Last Sunday to Gravesend (Greenwich on a budget) and a north Kent woodland walk near Darenth. Sandy soil giving way under each step like walking over a recently backfilled grave. Littered with spent shotgun cases, abandoned cookers and childrens' toys. At one point a length of discarded police tape. The roar of the A2. Bluewater traffic. A footpath to nowhere - orphaned by the road. Last year's sweet chestnuts still on the ground.
But there are larks above the adjacent field. Somewhere a Chiffchaff. Wood anemones (Windflowers) are proof of light. Celandine (from the Greek word for "swallow" and Wordsworth's favourite flower) and Ground-ivy.
We drive home past two men fighting in the road. Soon the new rail link will reduce whole swathes of this countryside to a second's glance through toughened and tinted glass.
Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Beachy Head Breezes. Dialogue du vent et de la mer.
"As you pass along you command a noble view of the wild, or weald, on one hand, and the broad downs and sea on the other. Mr Ray used to visit a family just at the foot of these hills, and was so ravished with the prospect from Plumpton Plain, near Lewes, that he mentions those scapes in his Wisdom of God in the Works of Creation with the utmost satisfaction, and thinks them equal to anything he had seen in the finest parts of Europe".
Letter XVII Ringmer, near Lewes, Dec. 9th, 1773
The Natural History Of Selbourne
Last Thursday to Eastbourne for a windy slog across the Seven Sisters in the footsteps of John Piper 1903-1992 whose Beach with Starfish (circa 1933-1934) hangs in Tate Britain. Short biographies of Piper are available on the net: one by his friend, John Betjeman, a more modern (and concise) take by Francis Spalding. Piper was, according to some, a "neo-romantic", which apparently has nothing to do with suede boots, dodgy mullets and your sister's black eyeliner, but does have something to do with his application of modern techniques (here: newspaper collage, influenced by Picasso and Georges Braque) to traditional subjects, in this instance: the landscape of the South Downs. For a while in the 1930s, Piper wholeheartedly embraced the avant-garde (see Abstract 1 ) but then reverted to paint and, according to Betjeman, "the beginning of his distinction". During the Second World War he worked as a war artist recording and exploring "the poetics of destruction" (Spalding) among the bomb damaged churches and streets of the home front.Claude Debussy played away in Eastbourne, making his "final adjustments" to La Mer in the Grand Hotel in 1905 where he was camped out with his mistress, and some time Fauré muse, Emma Bardac. My journey was uneventful; the sun even came out once or twice. I enjoyed the primroses and vertiginous daffs in the steep railway cuttings. The Long Man of Wilmington was visible near Polegate but the flint mines above his head were obscured by mist which sat like a wet blanket on the Downs.
My first port of call in Eastbourne was the Towner Art Gallery. Heading into town I past a private gallery in the process of morphing into a Spar. Artists have to eat, I suppose. Negotiating a park, I past a bumblebee whose clock had obviously been set by the ambient temperature rather than the wind chill factor, and found myself at the Towner. It's a shame they weren't selling scratch'n'sniff postcards because the smell of recently cut sycamore, ash and budlia saplings (picked by the curators from Beachy Head) was definitely the best bit of Olafur Eliasson's The Forked Forest Path installation (try saying that after a few pints of Harveys). Even without the latest exhibition, Landscape? 2, now finished, it is a lovely gallery to visit and specialises in work of a landscape, and especially maritime, bent. It has a permanent collection of over 4000 Works collected over the last eighty years and showing in rotating exhibitions. A highlight is the gallery dedicated to the work of Eric Ravilious 1903-42, an exact contemporary of Piper, and like him, a war artist, but one who sadly died while covering an air sea rescue mission in 1942. The Towner is also home to a small local museum which has, among other things, a fine collection of the kind of prehistoric stone tools thrown up by rabbits, and occasionally archaeologists, on the Downs above Eastbourne.
