Well, this is better – I’m leaning back against the trunk of a beautiful and venerable oak, solid and steady, while the branches above me twist and sway. It stands at the edge of a field and I’m looking out over knee-high grass, alive with dancing buttercups. The sun is out again and the droplets left by the most recent shower sparkle and shine. And here I am, anchored to this tree, with all around me motion; the meadow a green sea, rippling in the wind, furious squalls bring chaos and then pass, the sky a maelstrom of movement and light and colour. I came for bucolic tranquility. Instead, there’s a riot going on.
The relaxation of the lockdown rules has allowed me to escape the flatlands for something more, well, pastoral. It isn’t that the Fens don’t have a beauty of their own: the elemental contrasts of water and sky, with the bare minimum of land to separate the two – it is a spectacular landscape for sure, but you wouldn’t necessarily call it pretty. Not so here. This is picture book England: fields give way to woods, paths emerge into paddocks, old established hedgerows, thick with wild rose and elderflower, shelter dreamy nooks and quiet streams. The variety is thrilling and I walk with relish. Every so often, tidy villages of sand coloured stone, straight out of Laurie Lee, with the odd half-timbered or thatched house here and there, square churches and cosy pubs (all sadly closed) appear. I don’t see any cricket pitches or duckponds by the green, but they’re out there alright.
It isn’t entirely by chance that I have ended up here, deep in the Soke of Peterborough, for this is John Clare territory and I wanted to be under that same vaulted sky. Generally, I am not one for paying literary homage; wandering around a house, preserved in aspic with the nibs and ink and desk, but essentially lifeless, is of limited interest. I did once spend a dank October afternoon exploring Peredelkino, kicking through wet leaves in a state of dudgeon as I searched unsuccessfully for Pasternak’s dacha: a memory which, if anything, has added a certain glum mystique to my relationship with him and his books. But I am here for something different – I’m not seeking great insight into Clare. Rather, it is a sense of the place that I am looking for.
If it sensation I am after, the weather is more than playing its part. After weeks of almost uninterrupted sunshine, we have shifted into a more inclement phase. I arrive in a downpour and set out in drizzle and gusting wind. Before long my boots are soaking from the tall grass, but they soon dry out as the sun emerges. It is hot again, as black clouds move with ominous purpose through the sky. It is ever changing and dramatic, and just the ticket after 12 weeks of confinement. I was uneasy about coming out here; I am still not really sure what is allowed and what isn’t – an all pervading sense of anxiety has crept into my life since this began. The old certainties have been swept from under our feet, and I awake each day not quite believing all this to be true. But the weight is lifting off my shoulders, melting away with each step.
The landscape helps, it’s as changeable as the weather – something new round the end of each hedge and over every stile. The path takes me away from Barnack, around the edge of fields strewn with poppies and white campion, plunging deep into ancient woods, dark with ivy and moss, before bringing me out again onto an open field of young beet. Skylarks are singing as I hoped they would, and, as I reach the brow, I am presented with long views to the south. I can see a church on the horizon; surely this is a scene that won’t have changed much since Clare was working the land. He will have known these fields, and a frisson runs through me. I carry on, crossing over the Roman road and under marching ranks of pylons, then skirting round the earthworks of a long gone manor house. I pass through the ages, watched by curious and skittish bullocks.
It is midday when I arrive in Helpston and I’ve got lunch in mind. I have gone for the rustic option; sourdough bread (I’ve been rocking the lockdown vibe for years) and a wedge of cheese, with a slightly less rustic bag of ready salted. But these delights must wait – I have a cottage to find. It takes longer than it should, after I inexplicably misread the whacking great sign pointing right and head off to the left, down the appealing street that quietly curves round the church and its graveyard. The rain is falling heavily again – I ponder taking refuge in the porch but feel that this may contravene the vagaries of the lockdown regulations, or, at the very least, cause the verger to get twitchy. I press on.
The cottage that Clare was born in is unexpectedly grand: a pretty building with a low thatched roof squatting on tidy whitewashed brick. It is, of course, closed, but I am not sure that I would have gone in anyway. It has the look of a museum and will be missing the energy and spark of the lived in house. I wouldn’t want to spoil what is, after all, the essence of our poet; the easy appreciation of nature, the calm and assured celebration of the vitality of things.
I take a few snaps, for good form (like taking off one’s hat, or rucksack, when entering a church) and set off once more. I am going to leave Helpston now, through Rice Wood, out into the fields again where I will find a quiet spot to eat, sitting among oxeyes and buttercups alive with bees, the sound delicious and drowsy; I will slowly make my way back – seeing out one deluge by ducking into some woods, and getting caught fully in another, a proper drenching; the clouds will clear and the hot sun will dry me off as I snooze beside a cool field of impossibly green barley under a now blue sky; drifts of crisp white cow parsley will dance in the wind and I will pause to drink in the heady perfume of the great creamy fists of elderflower. Huge clouds are piled high and my spirits soar; drunkenly, I exult in the euphoria of an English spring.
I never saw a man in all my days—
One whom the calm of quietness pervades—
Who gave not woods and fields his hearty praise,
And felt a happiness in summer shades.
There I meet common thoughts, that all may read
Who love the quiet fields:—I note them well,
Because they give me joy as I proceed,
And joy renewed, when I their beauties tell
In simple verse, and unambitious songs,
That in some mossy cottage haply may
Be read, and win the praise of humble tongues
In the green shadows of some after-day.
For rural fame may likeliest rapture yield
To hearts, whose songs are gathered from the field.
Rural Scenes, by John Clare