Life During Lockdown

In which I take a lonely drive through the countryside…

It’s been a very odd summer. Usually I would spend the warmer months meandering about the country, visiting friends and discovering out-of-the-way places. This year, with the country slowly recovering from months in lockdown, I have had to reconsider my travel plans.

This has all been rather frustrating but, as soon as I was allowed out, I took a drive through the countryside to visit some of the places that I had passed on my journeys further afield. In the village of Glatton, just off the A1 in Cambridgeshire, not far from Stilton, is a charming cottage known locally as the Poet’s house. This is generally supposed to be the birthplace of Nicholas Rowe, who was poet laureate 1715-1718. Rowe was born in Little Barford in Bedfordshire in 1674. 300 years later, the house that had long been associated with him had fallen into a sorry state of disrepair. It was scheduled for demolition but was rescued: dismantled, timber-by-timber and moved to its present location.

Poet Rowe’s Cottage

Rowe had enjoyed limited success as a playwright. He seems to have been discovering his own style. He sometimes mimics Shakespeare; he had edited a major edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1709. His own plays ran at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Drury Lane. Rowe’s poems are very much of their time and very little read today, the best known perhaps being the Brave:

The brave do never shun the light; 
Just are their thoughts, and open are their tempers;
Freely without disguise they love or hate; 
Still are they found in the fair face of day, 
And heav’n and men are judges of their actions. 

Nicholas Rowe, The Brave

A few miles to the South West is the hamlet of Little Gidding. TS Eliot visited Little Gidding in 1936 and it is the subject of the last of the Four Quartets, his final significant work. Written in1941, the poem is a wartime ode to the timelessness of the English Landscape and our connection to history through it. It is imbued with fire imagery and obscure literary allusions.

If you came this way, 
Taking the route you would be likely to take 
From the place you would be likely to come from, 
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges 
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness. 
It would be the same at the end of the journey, 
If you came at night like a broken king, 
If you came by day not knowing what you came for, 
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road 
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade 
And the tombstone.

TS Eliot, Little Gidding

Eliot was shown around the church of St. John by the Dean of Magdalen College, Cambridge, in May 1936. The Dean was a scholar of Nicholas Ferrar, a politician and businessman who had founded a religious community at Little Gidding in 1626. They visited in May, when the hedgerows would have been shrouded in white blossom.

St. John’s, Little Gidding

I was rather sad to see the church shut off behind corrugated iron and surrounded by scaffolding: it is undergoing major repairs while closed for lockdown. The hamlet does have a remote and timeless quality; Ferrar House, that stands opposite the church, is a Christian retreat, and you cannot imagine a more tranquil spot for a bit of meditation. There is an annual TS Eliot festival based at the retreat and I believe they also provide tea for weary travellers. I will visit again when times are better: maybe in May when the when I will find the hedges white again; it will be nice to see it in its glory.

HE Bates birthplace, Rushden, Northants.

I motored South West after Little Gidding, heading for the Northamptonshire town of Rushden. HE Bates, best known for The Darling Buds of May, recently dramatised on ITV (I say ‘recently’ but I’ve just looked it up and was shocked to discover it first aired almost thirty years ago), was born in Rushden in 1905. There are two plaques to him in the town, one on the tiny little terraced cottage, in which he was born, and the other on the slightly larger semi detached his family moved to in 1914. He lived here until 1931, when he married Madge Cox, his childhood sweetheart, and they moved together to Kent. He began his working life in Rushden as a journalist, and took late-night walks throughout the surrounding countryside. It was during these walks that he developed his great love of the countryside, which illustrates many of his novels and essays.

On one of these walks, to the nearby village of Farndish, he observed a light burning in a cottage window and was struck with an idea for a story. This he later developed into his first novel ‘The Two Sisters‘, the story of two siblings living in an isolated farmhouse. He also wrote a collection of short stories, ‘My Uncle Silas‘, based on characters he had known in his Bedfordshire boyhood.

Farndish is a tiny village, there are rows of stone cottages, a converted schoolhouse and some larger farm buildings. There is also a very pretty little church. Closed at the moment, I’m sorry to say; fear of disease forcing these fragile little buildings to remain tight shut.

Farndish, Bedfordshire. I can’t say that one of these cottages inspired HE, but it’s as good a guess as any!

In normal times I would have stopped at a country inn for lunch, or just for a pint and to read a little, write some notes, or just to take in the view of the countryside with a pint of ale. Or perhaps I would have stopped for tea at a wayside café. Maybe even both. But there were no pubs open, as far as I could see, and I had little inclination to stop. Instead I made my home and looked forward to better times ahead.

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