Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Coming Of The Corvids

What calls them hither, these feather-clad warriors,
These ebon-swathed guardians of crepuscular sky?
What drives them together in the Norfolk dusk,
A yearning, an instinct, a reason to fly?

They gather and they chatter
They assemble and they clatter
Cacophonous corvids, jackanape jackdaws
They start as just a smatter
Swell to a seething mass of matter
Waiting and watching for a single cause.

They perch on lofty wires
They fill canopies and nooks.
They are waiting for the sunset
They are waiting for the rooks.

Blood-orange sun now bows its head,
Skyline kissed and ruddied.
Dusk infuses, deepening red,
Fields and foliage bloodied.

To a crescendo, the avian chorus
Fills the Anglian evenscape
As the horizon pushes close.
Deep and relentless, the coming night
The obdurate failure of the light
A black mass held by crows.

The rooks are here!  The strident caws
Mingle with the ambient roars,
They swoop and dive, blending in the gloaming
Connect and join, mixing in their roaming,
A trembling stack of beaks and claws.

And now they rise, the corvid chorus
Swarming, blotting the indigo sky
The nocturne quakes with their communal roar
A rumble penetrates to the core
Thousands lift, and together fly.

A boiling carpet, a feathered block
Our upturned faces in awe and shock
The jackdaws joke and the dark rooks mock
As we gape below this colossal flock.
They swing, they sway, they murmurate,
They dip, they soar, they susurrate
Their instincts and their needs to sate
A heirarchy to equate.

They shrink, contract, descend en masse
Upon a clump of trees.
They jostle and they tussle
They wriggle and they bustle
They whisper and they rustle
They grow quiet in the breeze.
Settling for the night,
A few rogues left in flight
One lonely 'caw! caw! caw!'
And the corvids call no more.

The night grows deep
Now the corvids sleep
The stars, tentative, emerge.
A distant tawny's plaintive cry
Cuts into this Anglian sky
Where the rooks and the jackdaws surge.

We sleep ourselves under Swaffham's sky
Where the beech and the bramble grows.
Having seen the flight, at the onset of night
Where the army of corvids rose.

What calls them hither, these feather-clad warriors,
These ebon-swathed guardians of crepuscular sky?
What draws them together in the Norfolk dusk,
A yearning, an instinct, a reason to fly?

Saturday, 30 July 2016

The Dark Brow

On 17th April 1805, a young Manchester artist named Charles Gough went strolling out in the Lake District with his dog Foxie. He was never seen alive again.

Three months later, a shepherd found his remains at the foot of Striding Edge, near the banks of Red Tarn. His dog was still by her master's side.

This incident caught the imagination of poets and artists of the romantic movement. Wordsworth and Scott wrote about Foxie's fidelity, and Landseer and Danby visualised the scene in paint. Today, a memorial set up at the estimated site of Gough's fall tells his story.

I climbed the dark brow of the mighty Helvellyn,
Lakes and mountains beneath me gleamed misty and wide;
All was still, save by fits, when the eagle was yelling,
And starting around me the echoes replied.
On the right, Striden-edge round the Red-tarn was bending,
And Catchedicam its left verge was defending,
One huge, nameless rock in the front was ascending,
When I marked the sad spot where the wanderer had died.

Dark green was that spot 'mid the brown mountain heather,
Where the pilgrim of nature lay stretched in decay,
Like the corpse of an outcast abandoned to weather,
Till the mountain-winds wasted the tenantless clay.
Nor yet quite deserted, though lonely extended,
For, faithful in death, his mute favourite attended,
The much-loved remains of her master defended,
And chased the hill-fox and the raven away.

How long didst thou think that his silence was slumber?
When the wind waved his garment, how oft didst thou start?
How many long days and long weeks didst thou number,
Ere he faded before thee, the friend of thy heart?
And, oh! was it meet, that—no requiem read o'er him,
No mother to weep, and no friend to deplore him,
And thou, little guardian, alone stretched before him—
Unhonoured the pilgrim from life should depart?

