A Day and an Eternity in Samuel Palmer’s ‘Valley of Vision’ – Part Two

…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?

Oak Trees, Lullingstone Park, 1828, Samuel Palmer

Oak Trees and Beech, 1828, Samuel Palmer

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…

Banded Agrion (demoiselle), Agrion splendens - male. (Photo taken on banks of the River Avon, near Keynsham, 2010)

Banded Agrion (demoiselle), Agrion splendens - male. (Photo taken June 2010 in Victoria Park Botanical Gardens, Bath)

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.

Coming from Evening Church, 1830, Samuel Palmer

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.

In a Shoreham Garden, c.1829, Samuel Palmer

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.

Late Twilight, 1825, Samuel Palmer.

– All art illustrations in this post are from Samuel Palmer Vision and Landscape (British Museum publication)

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A Day and an Eternity in Samuel Palmer’s ‘Valley of Vision’ – Part One

The Darent Valley in Kent was Samuel Palmer’s ‘Valley of Vision,’ and a home for many of my childhood daydreams.

Open a book containing Palmer’s rounded hills, swelling moons, embracing trees; the inviting dip and curve of a lane – like the mind’s reach into promised discovery – and I am back there, caught again by the spirit of the place…

Samuel Palmer Vision and Landscape, by W. Vaughan, E.E. Barker & C. Harrison (British Museum catalogue). Cover shows The Magic Apple Tree, c.1830

Cornfield by Moonlight, with Evening Star, c.1830 - Samuel Palmer

Early Morning, Samuel Palmer - 1825

A Hilly Scene by Samuel Palmer, c. 1824-6

Once a week, every week all through my childhood, our little family car would wend its way along the road above Shoreham and through Eynsford, en route to visit my grandparents. From the back of the car, forehead resting against the window, I would drink in Samuel Palmer’s valley below, and let my imagination rove over the hills on the far side. A check-list of familiar scenes would unfold and recede – the memorial cross, carved into the chalk of the Downs in remembrance of villagers killed in World War One; the arch of the railway bridge; Eynsford ford – tugging enticingly at thoughts of bare feet, fishing nets and buckets; a hidden castle; tiled cottages with tiny doorways; a looming church tower; a school playground surrounded by fields, its trees gathered round like benevolent dinner ladies, inclining their branches to listen and keep watch.

In June 2010, three generations of our family were back there again – in the Valley of Vision. It was a hot, hot day. The sun beat down on our heads and glittered on the river. Butterflies shrugged the heat from sap-high leaves.

Our first stop for the day was Lullingstone Roman Villa – my first visit there since a school history trip back in the 1970s. My memories of that trip are of Eynsford Castle – muscular, flinty, uptight and stolid; a building blindly in league with our raucous imaginations. I remember the walk past the river, through the impressive arches of the railway viaduct…

…and towards the shed-like building which housed the Roman Villa at that time. After an hour or so spent echoing our amazement around that modern protective enclosure, we headed off for a nettle-stung wander through the woods, our teachers anxiously herding the intrepid souls who were each convinced they knew ‘the best way to go’ to catch a tantalising glimpse of Lullingstone Castle, before our return to school by train. I think I learnt more about history that day than during any lesson spent in the classroom. I felt it and touched it – saw for myself the layers that preceded, and yet somehow also surrounded, our own layer of time and earth…

…The Roman Villa has lost none of its magic this time round. It is like an ancient dream unfolding from the ground, full of the colours and form of past thoughts and footsteps. You can almost see the mind-turns of long-gone people etched in the evidence of their actions.

Mosaic depicting the mythical story of Europa and the Bull, Lullingstone Roman Villa

Mosaic panel in the audience chamber, depicting the story of Bellerophon, Prince of Corinth, on the winged horse, Pegasus, killing the Chimaera.

Four hundred years of occupation give the villa many layers all of its own. Painted water nymphs glance palely from the niches in the lower walls (a former cult room), their eyes gleaming with liquid knowledge we can only guess at. Standing on the footbridge over the river outside, it is easy to see why they are here. Easy to apprehend those ancient people’s sense of a presence of deity in the play of water and light in the river that was their lifeline.

Beneath that clear, cold water a bed of flints dices up the sunlight, damselflies glance it back at the sky like blue-green fire – and the water trembles in gentle folds, ever onwards in a renewing one-way journey.

This is a valley of flint and water – and, today, of sunlight; bright and transforming. The villa is built partially from flint; grown out of the land that surrounds it. The villa’s history is fascinating. It consists of successive additions to the building made by the many generations that lived in its walls. Here, the water nymphs, when first exposed by archaeologists, blinked in the light of the future, and were found surrounded by the collapsed rubble from the room which once stood above. When the archaeologists pieced together painted pieces amongst the rubble, they discovered a wall painting of figures engaged in Christian worship, plus painted Chi-Rho symbols – unique, unequivocal evidence of a house-church in Roman Britain.

