The Start: London to Guildford
‘I like to think how easily Nature will absorb London as she absorbed the mastodon, setting her spiders to spin the winding sheet and her worms to fill in the graves, and her grass to cover it pitifully up, adding flowers – as an unknown hand added them to the grave of Nero.’
(The South Country, Edward Thomas)
‘The smooth express to Brighton has scarcely, as it seems, left the metropolis when the banks of the railways become coloured with wild flowers. Seen for a moment in swiftly passing, they border the line like a continuous garden. Driven from the fields by plough and hoe, cast out from the pleasure-grounds of modern houses, pulled up and hurled over the wall to wither as accursed things, they have taken refuge on the embankment and the cutting… There they can flourish and ripen their seeds, little harassed even by the scythe and never by grazing cattle. So it happens that, extremes meeting, the wild flower, with its old-world associations, often grows most freely within a few feet of the wheels of the locomotive.’
(Nature Near London: To Brighton, Richard Jefferies)
March 2011: when spring looked to be about to spurt into action. It started at the house where Edward Thomas, the poet, had lived as a child. The first stint of cycling, headed south west out of the capital. It ended at a Travelodge on the outskirts of Guildford. And staved off the emptiness that was about to pervade my psyche, after looping his spiritual home – the poetic nucleus of Steep, East Hampshire – for a final time, a day earlier. The point of the day, the whole journey, was to travel back further in time, to the period in his life before he wrote poetry. I had a feeling that this voyage, to the Quantock Hills from his childhood home in London, was an important milestone for Edward on his way to becoming a poet. And that he became a bard on that bike, riding and writing, In Pursuit of Spring; eventually summoning Coleridge on the lane to Holford. I suspected that this sort of expedition was a common exercise in the life of a poet and needed to be undertaken as part of a poetic-apprenticeship. The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Frost at Midnight, and Kubla Kahn awaited me, summonable, along with the first poems Edward wrote only a few weeks after completing, In Pursuit of Spring. The passage may encourage the writing of poetry, either en-route, or once home perhaps. First of all the city had to be negotiated. We had to pack up our panniers and begin to pedal. In the dry sack strapped across the rack were a few books other than In Pursuit of Spring. In no particular order; The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz, London Orbital, Edge of the Orison, Nature Near London, Wild Life in a Southern County, The Icknield Way, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and On the Road. And a couple of books of poetry too: Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Selected Poems, and Edward Thomas: Collected Poems. They were gazed at intermittently. Spread across two panniers were these, mostly borrowed, things: compass, map, cagoule, jeans, coat, t-shirts, shirts, wooly jumper, hoody, gloves, scarf, hat, laptop, camera, waterproof trousers, shoes, food, water, lock, spare inner tubes, pump, allen keys, tyre levers, socks, and underwear. Meaning the bike was heavy. Edward may as well have been sat on the back. A special swinging action was required to get it up off the ground. I pointed the bike in the right direction and climbed on. It was about ten before Edward pushed off towards the mid-Victorian pub; The Nightingale. I followed Edward down Nightingale Lane, not knowing whether it was possible nowadays, nearly a century later, to cycle the same route, or whether a Romantic sensibility would disperse athwart the landscape, as the crankshaft turned slowly and nervously inches from the curb. The route passed by, after only a minute cycling, an Indian restaurant called fittingly; Bombay Bicycle Club. And as the road flattened and the bike got up to speed, the cycle to Guildford felt less daunting. Despite a long queue of cars waiting for the lights up ahead, down the side of which I had to slip the width of a shopping trolley. The suburban by-streets looked rideable enough though even with the lack of breadth, as they had been when Edward rode them. They were false prophets though according to Edward, as the main roads were very different. This was bound to still be the case but with yet more cars and buses, lorries and scooters to contend with. And as predicted, it was not long before the roads clogged and heavy traffic pushed us tight to the gutter. Leaving us freewheeling down Burntwood Lane bumping over drains arse off saddle: jumping the panniers, and shaking the rack. The dry sack, as a result, separated itself into two lumps of matter dangling either side of the back wheel, held only precariously across its middle by two thin bungee cords. I was beyond Wandsworth Common with its ornamental ponds, venerable elms and joggers circuiting; the railway, the dead straight Trinity Road and a quaint row of village type shops, before the potential disaster was noticed – barely clocking the extensive open space to the right, clocking nearly twenty mph downhill, staring at the messed up tarmac. After every single pothole, I turned to check the bright red dry sack was still flopped over the rack, as it was obvious the elastic bands were being loosened jolt by jolt. Until by Garratt Green, I could pull into a side street and stop the juggernaut safely. I was barely a mile into the journey. And the bike was already running away with me.
