My first visit to Clare’s Cottage was a hot and blistering sunny day in early August.
Turning off the A1, making way to Peterborough and then the sat-nav urged a sharp left into an unseen B road. A few yards and the bright yellow sign of ‘Poets Corner’ (and sat-nav) turned me right and onto another B road and the journey started for real.
Signposted ‘5 miles to Helpston ‘, the road meandered through farmland with views of shimmering crops where verges rose and seemingly merged into the fields, the old ditches hidden from the road, if they still existed. I passed a sometime ancient oak now truncated to a stump, copse and woods in the near distance. The old farmhouse and building on the right, surely this would have been a sight Clare would have seen? Next a single, heavily leaved tree, maybe last survivor of the hedgerow. With the road curving along the hedging now filled one side with the sloping fields visible on the opposite. Langley Bush Road was tempting me to look back in time. Then the hedges and trees blocked the wider views and I turned a tight right hand corner at the sign of Southey Wood (National Trust). A few minutes later I slipped past the modern bungalows and the slightly older houses before turning left into Woodgate with its original cottages, pub and old vicarage, mostly as seen by Clare though maybe in better condition today.
The street is quite short, room for four or five cars outside the cottage and some further on. That day, in a burning 29 degrees, too much for me, the few spaces were taken so I parked a hundred or so yards away, desperate for the shade of a tall tree overhanging a wall and walked back to the cottage.
The cottage was a fresh and blazing white, reflecting the sun harshly and making it hard for me to see it clearly. The heavy thatch leant over, trying to shade the upper windows and a wooden door further along. I looked up into the bulk of the thatch away from the reflection off the wall and saw how beautifully it was laid and up to the stout chimney-stack that shone like mottled gold. The building seemed quite large from the outside as I walked through the gate beside the cottage and into the new barn-style cafe and entrance to the house and garden.
I bought a ticket to go round the cottage, did not want an audio guide but first sat at a table to drink a large tea to recover from the heat after even that short walk.
And I sat, cup in hand, hiding from the heat, looking out at the neat courtyard whitened by the sun and the spikes of coloured foxgloves, or were they hollyhocks? I couldn’t quite see, in the period garden tucked behind a low wall.
Standing in the centre, just out of the shadows, was a small figure dressed like the Artful Dodger but I could tell as he looked at me it was John Clare, wide-eyed, dressed for his working and walking and wandering. He had chosen his own image, on the path he had to follow, to reveal his world in his writing.
My heart really did miss a beat as I looked a little closer and the image blurred fleetingly into life as I sat in the shade of a great poet and observer of nature who just had to tell.