Hull, York, Old Harlow

Out the back of the Royal Hotel, on the platform side, with a satchel under one arm, a trilby hat in his other hand, overcoat flying, a seven foot tall bronze Philip Larkin hurries to catch a train at Paragon Station. That Whitsun, I was late getting away . . . is written across the shadow ballooning about his feet. It wasn’t one twenty on a sunlit Saturday, however, but a gloomy Monday evening. I had just arrived in Hull, having driven up from Oxford through the day, traversing a bleak, raptor-haunted roadscape of indeterminate scrubby stuff bedecked with dirty white shreds of plastic.

It rained and didn’t rain. At a certain point the stately turbines on the wind farms ceased to face south-west and turned their blades to the north-east instead. Sometimes, without obvious explanation, I would see a field full of brand new vehicles; vans or similar. I remembered that the United Kingdom is the second largest exporter of arms in the world: they must be made somewhere. Who recalls that when we hear politicians repeat their mantra: jobs and growth? That so much of what we manufacture these days is death-dealing machinery and the ordinance it uses?

Along that road a familiar tune burst from the radio and, for the first time in years, I found myself listening to an episode of The Archers: the world’s longest running radio serial, which began before I was born and continues to this day. It was devised in order to educate farmers to increase food production in the aftermath of World War Two; but soon took on a life of its own. When it came on New Zealand radio, at four on a weekday afternoon, for just fifteen minutes, in the interminable 1950s, it reified the tedium of the everyday in accents that were not exactly ours; although the boring rural existence their owners cheerfully endured certainly was.

The reiteration of Barwick Green, a maypole dance from the suite My Native Heath by Yorkshire composer Arthur Wood, had the effect of returning me to the backblocks of the antipodes half a century ago. I remembered staying on Bobby Hammond’s family farm out on the Raetihi Road, where Owen, his father, speaking in a Lancastrian accent, always sounded to me like one of the (mostly Birmingham-based) cast. The Archers prides itself on its topicality but, in this episode, I did not hear any mention of the EU, the EC, or Brexit; even though David Cameron, red-faced, lobster-like, flushed from his alleged triumph in Brussels, that week announced the date of his unfortunate referendum.

Hull was a grey northern town with its main streets dug-up in preparation for its year of glory: it was to be UK City of Culture in 2017. The woman at reception in the hotel had make-up caked so thickly upon her face it resembled one of the Egypto-Roman death masks I had seen in the Ashmolean. My room looked out over the main drag, The Ferensway, where, on the other side of a pedestrian crossing, a skinny prostitute with cold sores on her lips plied her trade in the rain, hail, sleet and snow. Directly below the window was a flagpole like a Pharoah’s erection, with a tattered fragment of blue rag on the end of it. Beautiful moss, rich green and golden brown, grew beneath the pigeon spikes. Some of those fat English birds, nevertheless, sat upon a ledge a little way along, gurgling happily in their throats.

I went downstairs to order dinner at the bar. The lobby, large and well-appointed, with potted palms, velvet sofas and burnished bronze tubular lampshades, had been deserted earlier but was now thronged. A breezy and heterogeneous crowd: dapper garlanded men wearing patent leather shoes and embroidered waistcoats, big women in extravagant cocktail frocks, young fellows with snappy hats and svelte girlfriends. When my meal came I sat down in a quiet place to eat; but the crowd grew, lapping into every corner of the room.

One of the women, perfumed, buxom, wearing a sequin-spangled peacock-blue sheath, bent over to talk to me. Her name was Lorraine.

You’re probably wondering what all this is about? she said.

Yes, I said, I am.

I was looking, inadvertently, vertiginously, into her snow-white cleavage. I stood up.

Mice, she said.

Mice?

Men Involved in Charitable Enterprises. She laughed, richly. It’s our annual dinner. See, that’s my husband, there. He’s their leader.