Out of Clapham. The large terracing, stinking rich, gave way to more modest housing. An estate of concrete flats flanked the empty green. Riding the route to Wimbledon that Edward walked a few times during his schooldays. A three-mile trail that went by Wandsworth, Earlsfield, and Wimbledon: whichever way he took, the Wandle had to be crossed. The middle way through Earlsfield; crossing the Wandle at the paper mills was the best way to do so. The smell of the mills wafted over a mile and a half on certain still evenings and gave Edward a quiet sort of poetic delight. To get to the Wandle on this occasion, we nipped down Huntspill Road, a typical London terraced side street, the brick paler than up north. Edward thought at once of the Huntspill in Somerset. Plough Lane was affecting in much the same way; a shock of ploughed fields, through what Edward thought was New Wimbledon. To the right, a closed pub, and Summerstown arcing around the back of Wimbledon Stadium; the dog racing track. On the left, hiding the cemetery, were a couple of gigantic grey boxes: DIY places. Behind the stadium too, there were more: smaller signage, completely unidentified hangers in some cases. At a petrol station, Copper Mill Lane zags off to the right; and a modest grey box selling carpets sits on the fork, guarding the entrance to the industrial estate, like an old gate house. At the end of the lane was a car dealership, hanging on the edge of the river, mimicking a mill. A loop of the estate revealed little. Tarmac and corrugated metal. Cars in the car park but no people. On the other side of the river more DIY places and car showrooms. All in all, the bland functional architecture, monstrously banal, epically dull, hugged the banks from Wandle Park to Garratt Park: an archetypal non-place typical of our supermodernity, the same everywhere and popping up all over – it could be in any city. Dotted down the purpose built wide modern roads Waterside Way, Riverside Way, Endeavour Way and Weir Road were industrial units, holding crates, food and drink wholesalers, distributors, home delivery services, pallet depots, shipping containers, enclosed in a riverside estate – old industry replaced by new, skirting a now useless sparkling squiggle of water, shielded by elms. A mixture of the sordid and the delicate in this suburban landscape, just as Edward had noted and enjoyed a century earlier. A liminal zone of informal nature: Edgeland, Drosscape, Bastard Countryside, Unofficial Countryside. Once allotments, the irregular low buildings of a laundry, horses, a shed or two, a chamois-leather mill, blossoming fruit trees, cows, a file and tool factory, the electricity works, and some caravans, gave on to Wandle Park and Garratt Park, now a clean grey modern retail park does. Landscapes of empty shells, hollow bar a few goods at their base. It was time to cross the mean featureless bridge, over the widened river. Where the mud of the bank denotes town edge; festooned with cans, strewn with plastic bags. Down Milton Road and Cowper Road you can gaze at the great estate across the winding river. Further down, near Chaucer Way, Burns Close, Kipling Drive, and Shelley Way, a meadow comes to the railway and the bins behind one of the stores. Here the wildflowers are left alone, and thriving. Round about this great estate; trees, flowers, shrubs, are disregarded to a large extent, backing on to a railway, a river, roads, and a cemetery. No cattle are present. And fat footed ramblers are off wandering the Downs instead. It was meant to be aesthetically wrong; a nothingness of a sight really. Yet the scrubland at the back of the sanitized retailland had a haunting quality. It disturbed – unkempt, haphazard, and overlooked. The graves gazed with. There was a wonderful behindness to the whole scene. London has many sides. This side was strikingly unpeopled, forgotten, and as such eerie: a secret garden, for those who bothered to look. The ugliness of the grey box and the bins added not detracted, thrilling the eye. Juxtaposition and mixing was the key – odd combinations of stuff to peruse on the spot. A fluid rural-urban fringe made clunkingly visible. Other taller buildings engulfed the horizon, not hills, and the hum of the city carried on the breeze. These messy bits of England have been ignored for too long – since the days of Richard Jefferies and the classic series of excursions, Nature Near London – as has been acknowledged recently by poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley. Coleridge and Wordsworth, Thoreau and Emerson, Frost and Thomas are rooted within the reason for these sites being overlooked. It all comes back to the idea of wilderness and the sublime – see the William Cronon chapter from 1995: The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. A desolate, baron, deserted place before the poems of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thoreau, and Emerson. Their words altered what the people of the time thought of the vast open landscapes of North America and the United Kingdom – rewiring aesthetic appreciation. This new aesthetic became, in a relatively short period of time, the way people imagined true nature – sacred mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers, grass lands, huge sky, animals and clouds roaming. To be at one with it, in solitude, and experience the sublime, like painters and poets, was desirable and not terrifying. They became places to preserve; being the only places on earth where it was supposedly possible to glimpse the face of God. Wild landscape was tamed by a few intrepid poets celebrating inhuman beauty. Nature became not us, not society, rather out there, beyond the city. In reality though, these vast swathes of land were no more inhuman than the Edgelands of cities. They were not untouched. Conversely cities are no less natural; they contain wilderness and nature. Wilderness as such, needs to be rethought. And nature more generally needs to be rethought – it is, like wilderness, a word that has changed in meaning over time – just as Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley have argued in their book celebrating jittery, jumbled, broken ground on the edges of cities, ignored by people: a true wilderness. Their point could be expanded further, and become all encompassing, travelling beyond brownfield sites. All is Edgelands. Humans are never fully alone, set apart from humanity, in an untouched landscape. To exist is to participate in a network. And we are all several already, touched by others, and schizophrenic. Poets of today are imbued with the work of past poets not through choice. Nature is fluid, an incessant series of dynamic processes, a succession of Edgelands. Place is to blame, bounding and bordering, rural and urban, nature and society. Four or five concrete rectangles clung on at the other end of the meadow I stood in. And the odd brick wall stuck up out of the ground in defiance. Grass will soon cover it all pitifully up. Flowers are yet to be added.
