Peter Grimes and Aldeburgh

George Crabbe, Aldeburgh and Peter Grimes

Few pieces of writing can have been more bound up with the place they sprang from than Peter Grimes and the town of Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. The story is part of a collection called The Borough, published in 1820, by the poet George Crabbe, a native of the town and son of a troubled alcoholic tax-collector. Though his descriptions of life and work here could be harsh and graphic, he and his town have contributed more to each other’s repute than either could have imagined.

Alan Franks with the bust of Crabbe at Aldeburgh parish church. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

While Crabbe’s own stock as a poet was relatively low in the first half of the twentieth century, his dark tale of the transgressive Suffolk fisherman was taken up and turned into a highly successful opera by Benjamin Britten. With its turbulent score and unsettling themes of child abuse and self-destruction, its premiere at Sadler’s Wells in June 1945 was seen as a watershed moment in British opera.

Crabbe’s dark tale of fisherman Peter Grimes was turned into the highly successful opera by Benjamin Britten. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Britten was himself a Suffolk man, having been born in Lowestoft in 1916. Together with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears and the producer Eric Crozier, he founded the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts in 1948. It grew rapidly. Stars from the jazz world performed here, notably John Dankworth and Cleo Laine. Actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company started making regular appearances. Princess Grace of Monaco took part in a poetry recital. Sviatoslav Richter played for The Queen Mother. This windblown outpost, dependent on the sea but knocked about for centuries by its unruliness, had become cool.  

The windblown outpost had become cool. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Considering the flatness of the land, this reach of coastline is dramatic in the extreme. But then, when you reflect on its past you quickly realise that much of the drama is, and has always been, in that very flatness; whole chunks of the coast dragged off across the centuries by storm surges; flood defences thrown up to keep the invasive neighbour at bay; houses vanishing overnight into the sea.

Considering the flatness of the land, this reach of coastline is dramatic in the extreme. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

In 2013, in a series of performances to mark the centenary of Britten’s birth, the posthumous presences of composer, poet and haunted anti-hero all came together for a production of Grimes on the Aldeburgh beach. This was by all accounts a memorable event.

A memorable event – shades of the past on Aldeburgh beach. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Crabbe’s own boyhood was spent at Slaughden, now home to the town’s two sailing clubs. It lies a few hundred yards to the south like a suburb well beyond its best years. In the nineteenth century this was a busy fishing village, and two hundred years earlier it had outranked Dunwich as this coastline’s main port. 

Slaughden’s near neighbour is the defiant, squatting form of a martello tower. one of more than a hundred such massive towers built in the opening years of the nineteenth century to keep Napoleon out.

The martello tower at Aldeburgh. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Its walls are an astonishing thirteen feet thick and it is built in the pattern of four interlocking circles known as quartrefoil. You’ve never seen a more daunting and impenetrable holiday let, which is what it has now become, with its teak floors, soaring innards and stone-flagged battery on the roof.

Looking towards Aldeburgh from the shingle strip, almost all that remains of Slaughden, now home to two sailing clubs. Photo: Ruth Gledhill

Between here and the town you find yourself walking along a narrow strip of shingle. This is all that now stands between the sea to the east and the approach of the broadly curving River Alde from the west. Viewed from this spit, its curves look as grand as lakes. Then it narrows, aims for the sea but is headed off by the sharp-right taking it down past Orford and its eventual debouche at Simpson’s Saltings. Studied on the map, such a long meander to the mouth looks almost perverse.

The war between Suffolk’s edges and the sea is ongoing. Up the coast at Corton officers at the organisation Coastal Partnership East are considering the use of a defensive process known as sandscaping. This entails the transfer of sand from “sustainable” locations offshore and pumping it onshore at points where an enlarged beach would provide better resistance to the incoming waves. 

The war between Suffolk’s edges and the sea is ongoing. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Crabbe’s origins and childhood were immeasurably humbler than his eventual reputation as a poet. In 1768, at the age of fourteen, he left school and became apprenticed to a doctor. The knowledge he gained during this time was to inform and enrich his subsequent verse about the hard-pressed fishing community from which he sprang.  

As a young man and disaffected apothecary-surgeon, newly in love, he tried his luck in London, unsuccessfully seeking support from potential patrons such as the Lords North and Selburne, and falling into despair. The statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke saw merit in his work and, to the young man’s undying gratitude, not only enabled him to take Holy Orders but also financed the publication of his poetry. Though the bulk of his working life was spent as a clergyman, with stints as chaplain to the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle and as Rector in the Wiltshire town of Trowbridge, his writing remained infused with the spirit of his coastal beginnings. Some consider him to be the last of the so-called Augustans such as Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson and John Dryden on account of his shared use of the heroic couplet. 

Walking in the footsteps of Crabbe, whose writings were infused with his humble beginnings. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Aldeburgh and Peter Grimes have been so influential on one another that they can seem virtually twinned. In 1964, recalling the “unhappy summer” he had spent in America early on in the Second War, Britten described his pleasure at coming across the works of Crabbe in a Los Angeles bookshop, and at reading “a most perceptive and revealing article about it” by the eminent English novelist E.M. Forster. The article in question appeared in The Listener of May 29 1941 and opened with the statement that “to talk about Crabbe is to talk about England”.

The composer’s enthusiasm plainly contained a nostalgia quickened by absence. In her excellent 2022 book A Time and A Place, about Crabbe, his native town and county, Frances Gibb observes that Britten had already bought and renovated the circular Mill House at Snape, on the northern edge of Aldeburgh. Moreover he had spent his childhood in East Anglia, having been born in the port town of Lowestoft just before the First War. It was at Snape’s old Maltings premises that he was to found the now internationally renowned Aldeburgh Festival. 

Frances Gibb wrote A Time and A Place, about Crabbe, his native town and county. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Though this part of Suffolk was one of the most populated areas in the country at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, the violent history of the sea’s relationship with the shore has been giving the shape of the coast a provisional nature for centuries. During the sixteenth, these shiftings brought about a sheltered haven which in turn attracted such trade and prosperity that Henry VIII conferred borough status upon it in 1529. The Golden Hind and the Greyhound, two of Sir Francis Drake’s most renowned ships, were built here. But then down again sank the town’s fortunes when the silting of the River Alde prevented the berthing of large vessels. Such is the random tyranny of waterways.

Aldeburgh today is worlds away from the “poor and wretched place” depicted in the biography of Crabbe written by his son and namesake and published in 1834. Still, if you choose to travel carlessly and it’s a Sunday, you can feel the isolation gathering. The buses here are sabbatarian. There used to be a deeply rural railway branch line linking Saxmundham, on the Ipswich to Lowestoft line, with the town, but in 1963 Dr. Richard Beeching, chairman of British Railways, took one look at it and swung his infamous axe. This almost-lifetime later, it’s one of those old routes which can ghost its way back into view here and there in pale green linear traces interrupted by the later world. All very Betjeman.

Aldeburgh today is worlds away from the “poor and wretched place” depicted in the biography of Crabbe written by his son. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Coming up from the Martello and Slaughden, the foot of the town arrives in a bright livery of blue and white. Cottages, family homes, summer lets; a modest but prosperous-looking hotel – the first of many such – with protruding glazed dining rooms. A couple looking silently out from a lounge in the early season. Nearby is a fish-and-chip shop whose standard portions at a tenner a go are stated to be the best in the world.

One of the lovely old wooden structures on the beach. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Across the seafront road, the shapes of strange buildings: a narrow three-storey watchtower, one room per floor, with a domesticated air and a painted spiral staircase running ornately up the side. On the beach a range of wooden buildings, black as tar; fresh sea-food outlets; a tackle and bait shop, a fish-smoker; stranded winches on the ground with rusting cog-teeth and tangled cable. They could almost be found objects in a museum of nautical history. Nearby, the venerable form of The Moot House, impeccably preserved for its 570-odd years, which is now itself doubling as museum and council meeting room.

The Moot House, impeccably preserved for its 570-odd years. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

At the heart of the distinctive roadscape near the front are the long parallel forms of Crabbe Street and the High Street. It is as if this town of just over two thousand residents (of whom one third are second-homers) knows it is worth two main drags, not one. Between them are narrow ligatures of paved alley and, further towards the beach, the converging pedestrian route of Craig Path. These seafront acres are as distinctive as they come. 