At the far end of the prom I climb up through the amphitheatre-like Holywell Retreat Gardens and join the Downs by a kiosk, closed and undergoing some out of season repair work. I pass a sign to Barnacle Point, which I presume does what it says on the tin. The wind is outrageous and the hawthorns are bent double back towards Eastbourne. Too late, I realise I'm doing this particular walk the wrong way round. The trees are not going to be bouncing back any time soon. A sprinkling of dog-violets (Viola riviniana) take my mind off the wind and bright new gorse (Ulex europeaus) flowers (once used for colouring Easter eggs) cheer me with their secret coconut scent. I stop to photograph a pink flower I'm yet to identify though Dr. Tony Hughes tells me isn't an orchid (they always have six petals which are never joined into a tube). Suggestions? Had better luck with mycal identification. Andy Overall at Fungi To Be With suggested Coprinus niveus as a likely candidate on the basis of a. the photo and b. the huge pile of dung next to it.
The sea has always attracted artists. Constable painted Brighton and the Downs on a number of occasions in the 1820s, attracted by the breakers and the sky and the seabirds that "add to the wildness and the sentiment of melancholy always attendant on the ocean". A phone box with the telephone number of the Samaritans is now provided at Beachy Head for those who find the seabirds call too overpowering. The white cliffs are embedded in the national psyche (if such a thing actually exists). Shakespeare's would-be suicide, Gloucester, hurls himself, or thinks he does, into the "murmuring surge" from the clifftop at Dover. The South Coast is a place where people always come to lick their wounds, or escape them altogether. A place where identities, both individual and communal, are re-visioned and re-formed.
So in the mid 30s, John Piper set about the Seven Sisters from the beach near Cuckmere Haven. At the point where everything is deceptively simple and elemental: just blocks of sea, sky, chalk. And then he wrote all over the cliffs with articles from the New Statesman: the unemployment bill passing through Parliament, the flight of foreign capital from France and how Jews were now considered to be "foreign guests" in Nazi Germany. With hindsight perhaps the distinction between "a war artist" and "artist" was not so sharp after all.
The Seven Sisters was an old name for the Pleiades: perhaps the starfish are a cosmic pun. Newspaper time pales in comparison to the Jurassic chalk and even further from the stars from the beginning of time. The black and white stories become both smaller and infinitely sadder against a backdrop of eternity. Certainly Piper is acknowledging that the landscape is inseparable from the preoccupations of the observer. Perhaps he is reminding us that the Channel connects us to, as well as separates us from, the wider world. But perhaps, too, he is reminding us that our mark on the landscape is only temporary and the "dialogues of the wind and the sea" will continue unabated whether we're here to listen to them or not.
Epping Forest: muddy trudge on Friday from Chingford to Chingford via High Beach. A few spots of snow on the ground but not as cold as I had been led to expect. Winters last gasp? One last bunch of snowdrops near zero longitude (and sometime haunt of Lawrence of Arabia) on Pole Hill. They were sharing root space with a wild looking daffodil, unopened. One patch of bluebell leaves appearing on south-western slope at stone-throwing distance from glass houses that provide alt. name for Lee Valley as the Greenhouse Belt.
Allow myself the pleasure of getting not exactly lost (easy to do in the Forest proper) but by "indirections seek directions out". Okay, lost then... but I managed to find my way to Lippitts Hill, via golf course and Met police helicopter base, an anti-aircraft operations centre during the cold war. The statue behind the security gates was carved by an Italian pow.
Up to High Beach ("beach" is geological rather than floral and refers to the deposits of Bagshot sands that outcrop on the clay as at Hampstead Heath) following various meandering streams that would no doubt have delighted John Clare during his incarceration at Dr Allen's establishment.
A brief circuit (again stream hugging) in Honey Lane Quarters before descending western hillsides and views over Lee Valley (obscured by mist). Past a very new country mansion, near which all footpath signs have mysteriously disappeared. Whether the two things are linked is impossible to say.
I remembered the very first time I'd walked these Forest buffer lands, it was snowing. I had set off without a map: just a vague idea that Chingford was somehow liminal (as well as a twilight home for London cabbies and ex-cons).
Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)
More numerous than beech in some areas of the Forest - lovely snaky bark
emphasised by differential drying. Catkin canopies appear as a hazy mist
against the grey sky. Rock-hard wood (disliked by chippies) once used
for making mill-cogs and cartwheels. Here grown originally to supply London
Ophelia Pt III London's Daughter
To continue our Hogsmill flower audit: White Dead Nettle (Lamium album)
To bee or not to bee (oh, dear): the lower lip is a bee-landing platform,dead nettles are particularly important for bees early in the year before the other nectar producing plants flower.
Recrossing to the left bank, I pass a playing field to my right. I'm reminded of Dollis Brook (Hendon) closer to home. Suburbyside. This was the river of choice for Kentish Town's own pre-raph, Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893 who is also well represented in the exhibition. Ford Madox Brown thought nothing of a 14 mile round trip to Hendon on foot to capture the moment: The Hayfield 1855-6, a study of north of London fields by twilight is ample evidence that we should be grateful for his energy.
I pass two silent parakeets in the dead branches of an otherwise very much alive willow tree with anniseed-twist bark. Another willow opposite is beginning to unbud and looks like it's been decorated with thousands of tiny green baubles. The walk here is pretty much a narrow corridor between houses. I pass a row of Leylandii behind a graffiti covered wooden fence. And a new shed nearly as big as the bungalow it is attached to. A lot of litter. Still no Ophelia. High rise in the distance somewhere beyond the noisy Kingston Bypass. Closer, some 20th-century pebbledash and, jumping down a bit of beach. Orange iron-rich minerals seep out at the botom of the metre deep bank.
MyrobalanPlum (Prunus cerasifera [cherry bearing]) is usually the first tree to flower.
John Stallworthy (Anthem for Doomed Youth) detects an echo of Hamlet in Edward Thomas' short poem, The Cherry Trees. Gertrude mourns over Ophelia's grave: "I thought thy bride- bed to have decked, sweet maid/ and not to have strewed thy grave". Thomas's poem mourns the numberless love stories cut short or strangled before birth by conflict:
"The cherry trees bend over and are shedding,
With sad irony, Thomas, the best nature poet of his generation, was killed in the spring of 1917 on the first day of the Battle of Arras. Easter Monday. In his pocket were pressed flowers. A poet's garland.
I lose the path which briefly leaves the now private riverbank and end up walking along the rather busy Old Maldon Lane. I step over a squashed fox, which I can easily imagine will be my fate if I don't watch out.
Happily, I quickly find my way back to the river and cross via a footbridge into Six-Acre Meadow which, the sign tells me, is the exact spot where Millais painted the background to Ophelia in 1851.
Here I find on the bank a clump of daffodils Narcissus pseudonarcissus (the name daffodil apparently derives from the asphodelus of Greek myth: a plant which grew in the meadows of the underworld).
Interestingly, Millais had originally painted some daffodils in the background of Ophelia. They weren't growing in Ewell whilst he was painting but he brought them in from Covent Garden as he thought the painting needed more yellow. He later removed them on the advice of his friend, Tennyson, who thought that their bright "false hope" was not "appropriate".
We here at shadygrove like that.
In some ways perhaps the painting might be seen, with hindsight, as the flip side of the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace the same year. In the glass pleasure dome the world's top dog contemplates its superiority but away from the flags, Ophelia/Brittania is lying perfect and beautiful. But dead. A beautiful dysfunctionality.
Dylan Thomas 1914-1953.
Elizabeth Siddall, at 19 Millais' model for Ophelia, was not Danish. She did however get ill from laying too long in a cold bath in Bloomsbury in the name of art. If she recovered fairly quickly (though her parents were annoyed) she later married Dante Gabriele Rossetti. From which she was not to recover so readily. Elizabeth was an artist in her own right; her work much admired by Ruskin apparently (if that's any recommendation). There are two pictures of hers in the Tate collection.
