Friday, 18 September 2020

Walking the Dog : (i) Staverton Pudding (ii) In the Valley of the Og

Staverton Pudding

‘Staverton? Oh, you mean the airport?’ Actually, no. Gloucestershire Airport – ‘Gateway to the south west’ as it proudly proclaims itself – is more than a mile from the village of Staverton (population 572) – essentially a straggle of houses along a country back road, with not a shop, pub, bus stop or school in sight. There was a school once and I’m pleased to say the rose-covered Old School House still stands. These days Dash the springer spaniel, my old friend and walking companion, lives there. Over her garden wall, what was once the official residence of the Bishops of Tewkesbury is still standing too and still called ‘Bishops House’ (the missing apostrophe a matter of regret, to me at least). Appropriately, it’s in Church Lane, and on our regular walks the churchyard of Staverton Church is always the first stop. Dash is a very good age now, and no longer romps, still less dashes, around.  Still, she enjoys sniffing around the gravestones and the ancient yew trees, and is careful to avoid trampling the cyclamen which grow wild here.


The past exerts a strong pull in Staverton: a nineteenth century obelisk marking the grave of Captain David Latimer St Clair proclaims that ‘he was of an ancient family’. Elsewhere in the churchyard another grave, a hundred years later, has as its epitaph ‘The last of his family’. Near the church porch, under the oldest of the yews, are a couple of 17th century headstones – rare in any churchyard. One has lost all its inscription but still has an opulently carved swag incorporating the arms of a Worshipful Company of the city of London:  

a field silver, a chevron sable (black) grailed and three compasses of the same.

It would good to know who it was in this remote Gloucestershire village who’d been a Liveryman of the Company of Carpenters.


Alongside, another headstone is still just legible. It records the death of John Drinkwater who ‘disliking all earthly vanities put off mortality Anno Dmi January 25th, 1675’. I wonder whether the poet and playwright John Drinkwater (1882-1937) ever found this headstone. One of his poems suggests he might have done. He loved Gloucestershire and knew this part of the county well, although he called himself a Warwickshire man:


Long time in some forgotten churchyard earth of Warwickshire,

My fathers in their generation lie beyond desire,

And nothing breaks the rest, I know, of John Drinkwater now,

Who left in sixteen-seventy his roan team at plough.

Who Were Before Me’ (1921)


Ars longa, vita brevis: that parenthesis, ‘I know’, is telling. For much of his career as a writer, Drinkwater was preoccupied by the transitoriness of individual life and the certainty that you’re a long time dead. One of my favourite poems of his, Passage, has for me more than a nod towards Yeats:


When you deliberate the page

Of Alexander’s pilgrimage,

Or say – “It is three years, or ten,

Since Easter slew Connolly’s men,”

Or prudently to judgment come

Of Antony or Absalom,

And think how duly are designed

Case and instruction for the mind,

Remember then that also we,

In a moon’s course, are history. (1919)


Though it has been locked during the time of Coronavirus, Staverton Church is normally open and when it is, the bell is still rung early each weekday morning, a village tradition dating back to who knows how long. Was this originally to signal the start of the working day or to sound the Angelus? I’ve no idea; but it always pleases me, when I am out early in the fields walking with Dash, to hear the bell’s ‘outrollings’ – that evocative word coined by Thomas Hardy in his poem Afterwards    and suggesting how the sound carries across the landscape. 


St Catherine’s is a church with a special treasure. Tucked into the tracery of the small east window is a surviving fragment of early 14th century glass. It shows the arms, head and torso of Christ Crucified, painted in colours of black and silver-grey, copper and gold, using the technique of silver-staining on a single piece of glass. The rictus of Christ’s left hand nailed to the Cross, the detailed representation of resignation on his face and the precise rendering of the bones beneath the skin of the dead body: all these details reveal a new realism that marks a decisive shift away from the earlier styles of 12th and 13th century French and British glass. Staverton is equidistant from Gloucester Cathedral and Tewkesbury Abbey, where you can see some of the finest mid-14th century glass in Europe, but you will find nothing in the windows of either magnificent building that presents more eloquently the agony of the Crucifixion.


