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Word from Wormingford

18 July 2014

Ronald Blythe visits the home village of one of England's greatest poets

OFF to Helpston for the 32nd time. For John Clare, its native voice, the first Sunday in July was the Helpston feast: "Wrestling and fighting, the ploughman's fame is still kept up with the usual determined spirit." Like his contemporary, William Hazlitt, another quiet man, Clare accepts violence in the village. He walks away from it, and into his intellectual world.

"Saw a bird that was an entire stranger to me about the size and shape of a green linnet, and with wings of a brown-grey colour, the crown of the head a deep black that extended downwards no further than the eyes. Went to see Artis [his archaeologist friend] who tried to look it up in his bird book. It was an unnoticed species of the linnet tribe."

Clare was all too noticed for his own peace of mind. A ploughman who wrote poetry? People came to look at him in the fields. He tried to hide - an impossibility in a 19th-century village. And now we continue to look at him from all angles.

I read him yet again, before Alan and I set off for what is now the Cambridgeshire border, early in the morning. And there it is, the walled park that cost a pound a yard, the Clare Society, his birthplace next to the pub where he worked, the pleasures of repetition. Although not too much in my presidential address.

The white cat sees us off. For her, the top of the farmtrack is Ultima Thule. Only once in a dozen years did I find her up it, and had to call her back to her own two acres. Meriel the organist is taking her cat miles away, and is dreading it. But long ago some Suffolk friends drove their cat, Holly, to Cornwall, and suffered more than he did. Neither did he recognise me when I arrived, having become Cornish at once.

Today, reading in the study, I watch the horses out of the corner of my eye. One wears a white mask against the flies, the other makes do with her tail. There they stand, deep in horse talk, which is silent.

I have allowed the Himalayan Balsam to riot. It has explosive seeds. Touch their capsule, and they're off. A small child was more disconcerted than amused when invited to do this. Pretty flowers were not supposed to end their lives with such power. The gardener brushing against them with the mower is peppered with seed shot.

What do I say in church in early Trinity? Something I haven't said before, if possible. Shall I read Francis Kilvert? What was he doing on a Victorian July day? He died so young - 39 - and a week after his wedding. His coffin was carried beneath the bridal arch.

William Plomer, the South African poet, published some of his diary in 1939. Amid all the parish duties, there is a longing for girls. It also contains one of my favourite clerical anecdotes.

The curate took his candidate for confirmation when the bishop arrived. They were both youthful and nervous.

"Stand up!" the bishop cried.

"But I am the curate, my Lord."

"Stand up!" the bishop cried.

So the curate was confirmed.

This was on the Welsh border, you understand.

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