Midsummer moments, 1870-6

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Near the keeper’s cottage the setting sun made a green and golden splendour in the little open glade among the oaks while the keeper and two other men walked like three angels in the gilded mist. (21st June, 1873)

One of my favourite diarists is Francis Kilvert (1840–79), an English clergyman whose diaries give us a beautifully evocative slice of rural life in the 1870s, particularly around the Wales/Herefordshire borders (perhaps my favourite corner of Britain) as well as Wiltshire. Kilvert was himself born in Wiltshire, where his father was vicar of Langley Burrell (Francis was his curate for a while) – he then studied in Bath and Oxford, and then became curate at Clyro, just on the Welsh side of Hay-on-Wye.

Only his diaries from 1870–79 survive, and some of these were censored by his wife Elizabeth – some have suggested his enthusiastic descriptions of young girls in his diaries (or perhaps his hobby of nudism) might have played a part. His diaries were first edited by the poet William Plomer (author of the marvellous poem ‘The Dorking Thigh’) and selections were published in the 1930s. Aside from the controversial elements, his diaries are full of lyrical description and sly humour, depicting local characters as well as wider events in the era – Kilvert often travelled to London and other cities, and his perspective was far from insular.

As an excuse to dip into my own edition of Kilvert’s diaries (available here and at Amazon), here are some samples of his writing around midsummer themes (note that the Midsummer Day he refers to is the traditional 24th June, not the actual summer solstice of 21st/22nd).


Tuesday, 21 June

Today we went for a picnic to Snodhill Castle in the Golden Valley.1 A great break [i.e. a brake or horse-drawn carriage] very roomy and comfortable came round with a pair of brown horses and we all got in. Mrs. Oswald, Captain and Mrs. Bridge, Perch, Jim Brown, Arthur Oswald and myself. The sun glared fiercely as we started, but driving made life tolerable and some heavy clouds came rolling up which made us fear a thunderstorm. The Haigh Allens drove up, then the Harry Dews, and the party was complete. So the company and provisions were packed into the four carriages and the procession set out through the narrow lanes. The girls ran out into the porches of the quaint picturesque old-fashioned farm houses of the Golden Valley to see the string of horses and carriages and the gay dresses of the ladies, an unwonted sight to the dwellers in the Golden Valley. At the foot of the Castle Hill we got out and every one carried something up the steep slippery brown bare grass slopes.

The first thing of course was to scale the Castle mound and climb up the ruins of the Keep as far as might be. It was fearfully slippery and the ladies gallantly sprawled and struggled up and slithered down again. Then a fire was to be lighted to boil potatoes which had been brought with us. Rival attempts were made to light fires, Bridge choosing a hole in the ruins and Powell preferring a hollow in the ground. Powell, however, wisely possessed himself of the pot and potatoes so that though the other fire was lighted first it was of no use and the divided party reunited and concentrated their minds and energies upon the fire in the hollow. Three sticks were propped together, meeting in a point, gipsy fashion, and from them was hung the pot, full of new young potatoes just covered with water. Wood was picked up off the ground and torn out of a dry hedge and a fierce fire was soon roaring under the pot making the trees and banks opposite quiver and swim in the intense heat. The flames soon burnt through one of the supports and when the fire was at the fiercest down came the three sticks and the pot upside down hissing into the midst of the flames. The pot lid flew off, out rushed the water and potatoes and a cloud of steam arose from the fire. Arthur Oswald gallantly rescued the pot with a pot hook in spite of the intense heat which was very difficult to endure. There were loud cries and everyone was giving unheeded advice at once. At length the pot was settled upright on the embers, more water having been poured in, and another armful of dry wood heaped upon it, so that the pot was in the midst of a glowing fire. Twenty minutes passed, during which the gentlemen stood round the fire staring at the pot, while the ladies got flowery wreaths and green and wild roses to adorn the dishes and table cloth spread under an oak tree and covered with provisions. Then the pot hook was adjusted, the pot heaved and swung off the fire, a fork plunged into the potatoes and they were triumphantly pronounced to be done to a turn. Then there was a dispute how they should be treated. ‘Pour away the water’, said one. ‘Let the water stay in the pot’, said another. ‘Steam the potatoes’, ‘Pour them out on the ground’, ‘Hand them round in the pot’, ‘Put them on a plate’, ‘Fish them out with a fork’. They were, however, poured out on the ground and then the pot fell upon them, crushing some and blackening others. Eventually the potatoes were handed round the table cloth, every one being most assiduous and urgent in recommending and passing them to his neighbour. There was plenty of meat and drink, the usual things, cold chicken, ham and tongue, pies of different sorts, salads, jam and gooseberry tarts, bread and cheese. Splendid strawberries from Clifford Priory brought by the Haigh Aliens. Cups of various kinds went round, claret and hock, champagne, cider and sherry, and people sprawled about in all attitudes and made a great noise–Henry Dew was the life of the party and kept the table in a roar. After luncheon the gentlemen entrenched themselves upon a fragment of the Castle wall to smoke and talk local news and politics and the ladies wandered away by themselves. At last we all met upon the mound where Mary Bevan and someone else had been trying to sketch the Keep, and sat in a great circle whilst the remains of the cup, wine, and soda water were handed round. Then we broke up, the roll of the carriages was heard coming through the lanes below and everyone seized upon something to carry down the steep slippery grass slopes.

