THE seed of the desire to see Shropshire was planted by the lyric called ‘The First of May’ — that clear minor melody, never more wistful than through the major ring of the close.
From home to Ludlow fair
Flowered on the first of May
In Mays when I was there;
And seen from stile or turning
The plume of smoke would show
Where fires were burning
That went out long ago.
The pear stood high and snowed,
My friends and I between
Would take the Ludlow road;
Dressed to the nines and drinking
And light in heart and limb,
And each chap thinking
The fair was held for him.
New friends at fairtime tread
The way where Ludlow tower
Stands planted on the dead.
Our thoughts, a long while after,
They think, our words they say;
Theirs now the laughter,
The fair, the first of May.
The fools that we were then;
For oh, the sons we get
Are still the sons of men.
The sumless tale of sorrow
Is all unrolled in vain:
May comes to-morrow
And Ludlow fair again.
Everyone knows the risk of seeking out a place around which a glamour has been thrown by verse. It is all too likely that along a macadamized Tewkesbury Road motor cars will be whizzing; that over ‘dark Tintagil by the Cornish sea’ will be scurrying a raucous company for whom a char-abancs waits. It is a dangerous thing to use as a guidebook a handful of lyrics into which a poet has put, living, the sunshine and the flowers and the hills of a shire that he loves; and the peril is the greater when the very names of hill and river and town hold an unreasonable charm. Clee Hill, the Wrekin, Wenlock Edge; the Teme, the Corve; ‘Clunton and Clunbury, Clungunford and Clun’ — how could these be matched by the reality?
A dangerous thing — and profane, perhaps. Yet I went to Shropshire.
It was by no means all because of the delicate chiming of ‘The First of May.’ For there are those other lyrics of Shropshire that flower on the grim background of Mr. Housman’s pessimism as the valerian flowers bright and beautiful and sad on the rugged walls of Ludlow castle. And indeed is there an Englishman alive who equals Air. Housman as the poet of nostalgia? Mr. Masefield’s ‘West Wind,’ it is true, aches and cries; but it also flutes a little, almost in the Irish manner. Air. Housman’s lyrics of homesickness are all ache. They have the simplicity of emotion itself; they have the very minimum of decoration, and a matchless brevity.
The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
Should charge the land with snow.
Who keeps so long away;
So others wear the broom and climb
The hedgerows heaped with may.
Gold that I never see;
Lie long, high snowdrifts in the hedge
That will not shower on me.
Hawthorn and broom were over when we headed for Shropshire; and as our train left London in the most depressing of rains, in the heart of at least one of us — the one who had held out resolutely, not to say obstinately, for a week or two in Ludlow — there was a heavy qualm of apprehension. For while English rain may softly veil some of the traveler’s most charming pictures of English landscape (I myself remember my first English, or, to be quite accurate, Scotch, robin singing ‘with treble soft’ in a beech copse at Ardlui in a hearty, chuckling downpour; and a sunset of unearthly beauty, a pale gold and pale mauve sunset, seen from Land’s End through a thin shower), this late July rain was of the kind that dulls landscape and zest alike. But just beyond Shrewsbury the rain stopped, and the window began to frame pictures. Fresh greenness lay around us; cottage gardens were gay. We were slipping into
The quietest under the sun.
And as high hills began to spring up on the left and the right, we saw ahead an evening rainbow laid across the valley.
The quaint Ludlow that met us at the door of the little railroad station was not recognizably the Ludlow of the Shropshire Lad; the horse-drawn bus was not, nor the long street that climbed from ‘the bottom of the town,’ nor the rare old Feathers Hotel, with its half-timbered walls, its gabled projections, and its leaded windows; nor even the extraordinarily mellow chimes that played, somewhere very near, ‘The Bluebells of Scotland’ as we ate our Severn salmon in the low-ceiled dining room with its priceless carving. It was on the next morning, a breezy, sunny morning, that I found the Shropshire of the poems — the Shropshire I was to keep.
I had walked to ‘the bottom of the town’ and taken at random a road that wound and mounted, bordered by hedges, toward rolling hills. Where the hedgerow was broken by a stile, I stopped to look back and down — and there indeed, across the meadows, stood the lower which to many a generation of farm lads has been the sign that they were drawing near to Ludlow fair. Beautiful and tall it sprang up; for while the slope of the town is such that from some points of view the church seems to settle low, and that at the Feathers Hotel, for example, the chimes seem to wander casually and companionably in at the door, from a distance the tower rises dominant. I was to learn the beauty of coming back at twilight from Much Wenlock or from Craven Arms and seeing the castle ruins and the tower lifting solemnly into the violet-gray haze of the evening.
