Gospel Oak




On a June day
, half a lifetime ago
a toddler, 
uncertain limbed
but chin set hard, 
trunk angled
against gravity, 
wobbled up Dark Lane
toward the crest 
of Roost Hill
in his urchin eyes, 
that day
the loftiest of summits.

At the top, he knew, 
the grown-ups
would point to the Oak, 
old as England
whose ancient roots delved
even to a time before time.

Crooked, crouched, 
the north face
, withered antler branches
gale lashed, 
trunk lightning gashed
blind to brook
, covert and spinney
to meadow
 and wandering byway
in the valley below.

The south, animate still
a wisp of green
 recalling the vigour
now guarded fast
 in the heartwood’s memory
by rings of sap 
which awoke each March.

Gone now
 the exultant springtime surge
of the sapling time
, crawling now
inching upward to the sun.

The Oak; old Needwood-bred
coppiced by pagan, 
sequestered by monk
a holy plot for the living
to rest the dead awhile
and take sustenance
 at the mid-point
between deathbed and grave.

Undressed by yeoman
consecrated in Mundy’s lament
lone refugee 
from the encloser’s axe
and the lust for timber
of an empire beyond the sea.

The lad thought little of this
nor cared greatly.

To him, insight would dawn only
as his own vitality, by degrees, diminished
his errant dash for fortune slowed
and dimly remembered moments
, came back into focus.


Home from the world 
the man returns
his own boy, 
punching clouds
astride his shoulders
to the Gospel Oak
, abiding still
smaller, it seems
half erased
 from men’s knowledge
but steady, enduring.

Tears well unbidden
though he does not grieve 
for lost renown
but weeps at the stark, solitary beauty
and the still march through time
of history’s quiet sentinel
and marvels at his place beside it.

(Image: History and Antiquities of the Town and Neighbourhood of Uttoxeter | Francis Redfern | 1886)

The Lake at Hollybush, Evening

As days shorten, when dusk drops leaden
always unforeseen, unwanted
but punctual, a dedicated gaoler
the mind, thus confined, is drawn
to tracing tracks of memory, old paths
followed with an index finger.

Often, thoughts fix on a place
where it is still summer; on many-hued
evenings exploring the sodden frontier
the debated province between wood and lake
on a favoured spot for the evening rise
where quiet plashes announce
the trout’s harvest of the damsel fly.

In the dimness of the abandoned boathouse
crawling a neglected punt’s rotting bilges
looking down, the gaze alights on a gem
vivid, suspended in tenebrous, aqueous limbo
alchemical flux of malachite and turquoise
a teal drake, constricted by the pitiless clamp
of a skulking pike, then discarded.

The prospector dips an arm shoulder-deep
recovers the dripping remains and
saves an iridescent pin feather, hoards it
in a bedroom cache, waiting for the time
when it will take up its place in the band
of a keen adolescent’s first fishing hat.

A Glut of Blackberries

It had been wet that summer.
Down in Blunts’ Hollow, Pur Brook
commonly a placid tributary
lazy with weed, barely remarked
on its brief passage to the Blithe
had ruptured its margins
drowned the wild garlic
an annual bounty denied us
and engulfed the meadow.

Later, the last of the swallows
thronged the telegraph wires
one day garrulous, gossiping
the next, called south
a memory, enveloping silence
their baked clay homes
under eaves of barn and woodshed
abandoned to autumn rains
gales, and keen, cracking frosts
of oncoming winter.

There followed a late September
of pale mornings, bronze afternoons
ushering thickened air, bruised skies
and reverberant thunders.

Tumult in the heavens.
Convulsions in the soul.

Then, as every autumn
we fell to the business
of pillaging the brambles
plump that year with berries
a glut, nourished by rain
glossed onyx by the lowering sun.

For three days we came
filled pails, baskets, to the lip
gorged bellies till they cramped
and claret-stained our tongues
racing to finish our plunder
by Michaelmas, lest
after, the Devil come by night
and spit on them, trample them
into the loam that bore them.

It was a cheerful time
brimming with laughter
mischief and delight, but always
half-noticed but persistent
the lingering turbulence
of that short season of storms.

For this was the first harvest’s end
that I properly discerned
the passage of seasons.

Home Farm, Sunday

What I remember is walking into
the warm, amber glow, the reassuring
drop and clink of the latch behind me
locking in secrets, kitchen smells
bacon, boot polish, cabbage, a whiff
of drying dogs, trembling black flanks
glossy with rain, steaming by the range
a muddy spoor across the flagstones.

Hung on a hook, my father’s coat
collar five years’ pomade-slick
stiff with his form, wore his bitter spice
the threadbare armchair his impression
and in the larder, the grey March wind
sighed through the flyscreen while
a mail coach galloped round the biscuit tin
low enough to see, too high to reach.

The Bakelite radio played Family Favourites
and Jean Metcalfe read transoceanic hellos
from those remote, crumbling redoubts
Cyprus, Woomera, Hong Kong, Sarawak, the Rhine.
And always, my mother, constant as soil
absorbed with the Bramleys, working
the cinnamon, demerara, butter, flour and oats
crooning along to True Love Ways.

Perched, legs dangling, on a chair by the table
if I craned my neck, I could see the front door
down the hall, a tiny fissure in the mullion
an eye, winking bright, impish, weasel-sly
and again, the bending note of the piccolo wind
shivering me like the crimped puddles in the yard.

If I return one day, perhaps the eye, glinting now
will wear the crinkled edge of my grandmother’s smile.

(For JSB, on his birthday)

Fine Black Things

There were fine black things
a cow horn, scrimshaw
tracery of a dozen winters
of springtime showers
summer sun, and autumn gale
marrow drawn out, wolfed down
two hundred weathers ago.

There was a leaf, corrupted
arteries, delicate capillaries
eggshell porcelain
turned dun, then inky
one blind footfall
away from dust.

There were old knuckles
flaws and wrinkles
cracked black with
soot that wouldn’t shift
fused, palm, thumb
and finger, to the smooth
grip of a blackthorn.

There was soil, rich as sable
pleats and tucks, dungeoned
under cattle grid ribs
and above, the angry germ
of the storm, bleeding light.

And there was the dark
and the muttered hum
of the church, where
my mother chatted
with the village women
as she wove black iris
lenten rose, violet
and scarlet lipped sage
into an arrangement
called ‘Gaudy Night’.

Later, Maybe Next Spring

Later, at a better time, on a better day
we’ll walk the blossom tunnel
of Thorney Lanes, from Gorsty Hill
to the kissing gate at Hoar Cross.

We’ll climb Buttermilk Hill’s
purgatory incline and, at the top
hurdle the stile with the electric
skin-prickled vigour of budding days.

Light footed, we’ll dance, you and I
roar defiance across the meadows
to Woodroffe’s Cliff, numbering off
the long seconds till the echo.

The hedgerow scandalmongers
will pause their garrulous congress
open throated gossips, carrying the news
on fluttering air down to Newborough.

On that day, the lane will reorder itself
and we’ll see it renewed, a slight thing
despite its years, and in its rain filled ruts
laugh at our bulletproof reflections.

(For WVW)