Sunday, 19 January 2014

Down Mabey's way

Back in late September, three of us were on the train bound for Tring station in the Chilterns, my plan being that we should walk the ridge of common land above it back to Berkhamstead via the most massive and haunting trees I've ever seen apart from the redwoods of California and the kauris of New Zealand's north island, the grove of coppiced giants known as Frithsden Beeches. Our acquaintance with them two years earlier was due to Beechcombings by that finest of writers about nature, Richard Mabey, who grew up and lived in the area until a severe depression prompted a move to pastures new (the very different landscape of Norfolk).

All that he describes in perhaps his wisest and most pithily poetic book yet, Nature Cure. The actual description of the dark days takes up a relatively small part of his second chapter, 'Lair'. But it hits the spot for me in so many of its paragraphs. Not least the way Mabey describes his (our, though no one experience is entirely the same) depression, throughout which nature was no more a cure in his case than music was in mine:

There's no random physical 'accident' behind it and nothing which benefits, no opportunist virus or evolutionary climber. It seems to have no connection with the biological business of living at all. And what it did to me was unearthly, in that it negated, cut dead, all the things in which I most believed: the importance of sensual engagement with the world, the link between feeling and intelligence, the inseparability of nature and culture.

I couldn't have, haven't, put it better myself. I agree, too, when he takes up Oliver Sacks' definition of 'vegetative retreat'. And what I haven't seen anywhere put better is the way Mabey describes the slow return to life as we know it, the convalescing which one is so unprepared to acknowledge:

If my illness was a vegetative retreat, this was a kind of vegetative advance, a slow, grinding, mindless pull back to some semblance of self-sustaining behaviour.

Well, my own experience took a year in between the Frithsden excursion and this trip, which has since been followed by an all too short return on a brilliantly sunny afternoon towards the end of last year (second picture above of heading towards the model village of Aldbury). On that intended return visit I realised before we arrived that the now-famous wood purchased by Mabey in 1981 and subsequently kept open for all to use thanks to Heritage Lottery Funds after he sold it could be part of a different route, heading south west to Wigginton before recrossing the railway line up towards the ridge.

Mabey writes beguilingly about Hardings Wood in both Beechcombings - now somewhat cynically repackaged, itself an 'opportunist virus' of the publishing world, with a new preface and epilogue as The Ash and the Beech, more fool me for buying it online - and the earlier Home Country, which uses as its cover one of Paul Nash's many emblematic renderings of the beech clumps which distinguish this part of the world. The group which fascinated Nash from 1911 to the end of his life were the groves on top of neolithic earthworks known as Wittenham Clumps.

We saw a presumably younger but still impressive relative group as we headed along what turned out to be part of the Ridgeway from Tring station

before crossing the A41 towards Wigginton. It had always lodged in my mind somewhat mockingly, as the childhood home of an old friend, and truth to tell it's more a commuter village of no great interest, but still it's charmingly situated and we met a humorous old man at the church lych gate who invited us to an afternoon bridge drive. When I asked him if he'd lived in Wigginton all his life, he said 'not yet'; and as it turned out he'd come from Worcester in the 1960s.

St Bartholomew's Church, essentially 13th century with a 15th century west chapel but (over) restored in the 19th, is one of those that would never make the selective guide books (as for Pevsner, I don't know because his guide to Hertfordshire is a serious omission in my collection). Yet as usual with such places it had charms of its own, not least the Victorian archangel windows and a funny old organ with a trompe l'oeil book ready for the organist. My leaflet has vanished and all I could find about it was an English Heritage note that it's painted in medieval style, but thats all. No matter; it's quaint.

The church's mid-Victorian curate wrote a report to the diocesan bishop, kept secret for 150 years as Mabey tells us, lamenting the loss of picturesque Wigginton after the odious enclosures. In 1766, Mabey discovered from an old map, Hardings Wood was part of a much bigger woodland, one mile and a half long and a mile wide, adjoining the Tring and Wigginton commonland which was lost owing to the greed of the landowners. Fortunately we know that the other side of the canal and the railway line, things turned out differently thanks to momentous local engagement stirred up by a London man of the people, preserving wood and meadow free to all from Norman times and now preserved for the same by the National Trust.

Hardings is, Mabey writes, 'slung like a hammock across a dry coombe'. It is 'two woods really, an old and a new':

The ancient part, by far the largest, had both species of native oak, hornbeam, ash, cherry, holly and hazel, mostly grown up from stumps and seeds since the last war...Next to this old wood was a plantation of 90-year-old beeches. It occupied a third of Hardings' seven hectares, but I barely glanced at it in those early days...The trees were magnificent. They had never been thinned, and rose to immense heights.

