Category Archives: Little Gidding
Last weekend witnessed the 8th annual TS Eliot Festival in the remote and beautiful grounds of Little Gidding. Eliot’s visit in 1936 may have been brief, but it had left a deep impression. So much so that, in his compilation of his Four Quartets in the early 1940s, he dedicated one to Little Gidding, the reading of which takes place every year within a few metres of Ferrar House, the chapel, the dull facade and tombstone (of Nicholas Ferrar), and even the pigsties that are mentioned in the poem.
Little Gidding is a tiny hamlet, with a small cluster of cottages and, for two days each year, people come from around the world to pay homage to his memory, listen to readings of his poetry, be instructed by thoughtful insights from learned academics, and even to be treated to songs and music, especially at the choral Evensong that concludes the weekend.
This year, we were blessed with the most glorious weather, enough to seduce anyone into becoming one of Eliot’s ardent fans. But when the weather is fine and the sun is shining, it is just a little more difficult to conjure up that image of the “mid-winter spring” with its “transitory blossom of snow” that dominates the first few lines of his Fourth Quartet.
It is startling to think that in a remote rural corner of old Huntingdonshire, at the end of a single-track lane, you will find a concentration of like-minded enthusiasts, eminent thinkers and writers, poets of renown and performance readers…..all of whom come together because of their passion for the writings of one man: Thomas Stearns Eliot.
The programme ranged from performance readings of poems to serious, in-depth lectures; from an update on the publication of Eliot’s writings to members of the
audience reading out their own favourite Eliot poems; from a Beethoven concert in Steeple Gidding church to choral Evensong in St John’s; from shared reminiscences over a glass of wine to the hearing of yet another fine reading of Eliot’s Fourth Quartet “Little Gidding”. All of this took place at the heart of the tiny community known as Little Gidding, forever linked to the memory of T.S.Eliot who visited the place in 1936.
Amongst the eminent speakers and poets were: Richard Harries (former Bishop of Oxford), Hugh Black Hawkins (Chair of the T.S.Eliot Society), Paul Muldoon and Bernard O’Donoghue (both eminent poets) and Sandeep Parmar (a visiting fellow at Clare College). More than 100 attended on each of the two days accompanied, as usual, by members of the T.S.Eliot Summer School taking place in London. Now in its seventh annual edition, the festival looks set to be around for a few years to come. Bookmark it for next year!
The Friends of Little Gidding were privileged to be invited, on Trinity Sunday, to Clare College Chapel in Cambridge, to celebrate the memory of the founder of the Little Gidding Community, Nicholas Ferrar. It was fascinating to discover how important an alumnus he had been. Not only had this stained glassed window been installed in the Chapel in his honour, but his portrait also hangs prominently in the Senior Fellows’ Common Room.
The Mass setting was by Franz Schubert, sung by the College Choir and accompanied by the Keats Quartet. It was a stunning performance in an acoustic setting that simply amplified the beauty of the music. And afterwards, we enjoyed the community atmosphere of dining in the College Refectory.
To journey, and to be transformed by the journey, is to be a pilgrim (Mark Nepo).
A pilgrimage is not a vacation; it is a transformational journey during which significant change takes place……on return from the journey, life is seen with different eyes. Nothing will ever quite be the same (Macrina Wiederkehr).
A 5 mile walk across Cambridgeshire countryside, with pauses for readings and reflections, in the company of a crowd of people from many walks of life (and some from other countries),
may not constitute a ‘real pilgrimage’ for some, and may not bring about transformational change for others, but the important question to answer is: was it just a walk?
The answer, of course, is to be found in the motives of each person
doing the journey, and the individual benefits that each derives. There are no defining elements (distance, duration, difficulty) that convert a walk into a pilgrimage, other than the fact that it is ‘human-powered’ and it is not merely recreational. This particular ‘walk’ was guided by the verse and hymnody of George Herbert (1593-1633), the inspirational lifestyle of the founder of the Little Gidding Community, Nicholas Ferrar (1592-1637) and the latter-day reflections of the poet Stuart Henson…..all of which provided meaningful punctuation to our meanderings through the yellow-blanketed countryside, fragrant with the scent of hawthorn fighting for recognition midst the pungent flowering of oil-seed rape.
There is a corner of old Huntingdonshire “when you leave the rough road and turn behind the pigsty, to the dull façade and the tombstone”, encapsulated in T.S.Eliot’s poem Little Gidding. It is a corner of quiet meditation and relaxation, where once there was a community, back in the early 17th century, founded by Nicholas Ferrar.
