has been generated here. But people, of that age, were also aware of the fact that they shared the land, and that everything had its place. High in the gable end they built in an ‘owl hole’, to provide the nocturnal predator with access to roosts and, also, to allow them to perform their ‘pest control’ duties. But men (I can only assume that it is men) have left their mark in other ways. By the doors, etched into the walls, are centuries of graffiti, men’s timeless need to scratch their initials onto buildings. The need to be remembered. Well, ‘HDT 1673’, consider yourself marked for posterity, whoever you were! Of another age, this is the history of the people who lived, toiled and died here, and their hard, hard, lives.

The church of St. Andrew and St. Bartholomew stands around the corner, not, as Ivor describes it, ‘time-scarred’, at all. The Church of England has the habit of locking its churches, (“You look like a thief. Begone!”) but, again, I’m in luck, this one is open, and what a gem. The cultural genocide perpetrated by the Normans is in evidence here, of course. In the South wall you can see where a Saxon doorway has been filled in, and replaced by a Norman one, but they did leave some Saxon herringbone brickwork. Unlike many churches, not every Saxon trace was expunged. Much of the building belongs to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but there is a feeling that this is a vibrant parish community today. At the east end of the South aisle is a beautifully painted, Royal, coat-of-arms, ‘E R’. This could be for Edward VI. If so, that it survived the efforts of Mary, to return England to the Roman Church, is unusual, and very rare. The South aisle is tiled in Victorian tiles and also contains the, coffin-like, Parish Chest, the centuries old repository for the parish documents. The Filing Cabinet and Safe.
In the West wall there is a door, above which is a painted text from an epistle of St. Peter, ‘But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer’. This is the door through which the coffin bearers entered and left the church. This is, literally, ‘Death’s Door’.

The church is in closer proximity to The Lord of the Manor than it is to the village, closer to the money than the souls, that is. Over the wall is Ashleworth Court, built at the end of the fifteenth century. It now pays its way as a Bed and Breakfast. Two large lancet windows suggest that there is a Great Hall lurking indoors, but, unfortunately, it is private property, I’ll never know, but it is a beautiful looking, and well-kept, house.

Before I strike off into the fields I pass the graveyard. It has an, inscribed, lych gate. ‘To the memory of Eveline Anne Savage 1877-1945 who resided in Ashleworth during the raids on Merseyside. Erected by her husband.’ The dates here do not seem to make any sense, in connection to the reference to the air raids. Was she a long term resident? Did she come here to escape the Blitz? In her sixties seems a bit old to be an evacuee? Through a gap in the hedge, there, close together, in death, the gravestones of Ms. Nicholls and the Jelf sisters, from ‘The Boat’. Rest in peace Ladies.

Straight in front of me I can see Barrow Hill. This was a favourite walk of Ivor Gurney, up, its shallow slope and into the small wood on its top, I hesitate to call it a summit, from here he could see for miles over countryside that he loved. I walk alongside a hedge through which, to my left, I can see a manor house, built in 1460, as a retreat for the abbot of St. Augustine’s. He wouldn’t have had long to enjoy it before his monastery was dissolved, but then he wasn’t to know that, was he? Ashleworth Quay must have been a hive of building activity, at that time, with men engaged in construction all over the hamlet. It’s hard to imagine this quiet place as a ‘hive of activity’ but with construction, labour-intensive agricultural methods and the river traffic, it must have been. Quaint old hamlets they may be now, but, centuries ago, this is where people lived and worked, there would have been noise and bustle. Their rude homes didn’t have the ‘staying power’ of the stone-built manor houses, but they were here. There are similarities with searching for our own working class roots. The terraced houses where my family lived and worked have gone. Covered with trading estates or new developments, and they lived there only a century ago. Brick-built to last? I don’t think so, it isn’t always the ‘wrecking ball’, but the ‘wrecking ball’ of time that sees them off.

The hedge alongside which I’m walking is a feast of colour, even at this late stage of the year. The hawthorn berries are still a vivid red, setting off the black of the sloes on the blackthorns, delicate flowers nestle in the hedge bottom, yellow and blue, whilst, above, the hazels are thick with nuts. Higher still the walnuts and chestnuts bear a rich harvest. I wonder if the locals are as keen on foraging as their Breton counterparts? Crossing a lane Barrow Hill is before me. Over the road, follow the path and then the path disappears, I can’t see any discernible track across the next field, nor a stile in the opposite hedge. Ivor, in his walking, would not have encountered barbed wire, that was something which he would become well acquainted with, in France, during the war, but here hedges and fences would be his most difficult obstacles. Farmers would respect people’s right to roam then. I don’t think I’ll chance it, I’ll take to the lanes.

As well as well-defended fields, there is one other thing, at this spot, and he must have stood here, that he would not have recognised, the power lines and their huge stanchions. They spread their feet wide and hum as you pass. It was the view from near here that evoked, in ‘Winter Beauty’, written at the Front in February 1917 ;

I cannot live with beauty out of mind
I search for her and desire her all the day
Beauty, the choicest treasure man may find
Most joyous and sweetest word his lips can say
The crowded heart in me is quick with visions
And sweetest music born of a brighter day.

This gives an example of the poet’s art and craft. This verse was written on two bits of paper stained with bully beef from a spitting fire. He said ‘these two disgracefully dirty scraps of paper I am sending contain two of my best things’. Six months later he redrafted them into;

I cannot live with beauty out of mind;
I seek her and desire her all the day,
Being the chiefest treasure man may find,
And word most sweet his eager lips can say.
She is as strong on me as though I wandered
In Severn meadows some blue riotous day.

But the animals remain. There are cows in the adjacent field and, further over, a flock of sheep graze. But, as I follow the wire, a pair of grey horses a mother and daughter I think, follow me. When I stop they come over I but when they realise that all they are going to get is a stroke, rather than some food, they quickly lose interest and wander off.

The farmer has tried to mettle the way to the lane with some broken bricks, to give the tractor some purchase. I pick up one of them, hoping for a clue to it’s origin and there, stamped on it, is the word ‘Fletton’. An old brick from an old company? The remains of a demolished cottage? Not a bit of it. ‘Fletton’ is the generic name for bricks fired from Lower Oxford Clay. They are actually named after the village, near Peterborough, where the benefits of a brick, fired with lower fuel costs, was first recognised. In 1923 the giant London Brick Company took over the firm, and production was moved to Marston Vale, in Bedfordshire, where millions of bricks were produced. Most of us, of a certain age, will remember the huge brick kilns which ran alongside the M1, near Junction 13, for many years before their demolition. In fact, they are, probably, remembered with fondness by many. The northerners last fleeting glimpse of industry on his way into the rural south. Massive disappointment.

As I reach the lane it occurs to me that, thus far, I haven’t seen a single vehicle or met a single person, and I’ve been walking for well over an hour. It would not have been so quiet in Ivor Gurney’s day. The walking on Gloucestershire lanes is not dissimilar to walking through the bocage countryside of Normandy, high hedges to weatherproof the lanes and only glimpses of the neighbouring land.

Eventually, through woods and fields, I reach the ribbon development that is Wickeridge Street. Hardly noticeable, just farms and the odd cottage. Gurney’s thoughts were constantly drawn back to Gloucestershire, and it’s countryside, whilst he was in France. He identified French villages, or their remains, with these villages. He could have been writing about this village in his poem ‘Riez Bailleul’;

Riez Bailleul in blue tea-time
Called back the Severn lanes and roads
Of hawthorn leaves turned with night’s rime
No Severn though nor great valley clouds.

Here we have Lime Kiln Farm, not too difficult to imagine the origin of its name. My dream of local bricks made with local lime was quashed miles back! Berrow Farmhouse could once have been ‘Barrow Farmhouse’ as in the hill. Yew Tree Farm with it’s gloriously huge yew. And there is ‘ ——– Cottage’, a small, timber framed Seventeenth century building, and it’s for sale. I wonder? A quick look at the Estate Agent’s blurb, perhaps;

‘Though Gloucester took a hard blow from the Recession that it has yet to recover from, this home has been a solid investment making estimated gains of 6% to
£263 785 since it was last purchased in July 2004.’

So the present ‘investor’ has lived there for ten years, having paid £250 000 for it. What about the location, the interior decor, the size? Is it a ‘nice little earner’ or a home?

‘The neighbourhood will be almost all white British residents as there is a bit of a lack of diversity (sic).’

What? What year is this? Where am I? What message is this giving to what audience? Is this sort of stuff still allowed in 2014? Obviously it is among this firm’s clientele. Doesn’t mention gays, so we’re probably alright on that front as well!

‘and an average age of 48, so you may not see so many children running round.’

Well that’s a relief! None of those noisy little oiks enjoying themselves in the fields during the holidays? And, probably, no Lambrettas, Vespas, Suzukis and Yamahas (motorcycles rather than organs) either. But it doesn’t rule out geriatric bikers on their Harley-Davidsons, does it? Mmmmm.

‘Nearby residents tend to be well-educated with over 25% having a university degree’

So three-quarters of the population are from the uneducated classes, well it doesn’t actually say that, but I shall feel superior with my ‘lower second BA’ in Theatre Design from the University of West Wombleshire. And it doesn’t say 25% of how many. But who’s interested? It’s only a jolly good number anyway.

‘And they say (to nosey Estate Agent’s clerks, at any rate) that they are in relatively (generally, usually, at times?) good health, overall.’