King Mouse came over to say hello. We shook hands. He was another George; the most dapper of men; he looked like an ornamental bridegroom on a wedding cake. The Society of Mice are Glee Singers, an a cappella group who raise money by putting on concerts. In 2014 they gave away £11,500 to charities such as the Hull and East Riding Institute for the Blind; or Sunshine House, which offers short breaks for children and young people with long term, life limiting conditions and /or complex health needs. The next year (2015) they raised £12,000; that’s what (2016) they were celebrating. The party went on for hours: sounds of revelry rose from below long after midnight; as I drifted in and out of sleep in my room above Paragon Square.

~ ~ ~

Next morning the rain had stopped but it was freezing cold, with black ice on the pavements. It was like walking to school on a winter morning in the King Country. Going the long way round, almost coming a cropper a couple of times, I found myself at last in Worship Street, where the Hull History Centre—home of the Hull City Archives, Hull Local Studies Library and Hull University Archives—stands. It’s a recent (2010) architect-designed post-modernist structure, a brick and glass box flanked by painted steel half arches, roofed in bellying white, like canvas perhaps, or clouds; or the frozen waves of the sea; and it was closed.

A sign on the door said the third Tuesday of each month was their late opening day (for staff training purposes) and what time to come back. I went for a wander through the dank streets, where faces of passers-by loomed up like dislocated gargoyles: Jarrett and Jameson Streets, Grimston, Charlotte and George. There was a small park nearby, with the Hull New Theatre on one corner and the Kingston Theatre Restaurant diagonally opposite on the other. The first looked like a mausoleum, the other, a pub. I thought I might go there for lunch one day. When I did, I walked in on a wedding party, with guests dancing on the tables and all sorts of shenanigans going on below the stairs.

The History Centre was open when I came back; full of children engaged in the building of Lego constructions in bright primary colours. Their chatter reverberated through the atrium. There were two displays: one about the poet Andrew Marvell, born in the nearby village of Winestead and educated here, when the city was known as Kingston-on-Hull. He was never a Puritan but did support Cromwell during the Protectorate; and must have been an adept politician as well as a fine poet because, after the Restoration, he represented Hull in the Cavalier Parliament; and in that capacity is said to have persuaded Charles II not to execute his friend John Milton. A poet, asking a king to spare another poet. His father, an Anglican minister, drowned while crossing the Humber by boat, apparently because the sailors aboard were drunk.

The other display was a detailed history of Hull’s Jewish community. Had we but world enough, and time . . . I wanted to look but felt I could not linger, that I had to get on: to examine the John Platts-Mills (JPM) papers which, for some reason, were deposited here. He was of course an indefatigable campaigner for working class causes; and Hull is nothing if not a working class town; but the only actual connection I could find was his advocacy for inmates after prison riots in September 1976. About a hundred and eighty men revolted in protest at staff brutality, climbing up on the roof and refusing, for three days, to come down. Two thirds of the complex was destroyed by fire and the prison closed for a year. There were many acts of startling savagery, by both warders and prisoners. Blacks and the Irish, predictably, suffered the most.

JPM was invited by PROP (Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners) to chair a public inquiry into the riots; and, as life-long campaigner for prison reform, did so. There was an Irish connection too. One of the Guildford Four, Paul Hill, falsely accused of perpetrating bombings actually carried out by the Provisional IRA, was in HM Prison Hull at the time and became involved in the riot: he was dragged bodily down some stairs by his hair. JPM had previously acted in defence of many IRA men, including one of those among the Provos who had helped in the bombing of two pubs popular with British Army personnel in Guildford, Surrey.

The JPM archive is huge, well over a hundred boxes of material, some of which was embargoed because it was adjudged to be politically sensitive still. While I doubt that is the case, there is no point in arguing with librarians about such things. And, in fact, those items in that category which I requested, the Assistant Archivist, Claire Weatherall, did let me see. My self-appointed task was tracing the making of Platts-Mills’ book—Muck, Silk and Socialism: Recollections of a Left-leaning QC—from its scrapple of tiny beginnings through to the finished article. And this I was more or less able to do.

JPM had the autobiographical instinct from early on; even before he left New Zealand as a Rhodes Scholar in 1928, he was inclined to narrate his own progress even as that progress unfolded. In other words, he was in the habit of looking back and forward simultaneously: back to things that had happened to him or that he had caused to happen; forward to their reception by an audience once he had successfully given them narrative form. A fellow I corresponded with, Stephen Sedley, a retired judge who had known JPM well (he was one of his obituarists) told me the autobiography had been comprehensively vetted before publication, and any compromising or actionable material omitted; which suggested there might be unknown unknowns amongst the drafts and notes as well. 