The High Street shop fronts – some formal, some folksy – give out a confident knowledge of their clientele: Contemporary Arts; Two Magpies Bakery; Seasalt Cornwall (clothes); Regatta Restaurant; Munchies; Suffolk Hideaways; One Five Seven Antiques and Interiors; The Aldeburgh Gallery; a big red-fronted Co-op. Carry on beyond these and you come to the discreetly famous little cinema which, with its half-timbered exterior, looks indistinguishable from a cottage.

Opened in 1919, it is just ten years younger than the Electric in Birmingham, which is reckoned to be the oldest working one in the country. This being Aldeburgh, it was never going to be any old flickhouse and is in fact a charity supported by more than a thousand Friends who in turn benefit from priority booking. Some very famous people have passed through its unshowy doors: Bill Nighy, star of the hit movie Living and resident of the town; Lenny Henry, Griff Rhys Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Joanna Lumley, Libby Purves and her husband Paul Heiney. Lest you should ever mistake the Aldeburgh of today for a backwater.

The High Street shop fronts – some formal, some folksy – give out a confident knowledge of their clientele. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Just round the corner is St. Peter and St. Paul’s, the Festival’s home church, with its window in memory of Britten and its bust of Crabbe by the Saxmundham sculptor Thomas Thurlow. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Britain’s first woman doctor and first female mayor, worshipped here.

St. Peter and St. Paul’s is the Festival’s home church. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

The High Street turns into Wentworth Road, which peters out soon after passing the hotel of the same name. From the outside this looks for all the world like a residential terrace, a comfortable one, topped with half-timbered gables. In the spacious ground floor lounge with its sea-view windows sit quiet couples of a certain age who might just have arrived from the interior of a Terence Rattigan play.

North again, and the spread of the famous shingle beach broken only by the controversial form of a bespoke steel sculpture, of which more in a moment. Beyond that, the older but no less hotly contested presence of the Sizewell B nuclear power station, with the great dome appearing to rise from its shoulder like a strange white moon. Further north and out of view along the coast lies the village of Dunwich, once the tenth largest town in England but now, thanks to the twin villains of climate change and coastal erosion, down to a population of little more than one hundred. Because of the eighteen church buildings consumed by the sea over the past millennium, not to mention the mint, guildhall and sundry mansions, the long-sunk settlement has acquired the nickname of Atlantis.

A view of the sea from the beach at Aldeburgh. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

The 2013 production of Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh, directed by Tim Albery, could hardly have been more site-specific, bringing, as it did, a compelling circularity to the life of the poem. This is after all the very place that begets the character of Grimes; from which Crabbe, also a native son, constructs his rhymed narrative; from which Britten, himself an East Anglian, draws inspiration for an opera; which is later reprised, in the centenary of the composer’s birth, on this self-same reach of Suffolk coast. As an instance of place and poem committed to an endless exchange of influence, this one is as striking as they come. 

The Guardian’s music critic Andrew Clements was acutely tuned to these associations,  applauding the design of the set which featured dilapidated fishing boats and timbers built at the water’s edge on the shingle beach. This was, he wrote, “a wonderfully potent setting for an opera whose every bar is permeated by the sea.” As to the sometimes problematic matter of Grimes’s character, the critic saw “not the wronged outsider, a misunderstood dreamer, but an unremarkable-looking man profoundly at odds with himself.”

Other members of the audience noted the discomfort of the shingle over a period of almost four hours and the force of nature’s wind machine. “Bracing” was the popular word among an audience more than happy to suffer for Britten’s art. “Watching this Grimes,” wrote Clements, “on a balmy, windless summer evening, you felt, would never have seemed quite right.”

Members of the audience noted the discomfort of the shingle. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

For Frances Gibb in A Time and a Place, it was, despite the challenge of the elements, “unforgettable – a brilliant fusion of the story of Grimes, Britten’s haunting music, and Aldeburgh itself in different moments: the present tense of 2013, the mid-century era of Britten’s first arrival in the town, and the ‘little venal borough’ of Crabbe’s day.”

What of Crabbe himself? A driven and determined maker of narrative verse, he was rated by Lord Byron as being the equal of their contemporary Coleridge “in point of power and genius.” His other A-list admirers included Jane Austen, Samuel Johnson and Walter Scott.

In his concentration on stories of hardship and social injustice, his world could appear closer to that of Charles Dickens than to those of his fellow poets. After his fall from fashion in the twentieth century, it was not until Britten’s interest in Peter Grimes that his stock rose again.

Crabbe became a clergyman – a fisher of men. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Crabbe had not one but three professional lives. After his time as a surgeon’s apprentice – a disaffected one – he became a clergyman, dutiful in a succession of parishes and, running a course through these other incarnations, his true calling of poetry. Much of his work, not least The Borough, has an obsessive, dogged quality, partly brought on by the long successions of rhyming couplets and their stresses of iambic pentameter. And yet, once readers have acclimatised themselves to the form, it is capable of becoming a fitting bearer of the narrative – a sort of sprung prose.

Though Forster may not have been convinced of the poetry’s greatness, he had no doubts about Crabbe’s sureness of touch, nor about the vividness with which he could evoke the essence of a place. These lines, now some of the author’s best-known, convey with a stark clarity the peculiar and enclosed world of the estuary, and its effect on the troubled Grimes:

Where did this haunted anti-hero of Grimes come from? According to Crabbe’s son, there was indeed an Aldeburgh man on whom he was based – the crucial resemblance being that this person, a fisherman himself, had employed a succession of apprentices whose deaths while working for him went unexplained.

When tides were neap, and in the sultry day,

 Through the tall bounding mud-banks made their way…

 There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,

 There hang his head, and view the lazy tide

 In its hot slimy channel slowly glide;

 Where the small eels that left the deeper way

 For the warm shore, within the shallows play;

Where gaping mussels, left upon the mud,

 Slope their slow passage to the fallen flood.

George Crabbe

As the writer Blake Morrison has observed, Crabbe’s often relentless social realism did not prevent him from doing well financially. “In his fifties,” wrote Morrison in The Guardian in the year of the Grimes beach production, “after years scraping a living as a country parson, he became a poet whom publishers wanted on their list, so much so that John Murray offered three thousand pounds for one of his volumes – a figure few poets could command today, even though it was worth eighty times more then.”

If Britten and Pears brought about the later revival of interest in Crabbe, it’s no less true that the Aldeburgh Festival put the town on the map as never before and contributed greatly to its prosperity. This year is its seventy-fourth, and if its organisers felt they had a macabre tradition to maintain in the wake of Grimes, they could hardly have made a better choice than the world premiere of an opera called Giant by Sarah Angliss. This is based on the “true and gruesome” tale of a surgeon called John Hunter and his obsession with one Charles Byrne. This man, known as The Irish Giant, was “truly betrayed in one of the most disturbing, chilling and horrifying acts during the era of the grave robbers.” 

Sunrise at Aldeburgh. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

If Peter Grimes was a divisive figure, he is not the only one in the town’s history. Approach the strange steel figure on the beach and it turns out to be a large sculpture called Scallop. When it was installed here in 2003, it created such a hoo-hah that not even an angry sea could drown out the cacophony of cheers and boos from a divided town.

It is the work of locally based but globally renowned artist Maggi Hambling, already labelled controversial for her 1998 sculpture of Oscar Wilde behind St. Martin’s in the Field Church in central London, in which the playwright is seen emerging from a green granite sarcophagus with a cigarette in his hand.

Scallop is the work of locally based but globally renowned artist Maggi Hambling. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

 Just as vandals have repeatedly sawn off Wilde’s cigarette, so protesters against Scallop have in the past daubed slogans on the fourteen-foot-tall structure ranging from “Happy New Year” to “It’s an old tin can.” Nearly twenty years ago, when it was installed – or plonked down, as its detractors had it – it drew the town’s hostility almost as much as Grimes had done. 

 Approached from the south along the shingle beach, it might at first sight be a strange hunk of sea-wrack, even the prow of some dismembered ship. Another weird sighting in a coast full of such things. Closer to, it becomes a peculiar hybrid of creature parts, some cretaceous and grounded, others almost fine and airy despite the heavy metal fabric of its whorls and skirts. Hambling was quoted as saying that the piece couldn’t be considered complete until people had made love beneath its sheltering form. Who said sculpture couldn’t be functional as well as decorative?