Oh, excellent. We shan’t be bothered by ambulances and their sirens or
lane-jamming funeral corteges. And there may be half a chance of immortality! Of course, any house viewer would notice those nasty, woolly, furry things over the road. They, cleverly, haven’t mentioned them, but we’ve seen them.
(Nudge. Nudge). Do they make those bleaty sort of noises all night? And they do clear up their own mess . . . don’t they?

I really am in a world that Ivor Gurney would not recognise, and would not want to recognise. Those quotes are real, they have been taken, verbatim from the Internet. I can’t believe that these are the criteria upon which homes are bought. Yet, to stand and look, this is a working, farming, community. Something there about appearances being deceptive. These buildings were there in his time, he would have known them. He would have respected them. This has been a rudely catapulted re-entry into the money-grubbing, status-conscious, world that is twenty first century England.

Then left onto a Private Road or driveway. A multitude of ‘Keep Out’, ‘Strictly Private’ signs. This is a threatening roadway. Then, the road is gated. Without thinking I move through, at least ten paces towards a Victorian, Gothic, mansion. Ten paces is all it takes, “Can I help you?” (“What the hell are you doing here?”). I can see that this is an impressive pile, with an impressive view, I’m standing at the side of the house. “Well?”(Are you dumb?). This is Foscombe House, built in 1866 and on the market for a cool £3.5m. Sir Nikolas Pevsner was mightily impressed by it, as an ‘unspoiled Victorian fantasy’. The Bramah family had lived there. Who?
The inventors of the fountain pen, the beer pump and the water closet. Those Bramahs? An author called Derek Marlow lived there as well. You know, the one who married Suki Phipps, the daughter of Sir Fitzroy Maclean. He wrote an episode of ‘Murder She Wrote’. Yes, him. He did have some great advice for aspiring writers,
“Never think too hard about what you’re going to write – just jump in. I’ve never known the end of my book, nor even the middle, until after I’m halfway through.” Maths was obviously not a strong point. But, and here we do get closer to my present predicament, in the 1980s it was owned by Charlie Watts. THE Charlie Watts. There were reports that he was going to sell it for £200 000 in 1983. A reporter from the Western Daily Press was despatched to investigate. No sooner had our correspondent set foot out of the car than a pack of dogs were on him, closely followed by a yellow track-suited Rolling Stone, who invited him to leave, or words to that effect. And he seemed like the nicest of the Stones! “Well? Come on. Move off.” (Move. Now.). “I’m looking for the track to Ashleworth.” “Out of that gate and turn left.” Well at least there were no dogs!

So down the indicated track I went. I got the impression that I had approached the house by the original back entrance, and that I was now walking parallel with the original main drive, heading for the front of the house. The rôles were now reversed. And, to be honest, although I’m not a huge fan of Victorian Gothic, this did look pretty spectacular.

I actually join the drive outside the confines of the main gate and head down the main road into the village of Ashleworth. The name is probably Saxon, ‘the enclosure of Aescel’. I just love researching the derivations of place-names. This has the feel of a real village. The village post office next to the village hall. A mix of housing because it seems that many older buildings have been, I nearly said ‘preserved’, but they are still in active use, alongside their more modern counterparts, which seem to fill natural, rather than contrived, gaps. The population is, about 550. It was 553 in 2001. In 1971 it had dropped to 300, from a high of 590 in 1861, the mechanization of agriculture? But, due to new building it seems to have stabilised. I go into the Post Office for some refreshment after my walk, and it’s everything a village shop should be, selling bits of everything, sweets for the kids and a few papers. The lady behind the counter, probably the owner, was cheery and chatty. I enjoyed spending a few ‘bob’ there. These places, desperately, need preserving, they are quintessentially English, never mind Maggie’s market forces! Society needs them. Oh I was forgetting, there is no such thing as Society. Well, yes there is, and I’m in it! There’s a solid looking, early nineteenth century, red-brick, pub, selling food and real ale. In itself a history lesson. The window, in the middle, on the ground floor, used to be the front door, the middle window on the first floor has been restored, after it had been bricked in. Perhaps a victim of the Window Tax, introduced in 1696 and not repealed until 1851. So would it have been built between these years with an extra window. One for the ‘House Detectives’. The ‘Queens Arms’. More essential ‘Society’. I like this place. My road now led back to Ashleworth Quay, a downhill mile. An unremarkable mile, except for the group of church, barn and manor, which I have enjoyed on my way out.

So I’m back at the deserted ferry, river and pub. There used to be two pubs here, ‘The Boat’ and ‘The Wheatsheaf’ and five or more dwellings, a small settlement. Of them, save ‘The Boat’, there is no sign. With exception of a few people, and the odd car, in the village itself, this has been a solitary walk. I sit, for nearly an hour, reading and musing about Ivor Gurney. A lone river cruiser passes on the Severn, and the helmsman acknowledges me with a wave. I think that I have seen something of what drove him to recall this place, in verse, whilst he was fighting in France. The rural isolation that appealed to him, where he was free to inhale the air of poetry and song. I can recognise his desire to return from Dartford, to the green of Gloucestershire, and it seems a crime that he was not allowed to. I have only touched on his poetry but he was a gifted musician as well. He must sit, with John Clare, as one of those Englishmen with great, unsung, genius, who at last are beginning to be recognised and fêted.

Above Ashleworth

O does some blind fool stand on my hill
To see how Ashleworth nestles by the river?
Where eyes and heart and soul may drink their fill.

The Cotswolds stand out eastwards as if never
A curve of them the hand of Time might change;
Beauty sleeps most confidently forever.

The blind fool stands , his dull eyes free to range
Endlessly almost, and finds no word to say;
Not that the sense of wonder is too strange

Too great for speech. Naught touches him; the day
Blows it’s glad trumpets, breathes rich-odoured breath
Glory after glory passes away.

(And I’m in France!) He looks and sees beneath
The clouds in steady Severn silver and grey
But dead he is and comfortable in Death.

Ivor Gurney

Paris. Wandering, with Zola, through Batignolles.

Image

Place Clichy. Lunchtime at the barrière. In Paris the universal punctuation mark is coffee, for me, on this grey Wednesday, this is the semi-colon of my day as a flâneur, around the village that is/was Batignolles. It’s nearly lunchtime, but a good place, and time, to call a temporary halt. Unlike the Parisians I really don’t ‘do’ Lunch, I find it an intrusive, and unnecessary, meal which almost terminates the day., in mid-stride. But, in this city of ‘lunchtime’, when in Paris . . . et.c, et.c.

The morning began as three of us left the Line 13 train at Brochart. A middle-aged man, briefcase with broken handle tucked under his arm, a Muslim woman pushing an empty pram, surely she hadn’t left the unfortunate child hurtling towards Port d’Asniere and myself, were decanted onto the Avenue de Clichy. This is not a tourist destination. There are no crowds or African geegaw vendors here. This is the ‘Paris’ of Paris. Not the only Parisian Paris, of course, I could have easily been in Belleville, Villette or Gentilly but, I’m not, I’m on the old borderland of the villages of Batignolles and Monceaux. The fallow fields and woodland were raped long ago, in the eighteenth century, by quarrymen, and then re-populated by a railway engine works. But I am in no doubt that I am in the countryside. I have just stepped down a narrow passage into, well, into the countryside. This frontier is now drawn by the Cité des Fleurs. This is a, grandly-named, paved street, wide enough for one car, or should that be one carriage, and one pedestrian on each pavement, which today is totally, and unconcernedly, blocked by a wagon delivering replacement paving slabs. The four cars, who ignored the ‘Men at Work’ sign, sit patiently, in a Parisian sort of way, waiting for the delivery to end. Diplomacy and discussion are redundant here. Job to be done! Surely this is the city equivalent of the ever slow-moving, patience-testing, tractor? They, those of the non-working variety, must wait, and wait they do. But they do it with an air which hovers between resignation and arrogant affrontery.

It’s the houses that have drawn me down this 200 metre long street. They all lie behind walls, hedges and gates, some, though, are more determined to protect their privacy than others. Some have ascending staircases to their doors, double staircases in places. Most have ornate architectural features, a swag here, a finial there. A glory of wrought ironwork everywhere, adorning their luscious whiteness. These were the houses of the rich in 1850. They were middle class dwellings in the 1950s. They are now back in the hands of those for whom they were built, the cycle continues. There’s every ‘neo’ imaginable here, neoclassical to neobaroque to neogothic. Built to satisfy the whims of their ‘proprietaires’, just as long as those same ‘proprietaires’ agreed to plant three trees in their garden, and also display two cast iron urns. I know, I didn’t get that one either.

But, notwithstanding the delivery wagon, this is a tranquil and green place, it is a place of flowers. Paris, though, has a habit, if you have eyes which see beyond the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, of drawing you into its past. But here, (dare I say it?) the city has similarities with the good ol’ US of A. It has very little, some, but very little, evidence of its antiquity. For the US, with respect to the native Americans, it just hasn’t been around that long, but Paris had the archetypal town planner, Baron Haussmann, and Paris is still marching to his nineteenth century beat. On the Cité des Fleurs, alongside a gateway, is a garland of flowers, attached to a plaque. Here, in May 1944, the Resistance network ‘Plutus’ was raided by the Gestapo. Their primary task, in this house, was the forging of papers. Here, in the yard into which I’m looking, Colette Heilbronner was executed and, from here, six of her
co-Resistants were transported, to their deaths, in Germany. Here, they are still remembered. The surprise, for me, is that most of the names are Hebraic. This is practically two years after the notorious round-up of Jews, in the Vel d’Hiv, and there were still Jews, in 1944, in Paris, operating openly secretly. The lodge of ‘LE Guardien’ lies at the end of the street, bearing the rules and regulations. It seems unimportant that ‘LE Guardien’ is a woman. Similarities there with the new Mayor of Paris, Madame LE Maire. She is fighting hard to become LA Maire. Aargh, the vagaries of the gender of French nouns.