Ludlow castle does not, I think, figure in Mr. Housman’s poems. But it is certain that the Shropshire Lad loved the River Teme; and where is there a more charming reach of the Teme than the one that lies below the castle walls, to the west? Is it better to look down from the window frame in the west wall that bounds a narrow picture of the stream winding between its willows down the green valley, or to drift under those banks where meadowsweet grows and dabchicks dive and clatter and large Hereford cows snuffle and stare at the navigator, and to look up at the great walls looming almost overhead? Of this I am certain: that nowhere on earth has a bit of small change more purchasing power than here on the Teme. I forget whether it is sixpence or a shilling that one pays for a very glut of boating. This part of the river is not navigable for more than a mile, between a courteously firm sign above and a weir below; and one may row upstream and drift down, row up and drift down, with green willows and green banks to right and left, and green water under, and store up for a permanent possession pictures of the castle in the sky and Ludlow tower across the meadows.
It is good, too, to stand on the high tower of the castle keep; best of all, perhaps, on such a morning as the one I most remember of many mornings spent in the castle ruins — a day of sunshine and fleet cloud, with a strong, pure wind blowing out of Wales. ‘Smoke stood up from Ludlow,’ its plumes flying all one way; the reddish roofs of the town seemed to glow; above them Ludlow tower rose up near and friendly, yet not so near but that half the noon chimes were caught and swept away on the flaws of the wind; and the quarries on Clee Hill sprang out in that indescribable color, neither orange nor gold nor strong yellow, with which they meet certain slants of sunshine. Far, far down, below the steep drop of the castle hill, the little Teme slipped twinkling over the weir, and, backed by the high green slope and the great beeches of Whitcliff Park, ran curving to the fine old Ludford bridge with its three graduated arches. At the foot of the tower lay, outside the castle wall and across the dry moat, the wide spaces of the tiltyard, empty of everything but sunshine and silence; inside, that most lovable ruin, its broken walls darkened here and there, in squares and bars, by their own shadows. And it was down here, not on the windy top of the tower, that one tasted best the true flavor of Ludlow castle — the strong sense of its past, and the quiet present beauty that washes over it. Here one might see the shell of the finely proportioned hall where Comus had its première, and might wonder, fruitlessly, at which door the ‘rout of monsters’ rushed in, and where and how Sabrina rose; or might look up to — not through, for stairs and flooring are gone — the high windows from which Prince Arthur must have looked down on the Teme before he died; or might mount the winding steps, leading now to nothing but space, up and down which the Little Princes may have run, shouting, in the days when their hearts were still light. Here, too, the sunshine lay warm; the tufts of valerian stirred in the crevices of the stone; jackdaws dropped their queer notes, so throaty yet so ringing, from the topmost walls, and now and then showed their capable little profiles in silhouette against the sky; and goats cropped the grass in the courtyard, or stood contemplative in doorway or window frame of the wonderful little round chapel. By whose authority, or perhaps by what hereditary right, these pensioners dwell in Ludlow castle, I never learned; but their decorative effect was certainly great. Their angular bodies, so dignified yet so nimble, and their glances, aloof yet ribald, had the accentuating value that a gargoyle has in the midst of solemn beauty. There was one of them — in appearance the oldest — who late in the afternoon used to lie along a ledge where church dignitaries must once have sat; his beard up, his horns back, his eyelids drooped — a picture of rather cynical inscrutability and repose. But to establish any social contact with these decorations was a mistake, as I found one day when I impulsively offered one a tablet of Cadbury’s chocolate. Instantly the whole band sprang to life, rushed around me, penned me in a close, leaping ring, ‘mounting up . . . like thin flames,’ in the manner of the souls seen by the Blessed Damozel: incredibly tall on their hind legs, and incredibly light except when in their ardor they stood on one’s foot. In the end they had to be quieted, like Gareth’s adversaries, ‘with good blows.’ But the initial indiscretion was mine, not theirs; and I should be sorry indeed to go back to Ludlow castle and find those picturesque presences no longer there.
Next to Ludlow, the name of Wenlock had been set chiming by A Shropshire Lad and the lovely ‘Fancy’s Knell’ of the Last Poems. To Much Wenlock we went for its name; and went again for what we found there. The road from Ludlow, if without spectacular beauty, has a peculiar soft charm. The different fields of grain through which it ran had no names, to our agricultural ignorance, but the great rectangles of straw-yellow, of rich tan, of bronze, and of willowgreen were none the less lovely to the eye. Phlox, roses, and hollyhocks brimmed the low-walled gardens of the little houses along the road. And no sooner was Clee Hill left behind than far off to the right Brown Clee flung up its long curve and seemed to go with us all the way. In the little flowery town of Much Wenlock we found two rare treasures. One was its guildhall, where the soul of its ancient dignity and pageantry lives on in the magnificently carved council chamber — a room that wakes Hawthornesque imaginings of the presences that must move there of nights, when the door is locked, and the moonlight falls through the leaded panes, and sleep is over Much Wenlock. The other was the fragmentary abbey ruin, with its roofless but marvelously preserved Norman chapter house. One might stare for hours at the three valerian-tufted arches of the west wall without fully absorbing their perfect beauty; or, passing into the chapter house, might look out through them at the sunny green garth, with its standard rose bushes like tall red-flamed lamps, and its box shrubs clipped by a master hand in the design of hounds chasing a fox. In the midst of this flying hunt reared up, or rather reeled back sur son séant, with forepaws in a sparring attitude, a small heraldic-looking creature which might have been an infant dinosaur, and which seemed, though perhaps not altogether logically, to reconcile chase and cloister walls.
