Tag Archives: Northamptonshire

Look out ! It’s a tornado !! Hang on to your hat !!!

So far I have looked at how Nottingham has been affected by too much water, not enough water, weather that was too cold and weather that was too hot. There have never been any earthquakes or tsunamis here, thank goodness. That is not to say, though, that Nottingham has never been troubled by high winds. All right, it cannot rival Texas or Oklahoma. Neither Dorothy nor Toto ever lived here, and we just cannot  compete with things like this:

But we do try our hardest. We do our bit. Or at least we did do, way back in the sixteenth century. Just to continue with our policy of showing you the clothes and the costumes, so that you can work out what time period we are talking about, here are some of my favourite people from the era in question, having a game of bowls while they wait for a decision about the Armada from the European Court of Justice:

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Back to the story….

On Monday, July 7th 1558, Nottingham was struck by a tornado. All of the ordinary houses within a mile of the city were destroyed. Sir Richard Baker reported in his now forgotten but once extremely popular “Chronicle of the Kings of England from the Time of the Romans’ Government unto the Death of King James”:

“On the 7th of July, this year, within a mile of Nottingham was a grievous tempest with thunder, which, as it came through beat down all the houses and churches, cast the bells to the outside of the church-yards, and twisted the sheets of lead like a pair of leather gloves and threw them four hundred foot into the field. The River Trent, running between the two towns, the water, with the mud in the bottom, was carried a quarter of a mile, and thrown against trees, with the violence whereof the trees were torn up by the roots, and cast twelve score yards off:

After%20the%20Storm_2012-10_uprooted%20tree
A child was taken out of a woman’s arms, and carried up into the air then let fall, had its arm broke and died.  Also, a child was taken forth of a man’s hand and carried two spear’s length high, and then let fall two hundred feet off, of which fall it died.

Five or six men thereabouts were killed yet had neither flesh nor skin hurt. They were slain by the storm, during which, hailstones fell measuring fifteen inches in circumference.”

The “two towns” are thought to have been the villages of Wilford and Lenton which at the time were rural, agricultural villages of roughly similarly size, separated from the main town of Nottingham.

Elsewhere in the East Midlands, on an unknown date in July 1558, in Northamptonshire, there was a storm with immense hailstones some fifteen inches around:

ice
I do not know if these two events were connected or not. Overall in England, it was a very hot summer in 1558 with long periods of drought throughout the whole year. In March of 1558 the country had already seen the “most destructive hurricane in England”, although I have been unable to locate the precise whereabouts of this occurrence, and Nottingham seems to have been unaffected.

Eighty or so years later, on Wednesday, October 13th 1666, there was a similarly violent storm just a little further north. Called a whirlwind at the time, it actually seems to have done enough damage to warrant being called a tornado. How fashion tastes change in only a hundred years:

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This account comes from “A General Chronological History of Air, Weather, Seasons, Meteors in Sultry Places and Different Times”, which was written by Thomas Short, and published in London in 1749:

“In Lincolnshire, there was a dreadful storm of thunder, accompanied with hail, the stones as large as pigeon or even pullet eggs, followed by a storm or tempest, attended with a strange noise. It came with such violence and force, that at Welbourn, it levelled most of the houses to the ground. It broke down some trees and tore up other trees by the roots. It scattered abroad much corn and hay. One boy only was killed. It went on to Willingmore (Wellingore?) , where it overthrew some houses and killed two children in them. Thence it passed on and touched the skirts of Nanby (Navenby?) and ruined a few houses. Keeping its course to the next town, where it dashed the church steeple in pieces, furiously damaging the church itself, both stone and timber work. It left little of either standing, only the body of the steeple. It threw down many trees and houses. It moved in a channel, not a great breadth. Otherwise it would have ruined a great part of the country. It moved in a circle and looked like fire. It went through Nottinghamshire, where the hailstones were nine inches about. The whirlwind was about 60 yards broad. On Nottingham Forest, it broke down and tore up at least 1,000 trees, overthrew many windmills, overturned boats on the River Trent. In a village of fifty houses, it left only seven standing.”

