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Word from Wormingford

18 September 2015

Ronald Blythe walks with bare feet through the garden to pick fruit

SEPTEMBER. The air is warm and damp, and the grass is sopping wet to my bare feet. I visit my greengages, as do the birds. The Victoria plums are at the blushing stage, and hang in clumps. Pigeons rush from the vine as I pass.

The postman turns where the sign says he must, and with panache. Heaven knows what straggling farm-tracks like mine must cost the state. I have a mailbox like those in American films, to save him a long walk. But at least I am less of a drive than my neighbours on the riverbank, and I can actually hear the bell-ringers when the wind is right.

Two kind priests take me to the pub for lunch, say grace, and exchange thoughts on the Church of England. It is a geographical climb in our level landscape, and we can see Suffolk and Essex coming together for miles and miles.

Aerial photography has revealed the circular graves of Iron Age folk, and I never climb up here in the car without imagining them. Eating, perhaps, or singing. Or licking a finger and holding it up to see where the wind comes from. There is the mount of Mount Bures, all of 30 feet in the air, and all made by hand. Why? Who knows. Wind from the Colne Valley whirls around it. This is where the Earls of Oxford settled, on land that William the Conqueror allotted them. Their mark was a star. Their old age was 40. Their altars were lined up to the westering sun. As ours still are.

I must not forget to pick this year’s blackberries, and pick up this year’s crab-apple falls. It is rare to see village people gathering wild food these days. While thinking that we might include it in the harvest festival thanksgiving, acknowledging its existence, I see a clump of wild clary, Salvia verbenaca, growing near a holly bush.

It reminds me of my friend Michael Mayne. We met when he was Vicar of Great St Mary’s, in Cambridge. When he became Dean of Westminster, he said that we should put the great rural poet John Clare in Poets’ Corner. I asked Ted Hughes to unveil the memorial, and I brought a sheaf of wildflowers from my — wild — garden all the way to London to lay on the Abbey floor.

The Abbey Surveyor had carved a bird carrying a sprig of clary on the memorial, a play on Clare’s name. Wild Clary was planted on graves in the Middle Ages in the belief that it conferred immortality on those buried below. Clare’s neighbour is Matthew Arnold, for no other reason than space.

After we had placed it on Clare’s memorial, Hughes read “The Nightingale’s Nest”, that sublime account of a boy’s covenant with a bird. I sometimes tell my farm birds that we are all in it together, meaning existence. Not that they take a blind bit of notice. They swing around the roses that cling to the old walls, now and then giving the windows a tap. Others have better things to do, such as fly to Keats’s warm south, using my telephone wires as a take-off perch.

Yesterday, I cupped a wren in my hand to free it from battering itself to death against a window. For a second or two it lay fluttering in my darkness, then soared over the cropped field, climbing and falling, just like a prisoner who had done his time.

A less easy guest to put in his place is the vole who has the nerve to eat crumbs by my bare feet when I am having breakfast. I have shown it the door, but it would sooner have a lodging under the dresser.

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