Meditative Rhythm is an extract from Ed Kluz’s introduction to Geoffrey Grigson’s book An English Farmhouse, reissued by Little Toller.
There is, to me, something immediately recognisable about the landscape of ancient tracks, field patterns and buildings over which the poet Geoffrey Grigson casts his eye in this intimate portrait of place and decay. Although the true identity of ‘Ashton’ is elusive, perhaps to broaden the relevance or liberate it from being associated with the book, the village and the landscape he describes very much existed. And much like the fictional Ashton, the origins of my own childhood home – a remote hamlet, called Applegarth, sited a few miles west of the Yorkshire market town of Richmond – also stretch back a thousand years, possibly further, to a point beyond the time of the Romano-British farmers who built their fortified dwelling below the overhanging sand and limestone cliffs. So much of what Grigson describes resonates with my own memories of the hillside where I grew up, a borderland that I return to and wander in my mind’s eye.
Up above, a flat plateau, a wintry landscape without much timber, down below, a more genial, summery landscape, gently rising and falling, much planted with elms, and much of it old grassland upon clay – grassland little disturbed by the ploughing campaigns of the Second World War.
When my parents bought the perilously ruined remains of a farmhouse at Applegarth in 1986, strange disjointed vestiges of its previous life persisted. Flakes of red oxblood distemper hinted at the cold comforts and simple luxuries of rooms that had long since rotted and collapsed into a morass of fallen timbers, dead sheep, animal faeces, nettles and barbed wire. The vestiges of past human presence revealed themselves in the discovery of surprising objects: a bright-white, near pristine ceramic decoy egg, intended to encourage hens to lay, lifted from the desiccated filth of a collapsing wall; a neat stack of blue and white china bowls, carefully placed in the earth by hand and shattered by the bucket of a blundering mechanical digger; an empty whisky bottle found hidden behind a beam in the roof bearing the label of a local inn destroyed by fire in 1908. Still-life cameos speaking of lives spent.
To understand the derelictions at Applegarth, or the many thousands of ruined farm buildings like those in Ashton, one has to untangle agricultural history in Britain and follow the complex threads through centuries of fluctuating fortune, which so often come to an end after the Second World War. The decline of rural communities began with Enclosure, followed by the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the nineteenth century. The lure of employment in these growing county towns and cities gradually leached the labour force from the land, depriving farms of work-horses. Added to this were the long-term destabilising effects of the Corn Laws repeal in 1846, which up until this point had served to protect the interests of domestic grain production, but now left the UK market vulnerable to cheaper imports and the inherent risks of international trade.
Over the following hundred years several subsequent acts of parliament sought to embrace the opportunities of a peacetime global market, and when necessary protect the interests of food production and security on home turf during periods of conflict. Initiatives towards the end of both the First and Second World War helped to underpin farming activity, resulting in mini agricultural booms. However, by the late 1940s, the multifaceted ecosystems of small-scale and mixed farms, which had once populated rural Britain and shaped such hamlet communities as Ashton and Applegarth, had almost entirely vanished, along with the biodiversity in these landscapes.
Applegarth bore testament to this slow hundred-year decline: collapsed field boundaries, derelict structures and neglected smallholdings dotted the hillside. Our farmhouse, built sometime around 1800, was the last portion of what had once been a much larger building. The remaining barn, being the most useful and practical part, was retained whilst the majority of the abutting domestic wings had been pulled down at the turn of the century. The scars of rooms – fireplaces, cupboards, floors – could still be plotted out in the remaining plaster which clung to the exterior walls of the barn. As observed by Grigson, buildings in their decay often reveal a palimpsest of layers in which previous purposes and the truer nature of their structure can be decoded and unravelled. His almost forensic autopsy of the various buildings at Ashton reveals the deep-rootedness of their vernacular – the line between landscape and architecture becomes blurred, and a view of the farmhouse as a living organism emerges, one that is symbiotic with its surroundings. The farm is both a child and parent of the land.
In exploring Ashton, Grigson’s steady guiding focus on the particularities of vernacular materials and architecture betrays a life-long passion for archaeology and geology, while his descriptions blend cool modernity (lichenology, concrete, galvanised metal) with prose more akin to the visionary pastoral traditions of William Blake and Samuel Palmer. The keen rendering of his observations and overlaying of history, purpose, pattern and form is no sentimental journey into some imagined past, but an inquiring exploration of the realities of what he knows to be, or have been. It is the rediscovery of an old country seen through the near-opaque and profound trauma of the Second World War.
The significance of Grigson’s exploration into the deep recesses and minutiae of a corner of England is clear when understood in the context of the postwar era. An English Farmhouse, first published in 1948, demonstrates the vital part he played in splicing together the sentiments of an earlier Romanticism with the fresh clarity of European Modernism; which fed into the British Neo-Romantic movement of the early twentieth century. His collaboration with like-minded artists and poets such as John Piper, John Craxton, W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas, led to the publication of the influential New Verse anthologies and seminal The Poet’s Eye. As a result of his sometimes volatile critical and creative interactions with friends and contemporaries, his sensibilities were honed into a multifaceted lens through which he reflected the world around him.
Previous to the book’s publication, both of his collaborators on this project had been engaged in documenting the scars of conflict: John Piper as an official war artist recording the shattered sites of bomb damage and Percy Hennell as a photographer capturing images of reconstructive facial plastic surgery. The split-second destruction which they had all witnessed differs from the slow, even comforting, decay captured in this book. I wonder whether the act of pulling form and meaning from the abstract and rich matrix of decay observed at Ashton is in some way a process of healing, regathering in the face of so much uncertainty?
There is a meditative rhythm found in among the ruins of An English Farmhouse, in the observations and words of Grigson which rock the reader into the fluxes of the past and stillness of stone, earth and land. Its complex narratives also chime with the current concerns of ecology, sustainability, farming practices and the changing nature of rural communities. There are old voices to be listened to here, in the structures, materials, surfaces, texture and scatter of residual objects of life and occupation. Like Grigson’s writing, they form a complex and abstract matrix which vibrates and resonates somewhere between the intangible unknowns of the past, the hard reality of the present and the fragile inevitability of the future.