Peopled: Walking in isolation, Staffordshire, 2020

by Sharon Ashton

Peopled: Walking in isolation, Staffordshire, 2020

 Long-listed for Nature in the Air poetry call-out, and featured in: The  Gallery of Discovery, Weston Park, Staffordshire   A celebration of lock-down creativity, Autumn 2020

To Orslow first, where Horsa’s people work the land,

who, at our approach, stop with hoe and axe in hand

to watch from wooden walls, drawing with secret voice

and movement  their mud-bellied pigs and children close,

no doubt unsure of me, a woman in combats

wielding  my finely wrought stick and great hound at heel,

So I smile, wave, and think these gestures understood

when tilling begins again and unloosed children

scatter to play, soon forgetting hound and me, who

like disturbances of air on a Spring morning,

now go on our way, until, pausing  by a stile,

I look back to see Orslow’s thatched roofs fade to cloud

and think its people left behind, when through a hedge

of hawthorn green-smudged with new leaf, two children crash

with squealing piglet in tow and without a word

follow hound and me down narrow paths to a place

where water bubbling up from the earth fills both well

and mill pool, and where this day others have gathered

to see Chad, come down from Lichfield to preach and bless

the sweet water, who, raising a cold trickling in

his cupped hands is halted by chants of ‘Ceadda!

Ceadda!’*ringing from a nearby wood, where all

now turn, confused that trees should sing, until figures

begin to form between branches in garments grey

as oak bark, and now ‘Hréofe! Hréofe!’** chant

the crowd, arms thrust out to drive the wraith-like strangers

back to the trees, but Chad calls out, beckoning them,

lifting their clutched rags to touch leprous sores beneath.

And I, who could preach the truth about transmission

and antibiotics to come, can’t stay, and if

I could, doubt I’d be understood, so turn away

from Chadwell, named from this day, and with hound at heel,

choose the twisting lane to Gatherwynde (where winds meet

and you do not pronounce the ‘d’) but first look back

to see the children carrying the piglet home,

their places taken by lepers who stay until

we part at St Mary’s, Blymhill, where gargoyle dogs

gape rainwater onto daffodil and Green men

grin from blackened oak to excite my pagan heart,

making me forget it’s Sunday until studded

doors disgorge villagers eager for roasted beef,

and amongst them four young women, sisters perhaps,

who share the footpath back to Gatherwynde with us,

a giggling whirl of bonnets and brown curl as they

hitch their petticoats to leap the stream but misjudge     

and now stop to clean four pairs of white-buttoned boots,  

a task we in our hurry must leave them to do,

their fading chatter replaced by the singing of

skylarks invisible above the last field home.