25 August 2011

The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken

Robert Frost and Edward Thomas

These photographs were taken in Ashridge woods, Frithsden, Hertfordshire, near where I grew up. Although Robert Frost may have composed these lines in Gloucestershire when with Edward Thomas in 1914 or so, they also walked together in the Chilterns near Beaconsfield when the Frosts first came to England.  

I will admit therefore to much inaccuracy in these pictures - the yellow of the woods, for instance, was not autumnal but the spring glory of wild daffodils - but nonetheless the poem inspired the pictures and I feel they capture something of the indecision imagined.

Robert Frost on his own poetry:

One stanza of The Road Not Taken was written while I was sitting on a sofa in the middle of England: Was found three or four years later, and I couldn't bear not to finish it. I wasn't thinking about myself there, but about a friend who had gone off to war, a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn't go the other. He was hard on himself that way.

The friend was Edward Thomas, and the poem was intended to deter him from enlisting. Thomas, however, had made his mind up, and so, although of an age when he need not have served in action, he made his way to the front, and was killed by a shell at Arras on April 9th 1917.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost 1874–1963 

These two pictures were taken in Gloucestershire, not that far from Ledbury, where Frost and Thomas certainly walked. They could therefore be more authentic, but this simple image of decision is a telling metaphor for those questions that life occasionally presents wherever it is staged. Should we follow our instincts? Or take the less obvious option? Should we follow the crowd, or strike out on our own? Circumstance and experience count for much, but every time the dilemma arises, we have to make a decision, or be left standing where the paths diverge.

I now know that the poem may have been at least polished and finished when the Frosts lived near Dymock (which now has a group known as the Friends of the Dymock Poets which celebrates the extraordinary years when six poets lived in the area).  Frost and Thomas walked extensively in the area between May Hill and the Malvern Hills, exploring without maps, walking and talking, and sometimes arguing.  Frost commented on Thomas's indecisions, and poked fun at his tendency to regret having taken one path instead of another. The poem is therefore not simply about one man's decision to enlist. In fact it may also be about Frost's own indecisiveness when he was at a crossroads before coming to England.....

Ironically, one of Edward Thomas's literary preoccupations was with his concept of the other. There is a sense that perhaps the other might have taken the alternative way...

He lived as one under a ban
For this: what had I got to say?
I said nothing.  I slipped away.

Edward Thomas

The Other

The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted.

From The Sun used to Shine 

by Edward Thomas

Written about his walks with Robert Frost

They tell me the cottage where we dwelt
Its wind torn thatch goes now unmended
Its life of hundreds of years has ended
By letting the rain I knew outdoors
In onto the upper chamber floors.

From The Thatch 

by Robert Frost

Written about Lascelles Abercrombie's cottage, 

Little Iddens, near Dymock

which also became home to the Frosts after the outbreak of war.

24 August 2011

Hampstead Heath

A Stroll on the Heath

Not long ago my mother was in the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, and from her room on the 8th Floor I watched flurries of snow settling on the higher ground of the Heath.  It looked wild and foreign – the dense snow clouds looking like icebergs drifting in on a cold current from the north and east.  I gazed at the weather and saw the whiteness fall, thinking of the natural fauna chilled and hungry.  It didn’t really occur to me that this was a park, a play-place for weary Londoners; it was a view of another time, another world.

When John Keats lived next door to the Brawne family, in the penultimate year of his short life, he was a long way from London.  His sojourn here until his fateful departure for Rome in September 1820, following the death from tuberculosis of his younger brother Tom in December of 1818, was productive and properly romantic, given his output of glorious verse and his affection for his neighbour’s daughter. John and his two brothers had previously lodged in Well Walk, Hampstead, having fled from the unhealthy damp of Cheapside.  This address, like Flask Walk, is a reminder of the fact that Hampstead was once known for its beneficial waters, and also, at 300 feet above sea level and approximately 5 miles from the City (as the crow would fly) this was a salubrious and pleasant place.


