Celestial Express (In memory of John Alcock)
by Julie Boden
From Heavensbridge the train leaves zeroclock
arriving Wootton Wawen nought a.m.
Both Anne and Will alight where time is not
to walk those fields they used to walk again.
And sometimes Lady Luxborough takes the train
with folk from Arden Farm, Will Shakespeare’s lot,
and priory monks and Wagen – Saxon Thane.
From Heavensbridge the train leaves zeroclock.
As Will recalls their days of shirt and smock
Anne blushes and the vicar smiles Amen.
“I think,” he says, “we’re in for quite a shock
arriving Wootton Wawen nought a.m.”
Some search for mills, no longer there, and then
walk beside the aqueduct and weir; lock
this in their memory. All comes to pass when
Anne and Will alight where time is not.
St Peter’s standing proud upon his rock
nursed by the Alne to show the way of men
whose short lives are a pilgrimage; who flock
to walk those fields they used to walk again.
As clamshells clap their fossilised refrain
John Donne returns again with John Alcock,
not ‘slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men’.
Listen. Hear them swapping quotes… Last Stop…
Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare regularly walked a few miles across the fields from Arden Farm, Shakespeare’s mother’s home, to go to church at St Peter’s in Wootton Wawen and sometimes walked from Anne’s home in Shottery. The vicar, a friend of theirs, kept clean boots for Anne to change into for church. Recently it has been suggested the vicar may have married William and Anne in the porch of St Peter’s due to her being pregnant and not being allowed to be married in the church itself.
Robert Knight was a Member of Parliament who lived in London and banished his wife, Lady Luxborough, to Barrells Hall in Ullenhall. After he accused her of infidelity she developed a coterie of Warwickshire writers for company. She was initially interred at Wootton church.
The priory monks lived at the Benedictine monastery, once situated close to where St Peter’s stands now.
Wagen was the Saxon Thane who owned land where Wootton Wawen stands. Wootton Wawen was named after him, ‘Wagen’ being adapted to ‘Wawen’. Wootton deriving from ‘Wudutun’, meaning a woodland settlement.
In St Peter’s Church – fossilised in a stone memorial to Knight’s father (cashier of the ill-fated South Sea Company) is a concentration of scallops/clamshells said to be greater than in any UK museum. Scallops/clamshells are a sign of pilgrimage.
There is no hard evidence that John Donne visited Wootton Wawen but he was a contemporary of Shakespeare and there are many local tales of Shakespeare walking and drinking with local and with visiting friends. A popular tale tells of a drunken walk when Shakespeare fell to sleep beneath a tree and died. Who is to say John Donne didn’t join him here on one of those walks. The quotation is from Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnets’.
John Alcock was born in Birmingham on 5th January, 1937 and he later lived in Wootton Wawen for 53 years with his wife Barbara and family. He lectured in Drama and in Creative Writing at Warwick University and specialised in poetry, winning a Richard Burton Award for poetry in performance. His third book Timestop was published in 2011. He twice chaired the Birmingham poetry group Cannon Poets and he was pleased to be made an honorary member of the group. John died 25th August, 2018. Futura Ventura, the most recent collection of John’s poetry, was published posthumously in 2020 by Cannon Poets and Barbara Alcock.
The poem takes the form of a Rondeau Redouble made up of 25 lines, mostly quatrains. Each line of the first quatrain (4 line stanza) is a refrain. The fifth line of the final stanza is a rentrement, which means the first couple of words of the opening line of the poem re-enter the poem and are written at the end. The mainly iambic rhythm echoes the movement of the train and the circularity of the form mirrors the train’s return journey.
Julie Boden would like to thank Barry Phillips for the mine of information he afforded about Wootton Wawen’s history, some of which was distilled from research by the late Don Graham – retired educationist and local historian. She would also like to thank Jessica Earle for helping her organise a visit to Wootton Wawen during challenging Covid 19 days and Barbara Alcock, John Alcock’s widow, who loves writing herself and continues to enjoy the wonderful surroundings of Wootton Wawen and the many joys of its community.
In the audio, the poem is read by Julie Boden and the lines in italic (the train announcer’s voice) are read by Nat Boden.