His bible first in place – from worth and age
Whose grandsires name adorns the title page
And blank leaves once now filled with kindred claims
Display a worlds epitome of names
Parents and childern and grand childern all
Memorys affections in the list recall…
‘The Cottager’, John Clare
The Bluebell car park beside Clare Cottage, Helpston, Northamptonshire
I’d imagined it would be easy to slip through a gap in the garden wall and find my way back two hundred years. But as I crouch in the half-light that filters between the capstones, the synchronicity I’m seeking remains elusive. Time has unpleated again, each folded kink dawn-drawn straight. Beyond the wall, wood pigeons call and a chaffinch pinks in the hedge. I touch the ground, rubbing sandy grains between my thumb and forefinger, but the past refuses to rise like it does in my local snickets. Perhaps my knowledge of this place is too theoretical: slant traces mined in poetry’s margins, in autobiographical writings, church rates, birth and death records, family letters, photographs and oral memories. I don’t yet have the layered experience of walking this land, finding the measure of its stories. Confined to the present, I concentrate on what I can see in the garden. Primroses clumped on the grassy bank, narcissi and euphorbia matted under the apple tree, wisps of forsythia blossom and errant blackthorn volunteers in the hedge. Beneath these familiars, the garden sleeps like the inhabitants of The Bluebell and the surrounding houses. It’s peaceful, idyllic even, but it would be false to project this silence and isolation back in time. Rewind the centuries and this secluded spot would have been as busy in the early morning as any modern town or city.
Gardens ground me; I belong more readily to trees, earth and grass, to vegetables and birdsong than to stones and mortar – and it is through being with the garden, absorbing its present rhythms and considering its past, that I sense connection at last. The rising sun calls to me, to the cottagers, bestir yourselves and meet the new day. Early comings and goings, nods and murmured greetings as we share access to the outdoor privy, gather a handful of faggots, fill pans with water from the village pump. Through open doors I see fires in each hearth, smell warm milk on the breeze. I’m drawn first to the women of the cottage: Martha Clare, the poet’s wife, with her five-week-old daughter; Elizabeth Spiers, older and perhaps a little wiser, her bairns now all grown; and Mary Housden, another young mother nursing her second infant, watching her eldest crawling in circles beneath the apple tree. Three busy women already preoccupied with the day’s pattern, their shared pathways (bedroom – hearth, hearth – garden, garden – village, village – hearth) inscribed across the centuries from the Latin domesticus: belonging to the home.
And what of the fathers? In Clare’s poem ‘Summer Morning’ written in 1819, the shepherd’s dawning elides cottage and garden, moving seamlessly from the cockerels’ awakening in the village to the day’s work in the fields:
The cocks have now the morn foretold,
The sun again begins to peep;
The shepherd, whistling to his fold,
Unpens and frees the captive sheep.
O’er pathless plains, at early hours,
The sleepy rustic sloomy goes;
The dews, brush’d off from grass and flowers,
Bemoistening sop his harden’d shoes;
Behind the shepherd and his barley crust – the kitchen, the hearth, the garden. Women and children cooking together, eating, washing, in conversation, at play.
Just over two centuries ago, my great-great-great-grandfather was born in what became known as Clare Cottage. His footsteps traced this garden as he grew. His parents, Mary and John Housden, rented one of the five tenements in the cottage with their growing family from 1818, the year their first child Elizabeth was born. They lived this one-up, one-down life until at least 1821, possibly longer – the church rates peter out for a few years and John Housden, having accrued arrears, disappears from the records until 1838. Perhaps he required parish support, thus exempting him from church rates, as he brought up eight children on a shepherd’s wage.
By the summer of 1820, there were at least three children in the cottage – my three times great-grandfather Henry Housden and Anna Maria Clare (Martha and John Clare’s daughter), both born in early June 1820, and two-year-old Elizabeth Housden. In these intimate conditions, nobody would have managed much sleep. I remember those twilight days, exhilarating, maddening, urgent, but can’t imagine having nine children and raising the seven who survived infancy in such cramped rooms as Mary and Martha did. In some ways though I envy these women. Not the smells, the poverty, the raging fen-fever, but the communal family life, so different from my more solitary motherhood.
