Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Remembering Robin Tanner and Old Chapel Field

After twenty-one months and a lot of redecorating, I finally hung my Robin Tanner etchings in my not so new house a few days ago, and it has felt like coming home, but to a place that is tranquil and safe. 

I've been thinking about Tanner and his wife, Heather, a fair bit - how they aimed to live William Morris's dream, and the symbiosis of their shared lives. (See video below.)

I've also been recalling a visit my friend and I made almost a decade ago now, to the village Bristol-born Tanner grew up in, and which he and Heather immortalised as Kington Borel in their book, Wiltshire Village. I blogged about it at the time on a now obsolete platform, so I've reproduced it here. 

17 May 2008: A visit to Old Chapel Field

Today's trip to Wiltshire with my friend Julie was primarily to explore the village and surroundings of a hero of ours, the etcher and teacher, Robin Tanner, who lived in Kington Langley with his wife, Heather, and their adopted son, Dietrich, from the 1930s until his death in 1988. With pleasing synchronicity, his house stands on Old Chapel Field where the ancestors of Francis Kilvert lie buried, so we would be paying homage to the great Victorian diarist too. 

After an abortive trip to Devizes Museum to see their set of Tanner etchings which turned out not to be on display, we made for the village, clutching the Robin Tanner Heritage Walk we'd downloaded from North Wiltshire District Council's site.  It soon became clear, however, that both map and directions were so incomplete as to be useless.  We couldn't even find our starting point, Jacksom's Lane.

The common was packed with people celebrating the annual Scarecrow Festival, so we made our way through the Morris dancers and the funfair and what can only be described as a crucifixion of scarecrows to make enquiries at the plant stall in the churchyard.  'I'm not really local,' one of the stallholders told me. 'That is, I live here but we don't really know the area. Probably drive past it every day, though.'  'Well, could you could point us in the direction of Robin Tanner's house, then?' I asked the other woman. 'You know, the artist.'  She looked blank. 'Sorry,' she said. 'Robin who?'

Eventually we located the beautiful 17th century Greathouse at the eastern end of the village and managed to orientate ourselves, but as we wandered back down the main street it soon became apparent that Tanner's much loved village was now largely populated by well-heeled commuters unfamiliar with its surroundings or its former noteworthy inhabitants.  It seemed ludicrous that in a place only a stone's throw from the M4, we would have been better off equipping ourselves with an OS map and compass than relying on local knowledge to find our way around.

At the opposite end of the village we found a gate which, by process of elimination, we decided must be the Poet's Gate, so called because Kilvert used to lean on it to admire the view, but it was difficult to be sure because the plaque dedicating it to him was missing.  

We then eagerly sought out Robin Tanner's house, but all we could see was its gate and the tiniest, most tantalising flash of tiles between the trees.

Thwarted, we made our way down through Bird's Marsh, a lovely wood boasting fine oaks and beeches. As we went, we consoled ourselves with the knowledge we were following paths Robin and Heather walked over decades to sketch stone stiles, old chalk roads, and majestic elms, all fast disappearing from the locale. 

Sadly, the wood had also been planted with at least four different species of rhododendra which, unchecked, were crowding the native trees and smothering any undergrowth that might have flourished. They looked outrageously out of place and were the cause of so much fulminating on our parts that we forgot to watch where we were going and lost our way.  Finally we met a woman walking a dog and asked her for directions back to the village.  'I come here every day,' she said, 'but I've no idea where you mean. You could try that way.  Or maybe that way? – Yes, go that way!'

It was with a sinking feeling that we eventually drove back home.  The Tanners had been acutely aware of the loss of countless features of the Wiltshire countryside, and had sought to record and commemorate them through their art, but today it was apparent that there had been another loss – that of the connectedness of people to the landscape in which they live.  It might just have been coincidence, but I found it bewildering that every person we encountered seemed to lack even the vaguest acquaintance with their surroundings, let alone the intimate knowledge that comes from walking its tracks and woods and fields.  I know it's a cliché, but if I'd bothered to count the number of shiny 4x4s that thrashed past us, they'd have amounted to several dozen.

Back at my house over tea Julie leafed through my copy of 'From Old Chapel Field', which contains a selection of Tanner's letters, and tried to make the best of a disappointing day.  'At least, when we reread this we'll have a better idea of where he's talking about,' she said. 'Listen to this. "Never was rain so light nor leaves so green nor buttercups so yellow nor hedge parsley so white as now". Just like today! Only written on 17th May 1931.'  She paused. 'What date is it today?'

Some things have endured then.  And maybe one day nature might prevail. 


Monday, 28 August 2017

Berrow At Sunset

We hadn't been for a while. So we went. 
As usual, the beach was packed ...

... but yielded an apt gift for a Yorkshireman.