These were the inner suburbs. Parklife and the habitual voyeurs – I was still on the Northern Line. Houses were packed in, terraced, the main shopping streets busy. It was the proper commuter belt, old suburbia: the extent of the underground. Density loosens as the belt loosens. And Boris Bikes diminish with the cycle superhighway. Riding down Merton High Street towards Wimbledon South Station, trees lined the nearside of the road. The far side had a few shops, a newsagent, takeaways in the main. Hardy Road met the high street half way down. Railings prevented the panniers from passing cars at the busy intersection by the underground. The cross hatchings were full and a couple of cars jumped the lights, as usual. The pub on the corner was already frequented by at least a few visible smokers, stood out front in the spring sunshine. It was unseasonably warm. As the road widened and crossed a dual carriage way – the a24 – a clutch of grey boxes revealed itself. Again it was on the banks of the Wandle. And again backed on to a park; Morden Hall Park on this occasion. Poplars brushed the edge of it, as well as elms. Everything charmlessly ordered from the bike. No madness. There may be some mess, off the road, around the back of the façade. Some scrub. Although from where I was sat, all I could see was an increasing number of semi-detached houses, with neat little gardens, and a car or two on the drive. These were the outer suburbs – modern suburbia, interwar suburbia. The mini roundabout and the high-street confirmed so. I had passed through an invisible line somewhere between Merton High Street and Morden Hall Park. A brick wall, too tall to see over, hid the park. Beyond here the terraced houses became semi-detached houses almost entirely. A small arch in the weathered wall, marked by a huge light bulb, encouraged a peek. On the solid blue door, wide open, was written: Welcome to Morden Hall Park, Car Park Open 8am-6pm, For the use of patrons only. A garden-centre and a tea-shop sat immediately behind the signage. It was inhospitable. The single storey stables type building with a fully peopled terrace, was directly over the other side of a narrow stream and was lined by a picket fence. Too neat and tidy, too Sunday best, stiff upper lip and uncomfortable: a bit prude and twee. Cream teas and house plants for sale, some terracotta pots: a gnome. Beyond the car park and bottle bank, somewhere was a lake; cuckoo-pint, goose-grass, and celandine, farther on, growing in the wetlands by the Wandle, near the cast-iron foot-bridge painted white. Ancient towering trees made up for the lack of flowers, and the lush grass, enclosing the strip of water along with reeds. I did not bother with the rose garden. Houses alongside the route had flowerbeds full. Some meadows were outside the perimeter of possible deviation, a mile or so distant according to the map. No psychogeographic detour this time. The meadow could not draw me from the old planned route, as each view across the park taken lead me back to the pursuit and the road. Roads that had become wider and greener. Parks bigger, houses larger, or at least less squeezed in and narrow. Cycling easier. On the stretch, from Morden Park to Nonsuch Park this was certainly the case. Edward Thomas passed me between the parks, going the other way, back up London – the name in large letters, on the side of a coach – triggering the calves and thighs to push harder and the mood in the air around about to lighten, what with the jolly sight, reminding, haunting, and encouraging, on my homage to Edward. The sort of sight necessary for the casual day-tripper, in and out of poesis. Wordsworth Drive was only a few streets back down the London Road, and was appropriately about to be passed by the Edward Thomas coach: suburban-sprawl that continued all the way to Ewell, whereupon reaching the outskirts of, the Ewell by-pass did as it said and took me to Epsom. And for the first time all day we parted ways. Edward went on to Ewell – he described it as having the same general effect as Epsom, but less definite and complete, so there was no point in going back. It was nice to get some speed up on the smoother and wider by-pass. The sad houses, less well kept, ruined by the road, softened and cushioned the sound waves for other suburbanites. The wind blew hard against my face, and along with the sun, dried streaks of white salty sweat in streaks down my temples. I rolled leisurely down to the high street. Epsom was the first real town on the route. It felt like a separate entity to the capital all-encompassing city, rather than a suburb of. The clock tower at the end of the high street provided it with a market town, or country town style vista, drawing the visitor forth. It must have been lunch time as the streets were heaving. More a weekend than a weekday feel about it. A tourist hub, a countrified tourist town: the races, a jug of pims, country club, independent shops, tweed, golf course, and the not so distant Downs. Roads went off in all directions. I continued down the main thoroughfare though, passing workers on their lunch, shoppers, young kids in prams, towards the clock tower, with its weather vane. Before I could reach it though the road fell away to the left and cars were heading towards me. There was a sign