Saturday, 2 April 2016

Kindled At The Muse's Flame

Stoke Poges

'The curfew tolls the knell of passing day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.'

Another day, another odyssey.

To be fair, I don't usually need much of an excuse to go on a trip - just recently I visited the South Downs in order to gain a specific view of the Seven Sisters, simply because I was familiar with that view from postcards, a screensaver and the film Atonement.

The Seven Sisters from Cuckmere Haven

This particular trip, however, feels more personal, as it combines my love of travel and exploration with my more scholarly pursuits of history and literature. My favourite poet is G K Chesterton, my favourite poem Thomas Gray's Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard, and as luck would have it, both can be found in a small corner of Buckinghamshire.

This is not a shire with which I am overly familiar, although its neighbours are old friends. Most of my visits to Bucks have involved West Wycombe, and the stomping ground of the Hellfire Club. No journeys into Georgian depravity await me this time, unfortunately, as my destination is a village north of Slough, a village that goes by the name of Stoke Poges.

'Stoke' means a stockade, and in the thirteenth century the heiress of the Manor, Amicia of Stoke, married a knight called Sir Robert Pogeys, whose name completed the title of the village we know today. The area is best known today for Stoke Park, a highly-rated Country Club and Golf Course based around a mansion designed in 1788 by the architect James Wyatt.

Stoke Park, from the rear of the Churchyard

Stoke Park has a special place in the hearts of 007 fans, as scenes from Goldfinger and Tomorrow Never Dies were filmed here. It also played an important part in the film Layer Cake, being the site of the final altercation between Daniel Craig (the future Bond) and Ben Whishaw (the future Q).

Across a lake from the Mansion stands the original Manor House, across the centuries home to such illustrious families as the Hattons, the Earls of Huntingdon and the Penns. The poet Thomas Gray, a resident of Cambridge, started spending time in the village during the 1740's when his widowed mother moved to Stoke Court, then known as West End House, from the family's previous domicile in London (today, a blue plaque marks the spot of the poet's birth in Cornhill). Here he wrote his Ode On Spring and On A Distant Prospect Of Eton College (of which he was a former pupil). The Manor House itself, he immortalised in The Long Story:

'In Britain's isle, no matter where,
An ancient pile of building stands:
The Huntingdons and Hattons there,
Employ'd the pow'r of fairy hands.

To raise the ceiling's fretted height,
Each panel in achievement's clothing
Rich windows that exclude the light,
And passage, that lead to nothing.

The Manor House

Directly adjacent to the grounds of the Manor House stands St Giles', the parish church of Stoke Poges, and the Lords Of The Manor had their own ornate entrance:

Manor House Entrance to the church

My own entrance was somewhat less grand, although no less evocative. St Giles' is first approached through a gate to the churchyard extension.

The outer entrance to St Giles' Churchyard

A walk along the path takes the visitor to the entrance to the original Country Churchyard made famous by Gray's Elegy:

The rntrance to Gray's Country Churchyard

As I approach the building, I spot a mouse diving between gravestones, a sight which simply adds to the rustic feel of this spot. The most striking feature of the building itself is the large brick-built chapel occupying its south-eastern corner, a chapel constructed in 1588 by the Huntingdons for the repose of their bodies and souls. The second eye-catcher is the table tomb that stands below it.

The tomb of Thomas Gray

'The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Await alike th' inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.'

Gray buried his aunt and his mother here, in 1749 and 1753 respectively, and wrote the epitaph that still adorns it:

In the Vault below are deposited, in hope of joyful Resurrection, the remains of MARY ANTROBUS She died unmarried, November 5, 1749 Aged 66. In the same pious confidence, beside her friend and sister, here sleep the remains of DOROTHY GRAY Widow, the careful, tender Mother of many children, one of whom alone had the misfortune to survive her. She died March 11, 1753. Aged 67.

