Under Which 'Thatched Roof of Rusted Gold' Were the Lyrics to the Much-Loved Hymn 'Jerusalem' Written?
Felpham, Bognor Regis, West Sussex
NHLE entry: Listing details for Blake's Cottage
Down a quiet lane in Felpham, West Sussex sits a charming 17th-century thatched cottage that was the home of renowned poet William Blake from 1800 to 1803. The nearby coastline provided him with an escape to where, as he wrote to a friend, 'Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates.'
More than two centuries later, this hideaway - now called 'Blake's Cottage' - is Grade II* listed. Yet its survival rests on more than just the well-preserved vernacular architecture. When church congregations and BBC Prom-goers sing the hymn 'Jerusalem' - for which the composer Sir Hubert Parry used Blake's words - they are evoking the poet's memories of Sussex's 'green and pleasant land'. So how did Blake come to write the poem that became the lyrics of the song that, for some, is England's unofficial national anthem?
'Thatched roof of rusted gold'
Blake was a born-and-bred Londoner. By the turn of the 19th century, his Mayfair home was at the heart of the metropolis as the Industrial Revolution impacted dramatically on the size and appearance of the capital. No wonder, then, that Blake accepted an offer of work from the writer William Hayley and took a three-year lease on the cottage in the quiet setting of Felpham.
In a letter written on a Sunday morning in 1800, Blake described the cottage with delight: it was the 'perfect Model for cottages' with a 'thatched roof of rusted gold'. Although altered since its original construction, the cottage today, set in a pretty kitchen garden, retains the idyllic design elements that Blake and his wife Catherine enjoyed. Fronted with roughcast (a coarse plaster containing shells and pebbles) and then whitewashed, the cottage's side and back walls are covered in both cobbles and red brick, and it is topped with a thatched roof that shelters the original first-floor sash windows.
The pace of change
The four-verse poem in Blake's preface to his epic poem Milton contains most of the lines that would eventually be incorporated into 'Jerusalem', including 'And did those feet in ancient time'.
Written in 1804, shortly after moving back to London from the Sussex cottage, Blake’s poem is a commentary on the impressive but destructive nature of modernity. The 'dark satanic mills' of industrialisation were rising frighteningly quickly in many English cities and huge brick-built factories threatened to overwhelm smaller traditional manufacturers. Blake's poem laments this change, and can be interpreted as a warning that such dubious progress could result in the demise of England's 'pleasant pastures' and 'mountains' green'.
It is evident from his correspondence that this escape to the country provided Blake with a welcome alternative to the industrialised capital, and he was entranced by Felpham and its inhabitants. 'The villagers of Felpham are not meer [sic] Rustics; they are polite & modest . . . the sweet air & the voices of winds, trees and birds . . . make it a dwelling for immortals,' he wrote to his friend Thomas Butts. Above all, he was taken with the beauty of the cottage, which 'tho' small . . . is well proportioned'.
A life of courage and creativity
Today Blake's Cottage is central to the Blake Society's vision of commemorating the poet's life. Currently a crowd-funding campaign has been set up to buy the cottage, which is now on the market. The society intends to convert it to a charitable trust that 'welcomes visitors, poets, artists and scholars to continue his legacy' and contemplate and explore Blake's life and works.
The cottage will provide a window into the rural life that Blake immortalised - a contrast to his London residence, which is also maintained by the society. As the latter's chair Tim Heath states, the listed cottage is to be 'an exemplar of a way to live a life through courage and creativity'.
Blake's Cottage is on private land and not yet open to visitors. Visit the Blake Society's website for more information on their campaign.