From a Railway Carriage

Over the summer we wandered along the old railway embankment, heading west from Outmarsh.  This gave almost a mile of fine walking through scentless mayweed along an open track bordered with thistle, teasle and blackthorn, before barbed wire and then matted brambles barred the way.  The rail bed provides elevated views across the village and beyond, and it was easy to imagine all this passing quickly by in a rhythmic rush, as Robert Louis Stevenson does in his From a Railway Carriage, first published in 1885 in a collection called Penny Whistles.  In this, he captured the sensation and sights of train travel long before the much better known Night Mail.

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches,
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and grazes;
And there is a green for stringing daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!

September 2011

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

Wild Rose

Walking round the village over the last few weeks, the gardens have displayed their own alphabet of blossom: apple, ceanothus, elder, forsythia, horse chestnut, lilac, peony, quince, rowan, sorbus, tamerisk, wisteria – and the hedges and towpath haven’t been outdone with blackthorn, comfrey, flag iris, garlic mustard, hemlock water dropwort, ox-eye daisy, smooth hawk’s beard, red campion, white dead nettle, and now the magisterial May blossom itself.  In our garden, at least, the blooms have come and gone quickly, no doubt a result of well below average rainfall in March and April, and the summer will have a palette of very muted colour if this continues.  Even so, one flower will shine no matter what, or how briefly: the understated, very English, dog rose, the first buds of which are beginning to appear.  Here’s a fragment from George Meredith’s Wild Rose.

High climbs June’s wild rose,

Her bush all blooms in a swarm;

And swift from the bud she blows,

In a day when the wooer is warm;

Frank to receive and give,

Her bosom is open to bee and sun:

Pride she has none,

Nor shame she knows;

Happy to live.

Unlike those of the garden nigh,

Her queenly sisters enthroned by art;

Loosening petals one by one

To the fiery Passion’s dart

Superbly shy.

She is only a plain princess of the weeds,

Her aim is to rise into light and air.

One of the darlings of Earth, no more,

And little it seems in the dusty ways,

Unless to the grasses nodding beneath;

The bird clapping wings to soar,

The clouds of an evetide’s wreath.

July 2011

Two Tramps in Mud Time

This is a verse from Robert Frost’s Two Tramps in Mud Time

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

Published in 1934, these sentiments seem just as true today.  Although Frost was an American, there is a timeless quality about the way that they describe the fickleness of an English Spring: changeable from day to day, and hour by hour.  As I write this, I’m thinking back to a recent, brilliantly blue afternoon: the sun was warm on the face, but then the temperature fell and hail drove us rapidly indoors.  No wonder gardeners are often uncertain about when to plant and sow.   But that’s the challenge, of course: to outwit nature and what she blows our way by knowledge, cunning and guile.  Looking round the village, there are a lot of us who try to do just that.  It’s a never-ending task that’s always different with success never guaranteed, but that’s part of its allure, joy and fulfilment.  It’s time to be outside again …

May 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

The Primrose

I saw my first primroses poking out of a grassy bank on January 31st and they were, as always, wonderful to see because of their foretelling of Spring.  Is this unusually early for primroses, or quite normal for flowers that are said to bloom around “late winter”?  If they were early, I guess this might have been because of the warming south-westerlies that followed what was the coldest December since 1890, with The Times saying that temperatures in January across central England were 3 degrees Celcius above average.

The 17th Century English poet, Robert Herrick, would not have been thinking of temperature or timing, as he usually had other things on his mind …

The Primrose

Ask me why I send you here
This sweet Infanta of the year?
Ask me why I send to you
This primrose, thus bepearl’d with dew?
I will whisper to your ears,
The sweets of love are mix’d with tears.
Ask me why this flower does show
So yellow-green, and sickly too?
Ask me why the stalk is weak
And bending, yet it doth not break?
I will answer, these discover
What fainting hopes are in a lover.

Februrary 2011

Emmonsails Heath in Winter

As frost seized the land over Christmas, the fieldfares returned.  These large, grey-headed thrushes are winter migrants but never spend time with humans unless the cold drives them to it, as it did last year, and this when I saw over 50 of them jumping about and chattering in our trees.  They were assertive enough to see off the resident blackbirds and easily won the competition for the remaining windfall apples.  There seem few poems about fieldfares although the Lakes poet, Norman Nicholson, writes tellingly about their (and his) Norse origins.  However, John Clare, described as England’s most articulate village voice, is as evocative as ever, even if not all his 19th century Northamptonshire dialect is familiar: a bumbarrel, is a long-tailed tit.

Emmonsails Heath in Winter

I love to see the old heath’s withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps his melancholy wing,
And oddling crow in idle motions swing
On the half rotten ash tree’s topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gipsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread,
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the awe round fields and closen rove,
And coy bumbarrels twenty in a drove
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.

February 2011