‘Stirbitch:’ Cultural Memory and the Vanished Polis

‘Stirbitch:’ Cultural Memory and the Vanished Polis

By Michael Hrebeniak


‘Know your own small patch,’ writes Iain Sinclair in London Orbital (2002) ‘and the rest of the world becomes readable.’ But readability is only possible when localised, empirical knowledge of a landscape is underscored by a shared cultural memory or, as Henri Corbin suggests, is rendered ‘imaginal’ by a set of established mythopoeic resources.

One such terrain that remains unread in such terms is Stourbridge Common, situated at the Eastern boundary of Cambridge on pasture between Newmarket Road and the River Granta. For more than 700 years this marginal space hosted a fair – known originally as Steresbregge, from a cattle crossing over Coldham’s Brook, and latterly Sturbridge or Stirbitch –that was awarded a Royal Charter in 1199.

Orginally founded to support the inhabitants of the local Leper Hospital, the Fair rapidly outgrew its host to become a pressure event of Northern European significance and an epicentre for many forms of cultural and biological transaction. The bulk of the internal trade of Britain flowed to this site; currents of people and information accompanied the goods. Stirbitch was an entrepôt to Europe via the Wash, the mid-Anglian pivot of the four quarters, and a radiating node of the medieval and early-modern mental map. ‘Stourbridge Fair, is not only the greatest in the whole nation, but in the world,’ declared Daniel Defoe in A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724), recognising, even at its nascent ebb, ‘a well-fortified city [with] the least disorder and confusion . . . that can be seen anywhere with so great a concourse of people.’

In addition to mirroring the town’s binary tensions with Corporation and University proclaiming separate opening ceremonies, the Fair’s historical development suggests an analogue of the movement from an economy of subsistence to that of surplus and, by the nineteenth century, the formalised business of pleasure. The stress on trade is subsumed by that of spectacle in Henry Gunning’s 1854 account, which records freak shows parading dwarves, giants, faeries, animal menageries, fortune-telling pigs, dogs solving arithmetical problems, waxworks (including a life-sized nude woman), rope dancers, puppet shows, tumbling and slack-wire performances and astronomical clocks, all of which were subject to fines and attempts at prohibition by the University .

Today the site yields neither presence nor knowledge of this temporary polis, other than in the Norman husk of the Leper Chapel of St Mary Magdalene. Patchily documented in local newspapers beyond reports of prosecutions for mis-selling or inexplicable violence, and all but unrepresented visually the Fair comprises an acute instance of culture without archive. The space yields no apophenia; no cumulative signs of sediment or ruin that might allow the mind to locate itself against a referential field; and no historiographic privilege of word or artefact for interpreting urban subjectivity.

The signifying potential of this liminal zone is therefore frustrated with little to grip beyond survivals of the Fair’s ephemeral avenues in the names of local streets (Garlic, Oyster and Mercers Row). The decline of the Fair also marked the permanent end of community experience afforded by the ‘grotesque body’ of carnival which, to Mikhail Bakhtin, signals a zone of declassification: a theatre for shifted shapes, confounded categories and counterfeited roles, where gaps in identity proliferate away from sanctioned urban rhythms of labour and leisure.

Stirbitch could therefore not be further from the staged ‘heritage’ sets of cities that encode memory within a space as a means of legitimising the identities imposed upon individuals and groups. Poised between orders both official and countercultural, we are left with superimpositions within material space of layers of nothing: of an absence of presence, or presence of absence.

The site thus presents itself as a mnemonic to reflect more widely upon the relationship between habitat, performance and cultural memory, which is the task of a film and complementary book-in-progress. As both media make clear, totalising description is impossible—and undesirable. To remember is to perform and to make. A palimpsest must follow: a succession of contingent and fragmentary glimpses; a freed association of reflective and interpretative field notes. Combined orders of text and visuals marking the unseen gamble instead on a positive invocation of the limits of representation, where any claim to historical authenticity is disavowed. We are left instead with a performance record that is foreign to the category of completion; where the continuities and ruptures inscribed within a restless landscape create a world that its inhabitants know and are shaped by; and in the textures of which they dwell.

The Leper Chapel of St Mary Magdalene, Barnwell, ca.1880 (provenance unknown)


The only surviving map of Stourbridge Fair (1725)


A booth at Stourbridge Fair (provenance unknown)


An eighteenth-century depiction of Stourbridge Fair (provenance unknown)

A Reading of Ceasless Music

In his ‘Preamble’ to Ceaseless Music, Steven Matthews discusses one of Wordsworth’s continuing challenges to us, how we can only be taken ‘beyond everyday custom and ordinariness’ through ‘a direct experience of the natural world.’ Last summer I had such an experience. It came at the end of eight or nine hours of walking on the Western edge of the Lake District during which one of the sounds accompanying me was that of the river Irt as it carries the waters of Wast Water to the Irish Sea at Ravenglass. It is alternately deeply pooled and fast flowing. I crossed the Irt four times, the last being at Forest Bridge. Here the dense trees and the by now darkly lit water made me aware I needed to keep up my pace to reach Nether Wasdale before true darkness fell. But a stone’s throw from the bridge, at Cinderdale crossroads, the light uncannily blazed up again as the valley came into view. My aloneness in that place made me intensely aware of the presence of the animals in the greenly lit fields and particularly the cluster of trees in the triangular shape made by the quiet crossing of ancient roads. It being early July, the sun had only just begun its retreat from the Tropic of Cancer, and it was possible in that place and at that hour to believe night could be permanently held at bay. I felt both acutely alive and like my own ghost.