The wall paintings are also a discovery of almost unique international importance. There are theories that, amongst the depictions of Roman legend and the literary allusions to Ovid and Virgil in the villa’s mosaics, there may also be secret allusions to Christ and Christianity, which perhaps date to a time when the villa family may have been wary of declaring Christian belief. The realities of the exact unfolding of the layers of belief here remain a challenge of interpretation. However, an adherence to a new, emerging religion is literally written into the walls, enmeshed there in the building’s fabric amongst earlier traditions and beliefs – perhaps also reflecting a mix that was still interwoven in the minds of its inhabitants.

Centuries later, a young artist, Samuel Palmer also felt a spiritual transcendence in this valley. Nature, he felt, brought him closer to God; the numinous was all around. The paintings that emerged from the years he spent in Shoreham glow with a mystical, visionary insight that locks on to the land and the significance it unfolds for him. Together with a small group of artists, which included George Richmond and Edward Calvert, Palmer formed the first brotherhood of painters in England. Known as The Ancients and based in Shoreham, this small artistic movement wanted to turn away from the industrial revolution and modernity, to return to spiritual values, connect art to nature, and to explore literary imagination and poetic rapture.

Neo-Platonism, the Bible, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Bunyan and Spenser all informed Palmer’s work. He loved Virgil (I wonder if he could have ever dreamed of those ancient, forgotten mosaics buried beneath his valley? Making hindsight connections now, it’s easy to weave fanciful thoughts of those hidden Virgilian allusions seeping up through the earth, to mingle with Palmer’s own Virgil-inspired visions in paint.) The Ancients were disciples of William Blake, finding particular inspiration in Blake’s woodcut illustrations to Thornton’s Pastorals of Virgil. In his 1825 sketchbook, Palmer wrote about his response to these woodcuts:

They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry. I thought of their light and shade, and looking upon them I found no word to describe it. Intense depth, solemnity, and vivid brilliance only coldly and partially describe them. There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost soul…’

(A.H. Palmer, The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer).

In this tribute to Blake, Palmer seems to give a perfect description of what he, himself, achieved in his own work, revealing the bound up nature of aims, inspirations and leaps into the unique. The two men – though different in many ways – give us glimpses, through their respective art, of vibrant, questing minds somewhere out on the edges of the apparent, both peeling away layers to see what lies beyond, beneath, alongside – just out of our immediate line of sight, alive in the tensions of existence and imagination.

Continued in A Day and an Eternity in Samuel Palmer’s ‘Valley of Vision’ Part Two

Samuel Palmer, Self-Portrait, c.1824-5

William Blake at Hampstead, c. 1825 by John Linnell (1792-1882)

– All art illustrations in this post are from Samuel Palmer Vision and Landscape (British Museum publication).

Kent, Orchids, Belonging – (and the small infinities of Poem-Places)

From the end of May, through the first week of June, I was back in the county of my birth and upbringing – Kent; land of hops, orchards, nightingales and, as my Northumbrian husband says, of a million shades of green…

Within a day of being back there, I had taken root again – physically as well as in spirit. Wherever I am, my roots reach out for the memory of Kent – but, being physically back there, everything realigns itself, my tap roots travel downward, and the shape of me rediscovers where it fits the puzzle.

And it is the trees of Kent that have a lot to do with that – the sheer number and variety and extent of them; the ancient woodlands that give the place its special spirit and make me feel I’m back in my ‘right’ habitat.

A book in which I can capture that feeling wherever I am, is my treasured copy of Elaine Franks’ The Undercliff, A Sketchbook of the Axmouth – Lyme Regis Nature Reserve (published by J.M. Dent & Sons):

Picture of The Undercliff by Elaine Franks

Elaine Franks’ beautiful illustrations, so full of the life of an English wood, always transport me to that ‘right’ habitat – and the book’s foreword, written by John Fowles (of French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Magus fame), is a treat in itself. As well as being an extremely accomplished novelist, Fowles was a passionate lifelong naturalist, and in the book’s foreword he captures, for me, that sense of the ‘rightness’ of place; of the return to a wild world where the tuning realigns to ‘as it should be’; all the notes in perfect pitch with our own deepest nature. He writes that the Undercliff, the extraordinary nature reserve near where he lived in Dorset’s Lyme Regis is:

‘…quite simply one of those places one always thinks of as one does of a poem or piece of music; not quite of this world; or, of this world as it should be, but alas so largely isn’t.’

For me, Kent is a place full of such poem-places, made all the more potent through their connection to my most formative years. During our holiday exploring those small, and yet vast, places of childhood memory, the woodlands were always a framework, gently easing us in and out of the lilt and change of the landscape as we travelled.

Walking along the North Downs Way on a hot early June day, we explored the edges of different worlds – crossing the line where the open chalk downland emerges from the green shadows of yew and beech, like a blaze of white-green heat, sparking the blue of butterfly wings (holly and common blues) and the yellow-red flames of birdsfoot trefoil. Such places are a botanist’s dream; every square inch stuffed with plant delights, many so tiny it’s a must to get your nose near the earth and alter your world focus to the microscopic. Moving my mind beyond the edge of usual perspective, that tiny world seems to expand into a whole universe, and I become lost in a new shift of seeing; a perspective made of that simplicity and enormity held in the palm of the opening of William Blake’s poem, Auguries of Innocence:

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.