A gate in the NW corner of the churchyard leads back onto Church Lane, which quickly becomes a farm track, hardly wide enough for the great tractors and trailers that now lumber up and down it. In earlier times, when Dash was up for anything, we would walk the full length of the lane and then across the fields towards Barrow or Down Hatherley. Nowadays, however, she prefers to enjoy a gentle wander and a prolonged sniffing session in the Orchard.


Strictly speaking, the Orchard is simply a large meadow with some twenty pear and a couple of apple trees dotted around. We enter through a kissing gate, and a right-of-way across the field leads to a style in the far corner over which I once saw three roe deer come vaulting. I love this place. The field still bears clear traces of medieval ridge and furrow cultivation; the fruit trees are tall and old, yet produce perry pears in profusion every year. There used to be over one hundred varieties of perry grown in Gloucestershire alone, and their names – Huffcap, Merrylegs, Oldfield, Green Horse and Judge Amphlett – remind me of Titania’s attendants in A Midsummer Night’s Dream  or the roll-call of country names in Edward Thomas’s poem Lob.


Truly, the earth brings forth her fruit in due season. In spring, soon after the cowslips have appeared, we gather elderflower from the hedgerows, then watch for the first signs of blackberries – will there be a good harvest this summer? A rhyme my grandmother taught me, before I was five, comes into my head:


So you’ve come to pay your bill, Berry?

Before it is due, Berry?

Your father, the elder Berry,

Was not such a goose, Berry.

But come, don’t look so black, Berry;

I don’t care a straw, Berry!


I’ve been disappointed by the blackberries around Staverton this year, but damsons and sloes have been splendid. Dash waits patiently while I pick all I can reach. At last we head back to the Old School House, where she and I say goodbye and I return to Cheltenham bearing gifts. Already our store-cupboard holds elderflower cordial and syrup, and the first bottles of sloe gin are beginning their year-long fermentation. From the kitchen, as I write this, comes the promising smell of damson jam under production. Autumn has arrived. By way of celebration, we sit down to a unique dessert: Staverton Pudding – a ramekin of baked custard flavoured with elderflower syrup and topped by damson gin jelly, served with a scoop of damson ice-cream and a small square of sponge cake soused in sloe gin. Our own harvest supper.


© Adrian Barlow


Illustrations: (i) St Catherine’s Church, Staverton, (ii) 14th century glass fragment in the E window of Staverton Church (copyright Alastair Carew-Cox), (iii) 'The Orchard’ showing the surviving rows of ridge and furrow 

Illustrations (i) and (iii) copyright author.


The first time I wrote about walking with Dash was in January 2010, when she was an irrepressible three-year-old, living in a village near Marlborough. This post appeared on World and Time, the blog I wrote while teaching at Madingley Hall, home of the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education. I’m republishing the post here with (as you’ll see) an updated final paragraph.


In the Valley of the Og (January 2010)

When the recent snow lay round about, at its deepest and crispest, I went walking in the valley of the Og. The Og is almost as short as its name: it rises near Draycot Foliat, a hamlet south of the M4 Swindon interchange, and approximately follows the A346 along a gap in the Downs, before feeding into the River Kennet at Marlborough. Barely ten miles, with very little ‘meandering with a mazy motion’  -  even though the last hamlet it passes en route to Marlborough is Ogbourne Maizey. It’s a marvellously resonant landscape. The valley itself is a convenient narrow fold in the Wiltshire Downs, through which passes the Roman Road that started from Winchester. Near Ogbourne St George it crosses the Ridgeway. 

From Ogbourne St Andrew you can walk over the downs to Avebury, with a view across to Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long Barrow. Following this route is like walking through a painting by Paul Nash: you keep thinking, ‘I’ve seen this view in one of his pictures.’  


 Edward Thomas, in his book The South Country (1909), described the valley of the Og like this:


Through the grey land goes a narrow and flat vale of grass and thatched cottages. The river winds among willows and makes a green world, out of which the Downs rise suddenly with their wheat. Here stands a farm with dormers in its high yellow roof and a square of beeches round about. There a village, even its walls thatched, flutters white linen and blue smoke against a huge chalk scoop in the Downs behind.


