A country walk with John Clare through one of England’s treasures, her footpaths, will reveal wayside wildlife secrets we have never noticed before.
John Clare’s Wildlife Secrets
On many of England’s quiet and delightfully car-free public footpaths there will always be something interesting to see. Walking alone, and with John Clare’s eyes, we discover rooted secrets nestling in a hedgerow and give away marks of the to-ing and fro-ing of creatures. We catch the smell of foliage and flowers, elder flower blossom, dog rose or travellers’ joy draping the hedges. As we walk there’s a bruised, scented sweetness underfoot and unexpected bird song overhead.
Speaking of his beloved Dedham Vale, John Constable said “These scenes made me a painter.” We now know this area as ‘Constable Country’. Clare’s inspiration came from his own familiar fields and pathways in the village of Helpston. His ‘canvas’ was his poetry, which he wrote ‘with calloused hands’. He was no armchair poet.
“Claire was a quiet genius who knew his place, one of our greatest English rural poets. With his extraordinary ability to see furthest when the view was strictly limited, in an age when there were few hedges he was hedged in by his own local familiar things. Helpston was his world.”From ‘Talking about John Clare’ by Ronald Blythe ( former president of the John Clare Society )
The ‘Real’ John Clare
This much used painting of Clare was not the ‘real’ John Clare. He was not at ease at being in the strange city dressed up like this for the portrait. No doubt he was longing to be home in his familiar village.
“Clare was England’s most articulate village voice….His poetry is the English field given voice.”Ronald Blythe
Like Robert Burns, Clare would have spent days in autumn in the fields with horses and plough. When asked about his inspiration for his poems he said:
“I found them in the fields and only wrote them down….I kicked them from the clods while ploughing in the fields.”
He loved winding footpaths revealing fresh secrets around each corner with places to sit and write in his notebook. In his day this stile and overgrown footpath would have been well used.
“I grew so much into the quiet love of nature’s presence that I was uneasy except when I was in the fields…..Birds, bees, trees and flowers all talked to me incessantly louder than the busy hum of man.”From Clare’s unfinished “Natural History of Helpston”.
No doubt Clare was inspired by Gilbert White’s ‘Natural History of Selbourne‘. What a pity he never finished this intended ‘Natural History of Helpston‘. But the snippets that remain are delightful.
Clare knew and loved every bush and path around his village and he describes them in intimate detail. Here is the conclusion of his exquisite poem ‘The Nightingales’s Nest‘. He takes us by the hand and we scramble hands-on-knees into this bramble thicket to see the precious nest hidden in secrecy. Then with the utmost reverence he bids us quietly leave this sacred spot in peace.
“Solitude’s disciples spend their lives
Unseen, save when a wanderer passes near
That loves such pleasant places. Deep adown,
The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell.
Snug lie her curious eggs in number five,
Of deadened green, or rather olive brown ;
And the old prickly thorn-bush guards them well.
So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong,
As the old woodland’s legacy of song.“
Today’s Lost Countryside
For a brief time Clare was proclaimed as a ‘peasant poet’, but he was soon forgotten. It took more than a century before he was recognized as he deserves when in 1989 he was eventually honored in Poets’ Corner Westminster Abbey.
Sadly with the heartless enclosures many of Clare’s favourite footpaths were plowed up or hedged in by private landowners, destroying his native home world and himself with it. He never recovered from this devastation.
Today’s huge interest in Clare is a sign of our modern sense of shared loss with him. Like him we feel we have lost something very important in our countryside, but we must use the public footpaths that remain.
“As rights of way determined and sustained by our use, they constitute a labyrinth of liberty, a slender network of common land that still threads through our aggressively privatized world of barbed wire and gates, CCTV cameras and ‘No trespassing’ signs,”From ‘Old Ways’ by Robert Macfarlane
Thank you John Clare for showing us how to take a country walk with our eyes open. There’s so much yet to see in our countryside. New secrets beckon us everywhere.
Next Time – we go in search of Spring