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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

03 December 2021

Memories of barns inspire Malcolm Guite to ponder numerous meditations

I LOVE barns. I love them in all their rich variety: from the ancient thatched and timbered structures yet standing, tottering their way through time, still serviceable, if only just, the haunt of swallows, the home of owls, the keepers of old oddments, hospitable alike to rusty old ploughs and freshly mown hay, to the new ones thrown up in metal, but whose corrugated or galvanised roofing soon acquires an attractive patina of rust.

C. S. Lewis wrote a famous “Meditation in a Tool Shed”, but, if I were to write such an essay, it would be a “Meditation in a Barn”. I would recall the old barns where I bedded down in the straw (with the farmer’s permission), that time I tramped my way round Ireland in the ’70s, and whose floors I sometimes swept and garnished in return for my night’s shelter. I would celebrate the old, thatched tithe barn that stood, incongruously, in the garden of our modern vicarage (saved by a preservation order), in which the oddments of generations of church life had accumulated: the ornate conical covering of a font, worm-eaten and covered in dust, a candle wreathed in barbed wire which must have been used for an Amnesty service, a stack of odd tiles and Norfolk pamments, and, in pride of place, my Triumph motorcycle, somehow mantled with greater antiquity by its surroundings.

I would think of the barns in which I sheltered from squalls and rain on country walks, and recall what a glorious sound is the rain on a barn roof and the sight of it falling beyond an open door while you stay warm and dry. There is a wonderful episode of the podcast The Poet Laureate Has Gone to His Shed, in which Simon Armitage sits with the Prince of Wales in an old half-timbered barn in the Brecon Beacons, discussing the beauties of swifts and swallows, and, suddenly, you hear the sweet sound of rain rattling on the roof, and both men pause to savour it.

I would remember the barn dances I attended in real barns, where the bales and old tractors had been shifted to one end and the band set up among the straw while the farmer’s wife regaled musicians and dancers alike with hot cider. I would celebrate, especially, the barn I was in yesterday, just up the staithe road from the Norfolk Broads, where I brought dust sheets to spread over my little boat where she lay snugly for the winter, dozing with some other classic old Broads sailing boats, “safely gathered in, Ere the winter storms begin”, secure on her trailer, dreaming of summer.

And, as I meditated in my barn, where the swallows flitted in and out, I would remember the long continuity of such experience. I’d think of Chaucer’s lovely description of Alison in The Miller’s Tale, drawing on the birds and the beasts in the barn:

But of hir song, it was as loude and yerne
As any swalwe sittynge on a berne.
Therto she koude skippe and make game,
As any kyde or calf folwynge his dame.

And, maybe, if the cattle were lowing in or near my barn, if there was hay in the manger, I would recall another visitor to a barn, and that time when a barn held something brighter and better than anything else in this world; that time when, as G. K. Chesterton put it, in the greatest encomium of an old barn:

The crazy stable close at hand,

With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

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