Magic at Wittenham

A day spent at the Wittenham Clumps (and Dorchester on Thames). The Clumps stand on a hill above the Thames valley from which the views emanate as gentling spectacle shot through with modernity.

To one side is the very visible Didcot Power Station, though soon to be decommissioned and eventually dismantled, to another, distant power project which is JET - the Joint European Taurus - an experimental nuclear fusion reactor wanting to take off where Didcot's coal steps down. I thought the transiency of both would not outlive the trees, these trees or their successor trees. The natural world is transient but our makings more so.

But even the lumbering Didcot fails to dominate a vision of distant hills, a closer, meandering river and the scattered villages of Oxfordshire, most prominent of which is Dorchester itself.

Dorchester on Thames is a town out of time, bypassed by the main road, it stands in its own stillness. At the beautifully simple Abbey, they were rehearsing for an evening performance of Sir Arthur Sullivan's 'The Golden Legend'. It seemed apt - a Victorian cantata - a piece of serious music from a composer wholly secured in the popular imagination for his collaboration on comic operettas with W.S. Gilbert. A piece of music out of the mainstream in a village similarly displaced!

The Wittenham Clumps were a favourite theme of the neo-Romantic English twentieth century painter, Paul Nash. He painted them throughout his career (as above, towards the end of his life). They were endlessly suggestive (akin to Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire) to exploration and offered themselves both to realistic presentation, formal exploration and imaginative transformation. This latter mode is evident in the painting above - the moon rises on the summer solstice and the magic suggested stretches beyond the natural.

I first visited, many years ago, when I lived near by, cycling to Little Wittenham and the locks on the river and walking up to the Clumps, round to Dorchester and back. I usually went on a weekday, when all was collected and still and you had the trees and their accompanying 'iron age fort' to yourself. They became imprinted as a magical space, and they ever remain as such.


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