The cottage and garden provide a tangible link to the past, tapping deep into familial seams that now pull me, as if by ancestral lodestone, one hundred miles north-west and one hundred years hence to 1920s Manchester where Harry Housden, Henry’s grandson and my great-grandfather, rests his feet on a small mahogany footstool, carved by a school friend while learning his craft as an undertaker. He opens his copy of John Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar to read to his seven-year-old daughter, Dorothy. It has been a long day working at Buss & Sons ironmongers in the city and back home Harry can feel the pressure on his chest, the mustard-gas legacy that eases as he returns in his mind to the cottage in Helpston:
The shutters closd the lamp alight
The faggot chopt and blazing bright
The shepherd from his labour free
Dancing his childern on his knee
Or toasting sloe boughs sputtering ripe
Or smoaking glad his puthering pipe…
He remembers the crackle of the fire in the Queen’s Head on West Street in Helpston. One evening helping Uncle Will draw the beer, a local man in the pub tells him about his dada emptying a power flask into the fire to show Aunt Hannah the pretty colours and how it exploded in his face, burning him and they had to send for grandfather. Harry never knew his grandfather Henry, but imagines his childhood in the fields, listening to the shepherds’ tales and folk songs as the men seek shelter in the last of the shepherds’ huts, crouched round the blaze under the brake-crossed roof.
He thinks of these gatherings as he whistles ‘Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away’ under his breath at work, wondering about the songs his grandfather learnt from the old shepherds before their itinerant lives passed into history and shepherding changed forever. Grandfather’s life was a world away from Shadwell’s pastoral lyrics, yet his love of music and poetry has followed the family from Helpston to Manchester, where his daughter has been listening to the children’s choir singing Purcell’s music, recorded earlier in the summer at the Free Trade Hall just down the road from the ironmongers where he works.
Although I never met my great-grandfather Harry, I still have some of his books, battered hardbacks each with his personalised stamp ‘Harry Housden Ex Libris’, the mark of his working-class yearning for the freedom of libraries and books. Born in Hulme in 1894 after his father Harry Snr moved from Helpston in the late 1880s, in one of the terraces Sylvia Pankhurst described as the ‘endless rows of smoke-begrimed little houses, with never a tree or a flower in sight’, Manchester has never tethered him; rather he has watched his father revert from coal carter back to field labourer (or the nearest incarnation in Hulme – a municipal parks’ attendant) and has felt the heft of the sheep sward – every layer of stone, soil and grass – on his own skin. Work and family now gather him into Manchester’s folds each evening, but words, particularly Clare’s verse, unpen every enclosure and set his mind free.
Harry’s daughter Dorothy, the first female descendent of John Housden in my direct line after four forefathers, was my mum’s mum – my granny. Her fierce passion for language and her desire to engage with the wild, instigated and later fuelled my need to be outside and to understand the natural world through the written word. She was an influential figure in my childhood and as an adult I became friends with this uncompromising, wildly intellectual woman. We exchanged hundreds of letters spanning several decades, discussing botanical observations from her Welsh lanes and my Durham woodlands, and sharing our love of reading, foraging and cooking.
Some of the letters from the 1990s include thin sheets with unusual words saved from a tear-off calendar I gave her for Christmas. Open the letters and, as like as not, word-gifts fall out – ‘cade’, ‘precatory’, ‘eirenic’ – sometimes singly, or presented as glossaries, hoarded from weeks of reading, crosswords, scrabble and WI talks. After a lecture by an ‘archeology chap’ in 1993, she sent me ‘palimpsest’, noting its associations with superimposition and erasure. With hindsight, it was an apt gift. It reminds me that although I imagine each chapter in my life an original story, I am written with inherited genes across a nurtured slate.
Granny’s letters include definitions and etymologies alongside recipes for Bara Brith (the Welsh ‘speckled bread’) and sago pudding; instructions for cooking hare; the persecution of girl guides in Russia in the early twentieth century; Milton’s Paradise Lost and the preoccupations of Trollope; the difficulties of saving up for an annual holiday; field margin memories: ‘lines of snowdrops in the hedge bottom where the Jersey cows graze’; blackberrying in a poor fruit year in the fields off the Llanrwst Road; pied flycatchers at Pensychnant; when the blackcaps return to the chapel field; and the ‘town clock plant’ in Llangelynnin: ‘only a little flower, a green one. Five faces like a box and the little yellow stamens look like figures on a clock. Its real name is moschatel’.
One windy August evening, Granny collected her last apronful of Bramleys and stacked them in a bowl for stewing in the morning. She was eighty-eight. Death came peacefully and unexpectedly, the apples remained unstewed and, over time, we began to go through her records, photographs and books. Her Walter Robinson (Grocers) notebook from 1963 includes intriguing delights like hokey-pokey (honeycomb), Grecian orange cake and Swedish apple cake, an unaccountable recipe for hair tonic (rosemary, southern wood, myrtle berries and hazel bark) and lists of butcher’s orders from the 70s – pigs’ livers and heads, skirt and belly of beef. Exact amounts of foraged blackberries and elderberries are listed in the freezer contexts section, with frozen green beans from my childhood garden, and cod, whiting and mackerel from nearby Urmston market in Manchester, where she would walk twice a week to buy provisions.
