by Peter Fiennes
It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing is just the fading memory of someone sitting in a favourite chair, or leaning against the table they once spent so much time laying and clearing. The discarded photograph only slowly bleaches to white. But anyone who has ever visited the fields and trenches of the Somme has felt the loss and desolation in the air. So much trauma and death, they say, has seeped into the landscape that the texture of the world has been changed. In Simon Schama’s extraordinary book Landscape and Memory, he suggests that it is ‘our shaping perception that makes the difference between raw matter and landscape’. In other words, it’s us that make the difference, and it’s our culture-bound minds that shape what we see and feel in the world – although, as Schama roams through the Polish forests where his ancestors once worked as loggers, he does leave behind a little sliver of doubt.
I have less rigour – or more credulity – which is why I’m standing at the head of an obscure wooded valley in north Devon, not far from the village of Porlock, trying to pick up the ghostly presence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was here – or it was probably here – in a farmhouse just above this wood, that Coleridge fell into a drugged sleep after a long day’s walking, and woke to find that he had a poem fully formed in his mind, just waiting to be poured onto the page. The poem – the fragment of a poem – was ‘Kubla Khan’ and there would have been even more of it – it would, I am sure, have answered every question we have ever had about life, death, art, love and nature – but just as Coleridge was poised to reveal the secrets of the world ‘a person on business from Porlock’ came knocking, and Coleridge lingered too long at the door, and when he rushed back to his room to finish it, the poem had evaporated. Or so he tells us. And it’s certainly a more original excuse than ‘the dog ate it, Miss’. But imagine being the owners of this lonely farmhouse, just above –
that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
Imagine having this man turn up at your home one night, exhausted but raving about demon lovers and the waning moon, high on opiates, crashing late and then lurching from his bed to answer your door, scaring the life out of your cousin from Porlock, scattering fragments of genius from his torn notebooks. Imagine trying to tell him, gently, that they’re not ‘cedars’ in the woods, but ‘woaks, Sir, woaks’. You’d be pleased to see the back of him, although for several months, through the years 1797 and 1798, Coleridge haunted these lonely woods, hills and slippery coastal paths. He walked for miles, for days, unable to settle at home (which was twenty-five miles from here in Nether Stowey); restlessly seeking out his neighbour, Wordsworth, and shaking him with a thrashy torrent of ideas and poetry; plunging through ‘wood and dale’ and ‘forests ancient as the hills’. ‘Kubla Khan’ is an explosion; it’s about creativity, or sex, or what it means to have bipolar disorder – we don’t know, except that it contains wild truths. And Coleridge, like Kipling, understood that all true magic must come in threes:
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Well, we’ve heard it before, but it still packs a punch – and even more so if you are standing at the head of the valley, looking down at the wooded coombe just below the isolated farmhouse, where Coleridge first conjured this magic. It is May Day, traditionally the first day of spring, when the sun returns to a frost-ravaged land, and if I were a young maiden I should be wading through the dew at the foot of the hawthorn tree that is blossoming fretfully to my left, alone in a field of hungry young sheep. At my back is a dark line of pine trees (what else?), looming over the valley and being slapped around by a strong wind, but ahead and down the steep hill to the coombe is a more ancient land, a quieter spot, with a mass of broadleaf trees hazed in their first outpourings of green and, beyond them, a gratifyingly sunless sea.
The first day of spring is always a hard date to agree. Is it the vernal equinox, in most years falling on 21 March? Or is it, as the old tradition had it, on 1 May? Our ancestors lived in colder times, when the River Thames would freeze and the winters were bleak. To complicate matters, what is now 1 May was, until 1752, 19 April; and what is now 11 May was the old May Day. This is when the British calendar ‘lost’ eleven days, when the ‘Julian’ Calendar was replaced by the new-fangled ‘Gregorian’ one, and there were riots in the fields and the churches. Mrs J.H. Philpot in her 1897 book The Sacred Tree or The Tree, Religion and Myth has this story about the changing calendar and its effect on an offshoot of the Glastonbury Thorn that had survived in Quainton, Buckinghamshire:
“[It] suddenly sprang into fame again when the new style was introduced into the Calendar in 1752, and the people, resenting the loss of their eleven days, appealed from the decision of their rulers to the higher wisdom of the miraculous tree. According to the Gentlemen’s Magazine for 1753, about two thousand people on the night of 24th December 1752 came with lanthorns and candles to view the thorn-tree, ‘which was remembered (this year only) to be a slip from the Glastonbury thorn.’ As the tree remained bare the people agreed that 25th December, N.S., could not be the true Christmas-day, and refused to celebrate it as such. Their excitement was intensified when on 5th January the tree was found to be in full bloom, and to pacify them the authorities were driven to decree that the old Christmas-day should be celebrated as well as the new.”
