Sea Shells, Or: How the Deluge Reached Reading

Charles Coates’s monumental 1802 work ‘The History and Antiquities of Reading’ is a treasure house for discoveries surrounding the history of the county town of Royal Berkshire. In its discussion of the specifics of the area of Katesgrove,  the book records a short poem in 32 dactylic hexametres. They are presented as composed by ‘Mr Allen, then an assistant at the School’ (i. e. Reading School) and ‘spoken at the Triennial Visitation in 1752’.

The poem reads as follows:

Conchae prope Raedingum effossae probant diluvium
[‘Sea shells unearthed near Reading prove the deluge’]

Qua properat, Patrem ad Thamesinum brachia tendens,
Praecipitesque urget rapidus Cunetio fluctus,
Eruit attonitus rerum novitate colonus
Littus arenosum natasque sub aequore conchas:
Non leve prodigium. Quippe his distantia longe    
5
Finibus Oceanus raucos ad littora fluctus
Volvit, & has nullis agitat terroribus oras:
Undique frondosi colles atque amnibus udae
Spectantur valles, herbisque virentia prata.
At detossa jugi sub mole haec monstra fatentur,     
10
Humida Nereïdas tenuisse his sedibus antra,
Coeruleasque rotas delphine egisse jugato;
Dum circum phocae, pecus illaetabile, passim
Tonderent algam & nondum indurata coralla.
Huc ades, oh quicumque sacris sermonibus aures    
15
Impius avertens, veteris portenta Noëmi
(Qui mare, quondam uterum, tunc rerum immane sepulcrum,
Exigere humano tutus de crimine poenas
Vidit) uti nugas figmentaque anilia rides.
Huc ades; atque haec ima miracula mente revolvens    
20
Contemplare, oculisque tuis fiducia detur.
Salve, concharum feries veneranda! superstes
Rerum ex naufragio! Mundi salvete prioris
Sanctae relliquiae! Queis certa immotaque sedes,
Innumerisque quies saec’lis invicta remansit,    
25
Dum tot mille vices dominorum terra novavit,
Et sacrum quodcunque habitum, quodcunque superbum,
Regalesque arces, confisae moenibus urbes,
Et templa aevorum vix tandem extructa labore,
Turres Iliacae, Capitoli immobile saxum,    
30
Regia Pyramidum moles, & Mausolei
Omnia concussa atque annis eversa labascunt

[The following version of the text is marked ‘A Translation of the above, by the Author’ by Coates]

Where rapid Kennet rolls his headlong stream,
Eager to share with Thames a nobler name,
While lab’ring hinds for future fabric toil
In the dark bosom of the yielding soil,
Amaz’d they view of shells and sand a shore,
On which no bursting waves are heard to roar.
In distant coasts, the traveller may tell,
How raging oceans’s foaming horrors swell,
But here the swain with ravish’d eye can trace
The chearful landskip’s variegated grace;
The rising hill, embrown’d with many a grove,
And vales, where streams in bright Meanders rove.
Yet these strange reliques of the main declare
That the rough sea once drove its billows there;
That o’er the rising hill embrown’d with shade,
The stream-wash’d valley and the verdant mead,
The grazing Sea-calf trod with humid foot,
And cropp’d the budding coral’s tender shoot.
Approach, thou impious wretch, who, blind yet bold,
Presum’st to doubt what sacred lips have told,
That by divine command the rising wave,
The womb of nature once, was once her grave.
By virtue rescued, and by virtue’s God,
While earth was ravag’d by the raging flood,
While all around the heaving ocean boil’d,
A chosen few at all its terrors smil’d.
Approach – believe – and dread the wrath of heav’n,
And pray thy impious doubts may be forgiv’n.
Hail, sacred reliques of a former world,
Safe, while all nature was in ruin hurl’d!
These wondrous shells unhurt by time endure,
And for unnumber’d ages rest secure,
While what mankind as strong or great reveres,
Has sunk beneath the weight of rolling years.
Th’ environ’d citadel’s stupendous pile,
The solemn temple, rais’d by tedious toil,
The less’ning fame of Ilion’s lofty tow’r,
The wrecks of Rome, that hastes to be no more,
Mausolos’ tomb, and Egypt’s mould’ring pride,
All yield to rapid Time’s o’erwhelming tide.