At the top of it is a string of words picked out in capitals across the corrugations. They read “I hear those voices that will not be drowned,” quoting from the opera’s tormented anti-hero. And so, even on a bright spring day with the sun shining back from the sculpture’s myriad facets, there is to be no escaping from the dark, watery world of Peter Grimes, of which Hambling is an ardent admirer.

If the local community had been divided over Grimes – the character, the poem and the opera – they were no less riven by the appearance of Hambling’s offering. The outrage went national when, in 2004, soon after Scallop’s installation, The Daily Telegraph quoted The Aldeburgh Gazette’s opinion that the placing of such a piece on an untouched stretch of the beach was “an act of sheer arrogance.” 

The dispute almost turned nasty, with detractors pointing out that the beach is that almost sacred thing in this brand of England, an SSSI, or Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the council leader, a Mr. Herring, announcing that the controversial sculpture would stay put. 

The veteran TV arts presenter and Aldeburgh dweller Humphrey Burton weighed in by telling readers of The Guardian that it was “hard to keep silent when one’s regular walk by the open sea has been so casually violated.” Still, when the East Anglian Daily Times ran a readers’ poll, only 738 registered an objection to Scallop’s location, with 2,163 in favour of its remaining where it was. And there, for better or for worse, it still is, rooted to the town, as immovable from the shingle as is Britten’s once controversial Peter Grimes from the operatic canon.

With greedy eye he look’d on all he saw,
He knew not justice, and he laugh’d at law;
On all he mark’d he stretch’d his ready hand;
He fish’d by water, and he filch’d by land:
Oft in the night has Peter dropp’d his oar,
Fled from his boat and sought for prey on shore;
Oft up the hedge-row glided, on his back
Bearing the orchard’s produce in a sack,
Or farm-yard load, tugg’d fiercely from the stack;
And as these wrongs to greater numbers rose,
The more he look’d on all men as his foes.

He built a mud-wall’d hovel, where he kept
His various wealth, and there he oft-times slept;
But no success could please his cruel soul,
He wish’d for one to trouble and control;
He wanted some obedient boy to stand
And bear the blow of his outrageous hand;
And hoped to find in some propitious hour
A feeling creature subject to his power.

George Crabbe
Britten lived here. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Aldeburgh is the fifth in the Place of the Poem Project.


John Keats and Winchester

Though Winchester makes no named appearance in To Autumn, its presence runs through these lines of Keats’s as surely as the River Itchen flows among the water meadows to the south of the city on its way towards Southampton. The rich, loaded autumnal verses which were inspired by his daily walks here have made the resulting ode one of the most anthologised poems in the English language.

The River Itchen as it flows among the water meadows to the south of the city. Photo: Ruth Gledhill

During his brief time in the city – less than eight weeks between August and October 1819, on his way back from a visit to the Isle of Wight – he completed the most creative period of his intense and tragically short life. If he is to be cast as a young man in a hurry, there is a brutal logic; his younger brother Tom had died of tuberculosis the previous year, and his mother, already widowed, succumbed to the same illness when John was eight.

As a former medical student, and licensed apothecary, his own fears of sharing a similar fate were only too well founded, and he was indeed to die at twenty-five in Rome, to where he had migrated for its kinder weather. Not long before leaving England, he self-diagnosed with dire accuracy, pointing to his blood-stained handkerchief and telling his house mate Charles Brown it was his death warrant. “It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour.”

So it’s hardly  surprising that death took up such a dogged residency in his thoughts and in his writing; nor that he should tell the reader of Ode to a Nightingale, written in the spring of that year, that “for many a time I have been half in love with easeful death.”

The house in College Street where Jane Austen spent the last few weeks of her life. Photo: Ruth Gledhill

Along what is now known as the Keats Walk in Winchester, you can sense that the young poet was simultaneously courting death’s adversary, breath, with as much  vigour as his body would allow. On Sunday September 5th 1819, exactly two weeks before the composition of To Autumn, he writes to his publisher John Taylor, gently berating him for having remained for so long in Fleet Street, “breathing poison,” and telling him that there is, close to Winchester, “a dry chalky down, where the air is worth Sixpence a pint.” This is usually taken as a reference to St. Giles’s Hill, in the east of the town, also a frequent destination of his walks. 

In Winchester today there is almost a cottage industry of speculation about Keats’s whereabouts during his stay, and indeed his exact route on the day of the poem’s composition.

Kingsgate Books and Prints near the cathedral close. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

His letters written from there to friends offer tantalising hints, but little more. None bears the address from which he writes. If it had been his intention to conceal his exact location, he could hardly have done a better job. In one, to his girlfriend and fiancée-to-be, Fanny Brawne, on August 16, he mentions the facing prospect of a “blank side of a house,” welcome to him as it offered nothing to distract him from writing in his first floor room. “My love is selfish,” he would tell her two months later. “I cannot breathe without you.” 

Writing to his friend Richard Woodhouse on September 21s,t, he says he is “in a Lodging house.” From his description of the surrounding townscape, this is taken to be Colebrook Street. Much of it has changed as a result of postwar redevelopment, and the likelihood is that Keats’s lodgings, close to the north-eastern corner of the cathedral, stood on the ground that is now a carpark next to the Mercure Hotel. 

The medieval cathedral rises behind the historic houses in Colebrook Street, although the house where Keats lodged was among those demolished to make room for a car park. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

He describes the Close as “two college-like squares seemingly built for the dwelling place of Deans and Prebendaries, garnished with grass and shaded with trees.” Inside the great building, the longest Gothic cathedral in the world, he would pace the aisle and read his letters from Fanny. 

Alan Franks in the cathedral cloisters at Winchester. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

In such a bustling and populous city, the former seat of national government, he had reason to assume he would find a library here. According to the Literary Winchester anthology, there were two significant ones: the Morley Library housed in the cathedral and the Fellows’ Library in Winchester College. Both, however, were “pretty well out of bounds to indigent young poets.” 

Colebrook Street where Keats lodged and would have walked many times. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

His regular walk took him right past the front of the venerable college, with its stone arches and glimpses of flitting gowned figures destined for Oxford. During the two decades of his life, this place had overseen the youthful development of such notable young men as Anthony Trollope and his brother Thomas Adolphus; Christopher Wordsworth, the Bishop of Lincoln; George Moberly, future headmaster here and Bishop of Salisbury; Viscount Sherbrooke, the statesman.

Winchester College. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

When this, the oldest of the  English public schools, was founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham, a requirement for admission was that the pupil came from a family with limited income. Today the fees are 43,335 pounds a year.

Autumnal spreading oak in the grounds of Winchester College. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

As the young, already ailing Keats is walking down College Street towards the Itchen, it is tempting to see him as a kind of Jude The Obscure, the clever but class-thwarted young stonemason in Thomas Hardy’s final novel who yearns in vain to study at Christminster, a barely disguised Oxford.

Keats’s poems had attracted some withering criticism, not least Endymion, considered overlong and condemned in the influential Blackwood’s magazine as “imperturbable drivelling idiocy.” He had experienced bouts of depression in the spring; had borrowed money from friends; had given up on the writing of another long poem, Hyperion, which told of the Titans’ despair after falling to the Olympians.

Autumn on the Itchen. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

When, on that October Sunday in 1819, his footsteps bring him clear of the town’s edge, past the burnt remains of the Bishop of Winchester’s palace, the dramatic medieval rubble of Wolvesey Castle and on into the broad irrigated greenness of the river’s domain where the water seems to be palming the land flat, he is not simply walking.

The remains of the old Bishop’s Palace. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

This has become a spiritual as well as a physical journey, a welcome routine away from the town streets and the menacing major in the next room; away from the monumental awe of the great cathedral and its clustering devotees. 

Walking with the open country ahead. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Even today, these two centuries on, when you are moving alongside the big stream with open country ahead and the civic matter all vanished behind, you can sense a liberation that is both plain and, unless you’re John Keats, beyond words. When he comes this way he seems to be shedding uninvited thoughts, shelving the anxieties about his health, literally returning to a healing place as you would to a sound counsellor, hoping that wholeness and abundance are to be found in that person’s processes. The critic and essayist Jonathan Bate describes the transition as one “from culture to nature.” Poetically, it could hardly have been a more fruitful retrogression.

