Amwell’s distant bow’rs

In which I reminisce about the old days when we were allowed outside…

I am writing in the garden and spring is truly here. The world is in lockdown as a deadly virus sweeps through the population and I am enjoying the quiet. There’s little noise from traffic or aircraft, the local school is closed, the regular Saturday football match in the park has been silenced. I can hear the sounds of spring and the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. I spent the morning listening to Skylarks over the nearby fields and watching blue-tits in the trees. While I have been off work, I have been taking my responsibilities very seriously (some days, I don’t start drinking until three!). I am continuing to set and mark students’ work and, what is perhaps more surprising, they continue to do it. Like most people, I miss going out, seeing friends, eating and drinking, touring the countryside….

I recall the halcyon days of August Bank Holiday and a day out in Hertfordshire. Mrs. P and I joined Ms. E and her boyfriend for a research trip. We ended up at a pub called the George IV in Amwell. They were having a barbecue, so we sat out in the garden chatted and chowed down on tacos, burgers and roasted peppers. The pub garden was full of people: I never really appreciated them at the time but now I long to be in a crowded pub garden, eating home cooked barbecue and getting drunk with friends.

Lea Valley, Amwell, Herts

Amwell is a village near Ware in Hertfordshire. A town that lies on the wide Lea valley. To the South, broad water meadows provide a haven for wildlife and country parks for the citizens of south Hertfordshire and East London, as the river makes its way to the Thames at Blackwall (you can see it’s mouth from the riverside walk by the O2 arena). Izaak Walton came to fish in the Lea near Amwell, recounting his experiences as the character ‘Piscator’ in his book ‘The Compleat Angler’. While fishing at Amwell, Piscator turns to his friend to state that rivers “for wise men to contemplate and for fools to pass by.”

Ware itself is a nice little country town. A little noisy for my liking: a great deal of music coming from the town pubs and some thump-thumping from cars in the high street, but there are some nice shops, including a lovely little bookshop, and a couple of pleasant coffee shops. Ware’s major claim to fame is the “Great Bed of Ware”: an enormous four-poster, more than 3 feet wide, that now resides in the V&A. It was quite a tourist attraction in its time. Toby Belch, while hatching a plan in Twelfth Night, instructs Sir Andrew to write a letter with as many lies:

…as will lie in thy sheet of
paper, although the sheet were big enough for the
bed of Ware in England

Twelfth Night III.2

Ware is also mentioned in William Cowper’s most successful poem, John Gilpin. After borrowing a horse to take him to the Bell at Edmonton for his anniversary dinner, Gilpin loses control and the horse carries him in a reckless gallop through the countryside, finally ending up in Ware:

For why? His owner had a house
Full ten miles off at Ware.

William Cowper, The Diverting History of John Gilpin

We were here to visit Scott’s grotto. It’s located short way outside the town, in what, at first, appears to be a suburban garden. In fact, the housing development was built around the grotto. It had been schduled to be demolished until the local council intervened. You enter a small wood, cool and shady after the August sun, and descend some steps into a hollow. Here, a building stands among the trees. There is nothing particularly unusual about it, except perhaps the stonework, which has some ornate flourishes and some large shells among the stones.

The entrance to Scott’s Grotto

On entering, you are transported into a magical underground grotto. The floor, and the walls are stone, interspersed, here and there with flints, fossils, shells and gemstones and they appear to sparkle. The objects are arranged in a variety of patterns: wheels, hearts, geometric shapes, theres even a face or two. From the porch, passages lead to left, right and straight on into the hillside. On venturing further underground chamber, the light becomes dimmer and the quality of sound changes. It’s a very strange experience and conversations are difficult: you can’t see the person you’re talking to and can’t locate their voice, which seems to come from all around you. There are various shafts and passages designed to bring air and light into the deepest parts of the cavern, but it would be impossible to navigate without a light source of some sort. We used the lights on our mobile phones but there are some torches you can borrow.

Shells…
…geometric patterns…
…even faces.

The various chambers in this underground wonderland have been given names reminiscent of a medieval court: The council chamber and robing room, for example. The grotto was built shortly after Scott inherited the property in 1768. It extends 67 feet into the hillside and no one is really sure why he built it. It did attract thousands of visitors however, among them Dr. Johnson, who commented that only a poet could have built it (even though he considered Scott to be a “middle-rate poet”). There was a guide at the grotto, who met us in the final chamber – the council chamber – and told us a little of the history, while pointing out various interesting items in the wall: a nacreous oyster shell, a clay pipe set into a face composed of stones and the word “Frog” spelled out in shells (a tribute to Scott’s wife, Sarah Frogley).

John Scott was a Quaker. He retired to Amwell on inheriting the property and began writing poetry in the evenings after his family had gone to bed. He was clearly influenced by nature and gardening and he describes his own creation in his poem, The Garden:

  ‘Where, midst thick oaks, the subterraneous way 
To the arch’d grot admits a feeble ray; 
Where glossy pebbles pave the varied floors, 
And rough flint-walls are deck’d with shells and ores, 
And silvery pearls, spread o’er the roofs on high, 
Glimmer like faint stars in a twilight sky 
From noon’s fierce glare, perhaps, he pleas’d retires, 
Indulging musings which the place inspires.

John Scott of Amwell, The Garden

The poem ends with an acknowledgement that, no matter how skillful, the gardener can never match the perfection that’s found in nature:

To me, indeed, short ease he sometimes yields,
When my lone walk surrounds the rural fields; 

There Nature dwells, and throws profuse around,
Each Pastoral sight and every pastoral sound;
From Spring’s green copse, that pours the cuckoo strain,
And evening bleatings of the fleecy train,
To Autumn’s yellow field and clamorous horn,
That wakes the slumbering harvesters at morn.

John Scott of Amwell, The Garden

As well as his adoration of nature, he also takes up the anti-war stance that the Romantic movement were to later adopt. His best know poem today is the anti-war poem The Drum. It is rather good, the rhythm and repetition mimicking the sound of a military drum:

I hate that drum’s discordant sound,
Parading round, and round, and round: 
To me it talks of ravaged plains, 
And burning towns and ruin’d swains, 
And mangled limbs, and dying groans, 
And widow’s tears, and orphans moans, 
And all that Misery’s hand bestows, 
To fill a catalogue of woes. 

John Scott of Amwell, The Drum

Scott’s Grotto is the most unexpected and magical place. I particularly like that you can walk round and explore at your leisure, as may children were doing on the day we visited. Entrance costs £1. One Pound! And that, you drop into a box at the door, rather than buying a ticket. Opening times are limited, a couple of hours every Saturday, I think, so check before you travel. I will be visiting again, when we are allowed out once more. When we emerge from our burrows, blinking in the sunlight.

This won’t last forever: summer will come again. Until then, stay inside, stay safe and look after yourselves.

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