My parameters of perception always play and shift in this way whenever I come across wild orchids – those jewels of the Kentish woods and downs. There is earth magic in these little shape-shifters. They are strange, exotic and yet so belonging to that ‘right’ familiarity of the world as it should be. They are full of character, beauty and attitude – alive like animate creatures in their mimicry of bees, flies; in their hallucinatory resemblances to imaginary ladies in crinolines, monkeys, soldiers and lizards; in the uncanny accident of botanical features grinning at us like impish faces, triggering fond sympathy in our brains. When you peer up close, focusing in on ‘the infinity’ in the texture of their petals, you can see that their surfaces are often like the wings of butterflies – iridescent, sparkling with the glitter of light. I am completely held by their spell – a total devotee.

I have yet to read any of John Fowles’ novels (something I must rectify – and soon!) but ever since I discovered that he was a passionate naturalist, truly bitten by the wild orchid bug, I’ve felt a kindred spirit waits in his writing. Once you have been bitten by that bug, it is like a drug; the fascination must be fed. Kent is a treasure trove of orchids; famously the county of Darwin’s ‘Orchis Bank,’ where those inspirational plants, so like little worlds in themselves, played a huge part in the development of his theories of evolution and natural selection. Like many plant species, the orchids seemed to be flowering late this year after our heavy winter, so, having missed seeing any early purple orchids near where we live in the West Country, we hoped to see some still in flower in the South East.

With great good luck, our walk around some Kentish cobnut platts scattered that orchid magic our way on the very first day of our holiday. The cobnut platts were like a time portal to a bygone era of farming – like walking into the pages of an H.E. Bates novel – and beneath the cobnut trees, little groups of early purple orchids stood tall, and very much still in flower:

Picture of Early Purple Orchids

 along with the more greenly inconspicuous Common Twayblade:

Picture of Common Twayblade orchid 

Amongst the orchids were vetches and this Broomrape:

picture of Broomrape

…The whole place alive with the freedom of an ancient habitat allowed to unfold its true rhythms over and over again…

Dormice apparently thrive here – and we could see the trails made by badgers. Interspersed between the cobnuts were big old orchard trees, lichen draped and insect busy – and in the nearby woodland, we were met by drifts of yellow archangel, vivid blue bugle, red campion,

Picture of woodland

many more twayblades:

Picture of Common Twayblade orchid

the delicate stars of ramsons, filling the air with their wild garlic aroma…

Picture of Ramsons

…And, finding our way through the mix of vigorous growth and life-giving decay of fallen trees (casualties maybe from the 1987 Great Storm), we discovered yet more clusters of early purple orchids, one the shade of raspberry ripple ice cream:

Picture of an Early Purple Orchid

Picture of an Early Purple Orchid

Picture of an Early Purple Orchid

Picture of Illustration of Early Purple Orchid by Elaine Franks

Illustration of Early Purple Orchid from 'The Undercliff' by Elaine Franks

Amongst the moss and fungi and all the buzzing decay and pulse of unfolding life of this ancient wood, we walked along another edge of worlds – a ridge of a sharp fall-away into the valley below:

Picture of a Kentish Woodland ridge

Such ridges are a familiar feature of these local woodlands, and this one had the characteristics of an ancient boundary – a faded hollow ditch, marked along by a line of coppiced trees – a mix of the cathedral skyward soar of beech and the crazy twist of hornbeam. These ancient woods are definitely poem-places; places to go to dream, to alter focus; to find ‘the world as it should be’.

One such place of past daily daydreams (and many a discovery of small-world infinities) was a tiny fragment of wildwood around the corner from my childhood home. On the final day of our holiday, my daughter (ace orchid spotter!) found more orchids in the grassy rides close by that wood – this time common spotted orchids; a selection of the usual pink:

Picture of a Common Spotted Orchid

 … and one pure white:

Picture of Common Spotted Orchid (white colour variant)

Returning through the wood itself, memories thronged. This is where my ever-ongoing journey to learning my wildflowers began, where I built camps with my brother and friends, fished for tiddlers in the nearby stream, where I walked my dog, long since gone with my childhood – and where I sat on a huge, fallen tree in chattering companionship with my best friend, each of us nursing the nettle stings on our legs and feeling happily lost in that ‘eternity’ of this small space of the wild.

Now, as we walked, each little landmark prompted another memory, a familiarity of sympathy and home. I reached out my hand and laid it against one of the big old oaks in silent recognition of an old friend. My rational side tells me this is a one-way greeting; that tree, that little wood, doesn’t care whether I’m there or not – has no sense of having seen me before. But, for a moment, it felt like some kind of pact between me and this place – a pact to always feel connected. My rational side tells me this pact is in my mind alone, but another part of me likes to believe in some spirit of a place in which there’s a mutual echo of recognition, and an acceptance of belonging.

I think maybe that’s what we all need – especially in this modern world where we wander and break away and have so little chance to settle; so little chance to find that world as it should be.