saying simply: All Traffic. Nothing else, no place names, no symbol. And there was nowhere to stop. That was the extent of my visit to Epsom. Cycling can do that to a place. Beyond Epsom the suburbs were back; large bland detached fascias sat at a distance from the road. The houses where the city-slickers, the high-flyers live, on the very edge of the city: nearly at the moat of m25, on the edge of the green-belt. And the first sign of the coming stockbroker belt. Epsom had managed to evade the numbing swell of the city somehow. Ashstead had not. After an insane swirl of houses – actually shaped like a snail shell on the map – just passed and stupidly wound around, I had to stop. The sense of being out of place, looked at, looked down upon, in a panopticon of a circling and tightening street was overwhelming. Anybody who is not supposed to be there feels the need to leave. The suburbs in general were draining; the stupid modern dream, only coated with a thin veneer of perfection, belies a slow descent into madness. The m25 was not far from Ashstead. It was open countryside from then on. Over the city wall to freedom, post sitting outside a café, people watching for a while – some scaffolders opposite in particular, fags in mouths, climbing up and down a ladder carrying planks on their shoulders, one twisted severely and nearly took a head off; sorry darlin, sorry darlin. The Leg of Mutton pub beside the men, re minded the hill of roughly the same name: his hill, his memorial stone, his poems, the walks in Steep. A short trip to a public toilet pushing the bike passed a few massive homes, exceedingly big for the obscenely rich, with a swimming pool and a tennis court in the garden. The city was fading by this point – its pull diminishing, the feeling of pace and liveliness, vibrant life.
On the road again in the company of Edward; within moments the m25 was beneath. The tall dense trees stopped and glistening droplets flowed steadily in lines down to the left. No jam to report, eight lanes of autobahn running uncharacteristically smoothly. It happened so quickly: in a flash of tarmac and car with no fanfare. London was exited; at speed. The extent of the city, its limits, its scrag ends tied off, encircled neatly. The road a green belt: lined with aspens, squeezed by quaint suburb – not like the near continuous city of the north, stretching from Liverpool to Hull, bused across by Iain Sinclair. We parted ways, beyond the m25, as Sinclair crossed our path, Edward and I. Taking instead by choice, a deviant road by-passing Leatherhead, the marine and aviation division of a multinational oil and gas corporation, and some poems – a John Helston one about its waterways and a John Skelton one about an ancient pub there. For the first time, on the pass, the scene ahead was opened out. Tunnel vision was disconnected. The skyline was unfastened. It fell down to the ground. Landscape as a way of seeing ensued: the eye of a painter inserted. Blue – lots of blue – a big sky, and only a shallow rolling smooth green horizon. Photography happened on a bona fide road – a serious long distance thing, wide, open, without housing flanking. Pastoralist thoughts, old nature thoughts, Romantic thoughts, awash and colour the sliding scene, in front then beside. The eye unleashed, lapped up the new extent of its vision. Free from the pressure of the megacity – buildings cowering over, people overcrowding. And the invisible influence – its pace, your restlessness, the endless commerce, networks in the ether. Cars passed at pace, barely noticed from the luxurious spacious cycle path. While exhaling at length, breathing in slowly, and dragging up lovely air. Contentedness bathed the land ahead. The rhythmic upping and downing of the legs continued, mimicking the rib cage. And speed remained constant. My whole body relaxed, being concentrated solely on the task; the road. Eye free to gaze, to scan, the need to remain vigilant reduced: distances, shapes, angles, textures, lines, squiggles, nets, curves, patterns, simple geometry, efficient solutions, structure. Complexity playing out against competing forces: an apparent randomness underwritten by mathematical rules – rules that can explain the patterns in everything, and provide a reason for why things look and behave as they do. Yet still there is poetry created, endeavoring to explain the scene unfurling. Real cyclists sped by: lycra, good posture, racing bike. Perfectly flat ground helped them out. Some of the trees were full, others leafless spindly dark sticks. Ivy wrapped itself around many, giving an impression of spring. Puffs of fluff, spherical catkins, blew about, on closer inspection, beneath a knotted yew, fleeced by beech and ash. The low sunbeams sprayed shadows across the road from which. Light, chopped up, sliced by naked arms and hands, strobed with continuous movement; the siren of the sun. We could have both continued on to Guildford more directly, but literature, the Mickleham Downs, the Mole Gap drew us due south – to Daniel Defoe visiting the early tourist attraction of Box Hill in the 1720s whilst writing A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, John Keats finishing Endymion at the Burford Bridge Inn, Jane Austen’s Emma having a disappointing picnic atop Box Hill, poet George