And Sheep Shall Safely Graze

2011 Jeff Lynch ... For Anne in Alsager



Mist hung about the mere, and also in my head. The woman leading the two dogs said, that is was a legal and a fine thing, to walk in the Blenheim Palace grounds. So I determined to circumnavigate the vast mere, which wound serpentinely in front of Marlborough’s present from good Queen Anne. I began to think, that I might have to lie down in the pastures of Blenheim heaven for a while with the sheep, after fifteen minutes of walking.  I did not seem to be making a dent in the circumference and I looked for a seat! Acres and acres of park, sporadically dotted with shorn sheep met the eye. Like rolling downs, the pastures ran down to meet the reeded sedges of this lake. Some of the rabbits were half tame, so as to only pretend to run for cover as I approached them. Many swans were on the great sheet of water ‘and sheep shall safely graze’.

I counted four boats, with fishermen seemingly suspended between water and air upon the mist. I also thought that there must more of them, for I could not see around the corners of the crooked mere. Who could have painted this early morning pastoral picture then? Whose camera could freeze it in smoky black and white? Whose camera could box it up in smoky black and white and then tack it onto some pub’s wall, I wondered. It seemed perhaps that the British painter Ivon Hitchens might have swirled these colours on with broad and large sweeps. Leonardo would have loved the misty parts and included his many jaggy crags to suit. Oh so easy it was for him, or was it? And lastly,’ and sheep shall safely graze.’ Was I singing or humming that tune in my mind, or out aloud I wonder? Of course I remembered everything! It was from my early Beaufort days when I joined the church choir, in that wooden Methodist Church in that little town’s main street. I remember everything, well almost anyway.

I joined the choir to chase a young woman. Well chase, is perhaps not the right or even the apt word to use. I was lonely, she sang well, and in fact she loved to sing and dance, and to play tennis too, with or without me. But usually it was with me. I could pretend to sing, and so I did. Nobody attending that choir was fooled for a moment of course, but I was just doing what came naturally wasn’t I? And then when the young woman left the town, I followed another young woman into the choir, and of course I still remember everything. Methodism and madness in my method, going to choir practice in that small, small town. In that tiny church.

Images now arise of that soft man with soft eye as he looks down on his flock. Shepherd guarding his trusting flock. Sometimes he carries a crook which seems to be made of iron. Later on he appears with a lantern! Same thing I know, it is to guide you, but not I. No not I, it is for somebody else who looks to him. Perhaps someone who calls him wonderful! Counselor! Or the prince of peace!

A fine musician that German was too! Mr Handel was his name and he came finally, to make his home in England. He wrote the oratorio that I try unsuccessfully to hum or sing. ‘And sheep shall safely graze,’ is but one line from that work! In fact and truth, it’s from the very same era as the Baroque architect of this sweeping design here before me at Woodstock. It is called Blenheim Palace, after a battle field in Europe and Winston Churchill was born here. If you want to see the battlefield, go to Hochstadt and ask to see the Blindheim battlefield. I have no clue at all, as to what you may find there. Vanbrugh is his name, the architect I mean. He and Capability  Brown are responsible for this design of buildings and gardens. Coming back to that Jesus lord saviour for one moment if you can spare the time. Alternatively you know, you can find that man, that soft man, in another time, and in another mosaic moment, shown as a cruel, and hard eyed Pantocrator. He stares down at us so threateningly. He bolts us to the ground with his cruel and foreboding look. Bow down you bastards he seems to say, for there is no escape from my vision, he seems to say again. You think I am a shepherd? You must be fucking joking; I destroy the likes of you, every morning before breakfast.

The nation’s greatest warrior, the most famous man in Britain is given $240,000, towards building his house on a hill, by a grateful queen of the land. This is a great deal of money, and he gets a great deal of building for it! The palace is designed by no other than Anthony Vanbrugh. It is a fine and tasteful structure. Its position facing directly into the wide, handsomely arched bridge is stunning. And the sense of space and airiness on its cresting perch above the winding lake is a breathtaking work of art. His name is John, and he is the most famous man in all of Britain. He is better known as the Duke of Marlborough, a general of renown! He is married to Sarah, and when he is dead, she builds a gateway to his glory. Words on this gate read in part, ‘built by the order of Sarah, his beloved wife’. The gateway leads to the village of Woodstock, just nine miles from Oxford. I am a visitor in this town.