After Tom’s death, John was invited to lodge with his friend Charles Brown in a relatively new, semi-detached house called Wentworth Place.  Keats had already met the 18-year-old (he was 23) Fanny Brawne and in 1819 she moved into the other half of the house with her family.    It was supposedly here in the garden, under a plum tree, that he wrote his “Ode to a Nightingale,”

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
        Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
 And leaden-eyed despairs,
    Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
        Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

How much of his thoughts were actually about a nightingale, and how much with Fanny, or his brother, or his own declining health?

The house is decorated in period style and contains furniture and memorabilia from the time of its poetic occupation, though it was added to and changed in later years when owned by the retired actress Eliza Jane Chester, who had supposedly been associated with the Prince Regent.  The address is now “Keats Grove” and it is only a few minutes walk from Hampstead Station on the Northern Line or from Hampstead Heath mainline station.
In July 1920, Thomas Hardy wrote the following lines:

At A House In Hampstead Sometime The Dwelling Of John Keats

O poet, come you haunting here
Where streets have stolen up all around,
And never a nightingale pours one
Full-throated sound?

And he imagines that perhaps his spirit returns from Rome to inhabit the place – just, perhaps, as Andrew Motion did more recently when he spent months there working on his biography of Keats.  It’s a soulful place, and one of the sites in Greater London most evocative perhaps of a certain time, almost two hundred years ago, when London city was surrounded by fields and villages, rather than suburbia and concrete.

Of course Keats was not the only celebrity to have walked on the Heath.  In fact one reason he moved there was that Leigh Hunt, the critic and one-time associate of Lord Byron, lived nearby, and at his house Keats met several other poets, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, another young man destined to meet death in Italy. 


Keats also bumped into Coleridge, of the older Romantic generation, whilst walking on the Heath, as Coleridge then lived, and was later buried, in Highgate.  Coleridge was walking with one J. H. Green, who had taught Keats at Guy’s Hospital, when, as Coleridge recorded, “A loose, slack, not well-dressed youth met Mr Green and myself….”   According to Keats they strolled in conversation for almost two miles, touching on, amongst other things, nightingales, which apparently Coleridge found disturbing!

To the north of the Heath, a couple of miles wander from Keats’s house via the Vale of Health (where D H and Frieda Lawrence resided in 1915, with Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray as neighbours) is Kenwood House, home of a collection of fine art (including a Rembrandt self-portrait – “Portrait of an Artist” – and Vermeer’s “The Guitar Player”) which was bequeathed to the nation in 1927 by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh – hence the title, “The Iveagh Bequest.”  The house dates from about 1700 but acquired its current splendour when bought by the 1st Earl of Mansfield and restyled by Robert Adam between 1764 and 1779.  {If you are taken with this location, by the way, as Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts were in the film “Notting Hill,” you could hire the East Wing (Music Room, Green Room and Orangery) or the Adam Library and Dining Room, from 6.30pm to 11.00pm for just £3,500 (plus VAT.)}


It’s not far from Kenwood House to Highgate, which borders on the north east of the Heath.  Like Hampstead this was once a separate village, as mentioned, home to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his later years, until his death 1834, though he had previously lodged here in 1816 in a vain attempt to throw off his opium addiction.  Coleridge’s home, at Number 3, The Grove, was also the home of J B Priestly from 1933 to 1939.  Another poet who lived here was John Betjeman, who passed his childhood years at Number 31, Highgate Hill West.  Of course you would not have found Sir John in any of the pubs around here, as he was famous for “liking wine and loathing beer,” but there are some fine hostelries for thirsty walkers, from The Wrestlers (98 North Road, Highgate) to The Flask (77 Highgate Hill West) on this side of the Heath to The Holly Bush (22 Holly Mount, Hampstead) and The Flask Tavern (14 Flask Walk, Hampstead;) and for those who like a Dickensian atmosphere, there is also the Spaniards Inn (Spaniards Road, NW3) which got a mention in “The Pickwick Papers.”