In the middle of the book, sandwiched between the recipe for Joan’s Choc Cake and a list of gooseberries, pork joints and plaice, I found the final five lines of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 29’:
Haply I think on thee, and then my state
(Like to the lark at break of day arising)
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate.
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Perhaps she was noting, in the midst of the thrifty domestic details which enabled her to feed her family, the joy inherent in creating, in cooking, in providing. The fact that poetry blends with pigs’ trotters and gooseberries, with soup recipes and freezer lists, epitomises her life – a working class, frugal existence lived with a freedom borne out of a wild imagination.
We also found letters from Harry Housden Jnr written to his parents during his childhood visits to Helpston at the beginning of the twentieth century and photographs of Henry Housden’s daughter, Eliza, outside the almshouses in the village. There had always been family rumours of a connection to John Clare, my great-grandfather’s favourite poet, but I hadn’t paid them much attention. Now old letters and photographs led me to Helpston’s Church Rates and Jonathan Bate’s essays and biography of Clare, which confirmed that John Housden (the shepherd) had lived alongside John Clare (the poet).
I’d never even heard of Clare or Helpston in my twenties – his work was conspicuously absent from university English syllabi at the end of the twentieth century – but my correspondence with Granny reminds me now of the letters I’m researching between John Clare and Joseph Henderson, the head gardener at Milton Hall near Peterborough. The friends corresponded regularly and there are over seventy extant letters from Henderson to Clare in the Egerton manuscripts at the British Library, though only four short drafts remain from Clare to Henderson. The genial letters usually begin with Henderson’s apology for keeping Clare’s manuscripts or borrowed books for too long and then discuss the poetry, political writings or novels they are reading. Most end with Henderson’s description of plants in the garden at Milton Hall, his botanising trips or the moths and birds he’s observed. Often his last sentence refers to the cuttings or wild plants, caterpillars and birds’ nests that passed between the two friends.
Granny and I also sent specimens back and forth. The first postcard I ever sent (of a herring gull) when I was six was accompanied by a heart pendant. She responded:
The heart arrived safely in its tight paper cocoon. I wondered what I should find when I opened the parcel. Would it be a bit of Stephen’s birthday cake or a moth pupa Daddy didn’t want?
My time at university was punctuated by the arrival of cake bundles – parkin, potato cakes and Welsh cakes wrapped in brown paper. In one letter, Granny recalled sending cakes to her mother-in-law, from Davyhulme to Pakenham in the 1950s:
I used to make a date loaf and post it in a loaf tin. Postage wasn’t too steep in those days. Then she would post it back and, in a fortnight or so, I would send her another cake.
As I reread our correspondence, I notice the oldest pages are yellowed and brittle, embryonic versions of Clare’s letters, pressed in the heart of the bundle like desiccated herbarium specimens, and I am struck by the way our love of reading is preserved between these pages. In 1993, I wrote to Granny, about the authors I was studying at university. She replied:
I had no idea you were so enamoured of books as books. My Dad was like that. [He] came from a very poor family, and when he first started work, he saved to buy books. The Collins library, mostly classics cost 1/- each in those days, and it took him some time to save enough to buy one. You must have seen some of his books in your house. Hard dark red backs with his ‘Ex Libris’ inside the front cover. If my dad saw me with one of his books, he automatically asked “Have you washed your hands?” I never felt irritated at the question. I suppose I realized I was privileged to read his precious books.
I suspect Harry would have been delighted to see inspiration flaring into the future as well as reaching back into the past. The week Granny died, my daughter Helena was conceived, and her growing love of words and nature taps into a legacy that Grandpa must have felt when he told me Granny would never be gone while I was still alive. When she was six, Helena discovered poetry. She read the short poem ‘Fern’ aloud (from Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ spell-binding collection The Lost Words) and relished the taste of its coiled alliteration. And now, when she disappears into her bedroom and returns with a note for her friend that reads ‘Wildlife, natuer, woodland, woods, summer medows. And lots of other things About Natuer. Draw your own Natuer’, I ache for all the joy and sorrow her love of the natural world will bring her as she grows.
The world begins to stir around me. A lad from the pub wheels a trolley stacked with catering boxes through the car park. I smile at him and rise, out of the garden’s gathered dawnings. Behind me, Clare cottage is quiet and still – no fires, no chatter, no signs of life – so I head back into The Bluebell. I’m ready for my breakfast.
Nic Wilson is a Guardian Country Diarist. She writes about nature, gardens, landscape and literature. Her work features in national magazines and journals including the John Clare Society Journal, Gardeners’ World Magazine and RHS The Garden, as well as Katharine Norbury’s acclaimed anthology, Women on Nature. She curates the UK Peat Free Nurseries List. Follow her on Twitter.
The photographs in this piece are used by permission of the author. The photograph at the head of the essay was taken outside Helpston almshouses in the 1920s. Nic’s grandmother is on the right..