The original place names are given as Welbourn, Willingmore and Nanby. I have taken a quick look at the map and I think that Thomas was writing down the names of the places from a person who was talking to him. I can just imagine a local peasant of the time calling Wellingore, Willingmore and another slack jawed local pronouncing Navenby as Na’nby. As always, look for the orange arrow:

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Here is St Chad’s Church in Welbourn, which survived the tornado more or less intact:

St.Chad's church, Welbourn

Here is the road near Welbourn:

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That road takes you to Willingmore AKA Wellingore. Here is All Saints Church on a nice day and then on a Meteorological Office Severe Weather Tornado Risk Warning Day:

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If Na’nby was Navenby, then this is St Peter’s church:

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The “next town”, and I am merely guessing here, may have been Boothby Graffoe, which has its own ruined castle:

lincoln-somerton-castle-boothby-graffoe-engraved-print-1770-13812-p

….and a church which over the course of the last 350 years seems to have recovered from what must have been, judging by Thomas’ account, a very bad hair day:

Boothby Graffoe St Andrew

Here is a slightly better overview of the area to refresh your memory. All of my three best guess place names of Welbourn, Willingmore, and Navenby are in a nice, more or less straight line, as the tornado flies. It would be possible to argue that, if the fourth location is a genuine town sized town, then it might be Waddington, or even (less likely perhaps), the county capital of Lincoln. Boothby Graffoe, though, is a lovely village name. Perhaps not as striking as Norton Disney, but cute nevertheless.

Just take a look at this second map, showing clearly the path of the tornado through the three villages. I  rest my case, as they say:

navenby

From my point of view, of course, the most interesting detail is the fact that:

“On Nottingham Forest, it broke down and tore up at least 1,000 trees.”

I have already written about the Forest Recreation Ground in Nottingham in a blogpost about a highwayman being executed on the gallows near St Andrew’s Church. Here is a map:

forest

How do I know that this is the same place as Nottingham Forest? I know because of what used to be situated on Forest Road East, to the south of the green area marked “Forest Recreation Ground”. Here is an old, and no doubt, valuable oil painting of them. These are clearly what Richard was talking about when he mentioned that the whirlwind “overthrew many windmills”:

(c) Nottinghamshire Archives; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Enormous damage was occasioned in Nottingham:

“On Nottingham Forest, it broke down and tore up at least 1,000 trees, overthrew many windmills, overturned boats on the River Trent. In a village of fifty houses, it left only seven standing.”

In my opinion, this was because the tornado came from the south west, travelled, broadly speaking, to the north east, and was therefore much stronger in Nottingham than it was in Lincolnshire. This weather event may even be the reason that the Forest Recreation Ground was initially created. Having so many trees cut down together in what was then a heavily wooded part of Sherwood Forest itself, may have been the first step towards the vast open space that we all enjoy today. This map shows the general north easterly path of the tornado. The orange arrow points towards the Lincolnshire Three:

big navenby

It is always difficult to prove a negative, but this map shows why mention of the tornado came only from Nottingham and the three small villages in Lincolnshire. Even now, 350 years later, there are comparatively few people living between the two localities to tell the story. And equally, there would have been, centuries ago, virtually nobody to tell it to.

Could somebody in England have recognised a tornado in 1666? Well, yes, he could, if he described the storm he saw as “attended with a strange noise”, as well as being “in a channel, not a great breadth”, “about 60 yards broad” and, most convincing of all,  “It moved in a circle and looked like fire.” And don’t forget, it is always very difficult for a human being to describe something which is not within his terms of reference or his own personal experience.

Just compare those three hundred and fifty year old descriptions with this:

And watch out for Dorothy and Toto:

Dorothy-And-Toto-

 

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The rarest bird I ever saw

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Tuesday, September 20, 1988

Another bit of excitement, this time at Pitsford in Northamptonshire, where there is a Sociable Plover, first discovered apparently by a teenage birdwatcher, late on Sunday evening, flying around with a flock of Lapwings. The Sociable Plover, not the teenager.