The spirit of that community lives on amongst a small band of enthusiasts today, and the upcoming T.S.Eliot Festival (July 7-8th) allows Ferrar House to throw open its doors and welcome a broad spectrum of visitors who come, not only in search of a deeper understanding of Eliot, but also a deeper understanding of one of the places that inspired him.
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At a recent gathering at Little Gidding, we celebrated the memory of Nicholas Ferrar the man who, along with several members of his own family, established a Christian community at this remote spot in west Cambridgeshire. Amongst the many reflections and readings, I offered a highly speculative view of a possible chance encounter in the early 17th century. The story goes as follows:
During Tudor times, my home village of Kimbolton was dominated by the Wingfields, a family who had found favour with Henry VIII and were granted the estates of Kimbolton Castle and its surrounds. One of the Wingfield descendants, Edward María Wingfield, inherited the dissolved properties and estate of Stonely Priory nearby, and went on to distinguish himself by being elected as the first President of the Council of Jamestown, the first successful British colonial settlement in the US. Not only that, but he was also the only shareholder (and principal financial backer) of the newly founded London Virginia Company to accompany
the colonists on their venture. The said company suffered major reversals in its short history, and many who had invested heavily in its fortunes paid a heavy price for their speculation. One such family was the Ferrar family. It is well documented that Nicholas Ferrar, politician and businessman, was so affected by the declining fortune of his family, that he gave up his life in London and retreated to the relative calm of the Cambridgeshire countryside, where he established a quietly retiring Christian community far removed from the hustle and bustle of the capital.
My speculation was this: had Nicholas Ferrar and Edward María Wingfield ever met each other? Were they even known to each other? If not, were they to have met, I wonder what they might have said to each other?
I reckon there is a ‘talking heads’ dialogue somewhere in this.
Much of T.S.Eliot’s poetry remains a mystery to me. I can’t always plumb the depths of its meaning, but just occasionally it speaks to me, and gives me some memorable lines to ponder further. At the 6th Annual T.S.Eliot Festival at Little Gidding last weekend,
in the wake of splendid readings of the Waste Land and the Little Gidding Quartet (with Simon Armitage as one of the readers), I found re-visiting familiar verses in a ‘viva voce’ environment helped to tease out more of the subtleties of meaning. Whenever I complete a cycle-pilgrimage, I dig out my volume of Eliot to re-read those immortal lines at the end
of the Little Gidding Quartet that remind me that “what we call the beginning is often the end……….and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time”.
However, a chance remark by one of the speakers had me leafing to the closing lines of the East Coker Quartet, where I found further subtly defined thoughts to justify my existence on this earth. I could have expressed these same thoughts in some distressingly
muddled way, but not with the ease and directness of Eliot: “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older, the world becomes stranger…………………Old men ought to be explorers, here or there does not matter. We must be still and still moving into another intensity……….”
Little Gidding was a place that Eliot only visited once, but it left such a deep impression on him that he was inspired to write lines such as:
“If you came this way, taking the route you would be likely to take, from the place you would be likely to come from………… you would find the hedges white again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness……………..there are other places which also are the world’s end……….but this is the nearest, in place and time, now and in England”.
I have been informally associated with Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire for more than 20 years, but recently I joined the Friends of Little Gidding Society and have become more active in their events and celebrations. So for the second year running, I cycled down to Westminster Abbey in London to join the Society in its formal celebration of the memory of Nicholas Ferrar, founder of
the original Little Gidding Community in 1626. Trinity Sunday is the anniversary of his ordination as a deacon by Archbishop Laud in the Abbey, so this has become the opportunity for a gathering of Friends at the Abbey to celebrate the life of Nicholas Ferrar. This service of commemoration is then followed by a drinks reception, which last year took place in one of the private courtyards of the Abbey, but this year in the magnificent Jerusalem Room (famously connected with the death of Henry IV and the preparation of the King James Bible).
Far from being a routine Sunday Evening Service, the gathering was blessed with the presence and participation of several descendants of the Ferrar family, along with a reading of T.S.Eliot’s Little Gidding Quartet by Ruth Padel, and with the baritone soloist
Julian Empett singing verses written by George Herbert, a close friend of Nicholas Ferrar. That a remote little corner of Huntingdonshire should feature prominently in the awe-inspiring environment of Westminster Abbey is testimony to the importance of Nicholas Ferrar and the tradition he left behind him.
