I remember Adlestrop: it was a cold, rainy day and I was huddled over my A-level English literature anthology. It was the last lesson of the week and mutual resentment flowed between tired teachers and bored pupils. I sat unresponsive in the corner observing. It wasn’t a class favourite. Its wistful elegance didn’t sit well on a class raised on Harry Potter and thinking of the weekend, but I doubt even Prufrock would’ve. I didn’t click with it at first but it squirreled itself away in my mind to blossom later but I forget exactly when. My memory is not that crisp. I can remember why though. The moment it crystallises – and crystalline is what it is – is one every birder should recognise. The moment when birds suddenly enter in the most unexpected of ways. Thomas’s Blackbird arrives at an unexpected stop on a train journey just prior to the outbreak of world war one: the war that would take his life in the same year as he wrote the poem.
It was only three years ago I first read Adlestrop. It seems so long ago.
It was on an off chance we were passing. The parents were enjoying Moreton-in-Marsh (how it wishes it was Moreton-upon-Marsh!) with its cider coloured stone built boutique shops. I’d scowled along the high street, sleep deprived and coffee wired, rubbing along the grain of its charms. I pulled out the road map, examined the veins of England, and noticed a little word only a few miles from Moreton: Adlestrop.
Twenty minutes later we arrived at the village hall car park.
Chocolate box villages flaunt their prettiness. Strict standards must be upheld, but people must be there to uphold them, and see them being upheld. Adlestrop is not a chocolate box. It doesn’t have a tearoom for a start – though the post office does cake on weekends – it doesn’t seem to have people there approving of its prettiness. It’s rarified in the best possible way. An aerial, and a red Toyota parked outside one of the houses was the sole reminder of modernity, whilst House Sparrows chattered in the riotously floral front gardens, Swallows swooped around eaves and Starlings chattered from thatched roofs of stone cottages. It’s not Arcadia, yet it’s hard to see how it could be improved upon.
And all the while I’m not sure I’m really convinced on literary pilgrimages. I’m aware that’s a strange sentence to write as I lie on a bed in a Stratford-upon-Avon B&B (the only one without a Shakespeare influenced name though): all we should need is the text. Place, though, is the shadow that we can’t shake off: it feels like a proper introduction at last to Adlestrop the poem to see Adlestrop the place; like putting a face to a name. It is satisfactory. The places of Shakespeare are different though: perverted over time, Tudor buildings holding high street chains only heightens the distance, tacky attractions leave nothing to the imagination and give nothing to the intellect. Shakespeare drew humanity with his imagination, and ‘every single character in Shakespear, is as much an individual, as those in life itself’ as Alexander Pope declared. There’s nothing much that reality can add to his fictions. Instead, I guess, its instructive that England’s abiding genius came not from London, but from a small town slightly too close to Birmingham.
‘My library was dukedom large enough’ (The Tempest).