The palace itself took 17 years to complete, after it was started in the year 1705. That was but one year after the battle was fought, in the German area of Blindheim near Hochstadt. Almost everybody in Britain knows that Winston Spencer Churchill was undoubtedly the Duke’s most famous relation, albeit in another, and a far more terrible age. His grandmother was the duchess of this demesne, and his American mum gave birth to him in this palace, a little before the due time. They made shift, and he was delivered by the local doctor. Ever since that day, and for the rest of his tumultuous life, he continued to shock and surprise. Like his ancestor, the redheaded and sometimes depressive, Prime Minister of England, is best remembered as a  leader in times of dire battle. The old Tory pisspot, who had a rubber stamp made saying ‘action this day’, and often used it, would not baulk or shy when Hitler’s Luftwaffe were busy leveling much of London town. He is, to this very day, a legend across the world. Not so the most famous man in Britain in his own times, the Duke of Marlborough! Few people remember to think of the man at the core of the battle at Blenheim now. Another and earlier British warrior is remembered here as well. Over one end of the lake furthest from the palace can be read the sign on a hotel, which abuts a road just outside these glorious grounds. It says. ‘The Black Prince.’ I hark back to the formidable warrior knights, mounted on their vastly expensive even ruinously expensive destriers, which are trained to instinctively turn into the fray of the battle, with the sword arm of their riders at the correct sword hand  side of  the warrior’s foe. I see the mounted and crested Black Prince raising his sword arm upwards, and God help us, each and everyone of us in that battle.

The following day, a loud and steamy thunderstorm rolls over the village of Woodstock. I stare through a blanket of rain, to note that every swan is off water. Smart birds these. They not to be easily struck by lightning. No sign of rabbits either. They are burrowed down this damp and noisy morning. The great mere shows a few windshear marks on its beaten surface, amidst this formidable grey wall of rain. No fisherman can be seen at all! Only the mutable and silent grazers dot the greygreen landscape now. Always they graze these pastures safely, in rain, frost or roasty sun. If at 6.30 am in July, you stand with your back to the sun, you will see spread before you a bowl. It is an undulating one, but a bowl all the same. On our left hand at the ridges top stands the great house, and in the centre, and arcing away in a serpentine series of sweeps is the mere, dotted as usual with birds. On our right hand is the sedgy entries of the waters which sufficiently feed the lake. The Black Prince Hotel stands behind the park walls there too. Looking directly across to the west and behind the Vanbrugh bridge, one can see the wilder wooded rises. These woods no doubt, contain those animals which I do not see by day. And like accounts in ‘The Wind In The Willows’, it is possibly best left to the creatures who call it home, by day and night.

The third time that I walked into the park, it was a clear and larky day. Swifts too, arced the lower skies and the rabbits were out in force once more. The larger ones showed little fear, but the smaller ones rabbity hopped to door shelter. This time I noted the great length of the two piers over the waters. Herons kept sentinel on these, and great mounds of grass were piled into nests. Horse chestnut trees are bunched together in groups of eights or nines at a time. They formed little mountains, being as an almost homogenous, dark and leafy pile as a result. A few of these giant horsechestnuts were dying, showing the fallen and greying old chestnut warriors on their knees. A flotilla of wild ducks were anchored in the lee of an island, in the lake. And when they did move off, they looked like a squadron moving in a strict and commanded formation. Evenly spaced, they silently traversed the mere in serial rank and order. Looking most R.N. indeed. The parents of a family of wild geese regarded me most suspicious, but they did allow me to pass their feeding offspring. The wide Vanbrugh Bridge at the heart of this watery landscape is deceptively basic. Designed as part of the whole complex design, it leads away directly from the Palace front, to cross the great mere with a severe, chunky but well proportioned feel. Trails of jets were all over my straw head that morning, and England O England was in its early morning glory right now.

In case you are starting to think that all this is too good to be true, you are right. It is! Step into that other world inside the 11th Duke’s house, and you will see why. Repulsive examples of riches abound all around you, unwarranted, and unfettered in its gory detail. Winston’s own generation marvelously supervised the collapse of British might and power, leaving in this instance, the pompy bits alone, for the uneducated to gawp at. They continue to do so today, and long may they continue to be satisfied, for if they come to think of other things, then ruin and revolution will swiftly follow here. First of all, the sad and rather lonely boy, that was Winston, can be noted writing to Papa from his hard nurseries. Then come more tearful missals from the harder and even lonelier boarding schools. Finally, Winston needs cash to support his servants and Polo horses, during his army posting in India. But his dear and not so old Papa is dying of syphilis and is distracted in office. His mother seems no better than an English aristocrat might be too, even though she was not English. She is beautiful, so dark and fascinating, but how much attention is the lady paying to her boys Jack and Winston? Like myself, Winston will suffer from depression on and off, for most of his natural. There are the black dog signs clearly enough, in his early childhood writings here. The beautiful American Lady, who was Winston’s mum, has many lovers. Lovers come and go, as do whores in the morning, but English Lords need nurturing as well as does any peasant boy or girl, to alleviate the merciless Eton system. Thus, the Eton system is one of the many trapdoors through which Winston’s generation will tumble. The other factors are the needful but late grabs at power, and also the attractions of Fascism. These matters will haunt the distracted aristocrats in the years to come, and unfortunately all of us later as well, when the terrible wars arrive all too soon.

But we do not really need to go inside the building of the fallen mighty, for the politics of an Empire’s dying throes, are always likely to be very ugly indeed. Leave close the Palace doors then. And so as we walk merely feel the post storm winds of July on our face. It can do us no harm if we walk slowly here, in these wide and pleasant lands. And who knows, it may just do us some good.

Jeff Lynch, for Anne……. At Woodstock, Oxfordshire, 9th July, 2006 


 

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