On a clear day you can see the Epsom Downs from Highgate Cemetery atop the Northern Heights in north London. This is where, among the faux-Egyptian catacombs and neo-gothic edifices, Victorianism (according to John Galsworthy) -and Elizabeth Siddall - lie buried. But Elizabeth's eternal rest was not to be perfectly peaceful. She was (in) famously exhumed so that DGR could retrieve the only manuscript of some of his poems.
Hamlet: Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?
First gravedigger: Why, because a' was mad. A' shall recover his wits there; or, if a' do not, 'tis no great great matter there.
First gravedigger: 'twill not be seen in him there; there
Back in suburbyside I've swapped the green sward for tarmac and street lamps and it's getting late. I decline the opportunity of photographing upended shopping trolleys or an orange chair (where the artist's model sat during tea breaks?) Past the Hogsmill Valley Sewage Treatment Works in the fading light. Birds don't seem to mind though. Spot of illegal garden dumping. Mobile phone mast. London Loop sign, tagged. Plumtrees bordering Surbiton Cemetery where suburbia lies buried: well some of it, anyway.
I adjust my pace to the river and hunch my shoulders Thamesward in the gathering suburban gloom.
Ophelia Part II "Dead Men's Fingers"
"Bury me beneath the willow
Bury Me Beneath The Willow (Trad/Carter Family)
Queen Gertrude's description of the drowned Ophelia, Hamlet IV vii
As (usually) a fairly liberal shepherd myself, I can quite confidently assert that the grosser name was "dog-stones" and refers to the tumescent roots of the early purple orchid, Orchis mascula, rather than the tall purple spikes of purple loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria, painted by Millais. (Orchis means testicle). Richard Mabey notes that Ruskin, on learning the derivation of the word, rather primly suggested renaming the entire orchid family to "Wreathworts".
Dog's bollocks or no (I was later harassed by an Alsatian perhaps offended at being compared to a flower of any description), I determined to take a running audit of the riverside flora in a 21st century February.
I'm immediately challenged by a flower I don't recognise; so call "Coltsfoot" (you will have noticed by now that I am more or less a complete charlatan in the field of natural history. And art history come to that. I am an enthusiast... a dillettante... a... a Victorian). I'm later told that its "I can't believe it's not" Butterbur, Petasites hybridus, VN Wild Rhubarb (its leaves were once used for wrapping "I can't believe it's not" butter). Its Latin name comes from the Greek word petasos - a broad brimmed felt hat: ideal headgear, in fact, for artists who insist on working out of doors at the mercy of the English weather.
I follow the river on a wooden boardwalk underneath the railway line into some open parkland bordered by scrubby hawthorn and ubiquitous Surrey bungalows. Here the stream is fringed with brambles and yellow-flushed willow. Willow. That's good... "ascant a brook" and yes, the stream is unarguably "glassy" but there's also quite a lot of green algae, a Dorritos packet and the mandatory can of Fosters'.
"By Richmond I raised my knees
T. S. Eliot 1885-1965, The Fire Sermon from The Wasteland
I put this in not because I know what he's talking about but it sounds good and lends gravitas to an otherwise dull page. Puff. And also because rubbish poetry - the poetry of rubbish - has already been well dredged from London's rivers along with the "empty bottles", "sandwich papers", "silk handkerchiefs", "cardboard boxes" and "cigarette ends" that Eliot's narrator observes in the Thames.
Supine: 1. "Lying face upwards" (0.E.D.)
She was like Ophelia, then, but boated-up. Maybe Millais couldn't fit a canoe in the bath at No 7 Gower Street.
Supine: 3. "Inert, indolent; morally or mentally inactive" (O.E.D.)
Or perhaps just dead.
I pass by a playing field on my left and some lovely scarlet-flushed poplars (?) (See note re: Coltsfoot). Dancing reeds. A wren. Black and white-headed wagtails picking at the dry mud at the bottom of the Ewell Storm Tanks. But my quiet, reflective, mood is suddenly shattered by an armour-piercing scream and a long flash of yellow.
A digression on love
This building near the start of my walk struck me as a painting-in-waiting. It reminded me, in a way, of Constable's sketch for "The Valley Farm" (V&A), minus the ferry. But, of course, I'm not the first to notice the artistic potential of Surrey vernacular.
