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An Artist in the Lane

Robin Tanner

The footpath that crosses Jacksoms Lane and runs along the edge of Birds Marsh towards Chippenham must have been used by many generations of Kington Langley’s inhabitants, but none can observed it and written so sensitively about it as Robin Tanner (1904-88) – artist, etcher, educationalist, pacifist, Quaker – who first experienced it on a daily basis a century ago in 1920-1 when he was a sixth-former walking back and forth to school. In old age he reminisced:

While still at school Robin met and courted Heather Spackman from Corsham, and she was to become his lifelong companion. But they did not marry until 1931, and then moved into their new house in Kington Langley, a wedding present from Heather’s uncle! Robin was now teaching at Ivy Lane School in Chippenham, so he began again his daily walk along the familiar footpath past Birds’ Marsh:

‘Here at the gateway where my father had once seen a ghost funeral, I would stop to look back at our red roof on the opposite ridge, persuading myself each day that the colour was becoming less insistent; certainly the shape was good, and as the trees thickened it became more bearable, until I began to love the sight of it nestling there among the foliage. Going through the wood was always the climax, and on those first scented spring mornings and evenings it seemed like walking in Eden; the earth was hidden by ferns and anemones, wood sorrel, moschatel and primroses, and the thrusting grey leaves of bluebells. Then came the last three meadows before the still countryfied outskirts of the town that brought me to my school under the railway embankment.’

The following year, in February 1932, Robin wrote in his diary: ‘Bitter, withering wind. Gypsies encamped in their favourite place. Strange to see the men and women sitting round a blazing fire in the moonlight at 11 p.m.; Birds’ Marsh and the hollies intensely black behid the pale yellow caravan. The tenor voices of the men in conversation carried right to our door.’

A winter or two later another diary entry runs: ‘Found frozen white violet buds in the lane this morning. In the wood I watched two starved red squirrels, ready to eat anything, nosing among iced leaves, and attempting to gnaw old cones and frozen twigs. At last each found a wretched acorn, sat up prettily and enjoyed them, and then rushed on. Boys and men sliding on Shepherd’s Pond in the moonlight. The Plough would be a perfect group of stars for an etching, arching over a dark barn or thatched cottage as it is tonight.’

But it was not until forty years later, in retirement in 1973, that he produced one of his finest etchings, commemorating those evenings long ago on the fringe of Birds’ Marsh:

‘Ever since our early days at Old Chapel Field [the wedding-present house] I had longed to celebrate the carved and gilded gypsy caravan that used to “pitch” at the head of Morrell Lane. I remembered how bright and pale it used to look against the dark hollies; and I shall never forget seeing it once in late November, its lamp-lit windows aglow, and a drift of wood smoke streaming across it before a fallen elm, with the seven stars of the Plough in a clear, dark sky. That is how I etched it.’

Birds Marsh
Langley Burrell



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