Writing in his 2000 book The Song of the Earth, Bate sees the poem coming to resemble “a well-regulated ecosystem.” Keats, he writes, has “an intuitive understanding of the underlying law of community ecology, namely that biodiversity is the key to the survival and adaptation of ecosystems.”

Continuing south along the poet’s route beside the Itchen, you can see the open land carrying on for hundreds of yards on the far side of a fence. Open, that is, to the sporting Wykehamists, as students of the college are called, for these are their playing fields.

The playing fields of Winchester College. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Into view on the left comes the enormous and perfectly round shape of St Catherine’s Hill, most of which is an Iron Age hillfort. Hill-walkers find themselves drawn as if by magnetism to its faintly spooky cap of trees.

St Catherine’s Hill. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Up ahead meanwhile is the southern end point of Keats’s habitual constitutionals, the remarkable St. John Cross Hospital, a still-functioning institution so ancient that it makes much of Winchester resemble a new town. Its founder, in 1136,  was William the Conqueror’s grandson Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester. Described by Simon Jenkins in his 1999 book England’s Thousand Best Churches as “England’s oldest and most perfect almshouse.”

St Cross Hospital. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

It still houses some twenty-five men belonging to the Order of the Hospital of the Cross, or to the Order of Noble Poverty. Those in the former wear black trencher hats and robes with a Jerusalem Cross-shaped silver badge; members of the latter wear similar items, but in claret, with a silver cardinal’s badge in memory of Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester in the early fifteenth century.

St Cross Hospital. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

The tranquillity here and in the water meadows would have been catastrophically affected if a mooted route for the M3 had come this way. Keats Walkers would have been deafened by the sound of the ever-heavier traffic to and from Southampton and the continent. Instead, after the so called Battle of Twyford Down in 1992, one of the most bitter and well organised episodes of public protest this land has ever seen, the motorway was consigned to the other, eastern side of the historic hill.

Today the M3 runs through the valley. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Climb to the top of it today and the senses feel lobbied from all directions. To the west stands the city itself, with its deceptively serene skyline, and the shape of the cathedral still dominant. From the east rises a noise that gradually outdoes the wind. The last time I was up there I met a couple looking for a chapel and perhaps mistaking this hill for its namesake south of Guildford, whose top does indeed bear a ruined chantry. Looking around her, the woman seemed first distracted, then pale and frightened and wanting to get back down. She was not the first to sense something peculiar here, nameless but ominous.

Soon the noise grows close enough and consistent enough to count as an aural climate. It is of course the M3 running through its severe, hewn-out valley – some still say scar – of chalk.  Whatever one thinks of its presence, it is a breathtaking gorge. 

Just to one side of the trees known as “The Clump” is the strangest piece of turf you ever saw, like the doodles of a giant hand. This is the Winchester Mizmaze, one of only a handful of such ground-mazes in the country.

The Winchester Mizmaze. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

It is said to have been carved in the seventeenth century by a college boy excluded for bad behaviour. During this banishment, runs the story, he uses knowledge of classical mazes to create this one. Walking its intricate ways, or “tolling the labyrinth” as the college came to call it, still carries on.

 Though deplored by many, as is the lot of motorways, the M3 can be seen as good news for Keatsians since it took the traffic from the old and unfit A33 bypass and so restored the rural link between the water meadows and the hill. 

Sixty years after the poet’s death it was the railways that were dividing, crudely, urban/industrial progressives and rural conservators. One such line, the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway, came this way in the 1880s, and though it acquired strategic importance in the Second War with the movement of troops and munitions to the South Coast ports, declining traffic brought about its closure in the Beeching cuts of the 1960s.

Hockley Viaduct. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Today there is a picturesque irony in the sight of one of its preserved stretches, The Hockley Viaduct, now a walkway, still standing between the Itchen Navigation and the M3, half a mile across the meadows from St. Cross. Its Victorian arches, autumnal, down at heel but continuing to march across the land, embody the nostalgia which stirred a much later romantic, Sir John Betjeman, to genteel poetic rage against brash redevelopment. Occupying the trackbed a few hundred yards north, and shaped like a static coach, is the Handlebar Community Café and small bike workshop. Its declared mission: “helping everyone connect with each other and the environment.”

The footpath where the trains once ran. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Connectivity, as Jonathan Bate has said, is at the heart of Keats’s ode. But is there something else going on? Something cryptic and encoded? And if so, might that explain Keats’s omission of an address from his letters and his fears that they could be intercepted, opened and read by people unknown to him?

In his 2008 book The Secret Life of Poems, the critic Tom Paulin certainly argued that To Autumn was codedly political, with redcoat soldiers conjured into view by the lines’ references to poppies and harvests.

Even if that appears to be a fanciful reading, it is true that in the middle of September, Keats travelled to London to see his brother and discuss details of their modest estate. While there, he attended a rally to welcome back Orator Henry Hunt following the bloody events at St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester the previous month, when volunteer soldiers killed or wounded hundreds of peaceful protestors for Parliamentary reform. The occasion famously became known as the Peterloo Massacre. One of the immediate after-effects was the government’s passing of the Six Acts, framed to suppress gatherings whose purpose was radical revision.

A few days later, on September 18th, writing to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana, he says: “It would take me a whole quire of paper to give you anything like detail – I will merely mention that it is calculated that nearly 30,000 people were in the streets waiting for him. The whole distance from the Angel Islington to the Crown and Anchor were lined with Multitudes.”

In his 2009 book The Cambridge History of English Romantic Literature, James Chandler writes: “Keats’ improbable identification with the point of view of Orator Hunt is a measure of how deeply the consequences of Peterloo were felt on the pulse of English subjects.”

There is surely another momentous event, a seismic one in fact, that contributes to the sense of celebration permeating the ode. Four years earlier the volcanic Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in what is now Indonesia had erupted so violently that its ash surrounded the world, obscured the sun and brought chaos to the patterns of weather. Hence 1816 came to be known as The Year Without a Summer, during which crops failed, food grew scarce and unaffordable, and temperatures crashed from high to freezing within hours. There was widespread flooding, famine, rioting and looting. Grain prices rocketed beyond reach. A disruption in the Indian summer monsoon caused cholera to spread as far as Moscow from the River Ganges.

Walking north to Winchester through autumn leaves. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

It took so long for the atmosphere to clear that the unseasonal cold and excessive rain continued through the summers of the following two years. So did the economic and social fall-out. Even by 1818 the price of bread in Britain was almost doubling through scarcities of grain and flour. At the same time the country’s food imports were higher than they had ever been.

In the year of the eruption, holidaying by Lake Geneva were Mary Shelley, who was writing her storm-tossed horror tale Frankenstein; her husband, the Romantic poet Percy, and Lord Byron, one of Keats’s most vocal critics. Here he wrote the poem Darkness, with its depiction of the world as “seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless – a lump of death – a chaos of hard clay.”

Rather than prefiguring the next season with such images of frigidity, Keats dwells on autumn’s yield. Though the early word “conspiring” has been taken as further evidence of some covert political engagement, the conspirators are presented as the season itself and the much-missed sun in its maturity. Even clouds are allowed to bloom, days to die softly and prosaic stubble to blush fetchingly in the early evening light. A literal satisfaction walks through the lines, whatever covert messages they might bear for the interested onlooker. In this respect it’s hard to ignore the writer’s pleasure in such delivery, so close as he was to his own short span’s absolute winter in the warmth of Rome.

South of St Cross on the path towards Hockley. Photo: Ruth Gledhill.

Perhaps it hardly matters whether the walk Keats took that Sunday in 1819 led him down towards the St. Cross Hospital or whether, as some recent critics have suggested, he headed east to St. Giles’s Hill, where a copse had been made over to agricultural use in order to capitalise on raised bread prices. 

If so, runs the argument, this would help to explain the poet’s less well-known interest in the politics and economy of food production. The likelihood remains that as he composed this, one of his final poems, it would not be a single location that dominated his thoughts, but the many which he had come to frequent in the city’s close countryside. “Byron,” he told his brother George in a letter that September, “describes what he sees – I describe what I imagine. Mine is the hardest task.”

