Well, well, well
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.