Caught by the River

Francis Kilvert's Clyro

24th May 2016

Francis ​Kilvert is a fascinating figure who is remembered for his diaries reflecting rural life in the 1870s. Indeed, his diaries are regarded as one of the best portraits of rural Britain at the height of the Victorian era. ​Oliver B​alch turned to these diaries as his guide after he and his family moved from bustling Buenos Aires to a village where Kilvert once lived in rural Wales. Here, Oliver muses on the extent to which Clyro is still the village of Kilvert’s writings.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 23.41.14 Digitised postcard image of Clyro. Ashbrook house, home of Kilvert 1865-1872, Judges Ltd. From the Peter Davis Collection at Parks and Gardens UK.

“In the afternoon Mrs. Bevan, Mary and I drove to Clyro. As we passed along the old familiar road that I have journeyed over so many times a thousand memories swept over me. Every foot of Clyro ground is classical and sacred and has its story.” – Kilvert’s Diary, 23 March 1874

The village tour leaves from the steps of the pub in Clyro. We number about twenty in total, an even split between women and men. Most of the women are wearing dark glasses against the glare of the Saturday afternoon sun. The men are dressed uniformly in plain, long-sleeved cotton shirts, staples of their working wardrobes now redeployed for retirement. White-haired and stiff-gaited, the members of the Kilvert Society are feeling energised today. And with good reason. For all around them, in the cloudless steel blue sky, through the village’s rustling trees, the spirit of the Reverend Francis Kilvert can be felt.

A long-bearded, warm-hearted cleric from Wiltshire, Kilvert moved to this rural corner of the Welsh borders in 1865 to take up the post of curate. He stayed for seven years, a period widely described as the happiest in his life. It was during these halcyon days in Wales, nestled in the lee of the Black Mountains, a stone’s throw from the sylvan River Wye, that he began his eponymous diaries. It would take six decades for them to find their way into print and when they did – in 1938 – the world had changed dramatically. Europe teetering on the brink of war. The British Empire crumbling. Life’s certainties smashed. Little wonder that this lyrical account of village life, set within a bucolic backdrop of sheep-strewn hills and a seemingly timeless social order, should prove an instant hit. Kilvert’s Clyro played into a vision of rural Britain as an ageless, untainted Arcadia – the village as mythical ideal, as a ‘montage of memories’, as the historian E.P. Thompson puts it. 

Today, as with most days, the wiggly main street that runs through Clyro is quiet and traffic-free. A soft-spoken archivist from Llandrindod acts as our guide for the day. He ambles along the road’s dotted dividing line and we follow his lead. The material transformation of the village quickly reveals itself through his liberal use of the conditional perfect. ‘There would have been an orchard here.’ ‘The blacksmith would have worked there.’ New-builds have supplanted these architectural ghosts. Three mini estates now encircle the village, their cement foundations sunk deep into soil once covered by buttercupped meadows. Nowhere can the imprint of change be seen more clearly than in the village’s bifurcating bypass, its splicing of present and past played out to a perpetual faint backing track of droning engines.

Not all is new, by any means. Were Kilvert to miraculously resurrect and wade up the Wye from his resting place in nearby Bredwardine, much would remain familiar to him. The old parish church, most obviously. Stationed there in the heart of the village, its squat stone-tower unmoved and unmovable, the heavy entrance door still hanging on its hinges, the same hill – grassy-backed and slagheap-steep – still guarding its back. The churchyard is fuller, for sure, but Kilvert’s “sleeping friends” rest there still. Nor has time altered the bank of low-ceilinged stone cottages that huddle around the churchyard wall. So too with the Vicarage, where the young curate frequently dined with his vicar boss, Richard Venables, Kilvert’s proxy father in his Welsh home-from-home.

His view of life framed by a romantic nostalgia, Kilvert was as content reflecting on the past as he was inhabiting the present. Often he’d find Old Hannah Whitney knitting on her doorstep, her bonnet pulled down over her ‘grey-bearded nutcracker face’. Beside her he’d sit and listen to her tell of the ‘kindly primitive times’ – times of magic and myth, when Goblin Lanterns blew bright and fairy rings lured in the unwitting. Or up in Cwmbythog cottage, where he’d wile away whole afternoons chatting with old soldier Morgan, a veteran of the Peninsula Wars, hearing his tales of marauding Spanish wolves and whispering French sentries.

Yet Kilvert could not evade the present, nor ignore its pace of change. He’d still insist on calling the village pub The Swan, despite a newly minted sign re-christening it The Baskerville Arms (as it remains today). He dismissed Non-conformists as rabble-rousers and ‘barbarians’, but their hand was all too evident in his thinning congregation. Still, the Welsh borders staved off the full impact of Chartism, political bureaucracy and other radicalisms washing over the nation. Clyro society was still essentially feudal in Kilvert’s day. The landed elite remained landed. Mechanised agriculture was still but a pipedream. Society stood fixed, barely a fissure in its strictly stratified layers.

Attuned to his audience’s interest, the archivist turns his attentions to what remains, not what’s missing. So it is that we find ourselves standing in front of Ashbrook House, where Kilvert lodged and penned his diaries. And from there to Cae Mawr, home to his hiking friend Hope Morrell; to the old primary school, where Kilvert taught the catechism and mocked the schoolmaster’s fiddle-playing; to the Castle Tump, where William Meredith once lay dying on his curtained bed, his eyes rolling wildly in the darkness as a “tempest shook the old house and roared in the roof”.

Arriving in Clyro a century-and-a-half after Kilvert, I can discern the village of the diary, but only distantly. It’s casual glimpses I catch, and no more: an outline lurking in the shadows, hiding from the electric glare of the street lamps. He’s here for sure, though, Clyro’s erstwhile curate. A trail of tiny clues announce him. The chime of the church bells. The scent of freshly-ploughed earth. The morning mist up the dingle. Every foot of ground carrying its own story. And not just Kilvert’s. Old Hannah Whitney’s, old soldier Morgan’s, Hope Morrell’s, William Meredith’s: their stories too. It’s to this lengthy library of lives lived that I now humbly add my own account: a chapter grounded in the present, but ever mindful of Clyro’s persistent past. 

‘Under the Tump: Sketches of Real Life on the Welsh Borders’ by Oliver Balch, published by Faber & Faber, is out now and available in the Caught by the River shop. Oliver will be speaking to Georgina Godwin about the book at the Hay Festival on 1st June 2016.