Star Magick, Slavery and the Bathurst Estate

It was my birthday last week, and I am proud to announce I have now completed 48 full rotations of the sun. I love birthdays for many reasons, but one is that they make effortless cosmonauts of us all.

Having taken time off work, we went for a long walk starting near Sapperton, circling through a chunk of the Bathurst Estate, along a disused section of the Thames and Severn canal where it exits the 2 mile long Sapperton tunnel next to the sadly disused Tunnel Inn and aiming for the source of the Thames. The source, when found, was distinctly underwhelming. I now understand from those who know about such things that the head, as opposed to the source, another mile or so on is less of a let-down. Less underwhelming was some stunning Victorian brickwork forming a Moebius strip- like arc, torquing above our heads to form a bridge; and the pleasantly disorientating feeling of walking along the bed of the canal, as if we were walk-swimming through ghostly long-gone weed-begreened water.

Most of this walk took place on the Bathhurst Estate, and still even now, after reading and reading Nick Hayes’ superb and beautifully illustrated The Book Of Trespass, I am constantly struck by the dizzying cognitive dissonance that not only is it possible for one human to own 15,000 –odd acres of land, including a couple of villages (Sapperton is one), but they got it largely through the twinned devastating, scarring, fracturing practices of Enclosure – creating vast tracts of land that can be bought and sold rather than belonging to all;  and Slavery – dehumanising vast numbers of people so that they can be bought and sold rather than belonging to themselves. I literally struggle to believe it, even though I know it is – my mind cannot comprehend it.

The past is the past, and we cannot change what happens there. However what we can do is freely acknowledge all of it, not just the pretty parts, or those that fit the narrative of Britishness we like to tell ourselves, and tell the stories, all the stories, as well and as truthfully as we can.  If you do an internet search on the Bathursts and slavery, what you will mostly find is glowing talk of the 3rd Earl of Bathurst, Henry, who was instrumental in first wanting to improve the conditions of the enslaved, and then, as the ideas progressed, to abolish slavery altogether.   

This is all true, and by the standards of the day laudable. However, it’s only a partial truth – in that Henry Bathurst petitioned hard for slave owners to be fully compensated for their ‘property’, and that his family made most of their money through links to the slave trade and the colonies (see Madge Dresser in  Historic England publication Slavery and The British Country House, pp38-39). There is no mention of this in the glossy website of the Estate, which extols the virtues and generosity of the family – Stuart Butler explores this absence over at Radical Stroud in a piece on the disenchanted countryside

Between these perspectives of land ownership, theft of land and enslavement, our walk through a corner of this beautiful and seemingly well-managed estate takes on murky undertones, swimming darkly beneath our rare time together alone as our dog Fen chases leaves and jackdaws.  We reach a place called ‘The Star’ – so named as it has many arms radiating from a central clearing.  It is a strange and liminal place – an in-between place offering choices, decisions; and a reminder that while we may feel that there is a strong degree of permissiveness in this privately-owned land (and one presumably that we are expected to feel forelock-tuggingly grateful for), that the shadow side of footpaths that allow access is that what they are really telling us is where we are not allowed to go, that we are here on sufferance, that we have no rights.

We pick the prettiest path, which isn’t the most direct one, and stroll down it, idly but consciously seeking out some pines to soak up some immune system – boosting phytoncides. There aren’t many other people here – it’s a Tuesday morning after all – but the ones we meet are friendly, enjoying the November sunshine like us.

As we walk, I am struck by a strange thought. The words, ‘The Star’, are nagging at me, and growing larger in my mind – ‘THE STAR’. As we walk, I am holding in my mind the topographical representation on the map. THE STAR becomes revealed as a sigil, a pathspell, a kind of dark prayer wheel powered by the constant trudge of walkers and workers over the years, designed to generate and sustain wealth. This spell is powerful, boosted as it has been over the years by the sacrifice of the blood of the commoners, the enslaved, and the hunted creatures stag, fox, and pheasant; its power proved by the longevity of its success.  Flavoured with fear, and dependency, and deference; a reminder that we are undeserving by dint of birth and not being One Of Them.

I am minded to return, and walk a counterspell on these paths.  I want to walk a rebellion; a spell for storytellers and historians that the whole truth may be apparent here, all the truths, both those to be proud of and those not.  I want to walk a dream of what it would be like in this country here and now, if our land hadn’t been stolen from us – if that irredeemably wounded generation, shut out from their lands which sustained them literally in every way and then were harnessed by these pirates to work for a pittance to buy what before they had grown and made for themselves.  I want to walk these paths beautiful again.

When I return – and this would make a good Solstice walk, one for which I will need strong boots, a strong will, and a strong heart – I will walk my spell, I think.  It won’t be much, but we all offer what we can to what we wish for and believe in. What I believe in is a right to not only roam, but to take (only what we need for one day) – to hunt, to fish, to collect firewood, and whatever plants are available. I believe also in a counter-history, one that tells all the tales in the places that matter, I don’t believe in destroying the past, or even evidence of the past – more, I want a ‘warts and all’ refashioning of it which rises above politics and silencing, disempowering agendas. 

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