There’s a special quality to the landscape at Little Gidding. It’s not spectacular, nor is it especially unusual. It’s archetypally English: undulating, Midlands farmland, broken up by hedgerows, small copses, and the odd steeple. It’s a scene replicated across the British Isles. Appropriately enough, whenever I’ve visited, the weather has been pretty awful (although the sun did brighten just I was about to leave). But that’s mattered not one jot.
I relish returning. Our little ministry fraternal (8 of us who’ve met twice annually for the last 30 years) have stayed at Ferrar House several times. It’s always a joy.
It’s a place of history, of writing, of devotion. Of course, the house has changed greatly, but even basic awareness of what happened here stimulates the mind’s eye. It casts us back to at least two, if not three, great moments.
- 1626 onwards: Having bought the manor house in 1625, Nicholas Ferrar and his family then lost much of their fortune when The Virginia Company collapsed. So with various siblings and others, they retreated to Little Gidding to form an open but relatively high-church religious community. It became quite well-known (and to the more Puritan, notorious) and even attracted visits by King Charles I. Nicholas died in 1637 succeeded by his brother John.
- March 1633: It just so happened that Nicholas was an old friend of one George Herbert, an ordained Anglican, from their days as Cambridge undergraduates. Knowing he was dying, aged only 40, Herbert sent Ferrar the manuscript of his collection of poems with the instruction to publish if they might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul… If not, let him burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God’s mercies.” Thank goodness Ferrar could recognise genius when he saw it.
- May 1646: In fact, after the English Civil War broke out 5 years later, it would have a moment in the spotlight. The king had to flee the Battle of Naseby and was sheltered by John Ferrar.
- May 1936: 310 years after the Ferrars bought it, T S Eliot visited one afternoon, after lunch in Cambridge. His poem, Little Gidding (the 4th of his Four Quartets) was published in Sept 1942, with the London Blitz reverberating throughout the poem.
So before bed, Julian, Tim & I went into the minute St John’s church in the garden. Our breath was thick in the dim candlelight, it was so cold. And we said Compline.
But before that, Julian and I took turns to read the whole of Little Gidding (taking about 15 minutes to do so). Here’s a little excerpt (stupidly I forgot to move my phone closer to Julian so he’s much quieter!):
Since the sun did come out as I was getting into the car to leave, I couldn’t resist walking back to the church. The early spring birdsong was gorgeous…