When we began working in the old wood we ignored these soaring columns. They were out of scale with what we were doing. Too remote. Trees for grown-ups, as they had been when I was a child.

The first change was when the primary school held its Ascension Day service in this 'green cathedral'. And once Mabey had learned to relax and stop thinking of managerial priorities, he came to respect this area's rhythms and unexpected life.

It certainly seemed magical that sunny afternoon, the tracks bright browny-red with fallen leaves but the green canopy still there higher up. Everything felt that much more fragile because we knew that another major storm was on its way which would break that evening, destroying swathes of trees across the south but leaving Hertfordshire more or less undamaged. In any case, as Mabey teaches us, a big hurricane is not the disaster for nature the media whips us into believing.. The spring after the big 'un of 87, regeneration had already begun. Beeches, despite their shallow roots, are extraoardinarily resilient. And so it proved this time and the next.

All this felt very enfolded and secluded. But the main road, to be recrossed, was not far away, And then we wound our way up to join the Ickneld Way in the bigger woods on the opposite rise. Darkness was falling quicker than I'd anticipated, so we carried on to descend into the village of Aldbury, which with its duckpond, stocks, church and pub now very gastro-oriented - but none the worse for that - is quintessentual old Hertfordshire (and, like Lacock, has been used for film shoots so many times). We had tea there before walking back to Tring station in darkness, only to pick up the route a month ago and to approach it from the opposite direction.

This time, too, it was already late afternoon and there was to be no lunch-idling. So we got the very friendly pub staff to make us up some sandwiches, had a quick drink and sped on our way westwards (walking, as it turned out, the last hour past Frithsden beeches, in mud and dark, but none the worse for that). The Church of St John the Baptist, however, I wanted to revisit in brighter light.

The outstanding treasures come from elsewhere - namely the monastery at nearby Ashridge. The gem is the
Pendley Chapel, enclosed by Edmund Verney in 1575. He had the chest tomb of Sir Robert Whittingham (d.1471)

and his wife brought here along with the wonderful stone parclose ('clunch traceried', says one guide) screen.

It seems so wonderfully apt for the way that Aldbury is half-cradled by the forests - and presumably the monastery was encircled by them - that Sir Robert has at his feet a wild man of the woods complete with knobbled club.

The detail on this hairy man is, literally, fabulous.

Lady W has to make do with a now-worn hind, keeping up the forest imagery.

The two look noble enough in repose

and now face Sir Richard and Lady Anderson, deceased much later in 1699 and 1698 respectively as the wigs atop their not too solemn busts tell us.

Also from Ashridge is the Purbeck marble altar tomb with brasses of Sir Ralph Verney (d.1546) and his wife with four shields, the two above clearest here,

and their 12 children (nine boys here, three girls to their right) in between.

Plenty of other details from various ages catch the eye in various odd places, including - and I missed this on the first visit in the dark - 16th century German stained glass of the Crucifixion and Christ of Piety with original 15th century English canopies in the heads.

There, that's one more church done in cursory fashion, but others have accumulated, so expect the usual punctuation of things musical, literary and dramatic in the months to come. And I've just returned from a post-concert stay in the Scottish Borders with two of the godchildren and my dear friend Christopher Lambton, the ultimate woodsman, so more treestories are bound to follow.


David Damant said...

It may be remembered that it was trees which so much impressed Darwin during the cruise of the Beagle. 29th February 1832 "Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest...the glossy green of the foliage,but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation" So much so that he was led at that time ( and indeed for some time afterwards) to support the Argument from Design - the design of the world by a Supreme Being. Of course he subsequently saw the forests and all nature not as the result of God's creation but as the result of evolution through natural selection. This does not however take away from the marvel and magnificence of trees in our human eyes, which ( I add, not Darwin) have evolved in parallel

David said...

And of course the scientist in Darwin didn't dent his sense of wonder. All the most precise botanists and arboriculturalists surely feel the same. Then there's the unpredictability of the way nature adapts, as we saw only six months after the big storm of 1987 and several times thereafter.

David Damant said...

So many beautiful churches and so many wonderful monuments.....

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave
Awaits alike the inevitable hour
The paths of glory lead but to the grave

David said...

Eloquent and true, but by whom, to save me checked my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations?

Anonymous said...

David, another of your beautiful nature/travel posts, a sight welcome indeed from here in the U.S., where I am watching the snow just beginning! Among the art photos, I will choose to comment on the stone carvings: achieving such detail, especially in the hairy one, is unimaginable. And how delightful, meeting the witty old man! Your nature shots are usually my favorites, and these are no exception. I always enjoy your open vistas, with paths leading towards them. And the trees are so inviting - and what a treat, seeing you paying homage to the trees in a matching green sweater!

