Back on the Lleyn: landscape and memory

Back on the Lleyn: landscape and memory

We’re back home after a week spent walking stretches of the newly-designated Wales Coast Path on the Lleyn Peninsula. We returned just as the extended spell of high pressure began, bringing beautiful sunny days and clear blue skies we’ve waited for all summer.  Nonetheless, the week we were on the Lleyn was predominantly dry, though very breezy.

We had arrived on a glorious sunny afternoon that extended into a warm evening as we walked out from our holiday cottage, sheltered beneath Anelog Mynydd, the last outcrop of the range of mountains – some of them extinct volcanoes – that stretch down through the Lleyn. Continue reading “Back on the Lleyn: landscape and memory”

The goldfinch: symbol of salvation yet thrice-cursed, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’

The goldfinch: symbol of salvation yet thrice-cursed, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’

Yesterday I wrote about the connection between Donna Tartt’s new novel and the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch.  That set me thinking about why Fabritius had chosen the bird as a subject for a painting, so I thought I’d consult the book I received as a birthday present recently: Birds and People by Mark Cocker.

What I found there proved to be fascinating.  In a sense, Carel Fabritius was following a well-established tradition of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance of featuring a goldfinch in paintings, especially images of the Madonna and holy child.  What mattered for these artists was not the accuracy of natural history but the bird’s symbolic or allegorical meaning.  Cocker reckons that close on 500 paintings in this period included the goldfinch motif.  In the case of the Madonna images, the bird often occupied a central place in the composition, perched on Mary’s fingers or nestled in Christ’s hands.

Taddeo di Bartolo Sienna , Virgin and Child, 13C

Detail from Taddeo di Bartolo’s ‘Virgin and Child’,14th century

Virgin and Child, Florence, 13 or 14C

‘Virgin and Child’, Florence, 14th century.

So what was it about the goldfinch that warranted its inclusion in hundreds of paintings?  The answer lies in the bird’s plumage and lifestyle, which had produced in the medieval mind powerful symbolic associations. Cocker quotes the scholar Herbert Friedmann who wrote in The Symbolic Goldfinch (1946) of the ‘ceaseless sweep of allegory through men’s minds.  They felt and thought and dreamed in allegories’.

Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, detail

Detail from ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymous Bosch, c1510: rampant allegory featuring an outsize goldfinch.

What did the individual feel, then, when they saw an image of a goldfinch? First, there was the bar of gold across the bird’s wings, a colour which, since the ancient Greeks, had been associated with the ability to cure sickness.  Then there was the splash of red on the cheeks: as with the robin’s red breast this was a sign to medieval Christians that the bird had acquired blood-coloured feathers while attempting to remove the crown of thorns from while Christ was being crucified.

Finally, not only did thistles have a symbolic association with the crucifixion: thistle seeds are the staple food of the European goldfinch, and thistles were themselves regarded as curative (long credited, for example, as a medicinal ingredient to combat the plague).

John Clare, always observant of bird behaviour, noted the goldfinch’s preference for thistles in his poem, ‘The Redcap’ (an old country name for the bird):

The redcap is a painted bird
and beautiful its feathers are;
In early spring its voice is heard
While searching thistles brown and bare;
It makes a nest of mosses grey
And lines it round with thistle-down;
Five small pale spotted eggs they lay
In places never far from town

(Indeed, goldfinches often come to our bird table here in Liverpool.)

Through its association with thistles, the goldfinch came to be seen as a good-luck charm, ‘warding off contagion and bestowing symbolic health both upon those who viewed it and upon the person who owned it’.  Thus the goldfinch came to be a symbol of endurance and, in the case of paintings of the Madonna and child this symbolism was transferred to the Christ child, an allegory of the salvation Christ would bring through his sacrifice.

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, 1480

Carlo Crivelli, ‘Madonna and Child’, 1480

In the Venetian artist Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child, apples and a phallic and misshapen cucumber symbolise sin and a fly evil; they are opposed to the goldfinch, symbol of redemption from the belief that when Christ was crucified, a goldfinch perched on his head and began to extract thorns from the crown that soldiers had placed there.

Raphael, Madonna del Cardellino Madonna of the Goldfinch detail

Detail from Raphael’s ‘Madonna del Cardellino’ (‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’).

