Monday, April 21, 2014

The Country of My Heart

My mother Valerie (left) and her sisters Mollie (center) and Pauline (right) 
picking wildflowers in Beeston, Nottingham

I may have painted an unfairly bleak picture of Nottingham in my last post. Even in its most industrial, smoggy years, it was always a city set in the midst of bucolic countryside. From their house in Beeston, my mother and her sisters used to walk across a golf course (which is still there) and the gravel pits (now the Attenborough Nature Reserve) to the fields that lined the banks of the River Trent. That’s where the picture above was taken on a sunny summer’s day in around 1943.

Even in that most industrial of novels, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Arthur Seaton takes his married lover Brenda “on long walks to Strelley Woods and Cossal Fields” and goes fishing on the banks of the Nottingham canal in Bramcote Hills.

“He cast out his line over the narrow sleeve of still water, with elderberry leaves bending across from the opposite bank and white cloud-edges moving across green branches. It was a quiet and passionless place to be, where few people passed, hemmed in by steep bush-covered banks of a cutting against which, by the towpath, lay his bicycle. There was no sign of the city. It lay four miles over the hills, yet distant enough when measured by silence and peace as he sat with a cigarette between his fingers watching the float near the far bank, concentric rings of water that snapped around it, and water-beetles skating gracefully like tiny rowing boats between broad-leaved water lilies.”

 And after a wild night on the town, Arthur and his brother Fred head home, talking about escaping to the countryside at the weekend.

“The maze of streets sleeping between tobacco factory and bicycle factory drew them into the enormous spread of its suburban bosom and embraced them in sympathetic darkness. Beyond the empires of new red-bricked  houses lay fields and woods that rolled on to the Erewash valley and the hills of Derbyshire, and as they entered the house they were talking about the pleasure of cycling to Matlock on the first fine Sunday in spring.”

The beauty of this swathe of countryside on the west side of Nottingham was fully explored in the work of D.H. Lawrence. Though he was born and raised in Eastwood, a coal mining town, he wrote as much about the surrounding farmland full of stooks of corn and gently nodding plough horses.  He called it “the country of my heart.”

In his essay Nottingham and the Mining County (1929), he wrote, “I was born nearly forty-four year ago, in Eastwood, a mining village of some three thousand souls about eight miles from Nottingham, and one mile from the small stream, the Erewash, which divides Nottinghamshire from Derbyshire. It is hilly country, looking west to Crich and towards Matlock, sixteen miles away and east and northeast towards Mansfield and the Sherwood Forest district. To me it seemed, and still seems an extremely beautiful countryside, just between the red sandstone and oak trees of Nottingham and the cold limestone, the ash trees, the stone fences of Derbyshire.” 

The view from Lawrence’s bedroom window in Eastwood

It was in this landscape that he set many of his novels, including The White Peacock, Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, and Women in Love. In The Rainbow, he wrote about the Brangwens who “had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, in the meadows where the Erewash twisted sluggishly through alder trees, separating Derbyshire from Nottinghamshire.  Two miles away, a church tower stood on a hill, the houses of the little country town climbing assiduously up to it. Whenever one of the Brangwens lifted his head from his work, he saw the church tower at Ilkeston in the empty sky." 

And in Sons and Lovers, the young hero Paul Morel takes the train into Nottingham every day to work as a clerk in a surgical appliance factory in a dark, narrow street leading to the Castle. But on his half-day, he takes a walk with his mother from their home near the colliery to Willey Farm:

“The mother and son went through the wheat and oats, over a little bridge into a wild meadow. Peewits, with their white breasts glistening, wheeled and screamed about them. The lake was still and blue. High overhead a heron floated. Opposite, the wood heaped on the hill, green and still… They found a little gate, and soon were in a broad green alley of the wood, with a new thicket of fir and pine on one hand, an old oak glade dipping down on the other. And among the oaks the bluebells stood in pools of azure, under the green hazels, upon a pale fawn floor of oak-leaves. He found flowers for her.”  
Just as thirty years later, three young girls would pick wildflowers for their own mother in another unspoiled meadow near Nottingham.  

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