Retracing my steps, down the Cité, and across the traffic of the Avenue, onto the Rue des Moines, takes me from a verdant, village, suburb into the heart of the village. The shopping street. Here isn’t the rush of the motor car, here it is the bustle of footfall. People are not en route, they are there. The street is their target. Just an ordinary street, but with a cornucopia of fresh produce. The first five shops are an Italian delicatessen, a Greek deli, a mini-market, a North African grocery and a Chinese café. All are open to the street. A street full of parked cars. It’s August
on-street parking is free! There is a fromagerie, door closed but the smell, outside, is deliriously, gorgeously, cheesy. Cheese in abundance and cheese from Abondance. There are three boucheries and several fruit and veg. Emporia, all with their in-house, characterful, spieler. But wait. There’s something wrong here. I live in a Breton, rural idyll, and I shop at Super U. I buy what they provide, what they think is good for me. Here am I in the largest, most populous, city in France, on a street that groans with choice, in every culinary department. I can’t get this selection in Brittany, in fact, it seems to me, the supermarkets there are overseeing the end of French village culture. But French village culture is here, amongst the apartments and offices, and it is in rude , good health. Slightly dearer, I grant, but it’s there. The shopkeepers,wearing all manner of garish gear, from cowboy hats to fez, are calling the customers by their first names, and there are customers in every shop. The only things that you can’t buy here are miniature Eiffel Towers, ‘I love Paris’ T-shirts and Arc de Triomphe key rings. This ‘modern’ village concept is emphasised at the end of the street. On one side a pharmacy with a genuine 1900, wood and painted glass, frontage, but with an ultra-modern interior and, opposite, the ‘Batignolles Market’, a subterranean piece of Brueghalia. An extraordinary, and ordinary, place. It’s short of light down there, and some of the people descending the stairs, look a little dodgy and downtrodden, but it is a fully-functioning market, people are shopping, they are carrying bags, and, thankfully, not Super U bags.

The walk through Batignolles to Place de Clichy is through narrow streets, which, in no way inhibit the speed of either cars or motor scooters. And whose pavements provide little refuge from the impatient, urban, speedsters. The streets are lined by high apartment buildings, interspersed by the old, double-storey, remaining, village houses. This is, oddly, a great place for street Art. The narrow gable end of a house bears a 30 metre high tree, with a nesting rook perched aloft. On the floor, a partly obliterated stencil, something about ‘marriage and wives’, over-stenciled by someone else writing, ‘Bad stencilling is like shit on the pavement’. How discerning, that someone has had the time, and motivation, to over-stencil a stencil. On an adjacent wall, a huge, green, 3D, ear, with the legend ‘Audio Surveillance Zone’. This must be street art, a visual pun on ‘walls have ears’? Either that or Paris has become more surveillance conscious than ‘Big Brother London’.

The street, Rue Lemercier, is almost a six-storey canyon, with only the odd window box, and airing duvet, to break the cream monotony. Oh, and ‘Mme. Dupont’ checking her domain for unwanted intruders, from as far away as the neighbouring Rue Legendre, as she has done for centuries. No eye contact! But, then, to my left, a solid gate opens and a courier strides, carelessly, out. Before the door creaks it’s way closed, I’m in. I’ve seen it done on ‘Maigret’ and if an old, bemacked, pipe-smoker can do it, so can I. When I get through, I’m in a smaller version of the Cité des Fleurs. The street is paved, single lane, gated and with gardens full of trees. Probably, just like the Cité, the citizens were allowed their own design of houses, they merely had to guarantee that three trees would be planted in their front garden, I expected to be in a courtyard, but, in fact, I am in a 100m long, country lane. This is so well-disguised, and I wonder how many more of these gates lead onto wooded lanes? These are secrets that need to be kept, secrets that beguile, and attract.

Place Clichy beckons. En route a ‘boulangerie/patisserie’ with wooden framed windows and painted glass and a ‘cordonnerie’, again with wooden window frames and a ‘museum’ of ancient tools, and the cobbler sitting there actually using them! Two more painted gable ends and more stencils, this time of Dylan and Gandhi. I’m not convinced by stencilling, it isn’t graffiti, it lacks graffiti’s immediacy, and is carefully prepared and constructed ‘at home’ rather than ‘in situ’. Bit of a cheat? I think so. And there’s another. This time it’s a café, ‘Le Petit Poucet’. It can’t really mean ‘The Little Thumbscrew’? Can it? But it’s been distressed. Everything from the sign, to the tables has been distressed. This is like Holts’ Brewery, in Manchester. They are the only people who can open a new pub and make it look genuinely, grubby, homely and fifty years old, from Day One. Why do people take a perfectly good piece of furniture, hack it about, sand it down, paint it blue and then believe that it’s attractive? They’ve done it here, in yellow, to a café !

So, the Place and a coffee. In the historic café, Wepler’s? Non. Not at those prices, I only want a coffee. So, I’d better whisper this, I sit in the window of ‘Quicks’, and drink a perfectly acceptable cup, for less than 2€. There is only one other customer. An oldish woman, oh dear, I mean of ‘my age’. There are four employees one Chinese, one West Indian, one South American and one European, sitting enjoying a coffee, chattering away in French, before the lunchtime storm, sprawled across the bench seats, in the corner. It doesn’t seem right for a woman, of that age, to be eating a ‘burger, she’s out of place, out of time. She’s not even dressed properly for the activity, . She’s dressed . . . like a woman of 65 . . . ish. I wonder if she’s thinking the same thing about me, an awkwardly dressed man?

Outside Parislife continues. Over there four, besuited, and smart, Central Africans are trying to raise a crowd, for prayer. A North African man pushes a supermarket trolley which contains a small grill and oven. Hanging from the handlebar, a bag of sweet corn, to be roasted. So many memories, of the ‘Hot Chestnut Man’, outside Central Station, in Blackpool, come cascading back. No flick of the switch here, he’s waiting for the charcoal to come to temperature. This is proper street cuisine. But, just like the inappropriately dressed woman to my right, I can’t visualise people walking, eating a butter-dripping, uncontrollable, piece of maize, in a Parisian street. Perhaps his optimism is based on experience? I hope so. Two other North Africans are unloading a multi-coloured VW van, a throwback to ‘flower power’, now that is graffiti, proper sprayed graffiti, illegally parked graffiti, as well. All the boxes ticked. They are delivering fresh fruit and vegetables to some of the establishments round the Place, and under the Place, as he bumps a trolley, stacked twelve crates high, cautiously, and expertly, down into the bowels of the Metro. A display of strength and skill which, obviously, did not leave Paris with the closure of the huge marketworld at Les Halles. Emile Zola is, suddenly, there, with me. ‘Les Ventres de Paris’.(1) People do watch, with that curious, glancing , desire to see a disaster, and the lettuce, oranges, tomatoes et al, plummeting towards Line 13. He does not oblige. Girls with trilbys, and carrying rucksacks, pass him on the way up. Probably escaping Australians, come to see what civilisation looks like. Men with briefcases. Japanese with cameras. Me, with curiosity, at such a rich scene. The inescapable mobile phones clamped to walking ears. “Is it all so important?” I imagine it must be. The inevitable Pompier siren. The honking Renault. The irritating scooter. Traffic guided by common sense rather than white lines. The sounds of a city that isn’t, actually, in any guide book. But it is in the novels of the Rougon-Macquart, it is in Zola . . . and it’s still here.

Rue Lecluse stands round the corner, off the Boulevard Batignolles. This is not a village street. But this is where the village went. A Dublinstreet of wonderful doors and entrances. This is the story of Paris. In the nineteenth century when Baron Haussmann was planning his great boulevards and squares, his great and glorious townhouses, the tax-garotte that was the wall of the Farmers-General, still stood and, within it, the grand design was taking shape. But where did the working people of the city go, as their houses and streets disappeared. In fact they went, as with all great cities, east, towards Belleville and Villette, towards Menilmontant and Gentilly. The spaces of Batignolles and Ternes, of Autueil and Monceaux, in the north, became the hunting ground of speculators. The population of Batignolles rose by 103% between 1861 and 1896. Does this sound familiar to Anglo-Saxon ears? It should do. Land was bought, and held, ready for the right, profitable, price. Profits weren’t to be made in the building of working-class dwellings, for the displaced poor. Eventually, magnificent terraces went up, like the Rue Lecluse, for, if not the rich, the well-to-do. Speculators are not philanthropists, not social engineers, their interest is purely in the acquisition of money. Shedloads of it. Buy. Build. Rent. The creed of greed, sorry, investment. These houses have passed their best and are now multi-occupancy appartments, but they are a vibrant part of this village’s story.

