Sunday, 7 July 2013

A.E. Housman, Annie Cockburn and those Blue Remembered Hills

As if the last post wasn’t enough, here’s more summer lyricism from Shropshire, England. This time it comes from ten miles out of Shrewsbury.  For a while I’ve been thinking how good it would be to do a My Tonight From Shrewsbury outside broadcast [by which I mean outside of Shrewsbury broadcast] and where better than this?

I’m on the edge of the Long Mynd, looking down at the garden of Annie Cockburn, specialist in play therapy with troubled children, occasional belly-dancer [Annie loves to dance] and long time friend. Annie I first met back in the early Seventies as ex-Londoners and newcomers to the county.  Our children were born around the same time as each other and today we’ve been going through Annie’s albums, looking at her old photographs.  Over the years we’ve watched each other’s families grow up.  Now one of Annie’s sons is planning his wedding, and a couple of years ago one of my daughters celebrated hers in a marquee on this meadow, looking down upon Annie’s house, with the Lawley and Caradoc behind it.

The view here from Annie’s top meadow is world-class.  In the distance, rising out of the Shropshire Plain, is the Wrekin and beyond that, somewhere in a hazy green mist, is Shrewsbury.  In the field behind us, sheep are grazing and skylarks are singing high up in air. From where I’m standing, I can’t see the A49, nor can I hear it.  The only road I can see in this entire landscape is the lane running down the side of Annie’s house.  Drovers would have used it once to bring sheep off the Mynd. ‘We drove animals because it has always been this way for as far back as any of us can remember, as our father and grandfathers have done,’ I read earlier today, courtesy of the old Welsh drover, Mihangel Pritchard.  We are drovers because it is in our blood, and being on those roads lifts our hearts and makes our spirits sing.  It is part of who we are as a people.’*  

Several times I’ve been here and seen Annie’s lane filled with sheep, though not driven from Cardigan, which is where Mihangel Pritchard would have started.  Those days are over now,  as is much of the old country way of life.  The barns and farmsteads remain though, as silent witnesses.  Annie’s barn stores lawn-mowers now, and garden chairs and the barbecue. Its upper section is used for parties and other social gatherings and it houses nesting swallows. Occasionally though, I’ve slept up there, and I swear I’ve awoken in the night to a scent in the air, lingering like the ghosts of long-forgotten harvests.  

Slowly Annie and I walk back down the fields towards her house.  We reach her garden and she opens the gate. In her early days here, there used to be hens picking the dry earth beside the pond, vegetables in rows between the apple trees and goats in the pig shed, waiting to be milked.  Now the dry earth has grassed itself over into a luxuriant lawn, the apple trees are an orchard and the goats are no more, not even chops in the freezer. 

But the pond remains unchanged, willows hanging over it, turquoise damsel-flies cruising its surface and lilies opening out in blossom.  It’s surrounded by yellow irises in bloom, dots of forget-me-not and as many kingcups as I’ve ever seen in one place.  Beyond the kingcups, a wilderness of monkey flowers – planted in the pond as just one single stem –  tumble in bright yellow profusion, dotted with pinkish grasses known in flowering time as Yorkshire fog.

This is the perfect month to be in Annie’s garden.  All her roses are out, and some of their scents - especially the intensely pink roses along the front of the house - are deep enough to drown in and strong enough to carry you away.

Annie’s always trying to find ways to share her garden and land.  The sun only has to be predicted by the weatherman and she’s on the phone.  ‘Why don’t you come over? It’s going to be a perfect day.’  Sometimes she’s right, but not always.  Today, however, she is spot on. We sit on her terrace, sheltering from the hot sun under a huge umbrella held steady with a shoe.  We’re eating thick slabs of granary toast and scrambled eggs, washed down with home-made nectarine wine and strawberries and ice-cream.  There’s not a cloud in the sky.  This is England at her most beautiful.  Shropshire in her summer colours.  And what colours they are - green upon green, the white of wild roses up against the heady white of elderflowers, sunshine upon foxgloves, dots of yellow buttercups just about everywhere. 

Once every other year, Annie’s sons put together a little music festival on this land, bringing together bands and musicians who happen to be friends from as far away as Leeds and Cardiff.  This is a private family event, no Glastonbury here, but tents will go up in the fields – and a few hammocks– a bonfire will be lit and there’ll be barbecueing and music. Annie’s ex-husband Bob will come up from Hastings to perform with his guitar.  Their son’s band, The Seven Inches, will sing their own idiosyncratic and highly original songs, and my family’s own small band, fronted by my husband, will bring to life an eclectic mix of blues and folk with a bit of doo-wop jazz thrown in. 

It’s all fairly homespun, just people who like each other getting together - in some cases growing old together, in others growing up together and doing it in a spectacular landscape. All over Shropshire, people have their rituals; their ways of marking the changing seasons and enjoying the land. Part of the beauty of Shrewsbury is its surrounding landscape.  Often people drive through it, heading for Wales, no idea what they are leaving behind.  For those who linger, however, the fundamental elements of the landscape are recognizably the same as when the poet, A.E. Housman, wrote wistfully about the county in the early part of the 20th century.  ‘A Shropshire Lad’ he called his book of verse, and if Housman were to come back now, even though he'd find the way of life very different, this would still be his Shropshire - just as it’s mine.   I moved here forty years ago, a young woman without roots, raised a family and found a home.

Here’s Housman on the subject of Blue Remembered Hills:

Into my heart an air that kills,
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went,
And cannot come again.

* When I can locate the name of the Mihangel Pritchard book, I'll put the details here.  

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