Category Archives: Poetry

Three Clares: (1) Gilbert de Clare

The name ‘Clare’ seems to have followed me around for as long as I can remember …

Gilbert de Clare was responsible for the construction of a building which played a very important part in my childhood.

Though no-one could ever replace Dylan Thomas as my favourite poet, I’m also fascinated by the life and poetry of John Clare, whose work first came to my attention about twenty years ago. I studied his poems whilst working on my Masters and I’ve viewed the John Clare exhibit at Peterborough Museum on a number of occasions. A visit to his cottage in Helpston, formerly Helpstone, originally in Northamptonshire but now in Cambridgeshire, is on my current ‘to do’ list.

And then there’s Clare Means, a young singer/songwriter based in Santa Monica, California, whose compositions and performances as a musician and busker never cease to entertain and amaze me on most days, together with many of her 62,000+ (at the time of writing) other followers on the Periscope app.




Caerphilly Castle was built by Gilbert de Clare, construction starting in around 1268 and finishing swiftly, for good reason, by 1271.

The castle – a photographer’s dream – dominates the South Wales town of Caerphilly, where I was brought up from about the age of two, having been born in Cardiff. Who needs Disneyland, when you’ve got the second largest castle in Britain on your doorstep? I lived less than 100 yards from the perimeter of this huge, imposing, complicated structure. Before the administrators moved in with their ticket machines, signposts and guide books, my young friends and I were free to roam around this amazing building, exploring every inch, having fantastic battles, building rafts and riding floating logs around the moats, fishing for perch, roach and carp or, late in an autumn evening, squeezing through a crack in the side of a dank, creepy, dripping tower to see whether the ghost of the Green Lady would come out to haunt the ramparts.

Aerial view
Caerphilly Castle (CD35)

The middle of the thirteenth century was a highly unstable and turbulent time in the history of England and Wales.

Gilbert de Clare, seventh earl of Gloucester, was known as a fiery one, variously called “Red Gilbert” and “the red earl”, not only because of his red hair but also because of his fiery approach to battles.

Gilbert de Clare … fiery one

Although an extremely rich English nobleman who had inherited vast estates, he was caught up in two major power struggles – one between a group of barons (led by Simon de Montfort) and the English king Henry III (the Barons War lasted from 1264-67), and the other between Welsh rebels under the leadership of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and the King and lords loyal to the King, lords who in the early 1260s were losing control of much of Wales, despite the fact that many had built forts and castles up and down the land, mostly funded by the King. But the King’s problems were compounded in 1264, when Simon de Montfort agreed an alliance with Llewellyn, who by now was threatening to take control of the remainder of Wales.

Whilst de Clare had fought against the King at the Battle of Lewes, a real turning point in the history of British democracy – and subsequently been excommunicated by the pope – in 1264 he changed sides and began to fight on the side of the King. No doubt he saw great danger in the massive progress of the Welsh in taking back so much territory and seemingly threatening his own lands in and around Glamorgan (its Welsh name being Morgannwg). He could have ‘taken the high ground’ and built his castle on the side of one of the valleys in the area. But by building it at the centre point of the Caerphilly basin, he was able to take advantage of the River Rhymney, which flows through the basin, to create defensive lakes (or moats, as they’re known), right around the castle. (The Rhymney, pronounced “Rumney”, is named after the town further up the valley; it’s the one referred to in the Byrds‘ song “Bells of Rhymney“, though their pronunciation is wrong, of course!).

The castle wasn’t only a fortification to protect de Clare and his family, his generals and his soldiers. It was also a home, complete with bakery, kitchens and a huge dining hall. Noblemen in this era enjoyed putting on huge banquets and being regally entertained by travelling minstrels. Had they lived in the area at this time, John Clare and Clare Means might well have found themselves ordered to come to the banqueting hall (see photo below) to entertain de Clare and his guests. Entertainment was a very important diversion for the constantly warring ennobled class. (They often employed ‘silentiaries’ to quieten any unwanted distractions made by their guests – de Clare had no time for trolls!).

