Liam Xavier and fellow Psychogeography students lose themselves in Epping Forest in pursuit of John Clare. Photos © Ben Thomas.
Wednesday 15th March saw a class of Psychogeography students attempt to follow in the footsteps of poet John Clare through Epping Forest on an abnormally sunny day. As a log line, it may not be the most convincing introduction to a film or a book. There’s a sort of failed semi-thriller, semi-coming-of-age vibe to it but it correctly sums up the day. The rare but welcome appearance of sun and warmth started the trip off to a good beginning. What’s more is once we – we being one of a convoy of cars – arrived at Epping Forest, we were told by our other budding walkers that we had just missed a visit from none other than Prince Harry himself.
Ah, you see! Rare sun, the missed appearance of a prince, all very dramatic stuff to forebode the rest of the walk!
In fact, our original concerns over bad weather and overt muddiness, later contrasted by the eventual beauty and peace, was a rather appropriate collection of emotions to our tracing of John Clare’s footsteps.
Clare’s story is a tricky and upsetting one, but is ultimately full of passion. Having read some of his work, in particular the work we were using as our metaphorical satnav through the woods, it was easy to feel his spirit. We began by observing the site of what would have been the asylum he first lived in from 1837.
We spoke of how walking the wood was meant to be used as a natural medicine to the patient’s problems. As we walked through the entrance of this forest, though mine and Clare’s lives are different, I couldn’t help but feel a similar relief that I imagine he may have felt. Pardon the theatre in my description, but it’s an essentially magical moment. In the same way that leaving a sauna and entering a cold bath in a spa gives you a physical detox, entering the wood was giving us all a mental detox.
As we walked, we noted the stream Clare talks about, the silent allure of which helped clarify why Clare was so intent on following it through the woods. We spoke of the fallen trees, their colouring showing the slow descent into their old age. We fell over, and sunk into muddy crevices, we climbed, we ducked, we jumped. Away from the humour of trying to avoid what mud there was and the ninja-like appearance of thorn branches, we also took a moment of solitude. We spent five minutes separating ourselves from the main group and finding our own individual path.
What was surprising was how quickly the experience changed.
There was even more silence, not just of the forest, but of ourselves and our friends. At one point the noise from my footsteps even seemed to disappear. I found myself standing by a tree, a seemingly natural amalgamation of surviving trees and fallen trees. Something in its complications and artistic dysfunction, along with the quiet backing of the stream, helped me to imagine how Clare, in his emotional state, might see the beauty in it. As we reconvened we further found another mystery: a piece of stone and fresh daffodils that had been placed on the site of a former chapel. It was positioned almost perfectly where the altar would have been, and we felt there must be some link to Clare. Using the ultimate historical tool of Google and racking our creative brains we came up with several reasons but none that solidified any certainty and so we continued, albeit with a mystery in our minds.
As is typical of a journey into the woods we were briefly lost. We knew we were near some sort of a road, and there was probably an exit … somewhere. But we weren’t sure where and toward which direction was best to go. Though we obviously found our way out there was a wish, at least within me, that we would not leave so early. There was a craving to be lost a little longer and have to discover the woods for some time more before appearing once again toward the ‘normal’ world of cars and the M25.
Away from Epping Forest it is insightful on a larger scale, to understanding others and their behaviour, to be able to retrace the footsteps of a creator. John Clare had an understandable preoccupation with the past, and a gorgeous affinity for reflection. Following his footsteps was a journey that not only brought relaxation and humour, but a further appreciation of his strength and determination to never stop writing.
After completing his BA in Film and Creative Writing at The University of Essex, Liam Xavier is now studying an MA in Playwriting. Having grown up in rural Maldon he has spent much of his time finding comfort and interest in discovering the nature of his surroundings. Coming, also, from a mixed-race heritage he has spent a large portion of his life and time at the University of Essex looking into different cultures and traditions. This is what drew him to not only take the Psychogeography module, but also to focus on nature and culture in much of his writing. He blogs at liamxavier.wordpress.com, tweets @LiamXavier95 and publishes poetry on Instagram @LiamXavier95