… The drive home in the cool of the evening was almost the pleasantest part of the day. The light was so strong that we could hardly believe it was ten o’clock. The longest day, and the strong light glow in the North showed that the Midsummer sun was only just travelling along below the horizon, ready to show again in five hours. Passing by Hawkswood and the ghost-haunted pond we told ghost stories until Mrs. Oswald was almost frightened out of the carriage.

[ A few days later he was off to Llanthony, nestled in the stunning Vale of Ewyas just below the Black Mountains. This valley has a rich cultural and complex cultural heritage – the priory there was painted by J.M.W. Turner and was owned by the poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) in the early 19th century – below Kilvert refers to his son Arnold. Llanthony Abbey, meanwhile, had been built in 1869, only a year before Kilvert’s visit, by the controversial Father Ignatius, as a monastic community – ironically in the 1920s (Ignatius died in 1908) it became home to the very unmonastic artist and sexual adventurer Eric Gill. Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill is set on the slopes of this same valley, and Iain Sinclair’s novel Landor’s Tower reflects an obsession with many of these threads.]

Friday, Midsummer Day

Up at 6.30 and to breakfast at Cae Mawr soon after 7.30. Perch ready for a walk to Llanthony… When we entered the Abbey precincts the courtyard was swarming with people. Some were walking about, some sitting down under the penthouse on either side of the Abbey Tavern door, some standing in knots and groups talking. The kitchen too was buzzing and swarming like a hive. Beauchamp came forward and met us and we were shown into the upper long room. Here the servant girl Sarah told us that it was Mr. Arnold Savage Landor’s rent day. Mrs. Beauchamp came in and said she was afraid she could not cook anything for us as there was so much cooking going on in the kitchen for the tenants’ dinners. However, she promised us some bread, butter, cheese and beer and boiled eggs. While these things were being got ready we amused ourselves by looking out of the window at the people in the green courtyard below. A tent or rather an awning had been reared against the wall of the Lady Chapel. The wind flapped the canvas sides and strained at the ropes. The cloth was spread on the table. No viands had yet appeared but a savoury reek pervaded the place and the tantalized tenants walked about lashing their tails, growling and snuffing up the scent of food hungrily like Welsh wolves.

For our part we consumed 18 eggs amongst us and a proportionate amount of bread, cheese, butter and beer.

[Two years later, Kilvert gives us a very different midsummer scene.]


Thursday, 20 June

At ten o’clock Mr., Mrs., Miss Gwatkin and I went down to the Landing Stage and embarked on board a steamboat for New Brighton on the Cheshire side of the Mersey, a suburb of Birkenhead. The morning was lovely, all was fresh and new, the salt air and the wind exhilarating and I was in dancing spirits. The Mersey was gay and almost crowded with vessels of all sorts moving up and down the river, ships, barques, brigs, brigantines, schooners, cutters, colliers, tugs, steamboats, lighters, ‘flats’, everything from the huge emigrant liner steamship with four masts to the tiny sailing and rowing boat. From the river one sees to advantage the miles of docks which line the Mersey side, and the forests of masts which crowd the quays, ‘the pine forest of the sea, mast and spar’.

At New Brighton there are beautiful sands stretching for miles along the coast and the woods wave green down to the salt water’s edge. The sands were covered with middle class Liverpool folks and children out for a holiday, digging in the sand, riding on horses and donkeys, having their photographs taken, and enjoying themselves generally. Some of the lady and gentlemen riders upon the hired horses were pitiable objects, bumping up and down upon their saddles like flour sacks, and even requiring their horses to be led for them. The ladies as a rule rode without riding habits and with crinolines. The effect was striking.

As we came down the river this morning several large emigrant ships lay in the river getting up steam and the Blue Peter, the signal for sailing, flying at the fore. They were going down the river this afternoon. They seemed crowded with Irish and German emigrants and small steam-boats kept bringing fresh loads of passengers alongside the big ships. One could not help thinking of the hundreds of sorrowful hearts on board and ashore and the farewells and partings for ever, so many of them, on this side of the grave.

