Charles Clark, Seamus Heaney, and Strawberries.
The letters of Charles Clark are deeply concerned with his sense of place. His letters mention his favourite place, Tiptree, almost four hundred times. Clark’s ‘favourite old Tiptree’, a village in Essex about 5 miles from Clark’s home in Great Totham was the subject of several songs and poems – most famously ‘Tiptree Races’. Clark’s poem celebrated the races on the heath which took place in the summer – it was a day that Clark looked forward to with great excitement every year. An extract from his work gives a sense of his enthusiasm:
Come, all alive-O! haste away
Ere light of day the darkness chases,
Remember, ‘tis Saint James’s day,
So up and off to Tiptree Races!
Should haughty Squires still complaining
And Barristers present their cases; [!]
Yet all their efforts are in vain
To stay the sports of Tiptree Races!
Dealers in porter – and Blue – ruin,
To pitch their tents, and fix their places –
All busily are up and doing,
To please the folk at Tiptree Races.
Clark chastises John Russell Smith for ‘libellously’ referring to ‘the dreary Heath’ – it was a place central to Clark’s imagination. He wrote about it, he visited it constantly, and often occupied himself in research relating to the antiquity of the Heath.
In April this year we paid a visit to the place which, more than even Great Totham, we associate with Clark. Tiptree Heath is the largest area of lowland in Essex (the common was first recorded in 1401) and is now a 61 acre nature reserve. Three species of Heather grow there and there is an abundance of wildlife. It is an extraordinarily peaceful place, registered as public common land in 1947. The present tranquillity and solitude to be found in the Heath is in sharp contrast with what Clark would have been familiar with – in the 19th century the land was (aside from being the site of the races) associated with ‘ne’er do wells’ and allegedly used for hiding contraband goods.
For us, the word Tiptree immediately connotes Clark, and to our great surprise we recently discovered a connection between Clark’s favourite place and the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. On 6th September 2013, the Maldon Daily Gazette reported on the friendship between Brenda Johnson-Dennehy, a teacher, and Seamus Heaney’s wife Marie. Marie Heaney revealed that shortly after meeting her future husband, they spent time in Tiptree in the summer of 1963 where they picked strawberries: ‘I picked strawberries in Tiptree near Colchester at a student camp in 1963 – I had just met Seamus and he came to Tiptree to see me that summer – we both have happy memories of the place.’
One of the best things about working on Clark is the variety of places he was associated with, which lets us discover all sorts of connections,– this has to be our favourite one so far.