“Time,” said theoretical physicist and inventor of the term ‘black hole’, John Wheeler, “is what prevents everything from happening at once.”
History is like a series of long-exposure light trails, each made by a life on this earth. And if you follow enough of the trails you get to see connections you never thought possible in your wildest dreams.
I found myself in a big fat capitalist Berkshire market town today. I would rather have headed for a winsome cathedral city or some extravagant palace but errands must be done in Reading.
And after I had completed the errands, I began to look for long-exposure light trails. Reading has many: because it was a coaching town. People passed through here, for a thousand years, from the North to the South, from the East to the West.
Someone began, in the nineteenth century, to try to trace the trails: a doctor, Joseph Stevens, who retired from Hampshire to Reading and spent his retirement years curating, unpaid, a growing collection of evidence of the past in the town. He never received a penny in payment, yet he filled the town’s museum up with glimmers of light trails from the past: an abbey pillar, a scold’s bridle, a workhouse door, a shard of pottery.
Someone used them all, once, separated, painstakingly, by time.
In the twelfth century a grand and lavish abbey was built next to the river by William the Conqueror’s grandson Henry I. He is buried there. A hundred years after its construction, some monk wrote a round, saluting the coming of Summer. And separated only by a thousand years we sing it today, too: “Summer is icumen in”. You can listen to it here.
A further gap of 500 years: and a nine-year old girl skipped towards the abbey gate with her sister. But the abbey itself was long gone, dismantled by a former tyrant, its final abbot hung, drawn and quartered in 1539. By the time little Jane Austen got here with her sister Cassandra, the waters had closed over the tragedy which had haunted the place. It was now a boarding school for young ladies.
Not the most conventional one.
The school was run by Mrs La Tournelle, whose real name was Sarah Hackett. The French name convinced parents of prospective pupils that decent French must surely be taught here. Mrs La Tournelle was described by another pupil as a good matron, stout and active, which is interesting given that Jane’s teacher had a false leg made of cork.
Lessons, oddly, only happened in the morning. In the afternoon Jane and Cassandra and the other pupils were let loose on the common land opposite. These days it has been a park for more than a century. Then, it was wild land which was used for drills and parades, fairs and circuses.
Jane stayed a year, no more.
That was in 1785. Over a century later a world famous personality was transferred to the town’s gaol: a Cruciform, Victorian fortress of correction next to the abbey ruins. They were devastating months, the ones Oscar Wilde spent in Reading.
In his Ballad Of Reading Gaol he speaks of the Reading sky: “With bars they blur the gracious moon, and blind the goodly sun: And they do well to hide their Hell….”
Oscar’s light trail took him far away from this place, and so did Jane’s. It was a coaching town: it took light trails hither and thither, north to south, east to west. Many passed through, and we have only lit on a few.
Time is a most accomplished operator, to keep it all from happening at once.
29 thoughts on “Wilde, Austen and some anonymous monk”
Evocative historical descriptions, tales and sumptuous photography; I love your blog! Regards, Paul
Hi Paul! Thanks for coming by to read! Your site looks like one I shall be haunting from now on…
Thoroughly enjoyed that, which is more than I can say for Reading. Great stuff about the cork leg. I shall have to get to work on that, which is more than she could have done.
It is a great detail, isn’t it, Roger 😀
i love how you find the mystery among the mundane 🙂
As Lemony Snicket says: There is always something 🙂
Great pics and disparate history once again brought to life. I live and learn.
Some good yarns today, Lou, but I always hate to leave them half told…I have only scratched the surface of this town’s past…
You’re supposed to scratch so we can dig in and get at the meat of the story, you are our muse.
How interesting Reading is, Kate, and now I want to learn more. Your photos are spectacular – I especially like the arch and how you caught the light behind it.
Thanks, Penny: it was a day of brilliant sunshine yesterday. If you have to photograph Reading, well, that’s the day to do it.
I love your evocation of historical strands as long-exposure light trails in the passage of time. Much more comforting than that famous image of a bird flying through a well-lit hall on its way back out into the cold dark night.
It would be nice to think we left a light trail behind, wouldn’t it, Chris?
It would, but I think my battery may be running low so the trail will be a little faint…
Another exceptionally enjoyable meander. Readying oneself for reading of Reading; a confusing pronunciation, I wonder how they say red reeds there?
Think Kenneth Brannagh saying it, Col (he’s from Reading)
The mind boggles. Kenneth saying it in which role?
I used to live in Henley-on-Thames, and so visited Reading regularly. I never looked at the place like this-more’s the pity.
It’s taken me a while to get round to looking at it like that myself, Laurence!
Imagine skipping around with Jane’s ghost as company.
Lovely meander, Kate.
Thanks, Nancy. This town is a junction in so many ways: in carriage routes, but in the lives of those we know through their lives as well. Not sure anyone felt very affectionate towards it though: except the monk, maybe.
Evocative. I loved visiting Reading. And yes, with you, Kate, there is always something. 🙂
There is, Banno 🙂
Very interesting, Kate. I’ve spent almost two hours reading through your recent posts, quite a treat.
Very chuffed to hear they can give two hours of entertainment, Cindy. Lovely to hear from you.
I think you have beautiful described why if we stay awake throughout our lives, there is an awareness of how all those “trails” connect. At that point, everything holds the potential of being a new learning adventure. I would love to walk the grounds and feel the essence of Jane and her sister. I am always aware the Jane is a British author, but somehow I’ve made her at least a “cousin” because her books and all her personalities are so dear to me. Your historical meanderings are so compelling! 🙂
Thank you, Debra! I find the whole business of this country compelling: and I have to say your recent historical delvings have held me just as spellbound. I am waiting with bated breath for more…
Lovely photos Kate. I marvel at those light trails and how they are truly transformational for property. Perhaps it would be something we should apply to people also and reinvent and be transformational? Ohh, you’ve got me inspired to post.
Nice! Wonderful pics as well.