Just a couple of miles from my home along the Otter Valley, in the centre of the cross-roads where four old paths meet, there is an ancient riven oak.  Dead now, but only a few years ago it was still producing its share of wonderfully large acorns.  It has always been known as the ‘Trysting Oak’ after generations of the local lads and lasses from Metcombe, Venn Ottery, Tipton St. John and Fluxton  had met and courted beneath its boughs.  It died because someone – Clare called such an individual ‘the spoiler’ -- set a fire in its hollow trunk.  Clare’s ‘Remembrances’ summarises my feelings about its loss, and the continued thoughtlessness of many towards growing things in the 21st century. 

Remembrances (excerpt)   
By Langley Bush I roam, but the bush hath left its hill, 
On Cowper Green I stray, tis a desert strange and chill, 
And the spreading Lea Close oak, ere decay had penned its will, 
To the axe of the spoiler and self-interest fell a prey, 
And Crossberry Way and old Round Oak's narrow lane 
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again. 
Enclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain, 
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill 
And hung the moles for traitors -- though the brook is running still 
It runs a sicker brook, cold and chill. 

MP IV 130

All that is left of Langley Bush today is a bump in a field, surmounted by a hawthorn tree planted by the Clare Society 20 years ago.

A notice on the gate says this:

The Langley Bush is situated on private land.  Permission to visit the mound should be sought from Fitzwilliam Farm (Milton Estates)’.

So to actually visit the site without ‘permission’, one must trespass on the land legally stolen from the commons during the enclosures.  My heart bleeds...


The mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932 was a notable act of ‘trespass by ordinary working people from Manchester and Sheffield.  It was undertaken at Kinder Scout, in the Peak District of Derbyshire, on 24 April 1932, to highlight that walkers in England and Wales were denied access to areas of open country that had been enclosed by rich landowners, in the early 19th Century.

Although of course long dead, I have always felt that John Clare should be their patron Saint.

The year is 1820, the place Helpston, an impoverished village in Northamptonshire.  Over the past decade the parish and those around it have been transformed by a parliamentary Enclosure Act.  For centuries the village had been surrounded by huge open fields in which labourers were entitled to farm their strips of land.  To the south, there had been a heath on which a poor man could graze a few sheep or a cow.  But now there are fences, hedgerows, gates.  Trees have been felled and “No Trespassing” signs gone up.  New roads have appeared, streams have been dammed and redirected.  Boundary lines have been imposed like a grid on a landscape that once felt open and free. The common folk?  Legally pauperised.

On paths to freedom and to childhood dear 
A board sticks up to notice “no road here” 
And on the tree with ivy overhung 
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung 
As though the very birds should learn to know 
When they go there they must no further go

An excerpt from the Act of Enclosure for Helpstone

"AND be it further Enacted, That no Horses, Beasts, Asses, Sheep, Lambs, or other Cattle, shall at any Time within the first Ten Years after the said Allotments shall be directed to be entered upon by the respective Proprietors thereof, be kept in any of the public Carriage Roads or Ways to be set out and fenced off on both Sides, or Laned out in pursuance of this Act."

So at a stroke, no poor man - without an 'allotment' -  could graze his stock on the newly enclosed land.  Pauperised at the stroke of the Parliamentary pen, largely by the very men who would benefit by the Enclosures.  So labourers such as Clare were thrown onto the not so tender mercies of those for whom they worked...

They give me eight pence by the day
& make it up at night
With six pence worth of parish pay
& can ye call it right

Pet MS B6 p166

dreaded walking where there was no path
And pressed with cautious tread the meadow swath,
And always turned to look with wary eye,
And always feared the farmer coming by;
Yet everything about where I had gone
Appeared so beautiful, I ventured on;
And when I gained the road where all are free
I fancied every stranger frowned at me,
And every kinder look appeared to say,
“You've been on trespass in your walk to-day.”
I've often thought, the day appeared so fine,
How beautiful if such a place were mine;
But having naught I never feel alone
And cannot use another's as my own.

The Poems of John Clare
ed. J. W. Tibble (2 volumes, Dent, 1935)

The Workhouse Orphan

Familiar to us all from a reading of Dickens : The workhouse orphan Oliver, 'desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery' asks for a bit more gruel, and is institutionally victimised for his temerity: confined for a week in a dark, cold and solitary room, caned by the Beadle, flogged before an audience of paupers, and preached against at prayer-time.  (Chapter 3 – Oliver Twist)

Here is Clare on a subject very dear to his heart, writing 20 years before Dickens’ famous book.

