Saturday, December 29, 2012

Severn Tided Framilode

Right, so I was driving down this meandering lane inside the horseshoe bend of the River Severn looking to check out an ancestral village (I thought all mine came from from Somerset, but I recently found a branch which was rooted right here, in the landscape which flows in my soul, focused somewhere around the parish of Fretherne inside this delineated loop) and I could feel my aura prickling with the heightened energy of the land. It's thought that the Celtic tribes who lived here in the pre-Roman era regarded the horseshoe bend as a sacred place, and the area inside it is really buzzing. I saw a signpost to a place called Framilode and liked the name; couldn't work out why it sounded familiar. So I took a detour through the village (very nice it is too) and down the long cul-de-sac which stops by St Peter's church on the very edge of the Severn.

There was a footpath going through a patch of meadow beside the river so I went for a muddy squelchy stroll. Everywhere is muddy and squelchy this year, but at least the rushes on the riverbank were doing well. It was a most beautiful place. You can't see the whole of the horseshoe bend when you're inside it because it's too big, but you can see the lean of the river in its outward curve before it swings sharp left in the distance. Along the curve is a little beach of peachy gold sand dotted with curious beached objects and washed up tree-stumps, lined with drifts of dark birds. As tempting as the sandy bits along the Severn may look, they will gobble yer legs up given half a chance, so they're more fun to look at than to step on. The Severn here looks much as it always does in its standard (i.e. non-flooding) mode: ice-blue, flat and placid. You can see May Hill from here too, easily recognised even by the most geographically challenged thanks to its little crowning tuft of jubilee trees. And beyond the curve of the horseshoe, on the distant bank, the stodgy wedge of the Forest of Dean.

 Across the Severn to May Hill

As I was walking down the riverside taking my piccies a fellow walker came the other way and stopped to say hello. Then he said, "Do you know Ivor Gurney?" Well, yes. In fact this blog launched with an Ivor Gurney poem. It's not surprising that his work appeals to me because his deep sense of the soul of the Gloucestershire landscape and its almost painful beauty is pretty much what this blog is about. This chap told me that Gurney kept a boat here in Framilode and used to sail up and down this stretch of the Severn, during a time (in 1913) when he was lodging in the house of the village lock-keeper. In honour of this he was doing an "Ivor Gurney walk" which he'd found in a book, and Framilode was mentioned as one of Gurney's special places.

He didn't mention what this book was called, but it didn't take me long to find it: Ivor Gurney's Gloucestershire, by Eleanor M. Rawling. And a very interesting read it is, and curious just how many of Gurney's other "special places" I've visited recently without realising the connection. But at least now I knew why the name Framilode had seemed familiar.

When I saw Framilode first she was a blowy
Severn tided place under azure sky.
Able to take care of herself, less girl than boy.
But since that time passed, many times the extreme
Of mystery of beauty and last possibility 
Of colour, sea breathed romance far past any may dream
With Treasure Island, Leaves of Grass and
Shakespeare all there,
Adventure stirring the blood like threat of thunder
With the never forgotten soft beauty of the Frome
One evening when elver-lights made the river like a stall-road to see.
(June 1925)

The little church of St Peter at Upper Framilode, meanwhile, had me fooled to start with. It was built around 1854, but at first glance I thought it was Norman – at least the chunky little nave with its semicircular apse looked that old. It's very compact and timeless, set among fiery red beech trees only yards from the steely glide of the Severn. But when you look closer it's obvious that the design is a pastiche of the Norman style, with a sharp zigzag outlining the memory of dog-tooth chevrons and the corbel table adorned with geometric shapes where faces and beasties would normally be. Quite ahead of its time really. It was designed by a bloke called Francis Niblett and would originally have served the people who were employed on the local landowner's estate. It has a weatherfish on the top instead of a weathercock (if it was me I'd call it Michael).

Its Victorian provenance is not in doubt though once you get inside. It's a lovely peaceful little place but the inside of the little apse is painted in a way that only the Victorians would find bearable to look at for the entire duration of a Sunday service. It's quite magnificent, with stars funnelling up between the rafters and gleaming gold Thou Shalt Nots between floating angels. The full works.

Unusually for a Victorian church, it has some very curious beastie heads serving as label-stops around the west window. It's also blessed with a lovely decorated blue and silver ceiling with stencilled decoration all over it. The amount of work that must have gone into it (with artists getting a crick in their neck and all the blood running out of their arms) is quite mind-boggling. A gentleman I spoke to during my wander round the church told me that originally the walls of the nave were completely covered with a dense fleur de lys pattern. But at some stage in its recent history somebody must have got fed up with the migraines and decided to bring in the Dulux Magnolia. While I do like Victorian church-paintings, I'd be the first to admit that they can be monstrously overwhelming and I can't blame anyone for wanting to tone them down a bit. There's also the issue of how dark churches become when their walls are painted, and no doubt this one is a lot brighter without its fleurs.

The name of Framilode goes back to the 7th century, and denotes the decanting of the River Frome into the Severn (as mentioned in Gurney's poem). Historically there was a ferry across the Severn somewhere near here, and it was also formerly a good place for mills; not just the usual corn mills but also for manufacturing tinplate. This mill complex occupied an island in the middle of the Frome but it's all gone now. In the days when ships used to trek up and down the Severn there was even some ship-building going on in the village. But now it's a place of soft reedy rushes and quiet lapping ripples, and the lush memories of a war poet before the thump of the guns.