Back in January I was honoured to be invited by Poets for the Planet to run two workshops at their launch event at the Society Of Authors in London.
“Poets for the Planet is a community of kindred poets, performers, artists and creative activists raising their voices to engage with climate and ecological emergency through poetry in all its forms.”
This took place on Saturday February 8th, and was a fantastically busy day with a Poem-A-Thon taking place throughout the day, alongside other workshops from Jan Heritage, Grace Pengelly, Dom Bury, Philip Gross and Clare Pollard.
In the evening there was a gala reading featuring Imtiaz Dharker, winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, alongside acclaimed poets Mona Arshi, Hannah Lowe and Jacqueline Saphra.
My workshops, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, were based around my latest chapbook and walking project, Sward : Skin of the Earth, and aimed to get people thinking about their local green and wild spaces, how to write about them and how to value them.
Here’s the blurb from eventbrite:
Skin of the earth: Walking and Ecopoetry
Exploring family memories of and connections to local wild spaces through walking and writing about them. We will look at the writings of Victorian author and naturalist Richard Jefferies and think about the concept of deep topography.
I was delighted that both workshops were well attended and each was very different in flavour! The morning workshop was mostly a talking / thinking / exchanging ideas workshop, and the afternoon workshop was a heads-down writing workshop. As each workshop was only 30 minutes long, a ‘micro-workshop’, I prepared a handout for people to take away with them too.
Sward represents my walks up and down the central reservation of the A240, Kingston Road, from the Tolworth Roundabout to the border of Surrey, where the Royal Borough of Kingston Upon Thames meets the Borough of Epsom and Ewell.
Inspired by Richard Jefferies, the prolific Victorian nature writer, author and walker, whose seminal work Nature Near London contains essays about his walks and observations of Tolworth and the surrounding areas.
Outside Richard Jefferies’ Home – pic by Paul Atkinson
The Plaque at RJ’s house in Ewell Road, Tolworth
Jefferies lived in Tolworth for several years, and last year Alison Fure and myself, as part of our Tolworth Treasure and the Hogsmill Hum project took between 30-40 people on a walk in Richard Jefferies’ Footsteps, aided and abetted by our friend Ben Henderson who very kindly agreed to play the part of Jefferies on the day, and did so with great aplomb, providing us with a sprinkle of magic for our journey.
The walk, which took place on a hot and sunny May Bank Holiday in 2018, was recorded for a show on Radio 4, ‘The Art of Now: Women Who Walk’, celebrating women walking artists, and we were delighted to be involved in this.
Richard Jefferies shares a joke with Tolworth Treasure and the Hogsmill Hum 😉 Pic by Paul Atkinson
Richard Jefferies takes a walk down Tolworth Broadway
Tolworth Court Farm Moated Manor, site of The Barn
This is my last walking and writing on Tolworth for now, although there may be a couple of essays lurking. My family has lived here for generations, since my grandparents came over from Wexford, Ireland during the second world war, and I have spent the last few years walking and writing and thinking and trying to engage other people in the treasures that exist nearby, before they are lost.
Alison and I documented our walks for Tolworth Treasure and the Hogsmill Hum, and were glad to meet lots of lovely local folk and make new friends, and we continue to walk, write, celebrate and try to conserve the nature on our doorsteps.
This year I decided to focus on a small patch of nature, a long, thin one, in the middle of the A240 – a narrow but important nature corridor, with grasses, 20-odd mature trees and lots of wild flowers. I named the project Sward after Richard Jefferies’ use of the word in his writing.
Last year this slim but vital patch of nature was placed under threat of being concreted over from one end to the other, as the proposed Tolworth Area Plan wished to see this an extension of the Tolworth Greenway – green stripy concrete.
This central reservation, which helps pollinators and other fauna find their way across the busy road from one green space to the other (Kingston University Playing Fields and Tolworth Court Farm Fields respectively) must be kept and properly managed. It also does an important job of mitigating air pollution – and providing beauty – something we mustn’t overlook!
I was glad that many objections to this part of the plan were received and it has been dropped, but I worry it will happen anyway in increments, as Tfl will be extending the ‘greenway’ to Tolworth Station. Although at the moment this does not mean the loss of all the grassy and floriferous ‘sward’ I have been walking up and down for the last six months – and seeing all my life, it still could be in the near future…
Meaning “sod, turf” developed from the notion of the “skin” of the earth (compare Old Norse grassvörðr, Danish grønsvær “greensward”).
