Reflection at Horncastle

On the River Bains Lincolnshire

David Rowbotham

I
Here where Banovallum – Wall of the Bain -
rose before Caesar’s building legions came,
came up the bronze and iron men of Spain,
and one of these I own hewed out my name,
his metal new but his craft long, for still
over the broken wall the bootshop stands
that brought me from my stranger’s south to fill
my mind with kinship struck from hammering Lincoln hands.

II
My grey grandfather, his elder’s beard and nose
bent biblical, followed another line;
in Simeon’s house, among the tribes God chose,
found Rehoboth in pride and Palestine:
had not Jehovah set a promised place
in holiness for all who mended shoes?
The beard became the burning bush, the face
forgetful of the pagan that this north village knows.

III
I track the tribesman of my different choice
and meet the fair and Celtic girl who made
him an islander, and changed his darker voice.
Towards my Toowoomba father’s patient trade
what generations grew within this wall,
what wanderings without, what travelling love?
And there was one – whom I could a captive call -
who served the legions somewhere in that river grove.

IV
I wonder that lord Roman whipped his bones
or praised his work, that far forbear of mine,
that sheepskin Briton with his tools and stones
who forged for his conquerors, nails. Did he whine
or smile subjection in his hut of wood,
my slave of Banovallum, marshland bred,
or hunger in his dark Iberian blood
to drive a nail hard into his lord Roman’s head?

V
I think how, garrisons and emperors gone,
those barbarous other kingdoms, Saxon, Dane,
flooded from where the Elbe and Weser run
to that same sea receiving this small Bain;
how they, like vanished Rome, today invade
my nether-tongue and this tidal lowland’s speech.
The wave subsided but the waters stayed,
levelled in English fens within my searching reach.

VI
And, as time passed, the greatest conqueror
and the last, the cruel manorial Norman lord.
rode from his castle mailed for game or war,
his hunting horn as hated as his. sword. -
The falcon flew where once the eagle ruled
and under both my serf’s tree slowly bore
the flight of escape into a further world,
to coasts as old as these where the first sires walked ashore.

VII
Now, great-grandfather William, take my thanks
for being my own voyager: to me,
more famed than those whose monumented ranks
nations raise to pillar history.
In these the boyhood fields of Flinders, Bass,
whom few remember as discoverers here,
you weighed the ages, one among the mass,
and deemed them burdensome – as they always were.

VIII
By Winceby where the sombre Cromwell won,
by Somersby where flowed the pebbled brook
of your most grave and quoted Tennyson,
in this cobbled square of Borrow’s gipsy book
and the leper-windowed church whose chapels hold
crosses of St Augustine in each cleft,
by this bleak stream and ancestral lanes as cold
you were compelled to value other things; and left.

IX
So I walk foreigner by wall, Bain, fen,
my origin no certain soil or place
but time’s contending tribes of shifting men
mingling by night fires into one more race.
In what nativity will my blood, then,
in my land under Asia end, begin?
But for an answer, who has yet the pen?
The ways are unheralded that we wander in.

X
l see huge distance through a narrow door
and think that my father, parent of this sense,
whose shop bench I was never fitted for,
deserves some better truth or eloquence.
Constant to his craft, he bequeathed to me
the sounds of hands hammering ancient stone
that fashioned my departure, destiny,
the shoes that I wear today on paths my living own.