Pick a town, any town

Sometimes, artists just flock together.

Look at Bloomsbury: Virginia Woolf, Mary MacCarthy, Vita Sackville West, EM Forster and Roger Fry to name but a few, all centres on a place which must have had ‘it’.  A place they felt comfortable, which suited the zeitgeist.

Places can do that: attract people. Though I’m not certain how it works.

Yesterday, Felix persuaded me to cough up the £5.99 it costs to download a town trail on an iPhone. The list of towns was bewildering: Felix settled on Marlow.

Marlow, which terms itself a village but looks like a highly affluent town to me. Marlow, which lounges on the Thames in flannels with a glass of champers in its hand. Marlow, whose playground is swarming with under tens in designer outfits, where there are no uncouth accents, and where time has really got its feet under the table.

Our trail began with a heartstoppingly English pathway flanked by high ancient red brick walls over which mature climbing flowers tumbled and ancient trees leaned. We got to the end and the trail informed us we were passing the old Military Academy building – the one which moved, in time, to Sandhurst.

That’s funny, I thought, radar up. All those cottages are called Shelley something. Shelley house, Shelley cottage, Shelley lodge.  What’s the betting…

My attention was taken by Felix, who was gesturing enthusiastically at a school where the trail’s first clue was hidden. But it was not just ay school. It is a school specialising in the performing arts. And it was founded by Sit William Borlase in 1624. It boasts, among its former pupils, ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, the first ever swing band leader.

As I goggled Felix dragged me on to the next clue: which is where I learned that Percy Bysshe Shelley – and a personal heroine of mine, Mary, writer of ‘Frankenstein’ – lived in the next cottage along.

It is just the sort of place you might expect the man who termed himself ‘The Hermit Of Marlow’ to live in. Whitewashed, with flamboyant leaded windows and great swathes of wisteria growing. Here, even if you did not know it, a poet must have lived. Here the tempestuous, agitating Shelley wrote The Revolt of Islam, and Mary completed ‘Frankenstein’.

And we had just stumbled upon it.

But there was not time, because the trail was drawing us on, led importantly by Felix. Up the street and into the town, and Maddie found the next clue: TS Eliot’s house.

I jest you not. I had no idea. This place was crawling with literary references, the shadows of writers past. Places they lived companionably  within a stone’s throw of the Thames. Never for long, it seems: Shelley for a couple of years, Eliot for three, in the early days of his fame when he had just taken up his happy position at Lloyds Bank.

He chose his house just a few doors away from that of Thomas Love Peacock, the writer and poet who had drawn Shelley to live at Marlow back in 1815.

Onwards, through the church. Oh, the church. I can forgive them- just- for demolishing its tenth century predecessor to make way for this towering Victorian statement which hugs the water of the Thames, surveying passing craft and swans and a weir.

We passed an alabaster nude surveying the passing traffic. A tribute to one of the great directors of the West End and Broadway: he who launched JM Barrie’s Peter Pan: Charles Frohman, who loved that view over the Thames towards The Complete Angler hotel dearly, and who was killed on the RMS Lusitania.

Enough stories, already.

It was picnic time, and we would return another day.

But look what happens, when you just pick any town.



51 thoughts on “Pick a town, any town

  1. The Thames certainly had an attraction to literary folk. I was just thinking how often I sat in a traffic jam next to Virginia Woolf’s house in Richmond whilst on my way to the Majestic Winehouse in Pope’s Grotto:)

  2. This is exactly why I would not want to live anywhere else. We may have a credit crunch and lots of things are not necessarily as we would hope, but the sense of history under our feet, and all around us is a living breathing part of who we are and what we are as a nation.

  3. Dear Kate, I was unaware that a person could download a town trail on an iPhone. I don’t have such a device (nor a cell phone either).

    When you first tell us that Felix wanted to do this, I had no idea what you were writing about. But then you take me on a journey through Marlow and provide a video–one picture after another–of the town and I’m back there at least four centuries ago with architecture that delights and soothes and two centuries ago with a poet whose wild verses always excite me and one century ago with a man whose intellect always staggers me and you’ve introduced me to a time and place and people that draw me both forward and backward in time to the present moment–to paraphrase the Eliot quote in one of the photographs. Thank you. Peace.

  4. You have challenged me and my day here, Kate, with your poets and playwrights, your houses and streets and statues of Marlow. I’m sure you will return there, again and again. What fun it is to pick just any town and see what it has to offer.

  5. Sounds to good to be true, guess there is the magic in the place and has been for centuries. No one connects the dots better than you.

    I need one bit translated for me. ‘£5.99 it costs to download a town trail’ -huh? I understand ‘a town trail’ but why does it cost £5.99 ,eeks that’s $9 Canadian. I guess that’s why us ‘thrifty’ google (you, I and everyone else).

    1. Ah, it’s worth it here, Hudson. Most attractions can set you back £30. The Brits charge for their tourism. This kept Felix busy with a whodunnit while allowing me to sightsee….

  6. Wow, what a picturesque town, Kate, and interesting concept, which I’ve not come across before, thank you. My iPhone is appallingly underutilized, I think…perhaps because I don’t have a young son!

  7. That was a very useful app indeed! That’s great that you listened to Felix. Maybe writers were drawn to Marlow because it’s so picturesque? If so, why do you think their stays were temporary?

    1. Good question, Lameadventures. Shelley had the wanderlust: I doubt he would have stayed anywhere for long, I think he left to trog across Europe to take Byron’s daughter Allegra – who also lived with them – to Byron in Venice.I don’t know why TS Eliot left.

    1. My favourite is the audio, Angela 😀 I listen to it through the night….but I am from the dog-eared paperback school of reading generally. My favourite edition is usually something by Penguin.

      1. thanks! shall seek out tomorrow when I visit the used bookshop…I also have read good things about her book called The Last Man…

  8. What an amazing find! And it seems it all started with an iPhone app! Amazing! I can’t imagine how thrilling it would be to visit these homes, but even more so to discover them unexpected! I am sure you will return! D

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