When a prince to the fate of the peasant has yielded,
The tapestry waves dark round the dim-lighted hall;
With scutcheons of silver the coffin is shielded,
And pages stand mute by the canopied pall;
Through the courts, at deep midnight, the torches are gleaming;
In the proudly arched chapel the banners are beaming;
Far adown the long aisle sacred music is streaming,
Lamenting a chief of the people should fall.

But meeter for thee, gentle lover of nature,
To lay down thy head like the meek mountain lamb,
When, wildered, he drops from some cliff huge in stature,
And draws his last sob by the side of his dam.
And more stately thy couch by this desert lake lying,
Thy obsequies sung by the gray plover flying,
With but one faithful friend to witness thy dying
In the arms of Helvellyn and Catchedicam.

Photos © Charlie McManus
Poem Helvellyn by Sir Walter Scott

Helvellyn (pronunciation: /hɛlˈvɛ.lɪn/) (possible meaning: pale yellow moorland) is a mountain in the English Lake District.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Another Trip To The Well

We live in a nation defined by water. It surrounds our Isles, has historically helped us to repel invaders ( not always successfully!), encouraged us to create ships that forged an Empire. It rises in the Winter to wreak flood havoc on various parts of the country. It was venerated by the ancient pre-Roman tribes, who cast votive offerings into its depths - artifacts such as the Battersea Shield and the Waterloo Helmet, dredged from the murk of the Thames. The custom of throwing coins into wells originates from these older rituals.

Waterloo Helmet and Battersea Shield

Wells and springs, venerated for millenia, abound across the nation, many of them adopted as relevant to the rise of Christianity, and named after various saints. In the Celtic Fringe areas, they are particularly thick on the ground. I have stumbled across them in Cornwall, where a traveller never seems to be far from a watering hole named after a local holy man. St Guron's Well stands outside the great church at Bodmin, one of many water sources in the town. St Piran's Well guards the beginning of the track that leads to St Nectan's Glen at Trethevy, and the Madron Well down in West Penwith is always thick with clouties. The small village of St Breward, high on the Moor, boasts of two Holy Wells on its fringes.

St Guron's Well, Bodmin

In Wales, the astonishingly scenic valley road between Rhayader and Pontarfynach/ Devil's Bridge is replete with waterfalls, rising from springs high in the hills to cascade down into the meandering River Elan. A cluster of  settlements in mid-Powys - Llandrindod, Llanwrtyd and Llangammarch - all carry the suffix 'Wells', thanks to the dripdrip of chalybeate metallic aqua.

Elsewhere, the goddess Sulis holds sway over the thermal waters of Bath, where the Romans equated her with their own deity Minerva. Further along the road to London, in the depths of Wiltshire, her name echoes in Silbury Hill and the nearby Swallowhead Spring. In Somerset, the legendary Red and White springs of Glastonbury attract visitors from all over the world.

And what of my home region? Can any traces of these old wells and springs be found in the dour, over-developed, industrialised lowlands of South Essex?

They can indeed, if an explorer makes a little effort, and my Eldest and I recently managed to seek out four of them in a single afternoon.

Chadwell St Mary

We started at a town fairly local to us, the presence of its now-defunct well right there in its name. The name Chadwell is believed to be an Old English variation on 'Cold Well', and the St Mary suffix differentiates the town from the Romford suburb of Chadwell Heath, which boasts its own well (unvisited on this occasion!).

Alas, the town displays a lack of fanfare regarding the artifact after which it was named. Near a busy roundabout, by a new Academy, stands a rather forlorn, rusting, obsolete waterpump, with not even a small plaque to explain its previous relevance to the community.

The Chadwell © Charlie McManus
Despite the presence of reed warblers in the nearby scrub and a heron prowling the Academy's pond, any possible charm of this spot is destroyed by the perpetual roar of traffic and the antisocial activities of fly tippers. However, this is only the first of four that we have earmarked for this trip and we have high hopes that, as D:Ream once sang, things can only get better.

We hop into the car before anyone can nick it, and head northwest to a relatively overlooked village.

