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The Seven Thorns Inn: a Sorry State

March 8, 2014

When the rose is gone and the rose-garden fallen to ruin,

Where will you seek the scent of the rose?

From rose-water?

Jalallud-din Rumi (1207-73).

Then as we drove along… we passed by, a little to our left, the lonely Seven Thorns Inn of legendary renown, a hostelry of importance at one time, which is said to stand exactly half-way between London and Portsmouth. Near here one stormy winter’s night a century or so ago three coaches, one from London and two bound thither, were blocked in by deep snow-drifts. Fortunately for the passengers the Seven Thorns was within a walk, and let us hope that they all spent a sociable and merry evening therein…

James John Hissey, Through Ten English Counties, 1894

‘Talismanic significance’ is becoming something of an over-used phrase in my vocabulary lately, but a pub which has languished – scandalously – in rack and ruin for many years has long had that status for me, for its very name alone, never mind anything else. It’s been known by other names too, but for me it will always be The Seven Thorns Inn. Yet, however you get distracted by personal obsessions and intellectual escapism, ‘life’ finds a way of reminding you of where you are, of our connections with the world, our connections with each other – often by means of ‘coincidence’.

Seven Thorns map

A detail from C and J Greenwood’s one inch map of Hampshire (from here).

Just inside Hampshire, south of the Surrey town of Hindhead, the Seven Thorns conjures images of a wind-blasted heath with gnarled, Rackhamesque thorn bushes, twisting their branches by the wayside, such are the otherworldly connotations of its name. Such impressions would be dispelled today, positioned as it is, teetering by the A3(M) and the southern entrance to the Hindhead Tunnel.

rackham_fairy

To restore this pub to its former glory must rank alongside one of those quixotic dreams like rebuilding Brighton’s West Pier, or creating a global human community, free of the state, nations and money…

In better days... An old postcard found on this urban exploration site.

In better days… An old postcard found on this urban exploration site.

But that’s by the by, as is the psychogeographical context of the Seven Thorns – whether or not it is exactly half-way between London and Portsmouth, or whether it marks the course of a Watkinsian ley – things to explore another time.

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The Seven Thorns c.1906 before being rebuilt (from this site).

Seven Sorrows

So, the fate of the Seven Thorns Inn was (and remains) a matter of great interest to me. However, an unexpected pattern of coincidence emerged in February 2010, involving a family bereavement in Russia and a resulting visit to Kent, concurrent with a phase of obsessing about this pub. Travelling to Kent, I chose a different route to usual, planning it to go past the Seven Thorns (which I’d only gone past, knowing of its existence, a couple of times before) to snatch a couple of pictures as we hurtled by.

Sev T

We returned home the same day, but not before having had a personal possession urgently thrust into our hands, as a gift: a Russian icon of ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’, almost identical to the image shown here.

Seven Sorrows

An internet search that evening uncovered some lines from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, linking pub and icon:

The seven-thorn’d briar and the palm seven-leaved

Are her great sorrow and her great reward.

Of this particular icon this is written:

On February 2… Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics commemorate a wonder-working icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God) known as “the Softening of Evil Hearts” or “Simeon’s Prophecy.”

It depicts the Virgin Mary at the moment that Simeon the Righteous says, “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also….” (Luke 2:35). She stands with her hands upraised in prayer, and seven swords pierce her heart, indicative of the seven sorrows. This is one of the few Orthodox icons of the Theotokos which do not depict the infant Jesus. The refrain “Rejoice, much-sorrowing Mother of God, turn our sorrows into joy and soften the hearts of evil men!” is also used.

Another ‘bead’ in this strange string of coincidence appeared within a fortnight, while driving north of Winchester, when I was transfixed on hearing a radio presenter’s introduction for a piece of music about the Virgin Mary by Vivaldi: she translated the lyric as, ‘painted in purple and armed with thorns’ – a description immediately evoking the purple-clad Mary of the icon. Compelled then to linger and listen to Carolyn Sampson singing Ostro picta, armata spina, only now has it clicked, four years on, that as I waited for the music to finish and the presenter to repeat its title, I happened to have come to a halt by an old cottage called The Rosary

Vivaldi’s lyric contrasts the transient beauty of the wild rose against the eternal glory of the Virgin Mary:

Crimson-dyed and armed with thorns,

Greater than all in pride and beauty,

Bloomed the wild rose. But now at day’s decline

She pales and languishes, like any weed,

Bereft of scent and beauty.

Leaving aside all the religious connotations, that just about sums up the bereft, ruinous state of the Seven Thorns, and so much else besides. Whatever’s going on, I don’t think ‘it’ is about a derelict pub, although the pub is part of a bigger picture…

Edit 16/3/14 – Should I be surprised at the apparent irony of the icon,  The Softener of Evil Hearts (Умягчение злых сердец), being appropriated to a discourse of nation, cultural identity and tradition which entails a hardening of the heart among its adherents, against a demonised other? I think of the hard-hearted thuggery of the cassocked and bejewelled clergy, pictured laying into participants in a Gay Pride march in Moscow a few years ago…

Turn our sorrows into joy and soften the hearts of evil men!

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