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The Blue Field | Part I: Landscape with Figures

We’ll begin at the top of Brensham Hill, because from there you will get a good idea of the kind of country in which our village is set. This is the land which has made and moulded us. Look north, south, east and west, and you shall see as it were the four cornerstones of our character: the ancient foundations of our way of thinking and living, our wisdom, folly, manners, customs, humours, what you will.

Look north, then, where the Avon snakes down from Stratford through the Evesham vale. With the aid of glasses on a very clear day you can just make out the red-brick ordinary-looking small town which people in Patagonia and Pekin have heard of, though perhaps they couldn’t name anywhere else in England save London. Shakespeare seems very close when you walk on Brensham Hill. He had friends in this neighbourhood, but a day’s good tramp from his home, and just across the river lived one who witnessed his will. You will find yourself wondering, when you see a very old tree, whether he sat in the shade of it; or when you come to a pub, whether he drank there. Now and then on some old labourer’s lips a country word or a turn of phrase brings him closer still. For example, we have a word which schoolboys use for the crackly dry stems of the hemlock and the hedge-parsley: ‘kecksies’, a local word which is heard, I think, nowhere else in England; but Shakespeare puts it into the mouth of the Duke of Burgundy in Henry the Fifth:

Nothing teems But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs . . .

So, you see, he spoke our speech and thought our thoughts. These our woods and fields, our lanes and rivers, served him as a backcloth for Arden or Athens, Burgundy or Illyria.

Look south, downstream, to the old town of Elmbury standing at the junction of Avon and Severn. Just below the junction is the battlefield called the Bloody Meadow in which the Red Rose went down and the White Rose triumphed on a May day in 1471. By chance a deep-red flower called cranesbill grows profusely in this meadow; at times it almost covers it; and if you look through strong glasses from the top of Brensham Hill at this patch of English earth on a summer day you will see the dreadful stain upon it, you will see it drenched in Lancastrian blood. After the battle the routed army streamed into Elmbury Abbey for sanctuary, and the young Prince Edward who fell that day is buried there. With him lie the great lords who helped to shape the fortunes of England for three centuries, the makers and unmakers of Kings whose mighty names thunder through the chronicles of Hall and Stow and Holinshed: the Despencers and the De Clares and the Warwicks and the Beauchamps, and that false, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence who met his inglorious end in a butt of Malmsey wine. These old stones and bones give us, I think, a sense of the past: not a knowledge of history (for there are few men in Brensham who could tell you the date of Elmbury’s battle nor which side won it) but an acceptance of history, which is much the same thing as a sense of proportion. It accounts, perhaps, for our attitude to the Brensham Bomb and to a couple of wars in a lifetime; but it is not a conscious attitude, it is simply a piece of our background with which we have grown so familiar that we forget it is there – just as when we go to church at Elmbury we forget the Lords of Old Time who lie all round us and keep us silent company.

And now look east to the strong Cotswolds where rugged shepherds have watched their flocks since 1350. The winds blow cold there, and at night the stars in their courses wheel slowly across an immense sky. The men from being much alone grow taciturn, and their long stride takes a queer rhythm from the slopes of the whaleback hills. Brensham, seven hundred feet high, is itself an outlier of the Cotswolds; so thence, perhaps comes our hillmen’s lope, and thence the trick of being silent when we have nothing to say.

Lastly, look west to the Malverns and beyond them to the mountains of Wales. It’s not very far across the Severn and the Wye to the dark shut-in valleys and the cold slate villages and the savage Fforest Fawr; it’s certainly not too far for a man to go courting if he has a mind to – so if an anthropologist came to Brensham and started to measure our heads he’d discover a fine puzzling mixture of long ones and short ones and betwixts and betweens. And he’d find if he could look inside the heads a compound and amalgamation of Welsh wildness and English sedateness, Border magic and Cotswold common sense. For though we live in a fat and fruitful vale, yet we have a sense of looking out on to the wide waste lands and the mysterious mountains. That’s where our occasional turbulence comes from, and the fancy that tried to pen the cuckoo, and our love of singing.


Now on a day in late July, if you had stood on Brensham Hill and looked down the furzy slope towards the village, you might have seen a remarkable spectacle. In the middle of William Hart’s farm, which occupied about a hundred and fifty acres along the skirt of the hill, a seven-acre field had suddenly become tinctured with the colour of Mediterranean skies. It happened almost in a night. One day there was a faint azure mist upon the field, like smoke from a squitch-fire. Next morning when the sun came up a cerulean carpet covered it; and we almost caught our breath at the sight of this miracle, for although our farmers with their seasonal rotations paint the land in many colours, blue is not one of them, blue stands as it were beyond the agricultural spectrum, and this particular shade of blue, so clear and pure that it made one think of eyes or skies, was something that we had never seen in our countryside before.

Moreover it made an extraordinary contrast with the rest of the hillside; for there was no other bright colour to share the sunlight with it. In other years, as a rule, there is purple clover or pink sainfoin or luteous charlock; but the authorities had caused most of the hill to be ploughed up for corn. So the familiar pattern was one of ash-blonde oats and rust-coloured barley rippling in the wind like the fur of a marmalade cat, with the foaming green of the orchards making a hem to the skirt of the hill. Now, between the orchards and the corn, appeared this astonishing lagoon of blue which caught and held the eye so that within an hour the whole neighbourhood was talking about it. ‘Have you seen old William’s field of linseed?’ people said. ‘It does your heart good to look at it; but Lord, I wouldn’t be in his shoes when the trouble starts!’

Extract from Part I: Landscape with Figures
Slightly Foxed Edition No. 42: John Moore, The Blue Field
© The Estate of John Moore 1948

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