The artist Samuel Palmer is widely considered to have painted his best pictures whilst living in the small West Kent village of Shoreham, nestled in the Darenth valley, the only break in the North Downs. Palmer was onto something with Shoreham, a deep mysticism lived within the paradise of the surrounding countryside. Some say he nicknamed Shoreham ‘the Valley of Vision’, though in fact the valley he meant was over the Western down, a wild place of waterless meadows and forest. If you look at his paintings from this period, they are striking in their boldness of colour, the mysterious narratives and deep romanticism for the countryside of old Albion. I see many connections between his vision and the later vision of Edward Thomas, whose poem ‘Adlestrop’ seems to occupy a similar psychological ground as Palmer’s Shoreham paintings.
Palmer was a continuing presence in my childhood. I was born in nearby Sevenoaks, my family home was in Shoreham, a semi-detached, pebble-dashed council house. During my teenage years I used to wash up the dinner plates in the Samuel Palmer School of Fine Art, run by Gertrude Franklin-White, the wife of the late Australian painter Franklin-White. The school was for amateur painters in a row of old workers cottages that had been assembled into one property. For a teenage boy, it was a dark and eerie place, full of dried flowers and giant art books, with Gertrude confined to one area of the house with the Guardian for Arts and the Telegraph for news. I remember the visiting artists, people escaping their marriages for a few days, dark moody men painting furiously in the gardens, women half-flirting with me from the humid grasses at the back of the house, as I carried a wobbly tray of Robinsons’ cordials to the metal garden tables.
Franklin-White’s place had nothing to do with Palmer other than its glib use of his name. He lived in the much neater River House (after leaving the nomenclature suggested squalor of ‘Rat Abbey’), whose wall is covered in broken glass from the 19th century to see off any potential apple scrumpers.
But Shoreham was a paradise for a boy: the many tracks through the woods that could be tackled by mountain bike; the golf course where we could earn a few pounds selling lost golf balls picked from the hedges and sold where footpaths and greens intersected; the steep climbs and oddly birdless woods of the Eastern hill; the ruined pub ‘The Pig & Whistle’ that various parents told us were once smuggler dens for stuff coming off the Thames; the MOD rifle range that could be infiltrated when the red flag wasn’t flying; the dene holes that disappeared into the earth that we would climb down and explore, all without our parents’ knowledge. Back then the public information films were warning us about flying kites too near to pylons or playing near railway lines. There were no warnings about clambering down man-made chalk caves.
But returning to the Valley of Vision, there used to be a dilapidated old building called Shepherd’s barn. It was a dark place in our young consciousness as my father told us that a young farmhand had taken his life there in the early 20th century. This desolate lonely place at the head of Palmer’s valley of vision where a man felt compelled to take his own life by hanging is now crossed by a million people every day on the M25: what Iain Sinclair referred to as ‘Thatcher’s pearl necklace slowing choking London,’ which tore through the valley in a whirlwind of massive ground works in 1985. The barn is now a foot-tunnel with obligatory orange lighting. Either way, it’s a far cry from what Palmer saw.
I rode my bicycle on the M25, six months before it was due to open, when the tarmac was new and unblemished. Here, on my stabilised BMX, I had my first taste of poetry. I had been given my first collection, beautifully bound and fresh to the touch, uncrumpled, not yet stained by exhaust fumes from Derry, by fast food cartons from Pease Pottage, by fag-ends from Dudley, by timbered magic trees from Red Lodge.
(Pierre) Dupont sensed the approaching crisis of lyric poetry as the rift between city and country grew wider. One of his verses contains an awkward admission of this: Dupont says the poet “lends his ear alternately to the forests and to the masses”
Benjamin, Belknapp 2003
The word rift suggests a vacuum, a space between. Perhaps the Motorway has become the physical embodiment of that rift between city and country, but let’s deliberately miss-hear that as a riff between city and country for now, and imagine the sleepers beneath the smatter of stars slipping under the light pollution of the capital, hearing the avant-garde music of the M25. To those awake, the constant drone-rock is like an unlit gas hob, but to those asleep, it is the sound of empty shopping malls, un-let units full of headaches waiting to be discovered on the somnambulist’s sojourns. It’s the sound of human migration being blown into the ears of sleepers, a sandman with an undisclosed interest in the English Motorway System.
Posted 5 years ago