Friday, 20 April 2018

Joseph Tubb & the Poem Tree ~ How to be Differently Alive

The Poem Tree, Wittenham Clumps, 2nd September 2012.

I wanted to write about another ‘holy activist ancestor’ who inspires me, the little known poet and wood carver, Joseph Tubb and his Poem Tree.

On the last day of August 2012 I walked through fields of Greylag and Canada Geese and followed a path of dog daisies to visit Wittenham Clumps, close to Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. 

Greylag geese, Dorchester-on-Thames water meadows, 2012.

Wittenham Clumps is the common name for two chalk hills, Round Hill and Castle Hill, in the Thames Valley. Castle Hill is the sight of an Iron Age hill fort, built on earlier Bronze Age remains, and, just over half a mile away, is Brightwell Bronze Age round barrow. At the top of the hills are small woods containing the oldest beech tree plantings in England, dating back to the 1740s. Their summits offer views over a landscape that once contained some of the earliest settlements in our land. The artist, Paul Nash, climbed the Clumps in 1911, subsequently visiting many times, and described the view as, “a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten."

Although 'Wittenham Clumps' is generally used to refer to the entire hills, that name really refers only to the wooded summits of Round and Castle Hills, with their older collective name being Sinodun Hills ~ Sinodun from the Celtic, ‘Seno-Dunum’, meaning ‘Old Fort’, although it has been suggested that it is a much more modern play on words based on ‘sinus’, which in Latin means ‘bosom’. Admittedly the two hills do looks very much like breasts. Some of their more colloquial names include ‘The Berkshire Bubs’ (before boundaries changed they were in the county of Berkshire), and ‘Mother Dunch’s Buttocks’! The latter was named for a member of a local landowning family, which makes me smile. I’m not sure that she would have taken it as a compliment! On the summit of the hills there is a hollow called the ‘Money-pit’, supposedly a treasure hoard guarded by a raven, and a copse named ‘Cuckoo Pen’, referring to the belief that imprisoning a cuckoo would bring eternal summer. Looking out, Dorchester Abbey is clearly visible to the north. At the time of my visit the abbey was displaying a newly commissioned painting, ‘Bright Rising’ by artist Rebecca Hind, which depicts Mary as the full moon rising above a water meadow ~ freeing the divine from church walls and subversively placing her in the surrounding landscape. It was to this strange and blessed earth that Joseph Tubb, in an act of defiance and devotion, came in 1844 to carve his Poem Tree.

Joseph was a maltster, converting grain into malt for use in brewing, and lived at Lavender Cottage in Warborough, near Dorchester. He had always wanted to be a wood carver but his father convinced him, due to family tradition, to abandon his dream and become a maltster instead. He lived at the end of the Industrial Revolution, which had drawn many from the countryside and agricultural work into the towns and cities. It was also when land once held in common as a resource for all had been further enclosed by the last wave of the Inclosure Acts. Some might consider that the two things were even related! Joseph strongly opposed this enclosure and often pulled down fences as an act of rebellion. Because of that he spent a short time in Oxford gaol. Over two weeks during the summer of 1844 or 45, he took a ladder and tent to Wittenham Clumps and carved a poem he had written from memory into the bark of a beech tree on the eastern slopes of Castle Hill.

Wonderful image of the Poem Tree when she was still standing. Photo: The Oxford Times

The poem he carved in a labour of love is a prayer to his ‘motherground’, the landscape that was his home from birth until death. It describes a moment in time, woven through with the threads of history, of both worldly and religious powers ~ Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Dane, the coming of Christianity and its own demands for land. I'm sure that, had he lived a hundred years later, he might also have mentioned Didcot Power Station, which can be clearly seen dominating the landscape from the top of The Clumps. 

View of Didcot Power Station from Wittenham Clumps, 2012.

