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Word from Wormingford

04 October 2013

Stubble in the fields reminds Ronald Blythe of lifting prickly stooks

THREE days before Michaelmas - farmers' quarter-day. Warm sunshine, Victorias squishy underfoot, sweet decay in the air. The harvest all gone, its stubble all ploughed in. The first ash leaves sailing down. The ducks in rowdy echelon overhead. Everything as it was and as it should be.

The Friends of Essex Churches arrive in ours to hear me talking about John Constable, a local boy. His mother would write: "My dear John, I was much pleased with the attention and intention of your intelligent letter, by this day's post; the milk of human kindness is to me an exhilarating cup, and most delightful admixture . . . besides being so cheap and easily given. . .

"The account you give of your best love and our great favourite is most grateful, and my wish and prayers are that I may be permitted to see you both happy and rewarded according to your deserts."

Her son has fallen in love with Maria Bicknell. It is the midsummer of 1812. They would court on the Langham hills, the youthful artist being considered a fortune hunter by her family. John would be walking to Wormingford Hall, which his uncle had rented from the squire, Mr Tufnell.

They say that there are many more trees in the Stour Valley than then. There would certainly have been many more harvesters - the two-legged kind. Only David in his combine, now, and he so furtively that I missed seeing him. Just his fresh ruts.

But three harvest festivals when Jesus walked Palestine, eating an ear or two on the way. How disgraceful. Call yourself a prophet? Phyllida will save a whole sheaf from her fields to put up front at harvest festival. Today's village can only cope with symbols, not with toil.

You have to be old to have lifted a stook. They were surprisingly weighty and prickly. Once they had been carted to the stack yard, the field would flower for a month or more with what we called the aftermath - second shootings of corn and scarlet pimpernel. Belated poppies and scabious.

The aftermath was a study in modesty. Also a country walk. We are in a Stone Age settlement; so I search the aftermath for artefacts, and the study window-sill is crowded with worked flints.

It is the eve of St Michael and All Angels, and Christopher and I are in Fordham Church to hear a piano recital. As always, my attention is disturbed by history, and Mendelssohn and Ravel have to fight for precedence against such claimants as the once-occupier of the Lady chapel, medieval carpentry, and the new west-end gallery.

But the youthful pianist soon drives away these sideshows. He plays Mompou's bell music in a landscape of church bells. He was walking in Paris with his girlfriend when they heard the midnight bell. Our bells sound up and down the Stour, according to the wind.

Coming home, the car lights disturb the Little Owls that live in the sloe bushes above the farm track. They wing around indignantly. Humans have no business being abroad at such an hour. One of the Mompou pieces was called "Carts of Galicia".

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