My next punctuation mark, another comma, on this amble, is the park in Batignolles. But I must find my way there, through streets that were trodden by Zola. He is an ever-present spirit in this narrowness. It was here that he lived, for a while, at 23 Rue Truffaut, directly opposite the wash-house. All the experiences described in ‘L’Assomoir’ (2) could be seen from his appartment window. The initial fight that Gervaise Lantier had in the laundry, the smells and sounds that he evokes in the story, he experienced them here, in Batignolles, then set his novel in the nearby area of Barbes-Rochechouart! James Joyce said that he hoped that, if Dublin were to be destroyed tomorrow, it could be reconstructed from the pages of ‘Ulysses’, the same could be said of Paris and the books of Zola. The street is quiet, deserted, but is peopled by spectres of the past. They are here.

The park is a perfect example of the English, municipal park. There are neat flower beds, a lake, populated benches, statues and tall trees. The children’s playground is locked. The Orangerie contains one orange. The café is barred and shuttered and the roundabout silent. Austerity bites. But there is a Galllic twist. The people. They are not only Parisian, but the remnants of Empire. This is a relaxed multi-cultural place. People talk to each other. I just sit on a bench, in my understated , English, way, on a vacant one, of course. Within minutes I am joined by a doppelgänger of ‘Tiger’ Clemenceau, complete with cigarette (oh how I wished that it had been a ‘Gauloise’, but it wasn’t!) in the corner of his mouth and mobile ‘phone. He smiles and nods. ” ‘…jour’ “Isn’t it strange how you can tell the sex of the person receiving a call, by the voice and body language of the caller? “Marcel. She can’t see you!” He isn’t ‘phoning that woman on the other side of the Lake, is he? She’s on the ‘phone as well. I’m party to some clandestine meeting. I am. I’m sure of it.
Man-with-briefcase-and-‘Le Figaro’ sits between us. The spell is broken.

The end of my odyssey is in sight, along the Rue Boursault, the Pont de l’Europe and Gare St. Lazare. On a school another memorial, to Robert Louis Desmoret, and another bunch of fresh flowers. The 32 year old Robert was shot on this spot, outside the school, by the Nazis, on August 20th.1944. He had been part of a Resistance group which had attacked a garage requisitioned by the Wehrmacht. He was wounded here and died, the next day, in the Hôpital Bichot. The battle for Paris had begun on the 19th. August and lasted till the German garrison surrendered on the 25th. In only six days the Parisians reclaimed their city. But, as with Colette Heilbronner, the only reason I know what they did, is through research. To all passers-by these brave Parisians are just names on walls, memorial bouquets. They aren’t. They deserve more. Someone. Somewhere. Do something!

The Pont de l’Europe. I’m still not in the guide books, but this is the site of so much artistic endeavour. . . and achievement. The wonderful, evocative, Impressionistic, paintings of Gustave Caillebotte. (3) ‘That’, iconic, photograph by Cartier-Bresson, of the puddle-jumping businessman, ‘Derrière la Gare St. Lazare’. The paintings, inside the Gare, that you just wish had been painted by JMW Turner, but are by that French impressionist, Monet. And then, Emile Zola, again. The sordid, sexual, and violently, murderous events centred on the railway from Gare St.Lazare to Le Havre, in ‘La Bête Humaine’ (4). Behind me the huge trench that used to carry the railway into the Batignolles Tunnels. A sort of Parisian Kings Cross. A, seemingly endless, symphony of rails, overhead cables and trains. The tunnels were closed after an accident, in 1921, when two trains collided, in the that terrifying darkness, and burst into flames, killing 28 and injuring 74. There was an instant reaction and, in 1925, the tunnels, save for a short section, were gone, replaced by this gash through Batignolles.

In front of me, la Gare. The fourteen platforms of Zola’s day are now twenty seven. This is the second busiest station in Europe, carrying 450 000 passengers a day. The busiest? Well, the busiest is walking distance away, the Gare du Nord. Monet’s pictures of St. Lazare, (5) evoke light and steam, Zola’s writing, power and noise. Today all is quiet, calm, and electrical. The only intrusion being the ‘bing-bong’ announcer, and the odd Diesel engine revving up. But the crowds of travellers still throng, and mill about, heading for the same destinations as a century ago, Cherbourg, Rouen, Caen, Le Havre and Deauville. But, tucked away, at the edges, are the lines to Auteuil and other local destinations. Here lies the ghostly footprint of ‘Le Petit Ceinture’ the ‘Little Belt’, Paris’s forgotten railway. I must find out more about this ‘hidden gem’.

The almost deserted platform of Brochart station on the Metro was where I started, the bustling concourse of Gare St. Lazare is where I finish. Paris is a city which fascinates, away from the Champs Élysées, where it bores, in fact . . . No, I won’t go there!

Notes:
(1) ‘Les Ventres de Paris’ is the third book in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and is based on the central market of Paris, Les Halles. The ‘Belly of Paris’ was written in 1873, with Florent Macquart as it’s principal character.
(2) ‘L’Assomoir’ is the seventh book in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and is centred in Barbes-Rochechouart. It was published in 1876 and tells the story of Gervaise Lantier (née Macquart) and her fight against grinding poverty.
(3) The painting ‘Pont de l’Europe by Gustave Caillebotte, painted in 1876, can be seen in the Musée du Petit Palais in Geneva. Many of his paintings can be viewed at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
(4) ‘La Bête Humaine’ is the seventeenth book in the Rougon Macquart series. It was written in 1889 and is a story of sex, greed, corruption and murder, based on the railway line from Gare St. Lazare, in Paris, to Le Havre. The main character, the engine driver, Jacques Lantier, is the son of Gervaise Lantier (L’Assomoir) and the brother of Etienne ( ‘Germinal’ ) and Claude ( ‘L’Oeuvre’ ) Lantier.
(5) Monet’s Gare St. Lazare series were painted in 1877 and can be seen in the Musée d’Orsay.

Up the Itchen Navigation to a Waterhouse.