This village is Ogbourne St Andrew, and that ‘huge chalk scoop’ is where I went walking through the snow. I wasn’t alone: there were three of us and Dash, planting our footsteps carefully in those of the person in front, for the snow was often deep enough to submerge our wellingtons. Dash, a brown-and-white springer spaniel, lived up both to her name and her breed: she dashed all over the place, leapt over the tops of hedges that now just peeped up above the snow, chased birds and rabbits before returning to her owner, trotting obediently beside her for a few yards until the call of the wild became too strong again. As I watched Dash behaving as a spaniel should, a half-remembered phrase from Shakespeare nagged at me:


The hearts 

That spaniel’d me at heel, to whom I gave 

Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets 

On blossoming Caesar ….


It’s Antony, lamenting the collapse of his fortunes (Antony and Cleopatra IV.x.34ff) and feeling sorry that everyone has abandoned him for ‘blossoming’ Octavius, the coming man. This is the only time Shakespeare uses the word ‘spaniel'd’; indeed, this is the only recorded use of the word in English. He is also credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with the first recorded use of ‘discandy’, but this word seems to have enjoyed a brief popularity. Still, two new words in two lines ….


Suddenly Dash reappears with a twitching, half-dead rabbit in her mouth. She drops the creature at our feet, expecting praise which she does not get. It is left to me to wring the rabbit’s neck, a job I have never done before. It takes me two goes, and I feel terrible as I hear the irreversible snap. I can’t remember ever reading an account of killing a rabbit, but I expect there’s one in The Amateur Poacher (1879), by the once-popular Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies. Jefferies was born at Coate, a couple of miles from the source of Og. He was one of Edward Thomas’s heroes.


The Og is technically a winterbourne, a stream running through a chalk landscape and usually only full of water in winter. There are at least three Winterbournes in fiction: Giles Winterbourne in Hardy’s novel The Woodlanders, Daisy Miller’s suitor Frederick Winterbourne in Henry James’ 1878 eponymous novella, and George Winterbourne, the protagonist of Richard Aldington’s controversial First World War novel, Death of a Hero (1929). Each time, the name seems most apt.


Like Jefferies, Aldington is a writer who has somewhat disappeared from view; but in the years before and after the Great War he was a key figure in the literary landscape, first as poet, then as novelist and biographer. He deserves to be better remembered;* indeed, I was to be talking about him later that week at Madingley Hall during the course Report on Experience: The Great War and its Poets.  Not surprisingly then, Aldington’s fictional George Winterbourne (who gets killed on 4thNovember 1918 - the day Wilfred Owen actually died) was much on my mind as I walked amid the winter snow in the valley of my favourite winterbourne, the Og.


*Since I wrote ‘In the Valley of The Og’ in 2010, Aldington has been the subject of a significant two-volume biography by Vivien Whelpton, which has done much to restore interest in his life and work. To my astonishment, my own MA thesis, Imagism and After: the Poetry of Richard Aldington (Durham: 1975), written at a time when no one else in the UK was giving Aldington a second’s serious thought, appeared this year in the bibliography of a book which I plan to discuss in a future post, on life-writing: Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting (Faber, 2020).


© Adrian Barlow 2010, 2020; photographs by the author.


1 comment:

  1. Adrian, I loved hearing about Dash, the dog on the Og! I was reminded very much of the Scottish terrier, Angus, which I had as a boy. In particular that love of sniffing—which makes me think that we human beings have a woefully poor sense of smell (although I'm fairly sure that dogs lack any kind of aesthetic pleasure).

    I remembered your account of despatching the unfortunate rabbit, which Dash thought you’d be so pleased with. I once had to ‘finish off’ a bird I found, bloodied and hopelessly flapping its wings, at the edge of a field. Why the (assumed) predator had not carried off its prey I have no idea, but luckily [sic] I had a good stick with me, and two blows to the bird’s head brought a merciful peace.

    You’re publishing this blog has encouraged me to complete a blog I've been tinkering with, but have now just about finished. I'm also now thinking of writing a blog on Angus—a small immortalisation of the little fellow!