Ronald Blythe recalls how, in a silent garden one night, he gazed at the sky

Market Day. The village bus twists and turns through the lanes. On it are old folk, students, workmen, the woman who reads paperbacks all the way. There is an Italianate villa where the naval rating who helped to bury Rupert Brooke en route to Gallipoli lived; there is the hill where Martin Shaw composed "Hills of the North, rejoice". And there, across the liquid landscape, is the little house where my aunt spent her life making lace for the altar.
But, in the market town, the stone griffins on the church tower maintain their watch, seeing off goblins and foul fiends. I sense a new feeling of things not being as prosperous as they were. And, as always, faces from boyhood appear in the old street - not phantom features, but young faces grown old along with my own, especially in Waitrose.
The Epiphany proceeds. The Queen joins the Three Kings in the Chapel Royal; and in our three ancient parishes we sing and pray the journeying liturgy. Soon, we will be walking into Lent. Last midnight I wandered around the garden, staring at stars, and followed by the white cat. Stansted planes flew silently through golden clouds. An extra quietness prevailed. Snow was out of the question, and winter was no more than a name. But I checked the oil tank, and it answered with a half-full clunk.
Then came the clearing of desks for this year's work. Only not quite yet. Let January get into its stride. Hear some music. Answer letters. Remember that Keith is coming to decorate John Nash's studio, now my bedroom. He went to it every day at ten o'clock, and came down from it at four o'clock. His easel fronted a north light, and there was a single 40-watt bulb to encourage it. We never entered without permission, and he never left it without a kind of sadness. It was never swept or dusted, and cocoa-tin lids piled with ash were rarely emptied.
When he went away to fill up the sketchbooks, he cleared a space for me in which to write. But I never worked in his studio with its north light and half-light, but always in the sunshine. His pupils would enter this room with reverence, looking forward to the time when they, too, would attain its murk and hereditary litter and spiders' webs. For it takes an age to create one's own peerless dust and muddle.
I was once told the tale of Gustav Holst's reaction to the new composing room which his wife made ready for him when he was away. Glorious it was, with great windows on to the beautiful Thaxted countryside. But they said that he never wrote a note in it, and sat by the hearth in his old house, as he always did. His suite The Planets might soar to the skies, but it was created by the hearth.
Benjamin Britten worked in a window which faced the sea, and which at times was sprayed with it. But the local stationer sold postcards of the window, and, when visitors to Aldeburgh stood on the sea wall to watch him, he had to find a hiding place.
William Hazlitt, the great essayist who longed to be an artist, insisted that no one should approach an artist at work - that something sacred was happening at that moment. I once read "Kubla Khan" in the room where Coleridge had written it, rocking his baby son to sleep at the same time. Nash walks to his studio in my room every day.  (23rd January 2015)