These days, the levels of consumption required to feed two Christmases every year would probably spell the end of the planet, but I mention Mrs Philpot’s exciting story because it doesn’t feel quite like spring yet, here on the hill above Coleridge’s coombe, with only that lonely hawthorn and a straggle of gorse in bloom (and when is the gorse ever not?).
The edges of woods are not simple places and it is sometimes not easy to pass from the open land into the close, skyless company of trees. I am walking down a flinty path, flanked by ragged hedgerows and curious lambs, with the sun now tentatively shining on the valley. Maybe it’s this sudden soft bath of sunshine, but there is an invisible barrier between the sunny fields and the dark wood, and it does take something – not courage, exactly, but a conscious effort – to step from the light into the shade. Once through the gate, though, I am home in the trees’ familiar embrace. Or, as John Clare would say:
And this old gate that claps against the tree
The entrance of spring’s paradise should be.
‘Wood Pictures in Spring’
It is right, I think, to pause and lean on a gate at the edge of a wood, before passing through. In any case, there is a man coming up the woodland path, twisting through the trees, and just as he reaches me a cuckoo calls from higher up the valley, the first I’ve heard for years. ‘That was nice, wasn’t it?’ says the man, his face hidden under a broad-brimmed hat, ‘a cuckoo on 1st May’.
May Day should be a day of magic. The cuckoo is a sign of a happy marriage, or of imminent adultery, although it is hard to see how it can be both. Always carry elder twigs (they will help you quell the urge to commit adultery)… or sew them into your lover’s pockets. The cuckoo’s calls follow me down into the coombe, past light drifts of bluebells, fat young clumps of nettle and crowds of low-growing holly bushes, now fading back into the woods with the greening of spring. There are violets by the side of the path, their soft lilac faces marked by ‘honey guides’, the pale white tracks that have evolved to steer insects into their pollen-rich hearts. They’re rather like a runway’s landing lights, set up to bring the aircraft safely home; and I’m thinking that this coombe, with its infallible path, could be my own personal honey guide, drawing me in, looking for something out of the ordinary. Honey-dew, perhaps. That would… well, that would make it all worthwhile.
I pass a very grand holly tree, growing wild and jagged around its battered old trunk. I can hear the river now as it hastens towards the sea, and then I can see it, a tight-runnelled, restless stream, hustling past bracken and moss-drenched rocks, throwing up sprays of icy light. Coleridge must have walked this way, not so very long ago, and watched the river leap and tumble. And he will have known this oak tree, its great trunk and branches hung about with spring ferns, its young, lime-green leaves tinged with a fading red. There’s a tiny, sunken church here, in a tenuous clearing in the woods, and I sit and watch the river race by.
The sea is very close, although it is quiet and hidden from view. There are no cars, no people, just birdsong – and sunlight and lichen mottling the ancient church walls. There are sycamores all around, but I am thinking of lime trees, and their slow retreat from the woods, and of Coleridge writing in his prison bower, and of the time I came walking over the South Downs, scrambling down wild rabbit paths, through overgrown woods of ash and chestnut, and then, dropping down the banks of a dizzying gulley, I slipped and sprawled into the last remnants of a lime tree copse, about ten immense trees hidden in fountains of green from the grip of the modern world. They cannot have been coppiced or cut for centuries. These woods must have been here when the Saxons carved their farms from the Sussex Weald, or even earlier, when the Romans drove the British tribes from their hilltops and forests and marched them into slavery. I kneel and crane to look up at the limes’ scoured trunks, their fragile summer leaves, the beech trees all around, crowding in, and then, under a half-fallen elder tree, pushing through last year’s leaves, I find a very young lime sapling. It is heartbreaking, the sight of this slender thread with its five green leaves and blood-red buds, hiding in the last refuge of a long-vanished forest. I don’t know why, but staring at this sapling, with the holy warmth of these lost limes at my back, fills me with grief and joy.
In fact, I think there’s only one thing I do know, as I sit in the shadow of Coleridge, waiting for magic to emerge from the woods on this first day in May. If you go looking, it won’t be there.
© Copyright Peter Fiennes 2018. All rights reserved.
This is an edited extract from ‘Oak and Ash and Thorn: the ancient woods and new forests of Britain’ by Peter Fiennes (Oneworld Publications). The book explores our long relationship with the woods – their history, folklore and conservation – and the sad and violent story of how so many have been lost.
Peter Fiennes was the publisher of Time Out Guides – and is also the author of To War with God, an account of his grandfather’s time as a chaplain at the front in World War I.