The Workhouse Orphan

With Mary Lee the parish was my lot
& its cold bounty all the friends I got
Dragd from our childhoods pleasures & its plays
We pined in workhouse sorrows many days
Were many wants recievd their scan supply
Were pity never came to check the sigh
Save what laws force from tyrant overseers
Whose bitter gifts was purchased with our tears
There ragd & starvd & workd beyond our powers
We toild those hours you spend in gathering flowers
Nor mothers smiles had we our toils to cheer
But tyrants frowns & threatnings ever near
Who beat enfeebled weakness many times
& scoft misfortunes agonys as crimes
While prides vain childern of a luckier race
Were taught to shun our presence as disgrace
Thus workhouse misery did we both abide
Till our own strength its poverty supplyd
& service freed us –

I hope I’m very wrong, but this is where we certainly seem to be heading as a nation two hundred years later: “Who beat enfeebled weakness many times / & scoft misfortunes agonys as crimes / While prides vain children of a luckier race / Were taught to shun our presence as disgrace”. 

This was published in David Powell’s  ‘Notes’ to Eric Robinson’s “The Parish’ published in 1985, and in EP I 660 (lines 57-75) & Tibbles I 492.

O england boasted land of liberty...

[Image: Unenclosed Moor]

It seems a puzzle to many that ‘The Village Minstrel’ failed so spectacularly after the sensational sales of ‘Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery’ just a year before.

However there is a clue to the failure in the lines quoted below.  This might be further clarified by asking two simple questions, “Who benefitted from the Enclosures that impoverished a whole class of worker, the farm labourer”?  and, “Who actually bought books in the 1820s”?

John Clare himself, by being so honest, alienated probably the majority of his intended readership.  Reading verses such as these made them feel very uncomfortable, trenchant criticism of the legal robbery they and their connections had perpetrated, and that, from a social inferior.

Spring more resembles winter now then spring
The shades are banishd all—the birds betook to wing
There once was lanes in natures freedom dropt
There once was paths that every valley wound
Inclosure came & every path was stopt
Each tyrant fixt his sign were pads was found
To hint a trespass now who crossd the ground
Justice is made to speak as they command
The high road now must be each stinted bound
—Inclosure thourt a curse upon the land
& tastless was the wretch who thy existance pland
O england boasted land of liberty
Wi strangers still thou mayst thy title own
But thy poor slaves the alteration see
Wi many a loss to them the truth is known
Like emigrating bird thy freedoms flown
While mongrel clowns low as their rooting plough
Disdain thy laws to put in force their own
& every village owns its tyrants now
& parish slaves must live as parish kings alow

The Village Minstrel (1821)
(lines 1081 – 1101)

Another writer put it this way, “The law itself now became the instrument by which the theft of the people’s land was achieved (...) The parliamentary form of this robbery was to pass Acts for the enclosure of commons; in other words, decrees whereby the great landowners made a present to themselves of the people’s land, which thus became their own private property.  A systematic seizure of communal landed property helped to swell the size of those great farms, which, in the eighteenth century, were called “capital farms” or “merchant farms.”  The writer?  Karl Marx in “Das Kapital”, wonder if he had read Clare?

Round Oak and Eastwell

All that is left of Eastwell Spring in 2016

In my own native field two fountains run
All desolate and naked to the sun;
The fell destroyer's hand hath reft their side
Of every tree that hid and beautified
Their shallow waters in delightful clumps,
That sunburnt now o'er pebbles skips and jumps.

One where stone quarries in its hills are broke
Still keeps its ancient pastoral name, Round Oak,
Although one little solitary tree
Is all that's left of its old pedigree.

The other, more deformed, creeps down the dell,
Scarcely the shade of what was once Eastwell,
While the elm-groves that groaned beneath no tax
Have paid their tribute to the lawless axe,
And the old rooks that waited other springs
Have fled to stranger scenes on startled wings.

The place all lonely and all naked lies,
And Eastwell spring in change's symphonies
Boils up its sand unnoticed and alone,
To all its former happiness unknown.

Its glory gone, its Sunday pastimes o'er,
The haunts of shepherds and of maids no more.
The passer-by unheeding tramples on
Nor heeds the spring, nor trees nor bushes gone,
While the stray poet's memory haunts the spot
Like a friend's features time hath nigh forgot.

The Poems of John Clare, ed. J. W. Tibble
(2 volumes, Dent, 1935)

Round Oak Spring

Sweet brook Ive met thee many a summers day
& ventured fearless in thy shallow flood
& rambled oft thy sweet unwearied way
Neath willows cool that on thy margin stood
With crowds of partners in my artless play
Grasshopper beetle bee & butterflye
That frisked about as though in merry mood
To see their old companion sporting bye
Sweet brook lifes glories once were thine & mine
Shades cloathed thy spring that now doth naked lie
On thy white boiling sand the sweet woodbine
Darkened & dipt its flowers — I mark & sigh
& muse oer troubles since we met the last
Like two fond friends whose happiness is past

Pet MS A23 R42
MP IV 280

Round Oak Spring is now nothing more than a drainage ditch, running east from a point a hundred metres or so SW of Royce Wood.