Nightingale Valley & Leigh Woods

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North Road, BS8 (top) or Ashton-to-Pill Path (bottom)

Nightingale Valley, once known as Stokeleigh Slade,  is a steep and wooded combe leading to the bottom of Avon Gorge. The valley’s flanks formed the borders of ancient camps at Stokeleigh and Burwalls, and its upper slopes were a favourite subject of Bristolian artists.

For Symonds the valley and nearby Leigh Woods were associated with his first teenaged experiences of love – a place where he and William Dyer could escape undisturbed. He kept a flower from the spot where, after a year nervous to do more more than touch hands, he first kissed Dyer’s lips.1. Symonds’ poem “In Dreamland”, published in Crocuses and Soldanellas, describes the scene of two youths lying hand-in-hand above a river, Plato lying open in the dewy ferns.

Later, when Symonds was forced to put aside his feelings, the association became a more troubled one. Many of the poems and thoughts collected in Clifton and a Lad’s Love make the woods a focus for the painful putting-away of love.

Leigh Woods are as beautiful as when I roamed in them three years ago. The lights fall still as golden on those grey rocks streaked with red, on the ivy and the glossy trees, the ferns and heather and enchanter’s nightshade. This loveliness sinks into my soul now as it did then. But it does not stir me so profoundly or painfully. I do not feel the unassuaged hunger of the soul so deeply.2

Whatever the bittersweet nature of its associations, Leigh woods remained a favoured place, where Symonds often brought friends and visitors. Away from Bristol, he wrote to H G Dakyns “I have often seen you knee deep in the bluebells & anemones of Leigh Woods, under the tender screen of fresh green beech & hazel leaves”3

  1. John Addington Symonds, The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, ed. by Phyllis Groskurth (New York: Random House, 1984), p.105 []
  2. J.A. Symonds, In The Key of Blue and other prose essays (London: Elkin Matthews, 1893) p.166 []
  3. John Addington Symonds, Robert L. Peters (Editor), Herbert M. Schueller, The Letters of John Addington Symonds, Vol. 1 : 1848-1868, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1968, p.471 []