Many people think children miss out on experiencing the natural world, especially in winter, cocooned from the elements, hustled from one centrally heated environment and into cars and buses, and then hurried inside another.
This lovely little poem by John Clare makes the children’s journey to school in winter sound idyllic, watching wild geese, nibbling on hedgerow fruit, hips, haws and sloes, and perhaps shooing the fieldfares away to do so. When it was icy in our school playground when I was a child, there was an area where we would make slides, ‘making glib slides‘, Clare says. You can imagine them suddenly thinking they might be late and running along with the low, pale sun making their shadows huge against the white snow. We might not know what clumpsing means, but we can understand it!
There must have been, in reality, plenty of times when going to school in winters past was miserable and probably dangerous too. What was termed the Little Ice Age lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century, and the River Thames frost fairs – when the river froze so solidly fairs were held on the icy surface – continued until 1814 when John Clare was twenty-one.
However, this poem is the stuff of jolly Christmas cards, maybe romantic, but certainly vivid!
Schoolboys in Winter
The schoolboys still their morning ramble take
To neighbouring village school with playing speed,
Loitering with pastime’s leisure till they quake,
Oft looking up the wild-geeese droves to heed,
Watching the letters which their journeys make;
Or plucking haws on which the fieldfares feed,
And hips and sloes; and on each shallow lake
Making glib slides, where they like shadows go
Till some fresh pastimes in their minds awake.
Then off they start anew and hasty blow
Their numbed and clumpsing fingers till they glow;
Then races with their shadows wildly run
That stride huge giants o’er the shining snow
In the pale splendour of the winter sun.