An attractive Trentside aspect with idyllic woodland, Wilford Grove, and its neighbour, Clifton Grove, attracted many a visitor from Nottingham and beyond. The area was a magnet for poets seeking inspiration and a place to write.
It was in the churchyard of St. Wilfrid’s that teenage poet Henry Kirke White (1785-06) wrote his verse inside a brick octagonal gazebo. This is still standing and contains a plaque stating:
Listed historic building.
Built as a ‘summerhouse’.
Associated with poet Henry Kirke White.
The basement was used as a mortuary for river drownings.
Burnt out 1976.
Restored as a preserved structure by community industry 1980.’
Afflicted with tuberculosis, the young poet came to Wilford Grove for a month’s leave of absence from the Bridlesmith Gate attorneys Coldham and Enfield. His repose was taken in the room of a little cottage opposite Wilford House, within the extended grounds of the church. To aid his recovery and provide uninterrupted study, he had chosen Wilford, as opposed to a sojourn on the coast, because it was close to his home in Nottingham and it was a peaceful place he loved.
In the midst of his painful, tiresome illness, when he couldn’t walk ten yards before his knees buckled, Kirke White wrote to his mother requesting that when he dies, he should be buried in the Wilford churchyard.
“Here would I wish to sleep. This is the spot
Which I have long mark’d out to lay my bones in…”
Inside the Grade II listed church of St. Wilfrid’s are two memorials to Kirke White, taking the form of a stained-glass window and a marble plaque of the poet in portrait. Based on Kirke White’s poem, ‘The Star of Bethlehem’, O’Connor’s memorial window depicts a Nativity scene. Religion was important to the young poet who later attended Cambridge to pursue a career in the church. ‘Oft in danger, oft in woe’, is probably his best-known hymn.
Clifton Grove was the subject of the longest poem in Kirke White’s first short volume, ‘Clifton Grove, a sketch in verse with other poems’ (1803), which contains the line:
“Bespeak, best Clifton! thy sublime domain.”
Kirke White adored Clifton Grove, writing:
“These are thy charms;
the joys which these impart
Bind thee Best Clifton
close around my heart.”
Kirke White’s principal poem incorporated the legend of the Fair Maid of Clifton, which told of a Clifton milkmaid, “the beauteous Margaret”, as he called her. He also used the story in his ballad ‘O, The Fair Maid of Clifton’. The story goes that Margaret, who lived here during the War of the Roses, had promised to wait for her sweetheart, a Wilford ferryman called Bateman, who had spent three years abroad. On his return, Bateman was distraught to discover that she’d been married for six months having sold herself for wealth. He promptly drowned himself in the Trent. After giving birth, Margaret was dragged by vengeful spirits into the river, “to the yawning wave, her own and murdered lover’s mutual grave.”
The joys of the Groves aided Kirke White’s health and he recovered enough to follow a religious calling, attending Saint John’s College, Cambridge. Family and friends provided money for his studies. Amongst those benefactors was the politician William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who contributed £20 to Kirke White’s education. Wilberforce had been a regular guest at Wilford House – the seat of his uncle, Abel Smith (1717-1788), of the Smith family of bankers – and he was here for several months between 1786 and 1789 when he would have been drawing up his first bill to abolish the transatlantic slave trade.
Wilford House was later home to the Forman-Hardy family who owned and ran the ‘Nottingham Evening Post’.
Once in Cambridge, Kirke White’s health deteriorated and, in 1806, he died in his University digs. He was 21 years old.
‘The Homes and Haunts of Henry Kirke White’ (1908) by John T. Godfrey and James Ward, devotes 27 pages to Wilford and 35 to Clifton. In his short life the poet immortalised both places and the walk between them, a tranquil avenue of beauty with the silvery river on one side and elm trees offering shade on the other. That picturesque route, from Wilford up through Clifton Grove (or vice versa), remained a place of much inspiration for over a century, its fine Nottingham vista attracting painters and poets alike.
Clifton Grove was formerly in the grounds of Clifton Manor and it’s likely that its elm trees were planted by Sir Gervase Clifton in the 1690s. By the 19th Century, Nottingham possessed a greater literary circle than any comparable town in the world, and many of those writers came here. The Notts poet Spencer T Hall (1812-1885), writing of the decades after Kirke White’s death, was not wrong when he wrote that, “Nottingham was remarkable for having turned out many excellent authors.”
