by Alan Altimont (St. Edward’s University)
If you approach Nun Appleton from the north, as the maps indicate you should, you won’t get very far, not even close enough for a glimpse of its high chimneys. You turn south off the A64 west of York at Bilbrough, where the “mountain” Andrew Marvell promises not only in English but in Latin as well never quite materializes, and wend through flat fields and tidy hamlets like Appleton Roebuck to the closed gates of the estate’s park. The current lord of the manor, an ale magnate, is happy to let you tour his brewery in nearby Tadcaster but hasn’t let outsiders on the estate since some vandalism by visiting students a year or two before.
You seek temporary consolation in Bolton Percy, just to the west, and its beautiful fifteenth-century church where Lord Thomas Fairfax, his family and entourage in tow, must often have gone to hear his brother Henry preach. The pews and pulpit date to the years of the Civil War, and the “Devil’s door” at the back of the nave looks far too small for its intended user. The place is now famous for its lovely churchyard, a garden thick with roses, lupin, and slate tombstones shedding flakes like rough grey petals. But this has gotten you no closer to the house Marvell praised or the fields from which he conjured Juliana the shepherdess and Damon the Mower.
For that, head south from Tadcaster on the A162, crossing the Wharfe River, and turn east on Raw Lane (the B1223) just to the north of England’s worst killing field, Towton, where in 1461 Yorkists slaughtered a Lancastrian army in a blinding snowstorm. Pull off the road in the village of Ryther, seat of an old Anglo-Norman family whose centuries of possession are marked only by the place-name and a shallow ditch that was once a moat. There, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a fellow who’s just finished mowing his lawn, Mr. Dry, who happens to have detailed maps of all the area’s old trails, as well as a subversive streak. “Just because a man buys up property gives him no right to keep us off paths we have used freely for centuries.”
Mr. Dry sends you off to Church Hill in the northeast corner of the village where you can park and then walk north along the lane that disappears into a field of corn, its beards just goldening, waist-high. You wade gently downhill into the Ryther Ings, or water meadows, a thick tangle of grasses, dock, weeds, and saplings (planted by the brewer), south of the Wharfe. It’s a little tougher going than you thought it would be, but you have already caught glimpses of Appleton House through its screen of trees, a clutch of some half-dozen chimneys, slate roof, and four-story red brick façade, grander than the edifice Marvell knew. The brewer is making improvements—a scaffolding spans the whole of the south side. Golden yews pruned into amber carbuncles stud the south terrace, perhaps where the Lord General’s five bastions of flowers once bloomed.
You have come to a halt in high summer, late July, facing north where the Wharfe arches up almost to the west end of the Nun Appleton terrace. The stream is low, but the bed is deep enough to discourage crossing. Your wife is with you and you are carrying your two-year old daughter in a baby-backpack, so you’d rather not push your luck. You stay where you are and take in as much as you can. To your left on the other side of the river upstream lies the West Ing. To your right, across the river downstream is the East Ing, and while there are no mowers swinging scythes, the ing has been machine-mowed, and to your delight a drift of sheep are grazing the stubble. No one seems to be tending them, something of a relief since you can’t be sure the brewer’s employees will be as encouraging about your trespass as Mr. Dry had been. Had Andrew Marvell some three and a-half centuries before stood on that terrace and looked across at mowers where you now stand, and to his left, on his side of the stream, a Juliana tending her sheep in the East Ing?
A few clouds crawl along on the layer of heat, dragging their shadows over you. It is late afternoon. You had hoped to linger long enough to see if the glow-worms still came out to light one’s way, but your daughter has gotten a little cranky—you’ve been toting her all across England and she is outgrowing the backpack—so it seems time to move along, and you troop back up the lane to Church Hill.
It isn’t until you’ve buckled yourselves in and started up the little rental car that your wife notices the corn flies. You can barely feel them, but the sight of eyelash-sized bugs exploring the backs of your hands makes you swipe them frantically off each other and the toddler. They don’t bite, but you imagine them up your pants legs and shirt sleeves. There’s nothing to do but head back to a hard shower in the Bilbrough motor inn, taking away with you a little something a mower must have lived with, beneath the notice of a poet, but driving you crazy.