PUBLISHED: 10:40 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 08:56 21 February 2013
The County of Gloucestershire, from the tranquility of its rural idylls to the grim Hogarthian squalor of poverty-stricken communities, has been captured in poetry and prose by many of our great writers. By June Lewis
Some deep spring of inspiration might well reside within this stone, since through it such power of creation has been kindled in the human spirit and has burned undimmed from age to age.
H J Massingham's perceptive view of the Cotswold country, of which he wrote in his book of that title seventy years ago, underlines his conviction that it was from the limestone roots that everything evolved to form the distinctive architectural style, the craft skills, the type of agriculture and the regional culture, so often expressed in art form, in landscape painting, music, the regional novel and poetry. Certainly, the Cotswolds have been a magnet for generations of craftsmen and composers, artists and writers interpreting the special features of the area in their own particular style.
Massingham, like C Henry Warren, viewed Gloucestershire as an outsider looking in. Both observed changes happening in the countryside in the mid-Thirties. In A Cotswold Year, Warren makes some interesting notes on the seasons and weather patterns from which we can compare how these have changed over seven decades; social changes give a human everyday touch to life in the countryside of the time, such as the new bus service that gave his neighbours of Stockend (Woodend in the book) access to the shops and facilities in Stroud and Gloucester, reducing the dependence on the local village shop, and how the rural economy was starting to be affected.
J Arthur Gibbs had chronicled an even earlier decline in the once prosperous farming industry in his book A Cotswold Village, published in the waning Victorian era. Gibbs, also, came as an educated incomer and his introduction to country life as a well-to-do young squire of Ablington Manor gave him a broader experience of the privileges and responsibilities such a position brings with it, but it was his integration with the local labouring folk, for whom he had a great respect and affection, that gives depth to his understanding of the Cotswold culture as well as the attractions of the hills and wolds, rivers and rural sports he came to love so passionately. A Cotswold Village was the first popular book to be published on the regional landscape and has survived the vagaries of literary fashion by never being out of print since it first appeared in 1898, a few months before his untimely death at the age of 31.
Herbert A Evans, like Gibbs, was an Oxford graduate and his book, Oxford and the Cotswolds followed in 1905, but as a guide for the Edwardian cycling tourist. What few cars were on the roads at the time depended very largely on the time and skill and patience of both driver and even more knowledgeable mechanic, and Evans, like Gibbs, considered the bicycle gave a new freedom to those who wanted to explore the area. At ten miles an hour - the same speed as the average stagecoach - it was deemed to be adequate for such ventures along the highways and byways. Evans had serious doubts about the ability of the motor car to cope with steep gradients such as those at Caudle Green and Fossbridge. He made a point of visiting the churches, giving the medieval wool churches their rightful due, with the exquisite engravings of F L Griggs bringing them to life in his incomparable style.
Influenced by Griggs' fine architectural draughtsmanship and Evans' word pictures, Norman Jewson came on a sketching holiday to the Cotswolds, following much of the guide's routes, but more often than not the course determined by a stubborn donkey which he hired for the venture. The highlight and turning point for Jewson was his unannounced visit to Ernest Gimson at Daneway: delighted by his welcome, mightily impressed and appreciative of the skills of the great furniture maker; over-awed by Gimson's invitation to join the Sapperton craftsmen as an 'improver, Jewson went for a month and remained there for the remaining sixty-eight years of his life. This added By Chance I Did Rove to the growing list of regional classics with its important insight into the Arts and Crafts movement in the Cotswolds.
Classic among the Cotswold born and bred authors, who describe their childhood and home environs so vividly are Laurie Lee, John Moore and Leonard Clark who produced such literary treasures in their own right, but works of immense value to students of social history as well for they set their own experiences and observations in context of their time and home background. Laurie Lee captures all the scents and smells, squeaks and scuttling sounds of the secret world recalled from his earliest memories at home in one of the oldest cottages in Slad, once a beer house with damp chill enclosed in its thick walls, rented to the Lee family for 3s 6d (18p a week).
John Moore's childhood home could not have been more different. From his nursery window of the sixteenth century timber-framed Tudor House he watched the goings-on going on in what was regarded as the most notorious of Tewkesbury's numerous alleys. Double Alley, in official reports, was 'exceedingly filthy and unwholesome'; John Moore's pen conjures up Hogarthian pictures of ragged women, drunken men, naked rickety children and screaming wanton wenches. And this is but a glimpse at some of the many characters that people his Brensham trilogy: a classic among the classics.
In direct contrast to the pastoral pocket of Laurie Lee's Slad valley village and the bustle of the busy market town of John Moore's Tewkesbury, is Cinderford on the edge of the Forest of Dean which Leonard Clark described as 'a little, grey, drab mining town of unambitious circumstances'. Beyond and behind and within that town that Leonard Clark saw as having 'all the grimness of a Victorian creation' was the community life where band contests and flower shows church and chapel treats and travelling theatre enlivened the lot of the many who 'mostly lived on the edge of poverty', and the surrounding hillsides with its woodlands and miles of orchards which inspired his poetry. The three understood the countryside and the ways of its people and the poetry of the natural world into which they were all entwined. John Moore writes of the poet 'he sees things more sharply than we do and matches his words to what he sees' - in this sense they are all poets.
Seeing with the soul as well as the eye and seeing the special in the ordinary aptly describes the work of Gloucestershire's famous poets, F W Harvey and Ivor Gurney. Frederick William Harvey, to give him his full name, like his friend, Ivor Gurney, wrote with nostalgia about his home county while serving in the First World War. It is generally said that Harvey wrote his best poetry during the time he was a prisoner of war and he attributed the way he looked at nature to the teachings of Richard Jefferies. This is illustrated so well in his poem on the first signs of spring - a wisp of hay in the river indicating the last of the winter feed for cattle on the meadows, a fresh green hawthorn leaf floating on the water and a skiff with salmon nets. Part of the old railway carriages in which he and his wife lived on the banks of the Severn is preserved in the railway museum at Winchcombe. Ivor Gurney was a prolific writer: his letters from the trenches appear as a compulsion to escape the horrors of his surroundings, and in his later years during which he suffered a severe mental condition he wrote nearly nine hundred poems - even though he thought of himself primarily as a musician.
How, when and why these and some half a dozen more authors viewed Gloucestershire in the way they did, and who and what inspired them has been studied by Alan Pilbeam, who has lectured on the local landscape for Bristol University for many years makes fascinating reading in his recently published book.