The movement of the ode, writes Jonathan Bate, is indeed like the inspirational walk out of Winchester; but the movement through the poem is not one which divides culture and nature. “There is no sense of river, hill and sky as the opposite of house and garden. Rather, what Keats seems to be saying is that to achieve being-at-homeness in the world you have to begin from your own dwelling-place. Think globally, the poem might be saying – act locally.”

To Autumn
John Keats - 1795-1821

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
  Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
  Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
  Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
  Steady thy laden head across a brook;
  Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
  Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
  And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
  Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
  The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Written September 19, 1819; first published in 1820. This poem is in the public domain.


As unscheduled stops go, this is surely one of the most famous in English literature. To judge from the poem of the same name, Edward Thomas was expecting his train on June 23rd 1914  to steam straight through such backwater stations in rural Gloucestershire on its way to Worcester and the Welsh border.

 For some reason this one came to a halt. “Unwontedly” was the poet’s choice of word. The engine hissed and waited in the heat of the afternoon. Nobody was coming or going. Somewhere a man cleared his throat. Thomas’s sharp country eye took in the trees and grasses; also the strange, almost comical word on the platform’s nameplate. A blackbird piped up, and then all the birds of the county and their Oxfordshire neighbours seemed to be joining in.

 Adlestrop Station
(© Copyright Ben Brooksbank and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

 It’s a peace poem if ever there was one, the more so since the train journey was made so close to the time when its author was to be recruited to the ranks of war poetry by the conflict of the age. On this particular day he was travelling up to join his fellow members of the Dymock Group of poets in Herefordshire.  Four days later Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was  assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. In a matter of weeks Britain had, in the later words of Prime Minister Lloyd George, “stumbled and staggered into war”. 

 Thomas himself was to join the army as a volunteer, his pacificist inclinations overcome by the rightness of the cause and the depth of his devotion to the English countryside. He would die on the first day of the Battle of Arras on April 9th 1917, three weeks before the poem’s publication in the New Statesman.

  One hundred years after his glimpse of Adlestrop, the sixteen-line composition bearing the station’s name had become so famous that a special centenary train repeated the journey, complete with halt, and hundreds of enthusiasts gathered to hear the actor Robert Hardy recite its four verses.  

 For various reasons the piece has become a member of that strange and unpredictable genre, the celebrity poem. It is among the most anthologised and learned-by-heart in the English language. It has so transcended its point of origin that eastbound motorists on the A436 from Stow-on-the-Wold can sense an unexpected familiarity as the name flashes by on a signpost. 

Motorists can sense an unexpected familiarity as the name flashes by on a signpost. 

  Mention of the place quickens the appetite for nostalgia, as if some essential past Englishness has been lodged in its quaintly robust syllables. And while it may call back to view a vanished time, its observations are sensuous and specific enough to let readers feel it is their own eyes and ears which are discovering the scene and reporting their findings. In this respect, Thomas’s skill was, and remains, that of touching ephemera with permanence. 

 Impossible not to dwell on the war. That afternoon, as the train passed through the heart of England on what is now called the Cotswold Line, no-one knew quite how horrific the destruction and death toll would be over the next four years; how countryside such as this would become empty of young men, its villages full of their gravestones.

 Armed with this knowledge, we cannot help but see that moment as something made even more precious by its imminent passing; a thing as fragile an eyeball. Retrospective prescience may be a suspect skill, but it adds a heavy freight to Thomas’ recording of the view from that unexpected station. This becomes a world in suspension, a process temporarily stalled, like his train. Like his own life too, as he contemplated the change of profession from critic to soldier. Both as the title of a poem and the name of a place, the sound of Adlestrop is made precious by the knowledge of what happened next.

Adlestrop seems a place both larger and less tangible than the streets and houses.

 Visitors to the village acknowledge that they are coming to a place composed of something larger and less tangible than the streets and houses, the Post Office and the church; a mood, a sense, perhaps a condition. Mrs. Jinnie Holt, a longstanding village resident, agrees that you can detect something of that mission from the look of the people who have come because of the poem. She makes them sound a little like pilgrims, hushed and reverend, but dogged too.

 Thomas would have recognised the description since he had been a self-styled literary pilgrim, travelling the length and breadth of England to evaluate the nation’s great poets in their respective habitats: Blake in London, Hardy in Wessex, Wordsworth in the North, and so on. 

 When I first went there in the late 1990s, I had no idea what I might find. Like others before and since, I supposed I might see the remnants of the station itself, elegantly decomposing into its rural setting; the kind of place which the famous railway lover John Betjeman loved to haunt and eulogise. It was no such thing. In fact it was nothing at all. Just a vista of smooth straight rail with a distant curve, midway between the still-functioning stations of Kingham to the south and Moreton-in-Marsh to the north.

 Tantalisingly, Station House is still there today, although the GWR sign which once stood at the mouth of the drive is long gone. The place is now home to Larkswold, which describes itself as a crafting destination. Its aim: “to bring the sense of rejuvenation that comes from being in a beautiful, natural environment with warm, genuine people.” 

Adlestrop Station today
The station at Adlestrop and platforms are completely gone.

 As for the old station’s platforms, they were removed many years ago because of the Thomas tourists who had been gathering there, dangerously close to the diesels flying by at modern speeds. Today there is no public access to the trackside ground on which the station stood.

 This knowledge I got from Ralph Price, a lifelong resident of Adlestrop. Both his father and grandfather worked at the station, and he remains bemused by British Rail’s apparent indifference to the feelings of the villagers when the buildings were demolished. It was, he says, as if they didn’t want there to be any memory of the place. 

 In the field of railway nostalgia the word Beeching is hardly less potent than Adlestrop. It was he, Dr. Richard Beeching who, as chairman of British Rail in the 1960s, had produced a report advocating the removal of 4,000 miles of track, about a quarter of the network’s total. One third of the 7,000 stations were earmarked for closure. Adlestrop was among the condemned. A little later the renowned music duo Flanders and Swann came up with a lyric of gentle outrage, composed almost entirely of the names of the fallen.

Writer Alan Franks with photographer Ruth Gledhill in the bus stop at Adlestrop, where one of the surviving station signs can still be seen.

 At least one of the station signs did survive and can now be seen in the village bus shelter. Its presence there is both incongruous and strangely reassuring. As to the other sign, its disappearance remained a source of controversy for years. One version of its fate was that it had been sent to an Oxfordshire museum, and then destroyed. There have also been rumours of sightings closer to the village, rather as if it is a revenant seeking out its old location. None of these has been confirmed. 

 In the 1999 book Adlestrop Revisited, its compilerAnne Harvey devotes a small section to “The Search for the Other Nameboard”, which leans towards the conclusion that in the summer of 1970 or 1971 caretakers working at an Oxford college had cleared and burned a pile of supposed junk, including the sign.

 As the author Sean Street wrote in the same volume, there is no evidence that Thomas wanted to go back and explore the place behind the name. “Nevertheless,” says Street, “ his poem has changed the village’s relationship with the world. Poems of place are events in themselves, and the fact of their existence, of our knowing them, means that we are changed in our view of their subject, whatever it may be. The image of the place is filtered through the perception that originally caught the essence in words.”

 An irony of the poet’s association with Adlestrop is that he never set foot there. Nor did the village form part of his view from the train window, being almost a mile from the station. As he says, what he saw was “only the name.”

The beautiful church of St. Mary Magdalene

 Although this is Cotswold country, Adlestrop inhabits a different England, a different world, from that of the so-called Chipping Norton set of influential media, political and show-business figures. It has a population of just seventy-two. There is no pub. The beautiful church of St. Mary Magdalene, with its thirteenth century chancel arch, has congregations often numbered in the low teens. Much of the family shopping is done in the town of Stow, four miles away. Unlike some of its neighbouring villages this is not a place of London weekenders, barn conversions and recording studios.  

with its thirteenth century chancel arch.

 However, there is a beautifully restored post office and village shop which has largely reinvented itself during the pandemic to become a thriving arts-and-crafts outlet. One of the books on sale here is Jane Austen and Adlestrop, an absorbing and exhaustively researched account by Victoria Huxley of the novelist’s connections with the village.

