Summer Bells and Rain by Virginia Astley


Summer Bells and Rain at Dorchester.


It is mid-August when I return to the river. I only have only a few days and this time I decide to stay a little further upstream, basing myself at Dorchester-on-Thames. The town sits on the confluence of the river and its tributary, the Thame, and is dominated by the abbey, appropriately, as this was a site of early Christianity. Before the present abbey there was a Saxon cathedral, followed by a medieval monastery. It was St Birinus who was responsible for the conversion of Wessex to Christianity back in the 7th century. I remember the boys’ school at Didcot was called St Birinus.


I’ve booked a room at the Fleur de Lys Inn. There’s no one around when I arrive and, strangely, the number for the key safe is plastered on the front door. It all feels slightly deserted. My room is called Abbey View, which would be accurate if it were not for the very large horse chestnut blocking the view. It is, however, a splendid looking tree and, despite not being able to see the abbey,  I know it’s there as its clock chimes every quarter of an hour. I wonder if it continues all night. The room looks out over the medieval street. When I was a child, this was still the main road to Oxford, filled with traffic and noise. Its atmosphere changed completely once the by-pass was built – the town becoming the peaceful backwater it is today. I’m sure there used to be more shops and antique dealers but there is still a Co-Op. I have also seen the sweet, little café called Lily’s that I used to bring my mum too, but it looks like it’s no longer open. I suspect Covid has caused it to shut down.


At 6pm I decide I must make myself walk to the river. The heat has had a soporific effect on me, and it is some way off, across fields, to Days Lock. Feeling lethargic I head slowly south down a fenced-in path, passing hot-looking sheep grazing on non-existent grass, and a walnut tree weighed down with its freight. I skim the edge of the earthworks, eventually coming to the lock where I stand on the metal path above the weir, allowing the sound to run over me, breathing deeply that familiar, rich smell of earth and air. This is where I will record tomorrow night, I decide. That is until I remember recording at Cleeve and how the weir overwhelms any other sound.


When I get back, I find there is no food served at the Fleur de Lys and spend a listless evening texting, eating crisps and resigned to watching rubbish TV, when suddenly I hear a single bell tolling from the abbey tower. Another joins in and I realise the bells are in the process of being ‘rung-up’. The tolling bells slow until eventually there is a silence, broken only by the calling of the collared dove, and I wonder what is going to happen. Is this the start of a practice? After a couple of minutes, the bells begin. There are six and roughly tuned to an Eb major scale, the lowest being the G – the third of the scale – rising to the Eb above. At first there is just the falling scale but, after roughly twenty rounds of this, the ringers’ patterns start to alter. This is known as call changes. Eventually, for a few seconds, they are rising and I particularly love this: G Ab Bb C Eb D. The way the phrase ends on the leading note creates a brief sense of yearning and it’s a pattern I make a note of, thinking maybe I can write something that will incorporate this. There is a break after a while, and I wonder if the ringers are having a cup of tea or possibly something stronger. When they resume, someone must have left as we are down to only five bells. However, it’s still very restorative and, in a strange way, peaceful. I think it’s their hypnotic effect. After about forty minutes, the sixth ringer must have returned, and the session ends with all six bells. This sounds better – five didn’t sound quite right. As the session draws to its close the bells are all rung closer together, until great clanging chords are sounding, reverberating round the village. This is the process of the bells being rung down, which is how they will be left until they are next rung. By the time I finally get into bed, despite having the strong suspicion I’m the only person in the building, I fall asleep straight away. The abbey, however, continues to make its presence known. All night. Every quarter of an hour in fact. This is less relaxing and more disruptive than the continuous ringing. At about 3am I decide to record the chimes. I set up my Sony on the window ledge and after checking the levels go back to sleep. For another fifteen minutes … and another.


The following morning, I set out to walk to the river again, taking a slightly different route, passing an octagonal toll house where I cut down a quiet lane. Two old pubs have been converted into houses and there are some fine brick and flint banded houses. I pass a bench and a sign: ‘Tea and Cake x 2 £5’ but there is no one around. The only sign of life is a brood of hens scuffling about under giant sunflowers. Eventually I see an unusual angular brick pill box and know the river can’t be far away. I cross a bridge over the entrance to a tributary which must be the Thame. It looks overgrown and unnavigable these days. Finally, I’m by the Thames where a small cruiser with the mysterious name Water Elm is moored and, just a little further, a large live-aboard, Lady Emma. On my right, across the water, Wittenham Clumps – also known as Sinodun Hills – can be seen rising above the river. Along with Didcot Power Station, these were the landmarks of our childhood. Again, like the power station, they helped us orientate ourselves in the landscape, gave us an idea of where we were on our first independent, teenage journeys. Some years ago, the trees on the top died and although some more trees and shrubs have grown, they don’t have the same silhouettes. It doesn’t really resemble the mental picture I have stored. This was the view that the artist Paul Nash painted repeatedly. He visited in 1911, staying with relatives in Sinodun House, just outside Wallingford, and was charmed by the two wooded hills rising from the fields. He wrote to his friend Mercia Oakley:


The country about is marvellous – Grey hollowed hills crowned by old, old trees, Pan-ish places down by the river wonderful to think on, full of strange enchantment …


Nash returned in 1912 when he drew the Clumps for the first time: ‘I wanted an image of them that would express what they meant to me.’  This was a defining moment for Nash as the hills and his intense feeling for them, his relationship with them, were bound up in his finding his path as a landscape painter:


Ever since I remember them the Clumps had meant something to me. I felt their importance long before I knew their history. They eclipsed the impression of all the early landscapes I knew […] They were the Pyramids of my small world.


Wittenham Clumps was somewhere that Nash was drawn to, again and again, painting them for over thirty years. His last pictures were of them too, this time viewed from much further away – from Boars Hill, outside Oxford. Seen from a friend’s house the Clumps were so distant that Nash used field glasses to bring them nearer. He painted roughly 26 paintings of this view. This was, and had been from the first, his Singing Place.


At last, by the river itself, my shoulders relax and I breathe slower, inhaling the river air. I hadn’t realised how tense I had become. The first boat to go downstream is one that was moored above the lock last night – the one I’m always seeing – Nautiboy. From far away drifts the drone of a combine harvester. It’s that time of year. A large white butterfly flickers among nettles and the willowherb that has started to go over. Convolvulus has wrapped itself everywhere, its ice cream-coloured trumpets adorning everything. A hire boat goes downstream far too fast and, as I hear the slap of its wake hitting the bank, I worry about nests. Hopefully, the river birds and ducklings will all have fledged by now.


From far above comes the curious whistle of a red kite as it cuts the air, passing over the Queen Anne house that my sister Alison always loved. We would see it across the field, waiting patiently like some perfect unplayed-with dolls house. I cross the river at Shillingford Bridge and decide to have a cup of tea in the riverside garden of the hotel. This is the hotel that, many years ago, my brother Gareth and his wife Deborah had their wedding reception. The place is deserted today, and I’m wondering if it has actually re-opened, but eventually someone appears and I order a pot of tea. Outside I chat to Daver, who’s mowing the grass down to the river, and realise it’s the first conversation I’ve had in two days. There’s a vintage boat moored up. This is the Charles Cooper Henderson, originally a beach-launched lifeboat based in Dungeness. It was one of the Dunkirk Little Ships and a transcript from the skipper at the time suggests she saved more than two thousand troops.


‘That boat holds some stories,’ I say to Daver as I think about all the lives connected to the boat and what must still resonate within her, the echoes of dramatic rescues. Looking at my phone, and realising I must carry on, I ask Daver the way to Wittenham Clumps.

‘Keep to the towpath at the end here, and when you can go no further there’ll be a permissive path to your left. Head up there and around the fields and you’ll come to the woods. Just keep going and you’ll come out at the hill.’

Thanking Daver, I set off, grateful for his directions. It feels good to be walking by the river again. Normally it feels cooler by the water but not today. Rounding a corner, I suddenly stop. A couple have erected a small table on the towpath and are sat drinking glasses of Prosecco.

‘This is the way to live,’ the man says smiling.

‘Cheers!’ the woman adds, raising her glass as I squeeze past.

In this heat I’m relieved to reach the cool of the woods but nonetheless I feel cautious as I enter their darkness. Once again there is no one about. I walk briskly and am grateful to reach the sunlight beyond and be making my way to the summit. Up here all I can hear is the wind in the trees and a few rooks. Most birds are silent. It’s too hot to sing. But it’s amazing to be at the top with views all around.


