Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Edith Holden Holidays on Dartmoor

On Yannadon

Near Burrator Reservoir

                 The artist/journalist Edith Holden, made famous during the last decades of the C20, after the long delayed discovery and publication of her Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (written 1906, published posthumously 1977) spent many holidays on Dartmoor, where she stayed with friends at Dousland. Holden took long daily walks onto the nearby moorland – to Yannadon, to Meavy, to Burrator, to Sheep’s Tor, the Walkham Valley, where she observed, watched and listened to the melting pot of moorly presences. Not much escaped her attention: A ‘Linnets’ nest with one egg in it in a whim-bush’; ‘a dead slow-worm in the road’; ‘Samphire in a plantation on the Prince Town road’; [at Lowry], ‘in a bog by the lake-side [gathered] small Water Forget-Me-Not, Cotton-Grass, Lesser Spearwort and Sundew’; ‘purple Bell Heather [is] just breaking into blossom ... pathes of the pink Bog-heath or Cross-leaved Heath’; ‘Numbers of Sky-larks and a few Pee-wits ...circling round me and crying over my head’.
                Holden’s exquisitely illustrated books are accompanied by deceptively fey diary-notebooks: these encompass descriptions of the weather, and embrace the breadth and depth of species of flora and fauna on Dartmoor. Now, during the post C20 period, when it is common knowledge that our plants, flowers, birds and wildlife in general are at risk, Edith Holden’s closely scrutinised attention to the moor’s wildlife and flora is a way of reminding us of the frequently unnoticed actual  natural world around us in our technologically driven virtual-world. She draws us, forgotten naturalists,  towards the moor’s invisible presences. 
                Remembered as an icon of rural Edwardian nostalgia, Holden was actually daughter of a radical socialist family from the Midlands. Her meticulously noted observations take us away from sentimentality, beyond a simple nostalgic response, to a recognition of their exceptional value as repository documents of a treasured past:
‘May 12th. Eighth day without rain and sixth of bright sunshine. I took my paint-box and a canvas and went to make a sketch of Leather Tor and the moor with the ponies. The high banks on each side the steep lane down to Lowry are covered now with small flowers: - Violets, Strawberry-flowers, Tormentil, Bilberry, and today I noticed for the first time the bright blue flowers of the Lesser Speedwell and blue and pink Milkwort.’

                Though not primarily known as writer, Holden spent as much time on her written texts as on her paintings; as a young girl she had experimented with automatic writing when participating in seances and always kept a private notebook in which she accumulated her responses to the natural environment; she then carefully edited and rewrote these so as to complement her illustrations. 
                 One day, a few years ago I visited what I'd come to think of as Edith Holden country, in the vicinity of what is now Burrator Reservoir and nearby Yannadon Down. The landscape  here brims with well-trodden public-paths, people and echoing voices coming from bank-holiday picnics-in-glades, cars backing at every corner on the lanes, passenger slamming doors. 
                 In the early 1900’s country lover Edith hiked here daily, from her friend’s home at Dousland. Later, she will paint still-lifes and write her iconic diary, just as we, now, wandering in the copses alongside Burrator and below Sheepstor, track over hidden imprints, where the artist’s out-soles flecked scintillas from her mind into the rooted ground. And where, we suddenly, stumble upon a tiny posy of orchids left lying beside the leat; someone has left the gathered bunch for us to find. Is it a sign, I wonder?

              Some time later I knew I had to write a poem for Edith. I pictured her seemingly at peace with the world as she wandered these solitary paths, picking celandines and spurge; her halo’s a whorl of butterflies - white and orange-tipped, small-tortoiseshell, peacock, painted lady and the skylarks above are composing special lyrics for her. The poem ends with the terrible scenario of the poet's death, in 1920, when collecting flowers from a riverbank at Kew Gardens, she became hooked on a branch and drowned in the Thames.
           My original poem is layered, with a watermark photo of the landscape as background to the words. It appears as such in one publication online but in Tessitura only the words are displayed. The poem will not quite appear as it should on this blog. It is not too easy to get the spacing exactly as intended using Blogger, but hopefully when I press publish it will not look too bad.

Up on Yannadon; 
June 1906

Who was Edith      leaving The Grange
      went for a walk
                 a long walk           up and in-                                     red-admiral
to            the dip above
that clear golden sky   rare        orchids                                           painted-
in her hand               those     flowers                                    lady          
          in her hair   and how oh
how              they issue
         a sneeze
                 of coloured tissue              flit                                  wall-butterfly
with us                               ghost-moths
far away from the falsity of                                                 peacock-
collections            from our own                                                 butterfly
 scarlet   cosmetic-box
         to a place
                        a haven        
                                      where E.M.H.

    who was Edith
             who left for a stroll       round the fields       went
for many              a long walk                many
another  long    long      walk                                       with fragrant             orange-
golden blossom                  under sky                                                                  tipped
her carpet   blinging  blue-
bells                  primrose        spurge           and up on the moor
she followed paths with                 her soft
butterfly            brushes   taking  her pencil for a longer walk
to  sketch and write texts that
narrate her birds   beasts    flowers

her world of sky and gorse     soaring lark  and
the hawk sailing into                                                                               small
the sea of gold   above
 setting sun                following

this everlasting long walk                             a future towards
the death-branch               above grey water                                 hovering
waving      hook   back
     ensnare her                                                     

       tortoise-shell                               spotted-orchid                         wild-

(Edith Holden, author of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and Nature Notes stayed at
 The Grange, Dousland on Dartmoor
This poem was published by GreatWorks here and again in Tessitura (Shearsman, 2013)

Orchid at Burrator

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