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On The Trail Of John Clare

Literary meanderings

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I come from a town called Sandy in the flatlands of Bedfordshire — that geographically indistinct patch of unremarkable countryside that is too far north to be the Home Counties, too far west to be East Anglia, too far south east to be the Midlands, but not far enough south east to be the South East. I come from the bit you go through to get somewhere. When I tell people I come from Sandy, Beds, they invariably say one of two things. ‘Ah, where the RSPB headquarters are,’ they will venture, recognising a subscription address. Or ‘I went through there once.’ Only the first of these is strictly accurate. When we were kids we referred to the RSPB headquarters, The Lodge, as ‘the bird sanctuary’. We thought of it as the boundaries’ edge of our vast adventure playground.

Even now, I claim commoner’s rights on the rare occasions I visit the town where I grew up, and usually creep in via one of the back routes — of which there are many to those who know the terrain. When anyone says ‘I went through there once’, invariably what they mean is they went past there once. The A1 (it was still the Great North Road when I was young) skims the western edge of town. No, you didn’t go through there, I think. You glimpsed it through your car window, as I glimpse it whenever I take the Leeds to Kings Cross train and my youth flashes before my eyes in a thirty-second burst of light industry and wind-farms and new-builds and in-fills and floodplain supermarkets. ‘This was all fields when I was a lad’.

Iain Sinclair dropped by early in the 21st century, chasing literary ghosts, cold on the trail of John Clare. In Edge of The Orison, published in 2005, Sinclair retraces the steps that the poet himself trod in 1841, as he walked from High Beach Asylum in Essex back to the imagined sanctuary of his Northborough home. A significant portion of Clare’s walk took him up the old ‘Great York Road’, as he called it, through Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, and what was still then Huntingdonshire; eighty lame and limping miles in four haunted, hungry days and nights. Arriving at my neck of the woods during his own footsore dérive, Sinclair notices ‘pig sheds, military detritus, bunkers swallowed in undergrowth’. He sees ‘abandoned hangars, limp windsocks.’ The local agriculture he describes as ‘a top-dressing to disguise past and present airfields.’ He offers an evocative shorthand sketch of the topography that nurtured me, the details of which I recognise instinctively.

But I have approximately half a century’s jump on Sinclair when it comes to most of what he mentions; and his is a passing gaze at what to me is a permanent sensory imprint. Those wartime left-behinds that he speaks of were visible reminders throughout my childhood of the invasion that never came. The bunkers were not quite so swallowed then, the undergrowth not so abundant, the top-dressing barely in evidence. The hangars and Nissen huts, although long abandoned, were still intact and, save for a little rust, were ripe for appropriation as period props and location shots in television dramas. ‘Military detritus,’ as Sinclair called it, dotted the landscape. Much of it followed the curve of the waterways and the arc and intersection of the railway lines.

There were pill-boxes, gun turrets, hastily assembled anti-tank defences, an emergency rail link with a concrete Halt and a loading bay that was never called upon to do any loading. There was an abundance of half-built brickwork and crumbling concrete of unspecified usage, remnants of a landscape that was ready for combat. One day, during the course of our random foraging in previously uncharted acres, a bunch of us boys unearthed a tiny shelter at the edge of a barley crop next to the railway line. It was barely big enough for a child to squat in, let alone a man armed with whatever was necessary to shoot a plane out of the sky. The watchword was ‘we shall fight them on the river banks, beside the branch lines and in the wheat fields’, evidently.

Iain Sinclair’s route proceeds adjacent to and occasionally in harmony with Clare’s own. And momentarily it performs a pas de deux in step with my own ghost footprints; rather like the A1 does in conjunction with the old Great North Road. Most of those towns that Sinclair walked through would have had a ‘London Road’ that was formerly the main arterial route, long since downgraded, degraded, gone altogether in some cases — like the remnants of the old Roman roads that preceded them, which erased themselves every time a stream was forded, or a coach stop was discontinued. Had Sinclair embarked upon his journey thirty years earlier, he could have conjured dystopian delights out of the old Winsoc Garage. Those airfield wind socks from which it gets its sinisterly Orwellian name are still signposted on the A1 to this day, although the garage is long gone. I saw the Winsoc open and I saw it close. It was positioned marginally too far off the road, at the un-lucrative end of a blind bend. Motorists were almost upon it before they saw it. Unwary drivers would have had to make an instant decision. Most decided that they had enough in the tank to last till the next fuel stop, better signposted, better apportioned, triple the green shield stamps. Not enough of them screeched to a stop to keep the Winsoc going.

For all his psycho-geographical insights, Sinclair does get one thing fundamentally wrong, and it’s something that most Clare scholars get wrong, in their faithful reconstructions. In his state of ‘dreamlike walking’, Sinclair’s road companion Renchi recognises an approaching A1 settlement as St Neots, when in fact, as Sinclair rightly reminds him, it’s Sandy. But Renchi’s mirage obscures the narrative shimmer of another illusion, because it’s highly unlikely that Clare ever came through Sandy in the first place. The route maps that scholars have constructed based on Clare’s own feverish sketch of his ‘Journey Out of Essex’ show him veering to the right of the Great North Road, a few miles north of what the poet calls ‘Baldeck’ (ie Baldock) — presumably at Biggleswade, where the old coach road enters the town from the north on what is now just another less favoured London Road.

There are few specific geographical pointers in this portion of Clare’s story to orientate us precisely. He mentions that the milestones ‘seemed to be stretched further asunder’ as night fell and fatigue set in. After ‘Baldeck’ the next verifiable landmark mentioned is Potton, a village two miles due east of Sandy. This is followed in Clare’s journal by a reference to ‘The Ram’, an Inn that once stood on Gamlingay Heath and where my gypsy ancestors, the Smiths, once camped. Clare next surfaces, bleary, footsore and disorientated, at a turnpike gate, presumably the one which stood in the village of Tempsford just north of Sandy, where a candle-carrying stranger puts him back on the right road. From Clare’s sketchy testimony, I would suggest that the route Clare took, once he diverted from the Great North Road at Biggleswade would have taken him across the Common land south east of Sandy, and then through Potton and across Gamlingay Heath, where a caravanned clan of his familiar gypsy Smiths would have lain sleeping. From there, he would have walked on through Tetworth, where the labouring Chapmans slumbered (or poached) and down the steep incline of what is now Tempsford Road towards that beckoning Tollgate.

Sustained by a diet of roadside grass, hallucinating with malnutrition, and in thrall to his madness, Clare, it is fair to say, was not the most reliable of narrators. What he put down on paper as soon as he got back to Northborough was one part clarity and reason to three parts somnambulistic blur. He mentions that a tall gypsy woman at St Ives (which he later amends to St Neots) pointed out Shefford Church to him in the distance. But Shefford Church would not have been visible from either St Ives or St Neots. It would however, due to the lie of the land, have been visible from the Great North Road on the approach towards Biggleswade at the point where, for whatever reason, John Clare deviated temporarily from his route. The peasant poet did then what generations of motorists have done ever since. He circumvented Sandy, edging past, not through, my hometown.

Rob is a novelist and music biographer whose most recent published book was Psychedelia And Other Colours (2015). He is currently working on a memoir and recently completed a novel called ‘Zed Pop’ and a screenplay about the life of John Clare.

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