Meredith living at Flint Cottage below Box Hill, visited by Robert Louis Stevenson in March 1878 and later by Leslie Stephen and the Sunday Tramps with an ancestor of C, R.G Marsden, who by then, during intervals, had taken charge of the whole flock, in tow. An arc of road, bent left, and then diffracted away around Mickleham, looping for miles. The sweeping, meandering tarmac lined with shade by a thin stretch of pavement copse, befriended a river; the Mole, down to the right continuously peeping, beyond the border of trees, with its glistening water and high banks. I stopped for an apple, at the Old London Road, and wheeled the bike over to the weak single track bridge that spanned the river, leaning it against the elaborate cast iron handrail, freshly painted white – the old entrance to Mickleham – before looking for brown trout in the darkness beneath its arches, peering silently into the depths; A London Trout to be specific, hiding and swimming from Gatwick downstream towards Cobham, tacky cheating footballers, and eventually the Thames near Hampton Court Palace, spawning, rather appropriately. Back up London, to the metropolis, to meet J.G Ballard, Iain Sinclair, Will Self, and others. A fishy flaneur implicit in a piece of psychogeography written well before the Letterists, the Situationists and Guy Debord had begun using the term. Appearing eventually in the London Standard as part of a series of dérives by Richard Jefferies called; Nature Near London – a new cartography, describing urban nature, deconstructing boundaries. And like the psychogeography done for the Guardian by Will Self, the works were collected up and made into a book of the same name. There were no trout about though, but rather than taking the Old London Road through Mickleham, I pedaled slowly by the riverside, facing away from the road and out to the pale corn past the opposite bank. Celandines peeked through the scraggly dry grass. More and more cyclists passed by, in shade beneath large leafed horse-chestnuts and tiny leafed elm. The river swept away to be cuddled by a wooded smoothly rising ridge. A train line emerged from the treed scarp on the apex of the meander, forcing its way between road and river; cutting a perfectly straight path through the landscape. All was suffused in the sort of weather that lifts the spirits – the sun came round the back of Box Hill, and faced head on, inundating, blinding, as the old and the new road to London met, rejuvenating an aching body in the way only good March weather can. Motorcycles, lots of them, were parked up there, outside a shack. People, all helmeted, visors open glinting away, wandered back and forth. Lots sat on wooden pub benches smoking, eating; a hum of chatter coasted, laughter also intermittently. Nipping through the abnormally large expanse of tarmac adjacent – a white circuit painted upon it – and stopping momentarily for a quick drink. The bicycle came back to life and slowly climbed the ground, aslant, after doubling back down the old road, body too, weaving, rocking, standing, puffing, sweating, tensing, ascending all the way up the side of Box Hill; road, railway, river, a neat plait beneath the steep chalk, and Flint Cottage a speck – there, up there, from a skylark’s eye view; at once twittering and swooping, softly spoken words and a single violin, poet and composer, George Meredith of Box Hill and Ralph Vaughan Williams, are naturally thought of, mimicking and becoming, The Lark Ascending. Box Hill is England; The Lark Ascending is England – a soundtrack saturated with English sunbeam and zephyr. Edward knew this as well as anyone, as half unawares it came home to him – I think of Meredith as I should not think of other poets in their territories. He was not so much an admirer and lover of nature, like other poets, as a part of her, one of her most splendid creatures, fit to be ranked with the white-beam, the lark, and the south-west wind. A graveled bridleway weaved its way up further to the domed peak, as did ancient box woodland, snaking across lengthy dry meadow. Cyclists circuited the hill in training for the Olympics, following the planned route for the upcoming road race event at the 2012 games. On the edge of the capital, just outside the orbital motorway, I swooped down instead to intercept Keats, descending to more and more violins, at great speed, a crescendo of noise, until the ground gently flattens itself and all falls silent. Faintly, a bird chirped up again, and the tone poem was briefly heard once more, before dying completely; violin, skylark, and poetry, departed. Stepping stones, the Mole, the Burford Bridge Inn, Keats, and Endymion, took their place abruptly. And a fisher with fly, waist deep, whipping silently for trout. A London Trout: one of the clever ones that outwit even the keenest and compleat angler, a trout such as the one which beguiled Richard Jefferies – a tiny part of the mass of Nature Near London found by the writer. I was, at three, still orbiting the capital; stuck in orbit, dragged south and then east by poets, trapped in the dustbins of Iain Sinclair, floating, drowning, in Hackney Marshes. It was time to break out of orbit, shift up a gear, forget the footprints and unearth the tyre tracks; head for Guildford by way of Wotton, Shere, and Shalford.