Walking the central reservation of the A240 Kingston Road, from Tolworth Roundabout to the Royal Borough of Kingston Upon Thames boundary with the Borough of Epsom and Ewell.
The project is called ‘Sward’ after reading Richard Jefferies’ works, and seeing his frequent use of it. I am walking while considering Jefferies’ writing, his prolific walking of the local area. I am also doing this in the context of the present threat of development to the precious and unique green spaces nearby – and possibly to part of the central reservation itself.
I have just pinned Hogsmill Tiddlers to another map, showing the location of the poem, on the Places of Poetry web site. This is an AHRC and Arts Council funded project which “aims to use creative writing to prompt reflection on national and cultural identities in England and Wales, celebrating the diversity, heritage
and personalities of place.”
We still cross the bridge nearly every day on our walks ‘Over the Fields’. Five generations of Furlongs and counting…
It is the Urban Tree Festival this weekend – celebrating London’s amazing Urban Forest. While we celebrate our wonderful leafy friends this weekend, I am also commemorating the significant number of trees that are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate at the moment in the Royal Borough of Kingston Upon Thames. This is not something I want to write about but I made a commitment to focus on climate change in my writing (most of my writing is about that anyway) and so I begin here… we must value and protect our trees! #climateemergency
Well, we thought it would be blazing hot but in the end it was raincoats and brollies weather. A welcome respite from the sultry shimmer of the weeks preceding, and not so wet that we couldn’t wander gently, and stop for a poem or two. Proper British Summer Time drizzle. So, where is this special place in the heart of suburban Tolworth?
It is part of an ancient drove road, in the middle of Tolworth Court Farm Fields, hidden behind hedgerow on the A240. A beautiful wild, nature reserve, which until the 1980s had been farmed for a 1000 years at least, and is mentioned in the Domesday book.
Drove roads were the network of roads used over the centuries to move live stock up and down and across the countryside, all over the UK. There are traces of them everywhere, and where the drove has disappeared in its original rural form, it may be identified by names, including ‘Lane’, ‘Drift’, ‘Ox’, ‘Way’ and many other lexical giveaways.
There are certainly lots of them in this area. On my Over the Fields poetry map is ‘Sheephouse Way’ – a road characterised for its large number of blocks of flats these days, but which is shown with the same name on maps which are 500 years old of the local area, and which I was lucky to see at the St John the Baptist Old Malden Heritage Day, when I was doing my research at the time.
Drove roads avoided toll roads, and were a direct and safe route through the countryside for the drovers who could be taking large flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, or even large numbers of geese or turkeys to market. The largest and most famous of these markets being Smithfields Market in London.
They were wide, as much as 20 metres, and usually hedged on both sides, containing the valuable stock, and also helping to keep the animals safe and stopping them from getting infected by other possibly diseased animals living in farms en route.
How sweet I roamed from field to field
And tasted all the summer’s pride.
Lots have been paved over, but there is a part of ancient drove in the fields in Tolworth which is grass underfoot, with its double hedge intact, and it is a magical place. And this is where we ended up reading poems, in the drizzle and the green, surrounded by hedges already heavy with blackberries and elderberries, interrupted only by an occasional enthusiastic dog plus owner, not used to seeing a large gathering of people reading and chatting in this in-between-space-between-places. Perfect.
I had hoped to sing John Barleycorn, as we were walking just after Lammas, but my voice was croaky, so I read the words to the old song instead. Alison read the John Clare poemInsects, and Elizabeth read a poem My Orcha’d in Lindèn Lea written by Dorset writer and poet William Barnes (1801-1886)
I also read some Keats and Blake and, not forgetting, some Richard Jefferies.
I had also brought with me a beautiful corn dolly, made by the Wheatweaver, but was worried about it getting damaged during the walk / weather, so I left it for our after-walk chat and write at Court Farm Cafe afterwards- it is exquisitely beautiful, and so good to know that someone is keeping these ancient skills alive.
With enclosure, modernisation, the rail network and then the roads, the droves fell into disuse, farming methods changed and the old songs, traditions and seasonal customs faded… it is good to remember we still rely on the land for food, and that the sun (especially this year!) and rain are still intrinsic to what we eventually put on our plates.
