A suggested itinerary for a weekend walking break exploring the life and work of John Clare (1793-1864), the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet'. The route takes in the principal landscapes and locations that inspired his writing.
Friday afternoon: a circular walk, from Chingford Station to High Beach and back, through Epping Forest. Then to The George Hotel, Stamford.
Saturday: Walk from Stamford to Helpston, John Clare’s birthplace, in the morning. In the afternoon walk the Helpston John Clare Village Trail. Walk or take bus back to Stamford.
Sunday: Visit Burghley Park (laid out by Capability Brown) and Sculpture Garden; optional visit to House. Burghley is one of the largest and grandest houses of the first Elizabethan age. John Clare worked here briefly. Lunch in local pub.
The walks are leisurely.
Epping Forest has an impressive literary and historical heritage from its days as a Royal hunting forest and beyond. The Easter stag hunt that John Clare witnessed in 1841 was an annual event from 1226 until 1858. King Henry VIII wooed Anne Boleyn in the Forest and breakfasted under the Fairmead Oak when she was executed. Elizabeth poets and courtiers, such as George Gascoigne, The Green Knight, and Thomas Lodge, lived in and around the Forest.
Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1653) lived at Loughton Hall. She was the first English woman writer to publish an original work of prose fiction, Urania (1621). This significant work within the Sidney-Spenser school has a supplement of 103 sonnets and songs, ‘Pamphilia to Amphilanthus’, the first English sonnet sequence published by a woman.
Lady Mary was the great niece of Sir Philip Sidney and Lady Mary Countess of Pembroke and a patron of poets. Ben Jonson, who dedicated The Alchemist (1610) to Mary, and likened her to the goddess Diana, was a frequent visitor to the Forest, with George Chapman, (who dedicated a sonnet to her) and wrote ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’, employing a new pastoral language to place his subject.
The Forest was used as a place of refuge from the 1665 Plague and the bombing of London during Second World War. Its reputation as a place of independence, at a distance from the Court and City, grew when Charles I tried to extend the royal Forest and found opposition. Dick Turpin, the highwayman, operated in and around the Forest from 1727-37. Mary Wollstonecraft and William Morris grew up in the Forest.
Charles Dickens began 'Barnaby Rudge' with a description of the Forest in 1775. Alfred, Lord Tennyson lived at Beech Hill House, High Beach, from 1837 until 1840, where he wrote parts of 'In Memoriam' (1850), on the death of Arthur Hallam.
Suffering from depression, Tennyson stayed for two weeks as a guest of Allen’s asylum and would have encountered John Clare at Leopard’s Hill (Lippitts Hill) Lodge or perhaps walking in the Forest. He reported that the mad people were ‘the most agreeable and most reasonable persons’ he had met.
Both Tennyson and Clare could see the lights of London ‘flaring like a dreary dream’ from their hilltop position. Edward and Helen Thomas settled at High Beech cottage from October 1915 until 1917, when Edward was stationed at Loughton Camp and they were studying John Clare.
Clare was at Dr. Matthew Allen’s High Beach Asylum from July 1837 until he walked home to Helpston and Northborough in July 1841. He stayed at the Leopard’s Hill Lodge and was free to work the fields and walk the Forest.
In May-June 1841 he wrote a letter to Mary Joyce, his first love: ‘I have been poorly I might say ill for 8 or 9 days before haymaking and to get myself better I went for a few evenings on Fern hill and wrote a new Canto of ‘Child Harold’ and now I am better I sat under the Elm trees in old Mathews Homestead Leppits hill where I now am – 2 or 3 evenings and wrote a new canto of Don Juan…’
He wrote to his wife, Patty, ‘The place here is beautiful… the country is the finest I have seen.’
I love the Forest and its airy bounds
Where friendly Campbell takes his daily rounds
I love the breakneck hills - that headlong go
And leave me high - and half the world below
I love to see the Beech Hill mounting high
The brook without a bridge and nearly dry
There’s Bucket’s Hill - a place of furze and clouds
Which evening in a golden blaze enshrouds
Bucket’s Hill was the local name for Buckhurst Hill. Campbell, an inmate, was the son of the poet, Thomas Campbell.
Clare wrote more than 3,000 lines of poetry and biblical paraphrase in 1841. This work contains some extraordinary and powerful writing, moving from the meditation on love and home ‘Child Harold’ to the loud, satirical voice and sexual bravura of ‘Don Juan’, the Old Testament prayers, with their terrifying apocalyptic overtones, to the evocation of autumn in Northborough.
He chose to imitate the voice and work of Byron, the most popular example of a freedom fighter, who ‘was mad, bad and dangerous to know’ at a time when he was pursuing local women and remembering his first love, Mary Joyce.
His favourite retreat was Fern Hill:
How beautiful this hill of fern swells on
So beautiful the chappel peeps between
The hornbeams - with its simple bell - alone
I wander here hid in palace green.
Mary is abscent - but the Forest Queen
Nature is with me - morning noon & gloaming
I write my poems in these paths unseen
& when among these brakes & beeches roaming
I sigh for truth & home & love & woman
Walk a route to include Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, Connaught Water, Strawberry Hill Pond, Loughton Camp (an Iron age earthwork), High Beach, High Beach Church, Clare’s brook, Lippitt’s Hill and back to Chingford.
Sweet is the song of Birds for that restores
The soul to harmony the mind to love
Tis natures song of freedom out of doors
Forests beneath free winds & clouds above
The Thrush & Nightingale & timid dove
Breathe music round me where the gipseys dwell –
Pierced hearts left burning in the doubts of love
Are desolate where crowds & citys dwell –
The splendid place seems the gates of hell
Clare saw his escape from the asylum as a return to freedom, to love and home. He walked for three and a half days, 20-24 July 1841 from High Beach to Northborough and Helpston.
Hail humble Helpstone! Where thy valleys spread
And thy mean village life lifts its lowly head
Unknown to grandeur and unknwn to fame
No minstrel boasting to advance thy name
Unletterd spot! Unheard in poets song
Where bustling Labour drives the hours along
Where dawning Genius never met the day
Where useless Ignorance slumbers life away
At Helpston, (where a surprising number of buildings and places familiar to Clare survive), visit the John Clare Memorial, The Butter Cross, The Blue Bell Inn, Snip Green, Round Oak Waters, Cowper Green, Swordy Well, Langley Bush, John Clare’s Cottage, Bachelor’s Hall, St Botolph’s Church, Clare’s Gravestone, Helpston House, The Exeter Arms and other sites of interest.
By Langley bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill
On cowper green I stray tis a desert strange and chill
And sporeading lea close oak ere decay has penned its will
To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey
And crossberry way and old round oaks narrow lane
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again
Inclosure like a Buonoparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still
It runs a naked brook cold and chill
[From 'Remembrances' by John Clare]
The George Inn
The George in Stamford is a large, atmospheric hotel full of character and history dating back to 947 AD. It has a cobbled courtyard, gorgeous rooms and a mulberry tree dating from the time of King James I.
King Charles I stayed here in March 1641, and again in August 1645. The novelist Sir Walter Scott frequently stayed at the George and wrote that the view of Stamford from here was ‘the finest twixt Edinburgh and London’.