Post Box Hill, we slipped in and out of reverie; the poetics of space working nicely. Down the Mole Gap, thinking of the Watford Gap, slippery brown trout and Richard Jefferies some more, still following the river, and the other great topographical book Edward wrote, The Icknield Way – piecing together a fractured ancient road, straddling the north of the capital, walking to Liddington Hill, Swindon, and Jefferies Land. After a few hours of riding and reading – moving quickly towards the rising road and the Downs, a hollow land, and a narrow wood called Deerlap Wood – it became increasingly clear that Edward Thomas was a great literary critic. He understood where everybody fitted in the map of literary history, the geography of their territories, the arguments, and politics that undergirded. What he could not fathom was where he fitted, being racked with self-doubt. In Pursuit of Spring, celebrates others, placing them in the foreground. His work was energised by their work, imbued with a sense of their greater importance. The topographic writing sets up the chance to write about another person or event, and is written in a way which denies the subject its usual place; decentring it, enhancing it, and giving it a distressing haunting fleeting quality, in a manner now synonymous with the work of W.G Sebald – positing a knowledge that would be lost were it not for his saving and noting. What is clear from these interjections is who Edward liked and disliked, and who he would like to have been compared to but never imagined he would. Edward was for this, the original Literary Hitchhiker. Demonstrating his understanding of the importance of writers to regions, and in region-building, A Literary Pilgrim in England is a mapping, a cartographic undertaking, a construction of mini-biographies of a writer, their work and their environment – beginning in London and the Home Counties, with William Blake, Charles Lamb, Keats, and Meredith, before moving on to The Thames, and Shelley, Matthew Arnold, and William Morris, The Downs and the South Coast, and John Aubrey, Gilbert White, William Cobbett, William Hazlitt, Richard Jefferies, Thomas Hardy, and Hilaire Belloc, The West Country, and Herrick, Coleridge, and W.H Hudson, The East Coast and Midlands, and Cowper, George Crabbe, John Clare, Fitzgerald, George Borrow, Tennyson, and Swinburne, The North, and Wordsworth, and Emily Bronte, finally ending up in Scotland, with Burns, Scott, and R.L Stevenson. The biographies he penned and his topographic work Oxford, Wales, The South Country, The Country, the pursuits to Coleridge Country and Jefferies Land further clear up whom he liked to hitchhike with. The biography of Richard Jefferies was his best; a homage to a much-loved literary forebear – unlike the biographies of Maurice Maeterlinck and George Borrow, writers he was less drawn to. The articulation of the life of Richard Jefferies, anticipated his own future. For Edward, Richard Jefferies was more than a nature writer: he was a guiding spirit of the English landscape, affecting a profound influence upon his own writings. Edward regarded Jefferies as somewhat of a mentor, once describing the body of work he created as a gospel, an incantation. A similar mystic communion with nature draws them together. Jefferies is best known for his writings about nature and the countryside; site-writing and memory-work created from wanderings, ending up in a sort of prose-poetry. His birthplace, Coate, on the outskirts of Swindon, provided the background to all his major works of fiction and many of his essays. But like Edward, he also wrote extensively about London and its surrounds, about towns, about the salvo of coming industrialisation, and about the perceived loss of a harmonious interaction between nature and people, a rural order – a loss that came to define them both as writers, indeed for Edward, loss became his poetic source, down the line. The weaving together of supposed urban sites, and rural settings, over the course of a book, is interesting. Theirs is not a naive celebration of flora and fauna, and a dumb blast at modern society, a meditation on purely the trees and the hills; the landscape is specifically peopled, in fact the story is often told through the people they meet out walking. Their books are altogether more complicated, precise, witty, technical, nuanced, scholarly, and painterly. Clever readings of landscape as they witnessed it, describing its buildings and infrastructure, its visual qualities, its sensuous atmosphere, as well as the practices of the time, for both leisure and work: the manipulation and transformation of things, fishing, swimming, shooting, walking, cycling, labouring, ploughing, cooking, eating, travelling by train, drinking in pubs, shopping at markets, and going to an art gallery. As such they act as little time capsules, admixtures of social commentary, environmental action, and personal musings; archaeological exercises, presenting a complicated picture of loss, and demonstrating the value of artistic imagination. There are further sympathetic resonances between Edward Thomas and Richard Jefferies. A family connection: Edward holidayed as a child in Swindon, where his grandmother lived – part of his intellectual and spiritual development. Their life spans – Edward lived only four months longer. A creative intensity squeezed into the last few years – a slow gathering, followed by a late spate, and fulfilment of creative being; a deep pool fills up until it overflows. I once walked in the footsteps of Richard Jefferies. Edward was there as always. It was a guided walk with readings. An event jointly hosted by the Edward Thomas Fellowship and the Richard Jefferies Society. No prior booking was required. And everyone was welcome to explore his home, watch the film Jefferies Land, and share readings from his work, and the work of Edward. People gathered at the Richard Jefferies Museum, Coate, near Swindon, for a 10.30 start, ready