Travelling overseas at the weekend, I took Arnold Bax’s autobiography Farewell My Youth to read on the plane, and since it was a beautiful morning when I got back to Heathrow, I decided to break my journey back north and try and solve a musical puzzle that I’ve wondered about for years – since I first heard Bax’s November Woods in my student days, in fact. I’m very fond of Bax’s tone poems, but I’d always felt the need to put a slightly more tangible image to this piece (no such problem with Tintagel or The Garden of Fand). I’d read in a sleevenote that the woods in question were above Amersham, where in the autumn of 1916 Bax used to meet his mistress Harriet Cohen for stolen afternoons. He wrote one of his typically OTT poems about it, in fact – entitled Amersham.
…Like frightened children, silent, hand in hand,
Down the wet hill we stepped towards the flare;
Storm, a mad painter’s brush, swept sky and land
With burning signs of beauty and despair;
And once rain scourged through shrivelling wood and brake,
And in our hearts tears stung and the old ache
Was more than any God would have us bear.
Then in a drowsy town the inn of dreams
Shuts out awhile October’s sky of dread;
Drugged in the wood reek, under the black beams
Nestled against my arm her little head…
Helen Fry’s biography of Harriet Cohen filled in a few more details. The inn was the Crown; Harriet used to travel out to Amersham by the Metropolitan Line, and therefore there’s only one candidate for the wood where the two lovers sheltered from that autumn storm, and which Bax later put into music. It’s Parsonage Woods, just under the railway bridge as Station Road falls away down towards Amersham High Street at the bottom of the valley.
I’m pleased to say that it’s all still there: the Crown Inn is still recognisably as black-beamed as Bax describes it, and very much open for business. (Dalliance with beautiful pianists not being an option, the breakfast menu looked quite tempting). And the woods themselves – well, they didn’t look much like their musical self on this bright spring morning, though looking westwards towards the other side of the valley you could certainly imagine them dripping and shuddering in an equinoctial gale. I may return in November just to double-check, though.