From Charnwood (a sequence in progress)

 

 

A district of ten miles in length and about six in breadth, almost wholly covered with trees and rocks, and containing, perhaps, in early times, many temples of the Druids […] Charnwood formed part of the ancient Celtic Forest of Arden, which extended from the Avon to the Trent…

 

There is no district in England, equally deserving of notice, of which so little has been written, and probably of which so little is known…

 

 

when they said Charnwood

I heard charm-wood

a place of magic    enchanted forest

a place to cast a spell on you

 

 

*

 

when you tell where you’re from    people laugh

they say it’s no-place

not north nor south    just a blank on the map

a gap in the mind

 

they say it isn’t real

but you know it is

you remember the names

 

Swithland    Mountsorrel    Merrylees

Coalville    Cropston    Woodhouse Eaves 

 

you remember the speech

 

you can hear it in your head

and you can taste it too

 

you know the exact shapes in the mouth

to make the words

 

you practise sometimes

talk to yourself    feel the way it comes back

 

 

*

 

people said up on the Forest 

talked of going over the Forest

 

did I imagine

the high dry bare hills

that Fiver saw?

 

the hills so far    and we so tiny

so hampered    close to the ground

how could we ever hope to get there

 

 

*

 

up on the Forest

high on an outcrop    a ridge to the north

 

the only place I could claim   never wanted to claim

could never find a way to know

 

but the Forest is there

Jane Grey’s ruined house    the cries of the peacocks

 

could I find a way to go back

and try to listen?

 

 

*

 

Bradgate Park – for there never was any village of that name – forms one of the belt of Parks which almost wholly encircled the Forest. […] The present Park is bounded by a wall of nearly seven miles in length, and is also subdivided into several walled lawnds, some of which are of very ancient inclosure. The whole surface is of a very varied character, in which wildness greatly predominates…

 

 

which was better – ?

 

the gentle valley with its cool river

the water flowing wide shallow

over its green weeds

its low falls

 

or the high scrambling rocky path to the Milk Jug

stone tower with its stone handle

standing it seemed on top of the world

up on the hill    up on the Forest

 

they said watch out for snakes

hiding from the sun in the rock crevices

 

I never saw a snake

but I saw the bracken

its strange green new shoots curled like snakeheads

hundreds of them    thousands

pushing straight from the springy turf

 

place of magical animals

deer glimpsed in the wooded enclosures

the hope of finding a piece of antler

the word talisman fixed in your mind

 

running to pieces of pale branch

throwing them back in the grass disappointed

 

never finding the talisman    the piece of magical bone-not-bone

and the deer flickering away in the trees

 

 

you push at the door of memory

and it gives

 

slight sound of a silk gown

moving over close-cut grass

moving over a bare brick floor

 

 

*

 

A few feet to the north-east of the bakehouse are the remains of the kitchen; of this nothing more is now apparent than the capacious fire-place, and a portion of the wall. The above buildings are evidently of older date than other portions of the ruins, and formed part of the mansion existing during the period of Lady Jane Grey’s residence here…

 

 

her house was shut    it slept in its ruin

nobody went there

 

only the peacocks    with their terrible crying

guarded her memory

 

she    the Lady

who never wanted to be the queen

who wanted only to be left to her books

and to walk alone

by the shallow river

 

 

we always gave her her gracious title

I imagined it part of her name

the same sound three times   

like a spell    a charm

like water falling into a pool

 

I imagined her in a long grey dress

a half-ghost    graceful

walking the grounds of her ruined house

among the peacocks

 

the long soft silk of her gown brushing over the short grass

like the peacocks’ long tailfeathers

we hoped to find but never did

 

the lady silent

but the peacocks making their mournful cries

for her, for her

 

 

*

 

 

the Copt Oak, the Outwoods, White Horse Wood, the oaks growing in Bradgate Park, and about Charley Hall, are nearly the only vestiges of the ancient forest

 

in the Outwoods

maybe we became the animals

the pack of us    fluent

light on our feet    

knowing the paths

knowing when to take to the air

leaping the roots    the outcrops

the stream of us    flowing over

landing again    and on    away

 

 

