I was out on the bike this morning, and I saw what I always consider the first fruits of autumn... blackberries.  My mind immediately went to Clare 200 years ago.

Blackberrying may appear to be a trivial subject in John Clare's poetry, generally referred to in passing as a characteristic autumnal activity, along with collecting elderberries to make wine, or hazel nuts, or mushrooms, or water-cress, or gathering rotten wood for the cottage-fire.  Essentially, it is not different from those other rural activities, which formed part of the cottager's economy in every part of Europe.


In the English fens, the inhabitants believed that the produce of the wasteland came to them by right.  Also in the fens: "At dusk, the passer-by might be confronted by silently-moving lines of shadowy figures, their backs bent under the weight of trunks and piled-up wood, as they headed for home". Clare referred to this wood as "rotten," omitting the word "wood" occasionally.


Where stickers stroll from day to day

And gather loads of rotten wood

And poachers left in safety stray

When midnight wears its deepest mood.

(from Walks in the Woods)


Clare's natural sympathies are with the "stickers," as he calls them: the "wood-men," on the other hand, the agents of the landowners, are "terrifying rascals" who "make a prison of the forrests and are its joalers." (sic) Just as the fallen wood belonged by right to the local inhabitants in the forests in all parts of Europe, so, according to popular belief, did the fallen wood belong to the locals near the oak woods of Stamford, and, in both regions, led to conflict between landowners and peasants, between the lord's steward and gypsies, or the woodman and villagers.


The conflict over wood extended to other products of the waste -- rabbits, hares, birds, withies, reeds, cresses, sloes, dewberries, nuts, mushrooms, elderberries, wild strawberries and blackberries, not to mention eggs, snakes, deer, eels, fish, and other edibles.  The custom of nutting, which Clare celebrates, was particularly disliked by the landowners, their servants and the tenant-farmers.  The pages of the Stamford Mercury and Drakard's Stamford News are filled with advertisements and articles regarding the practice; the Mercury, upholding the rights of the landowners, the News those of the rural population.

(Robinson & Rowe)


Clare's political comments (again)

Clare's comments aways seem fresh and topical whenever I read them... here are two, both of which are not too well known.

"I fear these tory radicals these out of place patriots (or parrots) who are so loud in their [complaints] against the present ministry       [They] only want to make paddles of the people to sail into their harbours of old sinecures    & then to be again themselves      they will be as silent of suffering people and all such alusions - as an old maid of her age or an old borough monger of common honesty"

"The wigs & torys may be better classified perhaps by the terms of outs & ins    for be they wigs or torys in those situations    the outs are always vociverators of “liberty” “cruelty of taxation” & “good of the people”    while the ins are inflexible tyrants & determined supporters of all that is oppressing & annoying to the people   & benefitting to themselves & their connections"

Likely written in the mid-1820s.

Not the 2021 Festival... BUT

Not the 2021 Festival

Some idea of what some of us be doing on the 9th and 10th July @ Helpston


There being no John Clare Society Festival this year, a few of us will still be meeting to honour the great man this year at Helpston.  Not ‘official’ of course, but I wanted to attract everyone’s attention!  Anyone who would like to join us will be very welcome indeed, for any of the days.


Friday 9th

Helpston 2021. Folk I guess will be travelling on the 9th or 10th so several of us thought it might be good to start to gather in the Bluebell, after 7pm on the 9th for a convivial chat over a drink. It has already been announced that there will be the usual ‘Folk Evening’ at the Bluebell that evening, always a treat.

Saturday 10th

We will be meeting at 10:00am – 10:15am at Butter Cross in the centre of Helpston.  From there we will walk across the road to St. Botolph’s Church and Clare’s grave.  New Rector Gary (a Clare fan of course) is conducting a ‘Clare BCP Service' at 11am.  Only 30 places available however.


After which can either have a bite at the BBell and then stroll around the village, OR...go by car to St. Andrew’s Church, Northborough (via Maxey) and Patty’s grave (and other members of the family) – and finally to St. Benedict’s Church, Glinton and Mary’s grave.  Be armed with something of Clare’s poems/prose to read by each graveside. We do not intend to lay wreaths just honour each individual in our own way.


I am informed that the Cottage will be open for drinks (according to their website).


That evening we will certainly will return to the Bluebell for dinner as many of us have in earlier years.


Well... something like that anyway.  I’ll being a few books for those wishing to catch up with the Chapbook series and would be happy to give a talk, or conduct the walk, if required!  Very open to suggestions.


Roger R.

There's something in the air...