There were also poignancies: the inelegant handwriting, resembling that of an awkward adolescent; the irrelevant boasting, betraying deeper insecurities; the sheer difficulty he had in constructing coherent sentences, let alone paragraphs and chapters. The notes and drafts, particularly those in holograph, showed the shadow side of the public man, the reverse of the gifted lawyer, the adroit parliamentarian, the splendid orator on behalf of lost causes: neither confident nor assured, not eloquent, not persuasive. In this respect, his papers were like those of other, more accomplished, writers I have seen: a mess of hesitations, a snarl of insecurities, an unthreaded labyrinth at the heart of which is the equivocal minotaur of the self.

I spent three days in the Manuscripts Room, alone and undisturbed. In the public reading room, through glass doors, I could see solemn old men, on the thousand and one afternoons of their lives, going back to the Deeds; or researching the odd intersections and hidden connections of family history. While beyond in the atrium the delirious chatter of children continued, sounding like birds, perhaps, or unfallen angels. And then it did begin to seem to me as if the JPM papers are in the right place after all. For, despite his native-born patrician detachment, his advocacy was always that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. This is not what we have; but in places like Hull you feel there is still a living culture which honours Abraham Lincoln’s vision; and will do what it can to make it come to pass. A city that is in this world, Philip Larkin wrote, yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance.

~ ~ ~

On Friday I took the road north out of Hull city centre then, at Cottingham Road, turned off and went through a neighbourhood of substantial brick houses until I reached the university. I had an appointment in York, about an hour away; but decided to stop off along the way to visit the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, where Larkin was Librarian for thirty years (1955-1985). One of his responsibilities was overseeing the design and construction of a new building to house the university’s collection; and this was what I wanted to see.

The campus felt immured in the 1950s. Green lawns, wide avenues, substantial older style low-rise brick buildings. A student directed me to the BJL. Brynmor Jones was a chemist whose research interest was liquid crystals; the cyanobiphenyls used in LCD screens were discovered at Hull, where Jones was vice-chancellor during the first part of Larkin’s tenure. The library building is a hybrid. There’s a chunky brick art deco front section with large facetted windows from 1959, in style not unlike the Warburg; with a newer glass and steel eight storey extension, completed in 1969, rising up behind.

Larkin was involved in the making of both structures. When he was appointed Librarian, plans for the first were already extant but he did what he could to inflect them towards what he thought a library should be. The extension, for which planning began once the first part was completed, he supervised from beginning to end. He was active, committed, meticulous, and skilled at getting his own way. An efficient but lazy man, his biographer wrote, intolerant of anything slipshod.

The hybrid is, however, bizarre. Architecture writer Hugh Pearman: it is hard to believe that the completion dates of the two main phases are only a decade apart: you’d guess maybe 50 years. Harder still to understand how the first phase—narrow plan, with huge windows both sides—functioned satisfactorily as a library at all. The extension is a defiantly strange eight-storey crinkle-cut tile-and-plate-glass lump—its upper storeys curiously jettied out over the narrower lower floors. Surely Larkin would have found this hideous, but his concern was always less for external appearance, more for the internal working and study environment of his libraries.

There is a bas relief by Willi Soukop, the son of a Moravian shoemaker, over the entrance—a human figure disposed awkwardly sideways, as if lying in a Neolithic grave, and holding a torch, symbolising knowledge, in its outstretched hand. Inside, elegant sixties-style furniture, chairs and tables and sofas, in bright primary colours, stood in places where, it seemed, no-one would ever want to sit. They were part of the original décor, now, fifty years later, being restored. Larkin, after showing some architects around, wrote: It left me feeling like the proprietor of a Victorian music hall. Not that I mind that in theory—but for an hour or two it did seem rather garish, those reds & pinks & blues, & my room appeared like the madam’s room in a high class knocking-shop.