to walk along the east-side of Coate Water, over Cicely’s Bridge, to the Gamekeeper’s Cottage at Hodson. Once there we could look around the garden and view the old thatched cottage and the bluebells in Hodson Woods, before returning by the west side of Coate Water, for lunch at the Sun Inn. It took place a day after an informal study day held at Liddington Village Hall, Wiltshire, devoted to Richard Jefferies and Edward Thomas, their shared interests and concerns, and the Wiltshire landscape they both knew and wrote about. The car park was full that day. And cars blocked in other cars, with no other parking available. The hall was cold with a second-hand book stall on the left and tea and cakes on the right. Jem Poster, the poet, novelist, and literary scholar, who is currently preparing a new edition of Richard Jefferies: His Life and Work by Edward Thomas, was the keynote speaker. His lecture was entitled, First Known When Lost: Edward Thomas, Richard Jefferies and the Rural World – a lecture about the loss of rural life, rural order, the harmonious interaction between nature and man, beginning with Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village, from 1770, which apparently marks the earliest point at which a sense of loss of rural life, farm life, village life, is dealt with in a sustained way poetically; presenting it not as a lost Eden such as in Paradise Lost. The Pre-Romantic poem, a response to social and industrial revolution, and celebrating age-old countryside practices, a fallen world, influenced the Romantics. Nature seemed on the flitting, elevating Romanticism, and Coleridge. A seasonal decline and a perceived loss of poetic inspiration, led to more poets travelling, usually on foot, around the country, to interpret loss, in a state of destitution – John Clare, Decay for example. Post Romanticism, poets complicated and subverted, the picture of loss further – Edward Thomas and other poets were marked by the loss of traditional earthly practice, the mechanisation of war and agriculture, military tank and mass-produced tractor – thinking themselves into an earthly immortality, a form of transcendence, disappointed with what they witnessed: early environmentalists. Edward Thomas went on to write poetry in a ghostly manner, evoking homelessness, and a lack of belonging or dwelling for any length of time, everything seems fleeting, changeable, crumbling, decaying, pure presence is replaced by a sense of absence, an aesthetic of failure, dislocation, and death. Edward was never on the chocolate box, despite what many think. But that was all after cycling In Pursuit of Spring: the journey, which was pivotal in his becoming a poet, providing inspiration for his first poems – sections of the book being turned into verse. The war, and meeting Robert Frost crystallising his thought process. Plus the time was right to fulfil a lifelong ambition.
After Dorking: off the London Road and on to the Guildford Road. And into the Surrey Hills: area of outstanding natural beauty. The sun was out still, as the road thinned. Land hollowed out, all arable to the Downs on the right: a continuous ridge. Something was being burnt in the distance – smoke floated over towards the road, surrounding a church in the centre of the hollow. None of the London cyclists were left. No walkers either. Were it not for cars; the landscape would have been eerily unpeopled, with farm houses the only sign of inhabitants. Light began to fail me by the time of reaching Gomshall. And cycling was becoming tiresome; with the road weaving its way upwards, steeply, narrowing all the time, and the landscape gaining a more sinister edge. Two pubs at Gomshall, sat directly beside a canal, looked quiet; everything else in the place was hidden from road view. Nothing was welcoming. It was necessary to stop there and put on a reflective sash, so quickly was darkness descending. A road such should not be cycled in bad light – cars inches away, struggling to get by: their engines growling behind as they changed down the gears, looming, to speed around and away, angered by my presence. At Silent Pool, the road split in two, as the lanes diverged. There Edward also took a detour, and went for a look at the oblong pond, the size of a swimming pool; watching the trout gliding in the pallid green. It would have only twinkled in the twilight anyway, so I continued instead, head down, aiming for Guildford. An unremitting stream of cars passed by at high speeds, and some less confident drivers sat in the slipstream of the bike, damming the flow, holding up traffic. Beeping abounded, over the constant gargling of petrol, as did nervousness. And in almost complete darkness, a thin gilding over the hills distant, we parted ways involuntarily – I carried on up the busy road hemmed in by cars, none the wiser. There was nowhere to stop up the few mile climb through beech wood, to the high point of Newlands Corner; no space to rest, on the sunken road. It was only once atop the corner there was somewhere to pull in and look at a map, and realise the costly error made. Body then wrecked from the unnecessary uphill ride, I leant against a bench, on the apex of the long bend, staring out from the clearing made for an epic sight across hilly darkness; a corona crowned the ridge far opposite, and the land undulated between, dotted with dark tree spots. Edward was taking it easy down below, trundling through some more pretty villages in linear formation, beside the quiet road; passing Albury, Chilworth, and Shalford, talking of churches, ponds, and mills. There was no time to wait around and enjoy the view, drink it in and recover, as what little light there was left was essential without a headlight. Cycling, almost immediately back over to the road, and once again underneath the canopy of trees, cowering over the narrow stretch. It was impossible to think about anything other than keeping the bike moving in a straight line. Getting to Guildford was the