Each year the graduate program awards a $1,000 research grant to support student research. This June, second year graduate student Adam Burchard traveled to England to visit Salisbury and Bemerton to research George Herbert. Adam was gracious enough to write about his incredible experience.
Over three days in early June, the Graduate English Student Research Grant gave me the opportunity to explore the last years of George Herbert’s life in Salisbury and Bemerton as part of a trip with my family to England. My wife Ginny also had a grant to study ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent so we combined our two research trips and added a stop in Butleigh to see an old friend and mentor of Ginny’s and a few days in London. Traveling with our son Lewis, who was nearing one year old, was far less stressful then we thought it would be. I think this was because he likes the constant movement and chaos rather than sitting still, and also having a small child broke the ice with a lot of people. Everyone we stayed with, and strangers as well, tended to be a bit more trusting and open because of him.
The evening we arrived in Salisbury was spent in the town and in and around the cathedral. We stayed at a Summer cabin in what’s called Salisbury Close, a walled area around the grounds of the cathedral made up of beautiful old buildings, shut in at night by two gates that are closed and locked every night at 11PM. Our landlady gave us the key to these ancient gates, but we were never out late enough to use it because of Lewis.
Staying so near the cathedral we overcame its intimidating first impression and had the opportunity to get really accustomed to it over our three days of being there. I remember the cathedral now as having a more comfortable, lived-in feel than you might expect from pictures of it. People picnic on the grounds, play frisbee or golf and for the most part do those usual recreational things people do at parks, though there are signs reminding you that what you are standing on is actually a graveyard, so don’t do anything too disrespectful. While we were there the grounds were filled with some modern sculptures and performances were going on in the afternoons as part of an art festival. As in Herbert’s time, music still plays a large part in what goes on at the cathedral, and in the late afternoon, while sitting and paying with Lewis outside underneath the huge stained glass windows we could hear the choir practicing for the different processions and rituals.
Herbert is mentioned to have come here twice a week to play his lute with other musicians, and though we mostly know him as a poet, in Salisbury his presence as a devoted priest and musician seems to be have remained more established. When I mentioned his name a few times to local people they answered with: “Yes yes, George Herbert. Wonderful music!” Though his poems as far as I know were only set to music after his death. Herbert’s presence is subtle but prevalent in Salisbury, as I ran into his name more than a few times, found posters mentioning various events about him and found a display of drawings of him by local students.
Before the trip I had been emailing with members of the local group responsible for organizing most of the Herbert events in the area, called The George Herbert in Bemerton Group. One of their members, Mr. Peter Webster agreed to meet with me the day after our arrival at the home-base for Herbert’s memory, St. Andrew’s Church in Bemerton, a parish church across from Hebert’s residence. My plan was to follow Herbert’s twice-weekly general track from Salisbury to Bemerton on foot, which is only about a three mile walk, though very meandering. The next morning, after the evening of exploring the town and the cathedral, all three of us started from the cathedral, and somehow found our way there.
Salisbury sits at the convergence of five rivers. To utilize this wealth of water a system of gates and sluices and reservoirs were in engineered in the early 17th century, which permitted controlled flooding of large parcels of land right next to the city, creating a system of extremely lush pastureland known as the Water Meadows. Herbert’s trajectory from St. Andrews took him directly over this area which is characterized by its abundant life, running and stagnant water and rich humidity. Today there are public footpaths between the two locales that also go through the meadows and on to Bemerton, that allow for frequent views of the cathedral, grazing sheep and many little picturesque scenes of small bridges over rushing streams, blooming pasture and dense forest. Some of these paths were rough on our stroller, and I’m not totally sure how we found our way out into Lower Bemerton on time.
Peter greeted us at the church porch of St. Andrew’s. He is an extremely knowledgeable, well-spoken and admirable person, and I was not ready for the breadth of his knowledge concerning Herbert. He was able to answer questions about nearly every physical feature of the church (except for the mysterious “hagioscope”), and was very happy to show my family and I around. The experience of St. Andrew’s and the cathedral were remarkably different. Unlike the momentous, almost theatrical atmosphere you find in the cathedral, there is more a sense of the structure’s practical utility. St. Andrew’s is tiny, and extremely tidy, and each object or architectural feature gathered into it seems to have a distinct ceremonial use. The connection with Herbert is unmistakable and all over, and not ostentatious in any way. The walls bow out at an angle away from each other in a way that Peter told me was intentional at the time they were built. They are held in suspension by the intricate network of trusses holding them from falling out, which gives the interior the appearance of ancient upside down boat.
We were soon joined by another member of the Herbert group, Canon Judy Rees, who was also extremely knowledgeable and kind, and has been a major part of organizing events concerning Herbert. She let us know she had talked to the owner of the house next door, which had been the rectory and Herbert’s home (known as “the Old Rectory”), and been given permission to allow us inside to see. This was really a very nice thing to do. We had no idea and it came as a surprise. So all five of us walked across the street, advised to keep quiet as the owner of the house, the author Vikram Seth, was in the middle of writing.
Part of the facade of the Old Rectory had been extended out towards the road long ago, but a substantial part of the building has been left in its original form. Mr. Seth greeted us all and indeed had the bright, distant eyes of having been recently concentrating on something very hard. He asked about what we were researching and was very kind and congenial. Upstairs we made our way to the room where Herbert presumably died, looked out on the view of his last days, and then looked down at the original ash floorboards he once padded across. Out of respect for Mr. Seth’s privacy we didn’t take any pictures, but his home is so wonderfully decorated and serene, with such a feeling of tranquility and the passage of time, that you immediately sense a veneration for the space and for the lingering presence of the poet.
Judy and Peter led us outside and we walked down through the yard to where the River Nadder, one of the main rivers of the Water Meadows, flows unconstrained under a nearby bridge. The cathedral was there in the southeast rising out of the Meadows, which was somewhat of a relief because it helped to get my bearings after the winding foot path out. With the parish church behind and the cathedral ahead you really got a sense for the spatial proportions of Herbert’s home, a sense for some of the consistent landmarks that helped orient him as he woke every morning. For me, Herbert is a poet ultimately concerned with how to deconstruct the ordinary structures of daily life to unveil, or at least point the way towards, new spiritual understandings. Getting a sense for where and how he lived on a day to day basis, made this more tangible and less alien.
After talking and walking around in Seth’s backyard we went back to St. Andrew’s and said goodbye and thank you to Judy. Then Peter and I dropped Ginny and Lewis off at a nearby park. For awhile longer I talked with Peter and he showed me another church in the area that was built in recognition of Herbert and also to provide more room for the congregation than St. Andrew’s could provide. But with the congregation fallen in recent years, the church, St. John’s, had to find a new means to sustain itself and so was being remodeled to accommodate classes for a nearby school and act in general as a community center. As in other places we visited in England, this place was beautiful and historically significant, and a challenge to figure out what to do with after its original use had gone.
We met back up with my family and Peter offered us a ride back to town, which at first I resisted because I wanted to go through the Meadows again, but then I thought how that might really annoy Lewis and perhaps Ginny, who had both been very patient with my navigation skills on the way over. So Peter kindly dropped us off halfway, at Harnham, at an inn built into an old mill right in the middle of the Meadows. Lewis fell asleep right away, while we ordered two ciders because it was hot out and the bartender was adamant about how inappropriate it was to drink Guinness in this type of weather. It was evening at this point, and the air was filled with the sound of the rushing water and the smell of sheep and grass. Early the next morning we caught our bus to London where we stayed a few more days before coming home.