“Autumn leaves: a journey to Bishopsbourne in the Elham Valley” (Guest Feature by English Writer Colin Markham)

Autumn leaves: a journey to Bishopsbourne in the Elham Valley 

Most sweet it is with uplifted eyes

To pace the ground, if path be there or none,

While a fair region round the traveller lies

Which he forbears again to look upon;

Pleased rather with some soft ideal scene,

The work of Fancy, or some happy tone

Of meditation, slipping in between

The beauty coming and the beauty gone…. [1] 

A walk through woodland can be an eerie experience, especially when the brisk hand of Autumn has wrought devastation among the trees. Hardly a sound penetrated the mournful landscape, hardly a pleasing hue to delight the eye.  All that had been lovingly touched by gentle winds and the rays of the sun now lay dormant, all the finery a sorry mass. The vibrant frills that in warmer times adorned the trees were now discarded, strewn lifeless on the rough ground and crunching under my feet.  I stopped, knelt among the array and examined a few specimens. The patterns and colours fascinated me.  I likened them to miniature works of abstract art or fragments of an artist’s palette, so delicate and unique were they.  Only a divine hand could have painted those scattered morsels of nature’s infinite beauty. Under the stark outline of once-resplendent trees, here was something of nature’s grandeur to lift my spirits in an arid season.

My musings were accompanied by the jaunty lyrics of a robin, a last hurrah to the lowering Autumn sun before the long grey prospect of Winter, a season of darkness and decay when creatures retreat from the icy grip of frost and snow, when the passage of time beats to a slow solemn knell.  I passed through countless trees divested of their foliage, gaunt, wasted and forlorn, their skeletal arms reaching out to a sullen and unforgiving sky.  A gust of wind caused the branches to creak like ancient limbs. A breath of cold air brushed my face, like the touch of a cadaver, a harbinger of things to come. I shuddered and quickened my pace, the whispering wind urging me on.

Where are the songs of Spring? Aye, where are they?

Think not of them – thou hast thy music too,

While barréd 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. [2]

The lady, the maid, the woodman and the wanderer

I came to the boundary of a great estate with a grandiose pillared entrance. I wondered who had passed this way in former times, whose footsteps had pressed the soft ground, whose hands had touched the carved stone. Perhaps the dainty hands of a refined lady carrying a basket of victuals  to the poor in Austenesque fashion,[3] or the rough hands of a hesitant maidservant newly arrived at the estate, or the calloused hands of a woodcutter wielding the tools of his trade….

….And so this man returned with axe and saw

At evening close from killing the tall treen,

The soul of whom by nature’s gentle law

Was each a wood-nymph, and kept ever green

The pavement and the roof of the wild copse,

Chequering the sunlight of the blue serene

With jagged leaves, – and from the forest tops

Singing the winds to sleep – or weeping oft

Fast showers of aerial water drops

Into their mother’s bosom, sweet and soft,

Nature’s pure tears which have no bitterness;-

Around the cradle of the birds aloft

They spread themselves into the loveliness

Of fan-like leaves, and over pallid flowers

Hang like moist clouds….[4] 

But who is this ambling along?  He cannot see me in this present dimension of time, yet I can see him clearly enough, an old man of dishevelled appearance with a battered tricorn hat perched on his head. He walks in an ungainly manner and carries over his shoulder a sack containing his meagre possessions, a threadbare scarf which he winds round his numbed hands in the worst of winter, some scraps of food, a tinderbox and a clay pipe. This last he fills infrequently when a hand of pity proffers a few strands of tobacco. Then he seeks out a comfortable nook and savours an hour of contentment, emitting a thin stream of smoke, a welcome interlude from his abject state, his senses habitually assaulted by the elements, the disdain of passers-by and the jeers of children, a lonely man of the road who wanders through the world to an uncertain fate. Who knows if he has not been inwardly shattered by his experiences, beaten down to stoical resignation, or ennobled by his close communion with Creation and the power it wields over the frailty of man? In my mind’s eye I see him limp away and slowly drop out of sight over the brow of a hill. On he goes. One more turn in the road, one more horizon, one more night in a straw-filled byre.  Then comes the end of a long journey.  On this earth and among the commonwealth of men, unknown, unloved, unmourned, forsaken. But there is One who has watched over every hour of his ordeal, every wound of adversity, and will gather him to sunlit uplands of a heavenly kind.[5]

The little hedgerow birds,

That peck along the road, regard him not.

He travels on, and in his face, his step,

His gait, is one expression: every limb,

His look and bending figure, all bespeak

A man who does not move with pain, but moves

With thought. – He is insensibly subdued

To settled quiet: he is one to whom

Long patience hath such mild composure given,

That patience now doth seek a thing of which

He hath no need. He is by nature led

To peace so perfect that the young behold

With envy, what the Old Man hardly feels.[6]

Bishopsbourne: its historical and literary heritage

Secluded in the valley, Bishopsbourne comprises a few scattered dwellings, a church and a public house.[7] The little village is reached from the main road by way of two narrow lanes.  No bus route penetrates this quiet oasis among the woods, fields and parkland [8], and the Elham Valley line has long been silent.[9] The station building and platforms remain, frozen in time and in pristine condition, now a dwelling with a manicured lawn where rails were once embedded on ballast. The ensemble is like a film set or a museum exhibit, an echo of the heyday of railways. Only a fraction survives of an extensive network.

