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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

07 December 2018

Details of life in the past have been revealed, in a field near Malcolm Guite

LAST Saturday, I joined other villagers in a muddy field on the edge of Linton for what proved to be a revelation. The same field whose unremarkable acres we had all ambled past and ignored was laid open now, a good depth of its topsoil dug away and piled in mounds round its perimeter, to reveal a variegated substrate of flinty chalk, darker patterns of older, deeper earth showing against the white, and then, exposed in various places, the first pits and hollows of an archaeological dig.

The field was earmarked for a new housing development, but first there was to be some thorough archaeology, and, when the archaeologists offered the village a guided tour, it turned out we were all just as curious about our ancient neighbours as we will be about the new ones when they eventually move in.

I was fascinated by the way in which even comparatively shallow excavations could yield and reveal so much. A path of dark clay and stone, running over the white chalk, was the old road, buried all this time, which yielded 18th-century carriage bolts that had been shaken loose over its rough surface; and then, off to one side, deeper and beautifully curved and lined down into the chalk, a medieval well, 12th- or 13th-century, that served more medieval dwellings in the field above.

But, as we followed the slope of the field down into the shallow valley of the Granta, we came to older things: the post-holes and footings of early Anglo-Saxon sunken houses, from which they had taken, from the place it had been discarded, a beautifully made little comb.

Then, further down, on what would have been the edge of a once much broader river, they had found, and were able to show us, hundreds of worked flint shards and offcuttings — the “spoil” of systematic flint-working, from the Mesolithic period — and so we knew that the flint that we held in our hands had been worked and handled by someone walking over this ground more than 10,000 years ago.

We stood in the wind and rain, amazed. That sense of sheer continuity is strengthening in one way, but dizzying in another. Some lines from Larkin’s poem “Reference Back” came to my mind:

Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.

Only last week, I was taking comfort, in the midst of national crisis, in the thought that our parish church had served its village continuously for “800 years of local living”; but what is that to the tens of thousands of years opening up just a few feet beneath our boots in an ordinary field? Not long after, I would hear on the radio about the successful landing on Mars, and how the human spirit, extended by an ingenious machine, was setting about the same gentle digging, the same meticulous inquiry and recording that motivated the archaeologists here.

And I knew that the span from the flint tool in my hand to the InSight lander on Mars is only an inch on the long line of our prehistory. What measure can contain the past that opens under us, and the future we cannot see?

I was glad, on Sunday, to be reminded that our little interval, however brief, is part of a coherent whole; and glad to hear and ponder those words “I am the Alpha and the Omega.”


In Every Corner Sing: A Poet’s Corner collection by Malcolm Guite is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop special offer price £12.99); 978-1-78622-097-4.

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