As up the hill with labr'ing steps we tread
Where the twin Clumps their sheltering branches spread
The summit gain'd at ease reclining lay
And all around the wide spread scene survey
Point out each object and instructive tell
The various changes that the land befell
Where the low bank the country wide surrounds
That ancient earthwork form'd old
Mercia’s bounds
In misty distance see the barrow heave
There lies forgotten lonely
Cwichelm's grave.

Around this hill the ruthless Danes intrenched
And these fair plains with gory slaughter drench'd
While at our feet where stands that stately tower
In days gone by up rose the
Roman power
And yonder, there where
Thames smooth waters glide
In later days appeared monastic pride.
Within that field where lies the grazing herd
Huge walls were found, some coffins disinter'd
Such is the course of time, the wreck which fate
And awful doom award the earthly great.

(Joseph Tubb)

"Within that field where lies the grazing herd..."

View of the River Thames from Wittenham Clumps

Joseph’s poem speaks of the ‘ancient earthwork’, which may refer to Grim’s Ditch, a 5 mile long bank and ditch earthwork on the Berkshire Downs, or to The Ridgeway, a 5,000 year old ancient trackway along the chalk ridge between Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire, which Grim’s Ditch forms a part of. Mercia was one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and dominated England south of the River Humber for three centuries (between 600 and 900CE). During Alfred the Great’s rule (871 to 899CE) the border between Wessex and Mercia could be seen from the Clumps. I think of Joseph reflecting on the land being ‘carved up’ in this way as he carved into the bark of the tree. 

Mention of ‘Cwichelm’s grave’ is reference to Scutchamer Knob, an early Iron Age round barrow on the Ridgeway near Grim’s Ditch, which was originally called Cwichelmeshlaew or Cwichelm's Barrow and was believed to be the place where the recently baptised Anglo-Saxon king Cwichelm of Wessex was killed by King Edwin of Northumbria in 636CE. The round barrow was thought to have been the grave of Cwichelm for many years and to contain treasure, hence its changing shape as it has been repeatedly excavated but without any significant finds. I love too the description of seeing the barrow ‘heave’ in the misty distance. In my recent writing on Hocktide I mentioned that one of the customs involved local people lifting one another off the ground. I was reminded by one of my readers that this act of ‘heaving’ has its equivalents in many European spring traditions and that it was a way of proving one’s strength at the start of the year. I am sure that Joseph would have been familiar with such customs and wonder whether the ‘heave’ in his poem is a play on words evoking an image of Cwichelm’s long forgotten and ‘lonely’ barrow ‘heaving’ to test its strength against an incoming tide of invaders. It reminds me very much of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘The Land’, which similarly traces attempts by incomers to take over land which isn’t theirs and comparing them to someone whose ancestors have lived on and worked it for generations. I am sure that Joseph Tubb and Rudyard Kipling would have found much to talk about.

Joseph goes on to write of ‘disinterred coffins’, referring to the 18th century discovery of two coffins on the summit of Round Hill, together with the possible remains of a Roman Villa, a reminder that no power lasts forever, as the ‘lonely Cwichelm’ could no doubt attest; that even the ‘earthly great’ will end up in the ground with the lowliest of us. Here again, Joseph touches on my own thoughts. My friend, Will, who I visited Wittenham Clumps with, was once a member of the Peace Convoy which was attacked by police at the Battle of the Beanfield in Wiltshire on 1st June 1985 whilst on their way to set up the Stonehenge Free Festival. That is a story for another day but for now I will say that I was both moved and delighted when I discovered that, when he died two years after our visit, the burial site chosen for him following a series of ‘coincidences’ was, without knowing it at the time, on the very farm that the Peace Convoy had been so brutally driven from so many years before. There have always been those who hope to restrict the common people’s access to the land. In life they are very often able to do so, but death is the ‘True Leveller’ and Will’s bones are reclaiming the land, becoming part of it. No earthly power has control over that process of beautiful disorder. Joseph would have liked that I think. 