180 years ago, a once famous poet decided to leave the asylum he lad lived in for three years, and walk the 80-odd miles up the Great North Road to his home in Northborough on the very fringe of the fens, just a few miles north of Peterborough.  The poet was of course, John Clare, and very troubled of mind he trekked the route virtually feeling his way, mile after mile.  In 2020/21 there must be something in the air, for there are four new books that explore his famous walk.  

The first, 'The Descending Spiral' (Roger Rowe : Arbour Editions Chapbook No.16), seeks to examine Clare's state of mind during that fateful year.  A year that saw him escape from one asylum in the Summer of 1841 only to be committed to another just after Christmas.  The evidence for this exploration of the confused mind of the poet was and is his vast output of verse and prose written during the year.

The second book, 'Love's Cold Returning' (Ellis Hall & Bridget Somekh' : Thirteen Eighty One Press), is an exploration in prose and poetry, with numerous colour photographs, seeking out the remains of Clare's world in the twenty-first century, of the route he took and the folk he met.  Moving from canals and aqueducts to gridlocked roads, from common land and open heath to land banks and intensive agriculture. Truly a detective story, a historical adventure and a meditation on love and loss.

The third book, 'Child Harold' (Roger Rowe : Arbour Editions Chapbook No.20), contains the actual text of Child Harold, it is believed for the first time in a dedicated volume.  The text is fairly well known, but it is ordered in the way outlined briefly by Clare scholar Salman Al Wasiti in an appendix to his PhD thesis in the 1970s.  The order of Clare's Child Harold poems has been debated for 50 years, but not published in this form until now.

The fourth book, to be published in June 2021, 'A Length of Road' (Robert Hamberger : John Murray Press), is a part memoir, part travel-writing, part literary criticism, it is a deeply profound and poetic exploration of class, gender, grief and sexuality through the author's own experiences and through the autobiographical writing of poet John Clare. Clare attempting to return to his idealized first love, Mary, unaware that she had died three years earlier.

Three Springs

[Image:  Glinton Church and graveyard]

For some while Clare found the reports of Mary Joyce's hard to believe, but then in late 1841 he wrote this... 


O Mary dear, three Springs have been

Three Summers too have blossomed here

Three blasting Winters crept between

Though absence is the most severe

Another Summer blooms in green

But Mary never once was seen

I've sought her in the fields & flowers

I've sought her in the forest groves

In avenues & shaded bowers

& every scene that Mary loves

E'en round her home I seek her here

But Mary’s absent every-where

‘Tis autumn & the rustling corn

Goes loaded on the creaking wain

I seek her in the early morn

But cannot meet her face again

Sweet Mary she is absent still

& much I fear she ever will

She died three years before, the day after Clare's birthday.

The Dream (excerpt)

Clare in a dark, dark mood...

Red lightning shot its flashes as they came

& passing clouds seemed kindling into flame 

& strong & stronger came the sulphury smell

With demons following in the breath of hell 

Laughing in mockery as the doomed complained 

Losing their pains in seeing others pained 

Fierce raged destruction sweeping oer the land 

& the last counted moment seemed at hand 

As scales near equal hang the earnest eyes 

In doubtful balance which shall fall or rise

So in the moment of that crashing blast 

Eyes hearts & hopes paused trembling for the last 

Loud burst the thunders clap & yawning rents 

Gashed the frail garments of the elements 

Then sudden whirlwinds winged with purple flame 

& lightnings flash in stronger terrors came 

Burning all life & nature where they fell 

& leaving earth as desolate as hell 

(lines 43-60)

The Ladybird

Ladybird ladybird where art thou gone
Ere the daisy was open or the rose it was spread 

On the cabbage flower early thy scarlet wings shone 

I saw thee creep off to the tulip bed


Ladybird ladybird where art thou flown 

Thou wert here in the morning before the sun shone 

Just now up the bowl o' the damson tree 

You passed the gold lichen & got to the grey 

Ladybird ladybird where can you be 

You climb up the tulips & then fly away 


You crept up the flowers while I plucked them just now 

& crept to the top & then flew from the flowers 

O sleep not so high as the damson tree bough 

But come from the dew i' the eldern tree bowers 


Here's lavender trees that would hide a lone mouse 

& lavender cotton wi' buttons o' gold 

& bushes o' lads love as dry as a house 

Here's red pinks & daisies so sweet to behold 


Ladybird ladybird come to thy nest 

The gold beds i' the rose o the sweet brier tree 

Wi rose coloured curtains to pleasure thee best 

Come Ladybird back to thy Garden & Me 

Pet MS C3 p189