I couldn’t go up into the extension, with its views over the Humber: you needed a swipe card for that. I went to the art gallery instead, and spent a pleasant hour looking at a fine, distinctly unusual, collection of British art made between 1890 and 1940: selected for purchase by Larkin himself I believe. There were paintings and drawings by Wyndham Lewis, a sculpture by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, some delicate interiors by some among the artists of Bloomsbury. Aubrey Beardsley, Lucien Pissarro, Augustus John, Stanley Spencer, Eric Gill and Henry Moore were all represented.

I liked best works by artists I had not heard of before or whose works I did not know well: a lovely green and black 1916 landscape by Polish-born Stanisława de Karłowska, who married Robert Bevan of the Camden Town group; Christopher Nevinson’s He Gained a Fortune but He Gave a Son, a highly ambiguous, Otto Dix-like, portrait of a banker and war profiteer, for which a butler named Henry Moat sat; a dark, eerily glittering Mornington Nude by Walter Sickert, who some say was Jack the Ripper; Conversation Piece by Vanessa Bell, an interior in which three anonymous men sit in armchairs before a fireplace. Duncan Grant, perhaps, with David Garnett and Roger Fry, at Charleston.

In the gallery shop was a book of Larkin’s photographs, called The Importance of Elsewhere. I knew he was a jazz aficionado and had for years written, as Brunette Coleman, album reviews for The Daily Telegraph; but not that he was a photographer too. I leafed through it, scanning the 150 or so images (out of an archive of 1500). There were many fine portraits, including a number of self-portraits; some splendidly moody landscape shots; evocative pictures of Pearson Park, opposite which he lived for many years. The image I carried away with me, however, was a shot of a seagull perched on a mooring post beside the ice-flecked waters of the Humber in winter: a baleful, lugubrious, somehow fated bird, which you cannot help but associate with the poet himself. Coeval, perhaps, with a more famous companion: Give me your arm, old toad; / Help me down Cemetery Road.

~ ~ ~

My appointment later on that afternoon at the York Art Gallery was to see a painting: Old Ouse Bridge, York by Joseph Lycett. Lycett was a convict artist whose biography I’ve written but, thus far, because of the cost of illustrating it, have not found a way to publish. Old Ouse Bridge is one of only two known works, both oil paintings, from the period before he was transported to Australia in 1813 for forging banknotes; and I was keen to see it in the flesh. Not only that: I felt a personal interest in it. The work was unknown to Lycett scholars in Australia until, randomly scanning the internet one day, I ‘found’ it.

The gallery has owned it since 1931, when it was donated to the York Museums Trust by Oliver Sheldon, then Director of Rowntree’s, the confectioners. Sheldon was a Quaker who believed the cost of building the Kingdom of Heaven will not be found in the profit and loss accounts of industry, but in the record of every man’s conscientious service. How he came by the painting isn’t known; it was probably made while Lycett was in gaol in Shrewsbury, awaiting transportation, at which time he used to sell his works to wealthy patrons with an interest in the rehabilitation of felons. He would have used that money to buy privileges—liquor, perhaps.

It took longer to travel to York than I thought it would, because of delays occasioned by road works. I was driving up a U-shaped valley scoured out by a glacier aeons ago; remembering the schematic drawings from a geography textbook we had at Kuranui College. The word moraine recurred in my mind: what is a moraine? The compacted debris left behind by a glacier. Anything from gravel and sand to great ice-scarred boulders. Later I found out that there had been at least three glacial episodes here over the last two million years; that is, during the Quaternary, or the Fourth Age.

I drove straight into the heart of York. The streets became narrower, the traffic slower, the congestion worse. I passed through Monk Bar Gate—where a portcullis was still in use just a few decades ago—into the old, walled city. It was a maze without a centre, a labyrinth of crooked streets in which the houses on either side leaned out towards each other as if about to touch foreheads. Tiny though. In no time at all I was through to the other side and crossing the Ouse Bridge (not the one Lycett painted, its successor). Clearly the only way to deal with the place was on foot. I dived once more into the maze and found a park in a cobbled square. Saint Sampson’s. A Welsh divine, not the strong man of the Bible. I was early for my appointment; and along the way had glimpsed a prodigy.

