If you happened to be passing Swaffham Prior Cambridgeshire, lets say from Cambridge on your way to Newmarket in late 1958, you may have noticed a couple, walking sticks in hand supporting one another as they slowly progress up the slight incline from their cottage to the twin churches of St Mary’s and St Cyriac and St Julitta.
The couple are Edwin Muir, Orcadian, Poet, Critic and Translator and his wife Willa, Novelist, Translator and Essayist, they have been living in Priory Cottage, Swaffham Prior since August 1956 and this short occasional walk was all that Edwin could manage in what turned out to be the last few weeks of his life.
Willa describes their time in The Village of Swaffham Prior in Chapter 21 of her book Belonging.
Priory Cottage, Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire from The Church of St Cyriac and St Julitta
“From any outside angle the cottage looked attractive. It had a walled garden behind it, as well as a garage; its front door was on the main street of the Village and we walked straight into a spacious sitting-room, made out of two original small rooms which gave two different heights to the ceiling. Most old English cottages are cursed with very small rooms, and as soon as we walked into this large room we nodded to each other and said: “This is it.”
The front casement windows looked out on two parish churches, one on either side of a hill. The left-hand one had a dilapidated octagonal Norman tower, but its nave had been roofed over in the nineteenth century and except for the tower it was weatherproof. The right-hand one was in Perpendicular style; it had a ﬁne tall belfry, quite whole, and a clock—face, but its nave was a ruined shell.”
From Belonging by Willa Muir
“One unexpected pleasure was added, the excellent peal of eight bells in the tower of the right-hand church opposite our cottage. When the Fens used to be ﬂooded, the little hill was a place of refuge well above the waters, and the bells had sounded over the countryside as a guide.
They were such good bells that the champion bell-ringers of the district, in the neighbouring village of Burwell, used to spend a whole Saturday afternoon every now and then practising on them. We listened with delight to the intricate patterns they played, as the bells wove in and out; this was a new experience to us, for that art of bell-ringing is found only in England and we had never before lived beside a peal of such bells.”
From Belonging by Willa Muir
Now is that not reminiscent of Dorothy L Sayers Nine Taylors!
If you take the time to follow in their footsteps and continue along the path which winds past the Church of St Cyriac and St Julitta, (Willa’s Right Hand One) which is now under the care of The Churches Conservation Church you can exit the old graveyard through the top right hand corner gate and into the modern burial ground where today you will find the last resting place of Edwin and Willa Muir and perhaps “sit on the bench under a great round of sky.”
Edwin and Willa Muir’s grave with the tower of St Cyriac and St Julitta in the background