In 1846 Spencer T. Hall said, “Who ever saw Wilford without wishing to become an inmate of one of its peaceful woodbined homes.” Two decades later, Hall was living in Wilford when he published ‘The Upland Hamlet, and other Poems’ (1867), in which he gives a description of its charms.
On the subject of Wilford’s notorious flooding, Hall wrote:
“Wilford! When first I gazed on thee.
Whilst leaning o’er upland stile.
Thy flooded meads were one vast lake.
And thou a little bowery isle.”
It was in a cottage in Wilford that William Howitt (1792-1879) wrote part of his popular, ‘The Book of the Seasons, or the Calendar of Nature’ (1831), written from his observations of nature’s monthly changes. Howitt’s younger brother, the poet and author Richard Howitt (1799-1869), emigrated to Australia with another brother, Godfrey, to a place near Melbourne that they named Wilford.
In the spring of 1833, William’s wife, Mary Howitt, wrote of the nearby Meadows, the gateway from Nottingham to Wilford. The Meadows was another local attraction, its acres of rare purple crocus flowers inspired her poem ‘Wild Crocus in Nottingham Meadows’ (1833).
The Howitts were friends with the journalist Henry S. Sutton (1825-1901) whose first poetry was the mystical ‘Clifton Grove Garland’ (1848). This work was the religious poet’s tribute to his literary contemporaries from Notts. People like Philip James Bailey, author of ‘Festus’, who spent time in Wilford in Spencer T. Hall’s rustic study.
Like Sutton, Edward Hind (1817-1872) wrote here and produced lots of prose and verse informed by his rambles around the area. One of his poems, ‘Prometheus Bound: a Life-Drama’, was commented on by William Wylie who said, “coming generations… will regard it as one of the most remarkable works ever produced in that town which first saw ‘Festus’ given to a wondering world.”
Other writers frequenting the groves in the mid-19th century included the Radford born poet Jane Jerram (1815-72), Frederick Enoch, who composed ‘Songs of Universal Brotherhood’, the rector Edmund Larken (1809–1895), a patron of radical causes and author on social matters, noted as possibly the first parish priest of his time to wear a beard, and the poet and novelist Thomas Miller (1807-1874).
A keen explorer of rural subjects, Miller enjoyed Wilford’s beauty and quietude. He was also around to see its deterioration. “Where are the famous cherry eatings of Wilford now?” he wrote. “The poetry around the neighbourhood is fast fading. The flower-sellers who used to stand under the sunny rocks of Sneinton have vanished. The green footpath that led along the river bank to Colwick is closed; even the pathway that leads to the old ballad-haunted grove is altered, and all old things seem to be passing away.”
By this time the Meadows has lost much of its charm. Ann Gilbert’s ‘The Last Dying Speech of the Crocuses’ (1852) was written as the famous crocuses were about to be lost to new housing. In fairness, the Meadows has maintained a wide embankment of lawns and playing fields, but to see the crocuses we must turn to paintings, such as the one that resides in Nottingham Castle’s museum by local artist S. W. Oscroft. Inspired by this picture, Cathy Grindrod wrote ‘The Crocus Gatherers, Nottingham Meadows’, which appears in ‘Ten Poems About Nottingham’ (2015).
In the year of Miller’s death, ‘Shaws Guide to Nottingham’ was still hailing Clifton Grove as a big draw, writing, “At Easter and Whitsuntide, if the weather permits, thousands of the Nottingham artizans with their wives and families, young men and maidens, either with sweethearts or to gain sweethearts flock to…the Grove.”
Our writers were also still flocking there, and to Wilford.
Nottingham folk were known to spend summer days out in Wilford village, with its tea rooms and gardens, and one popular location was the Ferry Inn. Briefly a coffee house during the 18th century, part of the pub dates back to a 14th century farmhouse. Once a charter was issued, granting permission for the operation of a ferry boat across the river, the venue was converted into a place of refreshment. The Ferry Inn sits facing the river, the point where people were taken across the Trent to the Meadows, prior to the construction of Wilford Bridge.
It was on this spot that James Prior (1851-1922) set the opening of his first published work.
“Good-day to you, madam; and good-day to you, sir. Welcome to Nottingham,” begins James Prior’s ‘Three Shots from a Popgun’ (1880), the ‘three shots’ being three stories. His description is adoring.
“So we are now at the end of the Walk, and by the banks of the Trent. This thing that fronts us is not an iron bridge, but a rustic ferry – Wilford Ferry, worked by one man’s arm. We enter the boat, and cross in company with a milk-cart, a Nottingham stockinger, with fishing-rod and mat basket in hand, and a pair of sweethearts bound for Clifton Grove.