In November, reading Ceaseless Music, a line from Book VII of ‘The Prelude’ which Steven quotes in his chapter ‘Ceaseless Musics’ struck me: ‘Through the whole summer have I been at rest.’ Wordsworth is both wiser and kinder to himself than I am when I have periods of not writing. I paused at this line and thought self-critically of my unproductive summer. And when the memory of my Wasdale walk came to me, I knew that the reason I hadn’t even recorded it in my journal was because part of me wanted to leave it outside language. Why haul it in and define it? Why fumble around looking for words which would never be commensurate with the experience of those moments? And I also knew that what I experienced at Cinderdale would lead me deep into a Wordsworthian poetic which immediately raised troubling questions for me as a poet to do with accommodating that poetic and that sensibility to today’s readership.

Holding these thoughts, I turned the page to find a quote from the Victorian writer, Walter Pater, who was critical of Wordsworth’s attachment to ‘that old dream of anima mundi, of the world as a place of spirit and religious power’. I’ve often found that poems happen at intersections, two things coming together which when fused will make a third. So when ‘the old dream of anima mundi’ met the potent images of my midsummer walk, I set aside Steven’s book for a while and wrote the poem which is my response to it and which takes ‘Anima Mundi’ as its title. Fittingly, later in the same chapter, Steven argues that ‘nature animate…is the poet’s care, as ‘shepherd’, to mediate for the auditor, to see the beauty of, to recreate it for us’. The responsibility of witness which Steven is talking about here was something I felt particularly keenly while writing ‘Anima Mundi.’ In the poem there’s a gradual intensification of that witness which, after the Wordsworthian naming of places, shifts into another gear when I acknowledge that this isn’t going to be a poem about the kingfisher I saw fishing on the river Irt in the morning because that would be ‘the easy part’; it would be a poem in which, for better or worse, I would attempt the difficult part – what happened at Cinderdale at the end of the day. Without intending it to be, therefore, my poem became an illustration of Steven’s own observation that ‘reading is a way of being made to coincide with yourself.’

If it is a poem which is in dialogue with Wordsworth and with Steven’s reflections on ‘The Prelude’, it is also a poem which is in dialogue with itself: it is a commentary on the process of writing, of composition, whilst simultaneously performing that very activity. Beginning with an emptiness (‘I wrote nothing of summer’), it then dismisses the kingfisher’s flashiness as too readily yielding up poetic material, before capturing the moment the speaker understands that it is only through the act of writing (‘as I write, / as I write now’) that her rhapsodic experience becomes fully translatable and accessible to her. (I was tempted to italicise ‘write now’ in this line because it brought to mind so forcibly Bishop’s italicised ‘write it’ in ‘One Art.’)

In part, Steven’s Ceaseless Music is a sustained argument for the practice of walking (‘the man who walks is the man who reads the world around him’). New research has shown something which Wordsworth must have known known intuitively, that there is no better way to restore and to refresh the human brain than walking in a wood. And from the rich experience of reading Ceaseless Music, came my poem ‘Anima Mundi’, in essence a poetic record of my footsteps one long July day by the river Irt, through woods, over bridges and stiles and fences, along bridleways and indistinct paths, up farmhouse lonnings, down the slopes of less-than-four-metres-wide tranquil roads where weeds grew down the centre like nature’s answer to white lines, and finally to the road I most wanted to take and didn’t, the one which led ‘into the heart of the valley, the silence.’

Anima Mundi

Anima Mundi

I wrote nothing of summer, high or late,

nothing of the kingfisher fishing on

the pooled river Irt, nothing of the loosestrife

and downy oat-grass I lay in while I watched;

and that was the easy part, the flashy

feathers of morning, the sheep in circles

of shade beneath ash and oak, generous

sycamore by midday. I’d left my car

in Nether Wasdale, walked to Strangends,

Foxbield Wood, crossed the river at Hollins,

and then Santon Bridge, Mecklin Bridge,

through Greengate Wood, over Forest Bridge.

At Cinderdale I expected dusk; the word

itself was full of it, the cinders of the day.

But at the triangular crossroads, a place

steeped in human pause, something palpable

as the heat from a coal fire in winter

blazed up in my face. The highest reaches

of the beech were flame and they were water.

