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Word from Wormingford

10 August 2012

Ronald Blythe wanders in a forest and thinks of earlier picknickers

NOT far from the Suffolk coast there stands the fragment of an Augustinian priory, on whose walls hang 36 stone shields, which, hundreds of years ago, were full of knightly information. But rains and winds, and burning suns, have erased it, so that they are left as a tabula rasa, or "the mind in its uninformed original state", as the philosopher John Locke would have said. Or as a lesson to us all, as Julian of Norwich would have added.

Near by lies an oyster-bed. Across the road there is a dying forest, which never dies, in which a woman who had been Queen of France, and her second husband, the Duke of Suffolk, had a picnic. This forest is where oaks and hollies in terminal decay hang on to each other in everlasting life. It is so quiet that you can hear a dying leaf drop. But now and then a gaudy pheasant will kick up a din.

I used to take all my friends there - John Nash, Richard Maby, and James Turner. John used to say that he "liked the dead tree in the landscape". And he sat drawing in this not-quite-dead wood for hours, while I wandered about, ducking the liana-like ivies that fell from on high, sloshing my feet through the skeletal leaves that filled the ruts, and listening hard for perhaps a nightingale. It was dreadful how the trees mounted one another, and strange how, in what seemed their last moments, they reached for the sky.

A few yards along the lane, and equally dark, stood another forest, one of rigid conifers, all standing to attention, through which the north wind whistled and the squirrels swung. St Edmund - England's Sebastian, it is rumoured - received temporary burial here. But who can say? My head is often an old picture-book with its backing gone and its pages dangling. So take no notice. Each one of us knows a few truths about our home ground - and a great many fancies.

When I was in Australia, my heart sank at the lighting of the barbecue; for the mighty feast of burnt steak, sausages, beer, and bread would take many hours. I thought of the ducal lovers, lying here on the then rich grass, eating cakes, and listening to lutes and birds, and the oaks and hollies standing quiet, and the sun having room to blaze. And the great armorial on the priory being a great read, and fully coloured. And the seagulls sailing about.

And King Henry VIII, the Duchess's brother, full of rage in London; for she had no right to marry her beloved Duke without his permission - she who had been Queen of France. What could Henry do? How dare they present him with a fait accompli? So he sentenced them to stay in Suffolk for ever.

I like to look at the Duchess's tomb when I am in Bury St Edmunds. It is tucked into a corner of St Mary's, and, unlike the armorial of the knights, it is wonderfully readable still. Once, when the tomb was being mended, they found hanks of Tudor-red hair. And this lady somehow makes me think of Queen Esther and the Grand Vizier Haman, although they do not share the faintest resemblance. You see how unreliable and fanciful I am.

We could go to the picnic place this afternoon. Why not?

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