I’m starting at a down-at-heel, unmanned, railway station, in Hampshire, at Shawford. A full Car Park tells it’s own story, we’re in Commuterland, between Southampton and London. By the quality of car on display here, there’s not much of a recession happening in this neck-of -the-woods. Plenty of cars, plenty of trains, business is growing. But I’m bound for the water, the Itchen Navigation, in fact. Shawford is a funny old place, it doesn’t feel like a village at all. I can’t see a school, a shop or a church. There is a station, a pub, ‘The Bridge Inn’, and also a Mission Hall, proclaiming that ‘God is Light. God is Love.’ One Edwardian semi has been renovated. One half is an office, with ‘man at computer’ in the window of the former drawing room, giving me a “What do you think you’re looking at?”look. I’d have called it the ‘Front Room’ if I’d been much further north, whilst next door is the ‘Shawford Hair and Beauty Salon’. A little further on, there is more renovation work going on, another residence about to become a business? What is the definition of a village? This just seems to exist as a cluster of houses around a station, an extended Station Car Park, there are cars parked everywhere. But no people. Within yards I’m at Shawford Bridge, my real starting point, and below me the water tells me of weeks of rain, it is full and rushing. Another man crossed this bridge on Sunday 12th October, 1651, ‘a distinguished figure, over two yards high’ wearing ‘a suit and cloak of country grey and a tall black hat’. There was a bounty of £1 000 on his head. This was Charles II, en route from defeat at the Battle of Worcester, and his night in the Royal Oak, to exile in France. I’d crossed his path, some months before, near Burpham, it was certainly a goodly walk from Worcester. Mind with that price on your head, and your enemy at your heels, the length of walk was, probably, of little significance to him! I turned, less regally, along the towpath, upstream, towards Winchester. A perfect walking day. Clear sky. Cool but not cold. No chance of rain. To my left the river, to my right . . . on the other side of a garden . . . another river. Both rushing down towards Southampton Water, at speed. Both roughly the same size, just ten metres apart. This was the Itchen Navigation. A Navigation is the term for a waterway which is a river, but where the difficult sections have been by-passed by canals, or cuts, to make one navigable stretch of water, part river, part canal. The garden belonged to, what appeared to be, an old Georgian mill, now a ‘des res’. But it promised to be a thing of great beauty in Summer. The Spring flowers were just beginning to ‘go back’ and the pink and white blossoms of the fruit trees, were about to show. Where man works alongside Nature, a simple, man-made, garden, blending in with its natural surroundings, each complementing the other, it really enhances life. This is my sort of garden, I’m smiling just looking at it and my notebook is jammed with ideas. This is the tranquility I’m aiming for at home. I’ve only just started out and my soul is uplifted. On the further bank, to my left, there is a procession of large houses, all well above the level of the river, with long gardens running down to the water’s edge, and a small landing stage. All the gardens are identical, long and sloping, mainly plain grass, with a terrace next to the house, for ‘evening cocktails’ Sundowners at seven. Less gardens, more expanses of grass. Dull, with a view of the river. At the water’s edge there is, invariably a reed bed, which, I hope, portends a stunning display of irises, later in the year. There are no boathouses, so my guess is that this waterway is oar-powered, these days. The houses are so high above the level of the river, that there is, absolutely, no chance whatsoever of flooding! When the Thames flexed its muscles, last month, Man, who loves, and is willing to pay exorbitant prices for, a ‘pretty river view’, had to endure all that the angry river contained. Here, the prices may also be exorbitant, but Man is more in control, as much as Man can be over Nature, and disaster has been planned out. The river is politely requested to move along particular channels, and does so, until it takes it’s fancy to intrude and then, it actually goes where it jolly well pleases! Some thought has gone into the Itchen Navigation, thought that eluded well-healed, Thames Valleyman, who probably saw himself above Nature. Although, I guess, some ordinary people had to suffer as well. A harsh lesson in treating your rivers with respect. The people of this valley didn’t figure on any News Bulletins. They know their place, the wealthy have built their houses on the heights, not on the riverbank. I pass over a sluice gate, feeding the ‘cut’ to my right, so, now there is only one river, a river full of old rain, to focus on. The Itchen runs close to the valley side and, to my right is a huge expanse of watermeadow. This is a planned flood plain. There are no houses on it, this is agricultural land, bisected by drains and dykes, to be flooded when necessary. All evidence of flooding in the previous months has gone, there are sheep and cattle out grazing now. At intervals I’m overtaken by dogwalkers. Labradors. Retrievers. Oddly, we’re all walking in the same direction, towards the M3. When I travelled the Itchen Navigation last, from Winchester, upstream of where I am now, walking downstream, the walkers seemed to be going in the opposite direction, again towards the M3. Does this piece of road act like a magnet, you must . . . must, walk towards it before you can drag yourself away from it? The way towards Winchester beckons, wide and straight. Away to my right the ridge of Twyford Down, that I’m going to follow back to Shawford. To my left, the canal and the constant hum of traffic. But this was not always just a haven for middle aged dog walkers. After the Conquest this was an important artery for Duke William. The grand plan? To destroy the Saxon civilisation, a civilisation whose richness we are slowly coming to terms with, this was a great civilisation. The Normans wished to eradicate it. Cultural genocide. The great buildings had to go. Winchester had been not only the major city of Wessex, it was the major city of England. The seat, and burial place, of Kings and Queens, of Alfred, of Emma and of St. Swithin. The Saxon minster was to be demolished and a Norman cathedral built over it. Not next to it,or near it, on top of it, the building must be obliterated. The stone to be used? Caen stone. Norman stone. How would the stone reach Winchester? Up the valley of the Itchen. Strangely the canal did not benefit greatly from the Medieval wool ‘boom’, given that the Downs are covered in sheep, but was developed in the canal-crazy years of the eighteenth century. The last commercial transport passed down it in 1869, though it wasn’t until the 1960’s that its value as a leisure amenity was recognised. This is a modern waterway. The walk has a tranquility all its own. The towpath is well-used and well-kept. The water, and its margins, is well-managed. I cross the Twyford Sluice, as it leaves the main artery, bound for a Twyford Drain, and, on it, in regal splendour, swims a lone swan. What a handsome bird they are. But I am about to see it’s other side. Its power. This one, as I pass, decides to take off. Its grace disappears, as it lifts its enormous self off the water, and hauls itself into the air. The noise made by its wings as they beat and it struggles for aerial traction, is almost mechanical. This is just pure power. I can fully believe the ‘country tales’ of a swan being able to break a man’s arm with a beat of its wings. Just like the water it is leaving, grace can become power, in the wink of an eye. It’s the first time I’ve been so close to a swan’s ‘take-off zone’, it is an awesome sight. As I look up, to follow its progress, as it wheels away down the valley, grace is resumed with effortless wing beats. The path now leaves the Navigation and moves to the right, towards the main road. Just before the road is a dry, and derelict, lock. History is disappearing here. It isn’t being destroyed, it’s drifting away, like campfire smoke. Before we know it, before we’ve noticed, it will be gone. Nature will have reclaimed her own. Still visible are the colours of the old bricks, lining the lock. I can almost hear the Georgian brickies, down there, building a lock that will be underwater, but will still be there two centuries later. It now survives the pollution, and vibrations, from its ‘noisy neighbour, the M3. But, as with excavated archaeology, it’s the wood that goes first, the lock gates have gone and the future of Twyford Lane End lock hangs in the balance. The shape of the dry canal, on either side of the lock, has almost gone. Trees, and grass, Nature’s humblest, but stealthiest, plant, replace the canal narrow boats. But history moves on, and this valley is an object lesson. The muddy, turnpike road was replaced by the canal. The canal succumbed to the railway. The busiest route, now, is the neighbouring M3. Over my head a plane slowly descends to Southampton Airport. This valley has taken it all in its stride. Only once have noisy protests met the inexorable march of transport evolution. We all remember ‘Swampy’, (Where is he now?) battling to save a wild flower meadow on Twyford Down. The trench that carries the motorway was, eventually, cut, and the M3, almost invisibly, but not inaudibly, carries the world to London. Over the road that leads to Twyford, and there is a toll house. This is a seventeenth century péage. Well someone had to pay for the road’s upkeep, perish the thought that it should be the landowner, making his fortune from rents and cheap labour or the canal company, making a pile from haulage rates.even then money ‘rose to the top’ of Society, or should that be ‘sank to the bottom’? Across the road, my way lies across Hockley Golf Course. It’s Tuesday, and the Car Park is jammed, with more expensive cars, of course. How do so many people get Tuesday ‘off work’ to play golf? ‘Four balls, at selected times. £120. How much? I feel quite chipper that I’m getting my walk for free! Several people pass me, all look, but none speak. I’m not in smart, bespoke walking gear, I ‘m just in my usual scruffy tackle. I really feel that I am in the world of ‘them’, and ‘us’ are less than welcome. I’m an intruder. Unless, of course, we have £120 at selected times! It seems strange to me, that for a game that involves walking, it takes some pretty expensive motors to get ‘them’ here. Behind the clubhouse stand a group of ‘liveried retainers’, about to man their ‘grasscuttingmobiles’. The countryside is about to be manicured. The course ascends Twyford Down and seems more like an ‘assault’ course than a ‘golf’ course, it’s so steep. The path swings left, uphill, through a copse. To the right is the ‘direttissima’. This has been turned into a ‘driving range’, but the ‘drivers’ are, obviously taking luncheon. There’s a practice putting green by the range, where a young ‘serf’ is demonstrating, to a venerable ‘seigneur’, how to plop the ball into a hole. I striking straight up the middle, Driving Range or no Driving Range. A shout from a ‘liveried retainer’. Don’t turn. No eye contact. I’m building up a fair head of steam, I still find uphills easier than downhills. I don’t hear the sounds of pursuit so press on. The slope of the range is punctuated by a carpet of balls, but, as I rise, the carpet thins. I’m soon among professional balls, impressively struck balls. I stop and look back, the little shed, where they stand, way below me, is still empty. I have visions of a lookout, in the clubhouse, announcing, excitedly, “There’s one out there!” Then a rush of ‘bePringle-jerseyed, bebaseball-capped’ gophers hurtling out, to begin firing their balls, at a, not so, rapidly moving target. Similar to giving the peasant a headstart, then letting the hounds loose, to hunt him down. I think I’m safe though. Looking back, steeply downhill, I can’t help but be impressed by the man who struck the last ball, it’s a gigantic hit. I wonder if he knows that he did it? It would take quite an arduous ascent, for him to find out. But, I guess, that’s the sort of competitive thing that golfers revel in. Of course, he could despatch a ‘liveried retainer’, on his motorised steed, to confirm, then loudly announce, his prowess. That’s the sort of thing that golfers revel in, as well, it seems. At the top of the hill, there’s a ‘green’, and three women delicately chipping towards it. It all seems so much more attractive than the ‘macho-ball-blasting’ that happened on the other side of the slope. My way lies onto a path which plunges through an avenue of Blackthorn, blackberry and Hawthorn. The blossom is just starting to appear, ghostly white, with the path as its black centre. The first two hundred yards run along the hillcrest, but the view is obscured, as the path is a hollow way. How, and by whom, it was hollowed seems a bit of a mystery. It leads onto the top of the Down, or it would have done, before the golf course and M3, from the valley road from Twyford to Winchester. There doesn’t seem to be enough room for sheep to be driven, it is a single track, and relatively steep-sided. There is certainly not enough width for a cart. So, human feet must be the only option. The route becomes, bobsleigh-run, steep, with curves to test the driver. I am enshrouded in a green tunnel, in a solitary, and almost silent, world. The downhill walk pulls on my muscles, I really do find uphill easier. Then, a moment of dreams. Up the hill churns a figure in running gear. His style isn’t elegant, his frame far from lithe, but he is making determined progress. For a moment it’s me. It really feels like I am watching myself. The ‘me’ of twenty five years ago. I’m looking at myself, in this dreamlike cameo, running, as I used to and, loving it! He’s not a fell runner, he carries too much weight, he’s a fun runner, and only those who have done it can understand that divine torture. I stand aside to give him ‘right-of-way’. He grunts as he passes, I recognise that as well. The walk has been worth it, if only for that minute of fellow-feeling. I, momentarily, turn to watch him disappear round a bend, and the moment is broken. Passing time has just been marked. I pause again, only once, for a ‘photo opportunity’. In the hedge, there is a half deflated party balloon, it is so out of place, with its silvery sheen and gaudy colours. How did it get here? Released from a toddler’s hand in the valley, and carried tearfully, skywards? Brought here by a, boisterous, teenage party and abandoned? But, the day is bright and there are vivid reflections of the, surrounding, foliage on its surface. The photograph duly taken, I move onto the main road and, in minutes, am in the village of Twyford. Almost the first house that I encounter is a glorious ‘Queen Anne’ style building, this is Twyford House. I peeped at the Estate Agent’s blurb :- ‘It’s situated in the much sought after village of Twyford . . .'(Ching) ‘Prominently situated in the village . . .’ – you don’t want to hide your wealth away, do you? ‘Stunning views across the Itchen Valley’. . . (Ching) ‘The spacious cellar incorporates a cinema room and gated Wine Cellar’.. . (Ching) ‘The gardens are a wonderful feature of the property, complementing the elegance of the house’. . . (Ching) And so it goes on. The accompanying photographs, of the interior, tell the same affluent story. Zoopla tells me that the average price of a house in the village is £1 111 667, that a house recently sold for £608 000, realising a profit of £75 300. Recession? What recession? You could own Upland House on Roman Rd. for a cool £975 000 or a simple terraced house for £320 000. Oh well, that’s more affordable !!! The best known, past, owner of Twyford House was Dr. Jonathan Shipley, a Bishop of St. Asaph and Llandaff. He did exhibit some unfortunate political views though, in that he opposed the policies of George III over America ! This, undoubtedly would have affected any further job prospects that Dr. Shipley may have had. But, even further, he entertained, at Twyford, Benjamin Franklin, the eminent American. Franklin, reputedly wrote part of his celebrated autobiography here. The high walls surrounding the house would definitely have assisted his proclivity for alfresco nudity ! Over the walls he would have seen the tower of Twyford church. That church was to be demolished in August 1876. The present church is a real jewel. It is a real Victorian Gothic, country church, and it was designed by, no less an architect than, the famous Alfred Waterhouse. It seems that the old church was in a massive state of disrepair, a ‘refurb’ was out of the question, only a rebuild would do. A committee met in June 1875, to discuss the new church. The Chair of the committee was a Manchester engineer, Sir Thomas Fairbairn, who had retired to Bambridge House, at nearby Bishopstoke, in 1866. He was the archetypal ‘Great Victorian’. A patron of the Arts, particularly of the great pre-Raphaelite, William Holman Hunt. He was Chair of the committee which organised the ‘Art Treasures Exhibition’ in Manchester, in 1857 and was a prime mover in a free Art Gallery in Manchester, now the City Art Gallery, and still free. He was to die in 1891, and is buried in Twyford churchyard. We now have bankers who stash their ever growing bonuses, oligarchs who buy football clubs as their playthings and a wealthy class of self-interested tax-scroungers. A nation as divided now, if not more so, than it was then. We tend to decry the Victorians, but one thing is patently obvious, that it was an age that saw philanthropy as a duty. These men saw themselves as the ‘leaders’ of Society and men like Fairbairn, a rich, but good, man saw the investment into Britain as a civic imperative. Where are his like now? Where are the Great Men? We’ve become a nation of narrow-minded, self-obsessed, people. This goes some way to explaining the winning of the contract by the eminent Manchester, Quaker, architect, Alfred Waterhouse. He had built Strangeways Prison in 1869, was just beginning work on the Natural History Museum and finishing Manchester Town Hall. Waterhouse had set up practice in Manchester, and many of his early contracts came through his Quaker connections. He was in practice for fifty years, in Manchester and London, and designed over 650 buildings. The Society of Friends was a powerful force, for good, in Victorian England. So the mixture of industrial philanthropy and a Quaker architect was brought to bear on a simple, Hampshire parish church. It became one of the 4 000 new Anglican churches built between 1835 and 1875, that’s 100 new churches a year. The Anglican religious revival was to meet the Gothic architectural revival, here in Twyford. The church, and spire was to cost £8 339, just £1 339 over budget, and Waterhouse’s fee was, a modest, £407 13s 11d. In his design several features of the old church were retained, including the, magnificent, nave pillars and a massive clipped yew, directly adjacent to the church. Inside, this is a real, archetypal, English, rural parish church. 150 years on, and the hopes and dreams of Fairburn’s Steering Committee have been fully realised. Inhere there is a wealth of rural history. There is the anguish of a family who raised a plaque, when their 22 year old son was drowned, off Wells-next-the-Sea, in Norfolk, when HMS Alarm went down. There is the story of William Davies, who lived in Twyford House in the 17th. century. He was lost, as night fell, in the fog, high on the Downs. He was surprised to hear the bells of the old St. Mary’s and stopped to get his bearings. When he looked more closely, he had stopped on the precipitous edge of a downland chalk pit. He found his way home by following the bells. In gratitude, when he died, in 1754, he left a sum of 20 shillings per annum, to be distributed between the ringers, if the bells rang out morning and evening on October 7th., the day of his miraculous escape. This sum was only to be paid if the bells were actually rung. The tradition carries on today, but I would think 20 shillings (£1) wouldn’t go as far in 2014 as they did in 1754! In the North Aisle there is a glass case holding a bible. The legend tells a tale. The case once held a ‘Vinegar Bible’, a ‘Vinegar Bible’ as published, in Oxford, in 1717, by one John Baskett. There was a misprint, and the ‘Parable of the Vineyard’ became the ‘Parable of the Vinegar’. Strangely the ‘Vinegar Bible’ which resided in this case was stolen in 2007, and the thief actually replaced it, with a Lectern Bible! How odd is that? This church is a real historical, and architectural, storehouse, a delight. The lane, at the end of the churchyard, leads down to a footbridge over the River Itchen. A centuries old scene is being re-enacted before my eyes. Two mothers have brought their young children, to play in the water. A rope hangs from a tree and they are swinging on it. I can see that the mothers really want a ‘go’, but the chance of a loss of dignity prevents them. I move swiftly on, I do hope, that when I had passed, they took their courage, and the rope, in both hands and relived their own childhood. Directly across a meadow, lies the road back to Shawford. The road is flanked by what is obviously a, Georgian, boundary wall. There is a house lurking behind there, but it defies all my efforts to see it. I fight off the urge to climb the wall, I’m getting too old for that! Then the grand gates. This is Shawford House and, although I can’t see it, I do know something about it. In the 18th. century it was owned by the Mildmay family, who had a daughter called Jane. Her father Carew Mildmay (can’t you just picture him? Michael Gambon would definitely play him in the film!) left the house to his eldest daughter, Jane. But there was a proviso. Whoever she married had to adopt the name Mildmay. Sir Henry St. John (I can picture him as well. The part goes to Leslie Phillips!) had no qualms, whatsoever, on that score, with a wife, house and estate at stake! It appears that he was a vain and ill-tempered man, who managed to curb his temper long enough to sire eleven sons and three daughters. Sir John, and most of the children, predeceased Jane, who, herself, died in 1857, at the ripe old age of 93. Multiple bouts of child bearing obviously did her no harm! I reach my destination, Shawford Station. There is one more place to see, and I’m looking at it. It’s unmarked, and just here, by the bridge, outside the station. This is the spot where Victor Meldrew was knocked over. I know, “You can’t believe it!”, but it’s true. In this quiet, sort-of, village our crusty hero met his end. ‘One Foot in the Grave’ ended here in Shawford. So, as I sit in a rustic shelter, dedicated to the memory of that regal curmudgeon, Queen Victoria, over the road, from the place, where a more modern curmudgeon met his maker, the sun still shines, God is in his Waterhouse church, and all’s well with the world. The Bridge Inn calls.

