London Country

Olde Kentishe Towne!

Wednesday 13 April 2016 - Filed under Kentish Town + London + Olde Kentishe Towne

Captains VideosDo you remember the Captain’s Videos near the Forum but the other side of Kentish Town Road – where it forks to go up to Tufnell Park? I do – I went in there once. I’m not sure why. Anyway, it wasn’t what you think – just a gnarly old boy sitting on a barrel, spinning yarns to whoever would listen (which was no one when I went in) about square riggers and the golden days of sail. He told me he’d been shipwrecked as a lad and spent time on an island where all the toilets dispensed gin right out of the urinal, made with locally sourced botanicals (where possible) always seasonal and all of the very highest quality.

He survived on kebap meat, which is naturally organic – even when mixed with flipper and the scrapings from seal pelts.

I told him he was a fantasist and the sooner he was hounded out of the Towne the better.

 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2016-04-13  ::  Richard Shepherd

‘ome & ‘aunt

Friday 19 February 2016 - Filed under Walking

I’d been here before. Nearly fifty years ago. It was raining then, too.
I didn’t see much – it was night and we dipped below the clouds for a second or two and that was that.

We had been flying at 1500 feet most of the way from Birmingham. 24nm north of Bovingdon on the 160 radial: asked Luton for radar cover but there was too much rain. Hence 1500-1000 feet. Trying to keep one eye on the ground.

I wasn’t the pilot and hindsight is a wonderful thing and we all live in glass houses &c. Now 800ft amsl – absolutely on the level and in Sunday afternoon cruising config. Level too with the tops of the Chiltern beech trees which we clipped, tearing the wing off, and exploding on the ridge in a pretty ball of flame.

He wasn’t, I later found out, licenced to carry passengers at night. One passenger, the papers reported. But I know there were two.

Edward Thomas walked this way of course. I hadn’t exactly forgotten but was just thinking about something else until the sign reminded me I was on the Icknield Way. Walking, like Thomas, to generate words and lose myself and lose words and (re)generate myself. Find one constant beam through the the dismal precipitation clutter.

I should have been writing the book, or at the very least the second of my London geo-walks. But I couldn’t write anything. Not a thing. Since we came back from holiday in Bristol: a complete blank. Rather play with my phone and my new GPS. Worse still, I haven’t read much or played any music. My head hasn’t stopped. Ideas all the time (not all good ones) but you reach a point where they become almost impossible to collect.

Some of the side tracks: the Lawrence thing. Oh it’s a long story – and tied up with the William Sharp & Elizabeth Sharp thing and the Wilkie thing. Now you see what I mean. And behind it all the solipsistic, autobiographical worm churning away.

Grim's Ditch
The highlight of the walk was the last section of Grim’s Ditch, between Lanes End and Cock’s Hill. [map] I hadn’t realised it was quite so monumental. Really: it reminded me of bits of Offa’s Dyke in the Welsh borders. The very last section, at the edge of Baldwin’s Wood, is particularly impressive, though not quite original. The ditch which climbs a slight gradient has been dammed at regular intervals, and puddled too probably, by a landscape artist, to form a series of shallow ponds reminiscent of a flight of locks. I took a photo from the bottom. Not a great photo but a sublime idea. It felt like a book cover. I loved the wintry trees, just enough grass to sweeten the clay without making promises the spring can’t keep.

 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2016-02-19  ::  Richard Shepherd

Down Among the Dead Men

Monday 4 January 2016 - Filed under Short Story

Found this whilst sorting out my diary for the new year. A short story from 2014. Not fantastic. Not rubbish either.

Out of the blue, the Mrs. mentioned she was psychic and had received a message telling me to go to the Sequoia in Whetstone where I would find something to my advantage.


It seemed I was too late. Its namesake can live for 5,000 years in the Sierra Nevada. This one hadn’t reached double figures before giving up the ghost. My grandfather, Dennis, stayed there in the 1920’s when he was courting my grandmother. Back then it was called the Bull.

I took one or two photos anyway. I like dereliction better than life more often than not – especially the homogeneous, unquestioning, sentimental, clod-hopping mirror most people rattle round in, like toads in a brightly lit bag.

There was a man filming outside the pub and we got into conversation. He told me he was making a film about a renaissance scholar who once lived in an ammunition shed on the High Road.


My gran grew up in Whetstone. As a child she used to walk down the Church Path to my aunt’s school at the edge of the fields in Finchley. There were kids doing the same to day – minus the fields, and my aunt – and my gran: the church as well for all I knew. A group of noisy boys were whipping each other with ties. I was irritated – but also felt that wishing them dead was somehow missing the point. Outside the pub the man told me there were two “Bulls” in Whetstone back in the day. Now there were none. “A dead pub,” his pupils contracted, “is the sign and symbol of our inconstant lodging on this earth.”

I caught a faint whiff of cat shit and burnt feathers. I wondered if it was an insurance job – but there was no sign of burning.

“We’re filming in here, if you’d like to have a look around”

Two young women – twins – were sat at a table. They were oblivious to the broken glass, discarded needles, fast food detritus. There was a cage under the table with an accordion in it. Behind them was a big wooden cabinet. On the bar a record player.

They smiled and said in unison: “We are the Misses Bombazine.”

“Pleased to meet you, I’m sure,” I said, entering into the spirit.

I’ve always had a fascination with twins. I had an operation when I was a baby to remove some bone from my head. It belonged to an undeveloped twin that began to grow alongside me in the womb. Now I often think that somehow it was my better twin that didn’t make it – the nice one. The one with no “side” at all, no arsiness or resentments of any sort … not the fuckwit who would soon be plodding home across the North Circ, across a red pool of homebound commuters, a one-man-dark of lumpy tarmac and worn boots.

“There are only two types, when you come down to it.” Said the man, perhaps noticing the maudlin turn my thoughts had taken. “Larks and clerks.” Larks soar but never roam, clerks travel but never feel.

In the darkness I hadn’t noticed one of the Misses Bombazine go over to the record player. Out from the crackling grooves an ancient recording of The Farmer’s Boy echoed round the dead pub, making the dead fields close in around the bricken desert; blackberries recolonized the smoking area, sweet william and tea roses mingled with the stale smell of dead men. Strangely I had been thinking about The Farmer’s Boy a lot. It was a favourite of Edward Thomas’s. He sang it on his honeymoon in Wiltshire in the keeper’s cottage with the thrice-scalloped thatch. The hussy.


“I’m getting a signal,” said Miss Bombazine. I suddenly felt quite cold. A knocking from inside the cupboard.

“Are you from the other side?” (seated)
“Yes, I come with a message for those who would hear it.” (cupboard)
“Who are you?” (s)
“I am Geraldius” (c)
“Who is the message for?” (s)
“It is for Dicky Davies” (c)
“Who is it from?” (s)
“Dennis” (c)
“What does he say?” (s)
“He says “It’s the wrong pub, you div.” (c)


 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2016-01-04  ::  Richard Shepherd


Tuesday 15 December 2015 - Filed under Geology + London + Walking

Wisdom, as many another priceless thing, must be dug from the very bowels of the earth.” Girolamo Cardano


The plan is to walk each of the itineraries in Geologist’s Association Guide No. 68 (The Geology of London). Not slavishly but in the spirit, after a fashion.

Walk 1. Harefield, 13 November 2015

Bad news on the train out of Marylebone: “passengers are reminded there is nothing in this mortal life except inanity, emptiness, and dream-shadows.” As if I needed reminding. I just wanted to find something – anything not wholly shit. Which is not setting the bar very high, but it didn’t need to be. From Denham I picked up the South Bucks Way to Denham Lock, sheltering briefly from squally rain; then cut up the canal, soon crossing to a car wide track next to old gravel pits. At South Harefield I struck north uphill to the Anzac memorial. Soon I was at my first stop, Harefield Great Pit, a former chalk quarry filled with household rubbish and capped with clay which until recent times provided grazing for a dairy herd. It is now a feral expanse of bramble and grassland criss-crossed by unofficial footpaths, with wide views across the Colne valley to Northmoor Hill, where an inspection of a swallow hole and a chalk pit were the last items on my itinerary: after I had given a nod to the Marble & Granite center next to the canal where the blank slabs gave me chills but were probably destined for kitchens.