By far the most illustrious former resident was a remarkable man.  Born in 1857 as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in eastern Poland (now Ukraine), he is known to the world as Joseph Conrad, one of the greatest novelists in the English language. His parents came from Polish nobility. His adventurous life was full of incident.  At age 4 the family were imprisoned in the Vologda province for activities against Russian oppression. Following the death of his parents he was raised by an uncle in Poland. His education was erratic but he learned French as a child and English at a later stage in his life. At the age of 16 he made his way to Marseille, began the life of a mariner and sailed the globe. After a period of gun-running, duelling, debt and a failed suicide attempt, he joined the British merchant navy where he remained for sixteen years, eventually adopting British citizenship in 1886. In 1896, having left seafaring, he married Jessie George, daughter of a bookseller. They had two sons. He also cultivated friendships with leading writers of the time.

Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895) is an adventure set in Borneo. Lord Jim (1900) is the story of an outcast sailor who redeems himself. Heart of Darkness (1902) is a powerfully atmospheric novel with the theme of humanity set against the forces of nature. Nostromo (1904) is considered his finest novel. It is set in a fictitious South American state, Costaguana, which undergoes a political revolt. The Secret Agent (1907) concerns Verloc, a seedy and incompetent anarchist. Conrad perfected an idiosyncratic but recognisably English style which is capable of elegance and highly evocative imagery that is not always easy to follow, but effort is rewarded. His command of the English language to the level of literary excellence is quite an achievement when one considers the major differences between his native and adopted tongues. They are dissimilar in every way – in origin, grammar, vocabulary and vocalisation. Conrad also penned short stories and autobiographical essays. He died in 1924 and is buried in Canterbury City Cemetery.

To illustrate his style, I quote a passage from Lord Jim, the opening paragraph of Chapter 3.

A marvellous stillness pervaded the world, and the stars, together with the serenity of their rays, seemed to shed upon the earth the assurance of everlasting security. The young moon, recurved, and shining low in the west, was like a slender shaving thrown up from a bar of gold, and the Arabian Sea, smooth and cool to the eye like a sheet of ice, extended its perfect level to the perfect circle of a dark horizon. The propeller turned without a check, as though its beat had been part of the scheme of a safe universe; and on each side of the Patna two deep folds of water, permanent and sombre on the unwrinkled shimmer, enclosed within their straight and diverging ridges, a few white swirls of foam bursting in a low hiss, a few wavelets, a few ripples, a few undulations that, left behind, agitated the surface of the sea for an instant after the passage of the ship, subsided splashing gently, calmed down at last into the circular stillness of water and sky with the black speck of the moving hull remaining everlastingly in its centre.

The writer Jocelyn Brooke (1908-1966), who lived in the village from 1949 until his death, was the son of a Folkestone vintner. He distinguished himself during the Second World War whilst serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He is best known for his semi-autobiographical Orchid Trilogy (1950).  Some might view him as an effete scribe of parochial anecdotes, but with his keen observations and eye for humour others consider him an unjustly neglected writer. One can imagine him providing ripples of amusement at tea parties frequented by ladies of a certain age, mischievous gossip sending a frisson of excitement through whalebone corsetry.

The timeless presence of the church

The parish church of St. Mary dates from the late thirteenth century and is of considerable interest.  Medieval stained glass windows have survived and later windows are of equal interest, some with an Arts and Crafts provenance.[10]  Medieval wall paintings were discovered in 1935 and conserved in 1994. They depict the Last Judgement in an idealised form, with Christ wielding swords of judgement alongside various saints.[11]

The church, like so many, is a noble monument in its stately longevity. It symbolises the solidity of faith, having stood guard here for eight hundred years, an unending pageant of humanity passing under its shadow. These pitted and weather-beaten stones have witnessed times of turbulence when the thoughts of man turned towards disputation and the struggle for power, heated conflicts that stained the pages of history with blood. Too often the cloak of reason has been cast aside to reveal the darkness of ambition, the evil that crouches at the door of the human mind.  Too often love has been consumed by hatred. Through it all the village church has remained a beacon on the hill, the symbol of an unchanging decree, the unfailing light of divine truth, and for countless generations a refuge where worship has been invoked, where solace has been sought and compassion bestowed. Lives are celebrated and mourned, prayers offered from an anguished heart. Festivity embraces the community when a man and a woman are joined in holy matrimony, joy radiated when the newborn are anointed. All humanity is grass, all its beauty like the wild flower’s. As grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord remains for ever.[12] The eternal cycle of life and death intoned in the liturgy mirrors the fortunes of man and the changing seasons, the drama of the natural world enacted all around this hallowed ground like a perpetual miracle.  Creation is played out in reassuring certitude, cultivation of the land in a measured procession of seed and fruition, with man the artisan and beneficiary of honest toil and the church a watchtower in the middle of God’s vineyard [13].