On The Edge of Beauty.

 

On the Edge of Beauty

The wind bites with decembercruelty. I’m on the edgelands. But this is not the edgeland of a city, this is the edgeland of West Cumberland. Behind me the misty immensity of The Lakes and, before me, the greysea swell of the Solway Firth. There are all the colours of coldness, out there, stretching between where I stand, and the Scottish shore, the hills of Galloway. I’m looking at the tide mark of the Irish Sea, and out, into a bleak wonder that raises the spirits. This coast is divided into two distinct areas. The one ravaged by industrial desolation, the steel of Workington, the coal of Whitehaven, the iron of Millom, with their harbours, and the silent ports of Maryport and Silloth. All gone. It’s as if time is not a linear thing, it actually stretches out on either side of you, you walk among the living, and dead, past. But, on this spot, the feeling is different. There are no industrial sores here, in the tiny village of Allonby, between Maryport and Silloth. Interestingly, there is a Breton connection in the name of the village. Alein’sby. ‘Alein’ is an early Breton, male, forename and ‘by’ is the Viking suffix for a village or hamlet. I’m closer to home than I thought. The Romans had been here, fleetingly, there is a lookout post, on the shore, between here and Maryport, now just a pile of stones, but a Romanp pile nonetheless. The Vikings who were driven out of Dublin by the warlike Celts, at the end of the 9th. century, settled in this little bit of England, a bit that they had missed in the first place, hence ‘by’ in the village name.

In this, bitingly, cold, December, weather the houses, as well as the people, are hunkered down. They cling together, closely, along the shoreline, there isn’t enough room for the wind to penetrate between them. Houses crouch rather than stand. I have come here with a purpose, to discover some of the sites drawn, and painted, by the Workington- born artist, Percy Kelly, who, for twelve years, lived here, in Glen Cottage.

The stimulus for my visit, was a series of walking books by Chris. Wadsworth, which lead you through some of the sights, and sites, which lit Kelly’s artistic fires. Each an area of West Cumberland.

As I park my car on the exposed Car Park, at the south end of Allonby, ominously, an empty hearse draws up alongside me. We are the only two cars in this, wind ravaged, field, and he chooses to park right next to me. The sombre suited driver smiles mischievously, at least, I think it is mischievously, I cannot bring myself to return the smile! Very ominous. It’s almost like the Lancashire superstition that the night before you die, you hear the sound of a horse trotting on the cobbles, and it pauses, to whinney, beneath your window!

