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Word from Wormingford

wormy from standing

Ronald Blythe considers patrons, poets, and epitaphs

THE FIELD EDGES are being cut for the combine to go in. People declare en passant that there are no skylarks (or martins or thrushes) this year, or that they have never seen so many; and I agree, for the return or vanishing of birds is now akin to weather as a form of salutation. I pick raspberries, holding up the laden canes, getting in before the rain. Chagall horses stand on the sloping grass and whisk away each other’s flies.

I am thinking what to say at the patronal festival which I haven’t said before. "Who giveth this church this name?" asks the Norman bishop. "I do," replies Dame Godbold. . . But I am making this up. Whoever it was kept to the safe side with Peter and Paul.

The Godbolds, who liked to be known as the de Horkesleys, stretch out before me, three oaken bodies that would have taken as many centuries a-growing, their wooden faces smoothed by countless hands, their wooden stateliness unimpaired. We sing "Palms of glory, raiment bright", for they (as well as Peter and Paul) "were mortal like us". Having forgotten my notes, I find myself having to speak freely about the great apostles and their kind patronage of an Essex village.

Two outings this week between book-writing, one to Taunton to present the Threshold Poetry Prize, the other to Halesworth for a birthday party. Twenty Somerset primary schools went in for the Threshold Prize, and what entries they sent! And what tact to print all of them in a collection called Elephant Pie and Monkey Love, and what a sight all the poets were, gathered together in one palatial school.

Long ago, I told them, but not far away from where I was standing, reading aloud the winners, two young men walked the Quantocks to compose on the hoof the poetry that would change our whole idea of . . . poetry. Sam Coleridge and William Wordsworth. The six- to 11-year-olds listened politely, though thinking of Monkey Love and Johnny’s Tiger, and how easy it was to be brilliant.

Somerset was bright and showery. I went for a long walk around Pitney, and saw apple orchards and green lanes and, in the church window, St Stephen Hardinge, the monk who drew up a charter of charity for the mighty Cistercians in 1119. William of Malmesbury said that he was "approachable, good-looking, always cheerful in the Lord, and that everyone liked him". The worst — or best — of being in the West Country is that one longs to go on west. But Peter-Paul at Little Horkesley were calling.

Later, after the sermon, after the wooden effigies were left to continue their enigmatic silence, the next morning to be exact, we drove to the birthday lunch, taking care not to miss Bramfield Church on the way, because of its lovely screen. Also, because I had been reading The Churchyards Handbook, that masterpiece of tact and instruction by Peter Burman and Dean Henry Stapleton, I wanted to read yet once more Mrs Applewhaite’s ledger-slab. They don’t carve them like this any more.

"Between the remains of her brother Edward, and of her husband Arthur, here lies the body of Bridgett Applewhaite, once Bridgett Nelson. After the fatigue of a married life, borne by her with incredible patience for four years and three quarters, bating three weeks, and after the enjoyment of the glorious freedom of an easy and unblemished widowhood for four years and upward, she resolved to run the risk of a second marriage-bed, But DEATH forbad the banns, and having with an apoplectic dart (the same instrument with which he had formerly dispatched her mother) touched the most vital part of her brain, she must have fallen directly to the ground (as one thunder-strook) if she had not been catch’t and supported by her intended husband, of what invisible bruise, after a long struggle for above sixty hours with that grand enemy to life (but the certain and merciful friend to helpless old age) in terrible convulsions, plaintive groans or stupefying sleep, and without recovery of her speech or senses, she died on the 12th day of September in the year of our Lord 1737 and of her own age 44. . ."

"Epitaphs are an ancient literary form," says The Churchyards Handbook, and who could disagree

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