 In 1801, she writes, a few years after Austen’s first visit, a census showed the population to be 225, more than three times its present size. What brought her here on at least three occasions was the presence of the aristocratic Leigh family, of which her mother Cassandra was a scion. Jane kept in touch  by letter with her cousins at the magnificent Adlestrop House, across the way from the church. Almost certainly, says Huxley, this home was at least partially the model for such fictional residences as Thornton Lacey in Mansfield Park. Equally, Austen’s observations of rural husbandry and estate management in her cousins’ community were to influence the portrayals of such as her Mr. Knightley in Emma or her Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

 Thomas’ connection with the place, though tangential, was explicit. It was also part of a momentous personal journey, involving the most influential of his fellow members of the Dymock group, the American poet Robert Frost. Without him, Adlestrop and the other 150-odd poems of Thomas’s final two years would never have come to be written. 

 For all his talent and industry, his life was in a dark place. He was bound on a wheel of what he considered hack literary work. This was a harsh and mistaken judgement, but he held it with his usual intensity. He was struggling with the state of marriage, fatherhood, overwork, and bore all the signs of what would today be identified as acute depression.

 He had reviewed Frost’s poetry favourably. The American was in turn impressed by Thomas’s literary skill and told him that he was writing poetry already. This was as perceptive as it was radical. Thomas, he said, was producing prose which, without knowing it, had qualities of lyricism, rhythm and imagery normally found in poetry. The essence of Frost’s advice was blunt: chop the lines up.

 Of course there was more to it than that, but if you look at the earliest poems in his immensely creative last years, you find that he has followed Frost’s advice so closely that you could almost make the writing revert to prose by removing the line-breaks.

 Although the same cannot be said for Adlestrop, with its quietly rigorous crafting, its origins are prosaic. “Then we stopped at Adlestrop,” he had written of the train journey in his field notebook “through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.”

 Such has been the fascination of the poem that enthusiasts have long debated the details of the journey. Was it really an express? The only timetabled express that June day in 1914 would have left London too late to reach Adlestrop at that time. In the view of his biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Thomas probably converted a scheduled halt on a stopping train to the unexpected one on an imagined express.

 As the critic John Carey has noted: “Thomas’s voice is not only distinctive, it is elusive, like a persistent regretful note heard at the edge of hearing.” The poet’s cadences are “the sound of a mind communing with itself”.

 When communing with Frost on their long and frequent country walks, Thomas had no idea that his dilemma about enlisting would inspire the American’s own best-known poem, The Road Not Taken. 

 For Matthew Hollis, author of Now All Roads Lead to France about the last years of the poet’s life, it is not the pinpointing of any particular episode or event that stirs Adlestrop to life. Rather, it is “something about the wordlessness of thought and memory, the power of recall, the notion that the senses are capable of remembrance, and that the mind can overcome things lost or misplaced to travel across space or time.”

 For years after his death at Arras, the received version was that Second Lieutenant Thomas of the Royal Garrison Artillery had been killed by the concussive blast of a shell passing inches from him as he stood to light his pipe. This image, homely and heroic, the body undamaged, may have been some solace to his distraught widow Helen. 

Candles at Adlestrop – the notion that the senses are capable of remembrance.

 The truth was less poetic, less marbled, and Thomas himself would probably have seen the official line as an unwarranted manipulation of memory. After the (second) war a letter from his commanding officer Franklin Lushington, written in 1936, was found in an American archive. Thomas’s death, it said, was the result of having been “shot clean through the chest”. 

 While the inscription on Westminster Abbey’s commemorative stone to sixteen war poets is of Wilfred Owen’s declaration that “the Poetry is in the Pity,” Thomas continues to assert through his work that the poetry is also in the place. None more entrenched than Adlestrop.

Edward Thomas - 1878-1917

Yes. I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June. 

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name 

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky. 

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.


Common Ground


by Alan Franks

When you see the spinneys and the rides
And deer descended from King Charles’ own,
And London’s towers so near such countryside,
You might detect some bounty from the throne.
You’d not be wholly wrong; Charles loved the chase,
Hence the presence of this timeless herd.
He also promised access to the place,
And though he lost his head he kept his word.

Charles loved the chase, Hence the presence of this timeless herd.
Yet this is England, whose contested ground
Inflates men’s heads with rage until they burst.
In scraps between the common and the crowned
We tend to owe the second less than the first.
In seventeen fifty-eight it happened here.
John Lewis was a brewer from Petersham,
Defying King George’s daughter Amelia
Who closed the gates to all except her chums.
Lewis – unheard of – took the Crown to court
And based his case on existing rights of way.
Since the justice harboured similar thoughts,
Lewis it was who carried the public day. 
‘And based his case on existing rights of way.’ The extraordinary beauty of the willows at Beverley Brook, at the start of the Tamsin Trail near Roehampton Gate.
For all we know, he visits Henry’s mound,
Or Pembroke Lodge’s terrace, for a tea,
Reflecting on the claims of common ground
And staring fondly at infinity.
Let’s praise this warden of our free estate,
Who lost his wealth but saved this jewel for you.
Let’s hope that Peter, manning the final gate,
Recognised the brewer and let him through.
Landscape in Richmond Park near Roehmampton Gate
‘Yet this is England, whose contested ground Inflates men’s heads with rage until they burst.’

(Common Ground was runner-up in Poems in the Park competition, 2011. Judges: Dame Jacqueline Wilson and Sir Trevor McDonald.)


Water, by Alan Franks

Winner of the Southport International Poetry Competition

I wonder when the plain taste of this water

Will pass for the last time, not to repeat itself,

And the glass tumbler will finally leave

My lips unparted by its heavy rim.


Forty years since he went without a word,

Collapsing in a startled stranger’s arms,

The appearance of comedy played out on a platform

Of the station in a northern conference town.


I wonder when I will fold away the letter,

The one he must have sent that autumn morning

And which arrived the day after I heard

From the modern but still inadequate headmaster.


Forty days of shock, said my mother’s doctor,

Take a couple of these last thing at night.

I wonder when the plain taste of this water

Will pass for the last time, not to repeat itself.


Drinking and drying have their own convergence,

Making current shapes which shed their forms.

At every drought the spires of rubble show

From the small town which the reservoir overran.


I wonder when the uncovering of sadness

Will break its habit of bringing into range

A shallow dish of something slurping sideways

And the clunk of cutlery on refectory wood.


Time out of town still wears its blameless face

As sheep sharpen the crescent blade of the hill

And headwaters muster underneath the ground

And streams shift slowly into stone.


In the pavement puddle almost as thin

As the skin on a cup of tea the petrol rainbow

Is standing at my shoulder while the wobbly

Moonface waits and waits to recompose.


Salt and woodgrain, rain again and guttering,

Trees divesting, drain leaf litanies.

I wonder when the plain taste of this water

Will pass for the last time, not to repeat itself.


The Manor

The Manor by Alan Franks

Winner of the Wilfred Owen Association Poetry Competition, 2014

It’s said the old manor was tinder-dry that summer,
With heat holding the corners of the air
So hard above the overgrown parterre
And tangled banks, it skewed the view with simmering.
Through the long, prone afternoons the clicking
Of expanding pans and pails was heard.
The silence, through exhaustion, of the birds
Amplified the timbers’ death-watch ticking.

Down the long perspectives of the passages
High-born souls nursed half-remembered grievances,
Strained to scan the lie of old allegiances
Forged in the fierce madness of intermarriage.
By the har-har, past the kitchen garden,
A single pistol shot, the day destroyed.
Fired by some strange disaffected boy
Through the heart of the unsuspecting warden.

The echo cracked the ceiling of the sky,
Which set a-shiver the chambered air indoors
And sent a draught down to the service corridors
Where restless household staff were standing by.
The Dowager, having dreamed herself to royalty,
Was authorising death-writs by the dozen,
Signing off some dim and distant cousins
Whose in-laws allegedly faltered in their loyalty.

Students of the subsequent disaster –
Themselves at odds through public vanity –
Unite in this belief; a vast insanity
Must have underlain such wanton slaughter.
Some pinned the blame on homo aristocratus,
That classy villain known for his receding
Chin worn down by centuries of inbreeding
To make him look deceptively innocuous.

This much is known; the building blazed and blazed
Until the walls were air and air was flame
And only the foundation shapes remained
As groundplan templates when successors raised
Their fresh construction. In the briefly binding
Calm that came, the estate’s refurbished sky
Grew great with chastened migrant birds so high
You couldn’t see them dropping their fresh kindling.