Above, Herring Gulls swoop and soar, this strong wind is made for them to show off their aerial prowess. The sky is full of them, like one of those moving spirographs of starlings that used to entertain, each evening, over Piccadilly Gardens, in Manchester or North Pier at Blackpool. From the church, opposite the Car Park, houses straggle along the coast road, just a single depth of houses, there is nothing behind them, except caravans. If any church can look weather-beaten, yet defiant, this one does. Squat and determined. It was built in 1845 to replace a Chapel-at-ease. It should be called a Chapel-at-Ease again. These chapels were built for parishioners who had a long way to walk to reach the parish church, or for the convenience of the local lord of the manor. I think I’ll go for option one, although a church could be ‘relegated’ if there had been a significant shift in population.
If, within a hundred years, the population had halved, as here, that could be a reason for its forlorn aspect. In common with many rural churches, the vicar, the Rev. Mary Day, lives in Croscanonby, and shares her ministry. Then, along the shore, I have to pinch myself, and remind myself that I’m beside the Irish Sea, not the Pacific, as I pass the Baywatch Hotel and Jack’s Surf Shack. Really! The thought of Pamela Anderson’s goose pimples warms me to the marrow!

There are people about. A woman stops, whilst I’m sketching, and initiates a conversation. We can hardly stand upright, and here I am talking to an Australian ex-pat … desperately … desperately …John Cleese-like, trying not to mention the Ashes! Her choice of conversation? To talk about the chances of the sea overwhelming the village. Recent news is still fresh. She actually lives in a Allonby, but, I think, a true native would have shown much more optimism. There are no sea defences. In a week when the east coast storm surge toppled houses onto the East Anglian beaches, that must have been of concern here. The last great tidal surge, in 1953, started just north of here, off Stranraer, then proceeded to smash its way, murderously, down the east coast of Britain. I thought I’d got away with it, but no, “Your boys aren’t doing so well in the Ashes!” I turned into the wind, and left her to her walk!

Allonby has a rock-strewn beach, a footpath level with the sand, and an expanse of grass, probably forty metres wide, before the totally exposed houses. The only other people on the path, I hesitate to call it a promenade, are wind-blown dog walkers. Oddly, all the dogs look similar, small, short-legged, ‘ I-might-be-small-but-I-can-cope-with-anything’ models. It seems to make sense in this wind. Their masters look the same as well, shrouded in battered-looking, green, anoraks and wearing woolly hats (bobbles optional) But they all speak. Everyone says “Good morning.” No-one passes in silence.

I turn inland, with my back to the sea, past two former inns, ‘The Solway’ and ‘The Grapes. It was outside the ‘Solway’ that the crowds gathered, in 1903, one stormy night to witness the grounding of the ‘Hougoumont’, a ship bound for Liverpool, from San Francisco. The beach was littered with the cargo, and the detritus of a wreck, including crates of peaches, pears and salmon. They were not labelled, so the only way to discern the contents, was by shaking the tin, if it ‘glugged’, it was fruit. None of the 20+ crew, nor the captain’s wife, were lost, but I wonder where all that fruit and salmon went !!!?

There, next to the Post Office stands a Fish and Chip Shop, ‘The Codfather’, I love the imagination that goes into naming Chip Shops.

There is the red, road, bridge, over the beck, that Kelly took so much delight in drawing and painting, rebuilt when a traction engine destroyed the original in November 1907. The engine, en route from Maryport, was dragging three wagons, containing a steam-driven fairground ride. It toppled into the swollen beck, destroying the bridge. The local bobby, PC Richardson,took control, directing traffic. Those were the days, when the police were there for the public good, rather than catching people out and fining them. Glorified tax collection. He directed them through the beck, which was much wider and shallower than today. I don’t think I’d have fancied that in my battered, old, Citroen Xantia! A Mr Twentyman took it upon himself to bring planking from a ship being broken up on the beach, to construct a temporary walkway. Nobody was hurt. I can only presume that this is a relation of the Twentymans who owned the village shop in Percy Kelly’s time, and still do. Ship breaking was a major trade at the turn of the century. Ships were brought to Allonby beach to be broken up. Much of the wood went to the burgeoning local coal industry for pit props. Is that a ‘Green Policy’? Or just common-sense recycling?

Back-to-the-Sea is Kelly’s direction as well. He isn’t drawn by the elemental strength of nature, but by the more prosaic lines of the houses. There is a full,
from-every-angle, view of the bridge area, in Chris. Wadsworth’s excellent guidebook, c/o PK!

I’m drawn by a piece of antique street furniture, by the side of the bridge, a ‘Cumberland C.C. Fingerpost’. Probably seventy+ years old. It feels, timelessly, right, here. Living history. And there, unostentatiously, stands ‘Glen Cottage’, Percy Kelly’s home for twelve years. Well, home till his wife arrived back, one evening, unexpectedly, to find him sat in his chair, wearing her clothes! The bland face of the small, rural, cottage hides it’s ‘dreadful’ secret, without expression. The Fiat ‘Uno’ parked outside, also, seems totally unconcerned, as you would expect from an Italian, used to such ‘la dolce vita’, I expect.

To turn along Garden Terrace, to the right of his home, is almost surreal. To walk along it gives the sensation that you’ve stepped through some, invisible, wardrobe door and entered, a Cumbrian Narnia, or, at least, that you’ve stepped into a Kelly picture. But walking into one of Percy’s pictures will make you, immediately, invisible, his pictures are form and shape, but without people. This is not true of Allonby today. It’s population, in the early 19th. century, was between 700-800. When Percy lived in the village it had plunged to 400, and now, (in 2001), it stands at about 470. It is growing again. Garden Terrace is a cul-de-sac, ending on private property. Returning to the bridge, and turning directly right, heads you down a narrow lane, for Westnewton and Aspatria, and there is ‘Globe Inn Cottage’. Formerly ‘The London Apprentice’, it is for sale. Another facet of the village, opens up, it’s pubs. Most are closed, and are residential cottages, but every other house seems, at some time, to have been a public house. They must have been prodigious drinkers, these Cumbrians of old. Since turning from the sea I have passed three, well four really, if you count the guest house almost next to Glen Cottage. This was, until 1850, the ‘Queens Head’, and then became the ‘Queens Temperance Hotel’. It was owned by T. Armstrong and, on old photographs, boasts stabling and ‘conveyances for hire’ and, there, on the picture, a very smart ‘conveyance’. Allonby was a holiday destination at the end of the nineteenth century.

Almost opposite Globe Cottage is the entrance to ‘The Square’. I use the word ‘entrance’ advisedly. I am looking down a very narrow, cobbled street, once the main thoroughfare of the village. It’s date is given away immediately, on the first house, a datestone for 1679. This is real history, not the ‘stuffed and preserved’ history of the larger tourist traps. This has not been subsumed by ‘Ye Olde Gifte Shoppe’, people live here, as they have for centuries. Allonby has evolved rather than been developed. It lives, and breathes, in its own quiet, understated way. I do like it here. It’s real. There is no room for the wind. It doesn’t whistle through the alleyways, it knows that it isn’t welcome. A cottage bearing a coat of arms, dated 1650, emphasises the street’s age. To my left are two more former pubs. One, unashamedly, ‘The Swan’, is called Swan Cottage but more demurely, almost adjacent, stands the ‘The Sun’. At the end of Temple Terrace, a neat row of cottages, is a wreck, a ruined farmhouse. I fervently hope that it is not taken up as a weekend cottage, but becomes a home for a local family, people who are going to live here. On Temple Square, named for the family who lived there, rather than any religious connotations, stands the former ‘Greyhound’ pub. How many pubs could this population stand?

Passing Temple Square, there is a break in the housing, on the left, and there over the beck stands an imposing group of buildings. These are the Fishyards. The herring industry had been important here in the late 17th. century and these buildings were owned by the Beeby family, a family of Quakers. Here herrings were gutted, salted and packed. Some were smoked, the gorgeous aroma of Kippers must, once, have filled the air. There was even a cooperage in the complex, to make the barrels, into which the herrings were packed. By 1900 the herring industry had slumped. This being Allonby, there was also a pub in there! ‘The Spirit Vaults’, a grog shop. It sounds an extremely rudimentary ‘drinking den’, and was described as ‘a darksome place’. Old photographs bear that description out! It was run by the Costin family and could have had, as it’s origins, the rum smuggling trade which thrived along the Solway. Alfred Costin, opposed by the Police, and the Temperance Union, lost its license in 1903. Pretty substantial opposition for our ‘grog shop’ owner. The buildings became a stables, and riding school, you can still see the stone, horses’ heads which adorn the gateposts. Now there are some private dwellings and a huge, weatherworn, gable end.

Allonby is a treasure house of architecture, and that facet of the walk is about to unfold. There, in front of me, on the main road, is an Italianate, red brick, building, complete with staircase and tower. It is in the throes of renovation, into a private house, but a sympathetic renovation. It’s character is being retained. This is the ‘Reading Room’ and another door into Allonby’s past is about to open. The building was erected in 1862, financed by a Quaker industrialist, from the North East, Joseph Pease. He was part of the group that started the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company. He was the largest mine owner in South Durham, and bought the land which was to become the port of Middlesborough. A Victorian entrepreneur par excellence. He became an MP, supporting the Whigs ( later the Liberal Party). He was the first Quaker MP and, in common with Quaker traditions of fairness and honesty, without ritual, refused to take the oath, but was, eventually allowed to affirm. Neither would he remove his hat when entering the House, Quakers believing that all men are born of equal worth. He was a prodigious man. At the age of 61 he became a father, for the sixteenth time! At the age of 63 he commissioned the Reading Room and he was to die, in 1872, aged 73.