At Northmoor Hill Wood I was barked at by a dog. There were no swallows in the hole: they had either returned to Capistrano through the chalk or been scared off by helicopters landing next door on the last of the pre-Anglian proto-Thames deposits; or Denham Aerodrome as it is sometimes known.


Whilst in prison Girolamo Cardano – the renaissance scholar of choice for Chiltern train drivers – redrew his coat of arms, a black eagle with wings outspread upon a saffron field. He added the image of a swallow singing under the eaves of a barn.

It was dark by the time I caught the train back to London. I sat opposite a couple of schoolgirls who, prompted by the Dollis Hill station sign, talked for a while about how they liked the name “Dollis”, which reminded them of “Dorris” which sounded very old fashioned. I wondered why they didn’t have bags – until the penny dropped. Their homework was on their phones or in the cloud: why would they need to give themselves a sore shoulder? I nodded off for a bit secretly quite glad that post-diversionary gravels weren’t included in my first itinerary. Best to hold some excitements back against a rainy day.

Walk 2 Long Valley Wood, 19 November 2015

Plenty of rain today. But my enemy was the dark. It needn’t have been but I got lost in Croxley. By the time I got myself right, I had to run or finish in the dim. A brainwave: if I reversed the loop across fields from Stocker’s Lock, Rickmansworth, I could walk the bit I didn’t know first and finish on the canal in the dark. No one, I figured, could get lost on a towpath.

I located Long Valley Wood which was full of chalk pits but failed to bring to mind the 4,000 palaeolithic artefacts found there and mentioned in my guide. I liked the path though – which ran along the old quarry edge behind suburban gardens. Later it widened as it climbed through woodland with glimpses of the Metropolitan Line rattling through deep clefts.

The loop – via Hill End – was a goodun’. I stopped for tea in steeply sloping woods where bungalows hunker down in old chalk pits – in fact a whole estate has been shoehorned into Summerfield Lane Quarry. No sign of any dissolution pipes though – or any other type of dissolution – at least not in the dark.

Walk 3 – Pinner Chalk Mine, 25th November 2015

I had been to Montesole Playing Fields in Pinner before whilst walking the course of Grim’s Ditch, which once stretched six miles from Pinner to Stanmore; at least it may have done if a line is inferred from the “surviving sections”. I had no idea of the even more remarkable survival beneath the bitch in Pinner. Precious enough to risk life and limb clambering down a shaft on a wobbly mountaineering ladder, apparently. I wasn’t tempted I needn’t add – and even if I had been I didn’t have a key to the 2.5m spiked security fence or concrete manhole cover of Pinner’s last accessible chalk mine in woods next to Montesole allotments.

When the Pinner chalk was first worked is, according to Ken Kirkman who wrote the definitive guide to the mines, not known. Pliny wrote about Britons marling land with chalk dug from pits. There may have been mines in Pinner in the sixteenth century. The impressive galleries of the Dingles Mine – sometimes 6 or 7 metres high – can be dated exactly. Workers left their initials on the ceiling with a burning candle, and a date: 1840.

Other shafts may yet be found. Ken Kirkman, again:

“How would you know if you had a shaft at the bottom of your garden? Look for rain water or waste water pipes that do not go into the public system. Tamp the ground with a broom handle and listen for a duller response. Watch for a circle of frost that melts more quickly because it’s over the warmer air in a shaft.”

There is something even more precious than chalk here to a geologist – in situ puddingstone, a rare type of rock conglomerate formed during another period of global warming, 55 million years ago, and another message writ in carbon that we ignore, according to Bryan Lovell, a senior research fellow at Cambridge University and former President of the Geological Society, at our peril.

Professor & Mrs. Trudge

Years ago I read an article in Herfordshire Life about a lost trackway, marked with large puddingstones, from Grime’s Graves, a complex of prehistoric flint mines in Norfolk, to Stonehenge. The writer, Professor Rudge, of West Ham Municipal College, and his wife spent every weekend for three years looking for stones to confirm their theory. The research generated quite a bit of media interest at the time and was reported in Time Magazine in July 1952. When I began studying archaeology in the nineties I put such nonsense aside: filed it, along with with ley lines and King Arthur under “lost causes”. I’m still intolerant of folkloric whimsy: even when given a post modern spin.

But I find myself more and more drawn to the deep poetry of Professor Rudge’s search. Aren’t we all pilgrims on a lost highway? And there are worse ways to spend your weekends than wandering about the green lanes of Essex with your wife looking for 55 million year old beach material. Now Bryan Lovell’s research suggests puddingstones really were the answer all along – Professor Rudge was just asking the wrong question.


Pliny also wrote that young swallows’ eyes could regrow if plucked out and that precious gems are found in their crops. Perhaps science has always been equal parts hard boiled observation and wishful thinking.

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 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2015-12-15  ::  Richard Shepherd

Spring with D.H.Lawrence

Thursday 21 May 2015 - Filed under Poetry/Folk Song/WWI

When she broke forth from below,
Flowers came, hell-hounds on her heels

“Purple Anemones,” D.H. Lawrence.



I am fed up with the book. Fed up with the blog. My song bones are dry as matchsticks.

This is my arrangement of a song transcribed by D.H. Lawrence in the spring of 1915 when he and Frieda, married in July 1914, were living in Greatham, Sussex in a cottage owned by the writer, Viola Meynell. It wasn’t composed by Lawrence. There are a number of versions the first of which appeared (presumably) after the assassination of US President William McKinley in 1901.McKinley was killed by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.

I first heard the Carter Family’s “Cannonball” but I didn’t know it was the same song – they use different lyrics – until I read a post on the website. I fell in love with Woody Guthrie’s version (first line: “You can wash my jumper, starch my overalls”) and played it to death in the nineties. I never thought I would rediscover it in such a surprising way – in Eleanor Farjeon‘s biography of Edward Thomas.

Edward Thomas, of course, the hugely influential war poet who took up poetry “at 36 in the shade”. Eleanor Farjeon, a children’s writer, poet and memoirist (she wrote the hymn “Morning Has Broken” amongst other things) who became friendly with Thomas in 1912. It was a kind of literary love affair, possibly as important to Thomas’s poetry as his friendship with Robert Frost, but less well understood. People can’t resist a bromance, especially a transatlantic one.

Incidentally, Farjeon’s grandfather was a celebrated American actor, Joseph Jefferson. Her father and brothers were all writers, actors and musicians. It was through her brother, Bertie, that Thomas and Farjeon met in 1912.

Grim’s Bitch

One thing that appealed to me about looking now at spring 1915 was that I could briefly survey where some of the subjects of my book were at in a small window of time. [If you don’t want a snapshot of an unfinished book feel free to skip to McKinley.] The book, “Grim’s Bitch”, is a kind of lo-fi biography: a dog-biography I call it, as in dog-rose, dog-violet. The starting point is three officers including my great Uncle Toby*, who trained together in Berkhamsted, near London, before serving on the Western Front. These three became six when I realised I had been researching for years and barely had enough material to write a field postcard: a “whizz-bang” as they were popularly known. So I enlisted the help of some writers as guides. They could – I hoped – be foils to my unsung heroes.

Charles Hartert‘s story I had thought of as part of another book, but over the course of my research two books became one. Charles is in many ways the heart of the book. I don’t think Uncle Toby would mind. I’m not a novelist: there’s a limit to what a biographer (at least a dog-biographer) can write about one 18 year old however nobly he might have died.

The end point (actually not quite the end) is Easter Monday 1917, when the third of my initial subjects, Walter Wilkinson, is killed – like Edward Thomas – on the opening day of the Battle of Arras.

