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.)
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
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.
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.