But this extraordinary man is not the only notable Victorian Quaker associated with the building. He commissioned a young, Quaker, architect to design his Reading Room, the 32 year old, Alfred Waterhouse. Waterhouse had set up practice, in Manchester, in 1853, and was to be responsible for much of the architectural glory of Victorian Manchester, as well as many Quaker homes in the North East. In 1858 he designed the Assize Courts, in 1862, the formidable Strangeways Prison and finally the Gothic, totally irregular, rectangle, that is the marvellous, Manchester Town Hall, in 1877. If you see the interior of the Houses of Parliament, depicted on a television drama, you can bet your life you are really looking at the interior of Waterhouse’s wonderful building. His crowning glory came in 1873 when he designed the Natural History Museum, in London. And here I am, on the banks of the Solway looking at a building designed by Waterhouse. Incredible. Like Pease he recognised that construction was part of the industrial process, but also embraced the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He designed a bold statement on the West Cumberland skyline. The Reading Room actually closed its doors, for the last time, in the 1970s, after more than a century’s service. Well done to its new owners for the, sympathetic, restoration which seems to be going on.

On the Reading Room clock it shows 12.40. Over the road, on the Allonby Hall, it is 9.50. This building was opened on November 9th. 1905, by EH Banks JP., of Highmoor, Wigton. An old photograph shows the event. A large, but orderly, crowd has gathered outside the front door, women on one side, in full Edwardian dress, with required, large, hats. In the centre, the Sunday-suited children and on the right the menfolk, capped or hatted. Almost hidden, standing on the Hall steps, are the besuited, but bare-headed, dignitaries. The Edwardians certainly knew how to take a dignified, and comprehensive, team photograph!

The, current, noticeboard is a document of our times. It should be preserved for posterity. The results are posted for the, uncontested, Parish Council Election of April 2011 ( two and a half years ago, and still there!). Civic apathy, I wonder?
Then, a notice posted on 20.08.2013. ‘Due to austerity measures Allerdale District Council are (sic) reducing the concurrent grant by 50% for amenities and services in Allonby parish. This will cause financial loss to the Parish Council in future.’ Shame on the government for this strangulation of a community! Then we have a meeting of the ‘Over 55s Club’ every Thursday. The Christmas Lights Switch-on will be held, outside the Hall, on Saturday 14th. December, with mulled wine, mince pies and Santa (Blackpool eat your heart out!). Allonby School will be presenting ‘The Stable Boy’ on the evening of December 11th. Bravo Allonby!

At the furthest remove from the parish church, at the north end of the village, is the Congregational Chapel. There is never any doubting that a building was once a Non-conformist Chapel, like French level-crossing houses, they all look identical. Now a private house but still obviously the Chapel. It was built in 1844, and still bears the legend ‘ Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is but exhorting one and other and so much the more as ye see the day approaching – Hebrews X Verse XXV’. Fire and brimstone will have been breathed within those walls. A nineteenth century Sunday morning was a busy time in Allonby.

A little further north is a low cottage, now a private house, but between 1703 and 1991, this was the Quaker Meeting House. A low-key, simple building, for a low-key, simple faith. There are still only 25,000 Quakers in England today. There is so much to admire about their simple faith. I find it so reminiscent, in certain respects, to the beliefs of the Cathars, in Languedoc, whose genocide by the Roman Catholic Church has interested me, for so long. Quakers eschew ritual. As did Cathars. Quakers do not need a priest to intercede between God and Man. Neither did the Cathars. Both suffered at the hands of ‘organised’ religion. The Cathars grievously and brutally. I suppose one major difference is the Cathar belief in reincarnation, wherein a soul moves from body to body until it reaches a perfect state. Thus their vegetarianism. It would not do, to kill and eat a cow. That cow could be carrying the soul of Great-Grandma! Religion is never far from where you are standing, in Allonby.

A skein of geese fly overhead. Arrowhead sharp heading south. Collective nouns are so difficult. It certainly isn’t a ‘gaggle’, that sounds too clumsy for this formation, but it could very well be a ‘wedge’, no, that sounds too solid. I’m settling for ‘skein’. Then I find, a ‘plump of geese’, if they are close together, but is that in flight, or on the ground, or in the water? And what is a ‘nide of geese’, that doesn’t’ fit anything to do with the bird? Earlier I had seen a, ‘what’ of starlings? A ‘clattering’, a ‘chattering’, a ‘cloud’, a ‘murmuration’ or a congregation? Oh dear, I’m on one now. What about gulls? A ‘screech’, a ‘flock’, a ‘flotilla’, a ‘squabble’ or a ‘scavenging’? This is far too reminiscent of trawling through ‘First Aid in English’, by my ten year old self, in my Baines Endowed days, in Blackpool!

Shortly I’m at the the northernmost point of the village, at a very grand building. This is, the gloriously early Victorian, North Lodge. It was built, originally, by, and for, a Quaker banker, Thomas Richardson, in 1830. I wonder how many Quaker bankers there are today? He started as an errand boy, and had a ‘good idea’, when he became a clerk. He, with a partner, started a Bill-broking firm, this was revolutionary, at the time, as it only charged commission to the borrower. Some would say that this was the beginnings of London becoming an international banking powerhouse. He has a lot to answer for, does Thomas Richardson! North Lodge was a holiday home for himself and his wife, Martha Beeby, ‘as was’, a local girl, her of the Fishyard family. Flanking the main house are six cottages, which were for six local widows and spinsters, plus an annual sum of £5. It is still managed by the Allonby Alms House Trust. The main house has been converted into six flats, but the outside has been, faithfully, preserved.

I now turn back, towards my car. Out across the mists of the Solway Firth, to my right, I can see the ghostly shapes of a wind farm. Why aren’t more sails going round? Today is a wind farm day! Isn’t it? It seems to make so much sense to build, if they must be built, these monstrosities, out at sea. Two cyclists hurtle past me towards Silloth, propelled by the strength of the wind. It won’t be as much fun on the way back, into the teeth of the gale. A man comes out of a door to my left wearing a short sleeved, Whitehaven Rugby League shirt. He, merely, nods at this swaddled ‘townie wimp’. Men are men out here!

It was easy to overlook the ordinary housing of the village, when confronted by its grander architecture. But the fishermens’ cottages are equally as important. ‘Moss House’ was built for Thomas and Ann Bouch in 1760. Across the road, ‘JR’ built a cottage in 1746. A little further down ‘DRE’ built a cottage in 1666. In larger towns I have found great difficulty in searching out working class dwellings, amongst the houses of the wealthy and influential. Here they stand cheek by jowl. Unapologetic. They are the houses of the people of Allonby. It’s as if the Quaker belief, in equality, has impressed itself on to the whole town. There doesn’t seem to be any feeling of them and us.

Instead of walking back down the main road, I detour onto The Square. There, facing each other are two magnificent, porticoed, buildings, Allonby Grange and , over the road, The Baths. This bathing venue was built, by the Quakers, in about 1830, with a full, Doric, portico! Here on the Cumberland coast! Sea bathing must have been a major industry in Allonby, in spite of the weather! The sea water was pumped, daily, from the shore into the Bath House. An engineering feat in itself. As I pass, a lady using a Zimmer frame slowly eases her way out of her house. “Bracing day,” she offers,” it certainly keeps the cobwebs off of us!” I can only smile at her fortitude, and yet another local more than willing to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. This is Cumberland at its best.

Of all the things that this place does not need, a blue plaque is one of them. The village is a distinctive, historical place, ‘in toto’. But there is one, there it is, on the ‘Ship Hotel’. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins stayed here in 1857 whilst writing their book, ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’. ‘The Ship’ seems to thrive, still, as the only pub left in the village centre.

I walk back past Glen Cottage. I love Percy Kelly’s painting, but he just didn’t get the feel of this lovely village. Perhaps his paintings tell us more about him than Allonby. They are a pictorial record, of a moment in time, but only a partial record. The village lives, as well as exists, and Percy didn’t seem to grasp that. He has so much in common with the Cumbrian poet, Norman Nicholson. They could relate to an area but not to it’s people. He was an island, and, if I was to be uncharitable, a rather selfish island. That they were both huge talents is undeniable, although, I rather think, I wouldn’t have enjoyed a pint with either of them. But I do admire both of them for their various, wonderful, creative, talents.

Allonby has been a revelation, in the way it has retained its architecture, the history of its pubs, the great Victorians associated with it, the benign Quaker influence and its sociable people. Oh, and Charles Dickens slept there!

As I made to cross the footbridge, outside Glen Cottage, a woman appeared with a small dog on a lead, a Yorkshire Terrier, I think. He growled at me, in passing. “Take no notice. He’s friendly, just a bit of a grump in Winter. I saw you earlier, drawing my house, didn’t I? Can I see it?” I hadn’t realised that I was being watched, so I showed her my effort. Just a simple pencil sketch. “That’s it,” she said,”mind my house is quite easy to draw.” I was dying to ask her if she had known Percy. Had he drawn her house as well? It was extremely doubtful, I know, forty years had passed. But, in the end, I thought better of it. I didn’t want my fragile ego to become the victim of Cumbrian, friendly, frankness. . . again.

 

 

A Walk through Helpston with John Clare.

‘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
and dances’

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
different turn’

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
neighbours’

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.