Here is a Lapwing:

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And here is a Sociable Plover:

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I have a free afternoon from school on Tuesdays, so I decide to leave at one o’clock, directly from Period Five. So as not to look an even bigger idiot than normal, I take a pullover and a pair of jeans to change into, as well as my telescope, tripod and binoculars. I religiously ring Paul, as I always do, to ask him if he wants to come, but he’s at work, I also ring Alan to unmake a previous date to go looking for Hobby at Clumber Park that evening. Surprisingly enough, he also has a free afternoon, so we decide to go for the bird together.
It’s only about eighty miles to Pitsford, so we arrive there about three thirty. Look for the orange arrow:

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It is obvious where the bird is supposed to be from the great tangle of parked cars. Quickly, we park too, and head on out there. It is a marshy area, with a very long shoreline, and a lot of distant birds. Look for the orange arrow:

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Unfortunately none of the distant birds is a Sociable Plover, although a winter plumaged Grey Plover, seen through a heat haze at a range of about four miles, does cause quite a few hearts to flutter, mine included.

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There are some Curlew Sandpipers, a few Ruff , and a couple of Little Stint.

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The Pectoral Sandpiper, though, which has been reported for the last couple of days, seems to have gone:

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Eventually the disappointed crowd drifts away, in ugly mood, to the section of the reservoir where the Sociable Plover came in to bathe on Monday afternoon. Here, there are absolutely thousands of gulls, and to relieve the monotony of waiting, we look through the crowd for the lone Mediterranean Gull that has been tantalising the gull watchers for the last few evenings:

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No luck with that either, and Alan and I agree on a departure time of six thirty, as the last few minutes of daylight tick inexorably away. Finally, we are forced to admit defeat, and terribly disappointed, we trudge despondently back to the car. Fifty yards from the vehicle, I get my car keys out. We are just climbing over the fence at the side of the road, when a rather rusty car suddenly squeals to a halt, and a young man jumps out and screams:

“THEY’VE FOUND IT!!!!         THEY’VE FOUND IT!!!!   

We restrain him for a moment and ask him one or two simple questions like:

“WHERE???      WHERE???      WHERE???”

He burbles on for another ten minutes about crossroads and turns left and turns right and pubs called the Red Lion, houses with green doors and the third tractor from the right:

red-lion-inn-01

This is terrible. It is one thing if the bird is not there. That you can live with, difficult though it may be. But to be right next to the bird, and not to be able to navigate your way to it in the car, that’s something else:

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It is cruelty of an unreasonable nature. The young man tells us to wait. He’ll call over all of the other birdwatchers, still standing expectantly on the edge of “The Marsh”. Then we can all follow him in a convoy, just like in the song and the film made from it:

This we all do, or rather, attempt to do. I am personally amazed at what staggering speed a rusty T Reg Datsun can achieve when provoked:

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He must have rocket assisted take off in the boot. We are driving along country lanes at around ninety miles an hour, squealing the tyres on rustic roads which are really meant for bicycles or the odd haywain:

haywain

On the other hand, there is a certain logic that says if I keep fifty yards behind the lunatic in front, we cannot fail. Whatever bend the Datsun can get round, I can get round. Any emergency stop he is forced to do, I will have ample time to prepare for. It doesn’t work quite so well at “Give Way” signs, and we have a couple of close shaves. Nevertheless, after a fundamentally frightening drive down these little country lanes, we arrive at the tiny village of Old, where we find cars abandoned at crazy angles across the grass verge and even in the road itself . A great crowd of people is staring fixedly at the back of a distant field.

This Must Be The Place:

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one above OS

The field itself is in a rather strange condition, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Nottinghamshire, with some areas recently ploughed, with lots of bare earth visible, but there is also a series of strips of stubble, all about six or seven yards wide. The Plover is out there with a large group of Lapwings, but it is a long, long way off. It takes a lot of careful and diligent searching, most of it done at comparatively high magnification, before Alan and I both find The Bird:

sooibla xxxxxxxx

It is nowhere near as colourful as the field guides would have you believe, and, indeed, it is completely capable of disappearing entirely when it stops moving around, and just sits down quietly, looking rather reminiscent of a clod of earth with two eyes and a beak. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fly at any point, so we miss the chance of comparing the wing pattern to that of Sabine’s Gull, and of seeing just how similar it is:

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Still, you can’t have everything. Indeed, the way that things have gone tonight, it would be difficult to imagine how much luckier we could have been.

In my career as a twitcher, that was the closest I ever came to not seeing a rare bird, but then still managing to see it.