For a different type of nostalgia, however, visitors to Highgate should not miss a sortie into Highgate Cemetery.  This is divided into two burial grounds – the 17 acre West Cemetery, which was opened in 1839 when London was desperate for space to inter its departed, and the 20 acre East Cemetery, which opened its gates in 1860, at which time some 30 burials a day were being performed here.  The two areas were connected by a tunnel with a hydraulic system for moving coffins from the Chapel without leaving consecrated ground.  As fashions for ornate memorials changed, and with the decline in the work force during the First World War, these cemeteries began to fall into disrepair and became overgrown.  It wasn’t until the founding of The Friends of Highgate Cemetery in 1975 that a gradual programme of restoration began.  Nowadays you can visit the West Cemetery as part of a guided tour, but the public are allowed into the East Cemetery every day on payment of a small charge.  It is here that you will come face to face with Karl Marx, and some of his followers.  And it is here that you can wander amongst the overgrown and the forgotten, in an extraordinary garden of remembrances.

On the Highgate side of the Heath there are the Highgate ponds, a series of fresh water pools where ladies and gentlemen may plunge into the stimulating waters of the one of the two sources of the river Fleet, dammed into ponds in the 17th and 18th centuries.  A mile or so to the west another tributary has also been dug into the Hampstead ponds, one of which is a mixed bathing lido.  On August 18th 2011 the temperature in all three of these was an exhilarating 19ยบ Celsius…..

Between these two valleys, and the highest point in the 800-odd acres of Hampstead Heath, is Parliament Hill, which perhaps took its name from its use as a defensive position for parliamentary troops in the Civil War, though it was once known as Traitor’s Hill, and presumably was a place of execution.  Until comparatively recently cattle were grazed here, and in the time of Keats or even Dickens there would have been plenty of livestock at large. Today the grass is still unmown in summer, but the network of paths and myriads of strollers, joggers and sunbathers keep it relatively under control.  It is a wonderful vantage point, at 322 feet above sea level and with an uncluttered view (which is protected by law) across the Thames valley it can be spectacular on a clear day and it is the perfect spot to wind down and contemplate the relationship between man and environment, in a way that perhaps Wordsworth had in mind when seeing the city from Westminster Bridge.


In this elevated position it is appropriate to consider the role of parliament and the necessity of law in our ordered society.  The current by-laws for Hampstead Heath reflect this in their attention to detail.  Produced in 1932 and still extant, we are constrained to be sensible, even if desperate for a swim at Christmas:  7 No person shall in any open space wilfully break or damage any ice on any pond or lake, or, when prohibited by notice, go or attempt to go upon any such ice.”  Or, if intent on getting the better of your neighbour, remember that: “24 No person shall in any open space race or train any whippet or other dog.”  To prevent an explosion of certain commercial practices: “29 No person shall in any open space sort rags, bones, refuse or matter of like nature or mend any chair.”  And, finally, in case you were thinking of taking a walk instead of having a shower, remember that: “35 No person in a verminous or offensively condition shall lie about in any open space or lie upon or occupy any seat therein.” 


The view from here reminds me of where I came in.  Overlooking London is a reminder of the industry, expansion and achievement of humanity.  Overlooking Hampstead Heath from the eighth floor of a Hospital in winter is also a reminder of that, but in addition it recalls our relationship with nature and our precarious position in the world.  The blustering snowfall I watched illustrated the capricious power of nature.  The delicacy of one snowflake binds with the delicacy of a million others to coat the landscape with a freezing blanket of white.  And, gazing from the hospital room, my mother in bed behind me, I shivered.


For a related article on Hampstead, please also see:

15 August 2011



When Lionel Stander (Dickie) pushes a stolen car, with dying Jack MacGowran (Albie) at the wheel, into the picture at the beginning of Roman Polanski’s 1966 film, “Cul-de-sac,” he probably wasn’t thinking of St Aidan and the early Christians in Britain, but he was most definitely following in their footsteps.  It is a weird, and wonderful, causeway that links Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, to the mainland, (and it still traps a few incautious travellers every year). 