As for the beech tree which Joseph chose to carve into; she is believed to have been planted around 300 years ago but her health began to decline in the 1980s and she collapsed through a combination of rot and weather challenging to an elderly tree in July 2012, just a few weeks before I visited. Beech trees are not particularly long living and have shallow roots so this is all part of her life cycle. In fact, she lived an amazingly long life before she fell. Once she had been found to be in a dangerous condition, as many of the trees on The Clumps now are, a crane was brought in to make her safe but she disintegrated as she was being lowered to the ground. Luckily, British geographer Henry Osmaston took a rubbing of Joseph’s poem in 1965 before it became almost illegible and this was made into a plaque, which was erected on a Sarsen stone close to the tree in 1994 to commemorate 150 years since the carving was made. Of course, the plaque, which was sponsored by the Natwest bank, makes no mention of the reasons that Joseph may have had for making such a dedicated and lasting statement, nor for writing the poem itself. We must work that out for ourselves and in that way hopefully remember him as he would have wished. 

The plaque erected on top of Wittenham Clumps to commemorate 150 years since the carving of the Poem Tree

The tree herself has been left where she fell and will provide a valuable wildlife habitat and nutrients to the surrounding area in the years ahead. To me, she is just differently alive.

The fallen Poem Tree ~ differently alive ~ 2nd Sepetmber, 2012
The fallen Poem Tree ~ differently alive ~ 2nd Sepetmber, 2012

The Poem Tree, 2nd September, 2012

A few days after her transformation a tribute of flowers, including gladioli, was left on her broken trunk, such is the affection for Joseph and his Poem Tree, and I believe that we found a trace of that offering when we visited. 

Offerings of flowers left for Joseph & his Poem Tree after she fell in July 2012

I feel deeply blessed that I came to that place only a few weeks after she fell and when Joseph’s carving could still be seen in her bark, particularly as parts of it were soon after removed to be put on display elsewhere. And I feel deeply blessed to have touched the 168 year old carvings of a man who escaped the limitations and demands of family tradition to become the wood carver that he always longed to be, even if only for two weeks on top of his beloved Wittenham Clumps. On this high hill, rising above it all to make his stand, he perhaps found in her trees and earthworks a way to carve out just a little bit of liberty for himself and for the land that he loved. A land whose confinement echoed his own. May our own quiet rebellions echo through the years with such creative determination and brightness. 

And what of Joseph's bones resting now in the land that aroused in him such passion for common justice? Like his Poem Tree, they have transformed, become one with the earth, dissolved the boundaries; man, poem, and tree released to do their work in new ways. In death, Joseph Tubb truly has pulled down the fence. He has become differently alive.

Just one last word ~ while visiting the Poem Tree, my eye kept being drawn to this log in the grass nearby. I was convinced that someone was lying there reading. I like to think that it was Joseph, resting at last after making his mark as the wood carver and poet that he was born to be. 


  1. what an interesting post. it must be a beautiful area to walk about in. everything but that power station looks so lovely and pretty timeless, too. i'm reminded of the passage in "the wind in the willows" where the badger is talking about the land above and around his people and buildings and trees came and went through the long years, but the badgers (and other wild folk) remained... it's nice to think of joseph tubb resting easily in his land, his poem tree gently returning to the earth, and his words preserved for future folk to see. may we all love the land, share it nicely, and return to it one day in peace.

  2. Thank you so much. Even though I've been there I still discovered lots that I hadn't known when I was researching writing this. And I like that it reminds you of badger speaking in 'Wind in the Willows'. I always think that 'Old Hobden' in Rudyard Kipling's poem, 'The Land', refers to a badger and it could be a badger speaking in Joseph's poem too. They are such keepers of the memory of our land. And yes, I join with you in your prayer for loving the land better. Thank you too for reminding me of 'heaving' the other day x

  3. Beautiful, thank you Jacqueline xxxx Andrea xx


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