In Birds and People, Mark Cocker makes a broader point: that the story of the goldfinch in late medieval art is an indication of how our views of nature have changed.  Until relatively recently most people ‘genuinely thought birds existed to fulfil very specific human ends’.  He quotes one 18th century author as asserting: ‘Singing birds were undoubtedly designed by the Great Author of Nature on purpose to entertain and delight mankind’.

Which, in a way, brings us back to Fabritius’s goldfinch.  Cocker describes the goldfinch as ‘thrice-cursed as a cagebird’: once by its beauty, then by its pleasant song, described by one writer as ‘more expressive of the joy of living than of challenge to rivals’, and finally by its dextrous coordination of bill and feet.  In order to feed off thistle heads, the goldfinch has developed the ability to hold down an object with its toes while pulling parts towards them.

Fabritius, The Goldfinch,1654

Carel Fabritius’s ‘Goldfinch’,1654: ‘thrice-cursed’.

It was precisely these three ‘curses’ that resulted in the predicament of the bird in Fabritius’s painting.  Finches like the chaffinch and goldfinch were highly valued as cagebirds for their melodious song, but goldfinches brought something more: they became  popular house pets in Holland, kept in captivity attached to a chain and trained to perform the trick of drawing water from a glass placed below the perch by lowering a thimble-sized cup into the glass.

It’s not beyond the bounds of probability that Fabritius, making this painting six years after the United Provinces had gained their independence from Spain, also expected his viewers to read his work as an allegory of freedom chained.  In this sense, the painting shares an emotional character with Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Caged Goldfinch’:

Within a churchyard, on a recent grave,
I saw a little cage
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence save
Its hops from stage to stage.

There was inquiry in its wistful eye,
And once it tried to sing;
Of him or her who placed it there, and why,
No one knew anything.

A few decades after Hardy, Osip Mandelstam, in ‘The Cage’ written after Stalin had ordered his arrest and internal exile in Voronezh from 1935 to 1937, summoned the goldfinch to symbolize his yearning for freedom and self-expression and rage at being caged within ‘a hundred bars of lies’:

When the goldfinch like rising dough
suddenly moves, as a heart throbs,
anger peppers its clever cloak
and its nightcap blackens with rage.

The cage is a hundred bars of lies
the perch and little plank are slanderous.
Everything in the world is inside out,
and there is the Salamanca forest
for disobedient, clever birds.

There’s another goldfinch poem by Thomas Hardy – ‘The Blinded Bird’ – that communicates the same sense of rage at freedom denied, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’:

So zestfully canst thou sing?
And all this indignity,
With God’s consent, on thee!
Blinded ere yet a-wing
By the red-hot needle thou,
I stand and wonder how
So zestfully thou canst sing!

Resenting not such wrong,
Thy grievous pain forgot,
Eternal dark thy lot,
Groping thy whole life long;
After that stab of fire;
Enjailed in pitiless wire;
Resenting not such wrong!

Who hath charity? This bird.
Who suffereth long and is kind,
Is not provoked, though blind
And alive ensepulchred?
Who hopeth, endureth all things?
Who thinketh no evil, but sings?
Who is divine? This bird.

Hardy – who was an antivivisectionist and founder-member of the RSPCA – wrote the poem as a protest against the Flemish practice of Vinkensport in which finches are made to compete for the highest number of bird calls in an hour. In preparation for the contests, birds would be blinded with hot needles in order to reduce visual distractions and encourage them to sing more. In 1920, after a campaign by blind World War I veterans supported by Hardy the practice was banned.  Vinkensport – considered part of traditional Flemish culture – continues today, though the birds are now kept in small wooden boxes that let air in but keep distractions out.

Writing this now brings back the memory of standing in a narrow street in Naples this spring, echoing with the roar of motorcycles and the shouts of people passing.  Above the din, I heard a bird sing. Opposite, a tenement rose up, balconies draped with the morning’s washing, and on a fourth floor balcony, my eyes found the bird that sang.  Some kind of finch, it was trapped in a cage no more than twice its size.  I wrote about that experience back in April, and of the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar that gave Maya Angelou the title of the first volume of her autobiography:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

Leonardo, Madonna Litta detail

Leonardo da Vinci, ‘Madonna Litta’, detail

Maybe Hardy had read Leonardo da Vinci’s words on the goldfinch:

The gold-finch is a bird of which it is related that, when it is carried into the presence of a sick person, if the sick man is going to die, the bird turns away its head and never looks at him; but if the sick man is to be saved the bird never loses sight of him but is the cause of curing him of all his sickness.

