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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

21 May 2021

On a walk through Suffolk, Malcolm Guite celebrates the renewal of old things

WHAT to do with all those beautiful old Gilbert Scott telephone boxes? I love to see them still adorning our streets, though they have long since ceased to be the hubs of communication they once were. It’s distressing when they are seized on by bijou designers, and turned into a drinks cabinet or an aquarium for some trendy restaurant; so my heart is always warmed when I see a local community find a way of keeping them still, in some transformed sense, as a community hub.

The people of Long Melford have found a perfect use for theirs. We were in that excellent little Suffolk village, nestled into the Stour Valley, because, rather randomly, Maggie had been booked to have her second jab there in the village pharmacy; so we thought we’d make a day of it. I opened the door of the red telephone box, for old times’ sake, and, stepping in, was delighted to discover that it was now a “Walkers Hub”. Posters on the wall described four or five circular walks of varying lengths, and beneath each poster was a little shelf with free triple-fold leaflets, all beautifully printed on stiff card with directions, maps, and fascinating “local notes”. Perfect.

We chose “The Wool Patch Walk”, and were soon turning down past the Cock and Bell pub, and walking by “the crinkle crankle wall”: a wonderfully wavy old brick wall, made in a pattern known locally by such varied names as crinkum-crankum, serpentine, ribbon, and just plain wavy.

Soon, we were out in the countryside, and sauntering by the lovely and deliciously hidden Chad Brook. The guide rather hopefully said, “You may spot a kingfisher, or even an otter.” We looked in vain, but perhaps if we had waited longer. . . Even the prospect of kingfisher and otter excited me and put me in mind of the summoning spells for these creatures in Robert Macfarlane’s enchanting book The Lost Words. I tried chanting “Kingfisher: the colour-giver, fire-bringer, flame-flicker, river’s quiver” under my breath, and then his equally lovely evocation/invocation of the otter: “This shape-shifter’s a sure heart-stopper — but you’ll only ever spot a shadow-flutter, bubble-skein. . .”

The poetry itself was worth remembering and delighting in, even if, on this occasion, it didn’t summon the creatures. Macfarlane, of course, wrote The Lost Words because he was distressed to discover that so many words for our local flora and fauna had disappeared from The Oxford Junior Dictionary. Indeed, not just “kingfisher” and “otter”, but many of the things that we did see on our walk: buttercup, bluebell, catkin, cowslip, cygnet. . .

But there is hope. The Lost Words has been a great success, and reintroduced a whole generation of children to the beauties around them both of land and language. And, I thought, as we completed our circle and returned to Long Melford’s lovely old streets, this place, too, is part of that revival and recovery. They have salvaged, renovated, and repurposed their Gilbert Scott masterpiece, and, even in their leaflets, they have cherished and renewed so many lost words.

So, here’s to the crinkum-crankum, the wavy, the serpentine, the sinuous old ways of our beautiful language, weaving its mazy way like that crinkle-crankle wall. And Suffolk, so the leaflet tells me, has more of those wavy walls than anywhere else in England.

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