Sweet Chance, that led my steps abroad, Beyond the town, where wild flowers grow -- A rainbow and a cuckoo, Lord, How rich and great the times are now! Know, all ye sheep And cows, that keep On staring that I stand so long In grass that's wet from heavy rain -- A rainbow and a cuckoo's song May never come together again; May never come This side the tomb. 'A Great Time' by W. H. Davies (1871-1940)
I recently re-visited Amberley and Nailsworth, the area in Gloucestershire where we lived not too long ago. We were there for seven years, in fact, and it’s seven years now since we moved. Although it’s not too far from our present home in Topsham, Devon, I’ve only once before made the 100 mile journey back there in the intervening period. This time, in glorious May, I rejoiced in the profusion of the local flowers of the woods, upland commons and meadows: starry wild garlic, ethereal cowslips, buttercups, bluebells and hawthorn blossom.
I’m forever interested in our experiences of ‘place’, and how they lodge in our memory as touchstones of emotional succour – or sometimes as the opposite, as places of doom or of energy drainage, best avoided in the future. For myself, this refers mostly to places where I’ve lived, and which have time to seep into the soul. That’s around twelve different places, plus one in Russia and one holiday home in Turkey. It’s a somewhat indefinite number as on more than one occasion I’ve lived in the same area but in different houses. Anyway, without getting too involved in intricate analysis here, I’m going to call it the round figure of twelve.
On Minchinhampton Common, it was – and still is, writing this a few days later – a time when the long grass is studded with flowers in the days before the cows are let loose to tear at the new fodder. Commoners have rights to graze stock – our house deeds there allowed us to graze ‘two beasts’! So in mid-May, farmers with similar rights drive their cattle lorries up there, and unload them. We witnessed it once, and laughed at the clumsy exhilaration of the cows as they kicked up their heels, snorted, then set off at what passes for a bovine gallop, stampeding and wheeling in circles, like something from a Western. Most had probably been confined to their stalls over winter, and their joy was a pleasure to behold. It wouldn’t take long before buttercups and cowslips were munched and you’d need to go to the margins of the common to find orchids, Solomon’s seal and other wild flowers not yet discovered by the herds.
Below: Cowslip, Early Purple Orchid, and the much rarer Bee Orchid, all of which I photographed on Minchinhampton Common
The cows themselves were mainly a motley crew of mixed brown, white, black and even a curiously sort of striped one, who we nicknamed Tiger. The National Trust kept a herd of belted Galloways, black and white like striped humbugs, and an elite herd of a few little Highland cows, with woolly coats and long horns, kept their own company away from the madding crowd. All the cows roamed as far as they could until stopped by cattle grids, and it was a frequent sight to see one leaning over our back wall, wondering what she might be able to reach in our vegetable patch with her rasping tongue. Or strolling through the village past our front gate, snatching at grass from the so-called village green.
And on my visit this time round, it happened to be the day of the annual ‘Cow Hunt’. No, not taking pot shots at innocent animals, but a kind of Cow Scarecrow event, with named cows dressed up and dotted around the village, such as Emma Radu Cow Moo or the like.
Hordes of families spread out through the village and over the common, parents diligently ticking off discovered cows on their lists, while excited children scampered ahead, trying to spot them in fences, gardens and the wilder spots. After which, it’s tea and cake for all on the aforementioned village green.
I began this piece with the poem by W. H. Davies, which wonderfully evokes the kind of ecstasy of a moment when impressions flood our consciousness – sights, scents and sounds arising simultaneously from the natural world around us – in his case, a rainbow and a cuckoo’s song. In my case, the sweetness of spring flowers, the silvery stone of the villages I know and love – Amberley, Box, Minchinhampton, and the leafy ancient woodland, all brought joy. For me, too, the open common and its free-ranging beasts has always carried a resonance of an older, freer way of life in the English countryside, which has now largely gone from our land.
A beautiful rendering of ‘Sweet Chance’ set as a song by composer Michael Head
But – and here’s the thing! – it’s also ‘sweet chance’ that W. H. Davies himself lived in this very area, and was a native of Nailsworth in his later years. He was a self-styled ‘super tramp’: born in Wales, he roamed far and wide across the world, living as a hobo. He travelled round Canada and America, trying unsuccessfully to make his fortune in the gold rush, and losing his leg in a freight train accident. But being something of a genius too, his writings took the more bohemian elements of literary London by storm, and he became an established poet, as well as publishing his autobiography. Notable figures such as the Sitwells, George Bernard Shaw, and the poet Edward Thomas became his friends. It was not a simple outcome, as you might imagine, given that a rough life and the sometimes genteel expectations of his behaviour did not always sit well with his upper class admirers. But his status as a ‘super tramp’ helped to kick start a kind of vogue for ‘tramping’ so that even much later, in the 1950s, writer Colin Wilson and his circle took to sleeping out in the rough – though in Wilson’s case, just as far as Hampstead Heath! And a well-known Soho character, ‘Ironfoot Jack’, wrote an entertaining memoir about his time on the road, and as a showman. Tramping became almost respectable.
In later years, W. H. Davies settled in a little cottage called Glendower, in a hamlet called Watledge, I used to walk past it often, if I was taking the scenic downhill route into Nailsworth, and admire its picturesque look. This was his last home, after he and his wife had inhabited several other houses in the area. His wife was much younger than him, and a former prostitute, but it was apparently a happy, settled union. His novel ‘Young Emma’ shows his sympathy for young women who got into trouble on account of their poverty and innocence. It was a close-to-life account of his wife’s beginnings, and not published until after his death.
There is much more that could be said about W.H. Davies, Nailsworth, our time in Amberley, free-ranging cows and common land, but I’ll just let this short tribute stand as a kind of marker of those special moments which can come when we revisit old haunts. A rush of memories can fuse with current impressions – for me here, ‘sweet chance’ was the scent of wild garlic, the delight of meeting with old friends, the sight of the steep valleys and tender green of the woods in May. I may experience this alchemical elixir, as indeed all of us may, but perhaps only a poet or writer of genius such as W.H.Davies can express it
The next post will stay with a literary theme, exploring the connections between William Blake and the Moravian Church. Are Blake’s visions, poems, and even his views on love, shaped by this unusual Christian church with its emphasis on visualisations, the feminine spirit, and delight in music? Join me in a different setting, but with another wild, independent genius!