From Dunbridge over Salisbury Plain
‘Much has been written of travel, far less of the road. Writers have treated the road as a passive means to an end, and honoured it most when it has been an obstacle; they leave the impression that a road is a connection between two points which only exists when the traveller is upon it… Yet to a nomadic people the road was as important as anything upon it. The earliest roads wandered like rivers through the land, having, like rivers, one necessity, to keep in motion… We could not attribute more life to them if we had moving roads with platforms on the sidewalks’
(The Icknield Way, Edward Thomas)
‘The Road… We are slow to feel its influence… We take it so much for granted that its original meaning escapes us… For the mass The Road is silent… But it was the most imperative and the first of our necessities. It is older than building and than wells… The animals still have it today; they seek their food and drinking places, and as I believe, their assemblies, by known tracks which they have made’
(The Old Road, Hilaire Belloc)
After a walk down memory lane, to where she would have been, sleep with a dream – she took me out to our meeting place by the sea and got me laden with gin. It has been too late for a long time but still I hold her close in the back of my mind. And I slowly disappear, becoming a ghost. There was a painting of a thistle on the wall separating two single beds. The room was bare otherwise. Breakfast was a lonely affair with a solitary table set. Sat mumbling, half singing, if I forget her I will have no one to forget; I guess that’s what assholes get. Edward alighted and headed over ready to pick up the road he had lost. I too was ready to get back on the road again, tracking Edward towards the signposted Lockerley and East Tytherley, with the tarmac glinting wet from the night before reflecting back a pale scarcely blue sky; forgetting whilst riding hastily the abbey at Mottisfont – the lane would bear me to a village green and a shop with a striped awning before the realisation dawned. Great swells of oak broke the surface of arable squeezed between railway and lane. I had gone the wrong way again, chosen the wrong road; the one less travelled. There were hardly any houses, bar the odd huge one, explaining the empty pub where I dreamt. It was a weekend pub for local celebrities – Chris Tarrant and Jim Davidson regularly argued there before stumbling home down the narrow crisscrossing carless lanes. We crossed the railway for the first time, arcing past two churches and kissing a river before coming back over the line a mile further down. No trains passed while I circled. Edward did not stop for the villages. The other man did – the weather-vane shaped like a fox still blew over one. Beyond: a chain of nondescript huts spaced evenly were reached by an access road not taken. Behind: the constant ridge was spiked by antenna, parallel, until the lane turned away toward the railway and a timber yard, where I stopped – the chain had fallen off, by dead trunks, trunks of trees, stacked in scalable triangles, bound by barbed wire, waiting to be smoothed of abnormalities, the trees and me. While dust came to rest in a neat pyramid under a giant plane and yellow machines dropped perfect planks. Two industrial blenders out back gargled continuously while a saw whirred intermittently. Down and under the railway, only a train could compete with the din, until rolling languidly aside the river bank for long enough, to a village; with a bridge wide enough to hold a single track lane, a large windowed symmetrical pub with tarmac car park waning down to reeds, and a few unpeopled benches and daffodils underneath weeping willow. It was not a case of following a map or signpost any longer. I took the narrow lanes in vaguely the right direction towards the plain, weaving about but keeping the wall of hill alongside. Mostly the network of lanes provided views across bright sunny arable land. Occasionally there were cows and sheep and verdant grass and deer abundant swarming opposite. The lanes were hospitable. There were no humans driving by ready to mow down; they remained unusually unseen, hidden but for traces, leaving me uneasy. The lanes were also level and open, almost entirely treeless; anticipating the Plain. A small ridge of grass or a clipped box hedge normally flanked me directly. Only one stretch was overhung, moments before leaving the lanes and thick with all different types of tree. The ground still snowed up with leaves drained of colour, washed throughout winter. Silver birch and oak were the most abundant, refusing to complement each other. The brown oak slashed starkly by the grey birch, until the woodland ended and a main road flashed unexpectedly beneath and the edge of Salisbury – all hidden from lane view.