The BFI one-line synopsis of this film reads: “An eccentric couple living on a small island are terrorised by gangsters,” and there is something about this statement which resonates beyond the film and into the reality of this romantic outpost of civilisation.  When the tides draw back in summer the gangsters, in family sedans, mobile homes and charabancs, flood into the car park, and trail around the village, swarm over the ruins and wind their way into the castle, intimidating and intruding upon the eccentric locals, of whom there are more than a couple, but less than a couple of hundred.  On the website http://www.lindisfarne.org.uk/general/welcome.htm you can read the following statement:  The small population of just over 160 persons is swelled by the influx of over 650,000 visitors from all over the world every year,” and although these visitors bring prosperity, and perhaps happiness, the disparity of numbers can be quite terrifying.


Once the tide begins to rise, however, the majority of visitors slip away and peace returns.  If you have timed it right, and the tide cuts the island off for the evening, you can almost feel you have the place to yourself (and a few seagulls) and the sense of isolation that St Aidan must have found here in 635 AD when he founded the Priory can be imagined.  It becomes an island.  There is peace.  The wildlife, which can flock as much as the trippers, at least keeps itself to itself, or flocks in the more remote areas.  A seal, head above the water, bobs in the waves.  As seals do.  As seals have done since the Ice Age or before.  It watches me, camera inadequately pointed, inadequately lensed.  This is no David Attenborough crew, and he (or she) knows it.  God, I love a seal.

But, back to the past.  Hard to really get the picture of 635 AD.  The Romans:  long gone (Flavius Stilicho, c.365 – 408, was the General most responsible for the withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain).  The Vikings:  not yet really up to much (their raids on Britain didn’t begin ‘til the end of the 8th century).  Picts:  having disposed of the 9th Legion they seem to have slipped into Art and Design in northern Scotland (spectacularly as it happens).  Martyrs:  past their heyday (though the custom was still alive).  And St Aidan.  Represented in art by a stag (so perhaps quite a chap?) – born in Ireland, trained on Iona (a small island just off the south-west tip of Mull in the Hebrides) and sent to sort out Northumbria by his friend King (later Saint) Oswald who had recently (633) defeated (and killed) the Welsh King Cadwallon of Gwynedd at Hexham and reclaimed his father (King Ethelfrith)’s kingdom.  So Aidan walked across the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and set up camp (in 635).  It must have been quite a journey.  I have just checked and from Iona to Lindisfarne would probably have taken weeks if not months!  It is 272 miles, according to the AA, and though the roads are probably slightly better these days the traffic is more intense!
So what was going on?

The Dark Ages (roughly the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance – though scholars still dispute the Dark/Middle definitions)?  A time of extraordinary artistic production (e.g. “The Book of Kells” - but don’t try and get that on your Kindle, or the motherboard might erupt - but also e.g. “La Divina Commedia.”)  A time of consolidation and reformation (if that word hasn’t been misappropriated?)  The Romans had left the islands of Britain without a core in any sense and yet Christianity was becoming something of interest.  In 597, a Roman monk named Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to England (the land of the Angels) and in 601 he was enthroned as the first Archbishop of Canterbury.  Though Augustine died in 605, and despite his lack of success in converting the indigenous population to Christianity, he started a trend which did eventually catch on, though Ireland, having been evangelised by Patrick (385 – 461), was way ahead at the time (it had become almost exclusively Christian by the early 6th century). 

It was St Columba (or Colmcille) who, with twelve followers, founded the monastery on Iona in about 563.  He was born in Donegal in 521 (and is not to be confused with St Columban, who was born in Leinster in 540 and who ended up in Bobbio, in Italy) and died in 597.  Among his many achievements which impressed the northern Picts was the expulsion of a water monster from the river Ness.  Anyway it is unlikely that St Aidan knew Columba, but he was originally from Ireland and was certainly on Iona in 635, as it was in that year that he was sent to Lindisfarne, with the specific remit of replacing his predecessor who was reputedly too rough in his missionary tactics.

