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Sunday, 30 June 2013
HUNGERFORD ARCADE: THE POEM TREE
What can I say about Stuart Miller-Osborne that you don't already know? How would you describe him? An author, poet a historian. He is, in fact, all of these and much more. He arrives at Hungerford Arcade and heads immediately to the book section and there you will see him studying each book that catches his eye with a passion for the written word etched on his face. We are very fortunate to have such a good friend as Stuart and look forward very much to reading his articles. Stuart wrote the following fascinating article before he and Caron went on holiday. Enjoy your reading.
The Poem Tree
As you get older, I believe that one thinks that they have a rounded view of the world. We have seen it all before and the contemporary mistakes are mistakes made by former generations. Nothing we see surprises us anymore. My daughter calls this the pipe and cardigan stage of life.
Well I extinguished my pipe ( I do not smoke, so why start now ?) and I have given my cardigan away. By accident I came across something really interesting in the Arcade when loafing through a book on British Art. It concerned an artist who thought I was reasonably familiar with namely Paul Nash (1889-1946).
I was aware that he had worked on a series of paintings of Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire (which is about a hour from Hungerford) as well as Avebury. Although I have visited the latter on many occasions, I have never visited Wittenham Clumps which is where I found in this book a comment about The Poem Tree. At first I thought it was something connected with Nash, but it was something totally different.
The detail in the book was sketchy so I decided to research this reference. What was the mystery of The Poem Tree? From that short piece in the book on British Art I had found something that I had been unaware of previously. A poem carved into a tree.
I have always loved poetry, it is the music of words. We are lucky to speak a beautiful language which like our famed weather is full of different moods. I particularly like dialect poetry and am lucky enough to own a book of poems by Edward Slow (1841-1925) the Wiltshire dialect poet and have studied William Barnes (1801-1886) who wrote poems in the Dorsetshire dialect. But I had never heard of Joseph Tubb (1805-1879) who created The Poem Tree.
If you tread through books of Victorian verse you will not find him. Apart from an obscure reference in the Paul Nash section of the art book I have never seen anything on him in all my reading, which makes this discovery all the more exciting.
The reason is quiet, Joseph Tubb was a maltster who lived in our neighbouring county just under two hundred years ago. Like many people of his generation he would have lived and died in obscurity but for one act. His carving of a twenty line poem into a beech tree on Castle Hill at Wittenham Clumps.
The story is a simple one, Tubb’s was heavily opposed to the enclosure of the commons and was known to have destroyed fences in protest (He served an enforced holiday in Oxford Gaol for his efforts). On a more tender note he decided carve a poem into the lucky tree and did so during the summers of 1844-45. He took a ladder and a tent and began the task. Initially I thought Tubb’s to be another of those delicious English eccentrics but on studying him I found him to be much closer to Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) and Alfred Williams (1877-1930) in thought and outlook. Like Jefferies love of Liddington Hill, Tubb’s had a deep love for the glorious Oxfordshire countryside. He might have written other poems ( I have never seen any, but do look hard in those dusty Victorian books) but this is the one he is remembered for. I have quoted this poem in its entirety below for you to enjoy:
As up the hill with labr'ing steps we tread Where the twin Clumps their sheltering branches spread The summit gain'd at ease reclining lay And all around the wide spread scene survey Point out each object and instructive tell The various changes that the land befell Where the low bank the country wide surrounds That ancient earthwork form'd old Mercia's bounds In misty distance see the barrow heave There lies forgotten lonely Cwichelm's grave. Around this hill the ruthless Danes intrenched And these fair plains with gory slaughter drench'd While at our feet where stands that stately tower In days gone by up rose the Roman power And yonder, there where Thames smooth waters glide In later days appeared monastic pride. Within that field where lies the grazing herd Huge walls were found, some coffins disinter'd Such is the course of time, the wreck which fate And awful doom award the earthly great.
Excited by this discovery I thought it would be fun to travel to Wittenham Clumps and seek out the tree. But sadly I was too late as during the 1980s the tree became ill and by the 1990s it had passed on to the great forest in the sky. The actual poem had become distorted due to the growth of the tree but due to the foresight of a Henry Osmaston in 1965 a rubbing was taken and the verse was recorded. This can be found on a stone nearby which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the original carving.
The Poem Tree sadly collapsed in 2012 and after being made safe is being left to return to the ground where it originated. I plan to visit the remains of the tree sometime in the near future, maybe next spring when the bluebells flourish or on a hot summers day when the lazy insects hold their flight in the air. Or it might just be a spur of the moment decision when I am nearby, time will tell.
Is this the only poem tree in existence ? I do not know but I suspect that deep in some our many woods and forests there are ancient rhymes carved into ancient trees. It is just a matter of finding them. The next time I am in the Savernake Forest I will keep a closer eye out . Maybe, just maybe I will find the verse of some forgotten poet forged into the bark of a tree. If so I will make a record of it for future generations.
This is the beauty of loafing in antique shops and arcades, you will never know where a finding will send you. Mine was an innocent browse into a run of the mill art book. I might have a found a reference to the tree in a book of poetry or the like. But this was the chosen opening and now pipe less and slightly chilly without my cardigan I have found another new area to study and my long suffering wife will have to accompany me on verse hunting expeditions in future.
If you require further information as to the poetry tree then there are a couple of excellent websites on the internet as well as some informative reports in the local Oxford press. Maybe I will meet you there as we study the remains of Tubb’s decaying poem. Stuart Miller-Osborne
The Poem Tree Wittenham Clumps
Nash Witt Clum
Nash Witt Clum
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