Jason Goodwin: ‘I kept heading south, choosing turnings at random, with a deepening sense of time suspended’

Following his nose sees Jason Goodwin end up in the quirkily-named village of Pendomer, a place with a distinctly English tale to tell.

Some years ago, on holiday in the Highlands, the assertive Australian art dealer Rebecca Hossack asked me whether I liked driving.

I thought about it.

I said I liked being able to look at the changing pageant out of the window, I liked having a comfy chair so close to the radio and I liked the way, after a walk on a blustery day, that a car could be a warm and silent cocoon. So, on the whole, yes, I said, I did like driving.

‘That’s great,’ Rebecca said, with a relish my children still recall. ‘So you won’t mind driving me into Glasgow tomorrow afternoon.’

She was right: I didn’t mind, any more than I minded meandering home from Somerset last week, avoiding the main roads, towing a trailer full of old doors. The journey took twice as long, threading the wintry lanes, stopping to admire a view, old trees or a handsome village, but I always do my best thinking, such as it is, alone in the car.

I kept heading south, choosing turnings at random, down steep hills between high hedges and along ridges beneath avenues of beech and oak, with a deepening sense of time suspended. I passed a signpost to a dead-end village called Pendomer, half a mile away, and pressed on, winding my way into an archaic and enchanted country.

Five minutes later, I crossed a narrow railway bridge and stopped. I suppose it was something in the name, Pendomer, like Edward Thomas’s Adlestrop, that made me turn the car laboriously around in the deserted lane and go back for the signpost and the pock-marked dead-end road.

I parked and stood in the cold wind and it was much as I had fancied it: winter views across the valley, a flock of brown sheep below, a few farms, a muddy track, the 16th-century manor house on a rise, scraped a little clean. At its back stood the church — so much church for such a little place! — dedicated to St Roch, who intercedes for us in times of plague.

Notwithstanding, a notice advised that, due to the pandemic, a decision had been taken to keep the church locked, so after circling it sunwise and peering through the lattice windows, I Googled Pendomer, as if there was something important about the place, among its Saxons, Domesday, Sir This and Sir That and renovations to the chancel.

In 1947, C. Day-Lewis looked up from his train to where I now stood. Perhaps he, too, was searching for a moment of unfolding stillness, that sense of finding something greater in the smaller. ‘Somewhere between Crewkerne/And Yeovil it was,’ his poem begins, and, as he glimpsed a green knoll, a church, and trees: ‘The whole/Stood up, antique and clear/As a cameo, from the vale.’

Day-Lewis was a communist who taught at Sherborne. His early love life was a tangle, which put him regularly on that train. His mentor, W. H. Auden, overshadowed him, as did T. S. Eliot, who is buried at East Coker, two miles from Pendomer and in the same benefice. (Eliot had discovered that his ancestors came from the village, folded into the Four Quartets; his memorial reads: ‘In my beginning is my end. Of your kindness, pray for the repose of the soul of Thomas Stearns Eliot, poet. In my end is my beginning.’)

When Day-Lewis takes the train again, Pendomer has been hidden from him; withdrawn, he wonders, as the price for his failure to pay proper attention.

Year after year in another’s eyes
I have caught the look that I missed today
Of the church, the knoll, the cedars — a ray
Of the faith, too, they stood for,
The hope they were food for
The love they prayed for, the facts beyond price —
And turned my eyes away.