The River Avon meandered past a sewage works and cradled the cathedral. While the road and railway headed for the cathedral directly before being diverted at the gates. Road, river, and railway met again on the opposite side of the city. We continued as the crow flies. Passing an estate of grey superstores where the city began in earnest with a suburban fringe. After which we were sent off course. Back to meet the river and the bridge out of town, leaving us with no choice but to negotiate the busy High Street. In the shadow of the cathedral I popped up on to an empty strip of pavement to rest and weaved painfully slowly around a line of parked cars. Gazing up sporadically at the spire like a regular tourist still rolling just. Edward did the same dodging a prancing spotted calf and some black and white pigs. Prior to merging again further down where some pedestrians window shopped. Not yet confident in traffic after riding lanes all morning. We were met by Sidney Herbert and Henry Fawcett – their statues only, in a city of the dead and birds, and presumably dead birds – a bust of Richard Jefferies, and out of nowhere a police officer. Can you pull over please? As if I was in a car. Unhappy with the manoeuvre off the bit of narrow hectic road and on to the vacant paving slabs. He revealed the damage that I could do to the reputation of cyclists the world over. Apparently he was a keen cyclist. The cars far outnumbered the people I told him. To which he did not respond. Rather he continued the lecture, telling me not to do it again, before getting back in his massive car and blocking the road ahead. Tempting me to nip up the curb again, checking his rear view mirror, until the lights changed and he sped off. In the same month there were 33 burglaries, 2 robberies, 33 incidents of vehicle crime, 31 of violent crime, 311 of anti-social behaviour, and 212 other crimes in Salisbury. It is lucky there was nobody on the pavement. I would have probably done all of those things to them. Not content with being a bit subversive anymore, cycling In Pursuit of Spring a century late. I began to break the law more regularly – riding on the pavement for an extended period, post-lecture. Meeting, outside the city, the same road we came in on, and taking it for a stretch; grim after the quiet solitude of the lanes. The elms that lined both sides had gone but the rooks still cawed, riding, the solitary never walked pavement for miles, through a landscape that had not changed too much. It was the road that had. And it became acceptable to ride on the pavement of it. The river and the railway continued on unchanged – the Wylye snaking about on the left, the railway cutting through above to the right. All three converged just after the Avenue, as we turned and headed north towards the edge of the Plain, passing the Bell Inn with Edward behind for a change. The Wylye was crossed at Stoford by an old stone bridge that held West Street – five arches, the central one slightly larger, in pale grey stone. The river bumped into the road and the railway a few more times before all exited left. And we rode north not via the aptly named Over Street – Edward catching all the time.
The day changed again in the vale at Stapleford. A tributary of the Wylye, the Winterbourne cut a thin channel, and flowed about the comparatively narrow valley. While the tributary road through the village glided down to a church and thatched cottages. The main road soon became a distant memory, sat beside the squat tower and bright white mud walls under telegraph poles. Travelling upstream with the river dotted with still leafless tree, between us and it churned up pasture. Until Berwick-St-James where the river passed beneath, bestrode by a mill. A dense group of flint newly roofed cottages watched on, and two lambs drank from emaciated rivulet, after what was an unusually dry winter. The village pub tempted at the end of the main street, again flint, with a few tall chimneys of brick and a tiled wall, but half covered in thick foliage and a mossy old slate roof, not thatch as Edward had noted. The last thing seen before exiting the place was, a gray, weedy churchyard far too large for the few big ivy-covered box tombs lying about in it like unclaimed luggage on a railway platform. The tombs marked the edge of the Plain with the Winterbourne less visible having guided us far enough. There appeared no very strict boundary line, encircling the Plain. It may be said to consist of all that mass of downland in South Wiltshire, which is broken only by the valleys of five rivers – the Bourn, the Avon, the Wylye, the Nadder, and the Ebble. Three of these valleys, however, those of the Bourn on the east, and of the Wylye and the Nadder on the south, have railways in them as well as rivers. The railways are more serious interruptions to the character of the