I say not quite the end. One of my three comes back from the dead – not terribly remarkable at the time – except to his nearest and dearest.

Walter doesn’t come back but a dogged search across two continents brings me to a diary with news of him from beyond the grave.

Spring 1915

Charles Sorley, who Robert Graves thought perhaps the best poet of the war, was nineteen in 1914 when his “gap year” was interrupted in dramatic fashion: he was in Germany and briefly interned.

In spring 1915 he is at Aldershot with France looming. “… we all but sleep with puttees on.” He is underwhelmed by Rupert Brooke’s (died 23rd April 1915) last sonnets. He writes to his mother on the 28th April:

“He is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances, where non-compliance with this demand would have made his life intolerable.”

Charles has had a “delightful” weekend with his friend Kenneth in London: eating chocolate almonds at the Old Vic, watching “Macbeth”, with “more beautiful poetry in it than any other tragedy.” With the letter he encloses some of his own poetry, hurriedly written on scraps of paper. “Le Revenant” imagines the narrator returning to Marlborough as a ghost. Not in khaki, he writes to the Master of Marlborough in May, 1915 “but in grey bags, an old coat and a knapsack, coming over the downland from Chiseldon” – like his literary hero, Richard Jefferies, in fact.

Sorley crossed to France on 30th May 1915. A copy of Jefferies’s book, “The Life of the Fields”, was among Sorley’s possessions, repatriated without their owner, in October, 1915.
Richard Jefferies Anemone

Edmund Blunden, who would survive the battle that would kill Uncle Toby the following year, is still a schoolboy in the spring of 1915, at Christ’s Hospital in Sussex. Already a published poet, at least privately published. A letter from his mother’s godmother, Lady Verney, at the end of February, is encouraging. His biographer, Barry Webb, singled out “Joy and Grief” as the best of the early efforts with the lines:

“There is a joy in spring,
There is a grief in spring.”

Jack Semple, Uncle Toby’s cousin wounded at 2.00pm on the 4th May, dies on 27th.

Dennis Grim, age 13, my grandfather, is at Newbury for Easter 1915, with the Trevor-Ropers, the family to whom his grandmother had been a governess. He has been given a lovely Easter egg and is teaching the Parrot some songs. Geoffrey has got a commission, Dennis thinks, in the Isle of Wight regiment. Geoffrey and his brother, Charles, an actor in civilian life, will both be killed at Ypres in 1917. Charles’s son will be killed in the next war and the ancestral pile, Plas Teg, sold off to pay death duties.

Dennis Grim Letter





Captain George Upton Robins, who wrote a poem about Ivinghoe Beacon (“Never held dreamland a prospect more gracious: Sunlight and shadow on Ivinghoe Hill”) is killed on Hill 60 – the spoil heap from a railway cutting in Belgium, on May 5th. “They have gassed the Dukes,” his last words according to Valentine Williams quoted in Arthur Conan Doyle‘s history, “I believe I was the last man to leave the hill. The men up there are all dead. They were splendid. I thought I ought to come and report.”

Ernst Hartert, the first curator of Walter Rothschild’s natural history museum, records seeing the first swallow of the summer in Tring on the 26th March 1915.

One of the reasons I like reading the correspondence of bird watchers during wartime is that it reclaims positive dates from a conflict that is oversupplied with terrible anniversaries. A bird weighing a couple of ounces with a brain the size of a parched pea making a 2000 mile journey across burnt out farms and sinking ships, hospital trains and zigzag trenches. A message of hope caught in the cross-hair; jotted down in the new subaltern’s notebook or on P.O.W. toilet paper.

On 21st April Ernst Hartert is still reeling from the deaths of his father and several friends. Lord Rothschild’s death at the end of March hasn’t changed anything: the Hon. Walter Rothschild, who will inherit his father’s title isn’t about to take an interest in the family business. He is, and will remain, a zoologist.

The ornithological congress scheduled for Sarajevo in spring 1915 has been postponed indefinitely.

On 27th May Claudia Hartert writes to a friend in Jersey but the letter is intercepted by MI5. Files reveal that she and Eva Greene, aunt of the future novelist, Graham Greene, are both under suspicion. Strangely MI5 don’t seem to notice that Ernst keeps up a correspondence with his German protégé throughout the war.

Erwin Stresemann, would become the leading ornithologist of his generation and the Director of the Berlin Zoological Museum. In the spring of 1915, age 26, he is an observation balloon officer in a German artillery unit in German Lothringen (now French Lorraine). He became friendly with Hartert when he studied bird skins at Tring before the war.

He has not seen a copy of the “Ibis”, the journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union, since July 1914.

Das Storchnest












When the guns are quiet he still manages to observe and sometimes collect birds. During the war he writes and publishes “The Use of the Rangefinder” in ornithology and “Observations on the Height and Flight of Swifts”.

Charles Hartert, age 23, a Second Lieutenant in the 8th East Yorkshire Regiment is training in Halton, a few miles away from his parents in Tring. On 2 May 1915 he is enjoying the sunshine with his friend T.B.D. “Toppy” Hough, who writes to his parents in Bridlington:

“Yesterday I got a motorbike and cycled to Oxford with Hartert. He showed me round Oxford as he was at Wadham College some time ago. It was very nice at Oxford, the river was ripping.”

Bucks Herald – Sat 22 May 1915

“Charles Hartert, Lieutenant in the 8th East Yorks, did not appear in answer to a summons for failing to produce his motor licence, at Aylesbury, on May 11, – PC Smith stated that on May 11 he saw the defendant riding a motor cycle in the market square. He asked him to produce his licence, and he said he had left it in camp.- Fined 10s.”

The points on his licence, and everything else, wiped clean by a German shell the following year.

Swords into Flamethrowers: The Somme at 90

In 2006 I went to a conference at the Imperial War Museum which  occupies part of the old Bethlem  Hospital in Southwark. The conference was a re-evaluation of the Somme battle on its 90th anniversary. The message was “forget lions led by donkeys”; the lessons learned during the four-and-a-half-month battle would eventually lead to the defeat of the Germans in 1918. The mood music: “WE WON!

But I looked at Charles Hartert – his birth registered in Berkhamsted to German parents. I looked at his death in the English line from a German shell. And it wasn’t clear to me who “we” were. His death by definition futile: he died fighting himself.

Some of the places that feature in the book c. spring 1915:

Berkhamsted: was enjoying beautiful weather in May 1915. The common was ablaze with colour from the blooming furze after a dry spell which brought fire as well as flower.

At the Tring Whitsuntide Sale twenty one-and-a-half and two-year-old short horn cattle were sold by Mr TF Dwight of Castle Hill, Berkhamsted, owing to land taken for military purposes.

By the spring of 1915 there were several thousand officer cadets in billets or under canvas behind Berkhamsted Castle. Miles of trenches zigzagged across the common. Halton was home to 12,000 men of the 21st Yorkshire Division. There were rumoured to be more trenches in England than across the channel.

Chalk Downs: the chalk spine of south east England links nearly all of my subjects. Much military training was carried out on the chalk. For many it was also their last view of England. I look for ghosts with Paul Nash and Edward Thomas in the Chilterns, Charles Sorley on the Ridgeway above Swindon.

Detail from 1916 military map of countryside around Berkhamsted










Epping Forest: became home to the Artists’ Rifles in July 1915. The 3/28 Battalion London Regiment (Artists’ Rifles) was, like the IOCOTC, an officer training battalion. Edward Thomas was a map reading instructor and later set up home in the forest – if that’s the right word – with his family in the bitter winter of 1916.

But that’s in the future. In the spring of 1915 the South West Essex Battalion are digging trenches near Chingford golf course. Forest Keeper Palmly is not pulling his weight at Dog Corner. And the Royal Gunpowder and Small Arms Factories are seeking permission to widen the road leading from the Nazeing Road to Fishers Green Farm.

Southend: But lists are boring. The book goes to a lot of places. Sometimes they’re relevant. Sometimes they’re just places where a dog-biographer can be let off the lead. Southend, happily, both.