Last time I was here was nearly ten years ago when my daughter Florence and I were walking the full length of the river after I’d finished working as Summer Assistant at Benson Lock. We’d stayed the night at a B&B in Long Wittenham and having suggested Sinodun Hills to a couple, who had asked where was good to walk, it had occurred to me that Florence and I should climb the hill. It’s somewhere Alison and I came to as children, and Alison eventually painted the hills for her Art A level. For years her painting leant against the wall in our old bedroom, fading in the sunlight – a shame as it was such a beautiful thing. But the skyline is so very different now. I was pleased to find an old postcard recently in KP, the stationers in Wallingford; it shows the view as it was, with the original beech trees planted in the 1740s. Many of the trees were lost in the great storm of 1987 and, just a few weeks before Florence and I visited, the famous ‘poem tree’ had fallen. It had been the wettest May to July on record followed by extreme heat. The poem was carved into a beech by Joseph Tubb of Warborough Green back in 1844. Luckily, to the eastern side of the hill we’d come across a stone carved with the words of his poem:


As up the hill with labr’ing steps we tread
Where the twin Clumps their sheltering branches spread
The summit gain’d at ease reclining lay
And all around the wide spread scene survey
Point out each object and instructive tell
The various changes that the land befell
Where the low bank the country wide surrounds
That ancient earthwork form’d old Mercia’s bounds
In misty distance see the barrow heave
There lies forgotten lonely Cwichelm’s grave.

Around this hill the ruthless Danes intrenched
And these fair plains with gory slaughter drench’d
While at our feet where stands that stately tower
In days gone by up rose the Roman power
And yonder, there where Thames smooth waters glide
In later days appeared monastic pride.
Within that field where lies the grazing herd
Huge walls were found, some coffins disinter’d
Such is the course of time, the wreck which fate
And awful doom award the earthly great.  


That day we had walked around the summit passing the asymmetric memorial benches placed at intervals looking out over all of Oxfordshire. Like today, the river ran ribbon-like – north to south – the lock and lock house were visible below and the red tiled roof of Dorchester Abbey to the north-east. However, back then the hyperboloid cooling towers of Didcot Power Station still dominated the skyline to the west. I’d told Florence about the close-up view of these that Alison and I had from the windows of Didcot Girls’ School. Far more poignant was the bunch of red roses beneath a hawthorn tree. Attached was a tiny weather-stained card from someone called Dan to his dad. He asked Dad to look down on him when he received his exam results.


Eventually I descend from the hill, coming down to Little Wittenham Church, and decide this is where I’ll come back tonight to record. It’s not so near the weir and I wonder what sounds there’ll be. I cross the river by Days lock-house, and back in Dorchester manage to buy some tea and fruit cake from the abbey tea rooms and wander about the grounds and graves, before deciding to walk to the water meadows that border the Thame – the sultry heat of the day still lingering.




Here, at the river’s edge on the Wittenham bank, it’s almost dark. The trees are moving in a strange way, like pantomime trees with actors in them who, at any minute, might leave and head across to somewhere else, all in tight-fitting black outfits, as though they’re invisible, which of course they never are. It all feels far too creepy and lonely. I’m shivering, the air is getting colder and there are weird sounds from the undergrowth. I wonder what on earth is lurking there. Much as I like the idea of recording at night, I had forgotten how gloomy and menacing it had felt under the railway bridge at Moulsford and this time it’s even worse. I’ll only make evening and dusk recordings from now on, unless I can find a boat and make recordings from that. Somehow, I suspect I’d be anxious.  Covid has caused levels of anxiety to increase for many. I don’t recall feeling this way by the river before. As the temperature drops, I’m aware, it having been such a hot day, that I am not wearing enough clothes. Still shivering, I decide to get in the car and make the recording from here. I open the windows and, placing the recorder on the dashboard, turn it on.


As I listen through the headphones it becomes apparent there is very little to hear. The river is peaceful tonight. I note the distant weir and occasional geese, a plane far overhead, some barely audible voices and then, as a single jackdaw calls, it starts to rain. How very peaceful and soporific the sound of night rain is. Leaning back against the seat in the dark, I close my eyes and listen to the way it falls on the track, the way it sounds in the trees, on the car. I put my arm out of the window and, feeling the cool splashes on my hand, drift off.


The next day, when I leave, I decide to go home via Moulsford. Once again, I return to the churchyard and sit behind the church. The hedge has been cut back and it’s possible to see the river from here now. And the river’s sonic world is audible too. I sit for a while, listening to summer.







Virginia Astley is a musician and poet. Her pamphlet The Curative Harp won Ireland’s Fool for Poetry competition in 2015 and was published by Southword Editions. Her first book-length collection, The English River; a journey down the Thames in poems and photographs was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2018.

Her ground-breaking album, From Gardens Where We Feel Secure has  been re-issued on Bandcamp. She and her sister Alison recently completed the West Dorset Porch Project, a collection of architectural drawings and poems. Virginia has also recently released The Singing Places – five cross-faded tracks based around field recordings made on the upper Thames. The basis of the third, Summer Rain and Bells at Dorchester, is the recording made at Dorchester. The Singing Places is also available on Bandcamp.


Photograph of Wittenham Clumps by Jonathan Bowen, via Wikimedia Commons



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