Well, well, well

Country Life Every Week - - My Week -

OUR lo­cal SSSI has been es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing this spring—we put it down to the dry weather, which has favoured wild­flow­ers over rank grass. Last week, I took Sarah Wain and Jim Buck­land, the gar­den­ers at West Dean in West Sus­sex, through the fields with an air of pro­pri­eto­rial sat­is­fac­tion. They reeled off flower names like Ratty an­nounc­ing the con­tents of his pic­nic ham per —‘ hawks bit plant ai nb lu ebel­lla dys­man­tle’—while I made a men­tal note of the progress of the el­der­flow­ers. This is go­ing to be a bumper year.

‘The Fleet was re­ally a tur­bid sewer it­self, full of dead dogs and cats and un­men­tion­able ef­flu­ent’

As we came down through the graz­ing and onto the meadow, sur­rounded by fading blue­bells and red­den­ing sor­rels, the an­gling of the sun­light threw out a mys­te­ri­ous shadow line across the ground. A very faint trace in the grasses showed we were not the first to come this way. It was the ghost of a shadow —where the stalks grew a lit­tle shorter, the ground be­low a frac­tion darker—which sug­gested the pass­ing of other foot­steps, per­haps a week ago or more.

Who­ever made that feath­er­weight track was lead­ing us, al­though I tried not to fol­low, along a ghost path down the bank, through flick­er­ing grasses that thud­ded and snapped against our boots. We could have cut any route we wanted to the five-bar gate in the dis­tance. It wasn’t as if I had to tun­nel through bri­ars or bracken or wind be­tween trees, yet, wher­ever I trod, the path pre­ceded us, not im­per­a­tive, but ir­re­sistibly know­ing.

A word­less wis­dom is im­parted across gen­er­a­tions by the pas­sage of feet—the route they pick across marsh and hill, the places they go, the peo­ple they bring in and the ideas they take away—and I find it cu­ri­ously mov­ing, that mute, un­writ­ten knowl­edge handed down in the land­scape, like an open book.

These lines en­dure for mil­len­nia, even in cities. Broad­way, which slices across the grid of New York City, is an old In­dian track. Lon­don is also full of an­cient ways. We went there to cel­e­brate the pub­li­ca­tion of a lit­tle guide­book to its en­chanted places, from grand holy sites like West­min­ster and St Paul’s to half-for­got­ten sanc­tu­ar­ies and holy wells such as the one un­der Aus­tralia House, which you can visit if you ask the Aussies nicely.

I was ex­pand­ing on, but not nec­es­sar­ily im­prov­ing, a guide writ­ten by the late John Michell, who had, sur­pris­ingly, over­looked the holy wells of Lon­don: the Clerk’s Well in Far­ring­don Road, for in­stance, or the one at Sadler’s Wells, once pop­u­lar as a Sun­day out­ing. It was re­dis­cov­ered in the 17th cen­tury by the en­ter­pris­ing Dick Sadler, who turned it into a fash­ion­able wa­ter­ing hole, like Bag­nigge Wells along the road.

The wells were sunk in an­cient times along the val­ley of the Fleet, the great­est of Lon­don’s lost rivers, now car­ried along Far­ring­don Street into the Thames in a gi­ant sewer. By the time it was en­closed, the Fleet was re­ally a tur­bid sewer it­self, full of dead dogs and cats and un­men­tion­able ef­flu­ent from the sham­bles at Smith­field Mar­ket.

Not that John was un­in­ter­ested in holy wells per se. A friend re­mem­bers him splash­ing his face with wa­ter from the one in Glas­ton­bury. ‘Is it good for your eyes?’ the friend asked. ‘Oh yes,’ John said, ‘al­though, down here, we pre­fer to call it vi­sion.’

It’s all about a way of see­ing, of course. Some en­tries in the guide­book have to do with the Tro­jan dy­nasty, founded by Bru­tus, who landed with his fol­low­ers at Totnes. A sarsen stone still to be seen on Fore Street is where Bru­tus stood to de­clare ‘Here I stand and here I rest and this place shall be called Totnes,’ which is in­dis­putably the case. In Shake­speare’s time, ev­ery school­boy knew about the Tro­jan kings, about Lear and his daugh­ters; Mol­mu­tius, who gave us wise laws; Beli­nus, who built Billings­gate; and King Lud, whose own city gate was at Ludgate Cir­cus, where the road crossed the Fleet.

Bru­tus him­self marched to the Thames, found­ing the city of New Troy, later known as Lon­don. He built a palace for him­self at Guild­hall. Two giants, Gog and Ma­gog, came with him and guard the place to this day in the form of wicker ef­fi­gies that process at the head of the cav­al­cade to cel­e­brate the Lord Mayor’s Show.

It was the his­to­rian Cam­den who first raised doubts about the his­toric­ity of the old dy­nasty of Bri­tish kings and, when he left them all out of his his­tory book, he ‘blew off sixty kings at a stroke’. Nowa­days, many peo­ple have never heard of them, in­clud­ing the highly lit­er­ate book­seller at Daunt, who is so in­trigued she has asked me to come and talk about the Tro­jans and sa­cred Lon­don on July 10. Come if you can.

Ja­son Good­win is the au­thor of the ‘Yashim’ de­tec­tive se­ries, which now has its own cook­book, Yashim Cooks Is­tan­bul (Arg­onaut). He lives in Dorset.

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