I do not quite know how to write about York Minster. Or, to give its full title, the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter. It seemed both monstrous and sublime; an act of supreme arrogance and of supreme piety; a spectacular example of hubris as well as of loving devotion. Something out of a nightmare or a dream. I could not properly comprehend it and, as in a dream, it provoked mingled fascination and alarm. Dread, almost. How did it exist? Who built it? Why? In truth, it did not seem as if men and women alone could have made this thing. There had to have been some larger power guiding them: scaffolding upwards / towards the glory of god. I say this as one who does not believe.

Gothic cathedrals like York Minster could take centuries to build. This one was begun, over the site of a Roman fort called Eboracum (Place of the Yew Tree) in 1220 but wasn’t ‘completed’ until 1472. Two hundred and fifty-two years later. And work upon it was still going on. Down one side, under blue tarpaulins, masons at their benches were carving out replacement pieces for those parts of the building where the stone has rotted or fallen away. I could hear the tintinnabulation of their hammers and chisels as I wandered around the outside of the Minster, trying to grasp its awe-ful majesty. The gargoyles grimacing down as if derisive of my attempt.

Inside was revelatory in another way: like frozen music, perhaps, the image of a Bach organ fugue, say, bodied forth in stone. The multi-facetted, multi-hued light falling through stained glass windows onto the buttery gold-coloured stone gave a heavenly cast to the shining air. It was impossible not to feel awed and at the same time abased. Your humiliation in the face of such grandeur was an intrinsic part of the experience. And then the consequent uplift. I even thought I could hear, as at St Dunstan-in-the-West, angelic choirs singing; though the actual sounds were just the reverberations of the voices of tourists satisfying their vague curiosities.

At the gallery I was met by a young woman called Fiona Green who took me up into the stock room. The big metal doors had to be locked behind us in case I turned out to be an art thief. The painting was on a large easel, looking small and unassuming: only 17.8 x 23 cm. It is painted on a wooden panel and—something not apparent in the reproductions—the wood has cracked. A vertical line ran centrally all the way from top to bottom. Fiona let me hold it briefly so I could examine the back, where the crack was more obvious. It was signed there too. It is a very odd feeling to hold in your hands an artefact made more than two hundred years before by someone about whom you know as much as anybody else in the world does.

Old Ouse Bridge was built in 1566, after its predecessor collapsed and fell into the river, drowning a dozen people. It featured what was said to have been the fairest arch in England and became one of the sights of the king—or queen—dom. Daniel Defoe wrote that it was vastly strong, and has one arch which, they tell me, was near 70 foot in diameter; it is, without exception, the greatest in England, some say it’s as large as the Rialto at Venice, though I think not. There was a chapel on the nether side, with council chambers adjoining and the notoriously damp city gaol below; but after the Reformation the chapel was turned into apartments. This Tudor incarnation of the ancient crossing was demolished around about the time Lycett painted it: probably not from life, but after a print of some kind.

The view he took is from the south-west, with the former chapel, the council chambers and the gaol looming balefully to the right of the image. Their rooves are sprouting weeds, suggesting dereliction; in the immediate foreground is a low tree on the river bank, spreading its leaves over the water where reeds grow and boats are moored. In the middle ground we see half of the main arch of the bridge, bent like an elbow, with the semi-circular image of its curved underside partially reflected in the blue-green, rippling river below; which seems to rise, in an uncanny fashion, towards a skewed vanishing point, suffused with yellow light, at the back of the picture.

On the far bank a line of sandy-coloured brick buildings, diminishing in size along the river bank as the row recedes, drinks the late sun; these buildings are brown not red, yet they leave a peculiarly rubicund after-image in the mind. The sky, which takes up nearly half the picture, is a premonition of one of Lycett’s Australian skies: grey clouds giving way to white cumulus and then to a blue which itself becomes suffused with yellow at that unseen point where the river decants into the air.