Ronald Blythe finds inspiration in the prayers of a writer from the past

Having wheeled barrow-loads of mulch from the so-called back lawn - a rich kingdom for snowdrops - so that the mower can have its way, I begin to shape the summer. Snowdrops and snowflakes for Candlemas onwards, and both for the feast of the Purification.
It is a mild, bright January afternoon, and the horses opposite break into little gallops every now and then. Yesterday, all three parishes ate great piles of food in the old village school, where above our talk I could hear the chanting of the alphabet and the seven times table, the stamping of winter boots, and the singing of the morning assembly hymn.
At today's weddings and funerals, those under 50 embark on them with much uncertainty. Now and then I go to Robert Louis Stevenson for prayers - those that he wrote to his Samoan household. I imagine his Edinburgh accent becoming fainter and fainter as his tuberculosis fed on him.
His widow said: "With my husband, prayer, the direct appeal, was a necessity. He was happy to offer thanks for that undeserved joy, when in sorrow or pain, to call for strength to bear what must be borne."
I don't know about undeserved joy. Like grace, joy is there for the taking. We all deserve a bit of it, and if we miss it, it is mostly our own fault. Mrs Stevenson said: "After all work and meals were finished, the pu, or war conch, was sounded from the back veranda and the front, so that it might be heard by all. I don't think it ever occurred to us that there was any incongruity in the use of the war conch for the peaceful invitation to prayer."
I found Stevenson's little book in a tumbledown shop where a big dog lived. An unattended bookshop on the other side of the road was filled with treasures, and customers dodged the traffic to buy them. Then another copy arrived; so they sit together with my sermons, and Samoa and the Stour Valley make common prayer.
Long ago, when our faith was young, the Epiphany was celebrated as Christ's baptismal time. Four hundred years later, it became the feast of the Manifestation of Jesus as the Christ or redeemer of the Gentiles. A flood of divine light poured through the universe to make him plain to us. St Paul found it all rather a puzzle, this light which lightened every man. This light that began as a star, and continues to illuminate everything we do or say.
And then there are the words that Thomas Hardy loved more than anything else in the Bible, and which are written on his memorial window in St Juliot's, Stinsford. He was probably flinching from noisy preaching and the pulpit generally when he heard that the Lord was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake or the fire, but in the still small voice.
It is often in silence that God speaks to us. At the same time, we must not hide away like Elijah in a cave, but stand on a mountain top. Listening is a very grown-up thing to do. To be a good listener is wonderful. Poets and novelists have their ear to the ground - and to the skies. And maybe especially at the Epiphany illumination of so many mysteries. During it, we read one of the most beautiful of all stories, a boy being called by his name, Samuel, by his God.  (16th January 2014)

Ronald Blythe looks out at a winter scene that is neither 'wild' nor 'drear'

Twelfth Night. Shakespeare wrote his play for it, and King James and everyone crammed into Whitehall to see it. A boy sang "Come away, come away, death," and there was confusion of roles and gender.
It is enchanting at this moment: the old rooms are full of sunshine. The white cat frets at robins through the glass. It is a morning of great stillness and promise. The land-scape is bleached and waiting. The meadows are melting, and the ponds glitter. As children, we sang "Winter wild, and winter drear" in what were then bitter post-Christmas days - an out-of-date song from what I see now, which is a quietly beautiful landscape warming up.
Gardening comes to mind. Planting bulbs suggests itself. There is even that sweet scent that April brings. I hold a tiny phial of frankincense to a friend's nose, and say "Smell." Then I carry wood ash on to the bonfire site. Someone here would have done this when the boy sang "Come away, death" in Whitehall.
I tend not to make New Year's resolutions for fear of breaking them in February. But a new book begins to create its own order for the weeks ahead. At the moment, everything is out of date - the parish magazine with its pages of Christmas happenings, in particular.
I am always amazed by these publications, by what goes in them at all seasons, and what priests, churchwardens, bell-ringers, flower-women, organists, and the laity for miles around are up to. Those who organise things in parishes are still on the rota. Immortal, they are. Incumbents may come and go, but Peggy or Bob are still on the list for something or other. And the Lent readings are out.
Bottengoms, my old farmhouse, was always on the edge of things. Balanced between Suffolk and Essex, and between two parishes, and in a valley between two quiet steep hills, it must always have had a life of its own. As I do not drive, kindly neighbours bump down to take me to where I have to be on Sundays, not best pleased to get their sparkling cars muddied.
I have discovered a pre-First World War parish guide to the area, with photos of church interiors, and Edwardian naves and chancels, with a psalm, hymn, and matins still up on the board. I see bursting hassocks, paraffin stoves, and just a few roses in brass vases on the altar. But also a photograph gallery of keen young curates and irascible rectors.
I gaze into their pale faces and think of not far-away Flanders, but of congregations in their Sunday best, and I hear the old hymn-singing, full and loud, and I see local names everywhere. And the gentry in front and the labourers at the back. And I see the heavy altar frontals, plus flimsy heating. In boyhood, it was "Put another jersey on if you're cold." But I have no memory of being cold in church. I suppose the beauty of holiness kept me snug.
In St Gregory's, there was the mystical hissing of the gas system. And in the vestry, there was the decapitated head of an archbishop, named Simon, who was murdered during Wat Tyler's rebellion. Perhaps the local monks brought it to Sudbury hoping to set up a shrine with a profitable following. But all it got was a crowd of choirboys looking in the glass to comb their Brylcreemed locks.
The archbishop's vacant gaze looks back at their young faces. His face has seen Rome, Paris - everything, everywhere. Sic transit gloria mundi.  (9th January 2015)

