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Word from Wormingford

15 January 2016

Ronald Blythe steps outside, and feels a cold north wind

WALKING in the January garden, who would have thought that it would be so bleak? Blazing sun on the windows, the frozen screen running to the river — but the sky is so summery, the birds at war over old Christmas cake, the washing blowing, the freshly scythed orchard filled with primroses, the postman’s tyre-marks drying up.

But it is nippy. And so it should be, with Candlemas only a fortnight on. Natural light and spiritual light come together, as do the Archdeacon and St Paul.

At the moment, a north wind is getting up, and making itself felt. The white cat tumbles from her sill into the books without waking up. Wasn’t it St Paul’s nephew, worn out by his uncle’s preaching, who fell asleep and fell from a window? Why was his homely fate recorded? — although I am glad that it was.

My Suffolk-Essex patch is strewn with small adventures. Every step tells a story, and a long stroll is a meditation on my own existence. The River Stour, where John Constable set his easel, glitters icily. Not that he would have done much on a day like this. But my old friend John Nash did.

Perched on a three-legged stool, muffled to the ears, he would shape the water in the fields, fag in mouth, his big grey eyes not only drawing everything in sight, but bringing it into this vision, and returning to the farmhouse with a full sketchbook. This would be carried to the studio and turned into watercolours and oils.

He liked bits of agricultural toil: a hurdle, the tumbling shed, the byre, and particularly his mighty thatched barn — although all that was in it, during the abandonment of farming here, would have been his Ford Herald car, so packed with fishing rods and old military uniforms that the lad — myself — had to squeeze beside him.

He was devoted to plants, but John was none too caring where the farm itself was concerned; and, taking him morning tea, I once saw snow on his face.

Both he and his wife, Christine, also an artist, possessed beautiful voices, which came from the long ago, possibly the late 1890s. These they left behind when they went, plus an avalanche of books with their names on the flyleaves. Their Proust contained instructions on how to read it.

After tea, they would sit side by side on the hefty piano stool, and thump out Schubert, humming bits and laughing. The piano was a 1920s Steinway. Now and then there was a muffled sound, until the cats were evicted.

My white cat — a gift from Meriel, our organist — goes no further than toppling the photographs, and, at Christmas, the cards. She is old and worn and beautiful. Ravenous, too. “She will see you out,” they keep telling me.

At matins, as I have a modest voice, they wire me up for sound. Jane Austen’s aunt sleeps at Little Horkesley, one of our parishes. When I went to see Austen’s own tomb at Winchester Cathedral, there wasn’t a word about her being our greatest novelist, simply that she was “against enthusiasm in religion”. John Wesley, perhaps.

People rarely go to church in Austen’s novels unless they marry. She said that it was wrong to marry for money, but foolish to marry without it. And many other sensible things. How did her aunt end up here?

“Where?” I hear her say. “Little Horkesley? I must look it up.”

Sticks from last summer clatter on the house, and the old moss cushions the tiles. It is during the Epiphany that we learn of the Lord’s brief education — that a light is cast upon it, and also on his wilfulness, this brightest and best of the sons of the morning.


The latest compilation of Ronald Blythe’s columns, In the Artist’s Garden, is published by Canterbury Press (£14.99 (£13.50); 978-1-84825-807-5).

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