Safely landed with a bump! The village close at hand, almost hidden by innumerable elms, is Wilford. However, we will not enter it now, but will turn to the right by this White Horse Inn, making for the church, whose tower and spire you can see in spite of the trees.
Allow me, ladies, to assist you over this high stile. Now here we are, with nothing but a low barrier between us and the churchyard that grave-haunted Kirke White loved. But before you enter, sit down and admire the scene.
It is scarcely spoilt even now, though green fields are blotted out with red brick, and a colliery belches smoke on the opposite bank of the river. But yes, I remember we were at thirty years ago. Northward, beyond the Trent, see the broad sweep of rich meadow-land, besprinkled with trees, and bordered by pleasant hills, from which to our left rise the heights of Wollaton, clad with verdure, through which peeps the white face of a solitary mansion. To the right of these lie the houses and gentler slopes of Lenton; and next the bluff on which stands Nottingham, its two most prominent headlands crowned, the one by the Castle, the other by St. Mary’s tower.”
D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), who shared a publisher with Prior, wrote of Clifton Grove in Chapter 12 of ‘Sons and Lovers’ (1913). Like Prior, Lawrence mentions Kirke White, so strongly associated with the area.
In the novel, Paul and Clara visit the Grove, noting that – unlike Wilford and the Meadows – it had barely changed in a century.
“They were at the entrance to the Grove. The wet, red track, already sticky with fallen leaves, went up the steep bank between the grass. On either side stood the elms-trees like pillars along a great aisle, arching over and making high up a roof from which the dead leaves fell. All was empty and silent and wet.”
‘All was silent and deserted. On the left the red wet plough-land showed through the doorways between the elm-boles and their branches. On the right, looking down, they could see the tree-tops of elms growing far beneath them, hear occasionally the gurgle of the river. Sometimes there below they caught glimpses of the full, soft-sliding Trent, and of water-meadows dotted with small cattle.
It has scarcely altered since little Kirke White used to come,” he said.’
Reverend Rosslyn Bruce (1871-1956), rector of Clifton, published ‘The Clifton Book’ in 1906. “A book about Clifton to be characteristic should smell of the fresh-ploughed soil and resound with the song of thrushes,” he wrote, in his historical account of Clifton through the ages.
Much of Clifton is unrecognisable since Bruce’s days. A small village until the middle of the 20th century, it was in 1943 that Nottingham City Council acquired the land for new housing. The council had been in lengthy negotiation with the Clifton family before they secured the deal that would turn the land into one of the largest housing estates in Europe, incorporating it into the city of Nottingham in 1952.
In 1906, the year that Revd. Bruce’s Clifton Book was published, Cecil Roberts (1892-1976) and his family lived at Wilford Grove, on the edge of a colliery district, “in the days when miners were regarded as sub-human, brawling drunkards living in hovels,” said Roberts, who visited Clifton Colliery in that year.
When Roberts was 10, his brother nicknamed him ‘inky’ because he was always writing. By the age of 14, his writing was in print, with a piece entitled ‘Down a Coal Mine’, inspired by his journey into the mine. After experiencing the colliery first-hand, and being shocked to learn that boys even younger than him had been sent down to the coal-face, Roberts wrote about the “toilers who are working in the bowels of the earth.” His article appeared in his school magazine.
Although a follower of Asquith and Lloyd George, the author’s sympathies were always “with the underdog”, and for Roberts, the underdog meant the coal miners living around Clifton Colliery. Decades later, when conducting research for a semi-autobiographical novel, Roberts revisited the colliery to check his memories. He was pleasantly struck by the improved working conditions. That planned novel became, ‘A Terrace in the Sun’ (1951), about a small boy, a miner’s son, who became a famous artist. The book was a success, shifting 300,000 copies within a month. Roberts regretted not calling it ‘A Nottingham Lad’ as there was so much of his early life in its pages. He always referred to the book as his Nottingham novel.
Clifton Grove has one final literary legend, as it’s said that it was here that J. M. Barrie had the idea for Peter Pan after being inspired by the sight of a ragged urchin wandering round. “See that lad,” Barrie is said to have told fellow writer George Basil Barham, “his name’s Peter and he has lost his shadow. His sister’s pinned that rag on him for a shadow.”
Maybe you should take the literary pilgrimage from Wilford to Clifton Grove. Who knows, the 1.7-mile walk might become ‘an awfully big adventure’.