North Ockendon

A small community, mostly straggling along the B186, has managed to hide its church around the back. A church has existed here since at least 1075, when the manor was owned by Westminster Abbey, but most of the present building is the result of a mid-Victorian restoration.

At the rear of the churchyard, on the southern boundary, a small gate opens onto a small flight of steps that leads to St Cedd's Well. Now THIS is more like it!

St Cedd's Well © Charlie McManus
The lovingly maintained well sits in a picturesque spot, overlooking a pond which is the remnant of a manorial moat. Its waterpump remains in fine working order and is used to water the plants that surround the wellhouse. A baptismal channel runs from the well to the pond which, curiously, contains the second heron of the day. Unless we're being followed.

St Cedd's Well and Baptismal Channel ©Charlie McManus

Heron on the pond ©Charlie McManus

The dedication of the church is to St Mary Magdalene, biblical figure and unseen star of 'The DaVinci Code'. So who was St Cedd?

Cedd was born c.620, and was a monk originally out of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. He travelled south to convert the Middle Angles to Christianity, then east to convert Essex. He founded churches at Tilbury and Bradwell, his successes seeing him eventually being promoted to Bishop of London and Abbot of Lastingham in Northumberland. He was a major participant in the important Synod of Whitby, and died at Lastingham during a plague outbreak in 664, succeeded by his brother Ceadda. Considering his evangelising activities in this very region, perhaps it's no great stretch of the imagination to accept the possibility that Cedd converted and baptised the East Saxons at this spot.


We head north, to the charming village of Sandon, just off the A12 a short distance from Chelmsford. A spring was noted here on the earliest Ordnance Survey maps, but since then has disappeared from the charts and, until fairly recently, was considered lost.

The village pub, The Crown, provides refreshment before we continue our quest. To the rear of the Sandon School playing fields can be found an unmade road called - and here's a bit of a giveaway - Ladywell Lane, address of a local lawn tennis club. Apparently, a pair of wells once existed on around the club's premises, but of these no modern trace remains.

We stroll past the tennis club to the end of this very rural track, which terminates at a fine building called Ladywell House. Our perambulation continues along a public footpath, with a field on our left and a small wood, locally named Bluebell Wood, on our right. Finding a gap in the foliage, we enter the Wood.

A couple of meandering paths, presumably created by dogwalkers, snakes through the undergrowth. In little time at all, we notice a narrow stream traversing the wood, and trace it back to its source. We have found the damp, dark, mossy spot that was once the Lady Well, the springhead now flowing through a pipe.

The Lady Well, Sandon © Charlie McManus

A local legend claims that the Lady Well is so named because a woman was drowned here in antiquity; however, this seems physically unlikely. It is more probable that it was named for Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, a fairly common attribution for wells and springs.


Travelling back from Sandon in the direction of home, we enter the village of Runwell, situated on the very edge of our home borough, and the home of possibly the most mysterious of our four sites for today - the Running Well.

The earliest reference to the settlement, as 'Runewelle', is found in a document of the year 939 called the Cartularium Saxonicum, although the Well itself does not appear in a historical document until 1768, when the antiquarian Philip Morant wrote in his History Of The County Of Essex that the name of the village 'undoubtedly received its name from some considerable Running Well in the parish.'

The occult writer Andrew Collins investigated the Running Well in the 1980's, and uncovered evidence that the Well was once devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and, around the year 1600, had a small chapel in a neighbouring field; thus giving rise to the possibility that it was a place of pilgrimage for recusant Catholics. No trace of a chapel exists today, but Collins remarked on a rectangular 'kink' in the field that may have been its site.

Flint tools from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic have been found in the vicinity, and pottery from the Iron Age and Roman periods. The Running Well sits at the highest point in the parish yet, nowadays, is tricky to find.

It sits in a dense copse at the southwest corner of the paddock area behind the Running Well Equestrian Centre, in the countryside between Runwell and Rettendon. We achieved access by following a public footpath directly to the east of the Centre, then partaking of a little light trespassing along its boundaries.

We had to bend double to enter the thicket, and found ourselves sliding down into a small, dark dell. And there it was, sitting there patiently waiting for our arrival. Once again, the source of a village name, in a remote and hidden location.

