A couple of Saturdays ago I attended a conference that was held in the small church at Helpston, a village just outside Stamford in Lincolnshire. Many know the village because of its association with the poet John Clare. One of the conference sessions, which was titled ‘landscape and loss: inspirations from John Clare’, had particular resonance because Clare’s grave lay just beyond the thick walls and stained glass windows of Helpston Church. Clare had witnessed the ‘loss’ of great chunks of countryside to enclosure and many of his poems stem from the impact that the act of enclosure had on his relationship with the landscape with which he was so intimately associated.
Helpston stands in the Soke of Peterborough, bordered on three sides by river and on the fourth by the Great North Road. It is an area to which enclosure came late but for a sensitive poet, born of the labouring classes, it brought great sadness expressed in wonderful verse. Much of our greatest nature writing has been fuelled by the same sense of loss and it is a theme that weaves its way through the works of Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas, Eric Ennion and Richard Mabey, for example. Reading these writers individually reveals the painful sense of personal loss that they felt in response to changes in landscapes dear to them. Reading them as a whole reveals a much deeper sense of loss, however, as each writer becomes a chronicler for part of a larger narrative; this narrative affects us all.
Our lives are short within the grand scheme of things. We are not endowed with the ability to gauge the true impact of changes that act over long periods of time; subtle changes are easily missed, their full meaning lost all too easily. That we find John Clare’s sense of loss relevant today underlines that the changes heaped upon our landscape are continuing. Should we read John Clare simply as one of our most gifted poets or should we shift our attention to the messages that his beautifully crafted verse delivers?
There is a danger that we, the audience, are reluctant to hear messages that speak of loss, messages full of negative news and lacking the all-important glimmer of hope. Clare’s landscape has changed, in most cases dramatically so. What remains is predominantly bleak arable, missing the species he would have recognised, but there are patches where work to ‘restore’ landscape is producing tangible and positive results. I think that we need the reassurance that these restored landscapes provide but we must not accept them too readily, lest they cheapen what has been lost; better to prevent loss than recreate a poor copy.