September 7, 2020

Gray’s Elegy

A large low-lying field of green pasture lies beyond the Victorian chapel in the Park. It is transversed by a number of deep drainage ditches, interspersed with old brick-arched bridges which allows one to cross. The dogs are happy scrambling around, noses down to sniff important matters and pop down into the muddy ditches just for the fun of it. Walking in the field, you can make out some uneven man-made lumps and bumps in the ground suggesting the now dismantled buildings that used to be there so long ago. Bounded by trees on two sides, this green pasture nestles into the landscape.  A few more majestic specimen trees are dotted around whilst a particularly craggy oak tree adds a punctuation point at the far end.

It feels ancient, well-trodden and I can imagine that my steps are following others a few hundred years earlier. The list of rectors at Highclere records that the Reverend Isaac Milles took up the living here at Highclere in 1680. On his first visit, he found the parish to be in a “desolate corner of the world” and “the parsonage old and out of repair”. Perhaps reluctantly, Milles settled in and encouraged Geordie’s forbear to first rebuild the parish church and make it considerably larger and then to mend and refurbish the parsonage. As the 4th Earl of Carnarvon wrote much later “the goodness and worth of {Milles} lit a candle” and many children from the local nobility and well to do were later entrusted to education in his care.

The rectory, which used to stand where I now walk, is now long gone.  However, behind and above me  me stands the Victorian stone and flint chapel, built in the gothic style by a redoubtable woman, Henrietta the 3rd Countess of Carnarvon, to comfort those who mourn. Closer in time than I, perhaps she had seen or knew of the remains of buildings here, perhaps it was an acknowledgement of the previous spirit of place. An inveterate traveller, her husband had died at just 49 years of age but she outlived him for another thirty years.

It is a beautiful gift for all of  us today and, in a more normal year, yesterday we would have wended our way there for the annual evensong service to remember all those who have died and are interred there. The service always brings back thoughts and memories of my parents, both of whom read and knew much poetry – my mother would set off to church each Sunday far too early and could recite much of Gray’s Elegy which is so appropriate for this corner of Highclere.

“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

During times of challenge, insidious childhood memories tend to flood back into my head, whether precipitated by a scent eddying on the air, some words, a sound or a momentary thought. It is an instant link of recollection which transports me back and somehow this chapel  takes me back to memories of the long cosy car journeys to Cornwall, our mother’s love of music, of early cassette players in the car playing “Jesu Joy of Man’s desiring” and of me trying to read and then feeling car sick.  By the time we arrived the day would have faded, the “glimm’ring landscape” just enough to see to clamber out of the car, smelling the Cornish grey slate path, thyme and rock roses, all reassuringly familiar. Just as this chapel and field have become so.

Gray’s “Elegy” meanders its Victorian length through the cycle of life and memories, pondering the value of life “far from the madding crowd” (a phrase which of course then made its way to the title of Thomas Hardy’s novel). Around our little chapel, the graveyard with “storied stone” and nature reminds us all that our fleeting breath is departed and what we leave are memories and stories, often surprisingly interconnected. Isaac Milles left us stories and his grandson, Bishop Pococke, bought back the cones of cedars of Lebanon which we all admire in Highclere’s parkland today.

In introspective moments I wonder sometimes what stories and memories I will leave or whether it will be just fast disappearing photos and words on metal devices. On this special evening, gathering by the chapel, where we look back into time whilst standing in this distinct landscape and building, it can seem a world today lacking perspective. Whether religious or not, there is a whiff of “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us”.

Isaac Milles lived until he was 82 years old, through the time of Charles I, the English Civil War, Cromwell, Charles II, the plague of 1665, the great fire of London and so much more turmoil, war and strife. One appreciation of his life, despite all this, was his great capacity for friendship and his kindness to others.