The Running Well ©Charlie McManus
An overgrown flight of concrete steps lead down the bank to the Well, and a concrete sink tank adjoins it. These were installed by a local farmer in the 1920's, although a handrail accompanying the steps has long since rotted away. Standing on the platform, gazing into the dark water, it is strange to imagine that this remote, overgrown, virtually forgotten spot may once have been a site of secret pilgrimage.

Mission accomplished. Eldest and I have discovered, in a single afternoon, four sites of historic interest in our local area, and most of these sites are as mysterious and historic as any found in the West Country. Back to the car, and we drive south through Wickford on our way home, my incredulous glance falling across a field to our left as a heron suddenly takes flight.

A week later, we found ourselves in Fowlmere, a wetland Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire which, apart from circling hobbies, purring turtle doves and swooping marsh harriers, also has ponds which quite visibly have springs bubbling up inside them.

Perhaps Sulis is blessing our travels after all.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Forts And Foreshores: The Confluence

Van Soest, Attack On The River Medway
Much time and effort have I expended recently, exploring the triangle of Forts, the 'Palmerston Follies', that protect the kink in the Thames at Coalhouse Point. I have been buffeted by gusts at the lonely outpost of Cliffe, clambered over shattered stonework at Shornemead, and watched owls sweep across mudflats at Coalhouse. And yet, despite the time and effort that went into the construction of these Victorian military relics, none of them got to serve the purposes for which they were built. The French never sailed up the Thames, never attacked London, never exchanged fire with Palmerston's casemented guardians.

And yet, only a few miles along the shore, lies the confluence of the River Thames with Kent's mighty Medway... and here, two hundred years before the Palmerston Forts sought to ease our fears about Johnny Frenchie, took place the greatest humiliation in English naval history. However, it was not the French who were behind the 1667 raid on the Medway.

It was the Dutch.

The Medway Estuary
The raid took place in the context of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, one of four conflicts regarding mastery of the seas. A conference at Breda commenced in March 1667 but Charles II hesitated to sign a peace treaty, hoping for support from Louis XIV of France. However, the Dutch wearied of his prevarications and decided, in modern parlance, to light a fire under his backside.

On 6 June, a fog bank lifted in the Thames Estuary and revealed the approach of the Dutch fleet. They chased a fleet of merchantmen as far as Gravesend before turning their attention to the mouth of the Medway, for - only a couple of miles along the river at Chatham - the cream of the English Navy was lying up in a state of dormancy...

Slough Fort can be found at Allhallows-On-Sea...

...not at Slough, which is in Berkshire.

On the day I decided to follow the course of the Dutch Navy, I first visited the resort village of Allhallows-On-Sea, a short distance west of the confluence... my motive being that Allhallows has a small but tactically important Palmerston Fort, currently - and amusingly - being used as stables for an equestrian concern.

The small, D-shaped Slough Fort was constructed in 1867 and was designed to protect the only viable landing-place for an invasion fleet between the Coalhouse fortifications and the defensive structues at the Thames/Medway confluence. It was named after a neighbouring farmstead which has since disappeared.

Slough Fort
To reach the Fort, one has to stroll into Allhallows' unmissable caravan resort and swing a left at the site supermarket, passing under a rather obvious gateway. Stables have been built in the structure's forecourt, and most are occupied by horses and ponies, along with helpful signage pointing out which ones bite. The interior of the Fort is not open to the public, and many of its rooms are used as storage for riding equipment.

Forecourt at Slough, stable block on the right
A series of gun emplacements stretch out on both sides of the main building, large enough to house the type of artillery you might expect to find at, say, Navarone.

Emplacement at Slough for a very big gun. Above, a holidaymaker enjoys a barbecue.
The wing batteries were added to the Fort around 1890 and could accomodate two 9.2-inch and two 6-inch breech loaders, weapons capable of taking on a battleship at considerable distances. Sadly, none of these colossal weapons remain at the site today.

