Sunday, 11 September 2016

Lechlade to Newbridge

The day started early in Cirencester, where our Chartist
Allen Davenport was a cobbler before he married Mary,
And moved to London, where the writings of Thomas Spence
Led him into revolutionary politics, writing, and action -
But that was less on my mind than finding the bus stop:
The bus for Lechlade left from near the Job Centre
('Didn't know we had one,' said one young man;
'You mean the Labour Exchange,' said an older man),
And was twenty minutes late and anonymous:
'Damned thing kept stalling,' said the driver,
As she drew a large 77 on a piece of paper
Which she stuck to the windscreen, to denote the service -
But we got there in the end, dropped off by Shelley's Close:
Percy Shelley, admirer of the Luddites and the Spenceans.

I crossed the bridge and turned left for London,
It was just the sort of light I like for a riverine walk:
Waves of silver rippling through the dark waters,
Moody clouds and a humid air;
I made my way to the statue of Old Father Thames,
Once of Crystal Palace, now recumbent at St John's Lock -
But the nineteenth century was soon forgotten:
It all got a bit Mrs Miniver and Went the Day Well?
After Bloomer's Hole footbridge:
I lost count of the pillboxes in the fields and on the banks
('Mr. Brown goes off to Town on the 8.21,
But he comes home each evening,
And he's ready with his gun'),
As I walked on past Buscot, with its line of poplar trees,
Planted to drain the soil in its Victorian heyday of sugar beet
And once with a narrow gauge railway dancing across
A lost Saxon village at Eaton Hastings;
Then on past William Morris' 'heaven on earth'
At Kelmscott Manor ('Visit our website to shop online!'),
Walkers occasionally appearing beyond hedgerows,
Like Edward Thomas' 'The Other Man',
Wandering past teazles and Himalayan balsam;
Then Grafton Lock, and on to Radcot's bridges and lock
(The waters divide here with two bridges:
The older, the site of a medieval battle after the Peasants' Revolt;
A statue of the Virgin Mary once in a niche in the bridge, too,
Mutilated by the Levellers, before their Burford executions;
The newer bridge was built in the hope and expectations
Of traffic and profit in the wake of the Thames and Severn Canal),
Past Old Man's Bridge, Rushey Lock and Rushey Weir:
A traditional Thames  paddle and rymer weir
(The paddles and handles, called rymers,
Dropped into position to block the rushing waters).
Now it's on to isolated Tadpole Bridge on the Bampton turnpike,
Now past Chimney Meadow - once a Saxon island,
Then Tenfoot Bridge - characteristically,
Where an upper Thames flash weir
Used to pour its waters,
Until Victorian modernity silenced that;
Then past Shifford Weir and the hamlet of Shifford,
Once a major Wessex town, where King Alfred
Met with his parliament:
'Many bishops, and many book-learned.
Earls wise and Knights awful'.

But you finish your waltz through a Saxon landscape:
(The honeystone bridge at Newbridge is in sight)
Buscot, Eaton Hastings, Kelmscott, Radcot, Shifford;
And along the Red Line of resistance from the summer of 1940,
The skeins of geese and ducks no longer calling,
Dragonflies and butterflies making way for moths and bats,
Swallows no longer swooping, nor rooks so persistent;
There's an evening mist gathering over the river:
'The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman plods his weary way
And leaves the world to darkness and to me';
It's time for a pint at the Maybush (the Berkshire bank),
And a sleep at the Rose Revived (the Oxfordshire bank) -
I hope I sleep well - no 'Night awful', I trust, at Newbridge;
The bridge is actually 13th century, and only called Newbridge
As it's newer than the original 12th century bridge at Radcot:
'The Thames Path 40 miles to the Source153 to the Sea.'
The bridge, built 'to improve communications between
the wool towns ... and the Cotswold farms. In 1644 ...
the Battle of Newbridge was fought on the banks of the river.
Parliamentarian William Waller attempted to cross in order to surround Oxford and capture King Charles, but was defeated.'

I rather like the use of the word 'but.'

But it’s time for a sleep.

On to Oxford, tomorrow.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Cricklade to Lechlade: Time travel by foot and canoe

I arrive at William Cobbett’s rotten borough of Cricklade:
‘I passed through that villainous hole … the labourers look very poor, dwellings little better than pig beds and their food nearly equal to that of a pig. This Wiltshire is a horrible county.’
But last January, Cricklade looked like a Thomas Hardy film set,
A gently rising hill of a quaint and prosperous street,
All purposeful early morning bestirring,
Inns, butchers, bakers and - who knows – candlestick makers,
While beyond the bridge, fritillary water meadows,
With light like pewter - steel grey clouds - shafts of sunlight,
Aspen and willow, silver light on rippling water,
Sepia post card Victorian baptisms at Hatchett’s Bridge;
Today, the first of September,
‘Where are the songs of spring?’ –
Mists from Keats over the river,
Gossamer webs; plump, ripe apples …
Mellow fruitfulness and cider oozing from the presses;

But the trickling Ray wanders down from the Downs,
To offer the Thames its tribute,
And the sunlight trips through time:
Saxon peasants till the harvest fields,
A numinous presence in the mist-lands;
King Cnut crosses the various watercourses,
Crushing the yellowing leaves, slashing the blood red hawthorn.

