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Word from Wormingford

03 May 2011

Ronald Blythe finds that a diarist can be a man for all seasons

SOME writers are as attached to the seasons as certain plants. Or so it seems to me. Charles Dickens to winter; Henry James to summer — “Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language”; Barbara Pym to autumn, preferably in north Oxford, where tepid clergy­men shuffle through fallen leaves to evensong; and Francis Kilvert to spring, although why this is, I can­not quite explain, as he is, in his Welsh-border way, a man for all seasons.

But spring becomes him. His life was brief and fresh, bright and dark by turn, and suddenly gone. I see him opening up like the chest­nut blossom in our church­yard at this moment, then no more.

Now and then I read the congre­gation suitable bits from his lively Diary. Not this bit: “May Day 1870. Mr Welby is rather given to light clerical slang and playfully alludes to his gown as his ‘black’ which he did not much approve of preaching in.

“He brought his own robes to church in a bundle and wore a cassock in which I should think he must have been uncommonly cold sitting in the chancel. . . His voice has a peculiar faculty for stirring up every echo in the church to make it indistinct and defeat itself.”

Luncheon was equally unfortunate. Somebody had decanted cider in mistake for wine. Ah well. I used to stay near Clyro with an artist friend. Her house had been a manse attached to a Noncon­form­ist chapel in which the ser­vices still took place; so on the sabbath we sang along with the hymns on the other side of the wall. The Black Mountain loomed near by.

Young Kilvert walked every day of the year, and through all seasons. But his May Day walks were damp and luscious. He was tall and strong and sociable, and in his mid-thirties. And, like all the great diarists, a chronic recorder. Fragments of telling talk were tucked away in his head until he got back to his study.

“May Day 1875. In the after­noon, I called at the Peckingell Farm and cottages. Farmer Austin told me that one day when he was expressing a wish for some rain, the maidservant, who objected to rain because the men came in with muddy boots . . . said to him, ‘Master, why do you want so much rain? You be always crying out for rain.’ ‘Maid,’ said the old farmer, severely, ‘I do want rain on this here farm every night. Yes, I do want rain on this here farm every night.’”

Duncan has been saying much the same thing to me, nearly a century-and-a-half later. It has been June in April, and the valley bakes. It was on a similar blazing May morning when John Couzens, a farmworker, told the young curate how fond he was of dry bread — as dry and hard as he could get it. “When I was out mow­ing, I used to throw my wallet and victuals on the swath and let the sun bless it from bait to bait. I wanted it all crust.”

The Kilvert Society, of which I am president, will be tramping in Francis’s footsteps this May, but I cannot be with them. It is a tidy step from the Stour to the Wye.

“As I came down from the hill into the valley, a great wave of emotion and happiness stirred and rose up within me. I know not why. . .”

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