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Word from Wormingford

02 November 2006

wormy from standing

NOVEMBER, and the garden seat covered with books and coffee cups — and cat. Skimpy yellow clouds sail on high. Ash leaves like withered hands caress us as they tumble into wet grass. There is a nice whiff of rot.

I stroll to the river to make my autumn observance, and the dace — I think — flash under the bridge. The iron rail is hot and the mill-pool offers a swim. In my head, global warming fights with bliss.

I think of Widermund the Saxon setting out the sarsens that the plough has turned up to make stepping-stones in the ford, so that people could cross the Stour from one kingdom to another without wetting their feet. Widermund’s ford, owing to much ancestral garbling, becomes Wormingford — the Dragon’s ford. In vain do I teach etymology to the neighbours — "Ety-what?" In vain do I wonder that boys are not christened Widermund — instead of Charlie, say.

Widermund’s face does not appear in the stained glass, but the Dragon’s does as he munches a virgin. Her snowy bare legs dangle from his jaw, and so concentrating is he on his dinner that he fails to see George. A new altar has been set beneath this alarming scene.

Theologically, dragons are afraid only of the Panther, not George. In his Book of Beasts, T. H. White says: "What Solomon pointed out about Christ is symbolised by the panther being an animal of so many colours that by the wisdom of God the Father he is the Apprehensible Spirit, the Only Wise, the Manifold, the True, the Sweet, the Suitable, the Clement, the Constant, the Established, the Untroubled, the Omnipotent, the All-Seeing. And because it is a beautiful animal, the Lord God says of Christ: ‘He is beautiful in form among the sons of men.’"

But there are no panthers in the north aisle — and, a mile or two upstream, above the north door of Wiston Church, it is a dragon that gloats over those whose fate it isto be buried "on the dog" (besti-aries tend to go rather wild, and have never heard of David Attenborough). "On the dog" means the north churchyard, an unhallowed spot crammed with unmarried mothers, unbaptised babies, suicides, and paupers. Dragon food. Ours at Wormingford contains some very grand tombs, including those of John Constable’s uncles, who ran the mill by Widermund’s ford, and whose chief dragon was the collapse of agriculture after the Napoleonic Wars.

I miss filling up my Wild Flower Society register, but, having done so a dozen times, I can see no point in writing "Wild teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, Garnon’s field bank" for the 13th time; for there it may have been since Widermund scratched himself on it. But one feels guilty when one ceases to take note of plants.

Those who did so incurred the wrath of John Clare. He was a rural looker. Nothing growing, flying, running, swimming, taking to its bed in autumn escaped his eye, and he would lash out at villagers who stumped to and fro in Helpston, apparently not seeing a thing. But they and he both saw ghosts, of course. You might miss Dipsacus fullonum, but you would never miss a ghost.

The closest he gets to dragons is a crocodile that recognises "the ichneumon (mongoose) as its destroyer". Yet all the mongoose wanted from the crocodile was its eggs. Clare bridges all the science and mythology of the English countryside in his poetry. We see where we came from — and where we are going. His river was the Nene. It glitters and frowns in his work, sucks at the fenny ground, fills sluice, widens into little paradises.

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