…Continued from: A Day and an Eternity in Samuel Palmer’s ‘Valley of Vision’ – Part One.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
– From Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake.
In his biography of William Blake, Peter Ackroyd describes two events that happened in 1825, when Blake stayed in a cottage in Shoreham during a visit to The Ancients. One involved a trip to ‘a half-ruined mansion’ in search of ghosts, during which the party of friends were both scared and riveted by ‘a curious rattling sound’ – which, on further investigation by Palmer and Calvert, turned out to be the manifestation of nothing more than a humble snail climbing an oriel window. Ackroyd goes on to relate that:
‘Powers of another sort were more in evidence later, however, when Blake sat at a table in the cottage. He put his hand to his forehead.
BLAKE: Palmer is coming. He is walking up the road.
CALVERT: Oh, Mr Blake, he’s gone to London; we saw him off in the coach.
BLAKE: He is coming through the wicket.
Then, sure enough, ‘Samuel Palmer raised the latch and came in amongst them. It so turned out that the coach had broken down near to the gate of Lullingstone Park.’
– From Blake by Peter Ackroyd (Published by Vintage) – Chapter 28.
Almost two centuries later in June 2010, our second trip of the day was to the very same Lullingstone Park – or what is now the council run country park, part of the old estate adjacent to Lullingstone Castle. Here, after lunch in the café garden, we plunge out of the fiery heat of the afternoon into a cool winding out of trees along the River Darent. Some of the trees we meet along the way are venerable ancients.
They have seen some of our group before at various stages of our lives – me, during my childhood and young adulthood, my parents during theirs, my husband during our early years together. This is the first occasion these old-time trees have seen my children pass this way. Did they once watch Samuel Palmer and William Blake tread this path too? Did these oaks perhaps even make it into the artworks of Palmer and his friends?
According to the British Museum catalogue, Samuel Palmer Vision and Landscape (from which the above illustrations are taken) the very name Darent ‘…derives from the Celtic word derw meaning the river surrounded by oaks.’
These ancient trees have a heritage and legacy in this valley that stretches all ways in time…
My mum tells us stories of how she and her best friend often cycled out here from their nearby home town, in the early years after the Second World War. She squints at the trees and ruminates – “Yes, I remember this. We sat here and ate lunch, I think…” The trees are reference points to her memories, overlapping the past and present in her mind – like transparent photographic negatives – snapshots of ‘here’ and ‘then’ – one on top of the other. She tells us of how, back in those days in the 1940s, she remembers seeing the early excavations of the villa, still open to the elements.
Earlier, as we drove to the villa, we passed the river near Eynsford ford, and I was reassured to see groups of children, ankle deep in the water, colourful seaside nets and buckets or jam jars in hand, fishing for tiddlers – a scene that has replayed over and over, generation after generation in that spot. It’s almost a local tradition, family after family bringing kids to experience hand-me-down memories, as my parents brought me here to paddle and chase the shadows darting at my feet.
Back in Lullingstone Country Park, we enjoy the cool respite of the trees. The river is deeper, slower, more opaque and secretive here than back at the ford and the villa.
Shadow-winged groups of banded demoiselles flash like green-blue jewels over the water, landing on the flowering yellow flag irises to bask in the sun…
Blue sky, butterflies, light-gleams flicker through the leaves…
– and this year’s emerging generation of may flies bounce up and down like little yo-yos on strings, grasping their brief moment of airborne existence on this spinning planet.
Suddenly, the trees give way, and we are out into a driveway and at the gate of Lullingstone Castle. The blue sky bursts open – wide and limitless, and is written all over with the calligraphy of house martins, flashing white and black in curls and flourishes, eagerly read by our eyes. It is a joy just to stand and watch their exuberance, listen to their calls.
More flint, grown out of the landscape, rises up before us in the shape of the wall that surrounds the castle.
Like Eynsford Castle and the villa, it is the work of yet another generation shaping this landscape and the very stones of its soil. I remember that moment when, back on my 1970s school trip, we stood looking in at Lullingstone Castle, and were told the story of the silk worms here turning their mulberry-leaf-fuelled energy into the silk destined for Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding dress and coronation robes.