Slough Fort in 1870, before the wing batteries were added

The guns were never fired in anger. The Fort was used as a Battery Command Post during the First World War, monitoring shipping in the Thames. It was decommisioned in 1920 and sold off nine years later, although brought back into use for anti-aircraft purposes during the Second World War. Eventually, the local council acquired the site and the riding stables appeared during the '60's.

Layout of Slough
Slough Fort was listed as a Grade II* Scheduled Monument in 2009, and Bourne Leisure (owners of the adjacent caravan park) have funded a partial restoration, clearing tons of debris from the wing batteries and laying out a trail with information boards.

Eastern wing battery shows signs of recent clearance

Following this productive visit to a holiday resort, I head east to the village of Grain, which stands right on the confluence of the two mighty rivers. The approach to this village is via the long and winding A288 and it passes through an industrial landscape that would look at home in a Blade Runner movie.

The Forts of the Confluence, in spatial relationship to each other

The road ends at a free car park, and from there it is but a short, brisk stroll to the sea wall, where you can stand at the junction of the two estuaries and make two immediate observations, i.e. it is extremely windy here, and there are fortifications as far as the eye can see. Out in the distant mouth of the Thames can be spotted a series of Maunsell Forts, named after their designer and erected during WW2. They form two groups, the Redsands and the Shivering Sands.

Maunsell Forts in the Thames Estuary
In the mouth of the Medway stands the Grain Sea Fort, built in 1855 (thus predating Palmerston's efforts) to protect local dockyards. It was added to during the Second World War, and holds the amusing address of 'No.1, Thames'. It recently came up for sale at £500, 000, although it requires a million's worth of renovations and can only be accesses by boat or a low-tide causeway. One can only imagine what kind of nut would want to live there. A rich nut, presumably.

Grain Sea Fort
Beyond the Sea Fort, on the corner of the Isle of Sheppey, can be spotted the Sheerness Docks and, in the midst of all that modern maritime bustle, another military relic from the days of Palmerston: the Garrison Point Fort, currently inaccessible to Joe Public and being used as a radar tower.

Garrison Point Fort

Behind you at this point is a raised area of long grass and scrubland, and this is the site of the demolished Grain Fort, twin to Garrison Point, razed following its 1956 decommissioning. Its colossal defensive ditch is mostly overgrown, its worn gun emplacements now picnic spots. Plenty survives below ground, but is only accessible through a small hole located in a cleared area of the ditch. Lacking a torch and the inclination to squeeze into a subterranean gap barely larger than the entrance to a badger sett, I decided to leave it to proper Urban Explorers.

The site of Grain Fort...

...and its few upstanding remains.

A little to the south stands the Grain Dummy Battery, built in 1865 to supplement the Fort. It was decommissioned at the same time, but its remains are still impressive.

Grain Dummy Battery from the front, chimney of Grain Power Station on left

Grain Dummy Battery from the rear
It is easy to imagine, at this windswept spot, the might of the Dutch Navy bearing down from the Thames back in June 1667. The first defensive obstacle they encountered was an earlier, incomplete fort at Sheerness, the precursor to Garrison Point. Its heavily outnumbered garrison fled, and the guns of the Dutch ships hammered the fort into rubble. The raiders now moved into the Medway, navigating the bends and turns toward Gillingham Reach and, beyond, the unprepared English fleet laid up at Chatham.

The Battle Of Chatham, Willem Van Der Stoop
I do not have to navigate the meanderings of the Medway, as I have a car and can follow the river's southerly course from the A288. At a point just below the disused Kingsnorth Power Station, it is possible to gaze out over the river and notice two more Palmerston Follies, Fort Hoo and Fort Darnet, strandedon islets and acessible only by water craft.

Fort Darnet ©David Anstiss

Fort Hoo
I park by the Marina at Hoo St Werburgh. From here, at low tide, it is possible to walk along the foreshore to the next site on my list. However, as Blondie might have observed, the tide is high. And I have little intention of swimming, so my only option is to struggle through the rather dense Cookham Wood, which hugs the banks of the river between here and Upnor. Plentiful signage tells me that the woods are privately owned, which is another way of telling me to be discreet.