Ronald Blythe leaves the detritus of Christmas and makes an annual visit

My great frost poem is Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight". "The frost performs its secret ministry, unhelped by any wind." And so it did last night. The pasture was brittle and bright, the horse ponds on the point of being ice. A new year distanced itself from Christmas despite the papery litter and the still-bursting larder. And there is a sense of looking much behind and looking for much to come. The garden is sheltered, with roses in a kind of everlasting bloom. Just a few of them, their petals darkening but not falling.
Notes and scribbles for a new book have taken over the Christmas-card territory, and what cards still stand upright are ritually flattened by the white cat. The wrecks of turkey and pudding have taken over the fridge. We make our annual journey into Suffolk, to a pub called The Peacock. There are as many fine dogs and pretty children as drinkers, and a brick bridge over a small river - one we biked to as boys.
A writer named Julian Tennyson, grandson of the poet, wrote my favourite East Anglian book here. He intended to return to become a Country Life author after the war, but the Japanese battles claimed him. He always carried a verse from his grandfather's In Memoriam in his pocket as a talisman. Leaving The Peacock, I touched the bridge that Julian had crossed so many times, remembering him and his brief existence.
It is the Epiphany, a confident time for the Church. Its Psalm 72 is full of presents. They are piled high. Heaps of corn, shaking fruit, blessings galore, and two Amens. And a new light with which to illuminate a new path. The Magi walk it; gold, frankincense, and myrrh perfume it. Its three Kings arrive from Tarsus, Arabia, and Saba, and are on their way. A sumptuous time for the carpenter's son.
But our valley rattles with bare boughs, and owls are about. I do the ironing and filing. The guests go for a long walk; the white cat goes to sleep; the horses stand close in the stable. No one works. In John Clare's winter poems, shepherds blow their hands and sing. Church bells take a rest. And getting and spending come to a stop.
Winter always revived those who lived in my farmhouse, by January light and lamplight, and in a world of great shadows and great draughts. Victorian photographs show women in shawls, and men in knee blankets. You dressed up for it. Door curtains shivered, thatch warmed under snow. There were secret scufflings of rats, and all-too-public winds. You burnt in front and froze behind. Winter took you off if you weren't careful. But, as it was a good two miles from my house to church, you arrived as warm as toast.
There are a few New Year hymns: Timothy Dudley-Smith's "Child of the stable's secret birth", and his beautiful "Nunc Dimittis", although the carols run on.
I am a great admirer of St Paul's letter to his young friend Philemon. I read it in January. Philemon, you remember, owned a young slave, Onesimus, who ran away - a capital crime.
St Paul complicated matters by telling Philemon that, as he had become a Christian, his slave was now his brother. And the apostle returned the slave to his owner with a logical note - one that, had all followers of Jesus obeyed it, would have made much of the slave-trade impossible. Imagine receiving a slave for a Christmas present. (2nd January 2015)