You have a way of writing that no doubt makes each of us feel we are being directly addressed. When I opened this post, on the day you published it, and the image of Mabey's book came up, my cheeks got warm. As I read, I thought, maybe some day David will write a post about blogs as therapy. Then I followed the link to your Dec. 2012 post, and I see that you have already done so. I cannot remark on the writing of blogs being helpful, as I don't feel inspired to write much. But reading them, and occasionally commenting, can take me out of myself a little; I like your word "oasis." I began reading your blog, following a comment you left over Sue's way, later than your posting of "The Way Up," so this is my first time reading it. I had gone all the past year of reading your blog, unaware of any of your personal sharing. And yet, even your usual posts, like Sue's and a few others, have been serving to pull me out, if only for a few moments, and even though I go back in again. "The Way Up" is more meaningful to me than I can express - your own words, the quotes you chose, and the messages of sharing from friends.

Emotions such as sadness and grief may stem from many causes, and who can know where depression comes from? But what you say is true: there is a sense in which it is the same for all of us. Pain is pain, and it all hurts. I don't even know what depression is, really, just that it is recognizable in oneself and in others. When I write a post or comment, I feel I'm leading a double life, wearing a mask in front of online friends. But reading the posts of others, even at times commenting, can make me feel normal for a bit; and that is enough for now. -- Elizabeth

David Damant said...

Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard

Before he defeated the French on the Plains of Abraham,in Quebec, General Wolfe ( "Mad is he" replied the King when Wolfe was criticised "Then I wish he would BITE my other generals") said that he would rather have written that poem than beat the French ( which he then did, though dying in the battle)

David said...

Well, most generous and courageous Elizabeth, only those of us that have spent seasons in what I hope is the only hell that exists can understand each other perfectly. I think I did rustle up a couple of posts in the last year of torment, and the effort it cost you can well understand. But the fact is even listening to music was the hugest of mountains to climb, and caused me pain because I could still interpret and - I think - even judge the quality of the performance, without feeling it.

Tough outings to Rosenkavalier and The Cunning Little Vixen made me in some way feel worse, but I'm proud to have done it. And we do need to congratulate ourselves for anything we can do in the times of darkness (which will pass for you and who knows, may well return again for me, but I rejoice the more in a fuller life while I have it).

Don't all the wrongs of the e-world dwindle into nothing if we can communicate like this? Thank you again for your eloquent words.

And thank you, Sir David, for your source, which I ought to know but only dimly recognised

Susan Scheid said...

When I first looked at this post I wanted to walk right into the green and golden sunshine, following all of you down that path. As of course, thanks to you, I was able to do, at least in a virtual way, and then follow into the churches with their wonderfully eccentric details, like the “trompe l'oeil book ready for the organist” and the “wild man of the woods,” which Elizabeth, in her utterly lovely comment, has mentioned, too. She’s right, “You have a way of writing that no doubt makes each of us feel we are being directly addressed.” And perhaps for that reason, and remembering, too that year of darkness, the photographs I love most here are of you, in your element, guiding us all forward, in a green sweater as vibrant as the day you’ve shown us here.

David said...

Teary for the second time today, after Elizabeth's comment: thanks, Sue. And yes, I WAS those trees, having clad myself in green and brown without consciously thinking about it (though hardly a wild hairy man of the woods). You can see why I'll have the closing scene of Strauss's Daphne played at my funeral, whenever it may be (and should it be decades hence, I hope I won't change my mind).

David Damant said...

It would not be appropriate, I feel, to have the Grand March from Aida played as my coffin is carried down the aisle of the church at my funeral. With the trumpets going up a tone as the cortege reaches the sanctuary. But why would it be wrong? Too bumptious and vainglorious in the face of Eternity?

David said...

If you like it, have it. We'll all wink and smile (should indeed we outlast you, and perish the thought that it should be any time in the next three decades). But let's get the authentic Egyptian trumpets Verdi originally wanted.

My dear friend Mary walked down the aisle with Canon Tom New, her dad, to marry Roberto to the same: we loved that.

Shall we play you out to 'All God's Chillun Got Wings'? I think at least the solo line might be intoned by the Rev H and the diplo-mate.

Is this macabre? Or just sentimental?

David Damant said...

I have ( somewhere)a record of "All God's Chillun...." sung ( all the verses ) by Paul Robeson

If you want trumpets contemporary with the plot of Aida, bear in mind what happened when a trumpeter from a Guards regiment was asked to perform on a trumpet from an Egyptian tomb ( probably Tutankhamun....can't remember). He blew - no result - he blew harder and the trumpet fell into two pieces. They had to sooth him down