The journey: Kimbolton – Westminster Abbey- Kimbolton (163 miles/262 kms)
The thought of cycling to, and then cycling through, London can be a huge deterrent for many cyclists. For me, however, the prospect of 55 miles of winding country lanes to the outskirts of
the capital, then the headlong rush into the mêlée of city traffic, gives me an adrenalin rush. Something happens to me in the urban setting that brings on a personality change. Once I get to Barnet in north London, I’m off the bike and behind a fence donning my ‘superman urban guerilla lycra’ which has printed on the back “Dare to cut me up and you’re dead meat!”. Then off to do battle with all and sundry as I head for the Thames. The only ‘dicing with death’ on the country lanes where I live is with errant squirrels and occasional potholes. The city presents a whole new profile of exciting challenges. Amongst all the minor incidents of the next two days, the only person to ‘cut me up’ was, in fact, my own brother………….and he was riding a bike too! Chris has been an ‘urban cyclist’ for more than 25 years, and he has learned the art of ‘weaving’ through traffic to perfection. The only way to stay safe on two wheels in the city is 1) go with the flow and speed of the traffic and 2) boldly take command of your own space on the road. London drivers will read you more easily and respect you for it.
Of course, turning up at Westminster Abbey wearing yellow lycra means you won’t go unnoticed! Having said that, I
never detected a raised eyebrow from anyone at the service, and I was welcomed with friendly inquisitiveness by all I met. Maybe I am the first person in history to attend a drinks reception in the Jerusalem Room of Westminster Abbey wearing bright yellow lycra! I certainly made an interesting contrast standing next to the red cassock of the baritone soloist! As we enjoyed a drink in the Jerusalem Room, the Sub-Dean entertained us with a bit of embellished history concerning the death of Henry IV, who had believed that his destiny was to die in Jerusalem. As he lay by the fire, he briefly recovered consciousness and asked where he was, and was told he was ‘in Jerusalem’. In the meantime (according to Shakespeare) his son, Prince Hal, was trying on the crown to see if it would fit.
The return journey the following day was delayed by my quest to conduct a bit of unfinished business left from my cycle pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela a few weeks previously. When I entered the Cathedral of Santiago, I was deeply disappointed to find that the magnificent Portico de la Gloria(Gateway to Glory) as you enter the building was completely covered with scaffolding and dust-sheets, and undergoing
extensive restoration. The only exposed part was the Tree of Jesse, the pillar that millions of pilgrims throughout the centuries have touched on their way into the Cathedral. The temporary replacement for the missing visual experience was the offer of a high-tech virtual tour down in the crypt where, on huge screens and with personal audio systems, we were taken on a detailed tour of the each aspect of this astonishing work of art.
However, from the accompanying literature, I discovered that back home, in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I would find a perfect cast copy (made in 1866) of the whole Portico, accurate even down to the section of the Tree of Jesse worn away by the millions of hands that have touched it down the ages. In conversation with a Spanish couple over breakfast that morning, I told them I had come all the way back to London from Santiago de Compostela just to see the Portico de la Gloria……….and I left them looking somewhat puzzled and bemused!
“If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in May time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull façade
And the tombstone.”
T.S.Eliot “Little Gidding”
………..and on a bright Spring morning in April I went that way, along blossom-laden lanes and verges speckled with primroses and wild narcissi, with the scent of blackthorn weighing heavily on the wind, vying with the perfumed immaturity of rapeseed spreading its familiar yellow carpet across the landscape. Cycling the 12 miles to Little Gidding was an experience so eloquently described by Eliot, to a place that quietly guards its history, largely undiscovered by even those who live in surrounding communities. I tucked my bike inside the former pig-sty and made my way ‘to the dull façade’ of the church, ‘and the tombstone’ of Nicholas Ferrar, and joined the monthly gathering for a service of communion and convivial lunch.
Whenever I visit Little Gidding, I gain a deeper sense of its past, and understand a little more of its importance
and relevance today. It is a quiet place of recollection ‘at the end of the journey’, and ‘if you came as a broken king’ (as Charles I did after defeat in the Battle of Naseby during the Civil War) you would be certain to find a warm welcome in the persons of Paul & Wendy Skirrow, the wardens of Ferrar House. When I came this way for the first time more than 25 years ago, as Eliot described, ‘I came by day not knowing what I came for’. I just happened to be passing by, but I discovered that was reason enough. From being a quiet place to rest during a long cycle ride, it gradually became for me the quiet place to rest spiritually, far from the madding crowd. This time ‘I came this way in April time, to find the hedges white again, with the voluptuary sweetness’ of the blackthorn.