The strangeness of the picture is an effect of the starkness of that receding line of buildings, their black windows and blank anonymity before the gleaming water and under the luminous sky: like prison walls, within which there can be nothing but confinement. Meanwhile the river itself, flowing upwards and at a diagonal to the natural line of sight, takes us away from all this into a golden haze where, perhaps, felicity may be found. The last glimpse of this lost horizon comes at the far right back of the picture, through a minor arch which stands below the point where that dank, slimy prison was. You are reminded that Lycett was a prisoner when he painted it.

After leaving the gallery I wandered around in a daze. Looking at art can do that to you and I had looked at a lot that day. I had a bite to eat in the Kings Manor, so-called, actually a medieval abbot’s house, and then went back to the Minster. Round the side was a white Roman column, leaning anciently in the blue cold air. Two emperors died at Eboracum, including Constantius, the father of Constantine, who brought the Empire to the church. He, the son, was proclaimed here by the Sixth Legion; there was a statue of him too, with his sword drawn, outside the south transept.

Elsewhere I came across ruins where grey stones, like decayed teeth, protruded out of the green sward—near the rough walls that are all that remain of Saint Mary’s Abbey. Nowhere in England, wrote artist E Ridsdale Tate in 1929, is there another spot so full of charm as York and where in York is there a more charming spot than the Gardens of the Philosophical Society, in which stand the beautiful fragments of that once powerful and noble monastery of St. Mary’s. Here we must leave the venerable pile in the evening of its glory. 

I left it there too. I had a drink in the wonderfully named House of Trembling Madness (rare Belgium beers) then returned to the car and drove back to Hull. In the Royal Suite at the hotel, the Literary and Philosophical Society, founded in 1822, was meeting to hear a lecture about J Arthur Rank, the film mogul; he was the son of a Hull flour merchant.

~ ~ ~

The waters of the Humber are a yellow-brown colour: not pollution, particles of clay held in suspension in what is technically not a river at all but a tidal estuary formed by the confluence of the Ouse and the Trent as they flow east into the North Sea. A very tall man once waded across it—during a very low tide—so it can’t be that deep. I paid my toll and zipped over the magnificent suspension bridge, opened in 1981, and at that time the longest in the world. Before it was built, if you weren’t tall enough to wade, you took a ferry and hoped, in despite of the unfortunate Reverend Marvell, that the sailors were sober.

The bridge follows the line of that ferry crossing, mentioned in the Domesday Book; the word Humber seems to have some relationship with umber, shadow, and may simply mean dark. Or, indeed, river. I have always had a good feeling about it, because my paternal grandfather worked for the Rootes Group who made, along with Hillmans, Singers, Sunbeams and Talbots, Humbers; my Uncle Don, the eldest son, who inherited the family agency in Hamilton, used to drive around town in an impressive green Humber Super Snipe. Thomas Humber was born in Sheffield, lived in Hull, became a blacksmith in Nottinghamshire and was the inventor of the safety bicycle.

And Nottinghamshire is where you arrive when you get to the other side of the Humber Bridge. I intended to drive south via Lincoln and Grantham and Peterborough to Cambridge before going on to a B & B I had booked, randomly, online, at a place called Old Harlow in Essex; but, somewhere near Scunthorpe (who put the **** in S****horpe?), I missed the turn-off and ended up back on the M1. I continued on south then cut across from Northampton to Cambridge through countryside in which there were still a few signs of life: a small ochre raptor in a death dive; a glittering pheasant which flew low across the road; a single white dove.

Cambridge was little and old and dark and wet and I did not warm to it. When I returned to the car after lunch, there was a buxom blonde in a uniform waiting for me, looking like an extra from one of the Carry On movies. She was kindly rather than severe and, when I pleaded ignorance, decided not to write me a ticket. I passed the Cavendish Laboratories on the way out of town: not the buildings where Ernest Rutherford split the atom, a later iteration. And what was that other place, with a jewel in a tower, on the far side of the road? Churchill College? Where Crick and Watson, Wilkins and Franklin, worked? Yes, I think it was. If so, Vargos Llosa, Octavio Paz and Wole Soyinka had all been resident there too.

