Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Estuary Thoughts

Coming down England by a different line the other week, and aiming for Wales, I had an excuse for a journey over a stretch of railway I have long wanted to travel.  Bereft of most passengers at Cheltenham and after Gloucester nearly empty altogether, the train wound on westwards along the river Severn's western bank, with the Forest of Dean somewhere to the right and the widening water always somewhere, sometimes immediately, on the left.
A glimpse of Broadoak, with the A48 and the Severn meeting in the distance.
This stretch of Gloucestershire, between the county city and the Welsh border at Chepstow,  belongs to the corner of England that produced, in the early twentieth century, a great flourishing of art and music, and some of our greatest poets and writers.  The Gloucester-Chepstow line runs through the land of Herbert Howells, Ivor Gurney and Frederick William Harvey, three friends who came of age in the brief window of the twentieth century before the First World War.  Gurney, poet and composer whose life had such a long and sad ending, was born in Gloucester itself.  Howells was a son of Lydney, and at the end of a journey along the same line a century before had left the first score of his Piano Quartet on the train.  Not long after Gloucester, the line had also passed not far from Harvey's birthplace of Minsterworth, and then a few miles downstream cut straight through Broadoak, where he recorded winter's ending in his rhapsodic poem 'Spring 1924':

     Spring came by water to Broadoak this year,
     I saw her clear.
     Though on the earth a sprinkling
     Of snowdrops shone, the unwrinkling
     Bright curve of the Severn River
     Was of her gospel first giver [...]

In the unsuspecting safety of those years immediately before the Great War, this landscape was not simply the setting but in some ways the foundation of the trio's friendship.  It was their native Gloucestershire that led them into artistic and temperamental sympathy with each other, and Gloucestershire that moved Howells to music, Harvey to poetry and Gurney, remarkably, to both arts.  Hence Gurney's Gloucestershire Rhapsody and the melody of Howells' Chosen Tune, whose line mirrors the same hills of which Harvey exclaimed, 'Cotswold or Malvern, sun or rain! / My hills again!'.  (Harvey was incidentally a Catholic convert, though Anthony Boden's generally excellent biography does not shed much light on this).  So in tune were these men that, after the first performance, in Gloucester Cathedral, of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia, Gurney and Howells spent the whole night pacing round the city's streets in conversation.  This depth of companionship and artistic togetherness of spirit between anyone, let alone men, seems foreign and almost incomprehensible only a century later.  Though it never failed, who knows how else their friendship — which is also described in a superb documentary on Gurney, The Poet who Loved the War — would have gone on, had Gurney's mind held out, had Howells not lost his son in 1935, becoming a changed man and a composer of changed music, and had the war not cost Harvey some years in a German prison camp.


The weather was murky and drizzling with the tinge of nearing dusk, so my sight was not nearly as clear as Harvey's when he saw spring heralded in the Severn.  But certainly visible, as we persevered towards Chepstow, was the grey expanse of river with the tide in, cutting off this part of England from the rest and, I like to think, opening it to Welsh inflection, both in landscape and mood.  Then the train slowed to make its dignified crossing over the Wye and into Wales (Chepstow station, not far beyond the bridge, welcomed us with a riot of Welsh signage).

After Chepstow the line shadows the Wye all the way to its mouth, now with the curious Beachley peninsula, a last stubborn sliver of England between Wye and Severn, on the opposite bank.  Here the white parabola of the first Severn Bridge hurtles in to land from across the main estuary, now two miles wide.  The BBC's excellent Timeshift series includes a thoroughly enjoyable documentary about the construction of this bridge (Bridging the Gap: How the Severn Bridge was Built), chronicling the colossal undertaking year by year from the start of work in 1961 to the opening in 1966.   It combines well-chosen archive film with recent interviews of some of those actually involved: I was struck by their literate, measured speech  — engineers, workmen and locals alike — and by their boyish octogenarian grins — and by the clarity with which they explain the fairly complicated principles and mechanisms by which the bridge was made to stand.  Due time was also given to those who died in its construction: six men, which I think may still fairly be called a relatively small number for a project of such a size, not least given that it was generally the water, rather than the structure, that claimed their lives.  It must have taken a good deal of research and editing to put the programme together, though somebody has clearly enjoyed compiling an early Sixties sound-track to set the mood.  I have known this bridge all my life and watching it I was fascinated to learn in so much detail how it was built, and by whom.

Gathering pace again, we joined the Great Western main line as it emerged at Caldicot from the Severn Tunnel (another triumph of engineering, opened in 1886) and ran thence towards Newport.  The previous Sunday had been Pentecost, and my mind drifted to another journey by rail, involving another river's 'level drifting breadth', on the other side of the country.  Philip Larkin's great poem 'The Whitsun Weddings' — one of my Desert Island lyrics — begins, like the journey it describes, in Hull ('all windows down, all cushions hot, all sense / Of being in a hurry gone') and gathers pace alongside the Humber estuary 'where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet'.  Its description of a 'sunlit Saturday' in 1955 — when Whitsun was a known holiday — when it was customary to marry on Whitsun — when it was the custom to take marriage seriously at all — stirs up in me the same momentary ache or dizziness as the sight of the 1947 series of one-inch Ordnance Survey maps of untrashed, unmotorwayed England.  Yet perhaps it was all slipping away already, as slowly, massively and unstoppably as an estuary tide.  Perhaps Larkin was moved to this symphony of sights and sounds by an urge to record and capture not only the 'frail travelling coincidence' but the civilisation in which it took place.  I am glad he did.

Like many modern buildings in Wales, Newport's recently rebuilt station was not wearing well.  Ceilings and gutters were dripping with rain and the Thunderbirdsesque roof was smudged with moss.  Terraces of older, hardier houses climbed sturdily uphill in the distance.  Don't they know there is no present in Wales, and no future?  There is only the past.  But that's another poet, and another country, for another time...

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