Aidan was consecrated Bishop and made his headquarters on the island, where he set up a monastery which specialised in training English boys to become missionaries among their countrymen.  According to the Venerable Bede, St Aidan “was a man of remarkable gentleness, goodness, and moderation,” and his practice was to recycle, rather than accumulate, any wealth, so that any surplus went to the benefit of the poor.  Aidan survived the death of his friend and patron King Oswald, and was fortunate in having the continued support of his successor, Oswin, but when he was murdered in 651, Aidan died of grief a fortnight later.

At this point, on August 31st 651, a seventeen year old Northumbrian by the name of Cuthbert had a vision of angels accompanying Aidan’s soul to heaven and he became a novice at the monastery at Melrose.    In 664, in the company of St Eata, he went to Lindisfarne, but in 676 he went to live as a solitary on one of the remote Farne islands some distance off the Northumbrian coast.  He was called back to the mainland to become a bishop in 684, deftly swapping Hexham for Lindisfarne with his friend Eata, but only managing two years there, before, sensing his imminent death, he retired finally back to Inner Farne, where he died on March 20th 687.  St Cuthbert had a touch of the St Francis about him, with a keen interest in birds and wildlife, but also a very charming and practical nature.  Bede refers to him repeatedly as, “a child of God,” and he was deeply attractive to his flock.

As an aside, in the meantime, there had been an ongoing problem between the Celtic Church (following from St Patrick, but illuminated by the Ionians) and the Roman Church (stimulated by Pope Gregory) about the date of Easter, which reached something of a conclusion at the Synod of Whitby in 664, when King Oswy of Northumbria voted in favour of Rome and the Celtic die-hards retreated to Iona.  Although the fixing of the date of Easter is still being discussed to this day, it was the Venerable Bede, born in 673 near Jarrow, (and who died in 735) who wrote on calculating time and it was by using his exposition of the Great Cycle of 532 years - the interval between two ‘identical’ years – that the Church was able to calculate the date of Easter.  Bede’s scholarship covered many areas beyond Christianity and although his most famous work, a key source for the understanding of early British history and the arrival of Christianity, was “Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum” or “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” (which is also the first work of history in which the AD dating system is used), he also wrote of nature, of how the earth was a sphere and how the moon influences the cycle of the tides – very advanced stuff at the time.

Anyway, when Cuthbert died in 687 the monastic community on Lindisfarne started a cult in his name. It is known from the history of other cults, such as those of St Wilfred, St Columba and St Brigid, that a major cult would have required a beautiful Gospel Book. The Lindisfarne Gospels was probably begun as the major icon for the cult of Cuthbert.  This work is one of Britain's greatest art treasures, and it was almost certainly made on Lindisfarne between 680 and 720. The gifted artist-illuminator was called Eadfrith, who was bishop after Cuthbert, until his death in 721. Although it was written in Latin, the manuscript contains the oldest surviving translation of the Gospels into English, added between the lines by another hand around 970. The Lindisfarne Gospels reflect many influences: native British, Celtic, Germanic, Roman, Early Christian, Byzantine, North African and Middle Eastern, as Britain was a land of many cultures, with an emerging national identity and enthusiastic new forms of learning, literature and art. The Lindisfarne Gospels was a stunning creation of this new 'insular' culture and is an amazing testament to the fact that, far from being a dead end, Lindisfarne was in touch with the rest of the world.  To stand there today, after the tide has washed away the trippers, is to experience something of the insular solitude that Eadfrith must have relished.  He would have risen early and, between prayer and sustenance, laboured in the scriptorium, the high stone windows filtering in the chilled light from the sea, the cries of gulls and the washing of the waves, the music in his ears.  According to the British Library, “this work is evidence of its time, showing a fusion of the beliefs, politics and challenges of the day. But it is also timeless. It offers us clues to the past and inspiration for the future….. Eadfrith employed an exceptionally wide range of colours, using animal, vegetable and mineral pigments. It was an enormous act of faith.”  It is most unusual that the whole work seems to have been all his own, as most illustrated manuscripts were the product of team work, but in some places this manuscript remains partly unfinished, suggesting that Eadfrith's cherished work was ended prematurely by his death. 

