In Clare’s footsteps

John Clare by William Hilton, oil on canvas 1820

Langdyke member Elaine Wakerley has mapped out this lovely walk which will take you in the footprints of the locally born peasant poet John Clare – and added verse and recollections from his works to illustrate it.

 

Hanglands has a range of habitats, including rich wet-lands, with the ‘Best Ponds in the UK’ (Freshwater Trust).
Naturally, expect mud at all but the driest times. It is normally possible to avoid the boggiest spots by short detours..
The longer walk is approximately seven miles and the shorter less than three miles.
There is a coffee house, two pubs and a restaurant in Castor and Ailsworth, all on the main Peterborough Road. A detour to Willowbrook Farm on the Stamford Road by foot, car or bike is also easy to do …

The easiest parking is opposite Southey Wood but first stop at the site of Clare’s beloved Loved Langley Bush grid ref TF113026.

1

The Langley or Langdyke Bush

In 1996, a hawthorn was planted on the site of the 100 year old, Langley Bush that Clare knew intimately. To him and many others this is a very special site, a little mysterious, and never officially excavated.
It is the site of a Bronze age barrow, a Roman shrine, an open air Anglo Saxon court and a gibbet. It was an assembly point for Shepherds and Gipsys and has a mystical significance beyond its historical importance.

“ …O Langley Bush! the shepherd’s sacred shade,
Thy hollow trunk oft gain’d a look from me;
Full many a journey o’er the heath I’ve made,
For such-like curious things I love to see…”“…

Both swains and gipsies seem to love thy name,
Thy spot’s a favourite with the sooty crew…”
Langley Bush

Clare was unusual in having empathy with the lot of the gypsies who met under Langley Bush. In his diary, it clear that he engaged fully with them.

” …got the tune of Highland Mary from Wisdom Smith, a gipsey and pricked another sweet tune without a name as he fiddled it…”
Journal 3rd June

Wisdom Smith does warrant specific mention as a direct ancestor of more than one current resident of Ailsworth and Castor.

2

Brown Hares

Brown Hares at Etton Maxey reserve. Photo: Steve Zealand

“…And timid hares throw daylight fears away
On the lane’s road to dust and dance and play,
Then dabble in the grain by naught deterred
To lick the dew-fall from the barley’s beard;
Then out they strut again and round the hill
Like happy thoughts dance, squat, and loiter still…”
– Hares at Play

Look over the arable fields along this path and you may be see hares. In the Spring mating season, it is even possible to watch them boxing, as the females discourage unwanted suitors with a powerful punch.

3

Entering the Hanglands
Here we are walking on part of King Street, a Roman road known by Clare as ‘Roman Bank’. On this road, a little to the north, at Swaddywell, he found Pasque Flowers.

“ …I could almost fancy that this blue anemone sprang from the blood or dust of the romans for it haunts the roman bank in this neighbourhood ”
Journal 25th March

From here it is possible to take numerous pathways and find many habitats and species.

In the high trees of the Hanglands, the Purple Emperor, Britain’s largest and most elusive butterfly, was recently seen here for the first time since the 1920s.
Easier to see, in early summer, there are thousands of orchids to be found.

Clare and his fellow naturalists
“…never wearied with hunting after the Emperor Butterfly and the Hornet Sphinx in the Hanglands wood and Orchises on the Heath and West…”
John Clare by Himself

4

Ailsworth Heath Ramble among the furze.

Clare was entranced by Emmonsales Heath from boyhood

“ …I had often seen the large heath called Emmonsales stretching its yellow furze from my eye into unknown solitudes… so, I eagerly wandered on and rambled among the furze for the whole day till I got out of my knowledge when the very wild flowers and birds seemed to forget me …when I got home, I found my parents in great distress and half the village about hunting me…”
John Clare by Himself

“ …I love to see the old heath’s withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling…”
Emmonsales Heath in Winter

Here is the opportunity to wander like Clare and take in sights and sounds that are unchanged.
Look out for the spectacular orchids that are found here

5

Nightingales

The Hanglands is a haven for Nightingales, migrants from Africa. They summer in scrubby heath and thickets and are still heard as Clare heard them. They are in full song in May and June when their usual dawn and dusk performance extends into the daylight hours.

“… I’ve nestled down,
And watched her while she sung; and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy,
And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy,
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs.
The happiest part
Of summer’s fame she shared…”
The Nightingale’s Nest

6

“ …Each little path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray
Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
Nor grudged the steps that he had taen as vain
When right roads traced his journeys end again
Nay on a broken tree hed sit awhile
To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
Sometimes with cowslaps smothered–then all white
With daiseys–then the summers splendid sight
Of corn fields crimson oer the ‘headach’ bloomd
Like splendid armys for the battle plumed…”
The Mores

As in Clare’s time, the common grazing land is often used today by native cattle. Their grazing does no harm, but they contribute to the muddy uneven walking surface, which is exactly as Clare would have known it.

7

Bluebells
The southerly area of the Hanglands is blanketed with Bluebells in April. Including the very rare white bluebell.

“… for the woods are full of bluebells and the hedges full of bloom…”
Summer

8

The Maffitt

Ailsworth Heath Footway, the ancient entrance to Ailsworth.

Here Clare could have met his Grandfather, John Stimpson, who he referred to as Town Shepherd with a flock of small sheep

“…much commended and esteem’d…”
for their meat, which thrived on the
“…sweet and cleanly Herbage…”

The view is now different, there would have been a cottage on the left and certainly no dual carriageway, but the skylarks are still as inspirational.

Skylarks

Skylark

“ …See, the skylark flies, and o’er her half-formed nest, with happy wings
Winnows the air, till in the cloud she sings,
Then hangs a dust-spot in the sunny skies,
And drops, and drops, till in her nest she lies…”

9

Into the Villages

Walk east on a footpath along the noisy A47 and over the flyover before you reach Ailsworth.

As you walk through Main Street you will see cottages and houses that would have been familiar to Clare and the information board on the village green will help to fill in the details.

East along the Peterborough Road and you, unlike Clare, will encounter the coffee house and further still The Prince of Wales and The Royal Oak which he almost certainly knew.

“…So, helping a thirsty old friend in his need is my duty – take heart, thou art welcome indeed…
The Cellar Door

 

Returning

Retracing your steps back to the starting point can be varied by a short detour around the villages.

From the Royal Oak, turn north up Stocks Hill and through the church gate to see St Kyneburgha,

A landmark very familiar to Clare and the place that his Granparents, John Stimson and Elizabeth Daves married on 5 November 1750.
His great friend Edmund Artis spent a large part of his life excavating the Roman Palace here, and Clare worked with him on this dig.

” …I have been to Milton and spent three days with Mr Artis the Antiquary very pleasantly. He has discovered a multitude of fresh things and a fine Roman Bath is one of his latest discoveries. The painted plaster on the walls was very fresh and fine when I saw it and the flues of the furnaces was proof, without the least supposition of it being a bath. He has also found the Roman Road that led to the river and the pavement is as firm as when first laid down…”
Letter to John Taylor 1822.

The  Roman Bath is safe but unseen beneath the school playing field.

From the west gate of the churchyard go down the lovely stone walled Church Hill, continuing over The Green and up Allotment Lane, keeping to the footpath and through the gitties (passageways) and onto Helpston Road and the flyover via Holme Close.

After the flyover return to the Maffitt and then again the choice of return route is to retrace your own footprints or to go to the west towards Upton and then north on the sound bridleway back to your starting point.