Although this land is no longer farmed, it is a nature reserve, with bats, rare butterflies, deer and beautiful wild flowers, including pepper saxifrage, as well as some of the oldest trees in the borough.
Alison, who has been walking this way for many years, as part of her job as an ecologist and bat expert, has a deep knowledge and passion for this place. I have learned a lot from her and am so glad we have been able to go on these walks together.
People who joined us for the walk, who didn’t already know and love Tolworth Court Farm Fields, were amazed at how easy it was to enter, and how beautiful and special it is.
“…The walk along the old drove road felt like being in the depths of the country and I’ll try and walk the meadows when they are in flower next year…”
The latest in our series of Tolworth Treasure and the Hogsmill Hum walks is a walk across Tolworth Court Farm Fields, our local nature reserve.
We will meet at the white bridge over the Hogsmill / Bonesgate Stream at 11am and take you on a journey through the ancient fields of Tolworth Court Farm, which date back to Domesday and beyond!
We will walk down the drovers’ road, and stop for a while to enjoy this beautiful space. If you would like to bring a poem or story to share about Tolworth or to celebrate the summer and the first harvest please do!
Accompanied children are welcome to this family-friendly walk.
Parents are responsible for supervising children throughout the walk and we recommend you bring water / sunscreen / a hat in case the weather is still scorching hot!
Please be aware that as we are hoping to show you as much wildlife as possible we can’t allow dogs on the walk.
Come and discover this gem of Tolworth Treasure
And it is FREE!
Trains: Tolworth Station and walk (approx 10 mins) 406 bus from Surbiton / Kingston / Epsom etc…bus stop nearby
Disclaimer: walks undertaken at participants’ own risk & responsibility. Please contact re. accessibility / mobility.
“Jefferies left school at fifteen and at first continued his habits of solitary wanderings about the local countryside. He dressed carelessly and allowed his hair to grow down to his collar. This, with his “bent form and long, rapid stride made him an object of wonder in the town of Swindon. But he was perfectly unconscious of this, or indifferent to it.”
“Later, after becoming ill in the 1867-1868 “My legs are as thin as a grasshopper’s”, he wrote to his aunt. Illness also prompted some reconsideration of his own character: he was going to be “not swell but stylish” in future, since people set so much store by appearance.”
“Open your eyes and see those things which are around us at this hour. If any imagine they shall find thoughts in many books, certainly they will be disappointed. Thought dwells by the stream and sea, by the hill and in the woodland, in the sunlight and free wind, where the wild dove haunts.” Richard Jefferies in Looker
“In the mind all things are written in pictures.” Richard Jefferies in Looker
“Though we have been so many thousands of years upon the earth, we do not seem to have done any more as yet than walk along beaten footpaths.” Richard Jefferies
At Tolworth Station, Under the railway bridge
“It is but a strip of sward, but it is as wild as if in the midst of a forest. A pleasure to everyone- therefore destroy it.” Richard Jefferies in Looker
(As it was in Jefferies day, so it is now.Surveyors and roadmen make sure that the delightful green strips that once surrounded many sign-posts at lonely lane ends are well covered with disfiguring gravel or lime heaps.)
Samuel J Looker writing in 1946 – what would they think now?
EWELL ROAD FOOTPRINT
Sun glaring off the pavement, off the bitumen
smell of dust and petrol- the suburbs in the summer
the smell of the spiky checquered upholstery
on the 281 bus, stuck in the traffic backed-up
along the Ewell Road.
Police Station, Red Lion pub
the last wooden bus shelter in London, removed – no longer the haunt
of crafty school-age smokers on the way home from school.
Bryants men’s outfitters opposite the church,
the church on hot days of May, a rosary month
where we would pray the beads at lunchtime
sometimes hide in the confessional.
Father Kirby with his Dot Cotton fag on
Leading the school mascot and pet goat, Olly.
fainting at the front of the church
holding a flag dressed in Guide uniform
that would be the incense.
My Uncle Bern fixing cars in the Blue Star garage
when Tesco was a twinkle in the cash register.
Buying my first single in Woolworths,
watching my Gran with the Greenshield stamps in the co-op,
ice cream floats and squeezy tomatoes in the Wimpy,
Verity’s with its never-changing ladies fashions.