The castle’s massive size and innovative design are not its only distinguishing features. The fact that it was built and paid for by de Clare himself was quite unusual. The bigger castles were almost always funded by the King. With Caerphilly Castle, it appeared that expense was no object: it is reputed to have cost £19,000 (about $US25,000) – an enormous amount of money in those days.

The town of Caerphilly grew up to the south of the castle. The castle changed hands quite a few times as a result of power struggles and religious demands, though ultimately it was passed on to other generations of the de Clare family, including notably to another Gilbert de Clare who was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Eventually the building fell into decline. The sluice gates stopped working and much (though not all) of the water drained away from the moats.

But … fast forward … when I was still a young boy, a process of major restoration work began, including the rebuilding of the sluices and a great deal of repair to the fabric of the castle. The moats were re-filled and many of the towers and other features were brought back to their former glory, though not the castle’s famous leaning tower.

How ironic that a building that had once been a focal point of high drama, intrigue and bloodshed should end up as a playground for children like myself and my friends – and like these young lads, pictured below on one of the restored moats.

All things must pass …




Image credits:

Caerphilly aerial.jpg – By Cadw [OGL (, via Wikimedia Commons

Caerphilly Castle – By LlGC ~ NLW [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Caerphilly Castle 3 – By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Caerphilly Castle 3 Uploaded by berichard) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


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Autumn in poetry

Autumn has evoked a variety of responses from poets.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882), in Autumn, pictures the season as a royal figure who makes a grand entrance “like imperial Charlemagne, upon the bridge of gold”, and whose follower, the wind, “scatters the golden leaves” in tribute.

In Autumn Song, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882), the poet sees the season as analogous to a person’s later life, when “sleep seems a goodly thing”, when “the chief of joys seems – not to suffer pain”, john_clare_by_ww_lawand “the soul feels like a dried sheaf”.

For one of my favourite poets, John Clare (1793 – 1864), Autumn (in his poem of the same name) is a season in which the seed-strewn countryside is a place of contrasts between the streaming waters of brooks and rivers – “The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot; Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot” – and the harsh dryness of the land: “The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread”.

William Blake (1757 – 1827), in his poem To Autumn, personifies Autumn as a “jolly” visitor, who sits beneath the poet’s “shady roof” and beguiles “modest Eve”, including more than a hint of the erotic. The poet implores Autumn to “Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers”, in consequence of which “The narrow bud opens her beauties to / The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins”. By the end of the poem, Autumn has “o’er the bleak / Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load”.

Amongst the many other famous poets inspired to express their thoughts about Autumn are Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Baudelaire, Dorothy Parker, Walter de la Mare, William Morris, Thomas Hardy and Stevie Smith – here’s her quirky, tiny poem, Autumn.

    He told his life story to Mrs. Courtly
    Who was a widow. ‘Let us get married shortly’,
    He said. ‘I am no longer passionate,
    But we can have some conversation before it is too late.’

But perhaps the most well-known and best-loved of all the Autumn poems is the ode written by the Romantic poet keats19John Keats (1795 – 1821).

To Autumn was written in September 1819, the last of the five odes included in the collection published in 1820, the final collection published while he was still alive. It is said to be the last poem that he wrote in his very short life. It portrays the season as a friendly conspirator, working with the autumnal sun to produce a rich harvest of fruit, nuts, crops and flora. It is a highly sensuous piece, rich in imagery of all kinds – sights, sounds, taste, touch and smells – replete with unintended irony, given the fact that he wrote it in the autumn of his life. Although some have suggested that the poem has an undercurrent which references the Peterloo Massacre, which had occurred the previous month (August 1819), I think this stretches the bounds of probability.


To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


Page 1 of the original manuscript of Keats’ To Autumn.


Source: public domain




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