While the tower is closed in the winter, I plan to make visits to other historic sites.
Little Gidding has been on my “list” since 2014, and at last I’ve managed to get there. It’s not far. About 15 miles at most, but in the depths of countryside, and accessed by very minor roads. It’s not on the way to anywhere, and you have to be really motivated.
More about the history of the chapel, and the Ferrar family here.
The place has a definite atmosphere, partly because of its extreme remoteness, partly because it has been a place of devotion and prayer for nearly 400 years.
Since the mid-twentieth century, if it is known at all by the average person, it will be because of the poem “Little Gidding”, by T.S.Eliot. This is the last of the sequence “Four Quartets”. This is a deeply difficult poem, by a one of the most cerebral poets of the twentieth century.
Forty five years ago, when I was a student, allegedly studying English Literature at university, (in reality spending most of my time consuming tea and cake and riding my bicycle about the place), I avoided the Four Quartets as being impossibly dry and boring. It didn’t help that one of them was actually called “The Dry Salvages”. We struggled through “The Waste Land”, dutifully taking notes as to what it was all about, and lighted thankfully on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as it seemed jollier in tone. “”I grow old … I grow old ….. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled …”
I don’t think I ever got as far as the Four Quartets, which are near the back of “The Collected Poems”. At any rate, there are no pencilled notes in the pages of my copy.
Of course, after my return from the chapel, I opened my “Collected Poems of T.S Eliot”, and was surprised.
Lines which, in my distant youth, never having been near the place, would have meant nothing at all, now had some significance, particularly as I visited during the “midwinter spring” – an extraordinarily warm and pleasant February day.
Here is a picture of the hedgerow,
“blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden than that of summer, neither budding nor fading”
It’s hawthorn blossom, of course, and later in the spring, we will get the hugely weightier cherry blossom:
“If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges white again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness …”
These lines also make sense now, which would have been gobbledegook before:
The road is very rough, and literally the end of the road, a long country track miles from the village of Great Gidding. The pig-sty is no longer there, but the farm-house to which it would have belonged is, and now a place of retreat for religious study. The tomb is right in front of the door, it’s at the bottom right of my photo below. And the facade, well, I wouldn’t call it dull, but I suppose some might see it as such.
“If you came at night like a broken king,” again a mystery to a callow 19-year-old, is a reference to the visit of King Charles I, after his defeat at the Battle of Naseby in Northamptonshire. (Ten hours away on foot, maybe 3-4 on a fast horse).
The arms of King Charles I, in a 19th century stained glass window inside the chapel, commemorate its use as a place of refuge for the defeated King.
For such a tiny, remote place, the history and legend, the atmosphere and significance, are huge. I’m so glad I made my visit at last.