I will just mention London is represented twice – once where it’s always been, where the mist blows down from the salt marshes on a September evening. And another one, a grim facsimile, sculpted in chalk on a French hillside.

Detail from H. Goffey print


The Inns of Court OTC headquarters was in Chancery Lane, at the heart of the fog. We will linger a while on the day that Toby, Aubrey and Walter enlist – the day after the most lethal Zeppelin raid so far.





The London Fire Brigade’s Street Station (a caravan equipped with a small hose cart) in Bartholomew Close, one of the medieval streets north of St Paul’s, files its service record for the two years up to June 1915:

District call (1)
Home call  (1)
Small fires  (4)
Chimneys (2)
Chimney alarms (2)

Tells you pretty much all you need to know about the world which was about to end in the Autumn of 1915.

If you want to know what links Walter Wilkinson and Lord Nelson‘s estate on the Mediterranean island of Sicily, you will have to read the book. Or I will have to write it. Or something.

*Uncle Toby is a fictional analogue of my great uncle, John Graham “Jock” Goffey, who was briefly a contemporary of Charles Hartert’s at Berkhamsted School. I know little about my real uncle except that he was a clerk in London when he enlisted in September 1915, and died at the Ancre aged 18 leaving no written traces – at least none which have survived – apart from his army service record.

But it is fiction only in the sense that Edward Thomas described George Borrow’s “Lavengro”, “fiction with all 4 legs on the ground of fact …” (I won’t add as Thomas did “but baying at the moon.” That’s not for me to decide. And there are worse crimes than barking.

It also provides an alternative ending. Sterne’s Uncle Toby was the old boy mine – and many like him might have become. The great war robbed a generation of their right to become their best selves, not just the exceptional, but the ordinary and bland: the right perhaps to become a boring old duffer, practising his golf swing on the front lawn, and turning his back garden into a reconstructed trench system with deep dugouts and a machine gun nest or two.

Battering Rams of the Ancients – Somme Progress

When I found out that there was a Siege of Namur in the first world war too, I knew I had made the right decision.

Sterne’s fictional character and my own uncle were both horribly injured: Sterne’s by a stone thrown up by a cannon ball, mine by fragments of a shell which exploded on the parapet of Charing X trench on 3 September 1916.

My Uncle Toby wasn’t killed either, at least not straight away, he stumbled on into No Man’s Land – “leading his men,” Aunt Barbara said – and took cover in a crump hole, his servant making him as comfortable as possible with the travel pillow Cousin Addie had given him in June, and died at some point in the next 48 hours from loss of blood and shock or some other reason not known to Corporal Trim, who was wounded trying to bring him in.

I should say that that’s what I believe to be the most likely narrative from many possible alternatives, some of which are discussed in the book. He almost certainly died not knowing that he was the wrong end of a learning curve. His dog tag was returned to the family in Berkhamsted a year later.

Blunden Lane, Yalding, Kent


Edmund Blunden survived to write.

“Here half a century before might I,
Had something chanced, about this point have lain,
Looking with failing sense on such blue sky,
And then become a name with others slain.”

From “Ancre Sunshine” written when the poet returned to the battlefield with his wife, Claire, on 3  September 1966.

He would have been in good company. But I’m glad he didn’t.


Billeted with Uncle Toby in Berkhamsted were Aubrey Raymond-Barker (whose colleague, Rex Philpott, was a friend of Charles Sorley), and Walter Wilkinson: the adopted son of a Scottish writer whose husband, William Sharp wrote under a female pseudonym and nearly drowned (perhaps) whilst visiting W.B. Yeats in Paris to discuss the formation of a Celtic Mystical Order.

“Spring is Coming! Bringing Debility”

– an ad. for a patent medicine, pinned above Edward Thomas’s desk at Steep: the house in the clouds.


1. Mr McKinley he ain’t done no wrong
He went down to Buffalo way Michigan along
For to lay him down, boys,
For to lay him down.

2. Mr McKinley he went there just for fun
An’ Sholgosh ‘e shot him with an Ivor Johnson gun
For etc.

3. Mrs McKinley she hollered and she swore
When she heard her old man wasn’t comin’ back no more
For etc.

4. Sholgosh they shoved him into Sing Sing gaol
And all the money in the world wouldn’t get
him out on bail
For to etc.

5. Sholgosh they put him in the ‘lectric chair
And they shocked him so hard that they shocked
off all his hair
For to etc.

6. You should have seen old Satan grin
When they opened Hell doors an’ shoved old
Sholgosh in
For to lay him down, boys, for to lay him

Lawrence sent the lyric to Eleanor Farjeon on 1 May 1915. He had taught her the song in Sussex and she wanted to get the lyrics straight so she could teach it to Edward Thomas.

Thomas was an avid collector (and by all accounts no mean singer) of folk songs and sea shanties.

Music, like map-reading and the outdoor life that he’d enjoyed since childhood were things that the army couldn’t completely destroy – perhaps the opposite in a strange sort of way. Many people noted that he looked better after he’d joined up. Paul Nash thought Thomas’s time in the Artists’ one of the happiest bits of his life.

But Thomas’s take on martial music was typically askew, magnetic rather than paper north. He hated “Pack up Your Troubles” for example. He taught his fellow instructors “Blow the Man Down”, which they loved but couldn’t march to. And he taught his children barrack room ballads which raised eyebrows at their friends’ dinner tables.

Thomas never met Lawrence but had this in common, Farjeon thought: “they shared a scorn of sham and hypocrisy and what each gave you of himself was true.”

And they both liked “McKinley”. Thomas even performed it on stage at Wanstrow (near Frome in Somerset), in November, 1916.

The  lyric had a ready appeal to Lawrence who perhaps knew he was dying and wanted passionately to live and to Thomas for a similar or opposite reason.

But it wasn’t just personal. “McKinley” with its darkly comic and frankly insane cycle of violence and retribution was the spirit of the time. Forget “If you were the only girl in the world”.

Another version  has the lines:

“Mr. McKinley, why didn’t you run
When you saw that man coming with a smokin’ ’41?”

Ever since I found out what really happened to my uncle and his friends, I’ve been asking the same question.

I’m not expecting to find an answer any time soon.

Post Script

Line of Sight. – An imaginary line passing through the sights and the Target- it is immaterial whether the Target can be seen from the gun, this line remains the same.

Not another biography of Edward Thomas?

There are some very good biographies of Thomas out there. The ones by his wife, Helen, and Eleanor Farjeon are still essential reading. Modern biographies, taking their lead from the latter, zoom in on the last four years of his life – his poetic flowering or whatever you want to call it. But all the biographies, old and new, get the last four minutes wrong. It takes a dog-biographer to blow the fleas off that one.

(In Memorium E.T.)

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, “I will praise Easter Monday now-
It was such a lovely morning.” Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, “This is the eve.
“Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.”
That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.

Eleanor Farjeon, “First and Second Love”, 1947.

Wheatfield near Yalding, Kent, 2011











An incomplete list: the Cambridge Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Volume II, 1913-16, Eds. George J. Zytaruk & James T. Boulton, 1981 (“McKinley” is on p332); The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence, Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994, “Purple Anemones” is on p244); The British Campaigns in Europe, 1914-1918, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1928, p211. The collected letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, 1990; Edmund Blunden, Barry Webb, 1990; “Ancre Sunshine”, in The Deceitful Calm, A New Selection of Poems by Edmund Blunden, Eds. Rennie Parker & Margi Blunden, 2006. The correspondence between Hartert & Stresemann has been published (in German) in Haffer, J. (ed.) “Ornithologen-Briefe des 20. Jahrhunderts.” Oekologie der Voegel 19, (1997), the wartime letters kindly translated for me by Bente Pile; the letters of 2 Lt. TBD Hough are in Nothing More To Say, Ed. Mike Wilson, 2013; Edward Thomas The Last Four Years, Eleanor Farjeon, 1958; “W.B. Yeats, William Sharp, and Fiona Macleod: A Celtic Drama, 1897” William F. Halloran in Yeats Annual No 14, Ed. Warwick Gould, 2001.

