The Village of Snap

There are some poems that just keep on giving. This long poem is such a poem. Every reading encourages me to revisit Snap, the Deserted Village which is behind Liddington Hill on the path to Aldbourne in Wiltshire. Spring is the best time to visit before the couch grass and nettles get out of control. You can see the footprint of the old houses, feel the wisp of those who lived there.

If you walk on further, you’ll come to a deserted barn. It has been disgracefully left to ruin, a slow decline to a pile of bricks. The shame is that it has a long history in the beams, in the initials of craft workers. Who were FS and BT? You can see where it was extended over the ages and if you look carefully, the marks of chisel and adze. There were several extensions and the visiting workers brought news from beyond the village.

In the late 1800s, the villagers of Snap were hounded out by a Ramsbury farmer who forsook sheep for cattle, crop and workers and it was left to ruins. It bothers me that nothing has been done about it, lost in the hills between parish councils.

THE VILLAGE OF SNAP

It’s been quiet for many a year in the valley below

Betty Gentry’s farmhouse, by the disused Lower Barn,

a sentinel by the path to Aldbourne from the Ridgeway.

Its only renown until now when a troop of Roundheads

camped overnight on their way to the Battle of Newbury.

 

Write-ups had only that one accolade until a Recorder,

lesser armed with ruler, pencil and paper,

a ladder to gain height and a mental decoder of

vernacular architecture, started a dig from ground up.

He latticed the fingers of craftsmen, centuries old,

men who stood back, took note themselves,

as he does now – shadows layered on shadows –

supping himself as they might have supped

on local bread and stoppered milk.

 

The only intellectual would’ve been the teacher at Snap,

rapping the young to better themselves, heaven forfend!

Imagine then, the whirlwind of talk, messengers with news

and opinions whispered over an evening’s fire,

between the Glorious Revolution and the Seven Years War,

the period of the building and rebuilding,

the coming and going in this quiet valley.

 

And it’s quiet this day, the Recorder on his ladder,

both hands to steady, pencil in mouth perhaps, excited

by the cocktail of staggered tenoned purlins,

the oak trusses calibrated on gunstock head posts,

the straight and curved raking struts and arched braces.

There is no one in the summer sun to whisper in his ear,

hint at a date or tell who carpenters FS and BT might be.

 

Oh, he’ll process the history with forensic skill alright,

how the sloped trusses are from an earlier barn,

feel the bleached bulk for the mark of chisel and adze,

smile at discoveries that will enliven his report:

the wall and arcade plates jointed in every bay – bar one,

the pintle hole for the original barn door,

the deduction: might-have-been, could-have-been.

 

When the craftsmen left, the Barn and stables were solid built,

eight horses ready for the seed drill or horse-hoe, busy days.

The herdsmen would stop to sup, their families about,

would show the work, point out the curved

braces from an earlier barn, incongruous like elephant tusks,

the mixed tiles of no known source,

the clever use of thatch to thwart snow and sun.

 

The glamour of the visitors done,

the young went back to the warrens in the barrows by Sugar Hill,

snaring birds by the double ditches,

dispatching a caught deer, hoarding it under leaf until nightfall.

The ways of then,

a couple of generations before their ways were clipped,

consequential damage to the repeal of corn laws,

collateral damage to a butcher from Ramsbury

who’d farm sheep instead of crop or cattle.

The drift of young families on squeaky carts from Wiltshire.

The old left to drop on the throw of a dice.

 

The village of Snap is deserted now,

the stone plundered, target practice for the army,

more a melancholy wood than a village, easily passed.

The last to leave was Rachel Fischer in 1909 who died

in Aldbourne, lamenting the bark of the fox, the singing birds.

Where hovers her spirit? Is the curdle of decay at night,

the tap-tap-tap, her walking stick? If not she, then who?

The common plants about the Barn have little to say,

ragged robin and cow parsley, the nefarious crawl of damp and

creeper levering the mortar into stopes like strewn flour.

Still a mindful Barn

though you’d have to see beyond the prison grid,

the corrugated roof, jetsam to the height, Grade II yet a squat.

Only the Recorder’s report, faithful to the visible, remains.

 

How to manifest that manuscript to the dead?

It’s a blueprint to cull the death rattle of an old Barn,

to eke out its essence:

could the water drips be the laughter of children,

the warm sun on walnuts be the smell of pipe tobacco,

the thrush’s three bursts be the giggle of lovers,

the smell of allium be a charm of heated pottage,

the wind whispering the mothers knitting voices at harvest,

the tap of a falling nail on cobble be the horses’ unrest,

the night noises the ploughman’s cluck and snap to the harrow?

This is Pompeii on its penultimate day.

For now, the Recorder has had the only say

but even that will dissipate with time.

Published in Lyden magazine May 2024