Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Estuary Thoughts

Coming down England by a different line the other week, aiming for Wales, I had an excuse for a journey over a stretch of railway I have long wanted to travel.  The train, bereft of most passengers at Cheltenham and after Gloucester nearly empty altogether, turned to wind on westwards along the western bank of the river Severn, with the Forest of Dean unseen to our right and the widening water always somewhere, sometimes immediately, on the left.
A glimpse of Broadoak, with the A48 and the river 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 railway runs straight through the land of Herbert Howells, Ivor Gurney and Frederick William Harvey, three friends who came of age in that brief  sunlit window of the early twentieth century that was shattered by the First World War.  Gurney, the poet and composer whose life had such a long and sad ending, was born in the city of Gloucester itself.  Howells was a son of Lydney, through which we rushed non-stop; it was this line that took him, by way of Gloucester, to the heights of his musical career.  And perhaps some of the depths, as well — it was also along here, a century before my own journey, that he had managed to leave the first score of his Piano Quartet on the train by mistake.  F. W. Harvey, too, was of this earth — not long after Gloucester, the train had skimmed past his birthplace at Minsterworth, and, a few miles downstream, cut straight through the hamlet of Broadoak, where he recorded winter's ending in his psalm-like, 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 unthinking safety of those years on the eve of 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 each to their arts: Howells to music, Harvey to poetry and Gurney, remarkably, to both, with equal passion.  Hence Gurney's Gloucestershire Rhapsody; hence  the melody of Howells' Chosen Tune, whose line on the staves mirrors the shape of 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 aspect of his life).  So in tune were these men with each other that when Gurney and Howells heard the first performance, in Gloucester Cathedral, of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia, the piece had the same overwhelming effect on them and they spent the whole night pacing round the city's streets in deep conversation.  I struggle to imagine this depth of companionship and artistic togetherness of spirit between any two people, let alone men: it seems foreign and almost incomprehensible only a century later.  Though their friendship — which is also described in a superb documentary on Gurney, The Poet who Loved the War — never failed, it was to be transformed by forces that had lain unsuspected beyond the Gloucestershire horizon, but called them out of their home county and into new lives.  Who knows how else their lives and careers would have gone on, had Gurney's mind held out, had Howells not lost his son to an ambush of meningitis in 1935, emerging from the trauma a changed man and a composer of changed music, and had the war not cost Harvey some of his prime years in a German prison camp.

When I came past on my incidental pilgrimage the weather was murky and damp, with the tinge of nearing dusk.  My sight was not nearly as clear as Harvey's was when he beheld 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, leaving it benignly open to Welsh influence, both in landscape and mood.  Then the train, parting company slightly with the main estuary, slowed to a pace stately enough for a fitting, dignified passage across the Wye flowing in from the north, and over the border into Wales.  (Chepstow station, not far beyond the bridge, welcomed us amid the drizzle with a riot of Welsh signage).

After Chepstow the line shadows the Wye all the way to its confluence with the Severn.  On the other bank Gloucestershire has tapered away to the curious Beachley peninsula, a last stubborn sliver of England between the two rivers.  Here the white parabola of the first Severn Bridge hurtles serenely in to land from across the main estuary, which is two miles wide at this point.  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 superbly-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 explained 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 this size, not least given that it was generally the water, rather than the structure itself, 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 this programme 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 emerges at Caldicot from the Severn Tunnel (an earlier triumph of engineering, opened in 1886) and ran thence towards Newport.   But there is something about estuaries: once in mind they will drain away only sluggishly.  The previous Sunday having been Pentecost, my thoughts eventually drifted to another memorable journey by rail, involving another river's 'level drifting breadth', which had been made on the other side of the country.  Philip Larkin's intricate and atmospheric 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, universal holiday — when it was customary to marry on Whitsun — when it was the custom to aspire to marriage at all — stirs up in me the same momentary ache or dizziness as I feel when looking at the 1947 series of one-inch Ordnance Survey maps, at the sight of those lost expanses of untrashed, unmotorwayed England.  Yet perhaps it was all already slipping away, as slowly, massively and unstoppably as the ebb of an estuary tide.  Perhaps the urge that moved Larkin to his symphonic utterance of sights and sounds was to record and capture not only the 'frail travelling coincidence', but the whole civilisation in which it took place.  I who came later am glad he did.

Like many modern buildings that have been built in Wales, Newport's recently rebuilt station was not wearing well.  Space-age ceilings and gutters were dripping with rain and the Thunderbirdsesque roof was smudged with moss, while sensible terraces of older, hardier houses climbed sturdily uphill in the distance.  Hadn't they known 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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