Ronald Blythe muses on the joy of each and every sound


I never quite get used to it, the static nature of today’s countryside. Villagers such as John Clare were elaborately seasonal. Every month, every day almost, brought its special tasks, and he could describe them, as the seasons followed each other in their traditional order. But now they’ll be sowing and reaping; certainly, one would have to be alert to catch them. Otherwise, there’s no sound other than that of birds or traffic. Wonderfully, there’s not ever this at Bottengoms Farm.
Today was a great event: the oil tanker found its way down the lane at seven in the morning, managing to turn on the mud equivalent of a ha’penny. The youthful driver was sanguine. I wasn’t to worry. He could turn the vehicle on anything. I could smell the winter fuel in the summer air, and crushed wild flowers, and the enormous hap­piness of a full supply.
Not all that long ago, various walking women would call to me through the hedges: “Was I well? Wasn’t it cold for June?” They ex­­pected I had heard of some drama. But, usually, I had not.
For hundreds of years, this out­lying farm has heard very little of what went on a couple of miles away. I had put the postman himself quite a trek from the front door; to save him the tramp, I put the letters in the box. I was working in the orchard when we exchanged joyful good-mornings the other day, and he would say, “You have to sign for something.” Long ago, there was a postman who, when holding on to a parcel would say, “Somebody loves you.”
Even the Stansted planes seem to have changed route. But my neighbour’s low-flying aircraft skims me, and the horses look up at me. All the roses are in flower, and they scent my small world.
A friend from Berlin is sprawled in a chair with the cats. I may look asleep, but I am wide awake inside my head; a chapter of a new book I should be writing is taking place. But, more importantly at this moment, I should be thinking of St Paul’s voyage, for matins. It was Paul who took Christ’s revolu­tion­ary teaching into the wide world, where they were soon suppressed. That world possessed a plethora of deities, but not one who was pro­claimed the only god. It was why Caesar struck out.
I am often puzzled why people don’t go to church. It is so beautiful — the music, the language. And, if I may say so, so caring. And, indeed, thinking of the bell-ringers, so skilful and so poetic. I’m thinking at this moment of a Suffolk bell which is inscribed “Box of sweet honey, I am Michael’s bell.” Who was Michael? The man who left his bell to “talk” when he himself was silent.
Lately, the marsh nightingales have raised their voices, not in chorus, but in a kind of wild solo. Nightingales prefer thickets to woods, and quite enjoy a push lawnmower.
I hope that Jesus and his friends were able to sit in gardens, even Gethsemane before that immense tragedy, to listen to birdsongs and the wind in the fields. One listens more as one grows older and the sound of nature fills one’s head.
My stream provides continuity. So everlasting is it that I have to remind myself to listen. It pursues the route through chalk and gravel, tree roots and London clay, until it finds the river and finally the sea. It is deep and solemn under our bridge where the Suffolk-Essex travellers splash through it and where we tied up our boats near the kingfishers.
Ronald Blythe

John (Jack) Clare


[Barmouth Bridge]

On the 16th June 1826 Patty was safely delivered of her son John - the family consisted then of 4 children, Anna (6), Eliza (4), Freddy (2) and little John, whom for most of his life was known as 'Jack'.

The 1851 Census shows that Jack was living at home in the Northborough cottage and that he was a carpenter, but in 1859 he married (in his case a 2nd marriage) Margaret Morris in Llanymynech, Mid-Wales, and they had a large family.  How did he get to Wales?  The railway.  Like many young people from this period whose families had worked on the land for generations, when the railways came he got a much better job (my own Great Grandfather did exactly this).  

He had by his death worked as a carpenter for the Cambrian Railway Company for many years,  as a bridge foreman.  His many Welsh descendants - a few members of the Clare Society - are very proud of the fact that he was foreman carpenter on the Barmouth Estuary Bridge.

But just who was his first wife?  Well,  it is known that he worked as a foreman carpenter as far south as Somerset/Dorset for the Great Western Railway.  His first son Charles having been born in Yetminister, Dorset in September 1855 when Jack was 29.  The baby's mother died during the delivery of Charles (sadly a common occurrence at the time).  She was Sarah Bartlett, and Jack and Sarah had been married in February 1855 in Misterton, Somerset (near Crewkerne), just like Jack's mother Patty, Sarah was pregnant at the time of her marriage.   

Baby Charles was taken to live with his grandmother Patty and is mentioned in the Northborough Census of 1861!  Lots of folk over the years have been rather dismissive of Patty, but she grows monthly in my estimation.  A totally wonderful and caring lady.

Jack settled in Llandysilio in 1870, moving to Welshpool in 1895 after the death of his second wife Margaret.
  1. Young Jack* was a peasant from his birth
  2. His sire a hind born to the frail & plough
  3. To thump the corn out & to till the earth
  4. The coarsest chance which natures laws alow
  5. To earn his living by a sweating brow
  6. Thus Jack's* early days did rugged roll
  7. & mixt in timley toil—but een as now
  8. Ambitions prospects fird his little soul
  9. & fancy soard & sung bove povertys controul

    *(Clare, of course, has 'lubin')
      from 'The Village Minstrel

To an infant daughter


On the 13th June 1822 Patty and John had a second daughter, Eliza Louisa, but in that two years his world had been turned upside down, he was famous.  But there was sorrow too, as they lost a still-born baby son in June of 1821.

The photo shows a Christening Cup given to Eliza Louisa by her Godmother, Eliza Louisa Emmerson for whom she of course was named.  John and Mrs Emmerson carried on a regular correspondence for many years and become firm friends.

After her sister Anna Maria's death in 1844, Eliza Louise was to marry the widowed husband, and her brother-in-law, John Sefton.  They had eight children, and a number of the 'Sefton-Clare' clan are active members of the John Clare Society to this day.

Sweet gem of infant fairy flowers
Thy smiles on lifes unclosing hours
Like sun beams lost in summer showers
     They wake my fears
When reason knows its sweets & sours
     Theyll change to tears

God help thee little sensless thing
Thou daisey like of early spring
Of ambushd winters hornet sting
     Hast yet to tell
Thou knowst not what tomorrows bring—
     I wish thee well

But thou art come & soon or late
Tis thine to meet the frowns of fate
The harpy grin of envys hate
     & mermaid smiles
Of worldly follys luring bait
     That youth beguiles

& much I wish what ere may be
The lot my child that falls to thee
Nature neer may let thee see
     Her glass betimes
But keep thee from my failings free
     No itch at ryhmes

L---d help thee in thy coming years
If thy mad fathers picture 'pears
Predominant—his feeling fears
     & gingling starts
Id freely now gi vent to tears
     To ease my heart

May thou unknown to ryhming bother
Be ignorant as is thy mother
& in thy manners such another
     Save sins nigh guest
& then wi scaping this & tother
     Thou mayst be blest

L---d knows my heart I wish thee much
& may my feeling ach[e]s & such
The pains I meet in follys clutch
     Be never thine—
Child its a tender string to touch
     That sounds ‘thourt mine’


The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems (2 volumes, 1821)