John Clare and High Beech
[Fairmead House - as it was in Clare's time]
A fascinating-.period of John Clare's life was the time spent at Dr Matthew Allan's private asylum at High Beech near Epping Forest, and a member of the Society, Mr L.S.H. Young of Leatherhead in Surrey, has sent the following article, here printed in full, 'under the title “John Clare and High Beech’
I must be one of the very few Clare devotees (perhaps the only one?) who can claim such a long and close intimacy and knowledge of the several houses, and also of the Forest adjoining to Dr Allen's Asylum at High Beech. Suprisingly little has been written of them or of the countryside in which they are set. This must have filled the poet with awe when compared with his own flat landscape at home. This is a part of Clare's life largely unrecorded by his various biographers.
Well over seventy years ago, this small area was no different from today and almost certainly was just the same in 1840; the same houses stand in isolation - Leppits Hill Lodge, Springfield, the Owl Inn and Fairmead Cottage. Fairmead House was demolished in 1860. Many of my early days were spent at Fairmead Cottage and I was very young indeed when I first explored the rooms of the derelict Leppits Hill Lodge which had then been empty for many years. The house had a somewhat forbidding air to a small child and was decidedly gloomy as I explored the cobweb-festooned rooms which reminded me of Miss Havisham's house in Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’. I well remember the iron bars across the upstairs windows and wondered what they were for! At the rear of the house were built what seemed to me like horse boxes, perhaps five of them, which faced towards the house. These were of course the single rooms which housed the patients who may have been unwilling at first to mix with other residents. These small 'cells' were demolished when the house was restored.
The grounds covered about one and a half acres of grass and trees, mostly chestnuts and conifers, with fields rising up to the crest of the escarpment which looks down on the wide Lea valley far below, where Enfield town stands. Despite what has been written to the contrary, Leppits Hill Lodge was the only house comprising the Asylum, which had these small rooms built looking into the house, Springfield most certainly has none - nor Fairmead Cottage; what Fairmead House had I do not know but my surmise is that the Lodge was mainly a reception centre for the other houses. Springfield and Fairmead Cottage have never been interfered with structurally in any way.
Why too, the double thorn hedge was grown, connecting the Lodge and Fairmead House for a distance of about four hundred yards, is another mystery. It is said that it was for the privacy of the patients, but this is just not feasible to me because in 1912 and later, the only person seen using the lane in a day was the milkman in his open trap; other people were rare indeed. In Clare's time, seventy years before this, it must have been even more deserted by the public, and patients would not need the shelter of the hedge to remain unseen. The Forest was not even opened to the public until forty five years later! I think it more likely that it provided a promenade within the grounds of the house from which they could not easily get out without being seen. A long stretch of this double hedge was still visible twenty five years ago. Perhaps only a few patients, like Clare, had full freedom of movement.
At the summit of steep Leppits Hill stands the ‘Owl’ Inn (or rather stood, because this was pulled down about seven years ago, a modern inn taking its place.) The original inn dated from the early 1700’s and was a picturesque but dark little place inside. Built of Essex elmboards -painted white, it commanded a magnificent view over the Lea valley looking down almost, sheer sides of the ridge onto the room of Fairmead Cottage in its hollow. Almost certainly it was here that Clare wrote the poem - 'A walk in the Forest:
I love the forest and its airy bounds,
Where friendly Campbell takes his daily rounds,
I love the breakneck hills that headlong go,
And leave me high, and half the world below.
Summed up in the last two lines, describing the view perfectly, this is a little masterpiece of a word picture; to me who knows it so well it is exact.
The licensee in my boyhood was a Mrs King, a daughter-in-law (or perhaps grand daughter?) of the Mrs King of Clare's time, and to whom he lent books.
At the bottom of Leppits Hill and opposite the Lodge stands Springfield, a small but charming very old farmhouse, also elm boards painted white. This is now a riding school. The house backs onto part of the Forest with a large patch of ground where vegetables have been grown for centuries. Is this the ground which Clare was digging when visited by two people who promised to send him books? It has been stated that the women patients lived here.
Four hundred yards further along the road and fronting the Forest was Fairmead House, Dr Allen's private residence and where he entertained Lord Tennyson who lived nearby at Beech Hill House past Fernhill. Fairmead House has now gone, the only one of Allen's houses to be demolished. One hundred yards away is Fairmead Cottage which I knew so well when young; my memories of the house and grounds in 1912 are as vivid to me now as then. This was the most delightful of all the scattered houses which formed the Asylum. It had, and still has, an atmosphere of belonging to the past and has a strange fascination for those who lived there. Secluded by tall hedges and lofty pines, there is a huge lawn with rhododendrons as large as a cottage in the centre, a big orchard and the ancient five-barred gate (still there) over which the deer leaped at night, and still do.