Struggling through the bramble and ivy of the unwelcoming undergrowth, I notice the evidence of past human activity: bumps, hollows, drainage culverts. I have come to find the scanty remains of a brick fort that long predates the Palmerston Follies, a fort built in 1669 in the wake of the Dutch attack. Its twin, Gillingham Fort, stood on the other side of the river, but nothing remains of it. I find myself sliding into a hollow and finding the remnants of a small brick building, the first sign that I have located the Cookham Wood Fort.

Landward remnants of Cookham Wood Fort
I struggle gamely through to the wooded waterfront but, alas, that tide is not going to let me get close without risking an unwelcome dip in the Medway, so for today I have to satisfy myself with a partial view.

Remnant of Cookham Wood Fort at high tide

Cookham Wood at low tide ©
The river at this point is meandering south from the stretch known as Gillingham Reach. Here, the English had set up a 'boom', a long and thick chain set across the Medway to forestall just such a raid. It failed miserably. The Dutch crashed through the boom and fell upon two ships they found in the Reach, capturing both and taking them as spoils of war. One was the HMS Unity. The other, to the everlasting humiliation of the English Navy, was their flagship, the Royal Charles.

I retrace my steps to the Marina and recover the car. Only one more site to visit for the day, and its the only one owned by English Heritage of which, happily, I am a member.

Upnor, a beautiful cobblestoned maritime village
I park outside Upnor village, a place I have visited many times, and stroll down the quaint, historic village street toward the Medway waterfront. There, I find familiarity in a site of which I am very fond: Upnor Castle.

Approaching Upnor Castle

It was constructed during the reign of the first Elizabeth, between 1559 and 1667, to a design by Sir Richard Lee. The only action it saw came in June 1667, when the raid on the Medway culminated with a thunderous confrontation on the river right below the castle walls.

Upnor Castle from the Medway © Loco Steve
The Dutch fleet swept into Upnor Reach and finally met stiff resistance. The great guns of the castle roared out, batteries from the Chatham shore kept up constant artillery fire, but despite heavy human losses, the Dutch managed to attack and destroy three of the most majestic ships in the English Navy: Loyal London, Royal James and Royal Oak, burned by fireships here in the river at Upnor.

The gatehouse at Upnor Castle

The formidable General Monck, Duke of Albemarle and veteran of the Civil War, arrived to take charge, and ordered  a line of ships to be deliberately sunk across the Reach. This had the effect of blocking further passage along the river. Chatham was saved and, still under heavy fire, the Dutch warships swung around and headed back the way they had come, a feat of seamanship that even the English admired. They took with them their captured prizes, the Unity and the flagship Royal Charles. She was auctioned for scrap in 1673, but her sternpiece survives in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Sternpiece of the HMS Royal Charles
The Dutch had finally been repelled, but the raid could not be portrayed as anything but a disaster for the English. Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Navy, wrote: "All our hearts now do ake; for the newes is true, that the Dutch have broke the chaine and burned our ships, and particularly The Royal Charles, other particulars I know not, but most sad to be sure. And, the truth is, I do fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone..."

Upnor Castle, overlooking the Medway

The kingdom survived. The Royal Oak, Royal James and Loyal London were refloated and salvaged. Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon and Lord Chancellor, was made the scapegoat and exiled from Court. In 1670, a ship rebuilding programme saw the Navy being restored to its former strength.

Upnor Castle continued in service, being used to store ordnance after its defensive role was rendered obsolete by the new fortifications built around the estuaries in the wake of the Dutch raid. It was decommissioned at the end of the Second World War and opened as a museum. Today, although still owned by the Crown, it is run by English Heritage.

I leave the Castle and stroll down to the foreshore. The tide is at last at an ebb, and I gaze at the emerging mudflats and remember an earlier occasion, years ago, when my children and I prowled along those same mudflats, picking fresh samphire. My exploration of the Forts and Foreshores is at an end. Doubtless, I will return to some of them in the future (perhaps Cookham Wood when the tide is out), but those initial journeys of discovery have been completed.

