At the weekend our walk was not in our usual Chiltern Hills, but nearer to hand, in the countryside around Boars Hill, with its splendid views of Oxford, augmented at the moment by the tall cranes associated with the building of the new Westgate shopping centre. We hadn't done this walk for some while, and it has never been a regular route for us, but it is pleasant enough. I had completely forgotten its poetic associations.
Once the bulk of the walk had been completed we wandered around the privileged environs of Boars Hill itself, impressed by the large houses, extensive leafy gardens, and atmosphere that I can only describe as of absent-minded opulence. Eventually we came to the entrance of The Elizabeth Daryush memorial Garden, and went in. When we stopped at this garden on an earlier walk, the name Daryush had caused a distant echo in my mind, but was not instantly familiar to me. I tracked my slight recognition down to a sonnet in Don Paterson's book 101 Sonnets, published by Faber. There I found this lovely poem:
Through the open french window the warm sun
lights up the polished breakfast-table, laid
round a bowl of crimson roses, for one -
a service of Worcester porcelain, arrayed
near it a melon, peaches, figs, small hot
rolls in a napkin, fairy rack of toast,
butter in ice, high silver coffee pot,
and, heaped on a salver, the mornings post.
She comes over the lawn, the young heiress,
from her early walk in her garden-wood
feeling that life's a table set to bless
her delicate desires with all that's good,
that even the unopened future lies
like a love-letter, full of sweet surprise.
How perfectly this poem fits Boars Hill, even now. Paterson in his notes says “It's hard to know exactly where the poet stands on all this, but we can perhaps sense her disapproval in the pampered insularity of the scene. I hope.” The house Daryush lived in is next door to the memorial garden, hidden by trees, but from what you can see it looks as large and luxurious as all the other Boars Hill houses. I found myself wondering what her breakfast table looked like? Was she describing it in the poem?
We sat by the pond in the memorial garden soaking up what felt like the warmest sun of the year so far, and listening to expensive Boars Hill birdsong.
Moving on we passed through what is known as Matthew Arnold's field. It was his poem Thyrsis that contained the famous lines about Oxford "And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,/ She needs not June for beauty's heightening". I mischievously wondered whether the lines would have been different had the shopping centre cranes been there in his day.
I enjoyed our mooch around the sumptuous acres of Boars Hill, wondering what it would be like to live in such extravagent houses, but felt that my wife and I would be a little lost in such outsize accommodation, and although I'm not by nature a very gregarious person, I do like having other people close by. Boars Hill folk have such large gardens that the neighbours necessarily live at some distance from them, for the most part out of sight and hearing. I don't envy them their homes and surroundings. It would be too isolated for me, nice to wander around on a visit from a less exalted Oxfordshire village, but to adapt Don Paterson's thought on Elizabeth Daryush's poem I couldn't help feeling a little disapproval at the pampered insularity, and perhaps a bit sorry for them being so separate from everyone else.