Poetry and mud studies at Ashford Hangers Nature Reserve

By Lucy McIlwraith, Teacher of English
Photos by Matilda McMorrow, Librarian

In the English department at Bedales, we like to give students the opportunity to venture outside the classroom to gain a deeper understanding of literature. Over the last couple of years, we’ve visited Thomas Hardy’s cottage in Dorset while studying Tess of the D’Urbervilles; hosted a tea party as part of our work on The Importance of Being Earnest; enjoyed a midnight feast of exotic sensory delights to go with John Keats’ poem, The Eve of St Agnes; and held a fireside evening of poetry-by-heart for Block 3’s study of the oldest forms of English literature.

Our latest venture earlier this week gave a 6.1 English Literature class a first-hand experience of writing poetry in finest Hampshire mud. The set are studying Seamus Heaney’s first poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist, which includes lots of descriptions of water, slime and bogs. In order to get under the skin of poems that feature phrases such as ‘bubbles gargled delicately’ and ‘the squelch and slap of soggy peat’, it seemed like a good idea to don wellies (with thanks to Outdoor Work for lending some to white-trainered students) and wallow in the plentiful mud at Ashford Hangers Nature Reserve.

The pool, containing a pair of rather surprising goldfish, the waterfall and stream with overhanging bare trees and the louring presence of Shoulder of Mutton hill all create an amazing atmosphere in which to write, and students took to it with gusto. The weather was perfect, with Irish-worthy mist dripping steadily throughout. Students used the setting to think about sensory vocabulary as well as to consider questions such as ‘what would guilt sound like?’ (“a ringing in the ear,” apparently) and ‘what would joy smell like?’ A variety of writing exercises guided students through the stages of collecting ‘ingredients’ and building these up into descriptions. The moisture-filled air made much of the written work ephemeral, washing ink from pages, but students gained a sense of what goes in to writing poetry through the experience. Follow-up work will include turning descriptive prose into iambic parameter as a way to learn about rhythm and sound in poetry analysis.