Secondly, the Sociable Plover was the rarest bird that I ever saw, from a global point of view. Red-breasted Nuthatch has occurred only once ever in England, and so has Ancient Murrelet, and I saw both of them:

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The world as a whole, though, is not particularly short of either species. Sociable Plover however, at this time, some thirty years ago, was on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, chiefly because of over-hunting and habitat loss, two splendid ways of driving a species into extinction. At the moment, the Sociable Lapwing, as it is now called, has recovered sufficiently to be placed currently in the Critically Endangered category:

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The Great Storm of 1703. Get your kite!

The Great Storm of November 1703 was reckoned to be the most severe storm ever recorded. The hurricane that struck the English Channel and the south of England was beyond anything in living memory:

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Unlike today’s storms, when we have advanced warning and can prepare for the worst, the poor souls of 1703 had very little idea about what was about to hit them, other than the fact that the country had been buffeted by a persistent south westerly wind for quite a few weeks. Sailing ships could not sail against it and had therefore been confined in great numbers to whichever port they happened to find themselves near. Inland though, people were largely innocent of the catastrophe they were about to experience. Furthermore, the Great Storm persisted not just for a few shocking hours, but for nine terrible days. How could anything, buildings, ships, farm animals or men stand up against well over a week of wind speeds like those recorded in the eastern part of the English Channel or East Anglia? They would have approached 100 mph for long periods.

It has been variously estimated that between 8,000 and 15,000 people were to perish. John Evelyn, the seventeenth century diarist, described it in his diary as:

“not to be paralleled with anything happening in our age or in any history … every moment Job’s messengers brings the sad tidings of this universal judgement.”

The inhabitants of London felt the first strong breezes during the morning of Wednesday, November 24th 1703, (December 5th 1703 in our current calendar). By four o’clock in the afternoon the winds had noticeably increased. In London, recently out of prison, Daniel Defoe, the journalist, pamphleteer, spy, trader, writer and author, of course, of “Robinson Crusoe”, had a narrow escape in the street when part of a nearby house fell down and luckily missed him. On Friday the 26th, the wind began to blow with even greater ferocity and when the Great Man checked his barometer, he found the mercury had sunk lower than he had ever seen it. After midnight the gale increased to such strength that it was almost impossible to sleep. The noise of the chimneys of surrounding houses crashing into the street made the whole family afraid that their own solid brick townhouse might collapse on their heads. When they opened their back door to escape into the garden, they saw roof tiles scything through the air, some landing thirty or forty yards away, embedding themselves eight inches or more into the ground. The Defoe family decided to stay in their house and trust in the Lord.

That night of November 26th-27th was catastrophic for the Royal Navy which lost 13 major warships, which were, for the most part, moored along the south coast.  HMS Resolution was driven onto the shore at Pevensey but the ship’s company was lucky and all 221 sailors were saved:

HMS%20ResolutionNot so fortunate were the men on board HMS Restoration, HMS Mary, HMS Northumberland, HMS Stirling Castle and the quaintly named HMS Mortar-bomb, who were all shipwrecked on the Goodwin Sands off the Kent coast:

Sandbanks_Credit_Ben_Salter

In the aftermath, when the tide fell, the sailors of the wrecked vessels who were able to find a foothold on the huge sandbar, were all wandering around knowing that when the tide rose they were certain to be drowned. It was said that a man called Thomas Powell, a shopkeeper in Deal, organised the rescue of some two hundred of them. Supposedly Powell was so appalled by his neighbours’ reluctance to help that he gave them five shillings each for their support. Certainly, the greedy citizens of Deal were widely accused of being more interested in plunder from the unfortunate ships than in helping to rescue the crew members. Indeed, some sources say that only three fortunate individuals survived the Goodwin Sands catastrophe. Supposedly, about 1,500 sailors in total were left to die.
Lots of other naval ships were driven through the Straits of Dover and out into the storm tossed expanses of the North Sea where some survived to return days later but many others were lost without trace:

stormb_1703

Ships were so driven by the wind that not only did sails have to be lowered but the masts had be cut off level with the deck. Well in excess of a hundred merchant ships were sunk in the North Sea, many of which were colliers from the fleet which at the time was used to transport cargoes of coal down the east coast from Newcastle to London. Some of these ships would have been empty, moored or at anchor when the incredible tempest struck, casting them out into the open sea. Most were ill-prepared and foundered, and their crews perished to a man:

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The storm caught a convoy of 130 merchant ships and the six Men O’ War escorting them as they sheltered at Milford Haven. The warships included HMS Dolphin, HMS Cumberland, HMS Coventry, HMS Looe, HMS Hastings and HMS Hector. By the middle of the following afternoon the losses amounted to thirty vessels. Overall it was estimated that more than 8,000 sailors perished as the storm annihilated the Royal Navy. Around 20% of its sailors were drowned. The first Eddystone Lighthouse was completely destroyed:

Destruction of the Eddystone Lighthouse, 1703

Its erection had been started a mere seven years before, and  its light had been lit for the first time only on November 14th 1698.  Now all six of its occupants were killed, including the brave builder Henry Winstanley.