The wind soughs in the reeds,
As I cross the line of battle, to reach
Castle Eaton’s seeming quietude,
Once the scene of Dark Age carnage:
The clash of sword on sword,
The cries of pain and anguish,
The crimson ground and river,
The runes and riddles of death;
Today, an army of house martins,
Betwixt Mill Lane and the church.

We cross back into Wiltshire,
Along an ancient bridleway’s grassy track,
Dividing two open, brown ploughed fields,
A tractor working its way across the broad expanse,
While cows chew the cud and the barns fill with hay bales.

We walk past ridge and furrow and nettled old thoroughfares
Of the deserted medieval village of Inglesham,
With its 13th century church
(St. John the Baptist, originally Saxon),
Wall paintings guarded by William Morris.

A wave of weeping willow,
Roundhouse on the river,
Confluence of canal and river,
Where I used to swim as a boy,
Mum too in her gilded young days.

Broad, confident river, now,
Girth increased by the Colne and Leach,
Halfpenny Bridge by the old wharves,
Linking the Midlands, the West Country, London,
Hubbub of clanking, scraping, lifting, carrying,
Rattle of toll coins, babel of banter, accent and dialect;
There: iron, copper, wool, cheeses, brass, coal and hides,
Stone for St. Paul’s and Cobbett’s Great Wen,
But over there, in the quiet solemnity of the churchyard,
Shelley composes his summer evening verse:
‘The wind has swept from the wide atmosphere

Each vapour that obscured the sunset's ray,
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair

In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day:

Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,
Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.

They breathe their spells towards the departing day,

Encompassing the earth, air, stars, and sea;

Light, sound, and motion, own the potent sway,
Responding to the charm with its own mystery.
The winds are still, or the dry church-tower grass

Knows not their gentle motions as they pass.

Thou too, aerial pile, whose pinnacles

Point from one shrine like pyramids of fire,
Obey'st  in silence their sweet solemn spells,

Clothing in hues of heaven thy dim and distant spire,

Around whose lessening and invisible height

Gather among the stars the clouds of night.

The dead are sleeping in their sepulchres:

And, mouldering as they sleep, a thrilling sound,

Half sense half thought, among the darkness stirs,

Breathed from their wormy beds all living things around,

And, mingling with the still night and mute sky,

Its awful hush is felt inaudibly.

Thus solemnized and softened, death is mild

And terrorless as this serenest night.

Here could I hope, like some enquiring child

Sporting on graves, that death did hide from human sight

Sweet secrets, or beside its breathless sleep

That loveliest dreams perpetual watch did keep.’
(Shelley, Mary Godwin - future author of Frankenstein - and Thomas Love Peacock were at Lechlade, about to abandon plans to explore the country by river and canal. Shelley had been rusticated from Oxford for writing The Necessity of Atheism; the churchyard plaque doesn’t mention this…)
While Shelley was developing his radical ideas, Allen Davenport had left his Ewen -Thames obscurity behind, and was in the thick of the action in London, as we have already seen. 
Here’s another snippet about Mr. Davenport:
 He penned republican poems,
Would have been part of the 20,000 strong-crowd at Spa Fields in 1816,
Stirred by the speeches of the Watsons:
‘The Land is the People’s Right!’
‘The produce of the land belongs to those who cultivate it’,
‘Will Englishmen any longer suffer themselves to be trod upon, like the poor African slaves in the West Indies, or like clods or stones?’
He might have pinned up some of the 5,000 planned for posters:
The Whole Country waits the Signall from London to fly to Arms! Haste, break open Gunsmiths, and other likely places to find Arms!! Run all Constables who touch a man of Us. No Rise of Bread, No Regent! No Castlereagh. Off with their heads. No Placement Tythes, or Enclosures! No Bishops, only useless lumber! Stand true or be Slaves for Ever!

I met Jim Pentney at Lechlade – he had made the journey by canoe – and I placed Jim’s carving of our Allen Davenport stone from Ewen on the table with our afternoon tea. It was like Livingstone and Stanley: ‘Mr. Pentney, I presume.’
Another stage completed on the journey of the stone to the Reformers’ Memorial at Kensal Green – a very different landscape from the flooded and impassable fields of last January.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Weavers and Workhouse Walk

Please see the post below, but is now superseding this blog ... please go to that website in future ... pictures, categories, search box and so on ...

Well, that was a walk, that was, and even though it’s over, it’s hard to let it go.