© Richard Shepherd, 2015

 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2015-05-21  ::  Richard Shepherd

Messengers – A walk from Harrow-on-the-Hill to Maida Vale, January 2014

Saturday 8 March 2014 - Filed under Uncategorized


IMG_3460“Cloudy in the west and it looks like rain”

Detective Inspector Wye of S Division took the witness stand:

“I was off duty and had been in Pineapple Nursery buying ranunculus bulbs with my wife when I heard a clamour and went out into the Edgeware Road to investigate. A two-wheeled chaise was being driven furiously towards London. I saw Constable Clouds lying a hundred yards from the turnpike, moaning. As I ran to help him the chaise ran in to the back of another vehicle which was dashed to atoms and the occupants thrown in to the road. The two-wheeler then collided with an omnibus which had just passed through the gate coming the other way – the driver and conductor being thrown under the horses’ feet. By coincidence, Dr Foster of Gloucester had been visiting Mr Leslie at 12 Pineapple Place. He went to assess the injuries of the others whilst I comforted Const. Clouds as best I could.

Const. Clouds was drifting in and out of consciousness and said many strange things. He said that Suetonius was too late. London was already f****d. I didn’t really understand to what he was alluding to. Then he said: “We are the sky: we all breathe four gallons of air a minute. Our lungs are constantly converting oxygen to carbon-dioxide and water va … .” These were the last words that he said. His soul left his mortal envelope at five and twenty past one of the clock opposite Paddy Power. In Const. Cloud’s right hand I found a crumpled piece of paper. It was my opinion that it was torn from his notebook. It had one word written on it in pencil: “CHIAROSCURO.” I believe the facts of this case would perplex Mr Sherlock Holmes himself. There is a restaurant of a similar name in Holborn, your worship.

The weather was fine apart from some cumulonimbus to the west. The road was dry. It was my opinion that the chaise was not attempting to brake when the collisions took place.

DI Wye, S Division

My walk started at Harrow-on-the-Hill. Tomorrow’s political elite in homuncular form clutching straw boaters and tuck. Rain sodden playing fields. Dead poet. Long views to the Chilterns – and back over London – obscured by mist. The sun broke through once or twice and a clump of snow drops in St Mary’s churchyard spoke, I thought, of better days ahead.

In summers during the 1820s John Constable used to sit with his friend and first biographer, Charles Leslie, on the porch of Leslie’s house in Pineapple Place, just off the Edgeware Road in what is now Maida Vale. Constable would drink a dish of tea and look across unbroken hay fields as the sun sank behind Harrow-on-the-Hill. I was, I supposed, returning his gaze. The hill looms in the distance of many of his Hampstead paintings. His favourite view in this part of the world was west from the top of the Heath.

I am often amazed how many fields are left – though my walk today, which began along the Capital Ring, was calibrated to maximise them, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. I photographed sheep in front of Wembley Stadium, saw a boy and a man fishing the pond on Barn Hill, and wild geese at the Welsh Harp (which my OS Map insists on calling, “Brent Reservoir”). Later I would see pigeons fucking on a shop sign in Cricklewood Broadway and a man skyed by a people carrier. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In January 1829 Constable, recently widowed and desperately anxious about the health of his eldest child, received a commission to paint a mermaid for a pub sign in Warwickshire. He wrote to Leslie: “This is encouraging, and affords no small solace after my previous labours in landscape for twenty years.” He drew a sketch but the sign, for The Mermaid at Knowle near Solihull, was, for unknown reasons, never made.

By the time I reached Cricklewood my feet were as wet as a mermaid’s tail. Staples Corner sapped any strength I might have had and the sun disappearing behind Carpet Warehouse or some other murder-barn had been replaced by twilight and a blanket of ominous cloud.

Constable had an insider’s knowledge of clouds. He was the son of a miller: the weather was money. In Leslie’s memoir, Constable described the phenomena – often seen in spring – of small clouds passing at speed beneath much larger clouds: “These floating much nearer the earth may perhaps fall in with a stronger current of wind, which, as well as their comparative lightness, causes them to move with greater rapidity; hence they are called by wind-millers and sailors, messengers, and always portend bad weather.”

There is a copy of Thomas Forster’s Researches About Atmospheric Phenomena (1815) in the Constable family archive with the painter’s own annotations. Constable made over a hundred cloud studies, partly as preparation for his 6-footers and partly one suspects for their own sake: a love of the science and the artistic challenge of capturing constantly changing skies. The studies were rapidly sketched in oil on Hampstead Heath. Many of them are dated and have weather notes written on the reverse. For those which have incomplete notes, dates have been suggested by looking at contemporary weather reports.

I returned to the Edgeware Road the following day but almost immediately saw a man rise above the bull bars of a 4×4 with his arms flailing like a broken windmill. The rest of the walk took on a dream like quality. I hardly noticed Cricklewood and Kilburn. But the skies cleared at Maida Vale and I was able to draw enough enthusiasm to get home under my own steam.

For someone so antipathetic to war I spent a long time researching it but it was always the odd things that sparked my interest: often stuff that wasn’t really concerned with the war at all. I can remember very vividly one such spark. I was at Kew researching Zeppelins and gazing out across what was then a building site to a fenced nature reserve on the riverbank. The reserve protects the two-lipped door snail: a fussy customer that now only lives at certain places on the tidal Thames – mostly in Greater London. Anyway I digress. And Zeppelin folders are full of unexpected interest and poetry so reading them isn’t really a chore. But suddenly I came across a letter. Attached to it was a chart showing black and white photographs of clouds and, in another column, some examples of the height at which the particular cloud might expect to be seen. Strato-cumulus, for example, was illustrated with a small line drawing of Mont Blanc and stratus with drawings of St Paul’s, the Eiffel Tower and Snowdon.

The letter was in a file marked “Cloud formations: notes & corres re cloud formations & their height with a view of assisting artillery & small arms in combating hostile aircraft.”

But I didn’t follow it up. Other things seemed more important at the time. Anyway the letter was dated December 1917. My interest in the war tails off rapidly after April 9th. But I was reminded of it recently when I read Constable’s biography. I suddenly realised that there was a link. Not one that would worry a historian. But meat and drink to a miller, a sailor or a dog biographer.

Leslie, the son of a Philadelphia clock maker, was born in Clerkenwell in 1794. His family returned to America a few years later. He began to make a name for himself as an artist and returned to London to pursue his career. His speciality was literary genre art – one of his paintings, of Uncle Toby and the Widow (from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy) hangs – at giraffe grazing height – in the V&A today. Leslie is interesting because he seemed to know everybody in the artistic and literary London of his day. One friend was the American writer Washington Irving. Leslie illustrated an edition of Irving’s essays and short stories: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1820).

I’m not sure how familiar Irving’s writing is to today’s British readers. Everybody has heard of Rip Van Winkle. Film buffs might attach the author’s name to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I’m guessing fewer people would be familiar with the text. But you might know one of his stories better than you think. Robert Louis Stevenson was, by his own account, mortified when he realised that he had – he thought – inadvertently lifted a great chunk of Treasure Island from an Irving story which he had read twenty years previously. Stevenson incidentally was a bit hard on himself. No one has copyright on a stranger arriving at an inn. If the stranger has a sea chest: what was he supposed to put his belongings in? And if the stranger can be seen looking out past the creaking inn sign to the comings and goings of ships in the harbour … but you get my drift. Some stories, or parts of stories – riffs – told once immediately become part of a common landscape. Imagine only one blues singer catching a train. One cheating country song. You don’t have to sink an illegal well to draw stories like that. They bubble up from the cultural aquifer, unbidden. But I’m digressing again.

The letter, from Croftdown Road, NW5, just off Highgate Road, was signed Richard Inwards and gave permission for the relevant authority to reprint his cloud diagram for their own purposes.