From Much Wenlock one of us was drawn on an hour’s digression by the haunting picture that is painted in ‘Hughley Steeple’ — that dark and tender lyric of sunshine and shadow and unforgetting affection, which begins, —
Veers bright, a far-known sign,
And there lie Hughley people,
And there lie friends of mine.
Tall in the midst the tower
Divides the shade and sun,
And the clock strikes the hour,
And tells the time to none.
Here again was a risk — but a risk that it would have been a loss not to lake. A wooded road dropped sharply down from Wenlock Edge, and curved through a tiny cluster of houses around a sunken trough where some cows were splashing loudly with their forefeet and drinking in the snuffling and blowing manner of cows whose thirst has not extinguished their simple sense of amusement. A few rods beyond, a weather vane flashed; and there, with its trees, and its low enclosing wall, and its sunny tangled graveyard, stood, infinitely reticent, the little square-towered church. Into the silence of its interior fell, from the clock tower, a living sound — the loud slow ticking that is always somewhat awful in a place empty of humanity. Outside were sunshine and wild greenness and peace, and once the rich solemn tone of the clock striking the hour. It was impossible to feel that the matter of trimming and clipping was of much importance in a churchyard where a poet’s loyal remembering flowered, invisibly but with such beauty.
The loveliest thing of all about our day in Much Wenlock, however, was the drive back to Ludlow in the early evening. In the slight dampness, the smell of the gardens and of the freshly cut hay was piercingly sweet. The sun, very low, shone through a thin haze. To the east, the meadows lay in a silvery light, and the hills beyond them were blue; the quarries on Clee Hill and Brown Clee flushed silver-rose. To the west, the stirring feathery fields were brushed by a metallic color that one might despair of phrasing. But Mr. Housman has done it: —
The changing burnish heaves.
As we drove, all colors imperceptibly merged in violet-gray; and presently Ludlow tower and the castle loomed softly ahead.
I do not remember whether it was in the Bull Ring, the commercial centre of Ludlow, or in Harp Lane, close by, and also, incongruously, commercial, that we found on a wall the poster which divided our small party in two; or, more accurately, caused an ardent remnant to stay on in Shropshire when the others made for the east, where were Ely Cathedral and Will Rogers.
75 TH MEETING
Monday, 2nd August, 1926
said the poster. Ludlow fair! Not, of course, the great fair of the first of May; not, indeed, to be pedantic, a fair at all — rather an exhibition. But, to one who would have it so, Ludlow fair for all that. Surely one of the sharpest of the mutually exclusive human divisions is the one between those who have, and those who have not, the true passion for animals. To those who have this passion the lack of it seems as bleak a limitation as color blindness or tone deafness; to those who have it not it seems a silly puerility. I could only hope — against hope — that my valued friends felt as respectfully toward my beeves and sheep as I felt toward their cathedral and their comedian, as I waved them a temporary farewell and fell to counting days and hours. On the night of August first, I dozed happily off with
And Ludlow fair again
singing through my head, in defiance of the calendar; and early in the morning heard, with ineffable satisfaction, the clap-clap of an army of small hooves passing by the Feathers Hotel.
It was a fine, sunny day. It may no longer be true that ‘the lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair’; but by ten o’clock High Street and Broad Street and the Bull Ring were relatively thronged, the tide setting toward Ludford bridge, beyond which the fairground lay. I had my first taste of the fair here on Ludford bridge, where, between the rows of observers leaning on the parapets, two men were leading, with difficulty, a monstrous and reluctant bull. He had quite the most bored, snobbish, and stupid expression that I have ever seen on the face of a quadruped; his enormous bulk advanced laboriously, inch by inch almost, on small straddling legs. Yet there was a magnificence about him, and more than any of the human beings watching him he seemed in harmony with the ancient bridge. He might have been, to an unknowing eye, four hundred years old, instead of the four that the official programme, as I learned later, gave him. I felt, not altogether tenably, a strong personal pride when in the afternoon he marched ponderously at the head of the prize winners’ parade.