Slippery subway steps under the Broadway.
Bells camping shop for my first sleeping bag,
Lorimers, and Superfish- still the same.
Standing outside Fine Fare on blustery days
on one of the Brutalist fountains,
holding my umbrella, hoping for Mary Poppins action,
spending pocket money in the supermarket on Lucozade and Dairy Milk
Collecting my copy of Jinty from Mouldy’s, opposite Raeburn,
Walking is also known to relieve depression and stress, freeing the mind to explore imaginary worlds. A 2012 study found that participants with clinical depression who took a walk in nature experienced improved memory, while an earlier 2008 study found that healthy adults experienced a mental boost after walking for an hour in the park.
Said Charles Dickens: “The sum of the whole is this: walk and be happy; walk and be healthy.”
The White Cycle Bridge over the confluence of the Hogsmill and The Bonesgate Stream and a peek at Tolworth Court Farm Fields
“The meadow glows with buttercups in spring, the hedges are green, the woods lovely; but these are not to be enjoyed in their full significance unless you have traversed the same places when bare, and have watched the slow fulfilment of the flowers.” Richard Jefferies in Looker
RAIN-SUNKEN roof, grown green and thin
For sparrows’ nests and starlings’ nests;
Dishevelled eaves; unwieldy doors,
Cracked rusty pump, and oaken floors,
And idly-pencilled names and jests
Upon the posts within.
The light pales at the spider’s lust,
The wind tangs through the shattered pane:
An empty hop-poke spreads across
The gaping frame to mend the loss
And keeps out sun as well as rain,
Mildewed with clammy dust.
The smell of apples stored in hay
And homely cattle-cake is there.
Use and disuse have come to terms,
The walls are hollowed out by worms,
But men’s feet keep the mid-floor bare
And free from worse decay.
All merry noise of hens astir
Or sparrows squabbling on the roof
Comes to the barn’s broad open door;
You hear upon the stable floor
Old hungry Dapple strike his hoof,
And the blue fan-tail’s whirr.
The barn is old, and very old,
But not a place of spectral fear.
Cobwebs and dust and speckling sun
Come to old buildings every one.
Long since they made their dwelling here,
And here you may behold
Nothing but simple wane and change;
Your tread will wake no ghost, your voice
Will fall on silence undeterred.
No phantom wailing will be heard,
Only the farm’s blithe cheerful noise;
The barn is old, not strange.
“The forest is gone; but the spirit of nature stays,
Did you know that one of our most cherished and important nature writers lived in Tolworth? Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) was born in Coate in Wiltshire, but moved to live in Tolworth, at 296 Ewell Road, from 1877 – 1882.
During this time he wrote what is acknowledged to be his finest writing, some of which was collected in a book of essays called Nature Near London. Every day Jefferies would walk along the Ewell Road in various directions, but often he would stroll down towards Tolworth Court Farm Fields and to the Hogsmill. Sometimes he would walk towards Worcester Park, at other times he would wander along the river in the other direction, towards Ewell or Chessington.
We can walk in his footsteps, and still see and experience some of what he saw and wrote about back then. Come with us on a journey through the eyes and feet of this prolific and important writer (and walker!) who put Tolworth on the map in a way that no one else has. His work is hugely important and influential, and people still make pilgrimages to see where he lived, walked and worked.
On Bank Holiday Monday, May 7th, we will meet outside Richard Jefferies’ old home, now a Stack and Bonner Estate Agents, at 11am. Then we will walk down the Ewell Road, just as he did (but with cars and a lot more concrete), out to the edgelands between Greater London and Surrey, where the spirit of Jefferies still haunts the landscape.
We will stop briefly at 11.45am, at the railway bridge at Tolworth railway station, and then continue on, down the A240, to the bridge over the Hogsmill and on to the white bridge at the confluence of the Bonesgate Stream and Hogsmill.
We will then cross over the A240 and go to Tolworth Court Farm Moated Manor, and see if we can spot the kestrels currently nesting there; then head down Old Kingston Road and finish at the Court Farm Garden Centre Cafe between 12.30-1pm.
The walk will end with tea, chat and some optional writing activities, plus a chance to look at old photos of the area we will be walking in, including the barn Jefferies described in his essay in Nature Near London, and the old bridge at Tolworth Hall.