Inwards had travelled the world as a mining engineer but his chief interest was above ground. He was a President of the Royal Meteorological Society and a joint editor of its Quarterly Journal. The cloud diagram came from his book, Weather Lore (1893), a collection of proverbs, sayings and rules which he had collected over several decades and continents. In the Journal, which he edited for twenty years, he enjoyed debunking weather fallacies and exposing the colourful quackery of self-appointed weather prophets like Dr. Merryweather whose “Tempest Prognosticator” used live leaches in glass water bottles to ring a bell when bad weather was imminent.

It seems that Constable, a century earlier, had a better understanding of meteorology than the military authorities of 1917, or at least the gun teams positioned around the capital – including one on Parliament Hill. But perhaps a knowledge of clouds was not so relevant to defending against Zeppelins which needed good weather to fly and almost always attacked at night.

Washington Irving’s old lodgings in Bartholomew Close were destroyed in a Zeppelin raid on the night of the 8th/9th September 1915. I announce the fact with great confidence, although I can’t now remember where I read it. It doesn’t really matter: he described the medieval streets to the north of St Paul’s in the Sketchbook. He lodged there or thereabouts. His account is semi-fictional anyway. And much of what was left by the Zep raid was flattened in the next war. The church of St Bartholomew-the-Great, the oldest parish church in London, survives and a handful of historic buildings – some 17th century houses which survived the Great Fire and both world wars, and some nineteenth century warehouses: but mostly it is the street plan which contributes to the historical feel of the area. It forces the imagination upwards – and backwards.

Irving’s antique book sellers and the cheesemongers plying their trade from fragments of old family mansions were already long gone – so too the apothecary with his stuffed alligators and bottled snakes, the burial societies and the yearly gipsy party to Epping Forest.

Did the previous occupants of his lodgings really sign the bow window of his sitting room and adorn it with indifferent poetry?

Perhaps I should fess up. I find Washington Irving intensely irritating. Or rather I find Geoffrey Crayon intensely irritating.

Either way almost every single window in Bartholomew Close – including, perhaps, Irving’s – was shattered by the blast from the biggest bomb of the war so far. A cab-driver in the Close was cut in two, a policeman was mortally wounded near Liverpool Street Station when the wall of the stable block fell on him. The raid killed 22 and injured 87.

In a laboratory on the third floor of St Bart’s hospital a medicinal leach emitted a bubble as the tube around it shattered. No bell rang to announce a hundred years of bad weather had just come down the pipe.

 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2014-03-08  ::  Richard Shepherd

Friends Beyond

Monday 11 March 2013 - Filed under Uncategorized

Friends Beyond.mp3

Maidstone to Bearsted,  Saturday 2 March 2013.

I suppose I had persuaded myself that this was work. A three-poet walk: Hardy, Thomas and Blunden (put like that they sound more like chartered accountants than poets).

Though more widely known as a novelist, Thomas Hardy turned to poetry in later life. His first volume, Wessex Poems (1898), was published when he was 58. Edward Thomas and Edmund Blunden are both poets associated with the First World War. Thomas is widely regarded as an important and influential poet today. Whilst Blunden’s poems often turn up in anthologies his reputation as a poet has fluctuated in recent decades. His prose account of his war time experience as a Second Lieutenant in an infantry battalion on the Western Front, Undertones of War (1928) is regarded, along with the autobiographical writings of  Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, as one of the definitive memoirs of the war.

My interest in Blunden is personal. He survived the battle at the Ancre on 3 September 1916 in which my great uncle was killed. It was to Blunden’s writings I turned when the buff folders in the National Archives proved as lifeless as their namesakes in the blood and mud across the channel.

I recently found out that Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone had a lot of Edmund Blunden material. Maidstone is only a few miles away from Yalding, Blunden’s childhood home (from 1900) and life-long inspiration. I thought a visit to the archive might neatly combine with a short stroll that had long been on my to do list. Bearsted, a few miles south of Maidstone town centre at the foot of the North Downs, was where Edward and Helen Thomas moved in 1901 with their baby son, Merfyn. It was their first home outside London.

The Hardy link? Blunden became friendly with Hardy when he was introduced by mutual friend Siegfried Sassoon. When Hardy died in 1926 his widow gave Blunden Thomas Hardy’s own copy of Edward Thomas’s Poems.

The strange thing was I had forgotten about our own Hardy connection until I found myself cutting through Old St Pancras church yard on my way to the station. Around about 1865 the writer – then a trainee architect – supervised the reconfiguring of the churchyard which was partly to be lost with the expansion of the adjacent railway line. The jumble of mossy gravestones huddled round the Hardy Tree felt auspicious. I didn’t need sunshine.  I would be more than happy with bones.

In the Kent history centre I only had time to call up a couple of items. I chose  a short pamphlet from 1964, Guest of Thomas Hardy, in which Blunden recalled  a visit to Hardy’s Dorset home, Max Gate, in July 1922. Hardy at eighty-two was then the grand old man of English letters. Blunden, twenty-five and a prize-winning poet but not yet a famous one, recalled feeling rather anxious beforehand but quickly establishing a rapport over Shelley and the war. Hardy’s dog, Wessex, took an immediate liking to the young writer – an unusual honour apparently.

A detail absent from the official pamphlet, but mentioned in Barry Webb’s biography of Blunden was that one of the things that most impressed the young poet was the old man’s ability to take a piss without pausing in conversation or breaking his pace. That might be poetic licence. My own attempts to replicate the trick have at any rate proved dismal.

My walk took me from the betravelodged and concrete-coffined Medway, through streets and amenity parkland to a green corridor through suburban Maidstone. Along the River Len alders were in full catkin guise, the water clear in its sandy bed. Fenced and hedged back gardens loomed mysteriously above the sunken road. Dog walkers, couples, children: this was the place where — threw his scooter in the river last year. The sort of walk in other words that could only be walked on a Saturday in catkin time. Even in grey hand numbing cold, a triumph of ambulatory optimism over stubborn experience.

Bearsted manages to maintain a village feel despite being wrapped in the over-protective arm of  its big sister. This was the place that the Thomases called home from 1901 to 1904.

Helen Thomas recalled her horror on arriving at their first home in the village, Rose Acre – a dismal cottage a mile outside the centre – even further from any romantic notions of a country cottage she might have entertained. But she enjoyed the view of the Pilgrim’s Way and the downs. There was a cherry orchard next door and – whatever other problems they had (the depth of Edward’s depression was becoming apparent) it was at least spring.

In the archive I read the short collection, Rose Acre Papers, (1904). It’s really interesting to go back and read the early work of a writer who you’ve grown to love in a later incarnation (not much later of course given that he died in 1917). There are glimpses of the writer Thomas would become and whom the war robbed us of so tragically early. Rain – the title of the fourth essay – in particular is a subject that would he would return to throughout his writing and find its mature voice in the poems and the prose poetry of The Icknield Way.

In another paper Cleopatra’s (the author’s cat) opinion of her new home in the Kentish countryside is not ameliorated by the spring and on a trip back to London she runs off to her old empty home “fifth floor left.” She is retrieved but pines away and the author has her stuffed.

Cleopatra’s feeling that the path not chosen would probably have been better is very Edward Thomas – which is the same as to say very human. But whether he had moments of doubt or not, the country boy from Wandsworth never did live in a city again.

Blunden singles out Hardy’s poem, “Friends Beyond,” as one that meant a lot to him before their meeting. It is a graveyard meditation but drawn as much from a folk tradition as a poetic one. A sort of Uncle Tom Cobbley meets Thomas Gray. It would have had a ready appeal to the young poet for all sorts of reasons. Blunden at age 25 had more friends beyond than most people in more peaceful times would gather in a lifetime. He had also endured the loss of a baby daughter – a tragedy at any time but particularly cruel in 1919. He was, he felt, a man grown old before his time.

