Clare Cottage

In which Mrs. P and I have a lovely day out in the countryside.

Many guides describe the landscape of Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire as ‘bleak’ or ‘dreary’; they make reference to ‘sprawling conurbations’ and comment that the countryside is criss-crossed by motorways. I think this is a little unfair. On the beautiful August day on which I visited Helpston, a small village very close to the urban sprawl of Peterborough, it was as picturesque as any English village: the buildings are attractive stone cottages, the countryside offers expansive views under huge skies and the sounds we heard were chiefly created by birds and insects rather than traffic or aircraft.

Mrs. P and I had made the journey to Helpston to visit the home of the poet John Clare. He may not be as well-known as some of the literary giants that were writing at the same time but, in many ways, he is the embodiment of the ideals they were promoting. the Romantics, observing a world which was moving from agricultural to industrial, had a great deal of respect for the peasantry: rural life was superior to that in the rapidly growing towns which were swallowing countryside at an alarming rate. The countryside was a purer, more natural environment; those who worked the land held the ancient wisdom of country lore and the purity of working with nature. While the Romantics retreated to the West Country and Lake District to ruminate on the grandeur of the natural world, John Clare continued to work in the fields and hedgerows of Northamptonshire, describing the natural world in meticulous detail.  There is a sense of loss and longing at the heart of his poetry: loss of the countryside through enclosure, which cut off vast areas of common land from the people who had once worked it and his own sense of personal loss and his increasing struggle to fit in to a confusing world.

John Clare Cottage
The Bluebell Inn, Helpston.

As a young man, Clare worked at the Bluebell Inn as a potboy: collecting pint pots from the tables, along with a few general cleaning and fetching-and-carrying responsibilties. It was at the Bluebell that Mrs. P and I first called. On our various excursions around the country, Mrs. P and I like to make an early start in order to get the most out of each day. Sometimes we set out as early as 11am, so we were in need of breakfast by the time we reached Helpston at about midday. The Bluebell is typical of village inns throughout the country, in which you can be assured of a friendly welcome and decent food and drink. I had Fish and Chips; Mrs. P had a Ploughman’s Lunch (a unique British catering phenomenon which I shall describe in a future blog). The whole thing was delicious and served with a friendly smile.

Clare was born into poverty. He worked the fields with his family who lived a hand-to-mouth existence, never knowing from day to day if they would have enough food to eat. His education was sporadic. He was sent to the local school when he wasn’t needed on the farm and, whilst there, he fell in love twice. First, with the written word: as soon as Clare was taught about language, he fell in love. His early poetry sees not only his fascination with nature but also show a skill with language to mix observation with feeling.  The second time was in about 1803, when he fell in love with Mary Joyce, the daughter of a wealthy local farmer. Clare was not considered to be an appropriate match for Mary and the couple were forbidden from seeing each other. As lovers of literature will know, the one sure-fire way to screw up the lives of young people is to tell them who they are allowed, and not allowed, to fall in love with. For Clare, it meant a lifelong sense of longing. Although he later went on to marry Martha Turner, the loss he felt for Mary runs through his poetry. The natural world, which he describes in startling detail, is given a female persona and is sometimes identified as having a female face:

I’ve left my own old home of homes,
Green fields and every pleasant place;
The summer like a stranger comes,
I pause and hardly know her face.

(The Flitting)

Mary Joyce never married and died, in a house fire, in 1838.

John Clare Cottage
Statue of John Clare outside his cottage.

His old ‘home of homes’ is now a museum. There is a new building that serves as a bookshop and tearoom and there was a small collection of books about and by John Clare. I bought a volume of his poetry and was also very tempted by Jonathan Bate’s autobiography. I have read Bate’s work on Shakespeare, which is impressive, and would like to have read what he has to say about Clare but … teacher’s salary and all that! The cottage itself is cleverly done: the original cottage has been recreated as Clare would have known it. This has been done very well with domestic artefacts from the time. It gives the visitor a good idea of what life in a nineteenth century agricultural worker’s cottage would have been like. The later extensions have been incorporated as temporary exhibition spaces, telling the story of Clare’s life through examples of his poetry.

Outside, there is a cottage garden, with plants that the Clares would have cultivated in their garden. The dovecote has been converted into an interactive space in which people can leave their thoughts on Clare’s poetry. Most people’s favourite is ‘I am’, and why not: it is a superb poem and bears witness to loneliness an depression, but there is so much more to Clare than this.  Clare had started noting his observations on nature and rural life in poems since he was a child. When his family were threatened with eviction from their home, he begged a local bookseller, Edward Drury, to buy them from him. Using some of his literary connections (his cousin had published Keats) Drury managed to get Clare’s book published.

He immediately impressed the Romantics, whose ideals Clare represented, and he was feted in London literary circles. His poetry increased in popularity but the money he made from it was never enough to support his family. Mentally, he was being pulled in several different directions: literary life in London must have been particularly difficult, with his broad accent, lack of education and rural dialect; farm life in Northamptonshire was hard and poorly paid. His regular employment had been given up with his increasing popularity as a writer and many of the fields, meadows and lanes where he once observed the intricacy of nature, were now innaccesible to him through enclosure.

John Clare Cottage
Memorial to John Clare in Helpston.

These pressures on an already stressed mind proved to be too much and he reached breaking point. He drank to excess and began to suffer from delusions (he claimed to be Byron and a famous prize fighter). Finally, he was admitted to High Beach asylum in Loughton. Whilst there, he became convinced that he was married to his first love, Mary Joyce, and that they had had children together and that he must get home to be with her. In 1841, he escaped and walked home. Without maps or money or food he was able to find his way to the Great North Road and follow it all the way to Helpston. It was a walk of more than 80 miles and it took him four days, sleeping rough in farm buildings and forced by hunger to eat grass at the side of the road. He wrote an account of the journey, which you can read here. It ends with the heartbreaking line:

“Mary was not there; neither could I get any information about her further than the old story of her having died six years ago. But I took no notice of the lie, having seen her myself twelve months ago, alive and well, and as young as ever. So here I am hopeless at home.”

Shortly after his walk, he was admitted to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. the admitting doctor cited the fact that he wrote poetry as evidence of Clare’s mental condition. Whilst in Northampton he wrote one of his most famous poems, ‘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 in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost.

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John Clare’s grave in St. Botolph’s Churchyard.

Mrs. P and I wandered around the village and along the tree-lined footpaths where the dappled shadows made for a pleasant walk on a hot afternoon. There is a trail through the village in the Clare Cottage guidebook. It takes you past significant buildings, along footpaths, past views over countryside that Clare would have known and ends at St. Botolph’s church. Clare died in Northampton in 1864 and his body was returned to St. Botolph’s for burial. Every year, on the poet’s birthday (July 13th) local schoolchildren place ‘midsummer cushions’: posies of meadow plants and field flowers described by the poet himself, around the poet’s grave to honour their village’s most famous inhabitant.

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal it its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.

 

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