Like unto this is the love of virtue. It never looks at any vile or base thing, but rather clings always to pure and virtuous things and takes up its abode in a noble heart; as the birds do in green woods on flowery branches. And this Love shows itself more in adversity than in prosperity; as light does, which shines most where the place is darkest.

Ted Hughes celebrated the twitching, thrilling vitality of goldfinches in their free element in ‘The Laburnum Top’:

The Laburnum Top is silent, quite still
in the afternoon yellow September sunlight,
A few leaves yellowing, all its seeds fallen

Till the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup
A suddeness, a startlement,at a branch end
Then sleek as a lizard, and alert and abrupt,
She enters the thickness,and a machine starts up
Of chitterings, and of tremor of wings, and trillings –
The whole tree trembles and thrills
It is the engine of her family.
She stokes it full, then flirts out to a branch-end
Showing her barred face identity mask

Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings
She launches away, towards the infinite

And the laburnum subsides to empty

Simon Armitage, in The Poetry of Birds, wonders why poets have written so many poems about birds. ‘Perhaps at some subconscious, secular level,’ he writes, ‘birds are also our souls’. He continues:

Or more likely, they are our poems. What we find in them we would hope for our work – that sense of soaring otherness. Maybe that’s how poets think of birds: as poems.

Reviewing Donna Tartt’s novel in today’s Guardian, Kamila Shamsie writes that at the conclusion of the book she leads her readers to a place of meaning: in her words, ‘a rainbow edge … where all art exists, and all magic. And … all love.’

Henriette Browne, A Girl Writing The Pet Goldfinch, 1870

Henriette Browne, ‘A Girl Writing The Pet Goldfinch’, 1870: freedom to fly

See also

St Juliot: Thomas and Emma

St Juliot: Thomas and Emma

St Joliet church

St Juliot church

After seeing the Kurt Jackson exhibition in Truro, we drove back towards Crackington and stopped for lunch in Boscastle, now fully recovered from the devastating flood in 2004.   The Pixie House, where we had lunch, has been completely rebuilt in its original unique style and the harbour-side showed many signs of the regeneration work that is now complete.  A new, less flood-prone bridge (below) has replaced the one swept away, and the car park is now resurfaced to better absorb any future floodwaters.

The Pixie House dates from the 16th century; it was bought by the present owner in 1957 for £71 6s 6d when it was a piggery.  In the 2004 flood a camper van, one of multitude of cars swept down from the car park as 440 million gallons of water cascaded down the main street at 40 miles an hour, clipped the corner of the building and the slate-roofed cob structure – made of a mixture of sand, straw, water and earth – collapsed.  As my photo shows, it has been restored to its former glory, though on slightly higher ground.

The Pixie House at Boscastle

From midday on 16 August 2004, torrential rain fell on an area of North Cornwall from Tintagel to Bude, with unprecedented heavy rainfall concentrated around Boscastle. More than two inches of rain fell in under two hours and the three rivers that converge on Boscastle burst their banks at around 4 pm.

Trees were ripped out of the ground, cars, vans and caravans were carried away in the churning waters that raged towards the harbour from the burst banks of the River Valency, which today ran tranquilly alongside the Boscastle car park. In the wall of water, debris and mud, vehicles were hurled over the road bridge and down the sides of the harbour towards the sea. The devastation was quick: the wavy-roofed three hundred year old Pixie House was washed away completely by the force of water and debris pounding it. Fifty cars were carried out of the car park by the raging waters and into the harbour.

After lunch we set out on the coast path, climbing up above the harbour, a natural inlet protected by two stone harbour walls built in 1584. It is the only significant harbour for 20 miles along this rugged coast. As well as being a fishing harbour, Boscastle was once a small port importing limestone and coal and exporting slate and other local produce.

Out on the coast path, views of Beeny Cliff soon appeared in the distance.  Below Beeny is a waterfall that cascades from a high shelf above the rocky beach at Pentargon, a grey scar brutally slashed into the green of the coastline.

