Bottengoms Farm is an Elizabethan yeoman’s house lying at the bottom of a track in the Stour Valley on the borders of Essex and Suffolk. Having fallen out of use and into disrepair during a succession of agricultural depressions, it was bought by the painter John Nash in 1944. Most of the property’s land had been absorbed by neighbouring farms, but there were still “two acres or so of every kind of soil a gardener could lust after and buildings galore”. Nash, a true artist-plantsman, set about cultivating the garden, while his wife Christine took charge of the house: “She swept it out, ran up curtains on her Singer, scrubbed its bricks, lit its grates, imported fine cats, and painted precious old things such as its Georgian corner-cupboard ‘stone’ and Charleston-rose.” Blythe has known the house intimately since 1947, and it became his permanent home when the Nashes died in the Seventies.
At the Yeoman’s House expands from the consideration of a single dwelling into a wonderful meditation on our place in the landscape, the marks we leave on it and the different ways we relate to it, whether cultivating it, painting it, or merely walking across it. Contemplating his house, Blythe wonders: “Who came here? Who helped here? Whose hands raised the new beams and the old beams from the dust?”
He consults the Elizabethan marriage register in the local church in search of “these useful neighbours” and finds himself “intoxicated by their lovely names”: William Lufte and Margaret Armidyll, Alexander Sturdyfall and Annis Bird, George Knops and Thomazin Myller. “They walk from the parish church in chronological order until James I rides down from Scotland. They were on my fields, down my track, in my rooms. Giving a hand.” Looking at the horse-pond and its “sentinel ash”, Blythe thinks also of the animals that worked the land: “This is where they drank century after century, sinking belly-high in the blissful coolness in July, throwing up their huge heads in the shade, and the water running ceaselessly, clouding then clearing. For ever and ever.”
There is a marvellous sense here one often gets in the English landscape of layers of history that are not so much sequential as overlapping, and the book is similarly modelled, less a narrative than a series of essays, lists and poems that together evoke the spirit of place. Outstanding among these is a beautiful threnody for an “immensely tall and fragile” collector of Stone Age artefacts who died inexplicably young and “continues to cast a long shadow across the flint fields” he once walked.
The Stour Valley is of course Constable Country, a landscape painted by someone whose family “had lived on its territory for centuries, milling, small-farming, shepherding”. Constable created what has been called “the ideal countryside of every English mind”, Blythe reminds us in a fine essay on the painter and John Clare in At Helpston. Blythe has been president of the John Clare Society since its foundation in 1981 and this volume gathers together nineteen talks on the poet, investigating not only Clare’s associations with writers and painters such as Robert Burns, Thomas Hardy, Edward Blunden, Rider Haggard, Robert Bloomfield and Edward Rippingille, but his encounters with gypsies, his walking and his reading and his close study of his Northamptonshire locality for a proposed but alas unfinished Natural History of Helpston, modelled on Gilbert White.
In At the Yeoman’s House, looking at a long list he had made of the plants growing on his land, Blythe “suddenly saw it in small farm terms and not botanically. And there was myself, a Suffolk boy and one of the last to weed fields for a penny. And there was John Clare in the Blue Bell [pub] with his pockets straggling with fritillaries or some such treasure. And, briefly, it was all of a piece, his weedy world and mine”. Blythe’s genuinely illuminating affinity with Clare comes partly from his having been that country boy at work in the fields, and the collapsing of time in this passage is characteristic of both books. They are not only beautifully written, but also beautifully produced, the Clare volume decorated with paintings by Mary Newcomb, the Bottengoms one with numerous black-and-white photographs and hugely evocative line drawings and wood engravings by John Nash.