I am co-director of the Leaping Word Poetry Consultancy, which provides advice for poets on writing, editing and publishing, as well as qualified counselling support for those exploring personal issues in their work - https://theleapingword.com. My fifth poetry collection, Learning Finity, is now available from Indigo Dreams or directly from me.
I was supposed to be going to Devon tomorrow for a final blast of sun and salt sea air before the biscuit tin is shut up for the winter. Not to mention a blow across Dartmoor with Ted. But I am too poorly to go and shall be spending at least the next two days in bed with a succession of mugs of hot milk and rum. Here's what I'm going to be missing.
It was a tricky drive up to Queensferry in North Wales on Sunday. Every time I thought the sun was burning off the fog, the fog regrouped. It was still dank by the time I reached Chester, having dropped Son the Elder off at his roboteering event, and the exterior of my destination - Chester Cathedral - looked more than a little forbidding. My poor West Country eye, so used to the Cotswold stone, Bath stone, Ham stone, granite, finds the blackened brick of the North and the South East difficult to accommodate. But the leaves looked like fragments of stained glass hanging from the tracery of branches, so that was OK.
The Cathedral itself was closed to gawpers as there was a service in progress, so I had a sandwich and a cup of tea in the Refectory, enjoying the fact that this room has always been a Refectory, right back to when the Cathedral was an Abbey, pre Henry VIII and his murderous manipulations. There was some exciting graffiti with serifs, quite high up on the back wall, dating from 1688. Naughty Robert Hesketh and Joseph Saunders!
After that, I whiled away more time wandering around the cloisters, where, amongst the stone sarcophagi and carvings of mediaeval men playing bagpipes, there was a rather more modern memorial to two men of Chester, who 'adventured their lives even unto death'.
Eventually I spotted an open door and nipped into the Cathedral itself. For a moment I imagined that the fog had slipped in with me, but it was incense hanging heavily in the air. Struggling still with the fabric of the place, I decided to concentrate on ferreting out quirk to delight the eye and there was plenty of that ...
... like this fabulous fragment of mediaeval glass depicting the resurrection of a soul, we are told, though it looks pretty corporeal to me. I thought at first that the line on its jaw was an exiting worm, which would have been brilliant, though in close up it's probably the hinge.
Here on the St Werburgh's shrine there was not a resurrected goose, but this tiny carving of a dog scratching its fleas, which felt kind of warm and inclusive.
There were also carvings of the mediaeval masons who originally worked on the building, literally holding it up, and a boss in the Lady Chapel illustrating the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket, which mysteriously survived Henry's decree for all such depictions to be destroyed.
I'd got it into my head that I wasn't going to see any utter magnificence in such a grim-looking piece of heaven upon earth, but that was before I reached the Quire.
It was stunning, not just in its entirety, but with regard to detail also. There was someone naughty, presumably, being eaten by a dog ...
... and someone else having a pint ...
... and look! A green man.
But best of all is this elephant and castle and I'll tell you why - first of all, it's been carved by someone who has obviously never seen one. It's got hocks and hoooves like a horse. And second, its howdah is like a castle which kind of knocks on the head all that nonsense about the Infanta of Castile. We want proper elephants and proper castles!
Feeling gloriously middle age-y (in both senses), I departed for a wander around the city walls, which, uniquely, are almost completely intact. And it was sunnily autumnal. Hoorah!
The sight of all the mediaeval buildings made me wonder how Bristol would have looked, had it not been for the Blitz and the depredations of our post-war city planners.
I stopped off to have a bit of a fossick around the Roman ruins. I was particularly interested by the amphitheatre. Look, there's the shadow of Nemesis, falling over her shrine ... no, wait, it's me ...
I also popped into the Church of St John the Baptist, which is so close to the Roman ruins as to make you wonder whether it was originally built on the site of the martyrdom of a very early Christian. My disappointment at the lack of guide books was ameliorated by this fabulous painting of yer man on one of the columns ...
... and the beautiful grave slab of Agnes, wife of Richard de Ridleigh, who died in 1347 'on the Sabbath next before the feast of Philip and James the Apostle'.
A quick shufti at the River Dee and the Castle and it was time to return for Son the Elder. As always, it seems, I need to return ere long for there was no time to see the three hares tile in the Grosvenor Museum owing to its truncated opening hours on a Sunday. So, arrivederci, Chester ...
I love footpaths, towpaths, ash paths, cinder tracks, trails, trods, green lanes, deep lanes, sunken lanes, alleys, wynds, meanders, rides, byways, bridleways, holloways, lychways, rights of way, thoroughfares, droves, sheeptracks, rabbit runs. Every sort of path apart from psychopaths, in fact.
The best paths are those that the land remembers, that aren't even marked on maps. They don't belong to us; we belong to them.
Running along a bank, a parapet
That saves from the precipitous wood below
The level road, there is a path. It serves
Children for looking down the long smooth steep,
Between the legs of beech and yew, to where
A fallen tree checks the sight: while men and women
Content themselves with the road and what they see
Over the bank, and what the children tell.
The path, winding like silver, trickles on,
Bordered and even invaded by thinnest moss
That tried to cover roots and crumbling chalk
With gold, olive, and emerald, but in vain.
The children wear it. They have flattened the bank
On top, and silvered it between the moss
With the current of their feet, year after year.
