Isn't it just the best thing when you discover that somebody else likes to go 'off-roading' too?
High streets, main roads and squares are fine, sucking in shopper and tourist alike for bread and stamps and photographs. But not when there are alleys, allées, shuts, passages, snickets, ginnels, jiggers, green lanes and back ways to be explored that is......A narrow space between two buildings beckons, a lane winds between overhanging hedges, where does it lead? What's over that wall? Smile at the old fellas with rakes and spades, stroke cats and whistle at blackbirds.... to take these twists and turns is to become involved in the world about you. We should get off-road more often.
So yesterday to Clun, an ancient south Shropshire town which still carries with it some of the old ways. You might call it sleepy. I'd call it half-awake but there's nothing wrong with that. It's a handsome small town built of stone and brick. A river runs through it, crossed by a pack horse bridge under which a motley flock of ducks dabble. There's a Spar and a gifty/craft shop, some pubs and a cafe or two. Matt Fothergill has a leather shop here - we have only once found it open so my handbag cravings must usually go unsatisfied. Small cottages jostle with grander buildings; the medieval street pattern still survives I believe. The ruins of the castle built in the 13th century rise over the town with a commanding view up and down the valley, reminding us of less peaceful times.
I went with a fellow blogger, Snailbeachshepherdess and her partner in crime, C, and together, in the autumn sunshine we explored some of Clun's by-ways, paths and tracks.
Stepping off the main street, through a gateway, we entered both the grounds of Trinity Hospital and another world. A small garden, surrounded on three sides by low buildings of soft grey stone, showed a little autumn colour behind close clipped box hedging; pansies and the like. This little group of almshouses and their chapel were built originally to house 12 old men of good character from the parish of Clun. These days the rules have relaxed a little so couples may now be accommodated too. The little chapel, reached by arched cloisters is simple and tranquil. Box pews of polished oak, with knobs and hinges of gleaming brass work, will seat two persons. Good characters? I don't know. The almshouses themselves are small in scale. I believe that some of them retain their original 'miniature' four poster beds. Maybe comfort was not an issue. It was certainly the proverbial oasis of calm, the only sounds being birdsong and far distant traffic noise.
Outside the gates again to a Clun which is marginally more frantic. A small cat washes its back leg and a car creeps past. We amble here and there, down lanes and alleys, peeking over hedges and behind walls, through the windows of empty houses. My head holds a hotchpotch of images: the swirling blue roses of stained old wallpaper, geese, quince, glasses and bottles, plough and churn, green men. Cabbages.
We took the back way to the castle 'twixt back gardens and sports field, and climbed the motte to stand amongst the stone work of the ruined tower where the wind rushed through, to look down over the town. Beneath us the landscape was a neat patchwork of green, russet and brown, in the distance a tractor ploughed a field, below us sheep grazed. A buzzard probably mewed.
Finally, via the curiously named Buffalo Lane, across the bridge and up the hill to St George's Church. A big old place dressed in harvest festival finery - the displays dwarfed somewhat by the building's scale. Some careful restoration has taken place but the Norman origins are there to see in massive pillars in the nave. We wander through the graveyard where stones stand like old teeth, propped and crooked, their inscriptions melting in wind and rain. (Read them while you can.) Ahead of us are the graves of playwright John Osbourne and his wife Helen. Their memorials are matching slabs of slate, simply and elegantly incised.
Behind these two stones - but not in their shadow - is a memorial to a young girl; a monolith of slate with the legend 'Bless her spirit'. On the reverse a moon-gazing hound sits under gilded stars, captured in eternal contemplation of the night sky. Too young. Too young. Even I, who never knew her, feel the pain of her loss and the vastforeveremptiness of without her.
My visit to Clun might have ended there and with the drive home had I not on my return gone down a few more untrodden tracks, albeit metaphorical ones.
I wandered off in pursuit of the letter-cutter's art and my search lead me to the work of the late David Kindersley and that of the pupil who became his wife, Lida Cordoza. Would that I were eloquent enough to describe their skillful transformation of the symbols that are letters into lasting poetry that delights both eye and ear. I recall my love for letter forms....I have an idea for a sun dial.........
Secondly, having looked unsuccessfully for 'The Hurst' earlier in the day, I 'googled'. We will all be pleased to know that it was the home of John Osbourne in the years preceding his death and is now one of the four Arvon 'writing houses' - and it's just down the road, in Clun. I feel better for knowing that.