Well over one hundred people gathered in the Ale House in Stroud for the stroll through Stroud up to the cemetery, and then other people, attracted by our purpose, joined us as we made our way through town. It was a most - literally – moving sight, to witness such a number of people making their orderly way along Nelson Street and up Bisley Road. It must be a long time since those streets saw such a scene: a scene of gentle, studied pilgrimage.
I was feeling a little nervous as the clock approached four, our starting time. I expected twenty people, but was beginning to wonder that we might have fifty; Angela Findlay, my co-presenter thought seven would turn up, with the threat of rain; I then began to witness an almost biblical sight as more and more and more and yet more walkers, visitors to the town, artists, notables and historians relentlessly surged into the front bar, like some epic flood.
We met in the Ale House not just because of the excellent beer festival, but also because a key text for our walk lies upon the wall in the front bar: a commemorative 1842 plaque praising the beneficence of the workhouse overseers. I contextualized this with an introduction about Chartism locally and nationally; Angela contextualized this with a prologue about the relationship between Stroud’s workhouse and the cemetery.
Next, some performance: I read a poem about the paupers’ graves; Gemma Dunn, visiting from London, read a first person account of the May 1839 Chartist mass-meeting on Selsley Hill, and Tim Johnston from Historic England read a 1795 anonymous threatening letter from Uley.
It was hot and humid and full to the gunnels, and after each speaker had alighted from their stool in the thronged room, our troupe made its way to Nelson Street. It looked almost Pied Piper-like - but this was a collective walk that broke down the barriers between guide, performer and audience: the line of walkers seemingly had its own collective mind, as well as both a conscious and unconscious sense of direction.
I came up the rear – and joined the orderly assembly by the Black Boy clock. The little triangle of land, opposite, with its overhanging tree, provided a natural stage and here we discoursed on General Wolfe, Stroud Scarlet, rioting weavers, Gloucestershire slave owners, local parish registers, the Black Atlantic, the black boy clock, and counter-memorialization.  Janet Biard read a first person account from the 1825 riots; Chris William spoke of forty years ago when the Black Boy flats were the teachers’ centre - one of his tasks was to wind up the clock every three days; John Marjoram spoke of his time with the clock, too; Trish Butler gave each walker a copy of a Stroud Scarlet poem, in the spirit of active counter-heritage.
I found this utterly moving: the sun was shining, we were reclaiming the streets – we had to make way for one car only in the half an hour we were there in Castle Street – and such a open air meeting was a compelling medium for a discussion on 18th century history: entirely in the spirit of the subject matter in a lah di dah self-referential post-modernist sort of way. There was also talk of psycho-geography and mythogeography, but time marches on and we needed to
walk up Bisley Road to the cemetery.
A long line of walkers made its sentient, serpentine way along the pavements: this was an absolute spectacle in itself, and to witness one hundred people making their studied way up the steep incline of Bisley Road is something I will never forget. It’s hard to find a parallel or simile for such a sight – there probably isn’t one. It was a unique and ineffable experience. Thanks to Stroud Fringe for making it happen.
Angela addressed us from the front of her house; she spoke of its history as the Cemetery Gate Lodge, former home to the Cemetery Superintendents, and the symbolism of the sculptures in the cemetery, before before leading us to the chapel, where she spoke to us from the back of a waiting and handily placed open van. She spoke of the ecumenical nature of the internments and Pauline Stevens informed the crowd of the comprehensive research available on the Stroud Local History website. Other members of the audience added their thoughts too, in the spirit of this shared experience. Angela spoke of her work on memorialization and counter-memorialization.
It was now time to move to the area of the paupers’ graves. The audience was visibly moved by Angela’s recitation of her research and previous art installations, counter memorials to those long forgotten by history. A litany of the occupations of the buried indigent inmates of the workhouse, gleaned from the Death Records and revealing Stroud’s industrious past, plus details of the rudimentary nature of their graves, left an almost tangible, numinous atmosphere in the leafy, shadowed gloom of the graveyard.  A fellow walker later told me that he was moved to tears by Angela’s gentle evocation within such a mute yet haunting landscape. I know from other later conversations that he was not alone.
Jim Pentney concluded with a few words about our Allen Davenport Chartist pilgrimage along the banks of the River Thames. Jim held aloft the stone he has carved from Allen’s birthplace at Ewen; we are taking this to the Reformers’ Memorial at Kensal Green, where Allen’s name appears. Finally, in the spirit of the shared collective experience of our walks and explorations, Jim said that all are welcome to join our Thames side ambles to London; information will appear on this website.
Some of us then retired to the Crown and Sceptre for some excellent and varied beer, where Angela, enthused and overwhelmed by the huge and positive response, thought that we really should put it on again next year. She most definitely has a point: as I first left the Ale House, some visitors who couldn’t get into the bar for the introduction, had already asked me if we could reprise the event.

What a day: well, that was a walk, that was; it’s hard to let it go.