An Outing to Langley Bush

As many will know I have been an athlete all my life.  One of the joys of spending quite so much time out on the tracks and paths of rural England is to realise that often one is treading on land largely unspoilt in half a millennia.  This is particularly true of the cliff-paths and common land I know so well in my native East Devon, but often visiting (as I do) what has properly become known as ‘Clare Country’, I have had many opportunities of covering the lanes and paths that Clare would have known well.

Just a few months ago I was running south down King Street (now known as Langley Bush Road) from Helpston, when I realised that the woods on my right and left were almost entirely unchanged since they were walked by Clare in the early years of the nineteenth century.  The names are so familiar to Cleareans worldwide: Rice (Royce) Wood, Hilly Wood, Oxhey Wood, Lampits Spinney, Southey Wood and the quite wonderful Castor Hanglands and Emmonsale Heath.

As I often do on my perambulations, especially in the Helpston area, I was musing on some of Clare’s lines.  As I ran down past what I call ‘Swaddywell Corner’ I looked right toward Southey Wood and recalled Clare’s words, this time from his Journal written in December 1824, and smiled quietly to myself:

Went with neighbour Billings to Southey Wood & Gees Holt to hunt ferns—found none—met with a new species of moss fern stripd growing on a common species like the mistletoe on a thorn it is a sort of moss mistletoe—preservd a specimen—saw a branch of blackthorn dogrose & eldern in full leaf all in one hedgerow—saw a bumbarrel* with moss as if building a nest

* Long tailed tit

Then I reached the place where King Street makes a sharp turn west towards Southey Woods, and I spied the new Langley Bush, now, rather incongruously, in the shade of a huge pylon line; a raised grassy mound in the middle of a ploughed field.  Langdyke or Langley Bush, the tree from which the area takes its name, is a hawthorn growing on an ancient mound at the junction of four parishes – Ufford, Helpston, Upton and Ailsworth.  It has been reported that a thorn bush is likely to have grown there since 948 AD and the present tree was planted by the Society in 1996.

The site of the ancient thorn bush is thought to have once been a Bronze Age barrow and a Roman shrine, and was reportedly an open-air court in Anglo-Saxon times used by all the parishes in the area, known as the Langdyke Hundred.  Clare knew all this of course, and Langley Bush was as much revered by him as it seems to have been by his Anglo-Saxon predecessors.

In the eighteenth century the court moved to the Exeter Arms, in Helpston, and the the place became known as a haunt of gypsies.  Here is Ronnie Blythe on the subject, from ‘Vagabondage in a Native Place:

The enclosure of Helpston put many of Clare's best-loved spots out of bounds, and not only sometimes out of bounds but beyond recognition, for they were in our terms bulldozed.  (…)  Bad enough for the villagers, now being pauperised, but quite terrible for the gypsies immemorially camped at Langley Bush.  The Vagrancy Act of 1824, swiftly following the Enclosure Act, made it an offence, among other things, 'to be in the open air, or under a tent, or in a cart or wagon, not having any visible means of subsistence, and not giving a good account of himself, or herself'.

In 1996 a tree was replanted on the mound and a memorial plaque, to mark the historic site, was added.  All very much in keeping with Clare’s original words in his 1821 poem ‘Langley Bush’:

O Langley Bush! The shepherds sacred shade
Thy hollow trunk oft gain'd a look from me
Full many a journey o'er the heath I've made
For such like curious things I love to see

How ironic therefore that as I subsequently discovered, that to visit the site and stand next to the hallowed tree, the visitor has to trespass on ‘private’ land, reported the ‘Village Tribune’ in December 2009:

The Langley Bush is situated on private land.  Permission to visit the mound should be sought from Fitzwilliam Farm (Milton Estates)’.

So to actually visit the site without ‘permission’, one must trespass on the land legally acquired from the commons during the enclosures.  Here is Clare bitterly railing on the subject:

I dreaded walking where there was no path
And pressed with cautious tread the meadow swath
And always turned to look with wary eye
And always feared the owner coming by;
Yet everything about where I had gone
Appeared so beautiful I ventured on
And when I gained the road where all are free
I fancied every stranger frowned on me
And every kinder look appeared to say
You’ve been on trespass in your walk today

By 1824 we know that everything had changed, for an entry in Clare’s Journal for 29 September 1824 states that:

‘last year Langley Bush was destroyd an old white-thorn that had stood for more than a century full of fame the Gipseys Shepherds & Herdmen all had their tales of its history and it will be long ere its memory is forgotten.’

With a mind full of contradictory thoughts, I turned back the way I had come — ‘gaining the road where all are free’ — returning to Glinton via Rice Wood, Helpston, Maxey and Northborough.  A ‘happy/sad’, and rather thoughtful morning’s run in the Spring sunshine.  All the way I continued to ponder on how Clare would view the ‘enclosed’ Langley Bush in 2012?  Perhaps not too differently from how he saw it in 1820:

The Village Minstrel (lines 1085 – 1091)
There once was paths that every valley wound
Inclosure came & every path was stopt
Each tyrant fixt his sign were pads was found
To hint a trespass now who crossd the ground
Justice is made to speak as they command
The high road now must be each stinted bound
—Inclosure thourt a curse upon the land

© & ® Roger Rowe


  1. An edited version of this article was first published in the John Clare Festival Programme in July 2012.

  2. Actually you can just walk across to Langley Bush. ignoring the law of TrespassBest not to whemn in crop though. They can sue if they want but how would they measure the 'damage to the ploughed or cropped field. The mound is mainly limestone 'rag'. So they would not plough it. It is a good site to look back to Helpston and over the Fen. Not many hills round here. It is near the highest spot in the area. Just along is the reservoir feeding Peterborough. Great on a really windy day,