The text is of course a remarkable piece, reflecting on a time when Reading was a rather different place and the conurbation had not yet sprawled out to the South significantly beyond London Road. The ancient map, as published by Coates, indicates the position of the oyster banks in the area that is now Elgar Road, just north of the area now known as Waterloo Meadows:

The geological structure of the neighbourhood of Reading was reported, for example, by J. Rofe jun. in a contribution to the Transactions of the Geological Society of London in 1834, which can be read online in a number of formats, and the geological condition of the area led to the rise of a number of kilns and mines in the Katesgrove area, among which, for example, the ancient Katesgrove Kiln Chalk Mine, marked ‘Mr Waugh’s Brick Kiln’ in the ancient map.

More interesting still, however, is the following observation. The translation that is recorded in Coates’s volume is not altogether faithful to the Latin (which is nowhere near as horrid as the translation), and it certainly is rather more obsessed with keeping up its rhyme scheme than it should have been. What Mr Allen actually wrote in the very first few lines of his poem, rather than talking about ‘lab’ring hinds for future fabrics (…) in the dark bosom of the yielding soil’ is this:

Where torrential Kennet rushes, extending its arms towards the Themse-ian father,
And headlong pushes its floods,
The settler, astonished by the novelty of those matters,
unearths
A sandy shore and shells, born under the sea:

A veritable prodigy!

The settler, colonus, is the one first to encounter the remarkable find – a clear indication of the ways in which the Katesgrove area, adjacent to the river Kennet, became of increasing interest to the inhabitants of Reading – starting to link the site of ‘Mr Waugh’s Brick Kiln’ with the area west of Southampton Street (i. e. the area that is now Alpine Street), an area that the poem describes as an in fact rather idyllic, serene grove (an impression that a walk along the Kennet-Avon canal on occasion manages to sustain).

The poem extends the invitation to come and see the wondrous feature of nature to those  who ‘who, blind yet bold, / Presum’st to doubt what sacred lips have told’, i. e. those who – despite the proximity of the Church of St Giles  – felt less than inspired by its preachings: inspection of the miracles, seeing the sea shells with one’s own eyes, thus becomes a means to strengthen one’s faith – a miracle emphatically welcomed by the poet himself (Salve, concharum series veneranda!).

Katesgrove 2013 - did the deluge strike again?

Katesgrove 2013 – did the deluge strike again?

Yet, one cannot help but feel that this poem is not about religious edification. It ends in a dark vision about the death and decay of even the biggest, most outstanding of human achievements – invoking Classical examples: Troy, the Capitol of Rome, the Pyramids, the tomb of Mausolos. Omnia concussa atque annis eversa labascunt: ‘everything falls, shattered and eradicated by time,’ is the poet’s conclusion.

Could this mean that the poem’s actual point is a criticism of Reading’s starting expansion to the south of London Road, not least driven by commercial interests, ultimately destroying the beauty of nature that Katesgrove once must have been – idle ambition and arrogance to create something huge, with the sole prospect of being overthrown eventually? This thought presents the poem’s centre – inconspicuously hidden away in parenthesis! – in a different light (and again only a more literal translation can bring this aspect out more clearly):

He (= Noah), who saw the sea, once the womb, then the horrendous tomb of all matters,
Execute the punishment for human misdeed,
Being Safe himself.

The miracle of nature of Katesgrove, clearly sea-related, easily linked to the biblical flood in poetic imagery, thus has become a tool for the poet to remind his audience of the causes for the deluge – human wickedness and arrogance. How will the colonus respond, the colonus who dwells in the very place where ‘These wondrous shells unhurt by time endure, / And for unnumber’d ages rest secure, / While what mankind as strong or great reveres, / Has sunk beneath the weight of rolling years.’

Shield of the University of Reading

Shield of the University of Reading

An aside: sea shells, more specifically scallop shells, hold particular symbolism for Reading, as they had been a constituent of the arms of Reading Abbey, still preserved in the arms of the University of Reading. Perhaps that gives the University an additional right, every now and then, and without confessional motivation or dimension, to contemplate the bigger picture, to consider aspects of global responsibility and sustainability, and not just to pursue short-term interests that may damage and destroy more than they manage to create?

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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