Eventually we came back to Liverpool, got luncheon and went to see the Docks. Nothing gives one so vivid an idea of the vast commerce of the country as these docks, quays and immense warehouses, piled and cumbered with hides, cotton, tallow, corn, oilcake, wood and wine, oranges and other fruit and merchandise of all kinds from all corners of the world. I admired the dray horses very much, huge creatures 17 or 18 hands high, more like elephants than horses. Liverpool boasts the finest breed of Flemish draught horses in the world.

Mrs. Gwatkin said that 15, 10 and even 5 years ago there was much more trade and wealth in Liverpool and much larger fortunes more rapidly made than now. There has been of late and there still is a stagnation of trade, a depression and deterioration of credit. Formerly the streets were blocked by the enormous business and the mountains of merchandise passing about, but there is plenty of room now.

Monday, Midsummer Day

The cuckoo was still singing this morning. As I was getting up I heard the drone of the Italian bagpipes advancing and two men with dancing children, poor little wretches, came playing through the village.

In the afternoon Tom Williams came and carried me off to Llowes to dine with him. At dinner he told the following story. A soldier who did not want to go to church told his officer that he was neither Catholic nor Protestant, Church of England nor Presbyterian, nor Dissenter. The officer asked what he did belong to. The soldier said he belonged to the Yarmouth Bloaters. He meant the Plymouth Brethren.

[In the next entries, Kilvert is back in his home parish in Wiltshire.]


Wednesday, Midsummer Eve

Another beautiful haymaking day. We all worked hard and got the hay up in beautiful condition, I pitching the last four loads with Jacob Knight. We finished about nine o’clock of a lovely warm Midsummer’s Eve.

Thursday, Midsummer Day

And a lovely day it has been, soft, warm and sunny. I took the young cuckoo out of his nest, put him in the great wicker cage, and hung the cage up in the hawthorn hedge close to the old nest that the hedge sparrows might feed their charge.

Gathering strawberries. As the day wore the weather became more and more beautiful till at last the evening grew the loveliest I think I ever saw. The rich golden light flooded the lawn and clean freshly cleared meadows, slanting through the western trees which fringe the Common’s edge. Even the roan cows, and the Alderney especially, glowed with a golden tinge in the glorious evening sunlight. From the wide common over the thick waving fragrant grass came the sweet country music of the white-sleeved mowers whetting their scythes and the voices of their children at play among the fresh-cut flowery swaths. The sun went down red under a delicate fringe of gold laced cloud, the beautiful Midsummer evening passed through twilight and gloaming into the exquisite warm soft Midsummer night, with its long light in the north slowly, softly lingering as Jupiter came out glorious in the south and flashed glittering through the tresses of the silver birches softly waving, and the high poplars rustled whispering and the Church clock at Draycot struck ten and I longed to sleep out of doors and dream my ‘Midsummer night’s dream’.

[And here he visits south London.]


Saturday, 24 June

Midsummer Day, and the cuckoo singing from Gipsy Hill. Walked to sweet green Dulwich and visited the picture gallery. Rembrandt’s immortal servant girl still leaned on her round white arms a-smiling from the window as she has leaned and smiled for three hundred years since that summer’s day when her master drew her portrait and made her immortal, imperishable and ever young. St. Sebastian still raised his eyes to heaven with the sublime pathetic look of tender submission and gentle resignation. The strange solitary white angel still hovered down through the gloom in Jacob’s Dream. The Oriental-looking Spanish flower girl still offered her flowers for sale. The Spanish boys still laughed audibly and went on with their game, and Albert Cuyp’s cows grouped on a knoll at sunset stood or lay about in the evening glow chewing the cud and looking placidly over the wide level pastures of Holland.

[The Myers below is American circus owner James Washington Myers (1823–92). Queen Victoria went to see his show in 1858, just as we saw she did with Buffalo Bill nearly 30 years later.]

In the afternoon I went with Katie, Mary and Charlotte to the Crystal Palace and saw over the heads of the people Myers’ Grand Hippodrome girls riding and jumping through hoops, performing horses, elephants, etc.

Sadly Kilvert died from peritonitis on 23 September 1879, a mere month after getting married to Elizabeth Ann Rowland, from Wootton in Oxfordshire, only five miles from where I’m typing this. Kilvert was only 38 years old. His diary, at least, keeps the scenes of his life as warm and fresh as a midsummer day.


In Herefordshire, east of the Black Mountains that form the border with Wales.