Ronald Blythe hears Bible place-names, sadly, in the news

A frosty post-Christmas. The valley is white and stark. Place-names become unbearably eloquent about the way in which evil contrives to rationalise itself across the centuries.
Having just said the Innocents collect at matins — “O Almighty God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength, and madest infants to glorify thee by their deaths” — I hear that five little sisters have been killed in Gaza. Herod, after all, was only safeguard­ing the state. 
The newsreader then mentions Askelon. “Publish it not in the streets of Askelon,” says David. “The beauty of Israel is slain. . .” He is mourning his friend Jonathan. 
It is John Milton’s 400th birthday. Blind like Samson, he is “eyeless in Gaza”. The never-ending cruelties of these small nations, the scandal that the Palestinians should still be land­less, the mystery that the personifica­tion of Love should have been born among them. 
Joachim arrives from Berlin. It is Hannukah, the feast of light, and he places the minora on the dining table. At matins, Pam has read from Genesis something about a burning lamp, but I am surreptitiously search­ing for the prayer that goes, “Eternal Lord God, the same yester­day, today, and for ever . . . we ask your help in forgetting the mistakes of the past,” although wondering if this is a good thing. Anyway, how can we, when the news is full of Gaza, Askelon, and Herod’s Bethlehem? Places taken up with so much weeping in scripture and in our time. 
It is fearfully cold, and we burn shiny hazel logs. The white cat sits on Joachim, and never on Ian. On account of his new pullover. A smart Wine Society “plum pudding”, the gift of my agent, steams away. The ancient house remembers other Christmases, ones when what went on in what the farmers called the Holy Land was a closed book. The misdeeds of Ipswich may have penetrated its remote rooms, but little else. 
A gig like Great-uncle Ned’s may have whizzed them the couple of miles to church, gleaning a mite of gossip on the way. Smoke would have wavered from every chimney, and bells would have pealed through the frigid air. Bare hedges would have rattled. There could have been skating down by the watermill, thus shouts and laughter. 
Inside, the church would have been, well, as “cold as Christmas”, the sermon hurried and carols unsung, the greenery piled around, a pair of candles sputtering. It was the labourers’ only day off. 
But now I am well into 2009, and into clearing a glade in my wood. This is such a wonderful task that I toil until the late afternoons when the light fails and the fat pheasants screech, “Go in! We want to roost!” And the badgers shift. 
This February, thousands of snowdrops will be fully seen under the trees, not to mention silvery runnels where springs come to the dark surface. Duncan or somebody has patched the holes in the track. So no longer that great lurching of cars at the top. By March, I should be as tidy as — but no name, no names. Let our good deeds go unsigned. 
I have been writing about a Book of Hours, one of those lavish aids to prayer with terce, nones, etc. on the middle of the page, and lusty prun­ing, scything, etc. in the margins, the latter in full blue, green, and gold-leaf illumination. Life in the Middle Ages, as now, was non-stop. On your knees in church, on your knees in a ditch. I have actually been on my knees with a scrubbing brush where the Dyson cannot reach. These bright brick floors!  (8th January 2009)

Ronald Blythe recalls former residents of Bottengoms Farm

[Image : John Nash 'River in Winter']
"A painting by John Nash is like a sentence spoken by a gentleman, perfectly enunciated, quiet, complete, yet with a certain reserve about it as of things left unsaid."
Christmas-card snowstorm brings in an atlas of my life. Views of every parish I have been to: familiar parishes, glimpsed parishes, parishes I have worked in, parishes in which I have felt the presence of artists and writers. And priests, of course. And naturalists. And those adopted by retired friends.
Long ago (for I doubt if the courtesy is still observed) an incumbent would offer his successor the convention of moving at least five miles away, so as not to get in his hair, so to speak - although, once addressing the retired clergy of East Anglia, I was aware that it is often during the final years of ministry that a priest and his wife, or her husband, are apt to make their most important friends.
I have been in Wormingford, on and off, since I was 22 - first of all as the friend of the artists John and Christine Nash, and later as the dweller in their remote farmhouse. My feet have kept the track to it open, if not level, and the view from it familiar.
On this near-Christmas day, I stare from its high north window, just as John once stared from it when he placed a canvas on his easel every week, and, cigarette between teeth, would transfer sketchbook drawings to oils.
The studio in those guiltless days was a homily to dust. Tobacco dust, mortal dust from plants and insects, and, to a degree, from the artist himself. It was never swept, and a single 40-watt bulb gave a discreet account of it.
During the summer, when John went to Cornwall or Scotland (never abroad, if he could help it), he would kindly dust a patch where I could write. I never told him that I never wrote a word in his studio, but always in his lovely garden; for summer went on for ever at Bottengoms. Still does. Even at this moment, with Christmas at my heel, the valley within a valley which contains the old house has its own climate. Should it snow, everyone knows that I won't be able to get to the top. The dip will fill up, hedges will disappear, familiar posts will vanish, and ditches will sound with loud but invisible water. Only no one could imagine such a sinking out of sight today, and the postman's van flies towards me with a flourish, and yesterday's cleared desk hides under the avalanche.
Few birds sing, but a squirrel scuttles in the roof, and the white cat is torpid. The News creates a strange unease. People are going to foodbanks. Dickensian activity on cards is one thing, in 21st-century Britain, quite another. The poverty of the Holy Family resumes its traditional reality, and is no longer an old tale. All but the well-off would have had no difficulty in identifying with it since Christianity began. In our day, just now and then, it became academic, and below the surface of our time, but it never went away. It was always there, the fragility of human life, and in our world, not the Third World. With the poor and meek and lowly lived on earth our Saviour holy. It was and is true. Politics fail, especially in winter, and spectacularly at Christmas.
Yet the divine birthday is here again, and its light contains no variableness, neither shadow of turning. It is the perfect gift for Christmas. We should see by it. It exists for this purpose. Comprehending our childishness, it tolerates the tinsel. We are young now, whatever age we are.  (19th December 2014)

