Wednesday, 11 July 2012

John Clare Day

It was nice to see George Monbiot, in The Guardian, talking about the greatness of John Clare, his role as chronicler of the enclosure of great swathes of the English countryside in the early 19th century, and as elegist for what was lost.

I'd have to seriously take issue with his opening sentence, though, in which he claims that Helpston is now situated in one of the most dismal and regularised tracts of countryside in Europe. Now, the mania in this country for 'tidying up' every bit of countryside people can find is a personal bugbear, and it's undoubtedly true that in most parts of England (and parts of the rest of Britain, too), there's a depressing lack of the patchwork of habitats that would have been common back in Clare's day (although it's also worth noting that many of them would have been manmade, too).

But Helpston is no worse than most places, and a lot better than many others. It's just at the edge of the Fens, so although there are prairie-style fields in the vicinity, it's far from being unbroken expanses of intensive farmland. Just to the south, Castor Hanglands is a National Nature Reserve, and along with neighbouring Ailsworth Heath (the Emmonsails Heath of Clare's poems), retains some of its former glory. There are several woodlands, Maxey Gravel Pits (a working quarry, but a breeding site for a lot of birds), and a little further north, the lakes around Lolham* and Tallington. Regularised? No, far from it. Dismal? Not really - I think George is trying far too hard to bring Helpston itself into his argument about Clare. He really doesn't need to.

* Clare's name can be found carved into one of the arches of the bridges near Lolham that carry the East Coast mainline across one of the streams. The bridges, Lolham Brigs in his poems, have been around in one form or another since Roman times - nice that Clare left his mark on them.

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