There might have been advantages even in the comparative isolation of Lindisfarne, but also perhaps advantages in not being quite as remote as Iona.  Perhaps it benefited from being on the north/south route (very close to the A1 indeed) and yet anyone stopping off there had to stay for more than a glass of mead!  Miscalculate the tides and you could be stuck for at least a night!  And so, possibly, scholars and thinkers, artists and traders, brought fertile interruptions to the tranquillity of this island.  Far from being a cul de sac, it might have been a lay-by of great interest. 

It certainly has a lure to it.  Whether it is religion or architecture that is your personal metier, or whether you are a bird-watcher or a walker, the island is rich in resources.  Roman Polanski returned only five years after shooting “Cul-de-Sac” there, using the castle (sixteenth century in its core, but remodelled by Edwin Lutyens in 1903) as a location this time for Glamis Castle (with some cardboard additions) in “Macbeth” (and nearby Bamburgh castle for both Cawdor and Dunsinane). 

The crabs that scuttle through “Cul-de-Sac,” a jokey symbol of the cancers in society, are no longer present.  The Beckett-like dialogue, representing the tragedy of pessimism, such as in the lines croaked by Jack MacGowran, “Well, here we are.”  Which prompts Lionel Stander to query: “Where?”  And Jack MacGowran to reply: “In the shit….” are replaced by Shakespeare’s tragedy of optimism, (“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.….”)

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, to give it its full title, is a glorious place to visit.  In some respects, it is a cul-de-sac, as you have to retrace your steps to leave it, but that’s no defect.  In fact it is a positive, as you have to make the effort to go there, and your arrival, and departure, will be affected by the rhythm of nature in the tides.  And so is the presence of others, so that if you come to stay, you will find there is plenty of space and the stillness of early morning or the calm of evening can be savoured.  Natural England staff a 3,500 hectare Nature Reserve here, with a constantly shifting landscape of sands and a coastline of dunes, mudflats and saltmarsh – heaven in the autumn and winter for drifts of birds from the arctic -  though you are warned to beware quicksands and unexploded ordnance.

It is a wild, natural place.  I stay at the Ship Inn, wander the shore line, take in the views – across to the Cheviot Hills, to Bamburgh, and out to the Farne Islands.  The skyscapes and seascapes are breathtaking.  The air is invigorating, fresh and salty.  The wind pushes and pulls me, powerful and elemental.  I feel cleansed and inspired, without complications of having to be somewhere else, of having to meet any deadline or catch some appointment.  I think of the Celtic past, of the Anglo-Saxon world.  The stones of the ruined Priory stand firm, despite the destruction they signal.  The castle stands proud, like a crowned molar, defying the decay of nature. 

I think again of the term cul-de-sac, and am then reminded that when originally picked-up for American distribution by Filmways, the film “Cul-de-Sac” carried the advertising tagline, “Sometimes There’s Nothing Left To Do But Laugh!” and I wonder how much those elders of the early Church liked to laugh? For a moment I sit in the bar of the Ship Inn and imagine Saints Aidan and Cuthbert in the corner, sharing a conversation over a warm glass of mead.  The tide is up, the causeway flooded, and I believe I can hear them chuckle.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne’s name originates as the island of the people from Lindsey or Linnuis (OE Lindesege) which was the name of a small Anglo-Saxon kingdom, which lay between the Humber and the Wash, absorbed into Northumbria in the 7th century.  The name Lindsey itself means the 'island of Lincoln' which derives from the fact that it was surrounded by water and was very wet land and had Lincoln towards its south-west corner.  A fitting name all round. (The picture shows old friend Lindsay thinking about St Aidan, and the dangers of water.)