A Poetic Interlude

I have attended many special church services during my year as High Sheriff of Essex. Yesterday, after a week that included a day in court, an afternoon in prison, a talk to a school, visits to two charities, a civic dinner and a concert, I was invited to read a poem at the annual service at Chelmsford Cathedral held to celebrate the work of Essex County Council. I didn’t know the poem, one of two titled Essex by the Anglican priest, missionary, and writer, Arthur Shearly Cripps. It, and Cripps himself, both intrigued me.

I have only scratched the surface of the extraordinary story of Fr Cripps. A Kent man, he came to Essex in 1894 as the Rector of Ford End (near Chelmsford) after reading history at Oxford and attending theological college. However he was called to be a missionary and went to what was then Southern Rhodesia where, by 1902 he was the priest of a local parish. He was deeply committed to ‘Africa for the Africans’ and apparently fell out with the British administration causing him to return to England after 20 years. The call of Africa was too strong and this, combined with discovering that England had changed so much after the war, led him to return to the Manyene region of what is now Zimbabwe. Fr Cripps – Baba Cripps as he was known there – led a simple life, living in a mud hut, until his death in 1952 and leaving his estate to the local people.

I believe the poem ‘Essex’ that I was asked to read must have been written, or imagined, while he was on the ship taking him on the long journey by sea to South Africa, possibly on his second voyage there. But what caught my attention was the reference in the poem to the views of the red tower. Knowing Ford End church is a red brick building with an unusual tower, I walked around the parish to understand Cripps’ poem a little better. Here is the poem, with some pictures I took on the morning of the service.

The church of St John the Evangelist, Ford End

Essex by Arthur Shearly Cripps

  I go through the fields of blue water
    On the South road of the sea.
  High to North the East-Country
    Holds her green fields to me–
  For she that I gave over,
    Gives not over me.

  Last night I lay at Good Easter
    Under a hedge I knew,
  Last night beyond High Easter
    I trod the May-floors blue–
  Tilt from the sea the sun came
    Bidding me wake and rue.

  Roding (that names eight churches)–
    Banks with the paigles dight–
  Chelmer whose mill and willows
    Keep one red tower in sight–
  Under the Southern Cross run
    Beside the ship to-night.

  Ah! I may not seek back now,
    Neither be turned nor stayed.
  Yet should I live, I’d seek her,
    Once that my vows are paid!
  And should I die I’d haunt her–
    I being what God made!

England has greater counties–
    Their peace to hers is small.

  Low hills, rich fields, calm rivers,
    In Essex seek them all,–
  Essex, where I that found them
    Found to lose them all!

The view up to the red tower of Ford End church from the willow plantations lining the banks of the River Chelmer.

The memory of Arthur Cripps is kept alive in the Anglican Diocese of Masvingo in Zimbabwe, and you can read a little more about him on its website. It is a very long way from the low hills, rich fields and calm rivers of Essex around Ford End, country I know and love.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s