A Happy New Year to you all!
I’ve just returned from a family gathering in the Cotswolds. It was a world away from the sodden greyness of my home in Cumbria. I was staying in a converted water mill by the side of a diminutive river Thames – really just a stream flowing from the nearby Thames Head. The rushing water was a constant undersound to our comings and goings. We explored the field paths, the river path and the little villages of Somerford Keynes, Pool Keynes and Ewen. I enjoyed being able to go for cross-country walks without having to spend ten minutes putting on multiple layers, waterproofs, wellies. It was warm for midwinter, so warm that daffodils were a foot high with tight spears of buds ready to open in a week or two. Some wild plants were already in flower – celandines, primroses, white dead nettle (lots of those – flowers April to June and autumn according to Keble Martin). And it was light – a few degrees south, pale skies and that ubiquitous yellow stone. Years ago when I worked in Oxford and my parents lived in Warwickshire I would dread the winter drives home through the Cotswolds – snow often fell on the high land and drifted against the drystone walls.
The cottage was at the end of a farm track and this part of Gloucestershire is a quiet backwater. It seemed the epitome of the landscape of lowland England and to me had the atmosphere of John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Laurie Lee. It’s a place bypassed by major routes – Shakespeare travelling through the Cotswolds on his journeys between Stratford upon Avon and London would have missed this area. His road would have been further east through Oxford.
But it was not always so. We spent a day in Cirencester, in Roman times the second most important town in Britain, with a population similar in number to the present. We walked over the grassy humps and hollows of the remains of the large amphitheatre and saw the beautiful Roman mosaics and wall plaster in the museum. At Cirencester the great roads of imperial Roman Britain intersected: the Fosse Way, Akeman Street, the Ermin Way. Hardy’s Wessex is south of here but the road map reminded me of one of his poems:
The Roman Road
The Roman Road runs straight and bare
As the pale parting-line in hair
Across the heath. And thoughtful men
Contrast its days of Now and Then,
And delve, and measure, and compare;
Visioning on the vacant air
Helmed legionaries, who proudly rear
The Eagle, as they pace again
The Roman Road.
But no tall brass-helmed legionnaire
Haunts it for me. Uprises there
A mother’s form upon my ken,
Guiding my infant steps, as when
We walked that ancient thoroughfare,
The Roman Road.
(Thomas Hardy 1840-1928)