Visitors have left their own marks

Gray died on July 30th 1771, and in accordance with his wishes was brought from Cambridge and buried in the tomb. Unfortunately, his literary effusions had left no room for his own epitaph, so a tablet affixed to the nearby wall of the Hastings Chapel records his burial. Directly outside the church's porch is a yew bower under which, according to tradition, the Elegy was written. In the churchyard hereabouts can be found local gentry, servants from the Manor House, and four local schoolboys who were swept into the sea by a freak wave at Land's End in 1985   a tragedy I can personally recall from the news media at the time.

The yew bower

'Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

Some village-Hampden, that, with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.'

The victims of the 1985 tragedy at Land's End

'Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.'

The interior of the church is dark in the nave, brighter in the chancel. Mural monuments abound, including examples by the renowned sculptors Chantrey and Flaxman. A monument records members of the Penn family in a vault near the font, and a tomb in the chancel, in the style of an Easter Sepulchre, marks the resting place of Sir John de Molyns, Marshal of the King's Falcons, and Supervisor of the King's Castles. The oldest monument, a tombstone now in the Hastings Chapel, was originally in the graveyard and its twelfth/thirteenth century Norman French inscription translates as: 

All those who pass by here
Pray for the soul of this one;
William of Wytermerse he had for name;
God to him grant true pardon.
So be it.

The Gray Monument

Adjoining the churchyard is 'Gray's Field', now owned by the National Trust, and in it stands a large and sturdy Monument to the poet, designed by the Stoke Park architect Wyatt and erected in 1799. In the form of a stone sarcophagus surmounying a large pedestal, it is surrounded by a ha-ha to deter cattle and its four faces display lines from the Elegy. Its size certainly makes up for the lack of an epitaph on the nearby tomb of the poet himself!


My next stop, only a few miles away, is the small and charming town of Beaconsfield, an attractive collection of timbered and Georgian architecture. I have stopped here briefly in the past during a journey to Wales, and am familiar with the Motorway Services of the same name on the M40. I was struck, on my previous visit, on how the town maintains an air of gentility despite some often busy traffic. Its church, a large, flint-faced edifice, contains a gilded Bishop's Chair apparently donated by Benjamin Disraeli when he became Earl Beaconsfield, and a mural monument to the great eighteenth-century statesman, orator and writer Edmund Burke ('Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it'  'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for god men to do nothing'). He rests in a family vault below a pew.

Beaconsfield Church
In the churchyard is a striking monument, a tapering obelisk that marks the tomb of the seventeenth-century poet and politician Edmund Waller, whose kinship with various Parliamentarians and Regicides saw him getting into hot water more than once in his life. Waller, however, is not the poet I have come here to find (mainly because I found him on that previous visit!).

Waller Monument

A few minutes' stroll from the church, along a narrow roadway called Shepherd's Lane, can be found a small and beautifully maintained Roman Catholic cemetery... and here I finally locate my favourite poet, G K Chesterton, whose works gave me the titles of two of my previous blog posts, And The White Horse Looked On and  Fine Things To Be Seen.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

A small bunch of flowers on the grave has toppled, and I carefully stand it upright before moving away with a silent thanks. My odyssey for the day is over, save a brief, curiosity-satisfying stop at a historic Quaker House in the nearby village of Jordans, to see the humble resting place of William Penn, the most illustrious of that historic family, who founded and named the State of Pennsylvania.

With charateristic Quaker understatement, the founder of Pennsylvania rests humbly in the Buckinghamshire countryside. Grave on the left.

Away now, away from Bucks, heading through Herts on my way back to Essex. I leave the three poets behind, silent in their repose, adorning the county with their dust. Silent they may have fallen, but their words burn on, and works like Chesterton's Rolling English Road and Gray's Elegy continue to epitomise the evocative sense of an Old England that has yet to entirely disappear...

They burn on, with 'incense kindled at the Muse's flame'.
(Thomas Gray, Elegy)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your lovely photographs. I'd love to visit the churchyard some day.