But the road is houseless, and leads not to school.
To see a child is rare there, and the eye
Has but the road, the wood that overhangs
And underyawns it, and the path that looks
As if it led on to some legendary
Or fancied place where men have wished to go
And stay; till, sudden, it ends where the wood ends.
Following on from my exploration of the outside and the courtyard of Ightham Mote, I ventured inside, almost reluctantly, in case it was somehow less dreamlike. The house was stuffed full of visitors processing from one room to the next, but I loitered in the background concentrating on just the things that interested me. Like the windows. It's amazing that glass was so precious, even the smallest pieces had to be mended with lead rather than replaced when they got broken. And one of my very favourite aspects - the wobbliness of ancient glass. It's like these windows have a built-in special effect to indicate the passage of time, as if you might look through them and see a Tudor scullery maid hurrying past or a hunting party returning with dinner.
I especially loved the painted ceiling in the 'new' chapel. The design dates from the early 16th century and amongst other emblems, it incorporates the pomegranate of Aragon, as do the carved bargeboards above windows overlooking the courtyard. Unfortunately at the time the then owner, Sir Richard Clement, was attempting to ingratiate himself with his royal master, Henry VIII was off canoodling with Anne Boleyn. Luckily for Sir Richard, Henry VIII never actually visited Ightham Mote. There are lots of other interesting stories about the various owners of Ightham. I was particularly interested by those surrounding Dame Dorothy Selby, the widow of Sir William Selby II. You will often read - especially on line - that Ightham is haunted by her ghost, that she was bricked up in the house following the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot. For legend has it that it was Dame Dorothy - a devout Catholic - who, having got wind of what was about to happen, wrote anonymously to her cousin, Lord Mounteagle, to warn him to stay away from the opening of Parliament, which letter was intercepted and the Plot foiled. The inscription on her memorial in Ightham Church - 'whose art disclosed that Plot' - has been claimed as proof. Not so. Dame Dorothy and her husband did not even move to Ightham until 1612, several years after the failed assassination attempt against James I. And if you look at her memorial (which I did later when I visited the church), you will see that she died in 1641, almost 40 years later. The mention of the Plot refers to the large-scale piece of embroidery she executed commemorating it. And in fact she died from an infection caused by pricking her finger with a needle. Which is a suitably fairy tale sort of ending for the mistress of such a dream of a house.
As I wondered around the house, I felt very drawn to a certain room in the tower - a bedroom. As I perused my guide book over lunch, I read that it was in that room that Henry James has stayed during Christmas 1887, and that he subsequently wrote that it had a ghost. Again the description of a female skeleton bricked up in a wall or small room manifests itself. It is said that workmen discovered her in 1872, and that she had been a serving woman who had been impregnated by the local priest. I actually thought that the house had a warm and welcoming atmosphere, although it's one thing being there amid a crowd of visitors on a lovely October day, and another, I suppose, being there alone at night!
But the best story concerning previous owners is the one about Charles Henry Robinson of Portland, Maine. Following the Second World War, Ightham Mote was sold and eventually bought by a consortium of Kentish business men, anxious to save the dear old house from being demolished for the lead on its roof. In 1953 they advertised it for sale in Country Life, where it was spotted by a wealthy visiting American, Robinson. He recognised it as the house he had seen years earlier whilst on a cycling holiday in England, and enquired about buying it. Unsure whether it was the right thing to do or not, he resolved to make up his mind during the cruise home aboard the Queen Mary. At that time, Britain had 'punitively' high rates of taxation for foreigners who spent more than 17 weeks per year in the country, and by the time the liner docked in New York, Robinson had composed a letter of regret, informing the consortium that he had decided that the proposed purchase was too extravagant. However, when he reached the post office, it was closed - whereupon he decided that it was meant to be and bought the place! The last few years of Robinson's life were spent persuading the Trust to take over the property upon his death - no mean feat of negotiation, considering that it took 15 years and £10,000,000 to restore it. And afterwards, a Trust researcher traced back his family tree and discovered that Robinson was a direct descendant of one of the Pilgrim Fathers! His ashes are interred just outside the crypt below the old chapel,with a memorial stone inside inscribed 'A Pilgrim Returned.'
After my lunch in the cafe, I did what I have never done before and went straight back into the house to walk around a second time. It was much quieter by then, and having done some research in the interim, I asked the guide where I could see the archaeological finds that are on display. Upon being told that they were in a room in the tower which wasn't open owing to a shortage of volunteers, I must have looked disappointed because she said she hoped I hadn't travelled far. 'Bristol' I ventured, and then - following the shamelesslead of an erstwhile fellow-jaunter of mine - I added 'I'm a writer' (simultaneously trying to dispel the recollection of Homer Simpson speeding across an intersection on a red light, yelling 'It's all right, I'm a teacher!') It worked and I shortly found myself up the tower delighting in skulls, shards of pottery and glass, clay pipes, a candlestick, a broken nit comb, and various shoes secreted up chimneys, behind skirtings and under window sills for apotropaic purposes, ie to ward off evil spirits (and now replaced by newer shoes formerly belonging to Trust staff). Robinson had bought his dream house, and I left Ightham feeling that it was obvious it should now belong to me, not least since there was a willow pattern platter in the kitchen - a Sign if ever I saw one! The only thing that could make it more perfect would be if it were 200 miles south and west.