I turn, mount a flight of steps back to Upnor and stroll up its cobbled street. The village has two pubs, the Tudor Rose and the King's Arms, and the scents of Sunday dinner waft through the cool Spring air. Behind, the river rolls on, winding its sinuous way to the confluence, passing centuries of defence works, cutting Kent in two as it has always done.

I walk, up the cobbled gradient, away from the Medway, towards new quests...

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Kindled At The Muse's Flame

Stoke Poges

'The curfew tolls the knell of passing day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.'

Another day, another odyssey.

To be fair, I don't usually need much of an excuse to go on a trip - just recently I visited the South Downs in order to gain a specific view of the Seven Sisters, simply because I was familiar with that view from postcards, a screensaver and the film Atonement.

The Seven Sisters from Cuckmere Haven

This particular trip, however, feels more personal, as it combines my love of travel and exploration with my more scholarly pursuits of history and literature. My favourite poet is G K Chesterton, my favourite poem Thomas Gray's Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard, and as luck would have it, both can be found in a small corner of Buckinghamshire.

This is not a shire with which I am overly familiar, although its neighbours are old friends. Most of my visits to Bucks have involved West Wycombe, and the stomping ground of the Hellfire Club. No journeys into Georgian depravity await me this time, unfortunately, as my destination is a village north of Slough, a village that goes by the name of Stoke Poges.

'Stoke' means a stockade, and in the thirteenth century the heiress of the Manor, Amicia of Stoke, married a knight called Sir Robert Pogeys, whose name completed the title of the village we know today. The area is best known today for Stoke Park, a highly-rated Country Club and Golf Course based around a mansion designed in 1788 by the architect James Wyatt.

Stoke Park, from the rear of the Churchyard

Stoke Park has a special place in the hearts of 007 fans, as scenes from Goldfinger and Tomorrow Never Dies were filmed here. It also played an important part in the film Layer Cake, being the site of the final altercation between Daniel Craig (the future Bond) and Ben Whishaw (the future Q).

Across a lake from the Mansion stands the original Manor House, across the centuries home to such illustrious families as the Hattons, the Earls of Huntingdon and the Penns. The poet Thomas Gray, a resident of Cambridge, started spending time in the village during the 1740's when his widowed mother moved to Stoke Court, then known as West End House, from the family's previous domicile in London (today, a blue plaque marks the spot of the poet's birth in Cornhill). Here he wrote his Ode On Spring and On A Distant Prospect Of Eton College (of which he was a former pupil). The Manor House itself, he immortalised in The Long Story:

'In Britain's isle, no matter where,
An ancient pile of building stands:
The Huntingdons and Hattons there,
Employ'd the pow'r of fairy hands.

To raise the ceiling's fretted height,
Each panel in achievement's clothing
Rich windows that exclude the light,
And passage, that lead to nothing.

The Manor House

Directly adjacent to the grounds of the Manor House stands St Giles', the parish church of Stoke Poges, and the Lords Of The Manor had their own ornate entrance:

Manor House Entrance to the church

My own entrance was somewhat less grand, although no less evocative. St Giles' is first approached through a gate to the churchyard extension.

The outer entrance to St Giles' Churchyard

A walk along the path takes the visitor to the entrance to the original Country Churchyard made famous by Gray's Elegy:

The rntrance to Gray's Country Churchyard

As I approach the building, I spot a mouse diving between gravestones, a sight which simply adds to the rustic feel of this spot. The most striking feature of the building itself is the large brick-built chapel occupying its south-eastern corner, a chapel constructed in 1588 by the Huntingdons for the repose of their bodies and souls. The second eye-catcher is the table tomb that stands below it.

The tomb of Thomas Gray

'The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Await alike th' inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.'

Gray buried his aunt and his mother here, in 1749 and 1753 respectively, and wrote the epitaph that still adorns it:

In the Vault below are deposited, in hope of joyful Resurrection, the remains of MARY ANTROBUS She died unmarried, November 5, 1749 Aged 66. In the same pious confidence, beside her friend and sister, here sleep the remains of DOROTHY GRAY Widow, the careful, tender Mother of many children, one of whom alone had the misfortune to survive her. She died March 11, 1753. Aged 67.