*

 

the name [Swithland] … seems to have been derived from Swith, a cleft slate 

by which name thin cleavings of slate are still called in the North

 

at Swithland    a cottage deep in the woods

they always said cottage

as though in a fairy-tale

 

a small low grey place

walls made of grey slate    hewn in blocks

roof of thin slate tiles

 

small house built out of the rock

barely grown out of the ground

small square low windows

scarf of woodsmoke curling up between the trees

 

thick leafmulch all around

and the long long long track

as though you might walk for days and weeks

deeper and deeper into the woods

and never come to the house

 

Swithland    something like a shiver

a shake of the head

 

why is it always winter here

thin cleavings

something harsh    something struggling

to get its living

 

 

*

 

at last    a licence and a borrowed Fiesta

at last    a fiver’s worth of petrol

and the world opened up

 

the three of us

all always dressed in black

she with her lovely golden hair

you a little in love with her

the usual awkward triangle

but it didn’t matter

 

Friday nights

you at the wheel

the two of us in the back seat

giggling    screaming    giving commands

 

the roads opened up like forest rides

we took turnings at random

followed signposts because of a name

 

Ulverscroft    Woodhouse Eaves

 

we discovered places    lost them again

no satnav    no GPS

just roads    hedges    trusting to luck   

signposts briefly flaring up in the glare of our headlights

then swept back into the dark

 

we sang along to Once in a Lifetime

we sang along to Paisley Park

 

we sang along to Minnie the Moocher

and you swung the wheel 

the car lurching over the road as we screamed

giggled    urged you on

 

reckless as the king’s-men

riding to hounds

the whole Forest our chasing-ground

 

 

*

 

The Pool – it deserves the name of Lake – forms a very fine sheet of water… It is of an oval form, with slightly indented bays and projecting points of sienitic rock on its margin. With its little island, its fringe of sedge, and the numerous varieties of aquatic birds that frequent it, the Pool at all times presents a most pleasing object…

 

when I came to the Pool

what was it I was looking for

 

the Lady perhaps

whose house lay in ruins

down at the bottom of the deep drop

a mile or so along the road

 

did I see her hastening here

wrapped in her long grey travelling-cloak

in the late grey summer dusk

 

bats flitting about her head

waterbirds gliding home to roost

 

did I see her stand by the tall reeds

at the water’s edge

and hold out her hand

thinking somehow to make a deal

to escape her fate

 

or perhaps I never gave her a thought

perhaps it was only myself I saw

caught and held in the deep still water

 

 

*

 

[At Groby] the extensive quarries of granite, slightly varying in its texture from that of Mountsorrel, are well deserving attention…

 

quarry

 

a hunted thing

some small creature run to earth

 

and the earth itself    the scar in it

the place of hard labour

where everything comes from

where everything begins

 

 

at Bradgate House

there’s a man who can mend metal

 

I imagine a forge    a fire-cave

a chaos of sound heat light

hammering    clanging    hiss and sear

burning metal plunged into water

 

there’s a gravel drive    a small side-door

a dusty room with a gas-fire

a man in overalls takes my toy

looks it over    nods

disappears into a further room

 

 

behind the house we walk through the woods

the path through the thin trees

to the lip of the quarry

 

my father’s hand grips my arm

he says don’t run    don’t go nearer

 

we stand at the lip and peer down

quarry    the sudden sheer of it

the drop the gaping o of it

 

the depth of it the hush of it

like an emptied-out pool

like an upsidedown church

 

I know this is where it all starts

where it all comes from

the roadstone the aggregate

 

the whole huge machinery

of making roads

base-course    wearing-course

 

the sparkling black asphalt clumps

in the footwells of our car

the lovely tarry smell of them

 

the jar of Swarfega by the back door

the strange green gleam of it

when my father comes in from work each day

plunges his hands in the green jelly

to clean off the tar

 

somehow all of it leads back here

to this deep wide wound in the earth

 

 

 

Quotations from Thomas Rossell Potter, The History and Antiquities of Charnwood Forest, 1842

 

 

Helen Tookey lives in Liverpool and teaches Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University. She has published two poetry collections with Carcanet Press, Missel-Child (2014) and City of Departures (2019); a third collection, In the Quaker Hotel, is forthcoming from Carcanet in May. She is also working on a creative prose book about the novelist Malcolm Lowry.

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