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This lighthouse was of inestimable importance and stood 120 feet tall,  some twelve miles to the south of Plymouth, one of England’s most important naval harbours. Even the French valued it, when during the period of construction, a French ship took Winstanley and his men prisoner. King Louis XIV, “le Roi-Soleil” ordered their release, explaining that “France is at war with England, not with humanity”, « La France est en guerre contre l’Angleterre, non contre l’humanité! »:

Louis_XIV_of_France

The Great Storm reached its appalling apogee, its catastrophic climax, during the following night, that of November 28th-29th (December 9th-10th 1703). Between the south coast and the Midlands, entire villages from Northamptonshire in the north to Suffolk in East Anglia were devastated  as the winds of the Great Storm rampaged across the country, striking hardest in the south and east of England, sending house roofs flying, flattening barns, razing everything in its path. Both men and animals were lifted off their feet and carried for long distances through the air. Roofs were ripped from more than a hundred churches, the lead was rolled up like a sheet of paper and dumped hundreds of yards away.
Millions of trees were blown over or uprooted; knocked flat in their tens of thousands, they lay prostrate in rows like soldiers mown down in battle. It was said that more than 4,000 oak trees crashed down in the New Forest.  An attempt was made to count the flattened trees in Kent but the count was abandoned at 17,000. The diarist John Evelyn lost in excess of 2,000 trees on his own Surrey estate.
Every kind of building was totally demolished and salt spray was driven almost as far inland as Tunbridge Wells. Animals refused to eat the resultant salty grass.
The maximum wind speeds were similar to those of the Great Storm of 1987 but the bad  weather lasted for much, much longer, well over a week, and thereby increased the enormous loss of life. Here is one of the enduring images of 1987:

1987

People could not decide whether it was safer to stay in their house and risk its collapse or to go into the street where flying tiles killed large numbers.
In East Anglia the wind reached over 80m.p.h. and killed well over a hundred people.  More than four hundred windmills were blown down. Many of them  burst into flames because the friction of their sails spinning round at high speed caused their wooden machinery to catch fire. In Cambridge, part of St Mary’s Church fell down and the falling stones completely flattened the organ. It had only recently been installed at a cost of £1,500. Kings College Chapel was equally badly damaged with stone pinnacles toppled and many of the wonderful stained glass windows destroyed.
In the capital, around 2,000 massive chimneys were blown over. The roof was blown off Westminster Abbey and the Queen, Queen Anne, had to take shelter in a cellar at St James’s Palace to avoid falling chimneys and tiles whizzing off the roof. Daniel Defoe told how the Reverend James King of London wrote him a letter about a chimney which crashed down and buried a maid. She was thought to be literally dead and buried, but she came out the following day from a small cavity in the rubble.

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Floods devastated the whole country, especially in the east of England and along the Severn Estuary. In the West Country in general, flooding was extensive and prolonged, particularly around Bristol where just under a thousand houses were totally destroyed. Hundreds of people were drowned on the Somerset Levels, where uncounted tens of thousands of farm animals, mainly sheep and cattle, perished. One lost ship was found fifteen miles inland. At Wells, Bishop Richard Kidder was crushed when two chimneys in the palace collapsed onto him and his wife, both peacefully asleep in their bed. Part of the Great West Window in Wells Cathedral was blown in and smashed to smithereens. At Fairford the church’s west window, facing the raging anger of the oncoming wind, bulged inward and crashed into the nave. In Wales, major damage occurred to the southwest tower of Llandaff Cathedral at Cardiff.
The storm began to die down around December 2nd, and on December 3rd,  Daniel Defoe visited the Pool of London, where, in the section downstream from London Bridge, he saw more than 700 sailing ships all piled up into heaps one on top of another:

vvvvvv Daniel_Defoe_Kneller_Style

Daniel Defoe told the tale of the captain of a leaking ship who tried to escape what seemed to him at the time to be an inevitable death by drowning, and instead committed suicide—only for his ship to survive. One possibly taller tale related how a sailing ship at Whitstable in Kent was blown out of the foaming sea and then deposited more than a quarter of a mile inland.
Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the Great Storm many special newspapers and publications appeared with information and eyewitness accounts:

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Conceivably this disaster became “national news” in a way that had seldom, if ever, happened before. It was just like a modern “big story”.
Daniel Defoe himself sought out testimony from as many witnesses as he could find.  When the weather ameliorated, he the whole country assessing the damage. He then produced what was subsequently described as “the first substantial work of modern journalism”, a book of more than 75,000 words, which was called “The Storm”.  It was the first proper book of Defoe’s career.

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http://historicaltrinkets.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/the-great-storm-of-1703-eyewitness.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Storm_of_1703

http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/great-storm

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England’s Greatest Poet

To my shame, I did not appreciate that July 13th, the 121st anniversary of his birth, was “John Clare Day”.  I found this out by googling retrospectively “John Clare”, and coming across an absolutely superb article by George Monbiot in the Guardian.
Furthermore, I must confess that I actually knew very little about John Clare other than the fact that he was a poet and that, unlike the vast majority of poets, he was of working class origin. His biographer Jonathan Bate described him as “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self”.
The first port of call, therefore was Wikipedia.

The bare bones of Clare’s life were that he was born into desperate agricultural poverty in the tiny village of Helpston, just to the north of Peterborough in Northamptonshire.

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The area was amazingly rich in wildlife.

He would have seen and heard corncrakes everywhere.

Nightjars too, were as common in England then as they now are in this excellent film from Denmark…

There were ravens in the old, giant oak trees, wrynecks, which still bred in old woodpeckers’ holes, and the last few wildcats…

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And glowworms…

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“Tasteful illumination of the night,
Bright scattered, twinkling star of spangled earth.”

Clare’s cottage, where he spent his childhood, still remains…

John Clare Cottage
Like all his fellows, Clare became an agricultural labourer while still a child, but he attended the school in Glinton church until he was twelve. He also began to write poetry, something which was to cause him great problems throughout the rest of his life among simple farm workers.

He wrote…

“I live here among the ignorant like a lost man in fact like one whom the rest seemes careless of having anything to do with—they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings and I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbours who are insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose.”

Clare’s first love was Mary Joyce, but alas, she was to die, by our standards at least, a premature death.

MaryJoyceGrave

Clare was to marry Martha Turner in 1820. Her nickname was “Patty”.

“Courtship
Where are you going lovely maid
The morning fine & early
“I’m going to Walkerd”, Sir she said
&made across the barley

I asked her name she blushed away
The question seemed to burn her
A neighbour came & passed the day
&called her Patty Turner

I wrote my better poems there
To beautys praise I owe it
The muses they get all the praise
But woman makes the poet

A womans is the dearest love
Theres nought on earth sincerer
The leisure upon beautys breast
Can any thing be dearer

I saw her love in beauty’s face
I saw her in the rose
I saw her in the fairest flowers
In every weed that grows”

Clare, though, was to have  many bouts of severe depression, which worsened as his family increased in size and his poetry sold less well.
Gradually over the years, his behaviour became progressively more and more erratic. In July 1837, he went of his own accord to Doctor Matthew Allen’s private asylum. In 1841, though, Clare absconded and walked all the way back home from Essex. He thought, in his madness, that he would be able to refind his first true love, Mary Joyce.  He believed firmly that he was married not just to her, but to Martha as well, and had children by both women. He refused to believe Mary’s family that she had died accidentally three years previously in a house fire. He stayed a free man at home for a little while, but was back in the asylum by mid-1841, his wife having called for help from them between Christmas and the New Year of 1841.
Clare was sent to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he lived out the rest of his life. He was helped enormously by the kindness and humanity of Dr Thomas Octavius Prichard, who encouraged and helped him to continue writing his poetry. It was at the Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum  that Clare wrote possibly his most famous poem…..