Come, pensive autumn, with thou clouds and storms

And falling leaves and pastures lost to flowers;

A luscious charm hangs on thy faded forms,

More sweet than summer in her loveliest hours,

Who in her blooming uniform of green

Delights with samely and continued joy:

But give me, autumn, where thy hand hath been,

For there is wildness that can never cloy –

The russet hue of fields left bare, and all

The tints and leaves of blossoms ere they fall.

In thy dull days of clouds a pleasure comes,

Wild music softens in thy hollow winds,

And thy fading woods a beauty blooms

That’s more than dear to melancholy minds.[14]

 

Colin Markham, November 2021

  Notes 

  1. From Evening Voluntaries, no. 48 (1833), in The poetical works of William Wordsworth, edited by Thomas Hutchinson. Oxford University Press, 1913, p.480.
  1. Ode to Autumn (third stanza) by John Keats, in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, selected by Francis Turner Palgrave. Oxford University Press, sixth edition, 1994, p.262.
  1. In Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), the eponymous heroine’s deeds of charity to the poor and the sick are in keeping with the trend among genteel ladies, the rich giving of their bounty to the underprivileged. Emma visits Miss Bates, a chatterbox spinster who lives with her aged mother in straitened circumstances, donating a basket of assorted foodstuffs (Chapter 24). In Chapter 47, Emma’s protégée, Harriet Smith, is waylaid by gypsies demanding the contents of her basket. She is rescued by gallant Frank Churchill who leaves the miscreants with threats instead of alms. Later in the novel Churchill elopes with the beautiful and enigmatic Jane Fairfax who lodges in her aunt’s (Miss Bates’) humble apartment. Marriage frees Jane from a life of exalted servitude as a governess that many educated but impoverished ladies were obliged to pursue. This theme features prominently in the works of the Bronte sisters, for instance in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, both published in 1847 and drawn from experience.
  1. From The Woodman and the Nightingale, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in The Spirit of Man, compiled by Robert Bridges. Longmans Green, 1916, entry 116.
  1. See the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16.19-31.
  1. Animal Tranquillity and Decay (1798), in The poetical works of William Wordsworth, p.572.
  1. Population 257, which includes the oddly-named hamlet of Pett Bottom. The public house is called The Mermaid Inn, a curious title so far from the sea….but perhaps a nod towards Conrad.
  1. Two country estates border on the village: Bourne Park, with an early eighteenth-century mansion, and Charlton Park, its mansion dating from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.
  1. The line, connecting Canterbury with Folkestone, was opened in 1889. In World War 2, nearby Bourne tunnel was used to house a huge rail-mounted long-range gun when not being propelled along the line to fire from different angles. This was the Boche-Buster, with an 18-inch barrel. The whole line was commandeered by the military but did not long survive the war and closed in 1947. See Branch lines in Kent, by Peter A. Harding, 1996.
  1. The Arts and Crafts movement that flourished from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth-centuries was a significant influence on aesthetics. It sought to capture a romantic image of medieval craft and design in art, architecture, furniture, textiles and ceramics. A leading proponent was William Morris (1834-1896).
  1. Matthew 25.31-46. In the Bible, the sword is figurative of divine authority and retribution – see Genesis 3.24, Deuteronomy 32.41, 1 Chronicles 21.12, Ephesians 6.17, Hebrews 4.12, Revelation 1.16. The symbolism is evident in the system of justice in the figure of Lady Justice who is blindfolded (the impartiality of the law), and holds in her right hand the scales of justice (weighing up the evidence to reach a balanced judgement), and in her left hand a sword (the power to exact punishment).
  1. Isaiah 40.6-8, (New Jerusalem Bible), and quoted by the apostle Peter in his first epistle, chapter 1, verses 24-25, where the ‘word’ becomes the Word (Gk. Logos), Jesus Christ as the essence, manifestation and knowledge of God – see John 1.1-5; Hebrews 1.1-4; 1 John 1.1-4.
  1. The vine represents the unbreakable bond between God and the people of faith, periodically fractured by man’s misdeeds but restored through God’s forgiveness. The Gentiles have been grafted on to the ancient vine cultivated by God in the chosen people, the Jews – see Isaiah 5.2; 27.2-3, Psalm 80, John 15.1-8. In Romans, chapter 11, Paul uses the olive tree to illustrate the in-grafting of the Gentiles. Olive trees can thrive for thousands of years.
  1. To Autumn, in John Clare: selected poems, edited by Jonathan Bate. Faber, 2003, p.49.

~~~~~

Colin Markham blogs at Fellowship of St. Peter.

 

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