This house has never been described as part of Allen's Asylum although I had long thought that it had a connection, but six years ago I paid a visit on the spur of the moment to Fairmead Cottage on an infrequent pilgrimage, and the owner kindly gave me permission to walk around the grounds. He mentioned to me that he was in the process of digging up the roots of a ‘double thorn’ hedge in his paddock, and wondered why a ‘double thorn’? I saw at once why, and that its direction was in line with the one which had connected Leppits Hill Lodge and Fairmead House which Allen had planted so many years before. Here was the proof that Fairmead Cottage had been used by patients and been joined to the other house by the hedge, so my hunch was correct. It was strange that I should choose to visit on the very day that the roots of this hedge should be dug up and so prove my long held belief.
Clare's little red brick chapel stood nearly opposite the cottage. When I was a boy the boundaries of thorn could easily be traced and the small mounds of graves were visible. Today it has reverted back to Forest and I cannot trace at all where it stood. Fifty yards further on, the ground rises gently, and this is Fernhill so beloved of Clare and where he wrote. He seemed to be much attached to this spot. The grass slopes to the lane in front and is back by masses of tall ferns to the edge of the woods of huge beech trees. Here again is an old cottage standing just in this wood, known as the ‘Dairy Cottage’, the only cottage for miles. In all probability this is the scene of a poem - 'By a cottage near a wood'. In the grounds of Fairmead Cottage, according to an old map of 1771 in my possession, was a lily pond, and it was perhaps there that Clare wrote the 'Water Lilies' in 1841, as there is no other water-lily pond elsewhere in this area of scattered houses. A small part of the .pond is still there. The cottage near a wood was later known as Prince Napoleon's Cottage, and was the house of this son of Napoleon III after 1870. The lane is here called Prince's Hill.
Readers will be surprised at the small extent of the area covered by these few High Beach landmarks of Clare. If we take the -letter ‘L’, the ‘Owl’ stands at the top of the down stroke, Leppits Hill Lodge at the bottom of the stroke, with across the road, Springfield. Fairmead House is two-thirds along the horizontal stroke, and Fairmead Cottage at the end. These last three houses were all connected by the thorn hedge. It could take about twelve minutes to walk from the. ‘Owl’ to Fernhill, so it can be seen what a small area-of' High Beech Clare mostly roamed, or at least, wrote about.
I think, knowing well the houses concerned, that the-number of patients was nowhere as high as has been stated in some books. I read of fifty at Fairmead House alone, but no house approaching that size stood there; the area is too small. I would be very surprised if Leppits Hill Lodge slept more than twelve to fourteen, Springfield about six, Fairmead Cottage ten. Then there were the keepers, cooks, and other domestic staff; where did they all sleep? This, even now, is an area with a very small population, so what was it like in l840 with, hardly anyone locally to draw on? Some must have walked miles to work unless they slept at the Asylum. No more than a few dozen people lived here, men, women and children.
I must not forget Clare's 'Brook without a Bridge'. This brook drains down from Fernhill, being only a trickle in summer and runs just behind the old chapel site. It is a deep cutting in the clay soil and to this day has no bridge. Clare must have often jumped it to reach Fernhill on the other side.
Clare's verse in 'Child Harold' captures it completely:
How beautiful the hill of ferns swells on!
So beautiful the chapel peeps between
The hornbeams - with its simple bell, alone
I wonder here, hid in a palace green,
Mary is absent - but the forest queen.
He says it all in so few lines !
I love to see the Beech Hill mounting high,
The brook without a bridge and nearly dry,
There's Bucket's Hill, a place of furze and clouds,
Which evening in a golden haze enshrouds.
Bucket's Hill, now Buckhurst Hill, is still a place of furze and clouds, but with what economy of words he so beautifully describes it all. It is exactly the same today, one hundred and forty years after he wrote the poems.
Clare writing of Epping says ‘And quiet Epping pleases well’, so that he must have walked a considerable distance from the Asylum to see this (far from quiet now!) Buckhurst Hill is quite a walk also. I feel sure he did live at Fairmead Cottage, Allen could not have put him in a finer situation to give him peace and rest, in a house which was far more beautiful than the others, with Fernhill across the road and the mounting beech woods as a background to this most lovely corner of Essex. No wonder Henry VIII chose it for his hunting ground and called it Fair Maid Park which was the original name of Fairmead until the late eighteenth century.
With John Clare, I too could say – ‘I wander here, hid in a palace green’.
JCS Newsletter No. 7 (April 1984)