Whilst Millais was getting down and dirty with flora, WH Hunt was taking inspiration from sheds. The Hogsmill, like the Wandle, used to run rather faster than its modern, more supine [nice link, Ed.] version does. At one time it provided enough energy to power twelve gunpowder mills. And it is the door of a derelict gunpowder hut that Hunt, it is said, used as a backdrop in his painting "The Light of the World" (Keble College, Oxford: a print hangs in St. Mary's Church, Ewell). As far as I'm aware, this setting for a portrait of Christ is completely without irony. But, in his defence, when he painted it in 1851, Europe had been largely peaceful since the end of the napoleonic wars in 1815. Sometimes - as Freud would later grudgingly admit - a shed is just a shed.
But I'm departing from my digression.
It is 1969. The year of the Summer of Love. Janice Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Haight- Ashberry. The first widely distributed bootleg LP of Dylan and The Band's Basement Tapes sessions starts appearing on university campuses across America. President Richard M Nixon, "a plastic man in a plastic bag" [Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, Presenting the Richard Nixon Doll, (overhauled 1968 model)] has been duly elected Dog No 1 on a ticket of "Peace with Honour" in Vietnam. He proceeds to drop more than half a million tonnes of bombs on Cambodia during the next four years. (By my calculations that amount of high explosive would take Hunt's shed on the Surrey river quite a long time to produce... like... er... until the Resurrection, maybe).
On the 14th February - or thereabouts - in the spring of the Summer of Love, a pair of loved-up Ring-necked Parakeets (Psittacula kramen) get it on in Gravesend, Kent. The first recorded UK breeding in the wild in the 20th century.
And the rest is history. Well, avian history. Fourteen years later they are added to the official British bird list as an "established feral" species. And, at the start of the new century, have built a population of about 4000, mostly in Greater London and Kent.
Thirty-five years and six days later (or thereabouts) one, perhaps, of the original couples' extended family, having navigated Luftwaffe style up the Thames corridor, shoots across my path and exits stage-right in a flash of what I call yellow but you might call green. It's loud kaw-kaw-kaw upsetting my fragile pastoral dream like a ghost at a wedding or a sharp stick in the arras.
"Tomorrow is St Valentine's Day
If only it were so easy. Don't you know that it's different for birds?
Ophelia Part III London's Daughter
Plus I need to take my foot off the gas. I had a nightmare last night about rats. I really blame Rainham, Essex, where I tripped over a rat the size of I'm not going to lose any more cred. than I have done already by some silly exageration any size is too big as far as I'm concerned. Interestingly enough, Millais also had a rodent problem. Go to the Tate/Ophelia site and navigate to "Underdrawing and Spandrels" - not, as I thought, some fancy artist's-footware
On the plus side, I suppose, I might be morphing into sometime Parliament Hill resident, George Orwell. Or, perhaps rather more likely, Mr. Toad.
Housekeeping: King Shady
Advance warning that we've now murdered our dreary Danish brother-in-law and married our sister (in-law).So we are, in effect, King of our own small domain:
However, don't all click at once, I have some bridges to build first.
I'm hoping that I can steer my nephew/son away from archaeology and Johnny
Cash. O was fine when I told her about her old man but went ballistic
when I took her banjo away. G is enigmatic as ever (women!). We've all
switched to "I can't believe it's not butter"
Who is Mr. Ray? (27/03)
The Forked Forest Path
Dialogue of the wind and the sea
Whitecliffs Coprinus niveus
17 March 2004
Hornbeams in Epping Forest
Top tree links
10 March 2004
the primrose path? Olafur Eliasson, creator of The Weather Project, establishes alt. forest in Eastbourne
everything you ever wanted to know about parks
Friday 5 MarchGram Parsons: Fallen Angel 10:00pm BBC4
...he does have all the best toons...
Good on the why? Not just the how?
Beagle, too.Mars prober lands on Essex marshes
Oh yes there is
"They got your number/
Medicine Hat Music
© Richard Shepherd, 2004