The fairground was a great green oblong, designed by nature for cattle shows. Three sides were walled by trees; the fourth sloped softly up to the sky. On this slope moved all day an irregular, shifting pattern of horses. Now a hunter would canter along the ridge; now mighty cart mares, with little whickering foals, stood on the incline waiting their turn to go down and be judged. On the opposite side of the field, close to the twinkling screen of poplars behind which the Teme gurgled now and then, a long row of cattle of high degree stood in makeshift pens; and from one of these shot at irregular intervals an indomitable little red bull calf, who intended to see, between captures, as much as he could of what was going on. Flocks of sheep poured through the entrance gateway, and were crowded into little enclosures of hurdles. At one moment a running flame seemed to go over the grass; this was the advance of a flock drenched with Sunset Orange powder — ‘the brightest made,’ said proudly the advertisement in the programme. A shepherd undertook my education in the matter of lambs and ewes, and, being a thorough man, pulled open many mouths that I might learn lore by observing teeth. Later in the day I was delighted to find prize tickets tied on his hurdles, and himself vivid with elation. ‘And there,’ he cried, pointing to a singularly torpid ram prone in an adjacent pen, ‘is the fortunate father !’
It would have been a satisfaction to see parading a flock whose teeth one knew all about; better still, perhaps, to see the Sunset Orange company stream around the ring. But the sheep were not permitted to parade — and indeed one must grant that as marchers sheep are rather incalculable — any more than the fancy pigeons with feathers to the very tips of their toes. To the inexpert eye of one spectator the great moments of the Parade of Stock were two. The first was when the mighty bull of the Ludford bridge straddled slowly and scornfully around the ring, while the Ludlow Town Band played con brio. The other was when a group passed that might have come to life from a Greek frieze. A young man, bright-haired, broad-shouldered, slimhipped, glittering with triumph, who looked as Phœbus must have looked when he served Admetus, led along — master of her, though half lifted off his feet by her — a magnificent cart mare, rather wild with the excitement of the show and the clash of the band. When she pranced, it was as if the mountains skipped, and as she planted each great hoof she shook the earth. Her dark coat shone, her powerful neck arched gloriously. At her side, head up, a foal sprang along, light as a bubble. This group of three, on fire with life, was the picture still in my mind when all the winners of the morning had gone glorying around the ring; and the splendid hunters had taken their hurdles and their water jump; and cattle and sheep — mildly puzzled, perhaps, but as to that, who shall say? — streamed out through the gateway, toward home; and those of us who flung away our privilege of crowding into the big tea tent streamed out likewise, crossed Ludford bridge again, and climbed the long street to the town, where Ludlow tower was chiming late afternoon.
But the best, perhaps, of all my hours in Shropshire was spent neither in Ludlow nor in Much Wenlock, but near Church Stretton, at sunset, on the Caradoc. One may believe or not, as one chooses, that here Caractacus made his last stand (and certainly around the summit run shadowy trenches soft with heather); but in the austere, high solitude it is easy to feel that Roman ghosts are blowing by on the hill wind. I risk the assertion that if one is to drink the full flavor of the Caradoc it is best to be there alone, in a gusty, red-gold sunset, with the vast shadow of the Longmynd swallowing, league after league, the brightness of the valley. ‘Fancy’s Knell’ has it: if not the exact topography, yet the very air and the spaciousness.
And bright was Abdon Burf,
And warm between them slumbered
The smooth green miles of turf;
Until from grass and clover
The upshot beam would fade,
And England over
Advanced the lofty shade.
With the sinking of the sun behind the Longmynd, the wind dropped, and the silence became a limitless living presence. A kestrel hung perfectly motionless against the amber sky. The still fields so far below took on the strange, intense green that comes between sunset and twilight. And presently the deep bowl of the valley was brimmed with dimness; the Wrekin, to the north, was softened to mystery; in some wood far away, owls had begun to call. It was time to come down, from Caer Caradoc, before the infinitely light whispering of the heather should turn too eerie under the stars.
It would be an arrogant spirit indeed who, knowing Mr. Housman’s poems, should indulge too strong a sense of possessorship in Shropshire. For, however much the stranger may love that quiet, unspoiled beauty, he knows that it has been loved better. Back in his own land, he will not presume to appropriate the lines that set his wistfulness to music: —
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
But for me, as doubtless for others, it is not only humility that makes me refrain from taking these verses to myself; it is also the fact that they do not—at least I trust they do not — wholly fit my case. For I hope to come again. If, contrary to all legend, one has indeed found the rainbow’s end, and found it pure gold, what shall hold one away forever? For me, I hope to go again where the solemn shadow of the Longmynd creeps to Caer Caradoc; where the willows dip and the dabchicks dive in the green Teme below Ludlow castle; where Clee Hill and Brown Clee burn silver-rose at sunset, and hay smells sweet in the evening on the road to Much Wenlock.