WILLIAM DEWY, Tranter Reuben, Farmer Ledlow late at plough,
Robert’s kin, and John’s, and Ned’s,
And the Squire, and Lady Susan, lie in Mellstock churchyard now!

“Gone,” I call them, gone for good, that group of local hearts and heads;
Yet at mothy curfew-tide,
And at midnight when the noon-heat breathes it back from walls and leads,

They’ve a way of whispering to me—fellow-wight who yet abide—
In the muted, measured note
Of a ripple under archways, or a lone cave’s stillicide:

In 2012 the poet  Paul Farley took a ride in the police helicopter (for Radio 4) from Loughton over the night time capital. He was fascinated by the way that in the viewfinder of a heat-seeking camera, the cemetery headstones, having retained the noon-heat, appeared to signify life.

Part of the particular cruelty of the first world war was that whole communities joined up and died together. This too I feel would have been part of the poem’s appeal to Blunden.

So the poem continues but I must leave the ripple mid stream. My book is not being written and I’ve not even thought about finding a job and you can’t eat poetry. But when the cider bottle falls behind the ash tree I might yet draw warmth from the higgled stones.

The Hardy Tree

 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2013-03-11  ::  Richard Shepherd

Lonely death of a renowned moor-walker

Friday 2 November 2012 - Filed under Uncategorized

On the 5th September I continued my Colne Valley odyssey. On the train out a trendy asset manager/entrepreneur type with waxed handlebar mustachios was giving a presentation to some  pasty eating businessmen on a rail firm he’d bought from the liquidators. I was half listening, half reading The Last Tommy and half staring out of the window, wondering what Brunel would make of it all. I detrained with them at West Drayton where, five minutes’ walk from the railway,  I was surprised by something not at all unlike a long village green and a boarded up pub, The Swan, awaiting development in to houses.

The entrance to Fray’s Island is not signed from this side but I found it at my second attempt and crossed a footbridge decorated with Indian balsam to an edenic water world of rampant nettles and crack willow. A garden spider blocked the remains of an old building – the walls partly cleared of the ivy which should have buried it years ago.

I left the reserve by the only other exit on Thorney Mill Lane and walked along a dusty road past a caravan site and a gravel works and an old coal marker before climbing a stile into a golf course and following the river to rejoin my walk from last week at the point of the disappearing path.

I retraced my steps to cross the Slough arm of the Grand Union Canal. Here an angry dog blocked my way until it was wrestled from my ankles by its owner. I was frightened for my life. Nothing in the way of apology or explanation was deemed necessary.

The interesting seed dispersal mechanism of Indian balsam was forgotten in a fury of shit and slavver. My anger at the dog and its owner redrew the landscape. The sooner the third – and fourth and fifth – runway was built the better. They might bury the entire lower Colne in tarmac right up to the drawbridge of Windsor Castle for all I now cared. Asset strippers could taxi to West Drayton to sell off unprofitable bits of the rail network without leaving their private jet.

In 1987 – at the time of the Great Storm – just off Holloway Lane in West Drayton, a mile north of Heathrow Airport, archaeologists found a burial pit dug through brickearth into the gravel below. Some of the bones were missing but those which survived had, archaeologists believed, belonged to one of the last aurochs in England. The aurochs – a native wild ox – became extinct here in the late neolithic or early bronze age. The same sort of date implied by six barbed and tanged flint arrowheads which were found with the burial.

The aurochs hung on longer on the European mainland – the last one died of natural causes in the Jaktorowka Forest, Poland, in 1627. The reason I mention this at all (the reason for the whole walk, in fact) is that I’ve found two fossil aurochs teeth already this year, on beaches in Kent and Essex. The enamel is so good that I’m going to use them to replace my own gnashers when the time comes. I too will become a renowned moor-walker and your British fighting dogs will shit themselves and run away when they see me.

Close by the aurochs pit, during the building of the third runway, archaeologists found the badly decomposed body of a fifty-year old man. It was intact except both feet were missing – chewed off just above the ankle – though whether before or after death was unclear. His eyes had been put out with a pencil which was also found in the grave along with a small notebook and a British Library card which was no longer legible.

On 19th September I walked from Uxbridge (where I had finished up the week before) to Rickmansworth. I went to the visitor centre (Denham Country Park) and bought biscuits and a walk guide and sat on a fishing platform to drink tea and enjoy the late summer sunshine at ground level. This was the first time in the walk from the Thames that I felt something approaching tranquility – in spite of the hum of traffic from the A40/M40. I photographed a heron on the weir and blue chicory on the bank – frayed petals like bird’s wing tips and shepherd’s crook stamens.

On 17th October I caught a bus which smelt of hospital wards and slap to Finchley Road and got to Ricky in an hour more or less. From Batchworth I headed north along the towpath for a few hundred metres to take a photo of an obelisk in a private garden on the opposite bank.

The monument records the settling of a dispute between paper millers – the Gade & Colne Valleys were the birthplace of industrial machine paper making – the canal company, and a local landowner. I probably wouldn’t tell you the details of the dispute even if I could, but the backstory is interesting enough. It unpicks a landscape often taken for granted.

The Grand Junction Canal, the Hertfordshire historian Lionel M. Munby pointed out, was the first planned communication link between London and the North since the Roman roads were built nearly two thousand years ago. It was authorized in 1793 and, built out from London, had reached Tring by 1799. Braunston – the northern terminus – was reached six years later.

The mill owners were not antipathetic to the canal. It was a convenient and cheap way of getting raw material (mostly rags) to their mills and getting the finished product out in to the world. But paper making required huge quantities of water. Even when steam replaced water to power the mills, the process of preparing the pulp was very water intensive. With the canal companies drawing water from the rivers and bore holes in the chalk, a clash was always going to be inevitable.

The mill owners couldn’t call upon expert witnesses – there weren’t any. They had to defend themselves and in the process contributed much to the new science of hydrogeology.

The canal companies argued – wishfulthinkingly – that there were two aquifers or natural reservoirs in the chalk. The top one fed local springs but the lower one drained through subterranean passages into the sea. This could be tapped, they reckoned, without affecting the flow of rivers over the chalk.

The mill owners developed rain gauges to prove them wrong. They showed that the flow of water in the rivers was determined by the previous year’s rainfall. Tapping the water from a bore hole anywhere in the chalk lowered the amount of water coming from the springs. Water was a finite resource and the mill owners, water companies and canals would have to agree to share it.

The patter of squabbling capitalists energized an autumnal stroll. Perhaps I was asserting my own claim to the life-giving element by beating up the towpath in the gloom.

I retraced my steps to the bridge and took the left fork along the Ebury Way, an old railway line, past canal boat homes and old gravel scrapes converted to fishing oases. I enjoyed the walk and the autumnal weather but it felt like a cattle run. The landscrapes were unreal to me behind the barbed wire: a patchwork of tribal affiliations and prohibited space. An engineer working on one of the bridges eyed me suspiciously and didn’t return my greeting.

Crossing under the brick viaduct at Bushey I turned right up the hill and, half a mile later,  turned off to cross a field towards Haydon Hill House where a new development of 5x bed houses seemed to have grabbed some of the footpath which leads alongside a stream to a crossing path behind St James’s Church. There was barely enough room for a renowned moor-walker let alone a buggy or wheel chair. I should be – the shiny fence suggested – in the gym or the velodrome. Not schlepping round the green fringes of the capital looking for Nissen huts. Or tracking dead artists’ tears tumbling over the tufa into the sewers of deep memory.

 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2012-11-02  ::  Richard Shepherd

Colne Valley Path

Wednesday 5 September 2012 - Filed under Uncategorized

Last Wednesday (29th August) I had a wet walk along the Colne Valley Path from Staines – which had a nice looking market the afternoon I was there and food smells which made me hungry.

I found the river – Thames – and Lammas Park where I sheltered from a downpour and ate lunch standing up under the overhang of a shed covered in cobwebs. Then I walked across Staines Moor: an unexpectedly peaceful strip of land  sandwiched between the M25 and – give or take a reservoir or two – Heathrow Airport. At least it was visually peaceful with the meandering river and grassy moor dotted with indolent ponies and ancient ant hills.

