How About a Morris Memorial Walk? A Modest Proposal

A Rainbow over Kelmscott Manor: photo by John Plotz

Back in 2011, I was lucky enough to spend ten days in and around Kelmscott, Oxfordshire. It couldn’t have been a better trip. When I wasn’t at the Manor itself, I visited the Great Tithe Barn at Coxwell, various churches that Morris worked on (Eaton Hastings ) or simply admired (St Mary’s in Castle Eaton), rowed (feebly) under the sweeping willows that Morris loved so much. On the last day I even saw a rainbow over Kelmscott Manor.

Although I’m not a macabre person, I was pleased to be there both on the anniversary of Morris’s death (October 3) and his burialthree days later (October 6, 1896, a dark cold day). I’d been spending a lot of time at the gorgeous parish church of St. George’s, puzzling out the medieval wall paintings and admiring Webb’s memorable inverted-ship tombstone for William, Jane, Jenny and May Morris. So naturally I wonder what kind of commemoration to expect. Would it be Fabians, Guild Socialists, loyal Marxists? Or would his Arts and Crafts acolytes have set the tone? The answer was simple: none of the above.
It seemed wrong that so little should be done to mark a crucial moment in the Morris calendar at a crucial place, the “old house by the Thames to which the people of this story went.” So I had an idea, more or less the same one that John Paynes turned into his lovely book, Journey up the Thames.
Why not undertake the trip taken not only by Morris’s corpse after his death, but also by Guest, Clara and their companions in News from Nowhere? It seems a voyage that has as much to do with Morris’s life as with his death.
So, here’s my thought. Morrisites of all stripes should come together to follow the straightforwardroute marked out by the Thames Path and make a kind of Morris pilgrimage, arriving at Kelmscott Manor on October 6th. Although I realize that early October is an awful fit with the American academic calendar, I can at least attest to the mildness of the weather then. The ambitious could devote ten days to undertaking the 150 miles from London, while the more modest could (like me, on an unexpectedly balmy weekend) hoof just the final 50 miles from Oxford. Although the train no longer comes within a couple of miles of Kelmscott as it did in Morris’s day, boating wouldn’t out of the question. And anybody who elected to arrive by car would at the very least meet up with the party at Morris’s tomb on October 6th.

I admit the scene won’t be as tumultuous as that October day in 1934 when Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald missed George Bernard Shaw’s speech, and the dedication of Morris Memorial Hall on account of the crowds that flooded into Kelmscott. Still, is any one else as charmed as I am by the prospect of a walking, talking, disputating crowd of Morrisites, making their way argumentatively and amicably up the Thames?    
John Plotz, Professor of English at Brandeis University

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