We are in Rutland...


[The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Great Casterton]

We are in Rutland, a county of huge significance for John Clare, for there in just a couple of years he would find a wife, celebrity and himself.  The Clare family fortunes were at rock bottom when he walked the nine miles from Helpston to what was then known as Bridge Casterton to find work as a lime-burner.  His parents were penniless and facing eviction and agriculture itself collapsing after the withdrawal of subsidies following Waterloo.  Clare and a friend named Stephen Gordon found work with a Mr Wilders who had two lime-kilns, one at Casterton, the other at Pickworth.  Clare slept three in a bed with fellow labourers and in a few weeks was able to send home fifty shillings.  Lime-burning would have made him white from head to toe.  He was twenty-two.

He was also creating his first, and only successful book, the wonderful Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery.  It would carry him straight from lime-burning into literary society.  His portrait would be painted and local peers would give him books and annuities.  But he was Sunday-drinking as usual at the Flower Pot Inn in Tickencote — "cote for kids" — when he saw Martha Turner pass by.  She was nineteen, the daughter of a small-farmer, and who lived in an isolated house in a beautiful valley - his Patty of the Vale.  He married her with some reluctance when she became pregnant, bringing her home to Helpston after the child was born.  He had been ‘caught’, as the boys said.

What enchanted Clare about the Rutland countryside was that it had not been enclosed.  The villages were like the Helpston of his boyhood, full of ancient paths, haphazard trees and brooks, and wild meadows, and without straight lines and destructive ploughing.  He walked nine miles to his wedding in Casterton Church, probably wearing the clothes we see in Milton's portrait.  Mrs Emmerson, his London patron, sent Patty’s wedding-dress and his publisher Mr Hessey sent the bridegroom a Cremona violin.  And thus it began, the troubled, brilliant life — in Rutland.

© Ronald Blythe
Especially written for the 2010 John Clare Festival

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