The play is about language, speech and the way we communicate. It explores the life and works of the Dorset teacher and parson, a self-educated man who lived from 1801- 1886. Barnes is best–known for his dialect poetry, in particular Linden Lea, set to music so memorably by Ralph Vaughan- Williams. Barnes himself, however, considered his philological writings to be his most important work. Especially his philological grammar, a search for the root of all speech, based on a study of over sixty languages.
Thomas Hardy, an old friend of Barnes, later described him as ‘the most interesting link between the past and present forms of rural life that England possessed’. And Francis Kilvert, writing in his diary of his visit to Barnes’ rectory at Winterborne Came in 1874, named him ‘the great idyllic poet of England, half- hermit, half- enchanter’.
Tim Laycock’s play brings to life a complex and fascinating man, and explores the tensions behind the decision of a highly [if self-] educated man to write in rural dialect. The fast paced performance contrasts the rapidly changing world of mid- Victorian progress with a strong sense of a way of life that was being lost forever, a feeling that has many resonances for today.
Rev David Slater, Salisbury cathedral.
Blackmore Vale Magazine
It is axiomatic that we human beings don’t really appreciate what we have got until we have lost it. Hence the deep concern of so many people to save the creatures we have driven almost to extinction from the adorable giant panda to the peculiar but interesting mole cricket.
Some of us recognise that the debasing of the language so cleverly and bitterly predicted by George Orwell in 1984 is all around us, from the cheap shorthand of tabloid journalism to the monosyllabic ravings of midnight drunks.
The Reverend William Barnes, a polymath even by Victorian standards (whatever happened to polymaths? Everyone is SO specialised these days!), who was at home in languages from French to Persian, recognised quite early in his career that the spoken dialect of his native Dorset was an endangered species, and he set about preserving it for posterity.
Indeed, it is through his dialect poetry that we best remember him, but a new one-man play by Dorset folk musician, actor, composer and story-teller Tim Laycock, brings the man to life in all his many aspects.
The Year Clock opens with the aged Barnes seated at his desk, leafing through his books and papers and thinking back over his long life, which almost spanned the nineteenth century. Born in 1801 to semi-literate parents who made a small living on a holding at Bagber, a few miles from Sturminster Newton, Barnes leaned to read and write, got work as a clerk in Sturminster and later in Dorchester, and in his early twenties- already a largely self- taught multi- linguist- went to Mere to set up his first school.
He married his great love Julia, and later ran a successful school in Dorchester. He went on to acquire a knowledge of 70 languages, and wrote more than 30 books in prose in addition to his dialect poetry. He was a highly respected, artist, engraver, musician, inventor, and in his later years much loved parish priest at Winterbourne Came.
The story, taking the theme of ‘The Year Clock’- the seasons painted on the face of an old grandfather clock- traces his life through the springtime of the enthusiastic young man, reading every book he can get his hands on and mastering languages with bewildering ease, through the summer of his successful schools and happy marriage with Julia, the fall ( the old Dorset word- still used in the USA) with the death of his beloved wife and conflicts over his ‘ideas’ ( his concerns about the enclosures and the plight of farm workers), and winter, with the long peaceful years at Winterbourne Came.
Directed by Sonia Ritter, with music played by Colin Thompson on fiddle and guitar (and coconut shells for horses’ hooves), and a simple set designed by Michael Taylor, the performance held the audience spellbound at Terra Firma on Friday. The sheer feat of learning this huge solo part is impressive, but far more so is the compelling picture brought to life before our eyes of a man of great intellect, from humble beginnings, who never lost his passion for learning, or forgot the people and the soil from which he had come.
If ever there was a labour of love, this celebration by actor/musician Tim Laycock of the life and work of William Barnes must surely be identified as such.
With musical accompaniment by Colin Thompson, Tim transports the audience back to Dorset’s rural past through Barnes’ dialect poems in an evocative portrait of a man who is a million miles from his image as a scholarly clergyman.
Barnes is revealed as a passionate lover of his rural roots with a rich sense of humour and a keen eye for the beauties of nature along with his wide-ranging academic skills.
This entertaining portrait brings to vivid life the Victorian country schoolmaster who is among the finest examples of the sons of Dorset.
The Bath Chronicle
Starring Tim Laycock, a talented actor, playwright, folk singer and musician from Dorset, The Year Clock explores the life and works of Barnes, best known for his dialect poetry.
The production also features song and music played on violin and guitar by folk musician Colin Thompson. It is an intelligent, warm and often humorous portrait, without any sentimentality, that accurately presents the achievements of a self-taught man. The audience is readily transported back to a bygone era when it was Barnes’ aim to preserve the Dorset dialect that he knew would disappear in a fast-moving world. Having seen one of the first performances of this fascinating piece, I can thoroughly recommend it.
‘A small masterpiece!’
Mike Dove, Artreach, Shillingstone, Dorset
Wharf Theatre, Ilminster.