The Engaging of Professionals

The Engaging of Professionals by Alan Franks

Winner of the 2006 Plough Poetry Prize; judge, Ian McMillan

Right from our early, amateur rounds,
Back before we’d even drawn
Each other’s blood, let alone gone down

And taken a count, even then we swung
Ourselves around this very ring
Like heavy bags set loose for slanging,

All uncultured shoulder shots,
Elbow half-blocked grazing knocks,
Eventually learning how to spot

Some opening in the free-for-all,
Then haul up and release free-fall
The barely padded wrecking ball

Of us. As for the referee,
We took one look and saw that he
Had recognised in you and me

A pair who had no time for laws.
He ducked out through the ropes. The scores,
He said, were level, and what’s more,

Would always be. He left us to
The roars of ringside relatives who
Then bawled for me or bawled for you

And flung the chairs about whenever
One of us was taking heavy
Blows, and winced to see the leathering

Of once familiar faces. One
Well-meaning aunt declared the fun
Was over, time to cut and run.

We told them to go hang themselves
And carried on so that the welts
And weals and bruises from the belts,

Which only we two had the skill,
The dedication and the will
To trade, grew even greater till

We’d lost each other’s eyes behind
The swollen brows which still confine
Them deep as love and twice as blind.

The Lift

The Lift by Alan Franks

Winner of the Wigtown Poetry Prize 2006. Judge, Don Paterson

And so once again I’m in the ancient lift
That still succeeds in rising by force of habit
Here up the shaft in the heart of the mansion block.
Easy to think it had died in the intervening time
By lodging lethally in its throat of masonry,
Or else simply expired with the futility of failed missions
And all the later ascents into unachieved memories.
Because of the carpeting, always so fat with underuse,
And the solid, unhurried architecture,
The world beyond remains unaware of just
How loud the trellis splashes back
And falls into itself like a pile of metal mattresses,
Also just how great the gap can be 
Between the button being pressed
And the clunk with which the cage begins its upward shunt.
In this gap, before the flux, on days like this,
With such a distance still to rise to you
And the deferred eternity of your kisses,
The universe breathes in and out a dozen times,
Expanding its boundaries, then vanishing in its core.
The current groans like a shocked heart
And down in the base of the well are gathering
The ghost-worms of Edwardian electricity.
Up it goes, slow mechanical mercury rising in its capillary.
A muffled call comes from a town church bell
And a sharper little chime from the first floor flat.
On the second a phone is ringing untended
In the empty import-export premises.
A dog is yapping through the ceiling, above which
The French tutor, Madame Gourcuff, is shouting at her lover,
Above which the widowed diplomat dictates his memoirs,
Above which above which above which
Until the storeys end and I am once again
Aware of the thinning air, the diminishing roofs,
The broadening view, the beginnings of fields,
The curvature of the horizon, the banging of my heart
At the bars of its free hanging cage.

The Old Tunes



The Old Tunes by Alan Franks

Winner of the Petra Kenney Award, 2003. Judge, Andrew Motion

I left the east coast waves stacked up behind
The running line of dunes.
My great, or triple-great grandfathers’ tunes
Came reaching and breaching into my mind.
The sea lay long and deep over the dead
Settlements and the spent high-water marks.
To the inland side of this shallow bank
Of sand and marram-grass the pathway led
Beside enormous fields, beneath the lark-
Hung sky - or were they just some humdrum shanks  -
Towards the town. The air was high with heat,
The slack-pools on the warren
Floor and scrabbling plants gave out a foreign
Smell. The farms rehearsing for defeat
Were littered with the decomposing Fords
Of every generation, all the way
To 60s models with Farina fins,
Sans everything, and so completely gnawed
By rust and salty wind, their bodies lay
In flaky-thin and brown, untouchable skin,
And near them, in a scatter by the byre,
The differential gears
And teeth and body parts of earlier years,
Beyond all scavenging. Snagged on telephone wire
While rising on a sudden upward gust,
A piece of black and shining polythene
Was flapping like an outraged crow. Towards
The centre of the town the summer dust
Dispersed, a fairground shimmered on the Queens
Parade. The station’s destination board
Displayed a row of names that gradually lost
The endings of the right
Side of the map. The carriage, to my slight
Surprise, had filled with old boys from the coast
And round about, the greats and triple-greats,
With fiddle cases and melodeons,
And black-gapped mouths with pipe tobacco breath,
Hot suits of tweed in less than Sunday states.
The stud-holed belt that let the window down
Was like the ones that held them at the girth.
Back and back they went, beyond the time
I’d any thoughts about -
Not exactly carbons fainting out
But more a run of ever-loosening rhymes
So that the furthest one had hardly any
Echoes of the nearest; faces freed
By distance. Someone bowed a simple line
And in a blink his sound was one of many
As the rest surrounded him, the reeds,
The button-keyed accordion, the fine-
Tuned dulcimer, the pipe-and-tabor, all
Taking up the strain
And passing round the notes again, again
Until they wore it, sea-like, to a ball.
They played a Schottisch and a Waltz Vienna.
One of them, a father of mine for sure,
Could perfect-pitch his fretless mandolin.
Beyond this sound I heard a drop and then a
Drone of perished bellows, and once more
Could sense the early players’ presence in
The backroom of a period. The sound
Went dim, and as the land
Passed flatly by - the cuts, the levels and
The drains - and as the elongated mounds
Came up to meet the track or else flew out
Across the ground, they could have been the beds
Of severed lines, or earth-made river walls
Without much purpose in this almost drought,
Or causeways going where a trade road led,
Or Roman agger-banks, or else the small
Remaining strides of marching boundary dyke
For kingdoms lost below
The counties. Here the train began to slow
And climb into another country. Clouds like
Coals were gathering on a rim of hills.
The plain behind us silvered into dream.
A city simmered close. A fairground scene
Of railtracks in the sky was soon distilled
To chemical plant which piped and wound and steamed
As if that other state had never been. 

Matthew Arnold and ‘On Dover Beach’

In the room of his honeymoon hotel in Dover, Matthew Arnold beckons his young wife to come to the window and share the view. In doing so, he is also summoning the reader to look out across the Straits and share a prospect that is both alluring and daunting. Though we may see, flickeringly, the French coast for which they will soon be heading, the thought is compromised by the sound of the sea’s broken waves pulling down on the shingle.

To his keen but apprehensive ear, this is not just the routine noise of an outgoing tide but also the ebbing of a sea of faith. He says as much. The year was 1851, and Arnold was twenty-eight. Although Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species would not be published until the end of the decade, and although the term “agnosticism” had yet to be coined by Thomas Huxley, the foundations of conventional belief were coming under fierce scrutiny.

Strauss argued that the reported miracles of Christ were no more than myths.

The young German philosopher David Strauss had already published an incendiary book, Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Christ), putting forward the then heretical notion that the Jesus of The Bible was not a true and historical presentation, but rather a person transformed by the religious consciousness of Christians. His reported miracles, Strauss argued, were no more than myths; this at a time of scholarly controversy over how the miraculous, even supernatural, events of the New Testament were to be reconciled with the rationalism of Enlightenment thought.

In 1846, when Strauss’s book was translated into English by Marian Evans, better known as the novelist George Eliot, the Earl of Shaftesbury damned it as “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell”. For its adherents, such publicity was heaven-sent.

Young men of Arnold’s generation and background now found themselves with the dilemma of rejecting what they saw as creationist dogma, or paying lip service to it in order to safeguard their own professional prospects. This was a moral and intellectual challenge which would influence the composition of his best-known prose work, Culture and Anarchy nearly twenty years later.

The world was turning, aspirations were changing.

 The world was turning modern at an alarming rate, and alongside it were evolving the aspirations and anxieties of the still-young. Some critics have chosen to call On Dover Beach the first modern poem on account of its strikingly post-Romantic voice and its early articulation of what came to be known as Victorian Pessimism. 

Seven years before the Arnolds came here, the train lines had already reached Dover when the South Eastern Railway Company built a track from London via Folkestone. By the time the poem was published, seven years after the couple’s visit, the London, Chatham and Dover Railway Company was running direct trains from the capital to link with their own steamers. With more than ten thousand inhabitants, the town was already a quarter of its present size.  

The Roman lighthouse still stands atop the cliff in Dover.

