Every year, on his birthday, the children of John Clare Primary School in the village of Helpston in Cambridgeshire, lay special midsummer cushions around the gravestone of their most famous son. But the pub over the road, where the great peasant poet was laid out before his burial, has traditionally been off limits, at least until now. Barry Sheerman, the Labour MP for Huddersfield, and the John Clare Trust of which he is the chair, have bought the large Exeter Arms, and plan to turn it into an educational centre.
The trust already owns Clare Cottage in the village, where the poet was born in 1793, to two illiterate farm labourers, and where he spent much of his life.
"This pub will be the base for every child's right to the English countryside," Mr Sheerman said. It is currently shut, and will be so for at least two more months. Whether it functions as a pub when it reopens remains uncertain.
"We can use it only for purposes in line with our aims as an educational trust," Mr Sheerman said. The trust is about to begin an extensive consultation with the villagers over the future of the pub. "It might be that we can get something like a Jamie Oliver Fifteen style restaurant going, getting young people to learn the skills of the leisure trade."
Mr Sheerman visited the pub with his son in law, Dr Paul Chirico, this week, who is the senior tutor at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and has published a book on John Clare's poetry.
John Clare's extensive writing paints a vivid portrait of 18th-century rural life, and conveys a deep love of the English countryside. The John Clare Education and Environment Trust aims not only to acquaint young people with Mr Clare's poetry, but uses his writing to engage with the flora and fauna of the countryside. Mr Sheerman hopes that the pub which comes with a large barn and an acre of land, will offer more practical outdoor lessons "where the children can collect their bugs and plants and so on."
But Mr Clare didn't mind the occasional glass of ale, and this side of his life may still find accommodation in the spacious premises.
"We haven't bought the pub as a going concern," said Sara Blair-Manning, the CEO of the John Clare Trust. "We have just bought the building. It needs a lot of work, which we will have to raise the money for. Whether we maintain the public house role is open to debate. We wouldn't want to take away a pub from the village, we will see if the village wants to retain two pubs. It is a large building, and there may be spaces within it that could be used for drinking."