I made my second error when I missed the turn-off to Old Harlow; and had to go almost as far as London before I could loop around and go back. Then there was a perplexing time locating the B & B itself; when I finally identified the gloomy Victorian double storey ivy-covered house, I realised I had driven past it twice already. A lugubrious fellow called John met me at the door and then succumbed to a coughing fit of such violence and duration I wondered if he would recover. I don’t know why I’m coughing like this, he gasped, clutching a phlegm-filled handkerchief to his mouth; but every time I saw him thereafter he was out the front fagging; so either he was deluding himself or it wasn’t a real question.

He introduced me to a man and his teenage daughter, long term residents, possibly engaged in an incestuous relationship, watching a wildlife documentary on the widescreen TV in the kitchen / lounge, then showed me to my room. It was upstairs at the back. Small and tidy, a single bed with a faded candlewick bedspread upon it. A steady drip-drip-drip fell from the eaves outside and there was a view from the window of a tree-lined garden with a white shed in the corner. Traffic on a busy road sounded from beyond the hedge. It was all quite ordinary and yet, somehow, deeply strange as well.

John told me there were two pubs nearby where I might eat. The first was up in the village and there was a shortcut through the churchyard—if you dare, he said, with a sepulchral chuckle. It was half-dark already as I walked under big skeletal trees, past a graveyard of mossy green stones, some upstanding, others leaning or fallen, clustered around the walls of the church. The path skirted the church hall and came out on to the crooked main street of the village.

The Queens Head was a low old stone building with a glow of lights in the windows and a notice on the door announcing a private function. I went back the way I’d come and, passing the graveyard, heard the sudden whoosh of an enormous wind through the branches of the bare winter trees overhead: as if the souls of the unnumbered dead were leaving all at once; as if my own soul was being stripped from me as they went. All of the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

The Green Man was full of metropolitan types, brash and wealthy, who presumably week-ended here on a regular basis. Or lived locally and commuted. The food was decent and nobody bothered me; but as I went back through the gloaming to cross the busy road and return to the B & B, I heard the approaching whine of a car engine and instinctively hung back as an expensive automobile, at high speed, and ignoring the red light at the crossing, hurtled by. That was almost as disturbing as the whooshing of souls in the graveyard. The B & B was deserted: lights on, nobody home. I went up to my room and locked the door behind me. The drip-drip-drip from the eaves, like the sound of an uneasy conscience, continued all night long. I woke early, breakfasted in the dark, and was away from there before dawn.

Old Harlow, it turns out, is indeed old: archaeologists have uncovered traces of a Mesolithic hunting camp from twelve thousand years ago. Later, in the Neolithic, there was flint mining and working here: axe heads, hammers, blades, dowels and scrapers have all been found. There was a Roman town, too, with its own temple, although I do not know which deity it honoured. Mithra perhaps. The medieval church, dedicated to St Mary and St Hugh, dates from 1190, and there may have been a Christian community here before that; some of those unquiet souls I encountered in the churchyard might have been a thousand years old. The etymology of the name Harlow is disputed; it could mean Temple Mound; or it might be Army Hill. There was a moot (meeting) place at Mulberry Hill, near The Green Man, in Anglo-Saxon times.

Funny: I usually like old places but I couldn’t get out of Old Harlow quick enough. Something bad must have happened here, I thought, and the reverberations have never gone away. It felt like I had strayed into the plot of The Wicker Man; and, melodramatically, that I was to be the sacrifice. There is an inn called The Green Man in that film too; but then I remembered the victim—played by Edward Woodward—needed to satisfy four conditions: he had to be there of his own free will, he had to be in the service of the King, he had to be a Virgin, he had to be a Fool. I suppose I might have satisfied the first and last criteria; but not the middle two. Perhaps that’s why I was spared.

On the other hand, as a consolation perhaps, as I drove south in the grey dawn towards the city of London like a great dark stain upon the horizon, I was thinking of something I once read about Neolithic times: when you navigated the water ways, down the River Lea perhaps towards its junction with the Thames at Tower Hamlets, you would see the gleaming facades of henges or barrows, covered with chalk or else with gypsum, white as the pyramids of Egypt were white, brilliantly outlined against the forests and the meadows of England’s green and pleasant land.

image : Lycett, Joseph; Old Ouse Bridge, York; York Museums Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/old-ouse-bridge-york-7895

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