Both these places have associations with Thomas Hardy.  As we walked, Rita explained the background to me, since I was unaware of Hardy’s Cornish connections.  As a young architect, Hardy came in 1870 to restore the church of St Juliot. His work brought him into contact with the rector’s sister-in-law, Emma, who lived at the rectory.  Despite a conventional upbringing, she was a lively free-thinker, vivacious and eager to escape her life in the vicarage. They fell in love and married in September 1874.

Hardy’s early novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, although place names are disguised, is steeped in the atmosphere of this area and his love for Emma. However, their marriage was a strange and unhappy one. With the publication of Jude the Obscure, Emma was outraged at what she took to be his attack upon the sanctity of marriage and feared that people would consider the novel to be autobiographical.  Their lives grew apart, with Emma living alone on a separate floor at Max Gate, the house that Hardy built in Dorchester, while Hardy had flirtatious relationships with other women.  On the morning of the day she died in 1912, her maidservant reported to Hardy that Emma was not well, but he did not go to see her.

You arrive at St Juliot church after following deep, winding lanes with grass growing up the middle.  The place seemed extraordinarily isolated, set amidst a sweep of fields with no evidence of the human habitation that must have led to the establishment of a church in a parish in the 14th century.

When Hardy arrived here in 1870 he found the church in a parlous condition, with the 14th century tower in a ruinous state, and the whole building in ‘irredeemable dilapidation’. Emma herself recorded that ‘the carved bench ends rotted more and more , ivy hung gaily from the roof timbers and birds and bats had a good time unmolested. No one seemed to care’.

In the process of renovation, the northern transept was destroyed, along with much of the old woodwork and a Jacobean Pulpit. Hardy himself regretted later that so much had been destroyed. There is a memorial tablet (below) recording Hardy’s association with the church,  installed in 1928.

Thomas Hardy: A Dream or No

Why go to Saint-Juliot? What’s Juliot to me?
I’ve been but made fancy
By some necromancy
That much of my life claims the spot as its key.

Yes. I have had dreams of that place in the West,
And a maiden abiding
Thereat as in hiding;
Fair-eyed and white-shouldered, broad-browed and brown-tressed.

And of how, coastward bound on a night long ago,
There lonely I found her,
The sea-birds around her,
And other than nigh things uncaring to know.

So sweet her life there (in my thought has it seemed)
That quickly she drew me
To take her unto me,
And lodge her long years with me. Such have I dreamed.

But nought of that maid from Saint-Juliot I see;
Can she ever have been here,
And shed her life’s sheen here,
The woman I thought a long housemate with me?

Does there even a place like Saint-Juliot exist?
Or a Vallency Valley
With stream and leafed alley,
Or Beeny, or Bos with its flounce flinging mist?

After Emma’s death, Hardy was consumed by remorse which resulted in some of his most beautiful poetry, in memory of the love they had once shared.  Later, he had a memorial stone commissioned and placed on the north wall of St Juliot Church (below).

Thomas Hardy:  After A Journey: Pentargon Bay

Hereto I come to interview a ghost;
Whither, O whither will its whim now draw me?
Up the cliff, down, till I’m lonely, lost,
And the unseen waters’ ejaculations awe me.
Where you will next be there’s no knowing,
Facing round about me everywhere,
With your nut-coloured hair,
And gray eyes, and rose-flush coming and going.

Yes: I have re-entered your olden haunts at last;
Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you;
What have you now found to say of our past –
Viewed across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?
Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division?
Things were not lastly as firstly well
With us twain, you tell?
But all’s closed now, despite Time’s derision.

I see what you are doing: you are leading me on
To the spots we knew when we haunted here together,
The waterfall, above which the mist-bow shone
At the then fair hour in the then fair weather,
And the cave just under, with a voice still so hollow
That it seems to call out to me from forty years ago,
When you were all aglow,
And not the thin ghost that I now frailly follow!

Ignorant of what there is flitting here to see,
The waked birds preen and the seals flop lazily,
Soon you will have, Dear, to vanish from me,
For the stars close their shutters and the dawn whitens hazily.
Trust me, I mind not, though Life lours,
The bringing me here; nay, bring me here again!
I am just the same as when
Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.

Thomas Hardy: Beeny Cliff

O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.

The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say,
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day.

A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain,
And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain,
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main.

– Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky,
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh,
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by?

What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is – elsewhere – whom the ambling pony bore,
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.

