In John Clares Footsteps: The Awakening Spring

John Clare, like all country-lovers and naturalists, loved the advent of spring and expressed that love in his verses whilst resident at High Beech, a stone's throw from the edge of Epping Forest.

The Forest meets the blessing of the spring,
The chestnut throws her sticky buds away
And shows her peasant leaves and snow white fhwers.
The nightingale is loud and often heard
The notes of every song, and hardly known
She hides and sings, a stranger all the day.

I visited Clare's former haunts in the Forest and retrod his path up "Beach Hill mounting high", through the "beechen woods", and then descended the "break neck hill" to "half the world below".  I traversed Fairmead Bottom, a grassy plain, as Clare did when he visited Bucket's Hill, "a place of furze and clouds" which in Clare's day stretched unbroken from Lippitts Hill to Buckhurst Hill.  New woodland has encroached on much of it because it is no longer intensively grazed.  The commoners' livestock kept the plains open by eating and trampling the first vestiges of tree growth advancing from the forest's edge in Clare's time, with some help from the commoners themselves.

I reached Connaught Waters, a lake, home to many species of water birds, but an undrained marsh when Clare was wandering in these woods.  Then across the River Ching to enjoy the delights of Chingford Plain which was once enclosed and farmed.  Such threatened enclosures of the forest agitated John Clare. Thankfully Chingford Plain, with other enclosed areas, was purchased by the Corporation of London and re-incorporated into the Forest when it was opened for public use and recreation in 1878.

I've described my walk in Clare's footsteps in poetic-prose style.  I was intrigued to learn in the millennium edition of the JCS Journal that Clare used a similar technique when he wrote "The Woodman or the Beauties of the Winter Forest", a combination of impressionistic prose and poetic extracts.

Spring has arrived?  It depends on where you look and on which day you venture out to check what's actually emerging from the depths of winter's torpor.

Between icy gasps of winter, signs of spring appear.  An odd and freakish sunny day will give false promise to many of our fauna sheltering from the rigours of winter in secure niches; they will rapidly react to a sudden rise in temperature and come out to enjoy the momentary and unseasonal warmth.  Adders will bask, often in collective bundles for extra warmth, near their immediate post-hibernation spots.  Butterflies that have successfully over-wintered will give us a colourful thrill, and newly emergent bumble bees, fresh from hibernating in their dry and warm sandy burrows, will visit the first blooms to collect nectar.

A splurge of lively lemon adorns the barren woodland's encroaching edge.
Unexpected, the busy bumble bees collect nourishing nectar from the palm. Other early blooms decorate the sylvan scenery.
Flames of gorse ignite amongst the damp greys
And sleeping browns of the forest as it awakens.
A rebellious blackthorn in warmed and sheltered spot cascades,
A veritable snow-storm of delight.
In the woods flowers that need to pollinate before the canopy shades them from essential light and warmth burst forth.
Fresh, vibrant, green, the bluebells
Spike the carpet of autumnal leaves.

And there is a verdant growth of Lords and Ladies, lush and heart-shaped, designed by God, which provides refreshment amongst the debris of the fall.  Golden stars of early blooming celandines bejewel the sides of the meandering brook.  Coltsfoot enlivens barren banks — it doesn't seem to like competition.  In a secret part of the wood the floor is bedecked by a very temporary carpet of delicate snowdrops.

The embryo river, the liquid border between Chingford and Loughton, is rising high.
And midst the muddied, flooded waters of the brimming brook
Future crops of cresses bravely grow.

Above, in the upper echelons of the high forest, the beeches still refuse to open their buds. Cold blasts from the north-east inhibit their arousal.  Frogs, toads and newts will rapidly respond to an early spasm of warmth and immediately travel to the pond of their birth, sensing, apparently, the distinctive scent of their native water.

Leave the woods and enjoy the windswept delights of the open plain. A kestrel sits, hawk-eyed, on a bare branch, and watches intently for a sign of movement in the tussocky grass.  One signal and, efficiently, it swoops down to capture a hapless vole, its wings forwarded to trap and confuse its prey.  Above, an ascending skylark serenades and competes with the model aeroplanes.  Chingford Plain is a sanctuary, a habitat made scarce by modern farming methods.

The scratch of rabbits
The woodpecker's laugh
The slot of muntjak
The screech of jay
The whiff of fox
The robin's melody
The chatter of squirrel

Without notice sun-blest spring arrives — its unexpected warmth ignites for one precious day.

It's now late March and the temperature has descended again:
Nightly frosts still emblazon the coney-cropped forest lawns.

Our summer visitors have not yet arrived and won't until they sense a warmer destination.  In a few days the earliest should arrive, the chiffchaff, followed by a myriad of others.  They will cheer us with their welcome chorus.  The nightingales will return to their beloved blackthorn fringes of the forest's plains and regale the night with their haunting melody.  Then we'll know spring has truly arrived.

The cheerful sun, still harbouring heat,
Climbs daily higher in its apparent orbit.

Don't let spring merge into summer before you visit the wild woods.  Don't miss the transient delights of early spring, the fresh green colours as the leaves unfold, the early blooms, carpets of bluebells, stools of primroses, miniature wood violets by the brook.  They all flower in the few weeks before the canopy develops in the attic of the forest and casts a cooling shade onto the floor beneath. Too late then — spring has flown and summer arrived.

Pete Relph
John Clare Society Newsletter
Number 71 - March 2001