You could almost have mistaken Steep Holm ... 

... and the coastline to the south for Avalon ... 

... but for Hinkley Point, visible through the mist. 

Anyway, the sun was sinking and it was all very beautiful, so here follow the obligatory sunset/shipwreck photos.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Listen to the past's long pulse

According to this article I'd read, Lord Byron invented 'wild swimming' on 3rd May 1810 when he swam the Hellespont from Europe to Asia. Though our ancestors swam in rivers and ponds for centuries before tin baths became commonplace, to get clean and probably for fun too. 

'Oh, Mum,' scolded Offspring the Eldest. 'Don't you know something only starts to exist when a posh boy does it for the first time?'

The posh boys at hand were wetsuited and occupied the whole of the narrow river beach. We sat down by a patch of goldenrod and waited for them to move on or even just up a little. From time to time they looked as if they were getting ready to leave but then started to jump in and out again. Even their sploshes had posh vowel sounds. In the end we left before the whole afternoon was lost to resentment and ill-wishing.
On the way down we'd been diverted through Stanton Drew following an accident on the A37, and it transpired that Offspring the Eldest hadn't visited its famous stone circles, so we stopped off there on our journey back. 

Stanton means Stone Town. The last time I'd visited was with my then neighbour, Cathy. I'd taken my Collected Poems by U A Fanthorpe with me and read the poem 'Stanton Drew' aloud, to her and the stones and the sheep. 

Two days later U A died. 

There's an argument to be made that you should always carry a copy of U A's poems with you, in case of unexpected happenings like an ad hoc visit to Stanton Drew. I'd overlooked this eventuality, however, and was poetryless. 

In any event we weren't on our own. Instead of sheep, there were heifers in the field, and at the entrance, a father trying unsuccessfully to get his two children to smile for the camera. 

As we approached the stones, the father caught me up. 'I'm so glad you're here,' he said. 'My two kids wouldn't walk past the cows till they saw you do it and live to tell the tale.' 

We watched them running, laughing, climbing and striking poses. They don't know yet that it's the stones that have the power. We were glad to have facilitated this first encounter, however ... 

... since it's good to get up close and personal with the stones. Listen to the past's long pulse, as U A says ... 

... even if you can hear the traffic on the B3130 and an aeroplane coming in to land at nearby Lulsgate Airport at the same time. 

Maes Knoll

U A Fanthorpe's poem about Stanton Drew invites the listener or reader to remove everything from the landscape that wouldn't have been there when the circles were created.

Since I was there last, a couple of beautiful dead trees have disappeared. 

More will grow up and grow old and the stones will outlast them. 

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Fairford, Great Coxwell and Uffington White Horse

What in the world is happening when a Church is having, like, a service or something and tourists can't get inside to explore the moment they arrive?

We had to go for a coffee instead. 

But it was worth waiting because this is no ordinary Church. This is St Mary the Virgin, Fairford, Gloucestershire ...

... and behind this door is the only complete* collection of mediaeval church glass in the country. I'd visited beforebut it was the first time Offspring the Eldest had seen it. 

I was determined to get a feel for the church as a whole this time instead of fixating on the windows ...

... but failed.  

It's that West window's fault, with its dull and ordered Salvation and really rather thrilling demons. 

*Well, they say 'complete' but the top section, Christ sitting in Judgement, is a Victorian replacement.

After all that hell and damnation we'd worked up an appetite, so headed off to Great Coxwell for a picnic by the barn.

I first heard of Great Coxwell Barn through my interest in William Morris. 

It was his favourite building, and he often took visitors to see it when they came to stay at nearby Kelmscott Manor. 

It's taken a while to get here myself. 

Great Coxwell Barn was originally part of a monastic grange. Dendrochronological analysis dates its construction to 1292.
Morris called it 'unapproachable in its dignity, as beautiful as a cathedral, yet with no ostentation of the builder's art'. 

I was pleased to see that SPAB (the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), which Morris founded, engraved his name and dates on the door in 1996, on the 100th anniversary of his death.

Coincidentally, a sumtyme fermer called William Morys died in Cokyswell in 1509. 

I wonder if it was he who carved these initials in the pillar. 

There are other interesting examples of graffiti in the building. Apotropaic hexafoils for a start ...

... and tally marks ... 

... and masons' marks.

I hadn't told Offspring the Eldest our ultimate destination before we set out, but the pub we stopped at gave the game away.

And here it is for real, the Uffington White Horse.

When I'd visited before, we'd been able to sit on the horse itself, but now fears of erosion means that it has been temporarily fenced off. 

We still had a beautiful wander along the ridge, however. 

A sit in the late afternoon sun, watching what my friend Andy thinks was probably a hobby hovering at head height over the side of the hill before walking back to the car in a shower of swallows. A good day.