Visitors have left their own marks

Gray died on July 30th 1771, and in accordance with his wishes was brought from Cambridge and buried in the tomb. Unfortunately, his literary effusions had left no room for his own epitaph, so a tablet affixed to the nearby wall of the Hastings Chapel records his burial. Directly outside the church's porch is a yew bower under which, according to tradition, the Elegy was written. In the churchyard hereabouts can be found local gentry, servants from the Manor House, and four local schoolboys who were swept into the sea by a freak wave at Land's End in 1985   a tragedy I can personally recall from the news media at the time.

The yew bower

'Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

Some village-Hampden, that, with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.'

The victims of the 1985 tragedy at Land's End

'Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.'

The interior of the church is dark in the nave, brighter in the chancel. Mural monuments abound, including examples by the renowned sculptors Chantrey and Flaxman. A monument records members of the Penn family in a vault near the font, and a tomb in the chancel, in the style of an Easter Sepulchre, marks the resting place of Sir John de Molyns, Marshal of the King's Falcons, and Supervisor of the King's Castles. The oldest monument, a tombstone now in the Hastings Chapel, was originally in the graveyard and its twelfth/thirteenth century Norman French inscription translates as: 

All those who pass by here
Pray for the soul of this one;
William of Wytermerse he had for name;
God to him grant true pardon.
So be it.

The Gray Monument

Adjoining the churchyard is 'Gray's Field', now owned by the National Trust, and in it stands a large and sturdy Monument to the poet, designed by the Stoke Park architect Wyatt and erected in 1799. In the form of a stone sarcophagus surmounying a large pedestal, it is surrounded by a ha-ha to deter cattle and its four faces display lines from the Elegy. Its size certainly makes up for the lack of an epitaph on the nearby tomb of the poet himself!


My next stop, only a few miles away, is the small and charming town of Beaconsfield, an attractive collection of timbered and Georgian architecture. I have stopped here briefly in the past during a journey to Wales, and am familiar with the Motorway Services of the same name on the M40. I was struck, on my previous visit, on how the town maintains an air of gentility despite some often busy traffic. Its church, a large, flint-faced edifice, contains a gilded Bishop's Chair apparently donated by Benjamin Disraeli when he became Earl Beaconsfield, and a mural monument to the great eighteenth-century statesman, orator and writer Edmund Burke ('Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it'  'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for god men to do nothing'). He rests in a family vault below a pew.

Beaconsfield Church
In the churchyard is a striking monument, a tapering obelisk that marks the tomb of the seventeenth-century poet and politician Edmund Waller, whose kinship with various Parliamentarians and Regicides saw him getting into hot water more than once in his life. Waller, however, is not the poet I have come here to find (mainly because I found him on that previous visit!).

Waller Monument

A few minutes' stroll from the church, along a narrow roadway called Shepherd's Lane, can be found a small and beautifully maintained Roman Catholic cemetery... and here I finally locate my favourite poet, G K Chesterton, whose works gave me the titles of two of my previous blog posts, And The White Horse Looked On and  Fine Things To Be Seen.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

A small bunch of flowers on the grave has toppled, and I carefully stand it upright before moving away with a silent thanks. My odyssey for the day is over, save a brief, curiosity-satisfying stop at a historic Quaker House in the nearby village of Jordans, to see the humble resting place of William Penn, the most illustrious of that historic family, who founded and named the State of Pennsylvania.

With charateristic Quaker understatement, the founder of Pennsylvania rests humbly in the Buckinghamshire countryside. Grave on the left.

Away now, away from Bucks, heading through Herts on my way back to Essex. I leave the three poets behind, silent in their repose, adorning the county with their dust. Silent they may have fallen, but their words burn on, and works like Chesterton's Rolling English Road and Gray's Elegy continue to epitomise the evocative sense of an Old England that has yet to entirely disappear...

They burn on, with 'incense kindled at the Muse's flame'.
(Thomas Gray, Elegy)