“I am!
I AM! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish, an oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below–above the vaulted sky. “

Clare’s problems with depression  had not been helped by having to watch his world disappear as, between 1809 and 1820, various  Acts of Enclosure allowed the greedy, idle, useless rich to increase their already great wealth by putting fences across the previously open fields, heathland and woodlands., and declaring that everything now belonged to them.

This, of course, was the early nineteenth century equivalent of “Trespassers will be Prosecuted”, and, as it was designed to do, prevented anybody poor from enjoying what abruptly became the rich man’s landscape.

In due course, the idle rich realised that they could make even more money by destroying the ancient countryside, and farming it in an exclusively profit orientated way.  There was no room for five hundred year old oak trees or sleepy marshes, no more meandering streams or cool copses to give shade on a hot summer’s day. Faced by the onslaught of Agribusiness, the wild animals, the birds, the insects and the butterflies all began to disappear.

In other words, it was pretty much the beginning of the country landscape we are asked to tolerate today.

This poem was finished by 1824, but was published only in 1935.

“The Mores

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed springs blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the orisons edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all–a hope that blossomed free
And hath been once no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labours rights and left the poor a slave
And memorys pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
Cows went and came with evening morn and night
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won
Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass
While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now alls fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye
Moors loosing from the sight far smooth and blea
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay”

For me, Clare’s best work is his nature poetry. Because he was a poor labourer, he saw far more details as he walked along than the rich poets who thundered past in their coaches. John Clare’s nightingale actually was a real nightingale, not another species misidentified.

George Monbiot in his wonderful article urges us to read the poem…

“…Everything he sees flares into life…his ability to pour his mingled thoughts and observations on to the page as they occur, allowing you, as perhaps no other poet has done, to watch the world from inside his head.”

“The Nightingale’s Nest”  is indeed a fabulous poem, and is just like going for a stroll into the woods with John Clare himself, to view a bird whose nest he has previously staked out at some point during his working day. The reader becomes a fellow birdwatcher, who can follow John Clare’s instructions about where to look…

Common-nightingale-feeding-chicks-at-nest

“The Nightingale’s Nest

Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove,
And list the nightingale – she dwells just here.
Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love ;
For here I’ve heard her many a merry year –
At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day,
As though she lived on song. This very spot,
Just where that old-man’s-beard all wildly trails
Rude arbours o’er the road, and stops the way –
And where that child its blue-bell flowers hath got,
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails –
There have I hunted like a very boy,
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn
To find her nest, and see her feed her young.
And vainly did I many hours employ :
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn.
And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among
The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down,
And watched her while she sung ; and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy,
And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy,
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part
Of summer’s fame she shared, for so to me
Did happy fancies shapen her employ ;
But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred,
All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain :
The timid bird had left the hazel bush,
And at a distance hid to sing again.
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves,
Rich Ecstasy would pour its luscious strain,
Till envy spurred the emulating thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs ;
For while of half the year Care him bereaves,
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast ;
The nightingale to summer’s life belongs,
And naked trees, and winter’s nipping wrongs,
Are strangers to her music and her rest.
Her joys are evergreen, her world is wide –
Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush –
For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way,
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs,
For we will have another search to day,
And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round ;
And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows,
We’ll wade right through, it is a likely nook :
In such like spots, and often on the ground,
They’ll build, where rude boys never think to look –
Aye, as I live ! her secret nest is here,
Upon this white-thorn stump ! I’ve searched about
For hours in vain. There! put that bramble by –
Nay, trample on its branches and get near.
How subtle is the bird! she started out,
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh,
Ere we were past the brambles ; and now, near
Her nest, she sudden stops – as choking fear,
That might betray her home. So even now
We’ll leave it as we found it: safety’s guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard
Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill.”

I have not quoted some of Clare’s poems in full. They are extremely accessible on the Internet, and will fully repay your efforts.
The vast majority of his poetry can be found very easily.

Just find “Poets by Name” on the left of the screen, and click on “J” for “John Clare”.
The poet’s grave is at Helpston….
helpston grave
And, as one of England’s greatest poets, he has a memorial…

220px-John_Clare_Memorial,_Helpston,_Peterborough

And what looks like a rather modern statue…

statue

Youtube, of course, has many readings of John Clare’s works.

There are some quite long anthologies…

Some are good,

And there are others

I am a sentimental old fool, so I liked…

 

 

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