sole goal. Artistic, painterly, poetic eyes were removed. And I stared dead ahead, or down at the tyre and tarmac, concentrated only on not becoming some of the abundant road kill. Head removed of anything superfluous to the task of manoeuvring a bicycle. Hands clamped to the bars, blistering, cold, oily and battered, arms locked tight in position, legs pushing down, one after the other, at a slow steady rhythm, aching beyond belief. Everything burned, panting, dizzy; all loneliness was abated for the first time in years, despite being more alone than ever. Thoughts only went to Guildford. Not to the usual places that haunt the everyday. When the road eventually flattened completely, widened, and met the Epsom Road – a place I had visited briefly what seemed like days earlier – the relief was huge after the never-ending ascent. Houses, lots of them, on either side, greeted cheerfully, as did the normally lifeless chain stores, restaurants, and pubs, found everywhere. The buzz of a bustling town was palpable, a familiarity calming the lost, overly ambitious cyclist, massaging pained muscles; gliding comfortably into town to twinkling street lamps, moonlight and stars amongst pitch blackness, with an evening chorus of commuting. I was still rolling – all the way down the relatively quiet high street with passages spouting off – when Edward walked haphazardly back in to view. It was just before the confusing one way system of what seemed to be a sort of ring road – in reality the road to Farnham that we would be taking the next day. He emerged and headed off again, along Quarry Street and Mill Lane, travelling at a fair old pace to his hotel on Porridge Pot Alley, with no conversation left in him. It seemed an affluent place Guildford. An Italian Restaurant owned by celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, sat opposite the station. The first one was opened in Oxford a few years ago, back in the halcyon days before recession, when we wandered happy amongst the cobbles, domes, and spires, the foreboding grandeur. The haunting spirit of the place so thick you could almost smell it, layers and layers of the stuff, in the bones of the place, a thick mildew: moths to a flickering candle. London, Brighton, Bath, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Cambridge, Cheltenham, Cambridge, Portsmouth, Leeds, Reading, Glasgow, Sydney, and Dubai all have one now. A board of meat and cheese tempted from the menu, shining through the mass of curved glass. But again I was not drawn from the road. And instead pointed the bike towards Walnut Tree Close and crossed the busy road, weaving first of all around railings. The close turned in to an industrial estate, squashed, squeezed slim, by the railway line, and the river: grey boxes, DIY again mainly, car showrooms also. I was back in Wimbledon, on the banks of the Wandle. Something was not quite right. It had been cleaned up and was now a strange stretch of newly planted Edgeland, surrounded by the usual basic architecture; box after box. The domain of the jogger and the dog walker: a cyclist thoroughfare. There was the odd, odd wooden sculpture. Other than which, all was beautifully bland and flat – perfect after a day of big landscape and cycling. And only rightly the Travelodge sparkled and looked out over the river, beside some more scrub bland, with the railway at its back and the a3 and a25 further penning in. Nowhere obvious to lock a bike: a hotel for a driver, sited on the edge of town, with good motorway access.
Inside all was well. The reception gave on to the bar and dining room, where a music channel blurted out the latest chart entry. And people sat alone, attempting to ignore it, drinking beer, eating chips. The fryer had packed up by the time I got to the bar, so I had to order a five bean chilli – it was pretty much the only thing on the menu not fried. A couple came down for a moment and took pre-ordered food immediately back up to their bedroom – without chips their meals looked ludicrously insubstantial. On the table behind, someone was desperately trying to organise a night out in Guildford, rather than stay in the bar any longer. In no time at all the five bean chilli turned up with four different types of beans in it; the black-eyed peas began to play loudly though, making up the remainder. After eating, instead of staying downstairs I took two bottles of beer up to my room and drank them in the bath, staring up at the ceiling and not moving, drinking the elixir; heat a revitalising tonic. There were no paintings on the walls and the decor was only simple blocks of colour, mostly white. With nothing to distract, the experiences of the day began to swirl amongst the heat haze. Mirror fully thick with condensation, the question of the point of all this returned. And the aims were qualified and re-qualified, as they were after each day of cycling. It was the question of the crisis of representation in the main, which I continually came back to each day, onwards from the beer bath, and circled, desperately working memory: the need to understand my own thoughts about subjectivity completely, my ontology, mixed in with a desire to remove Edward – and poetry more generally – from the chocolate box. What else was behind that Travelodge mirror? The ghosts of illicit affairs: dirty-weekends playing away, in the anonymous world of the off-highway motel, wipe clean surfaces, lonely wanderers, coming together, selling product, living the nomadic motorway life. Me on my pursuit, alone and bruised, emotionally drained, half-cut; watching documentaries about lions, savannah – on safari, unrecognisable. Through the surface bits and pieces, steamed up, Edward and his world, cocooned; where the pretty villages remain intact by a sleepy roadside. Behind the glass all is well; we cycle the parallel universe of the semi-mythical South Country. The story itself about fifty miles down the road in Dunbridge: a century into the past.
Preston, June 2011