It happens that in the very year of the honeymoon, the engineers of the Submarine Telegraph Company, based a few hundred yards away, were laying their pioneering Dover-to-Calais cable, three centimetres wide and plated in armour. As the author of a poem which dwells upon security and the fear of its loss, Arnold and his contemporaries were pondering hard, two centuries before the Brexit Epoch, on the pros and cons of ever closer union with Europe.

The appearance of the place in the intervening 170 years has of course changed dramatically, never mind the continued presence of the castle on its high promontory to the east of the town this past millennium, and the lighthouse built by the occupying Romans in AD43. As to the harbour itself when the newly-wed Arnolds were here, there was no Eastern Arm or Southern Breakwater, and the Admiralty Pier was a fraction of its later length. 

The daily coming and going of ferries.

It is hard to imagine what he and his contemporaries would make of the endless stream of lorries converging on the harbour in the twenty-first century– ten thousand of them each day; two million cars a year, ten million passengers; seventy-five thousand coaches, never mind the trains that shoot through the tunnels two hundred and fifty feet below. With the daily coming and going of sixty huge ferries, the view is in a permanent state of shift, like a ground-level sky full of countermarching clouds.

Back in the eighteenth century there had aleady been talk of building a tunnel, until the idea was abandoned for fear of invasion. Proximity, whether marital or geographical, carried a caution.

In Arnold’s day, the pier was a fraction of the length it is today.

The final lines of Arnold’s poem, with their ignorant armies clashing by night, bear a grim ring of prescience as it was just two years later that Britain would become embroiled in the Crimean war. This is widely acknowledged as the first modern military conflict on account of the industrial scale of its weapons manufacture. It was also notorious for the eventual obscurity of its causes.

Three years earlier, in a passage of prose whose imagery prefigures the poem, he had written of “a wave of more than American vulgarity, moral, intellectual and social, preparing to break over us.”

Seen in such a light, this bottom right-hand corner of an island kingdom becomes a vivid location of two-way traffic, while remaining as much a redoubt for those who want to stay as a jumping-off point for those who want to leave.

The tunnels in the chalk beneath the castle were at the heart of the Allied evacuation in 1940.

Not for nothing is that formidably placed castle known as the Key to England. The tunnels in the chalk beneath it, hand-hewn during the Napoleonic wars, were at the heart of Operation Dynamo for the daring evacuation of some 350,000 Allied servicemen from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. The remarkable labyrinth was even extended to become a hospital and triage point for the war’s returning wounded. I believe my own father, a paratrooper, was one such, in transit to the military hospital at Chartham, where one of the nurses was later to become my mother. 

It’s no wonder that such an island nation should often attract fortress imagery. This can be heard today in the often bitter debates over how to respond to the increasing numbers – some say “invasions” – of  would-be migrants making the perilous channel crossing in ill-suited craft. In 2020 this  reached a total of 8,000, the highest yet, some of them paying as much as 4,000 pounds for the passage. Rather than trying to land in Dover itself, many are diverted to the less populated flatlands of the Dungeness headland, thirty miles down the coast. 

Arnold had a vision of ‘ignorant armies’ that clash by night.

It has been, to say the least, a hot potato for years, and shows no sign of cooling, with police struggling to avert clashes between radical demonstrators from both ends of the political spectrum. Too closely for comfort, these scenes can come to resemble Arnold’s bleak vision of ignorant armies clashing by night. 

The place has been embattled for millennia. Long before the arrival of the Normans in 1066, German tribes were crossing the North Sea to settle in Dofras, as it was then called, one of the main settlements in the new Kingdom of Kent. Just the other day (in 1992), a 3,000-year-old Bronze Age boat was unearthed by construction workers on the A20 road link between Dover and Folkestone.  

Dover: still a place today to spend time with and remember friends.

Arnold’s verse was invariably crafted with formal skill and heartfelt persuasiveness, but when it came to comparisons between himself and his older contemporaries Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, he tended to be ranked third among equals. A regular criticism was that, though more than adept, he lacked the vigorous humanity of which the other two were capable. Yet if you read his Thyrsis, admittedly published several years after On Dover Beach, you find a voice equal to theirs in the articulation of grief and loss. 

It is a long elegy on the death of his close friend and contemporary, the poet Arthur Hugh Clough, and it has an intensity and desolation comparable to parts of Tennyson’s colossal In Memoriam, which was also written to mourn and celebrate a dear companion and poet, Arthur Henry Hallam. This was published in 1850, the year before the Arnolds’ wedding.    

Matthew’s courtship of Frances Lucy had been passionate, but also anxious. Although he had just embarked on what would be a long career as a schools inspector, he was fretting over whether he would be able to meet the financial demands of married life. In particular he feared he would not live up to the expectations of his baronet father-in-law Sir William Wightman, Justice of the Queen’s Bench.

Matthew Arnold feared he would not live up to the baronial expectations of his father-in-law.

The poem’s expressions of  anxiety at what he hears and sees, the appearance of “the naked shingles of the world,” have outlasted the moment of their utterance with dramatic immediacy, just as Sophocles’s had done. Arnold’s response  is gloriously plain against a backdrop of such turbulence: “Ah, love, let us be true to one another.”  

Being Matthew Arnold carried its burdens. He was after all the eldest son of a great Rugby headmaster whose ideals of moral ardour,  Christian faith and classical scholarship were influencing  public schools and hence reforming the production of young English gentlemen in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Moreover, Matthew had been a pupil at the school; as was Thomas Hughes, who went on to write the technically fictitious but highly documentary Tom Brown’s Schooldays, published in 1867, in which Dr. Thomas Arnold appears, by name, the omnipotent ruler in a world of his own creation. As Lytton Strachey later wrote in Eminent Victorians, the head had founded a theocracy and treated the Rugby boys as Jehovah had treated the Chosen People.

An alternative view from the beach at dusk at Dover. Did Arnold have wilder landscapes in mind?

When he died suddenly on the eve of his forty-seventh birthday, Matthew was twenty, his brother Tom a year younger, and William fourteen. Family expectations were undiminished, and eventually fulfilled, with Tom and William becoming respectively a professor of literature and a colonial administrator. Matthew taught for a short while at Rugby, already aware that his true calling was poetry. 

One of his biographers, Parc Hoonan, suggests that when the poet hears “the eternal note of sadness” from the beach, he might have had the wilder landscapes of the north in his eye and ear. Matthew had recently been in the Lake District, where the family had a house, Fox How, near Ambleside. They knew the Wordsworths, and Matthew was a great admirer of William’s work. 

He had been struck by the grandeur of the hills, and the lakes which they cradled. “Vast edges drear,” says Hoonan, might well have been a form of words conjured in him by the dramatic screes running almost sheer into Wastwater, and then applied to the sloping shingle here at the country’s bottom edge.

Houses, many of them hotels, at the foot of the iconic white cliffs. Vast edges drear?

Those undertones, indeed undertows, of emptying-out and recession become as active within the poet as they are in the observable world. The sea may have been calm on the evening when Matthew called his wife to the window, but it could turn rough in an instant. Worse, it could assume the role of a highway bearing would-be conquerors, just as it had done so many times before. You had no choice but to look out.

Azure-calm, the sea at Dover can turn rough in an instant.

Much later in his career Arnold was, as he still is, praised for  Culture and Anarchy, in which he argued that the first of these two words denoted knowledge of “the best which has been thought and said in the world”. An irony of its success was that it made its author more eminent for his social and political analysis than for his verse. 

Metrical consistency: the scriptorium at Dover Castle.

 This particular poem is made all the more striking by his apparent willingness to flout certain conventions of the time. English conventions, that is. Here is an opening verse of fourteen lines, a second of six, a third of eight, a fourth of nine. Here too appears to be a bracing disregard for metrical consistency, and a rhyme scheme which is quite possibly making itself up as it goes along. Classicists have countered that it is doing no such things, but rather following patterns of Greek verse, and doing so with care. 

Certainly he is taking liberties with stress and meter. This is no criticism. In fact it is the opposite since he is doing so with the knowledge of the rules he is bending. It hardly matters. The words manage to spill as they will, with the random consistency of breaking waves. In this respect it is a perfect fit with the long drama of the southern English shoreline.

Gibbous moon on Dover Beach
‘The tide is full, the moon lies fair upon the straits.’


On Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

(Essay by Alan Franks.  Photos by Ruth Gledhill)