Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey

Although I have lived in the village for almost 25 years, it was only last month that I really noticed our sycamores.  These are the larger cousins of the field maples that surround the village, and have the disadvantage that they are not considered “native”, having come to England only after the last ice age.  Because of this we are encouraged to look down on them, to assume that they are not as good for wildlife as the field maple, and hence to view them differently – as outsiders – and so we do.  But next May, find the sycamores at the ends of the old road and look at their flowers: long, pale, green cascades, all dangling and delicate, and marvel.  Do this before they change into the keys we’re familiar with, and before the trees cast their dense shadows.  For theirs is the reverse ugly duckling story where something rather wonderful becomes dull and mundane.

Wordsworth knew well the intensity the sycamore brings.  Here’s a brief extract from his Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey:

The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses.

August 2011

Proud Songsters

The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
In bushes
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
As if all Time were theirs.

These are brand new birds of twelvemonth’s growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
Nor thrushes,
But only particles of grain,
And earth, and air and rain.

Whilst finches and thrushes are commonly sights in the village, I have never ever heard a real nightingale, anywhere, let alone seen one.  From April to June the male sings to attract a mate and its music has inspired poets such as Keats and Coleridge as well as Thomas Hardy.  The Wiltshire Wildlife Trust says that the nightingale song is fast disappearing from the countryside with the population having fallen by up to 90% over the last 40 years.  It is thought that problems in their African wintering grounds and habitat losses in this country are the problem.  So, in February, the Trust planted some 1700 trees on one of its reserves near to a known nightingale site with a view to providing a habitat away from human encroachment.  Nightingales nest in low scrub or coppiced woodland, with a variety of undergrowth plants such as brambles and honeysuckle that provide nesting sites and insects to feed on.  So, maybe one day I shall hear that song.  Meanwhile, the wistful and rather hypnotic Hardy will have to do: a poem first published in Winter Words following his death in 1928, and often set to music since then.

April 2011

Adlestrop

Yes.  I remember Semington –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly.  It was late June.
The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Semington – only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

If you’re familiar with Edward Thomas’ poems, you’ll know that it wasn’t Semington Halt where his train stopped in 1914, but Adlestrop, near Stow.  What a pity!  How wonderful to live in a village so immortalised in such a poem.  No doubt one of the many semi-fast Paddington to Trowbridge expresses did once stop at Semington on such a summer afternoon, but without a poet on board we shall never know about it.

The station and the trains are long gone, of course, their absence speaking to a progress of sorts.  However, the trace of the line remains and the willows, willow-herb and meadowsweet still abound, although haycocks, whether still or moving, do not.  This is not really a December poem, but reminders of Junes past and those to come are surely welcome when winter calls.

Edward Thomas did in fact know of Semington.  In 1913 he was comissioned by his publisher to take a bicycle ride from London to the Quantocks, and to write a book about it.  The book:  “In Pursuit of Spring” was published in April 1914.  In Chapter VI, after leaving Trowbridge, Thomas passes the “Lion and Fiddle” at Hilperton and then writes:

“Under elms near Semington the threshing-machine boomed, its unchanging note mingled with a hiss at the addition of each sheaf.   Otherwise the earth was the rooks’, heaven was the larks’, and I rode easily on along the good level road somewhere in  between the two”.

December 2010

To a Fallen Elm

Have you lived in Wiltshire long enough to have known the elm?  There was a time when to be here was to live with elms – the dramatic lines of the English Elm in the lowland hedgerows, and the occasional stately Wych Elm in fields and woods.  When we first came to Wiltshire, almost half a lifetime ago, they were beginning to die, and their skeletons can still be seen around the village: mute reminders of a greater time and a more marked-out landscape.  But, although the mature trees all died, destroyed by a fungus carried by the elm bark beetle, the English Elms regenerated and saplings appeared in the hedges.  Over the years, we have watched these grow, die back following further attacks, and then grow and die again, but a few minutes from where I’m writing this, near to the canal, there are three elms that have broken out of the confines of a hedge and are growing into what seem like reasonably healthy trees, one of which must be near twenty feet tall.  My fingers are crossed for the future of these icons of another time, and what seems like another Wiltshire.

This is the first verse of the John Clare poem: To a Fallen Elm – that shows something of the significance that the tree had for people’s lives, although, inevitably, the poem is as much about the human condition as it is the elm.

Old Elm that murmured in our chimney top
The sweetest anthem autumn ever made
And into mellow whispering calms would drop
When showers fell on thy many coloured shade
And when dark tempests mimic thunder made
While darkness came as it would strangle light
With the black tempest of a winter night
That rocked thee like a cradle to thy root
How did I love to hear the winds upbraid
Thy strength without while all within was mute
It seasoned comfort to our hearts desire
We felt thy kind protection like a friend
And pitched our chairs up closer to the fire
Enjoying comforts that was never penned …

October 2010

The Lesser Celandine

As I write this, the first daffodil buds have burst and yellow floods the garden.  Welcome as daffodils are as a sign of advancing spring, I’m no great fan of many of the cultivated varieties we have today – those bred for drama rather than subtlety.  Much kinder on the eye is the native British daffodil, beloved of the Welsh and immortalised in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal where she recorded her walk to Ullswater in 1802, and then by her brother, whose verse I learned at school, and remember some of today.

William Wordsworth wrote about nature, not to say anything particularly profound about it, but to illuminate the human condition, and his poem Daffodils is about the importance to us of time spent in the natural world, and the fulfilment that memories of this can bring.  Wordsworth wrote three poems about another native spring flower that blooms largely unbidden and often unremarked, even in gardens.  An early source of nectar, it reacts to wind and rain by closing its petals, but as it ages it loses this ability to protect itself.  Unlike humans, however, it is spared this knowledge of change and decay and the temptation to remember and regret.

The Lesser Celandine

There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!

When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.

The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue.
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.

To be a Prodigal’s Favourite – then, worse truth,
A Miser’s Pensioner – behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!

May  2010