The path under Junction 14 was depressing with no saving graces other than the fact that you don’t have to cross twenty lanes of traffic. A man was sat in the shadows, mentally ill or broke or just sheltering from the rain.

It got worse past the motel and trading estate which seemed misnamed. The lorry drivers weren’t trading – at any rate they probably weren’t making lots of money from whatever went on in the anonymous hangars.

The strip of reclaimed-from-rubbish-dump woodland did nothing to lift my spirits. It felt like a place to inexpertly bury a body or catch a would-be immigrant, frozen in ice, fallen from the lowered undercarriage of a jumbo jet.

The strange thing is I was a long way from a bad mood when I started out. But my nerves were a fair way to being shredded by the time I got to Horton whose intimations of a more peaceful ruralism – the church tower and the blue plaque to John Milton just seemed to add a layer of cruelty to a permanent present tension.

I gawped at some old houses and fine coaching inns at Colnbrook. One of them, the Ostrich, lays claim to a ghost story of the Sweeney Todd genre. The place felt haunted enough to me; but not by anything supernatural.

I followed the brook out of town and just before crossing a busy road I was accosted by a group of lads with dogs. They called me “a fucking tramp.”

I took that to be a badge of honour. They would have, I reflected, been called much worse in their time and would be again. I’d seen their future through the train window at Feltham. It wasn’t orange.

Just past Thorney a gate blocked the footpath  which – though marked on the OS map – apparently no longer led past old gravel scrapes and a weir to Fray’s Island and Mabey’s Meadow Nature Reserve. But by now I expected nothing more. I didn’t even register disappointment. I thought of Richard Mabey’s classic The Unofficial Countryside. He’d found inspiration in nature’s  recolonization of what duller pilgrims call edgelands – the shrieking, fly-tipped, shit-spattered, apocalypse-belt of gravel scrapes and car-breakers yards that fan out from the built environment like oil slicks from an abandoned rig. Watching rare birds on the sewage tanks he found an antidote to the workday blues.

But the drifts of Himalayan balsam – even the scraggy pony in its comedy suit of burrs – stubbornly refused to lift my mood. I followed Beeches Way in to West Drayton completely forgetting my strange find the week before at the edge of a green carpet of seaweed on the North Kent coast.

 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2012-09-05  ::  Richard Shepherd

Another Girl in the Silk Stream

Saturday 4 August 2012 - Filed under Uncategorized

A beat-up walk yesterday (Wednesday 1st August) from Mill Hill Broadway to K-Town,  mostly on the foot-shredding Edgeware Road – Roman Watling Street.


I followed the Barnet Millennium Walk signs through Lyndhurst Park alongside the old railway which is managed by the London Wildlife Trust. There were raspberries growing in the unkempt fringes and some ripe blackberries – I don’t remember ever eating them on the same walk but there we are.

Met the Silk Stream at the top of the park – the Dollis’s “little sister” Nick Papadimitriou calls it and you won’t find a better topographical study of the river than his. You won’t find another topographical study of the river period, as they say in America. Riverrunning will never be an Olympic sport. Their loss.

My tribute to Team GB – by the way – has been to turn off the TV for the duration. I haven’t missed it yet apart from a yearning for Scandi-crime on Sunday night which – as it happened – wasn’t even on.

The stream was mad with Himalayan balsam which the bees were loving.
I followed it past roads with watery names and one that implied water by its absence: Dryfield Road. Past allotments with a scarecrow that I didn’t photograph because everybody photographs allotment scarecrows. Instead I took a picture of an oak tree which was boring but also – in its own way – spectral. A reminder of the rural nature of this part of NW London well in to the twentieth century.

I followed the river through Watling Park all the way to Burnt Oak where I left the park to walk up a busy shopping street with the feel of an eastern bazaar – three fish shops sold glistening tributes to the water goddess. Fruit and veg was arranged beautifully on altar after altar. Even the rows of trolley bags somehow managed to look attractive. They spoke of the sacredness of short journeys in a world where all journeys are short.

I’d come here a fortnight ago looking for a lost girl and found quite by accident an old lady on the ornamental bridge looking distraught.

She told me she had a ticket to go to Sicily to put flowers on the grave of her husband. Now she had dropped the envelope containing the ticket in to the river. I went and peered under the bridge while she told me her story.

She had been born in The Bald Faced Stag where her father was landlord. Just after the war she met and fell in love with an Italian POW who had stayed and set up in business as a freelance kitchen utensil salesman. His name was Saturninus.

“Sounds Roman,” I said. But no, he was from Taormina, high above the blue Mediterranean – where the fish on the market stalls are so fresh they twitch, the piles of fruit and chestnuts and baked onions and artichokes reach the sky and the shopping trolleys take it to a whole new level as well.

Her parents were decent people and broad minded mostly – you have to be in the pub trade – but her brother had been killed in action and they disapproved strongly of  her prospective husband.

So she and Saturninus eloped to start a new life in Sicily.

However, it turned out he was “a bit of a cunt.” When they got there she was locked in the house and not allowed to see anyone except him and sometimes his parents if there were any jobs they needed doing in the next village. This was quite often because they had only one good eye between them.

For months she could only dream of lemon and orange groves and the wind rustling the leaves of the chestnut trees on Mount Etna – things she’d glimpsed in the happy times when the whole of life lay before them like spring and her desire felt like something that welled up from the bowels of the earth.

I wondered why she wanted to go back if he had treated her so meanly. Perhaps she guessed my train of thought. “He couldn’t help it,” she said. He was a depressive.

I remembered that  those born under the sign of Saturn are often characterized by coldness.  I handed her the soggy envelope.

“Strange thing was,” she smiled reflectively “he was a Scorpio.”

Today I didn’t speak to anybody and my walk just a fortnight ago seemed unreal to me, the water streaming down Watling Avenue had vanished taking its stories with it to the Welsh Harp or perhaps further.

Three miles north along the high street I could see the wooded rise of Brockley Hill  thought to be the site of  Sulloniacae – the lost Roman town. Roman remains have frequently been uncovered where Watling Street, which has kept a more or less dead straight line from Marble Arch, climbs the clay ridge. The antiquarian, William Stukeley, claimed that “the whole of the hill is covered with foundations,” though no clear understanding of the settlement has been drawn from the piecemeal investigations over the years. A bronze dog was found at one site and an extensive pottery manufactory of kitchenware, especially mortaria, has been investigated. Amphorae may have been being produced for wine. We even know the names of the potters that worked there: stamped on pots that misfired and were discarded at the site: Doinus, Matugenus, Bruccius, Doccas, Lallans, Marinus, Melus and Saturninus.

Harvey Sheldon suggested that there may be an echo of the Roman name in the stream which runs parallel to Watling Street south of Brockley Hill before flowing in to the Brent.

An old English derivation of “Silk” had been speculated from “sulh” or “sulc” meaning plough or furrow. But Harvey Sheldon wondered whether “Sulis” and “Sulloniacis” were the real roots of the strange name. Perhaps the river and the town were named after the Romano-British goddess of healing springs who gave her name to Roman Bath, Aquae Sulis.

Harvey Sheldon also speculated that the town – which was probably just a service station for travellers along the road –  was more likely to be on lower ground close to a good supply of water where horses could be changed before the steep climb up Brockley Hill.

He suggested that the vicinity of The Bald Faced Stag, an old coaching inn, in  Burnt Oak might be a more likely place to stick a trowel in to a lost Roman road station.

It would certainly make for a better dig than the Orthopaedic Hospital. Few archaeologists would turn down the chance to dig in a pub garden. Somewhere to raise a glass to Saturninus and his friends and perhaps leave an offering in the river – a shopping trolley or a bronze dog.

 ::  Share or discuss  ::  2012-08-04  ::  Richard Shepherd