Glorious tombs and an old pub draw Ronald Blythe to a small town

Murky warm December days. Strangely pleasant. We drive to Framlingham on the spur of the moment. The little town, with its great history, is still and wet. I remember once coming home from baking Sydney, and loving the raindrops sliding down the plane windows at Heathrow.
Advent is in the air: an almost tangible time when we "put on the armour of light" - an enchanting activity - and when "love is the fulfilling of the law". The car splashes past endless empty fields, which are faintly ruled with sugar beet. Framlingham Castle, with its 13 towers, has an ephemeral look, as though it might blow away, and Framlingham School comes and goes on the horizon, as though telling us "Don't take me for granted."
It was built to educate the sons of Suffolk farmers with money left over from building the Crystal Palace. This sensible idea came from the Prince Consort, whose statue presides in the distance.
We make for the Crown, and have lunch by the fire. Inertia reigns. The old room is full of ghosts: neighbours from long ago; schoolmasters taking a break; my friend the poet James Turner, who vanished to Cornwall; the Falstaffian rector in his cassock, tweeds, and tennis clothes; and my bike in the courtyard.
It was at Framlingham Castle that Mary Tudor learned of the death of her half-brother, Edward VI, and the accession of poor Lady Jane Grey to the throne. Vast events in a quiet countryside. And now a handful of folk in a bar, and the Christmas decorations.
My favourite reason for coming to Framlingham, however, is to marvel yet again at the glorious tombs of the Dukes of Norfolk, especially the one with its Genesis frieze - a favourite of Benjamin Britten, and from which he took his church parable Noye's Fludde. He was fascinated, as I was, by the extraordinary things that filled our local churches, and, should one be a composer or a writer, were there for the taking. He would drive off in his big old car on the spur of the moment, as I had done this week, to look once again at what he regarded as his by right of birth: some view, some object in a vast or tiny village church.
But Advent. The liturgy trembles with expectation and dread, with joy and fear. The Creator enters his creation as a child. Advent for Adventus, coming. The liturgical year begins. Long ago, it was as severely kept as Lent. But, now, shopping shouts it down. Some scenes on television of bargain hunters were little less than disgusting.
For me, music expresses it far more than words. Music in which Jesus is given such beautiful names: Emmanuel, Desire of Nations, Wisdom from on High, Dayspring, Lord of David's Key, names filled with urgency and longing. George Herbert added to the list: "Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life. . . Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength. . . Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart."
I rake the main paths, and push barrow-loads of sodden leaves out of sight. Robins fly ahead. Keith arrives. May he take some holly? It is berry-less, but shining, an immense wall of it glittering and clattering when the wind gets into it. Geoffrey Grigson said that working holly into Christian belief was easy. It was thorny and blood-coloured. People once believed that the Cross was made from it. In old ballads, Holly is the man, and Ivy the woman.
But I prefer to see it as it is: evergreen, ever present in the farmhouse garden, and stuck behind the pictures on Christmas Eve.  (12th December 4014)