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Word from Wormingford

29 August 2014

Ronald Blythe walks through blackberry-blossomed churchyards

"AUGUST for the people!" cried the democratic Auden. August for staying at home, I say. Once it was August for Cornwall, those north headlands void of visitors which ranged on and on to Devon. A friend awakened these westward longings when a week in Totnes made her restless for something other than East Anglian brightness.

Charles Causley and James Turner, my Cornish poets, took different views on their county. Charles, born and bred in it, was earthy; James romantic. His uncle had been a country rector there; so we drove to his parish through deep lanes to a wonderfully unkempt churchyard where the tombs tottered about this way and that, their engraved slate messages not at all reassuring for the living.

And there he was, twice buried, once in clay, once in blackberries - James's uncle. We spent hours making him visible. Cathy, James's wife, picked wild flowers, discovered a jam jar, filled it from a little stream, and there he was, recalled if not actually remembered.

But no Riviera ride from East Anglia to the west on a day like this. The garden chairs are drying out, the birds are calling, and the white cat has taken up her hot morning position on the tumbling wall, held upright by ivy. A novel, too, has been left out all night, and I ask its forgiveness. I bought it for 20p in Wissington church porch, after having shown a guest the faint wall-paintings, loving the way in which history can be so apologetic.

Lots of blackberry blossoms everywhere. And shortly my friend Anthony Atkins will lie there. We began our writer-artist careers together: he the principal of the local art-school, I on the Suffolk coast.

There was a school for church-painters in Colchester in the 13th century, so that people could take the Gospel off the wall, so to speak. The peasant congregations, standing on rushes, would look up, and there was their priest, and St Francis, and the disciples in a rocky ship, and Jesu, joy of man's desiring, all picked out on plaster, vivid then, but faint these days.

Where are we? St Bartholomew. Already -August going, going, gone! Not quite. Summer hangs on in these parts often until November. But bullaces are shaping in the hedges, and the harvest oblongs rock by on trailers. Corn stubble needs stout shoes and a keen eye. It is so revealing - treasures can come to light; aftermath flowers and flints; once, an arrow-head.

You can see all the way to wherever, and even the practice bells sound louder, although there is no one about and a lonely countryside. Fewer walkers, too, these days. But the pubs are busy, and a lot of eating is done. Although the truth is that I now know little about what is happening, and what I do know is out of date. What would Thomas Hardy or John Clare have made of them - our fields?

But I think they would have liked our churches with still their old language. It is the Song of Songs. They say that the translators had two minds about putting it into the Bible, this passionate Hebrew love poem that we were asked to read as something quite else.

I put "For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come" on my friend John Nash's tombstone, he having been a great naturalist and having looked down on plants from his small height, besides gazing his way through landscape, as much in Cornwall as in the Stour Valley.

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