The green sun, the red cattle, the white sheep –

everything primary-bright, solid, and yet

see-through. For a long while as I looked

into the heart of the valley, the silence,

I could only think of opposites – it was life

or death I was being shown. But as I write,

as I write now, I think it was continuance,

or to use a word as poetic as Cinderdale –



About the Author

Helen Farish was born in Cumbria in 1962, where she now lives. She has been a Fellow at Hawthornden International Centre for Writers and was the first female Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust (2004-05). She has also been a Visiting Lecturer at Sewanee University, Tennessee, a Visiting Scholar at the University of New Hampshire, and a lecturer in the department of English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

Her debut collection Intimates (Cape, 2005), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Her audio CD Helen Farish reading from her poems was released by the Poetry Archive in 2009. Her second poetry book, Nocturnes at Nohant: The Decade of Chopin and Sand, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2012. Her third collection, The Dog of Memory, published by Bloodaxe in 2016, was shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of the Year 2017.  Helen Farish was also a Writer of the Year Finalist in the Cumbria Life Culture Awards 2017.

More information can be found at: www.helenfarish.co.uk.

Orpheus and Eurydice

The story of Orpheus’s tragic quest into the underworld to rescue his true love Eurydice back from the dead is one that has haunted the western imagination for over 2,000 years through many tellings, re-tellings, appropriations and adaptations.

A unique coming together of poetry, art and criticism, Orpheus and Eurydice explores the myth’s impact through a graphic-poetic reconstruction of the story. Including critical reflections from leading thinkers, writers and critics, this is a compelling exploration of the enduring power of this tale.

About the Authors

Tom de Freston is a critically acclaimed artist, a Cultural Fellow at University of Birmingham, and Artistic Director at Wellcome Trust-funded organisation Medicine Unboxed.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave is an award-winning poet, playwright, and author of the bestselling novel The Girl of Ink & Stars.


“There is a radical honesty about this book, one which grabs you where it hurts and pulls you in. It’s like eavesdropping on your own repressions, and just as thrilling, disturbing and compulsive. It’s also like slipping into the space between-the space between self and self; self and other; self and death; self and history; self and poverty; self and woeful, serious, inconsolable responsibility; self and atavistic, inescapable myth. That space between is where we live, if we live anywhere, and yet it is really seen or named. It is especially rarely seen or named in present-day culture and publishing, where everything is secured in advance by a marketable career, recognised expertise, established precedent. Between author and author, word and image, criticism and creativity, this book stakes out a different territory, one which corresponds with the state of tremulous and passionate mortality in which we are both most profoundly together and most tragically bereft. Amen, perhaps, is an appropriate response.”   –  Professor Ewan Fernie, The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, UK

“Orpheus and Eurydice is not just a reworking of a myth but a machine of its own, firing in its wires fragments of polyphony. Ground-breaking in its creativity and the fertility of its imagination, it resists easy definitions of classification, and yet, its vulnerability and intimacy also makes it wholly accessible. I have little doubt that it’ll be the work against which future hybrid and collaborative endeavours are measured.”   –  Claire Trévien, founder of Sabotage Reviews, award-winning poet, author, and academic

“Exhilarating, visionary and genre-defying. A free-wheeling but ingeniously focused reimagining of Orpheus and Eurydice which renovates our expectations of the essay, art object, lyric, notebook, poetic sequence and everything in between with equal grace and accomplishment. This book somehow manages to be urgent essential reading and a treasury you’ll return to for years to come”   –  Luke Kennard, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Birmingham, UK

“Visually creative, academically informed, and imaginatively conceived, the riveting interplay of prose and poetry, at once witty and poignant, recasts Orpheus and Eurydice – illuminatingly, but darkly – as the archetypal ciphers O and E.”   –  Leon Burnett, Founding Director of the Centre of Myth Studies and Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, University of Essex, UK

“A beautiful discourse on modern marriage with images and texts of psychological inter-penetration and comic dissonance.”   –  Lydia Goehr, Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University, USA

“This is a highly original and creative response to an ancient myth. Tom de Freston’s artwork is vivid, shocking and expressive, beautifully enhanced by Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s moving poetic narrative.”   –  Abigail Rokison-Woodall, Lecturer in Shakespeare and Theatre, The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, UK and author of Shakespeare for Young People

“Tom de Freston and Kiran Milwood Hargrave’s ingenious volume expands and revitalises the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice for new audiences, giving fresh life to themes of obsession, pain and loss as they invent compelling dialogues between character, text and thought.”   –  James Walters, Head of Film and Creative Writing, University of Birmingham, UK

“Neither poetry alone nor prose, neither academic writing (alone) nor fiction, and definitely not word without image, Orpheus and Eurydice is the passion of her absence. Do not ‘enjoy’ this book, feel it. The graphic novel is fast becoming the most poetic and provocative genre of our times and this volume is an exquisite example.”   –  Angie Voela, University of East London, UK

The Pleasure of That Obstinacy

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Mostly Not About Leopardi’s “La Ginestra,” But Also Mostly About It

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Macbeth, Macbeth

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An unprecedented collaboration between two leading Shakespeareans, Macbeth, Macbeth sparks a whole new world from the embers of Shakespeare’s darkest play.

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The Winnowing Fan

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Just Play

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Ceaseless Music

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