I have been fruitlessly trying to get hold of a copy of Edward Thomas’ ‘In Pursuit of Spring’ for some while, but that failure didn’t matter in the least today, at the end of April, when I walked around Ashleworth, following in the footsteps of Ivor Gurney. The sky, the land and the river all put on such a show, that it seemed as though I followed a perfect dream of spring; there was no need to pursue.
The blackthorn blossom, smoky and dusty in cloudscape shadow, dazzled the eye with its brilliant whiteness as the morning progressed. The Severn, too, changed from a dark, sullen, turbid force to a gentle ‘ water’s canvas’ where ‘ bright sunshine paints the picture of the day.’ The hawthorn hedgerows grew ever greener; the haze on the Malverns drifted towards some blue remembered hills, whilst Barrow Hill stood sentinel, as I walked upstream, with the Cotswolds to my right, way beyond the waters.
I didn’t see a sinner for about three hours: just parliaments of rooks; a pair of ducks taking off to destinations known only to themselves; the occasional hawk; a robin; then my first swallow of the spring, sweeping over the Severn’s surface. I even heard my first cuckoo in years, and then glanced up from the newspaper to see a swan gliding along, for all the world, just like a Viking longboat.
I don’t know if the Vikings came here but the Saxons certainly left their herring bone stonework in the church; but it is the medieval that predominates in Ashleworth: the barn; the manor house; the preaching cross; the quay, down by the pub called ‘The Boat’. The quay reminds us of how riverine transport was a darn sight easier before the age of turnpike roads and railways; equally, many of the footpaths here move in Euclidean straight lines, from village to village – unlike the constantly curving lanes and roadways.
The village post office did not have a Victorian postbox such as I saw in Hasfield, but it did have a collection box for food, ‘The Lord’s Larder’, as did St.Mary’s in Hasfield. These food parcels are for needy families in the area, coordinated by St. Mary’s in Newent. Sometimes, modernity still shocks. I used to associate Christian charity with what was once called ‘The Third World’; it is a surprise to find such alliterative support now so localised. We are, of course, all in this together.
Any road, the walk from The Haw and Hasfield down to Ashleworth was as delightful as the stroll out along the Severn’s banks: cow parsley; my first sighting of bluebells; pear and apple trees in blossom and the thought of my walking in Ivor Gurney’s wake. The only traffic I saw in the five minutes I spent waiting for the ‘bus at the crossroads in Ashleworth was a girl on a horse. I read Gurney’s poem ‘Above Ashleworth’ on the journey back to Gloucester. How much more meaning it now had, after walking the landscape.
O does some blind fool now stand on my hill
To see how Ashleworth nestles by the river?
Where eyes and heart and soul may drink their fill
The Cotswolds range out Eastward as if never
A curve of them the hand of Time might change;
Beauty sleeps most confidently for ever.
The blind fool stands, his dull eyes free to range
Endlessly almost, and finds no words to say,
Not that the sense of wonder is too strange
Too great for speech. Naught touches him; the day
Blows its glad trumpets, breathes rich-odoured breath;
Glory after glory passes away.
(And I’m in France!) He looks and sees beneath
The clouds in steady Severn silver and grey.
But dead he is, and comfortable in Death.