By Tony Henthorn


07590 750128

John Clare Festival

A scorching summer’s day, sunhats and sandals, ice cream and beer, a cool church and a shady green, gentle words spoken softly and of gentler times, gave a restful feeling to the John Clare Society Festival, held in July to mark the Helpston poet’s birthday in 1793. An annual event, the festival seems somehow enriched year by year, giving Society members and not least residents of the village, some time and space to slow down and relax.

Those who commute long distances to work each day or have a job which entails long hours, find that village life can almost pass them by.  They could be living in the heart of the city, only seeing their front door at 6.30 in the morning and 7 o’clock at night.  There is shopping and gardening and outings and schoolwork and the bins to put out and take in – a seemingly never-ending string of events that clog up people’s lives. TAKE THIS ONE DAY THEN HELPSTON.  BOOK IT FOR NEXT YEAR 16TH JULY 2016.
The reason is that this festival is a microcosm of village life in days gone by. You may miss the weekends but you CAN grab this day as a taster!  No driving?  NO. Get what you want from the village shop, eat sumptuously at the Village Hall, eat AND drink at the Bluebell, where you will meet up with other villagers and make your own history, or at the John Clare Trust Cottage.  What no TV? NO.  Listen to  LIVE  music - the ballads of the past – some tragic, some rousing, some to make you laugh.  No tablet?  NO.  Pick up a book from the booksellers, some of whom have volumes that take you back to your childhood and before – lovely books that feel inviting in your hand – books that smell of mustiness and leather and time – books with inscriptions to make you wonder – what were these people like whose inky names are inscribed with such care? (‘The Study Prize Presented for All Round Merit Awarded to Diana Hunter Presented by S.O.G.A. 1930’).
‘Seeds of Change’ was the theme of this year’s celebrations.  John Clare lived in a time of rapid change when he had witnessed the enclosure of what had been common land and worried that the coming railway would threaten his woods and pathways.  He hated change.  The devastation of the woodman’s axe tore at his soul.  No wonder he was unable to cope with the brief fame when it came, the moving of his family to Northborough (and moving house so high on the stress scale and John so sensitive and mentally fragile).  No wonder he hated the incarceration at the asylum and thank God and those who looked after Clare that they had the wisdom to let him out to walk in his later years.
We, too, live in rapidly changing times. Our cars and computers are out of date before we know it. We tend to feel swept along in some sort of race and we don’t know where the finishing line is.  No wonder mental illness is everywhere and doctors find themselves prescribing more and more anti-depressants to keep us balanced and able to keep our jobs and homes.  To cope with all this change, we need to take time out and rest, and truly a day spent with the ipad and smartphone left at home, staying IN the village for just one day, is a free gift.
Ronald Blythe spoke of how John Clare would be drinking in the Bluebell, often with his pocket full of flowers.  He talked of the poet, Edmund Blunden, who, in his book ‘Sketches in the Life of John Clare’, described Clare as ‘a poet of the purest kind,’ adding:’ It will be a long time before a voice speaks from a cottage window with this power.’  Blunden had read some of Clare’s work in the trenches.  He wrote: ‘Clare blew open cottage life of the period, telling what it was really like.’  Time spent walking led to some of the material used in his verse – ‘the way they got lost, made love, stole things.’
‘No one’, said Blythe, ‘has written about Clare with such love and understanding.’
He finished his talk encouraging those present, as they continue to meet in his birthplace once a year not to be critical, but to make an attempt to understand the man who was part archaeologist, part botanist, but was above all an acute observer of the natural world who recorded what he saw and felt with a passion, leaving a legacy in his work that everyone should take time to explore.
An innovation at this year’s festival was a trail and quiz devised by Society member, Anna Kinnaird of Annakinn’s Gallery. This proved popular, taking visitors from the church to Botolph’s Barn, the Exeter Arms, The Golden Drop (Eastwell Spring), The Nook, Buttercross, the Old Vicarage, the Bluebell, Savage’s Barn and of course, John Clare’s Cottage. Newcomers to the village must realise that when Clare lived there, this building was FIVE cottages for a  long time. The trail led on to Bachelor’s Hall at 17 Woodgate, where Clare and his friends famously sang, played the fiddle, told ghost stories and drank, to Woodhall Manor, the second oldest house in Helpston, Rice (Royce) Wood, Crossberry Way and Helpston House, finishing at the John Clare memorial.  Those who completed the course –(and the quiz!) must have been footsore and very well informed and we understand two people got all the questions right except one!
Following tradition, the Festival began with the  lunchtime Midsummer Cushions ceremony, when the children from John Clare Primary School brought their turves decorated with flowers to lay around the poet’s grave in the churchyard, Friday evening saw events at the Torpel field with the Langdyke Trust and a folk evening at the Bluebell with Pete Shaw.   On Saturday, Botolph’s Barn was the venue for the booksellers, where there was an additional display from the George Borrow Society and an exhibition of photographs by local photographer, Clair Wordsworth.  Dr Robert Heyes gave an informative and lively talk, while Jane Frost demonstrated weaving willow on the Green. Throughout the day there was folk and Morris dancing. Vanessa Glockling, local artist, opened up her beautiful garden, and Hilary Dunne showed off her artwork at her home.  On Saturday evening Chris Harrison, a guitarist and singer/songwriter entertained members and friends with ‘Songs from the Coalfields’.
Trade was brisk at the Bluebell and the two locally named beers, ‘Woodgate’ and ‘Golden Drop’ specially brewed by the Star Brewing Company, Market Deeping, were soon sold out. Landlady, Lesley Newitt said:
“I thought the whole day went very well, with many more visitors to the pub than last year.”  Customers were able to pick up unique beer mats designed for the occasion by Carry Ackroyd. 
Members were welcomed to the AGM by Chair, Linda Curry, who announced that she would be standing down and that Valerie Pedlar would be her replacement.  A slight decline in membership and new ways of encouraging younger members was discussed and a Facebook group is thriving. Several committee members, including Linda, Valerie, Ann Marshall and Treasurer Norman Lee had spent long hours dealing with some financial and membership problems and were applauded for their efforts. Fortunately these had been satisfactorily resolved, enabling everyone to go off and enjoy the day.
On Sunday Rev Dave Maylor led a service to give thanks for Clare’s life and celebrate the gift of Creation, a fitting conclusion to a wonderful weekend.

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