Amongst all this peace, and surrounded by the ebullient flight of house martins, it is sobering to think of a time when flights of a very different kind crossed these skies. Many World War Two pilots lost their lives in combat over this valley and the surrounding area. There is an Aircraft Museum in Shoreham, the work of which relates to this time – and I remember that often, when we drove past the memorial cross on Shoreham’s Downs, my parents would be prompted by its associations to weave an oral remembrance to the pilots who had fallen in our now peaceful corner of Kentish countryside. My parents once knew a very different Kent – of air raids and bombs.
A few years ago, in response to the oral history project my daughter was doing at school, my dad told us of the time when, as an awed and terrified small boy, he ran for cover as an aeroplane, machine guns firing, hurtled out of control over the high street of his hometown, just a few miles away from the Darent Valley. The pilot, on an air raid mission into British skies, had been shot by a defending Spitfire from Biggin Hill, and he had fallen across the button that fired his plane’s guns. Miraculously, no-one on the ground was shot and the plane fell clear of the town.
Another time, when my dad was about twelve, spending time alone digging the family allotment, he was left clinging to a tree as he heard the sickeningly familiar sound of a V2 rocket overhead, followed by its explosive landing about a mile away. Moments later, a six foot long piece of rocket debris landed in the lane close to the tree he was hugging for dear life. What a world of madness whirled around my parents’ childhoods. This Valley of Vision, and its quiet surroundings, brims over with stories. Life – and death – echo through its layers.
I think back to the time when the building of the M26 was imminent. Our inspirational drama teacher at school commissioned us with the task of creating our own play from our responses to the losses that would soon follow. She took our minds back to the cultural heritage of the Darent Valley, the people’s lives bound up with its landscape across the centuries. Samuel Palmer featured in our play – taking his place in the layers of our telling of the valley’s story, culminating with our own stories – and our fears and visions for the future. I think it was then, when the Valley of Vision, full of childhood memories, legacy and experience, suddenly presented itself as a vision of potential loss, that an awareness of the very real threats to our natural world first really hit home. It was another prompt to my ever growing restlessness to do something; another step towards rolling up my sleeves and getting involved in practical nature conservation…
In June 2010, we leave the Valley of Vision via the lanes that dip and weave through the huddled cottages of Shoreham where Palmer once lived.
There’s a kind of ‘eternity in an hour’ to the passing of generations and the successive bonds we share to the landscapes around us; the cultural shaping of our lives in relation to the ancient hills and stones, the water and trees. Such places are vital for their own sake, for the natural life they support and contain. Their survival is also important to that core of the self, which for each person, in different ways, is bound up in the magic of those wild spaces; those places that remain a refuge both for the soul – and for vision.
As the ancient tombs behind Lullingstone Roman Villa remind us, we may be – in terms of the huge workings of the universe – as ephemeral as the mayflies by the river, but the connections between us all; the layers we leave behind and build, memory by memory, foundation by foundation one on top of the other, the on-going traditions and relationship to place – forge a kind of eternity in each hand-me-down moment. In the Darent Valley, those memories have been laid down in flint and water – and in the mosaic of a villa floor, in the sweep of a fishing net, the glint of a damselfly, in the vision of an artist’s mind working through paint and brush – and in his poem, echoing down the ages from a page of his 1824 sketchbook to a 21st century blog:
Thee night shall hide, sweet visionary gleam
That softly lookest through the rising dew;
Till all like silver bright,
The faithful Witness, pure and white
Shall look o’er yonder grassy hill,
At this village, safe and still,
All is safe and all is still,
Save what noise the watch-dog makes
Or the shrill cock the silence breaks
Now and then -
And now and then -
Hark! – once again
The wether’s bell
To us doth tell
Some little stirring in the fold.
Methinks the ling’ring, dying ray
Of twilight time, doth seem more fair,
And lights the soul up more than day
– From Twilight Time (Shoreham) by Samuel Palmer.
– All art illustrations in this post are from Samuel Palmer Vision and Landscape (British Museum publication)