The Thomas Hardy Memorial Window in St Juliot Church (above) was commissioned by the Thomas Hardy Society to mark the millennium.  The window seeks to illustrate three of Hardy’s poems. The central light symbolises Hardy’s journey from Dorset to Cornwall in 1870 and contains lines from the poem ‘When I set out for Lyonnesse’; the left-hand light illustrates the incident by the stream in the Valency Valley below the church where, picnicking, Hardy and Emma lost a drinking glass in the stream, an incident which Hardy recalls in ‘Under the Waterfall’; and the right hand illustrates the poem ‘Beeny Cliff’, a couple of miles west of St Juliot.

Coast and coombe

Coast and coombe

A circular walk around Crackington Haven

At the start of a short break in the West Country, we followed a circular walk around Crackington Haven, the small cove situated between Bude and Boscastle on the north Cornwall coast.  We arrived around 4 pm, as patchy sunshine gave way to more extensive sun, though with a fair breeze blowing.

Crackington Haven is set at the head of a pretty valley which formed the latter part of our walk.  On either side are spectacular cliffs. To the south is High Cliff which, at 735 feet, is Cornwall’s highest cliff. It overlooks Strangles Beach on which Thomas Hardy used to walk with his first wife, Emma. To the north is the cliff called Penkenna.  We stayed at the pub on the beach – the Coombe Barton Inn.

The name Crackington is a hybrid of Cornish and English. Crak means ‘sandstone’ in Cornish and mutha tun means river mouth farm in English.  Crackington Haven was originally a typical North Cornish port, importing limestone, coal and slate.  Seaweed was also gathered on the beach to use as fertiliser. Plans in the 19th century to expand the port and construct a rail link to Launceston were abandoned and so, today, Crackington Haven remains unspoilt by modern development.

At high tide, the beach is a mass of quartz-veined pebbles and large boulders but, at low tide, it reveals an expanse of sand and many rock pools. The Carboniferous rocks, which form the cove, are of great geological importance and the type has been assigned the name ‘the Crackington Formation’. For this reason, this area has also been designated as a Site of Scientific Interest (SSI). The cliffs are home to kestrels and buzzards, and, if you’re lucky (which we weren’t this time), seals or dolphins can be seen.

From the beach at Crackington we followed the Coast Path west towards Cambeak.  As we made the steep ascent from the cove, a lovely view of the bay, popular for surfing, opened up. The path was surprisingly rich in wildflowers, given that it was mid-September, with gorse, heather, red campion in bloom, plus a great many blackberries and sloes.

When we reached Cambeak there were spectacular views up and down the coast. It was a clear day and we could see across to Hartland Point and out to Lundy Island.

We continued along the Coast Path following the cliff top above Strangles beach. The geology between Cambeak and Strangles beach is fantastic. There are many places where we saw how the Crackington Formation, a fractured shale,  had been shaped into incredibly twisted and contorted forms. On the sheared-off cliff faces we could see the great swirls and folds of this sedimentary rock that was ‘metamorphosised’ by volcanic heat and contorted by the geological storms of millions of years ago. The triangular rock at the eastern end of Strangles is called Samphire Rock – a strange coincidence, as it was only a few days ago that we ate samphire for the first time when we were entertained by our friends on Egremont Promenade.  Absolutely delicious, served in a buttery garlic sauce.

We followed the path until we were above the southern end of Strangles beach then turned inland, following a path signed to Trevigue. We followed this to the road, then turned left to Trevigue farm. This 800 acre farm at Trevigue, which now provides holiday accommodation, dates back to before the Norman Conquest.

Here a track leads out across the fields, down a steep hillside and into the woods.  The views here, of rolling hills brilliantly lit in the early evening sunlight, was a real contrast with the wild coastline we had just left.

At the bottom of the hill the path follows a valley through East Wood. This is ancient woodland, one of the oldest natural woods surviving in the UK, consisting mainly of oak, holly, ash and hazel. The path meanders down the valley, alongside one of the streams that reach the sea at  Crackington Haven.

Eventually, after crossing two footbridges, the track brought us out on the road leading back down to Crackington Haven. We arrived back at the cove around 7 pm, just as the sun was setting.

Crackington Haven sunset

In 2004, Crackington was one of several places badly damaged in the Boscastle flood. Many properties had to be rebuilt and I noted a sign that recorded that the bridge over the stream had been restored by Cornwall County Council after the flood.