Plain, and whether or not they must be regarded as the boundaries of a reduced Plain, certainly the core of the Plain excludes them… Within this reduced space of fifteen by twenty miles the Plain is nothing but the Plain. This reduced Plain, nothing but Plain, was still a way off yet. At Winterbourne Stoke, the Winterbourne gave up the ghost altogether: the highway to the sun crosses our path, the landmark of Stonehenge can just about be made out in the distance, and James sat eating in a Little Chef, in mourning, heads home to Exeter alone – the sign for which sparkles in the low sun streaks, Honiton and Exeter left, London and Andover right – while Edward passes an earlier version of himself that had set out from near the first ever roundabout, walking the Icknield Way. Maybe this was the middle, the mid-point of the journey, In Pursuit of Spring, with the high-point about to come shortly – the centre of the semi-mythical South-Country, and the Heart of England – standing at the oldest cross-roads in England, perhaps history, the crossing of the Harroway and the Icknield Way. This was the centre of the psyche, all roads lead to the Plain, encircled with ancient monuments – the centre of history, civilisation. The singular being a poet searched for, their voice, could be found there. The animals knew it, using the raised ancient trackways to reach it. They came to worship the poet – their saviour. For a mile, the road to Shrewton was even and empty – passed only by the odd van driving at excessive speeds. It rose steadily initially before flattening out with no verge at all: the grass began at the edge of the tarmac, and a new barbed wire fence kept any roaming animals from death. A vast sky, spotted with evenly spaced pillows of cloud dwarfed the land bubbling slightly but soon declining. We had not yet reached the Plain that is nothing but Plain – there were still blobs of beech and lattice work hedging dissecting colours from bright yellow to dark brown. Not much further along though the fields merged and greened, eventually fading to a pale dusty version of meadow, where the grassland touched the endless grey blue. And the Plain assumes the character by which it is best known, that of a sublime, inhospitable, wilderness. It makes us feel the age of the earth, the greatness of time, space, and nature; the littleness of man even in an aeroplane, the fact that earth does not belong to man, but man to earth. William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, Ella Noyes, W.H. Hudson, John Aubrey, and A.G. Street wrote such of the Plain. Drayton called it the first of the Plains. It is perhaps best associated though with Arcadia by Phillip Sidney. There is an old bawdy English folk song written about it too. All mention the scale of the vista – the metaphor of meaninglessness – and lack any trace of melancholy; instead celebrating it as the sublime wilderness. More recently the Beatles used it as a backdrop.
The only road rising to the top of the chalk plateau was dry and pitted, dusty mud and shit rolled across it set hard by the sun. It contained elements of solitude, the Plain that was nothing but Plain. Although in the main, it was the undercurrent of violence and death that was most palpable, along with a stream of references to city life, deconstructing the myth of it being a wilderness – it depends on the definition of wilderness. From the roadside, beside mutilated pheasants, badgers, rabbits, foxes, and deer, forced to ride over them by a constant rush of drivers, it was no great wilderness. Add to that a gathering of shopping trolleys, a pile of hub caps, black bin bags sadly caught on barbed wire, plastic shopping bags in a prickly hedge, and the usual cans, bottles, and food waste. While giant pigs waited for slaughter, under oversized baked bean cans, as we climbed the tough stretch to Tilshead with inches to spare. Grazing pasture and hay-cutting dominated beyond the churned up earth of pig land – not exactly a holiday camp. There was also some arable to feed the troops. The first sight of which came at a fast food trailer: a tank. A helmeted head peered out and ordered a burger and coke, as if at a drive-through. Before parking up and waiting for the guy to fry and then to climb up on the track and pass it in through the sun roof. Photographing a moving tank is an odd thing. Add to that the catering van and you have yourself a surreal photograph. This is what the Plain was all about; juxtapositions. Edward came to realise this despite a Romantic initial summation – his poetry in the making was born less from a separate mythical natural earth. Contrails streak the clear afternoon sky, following the distant fold of the land: seemingly the curve of the earth – even in an aeroplane, the fact that earth does not belong to man, but man to earth. Old, new, war, peace, structure, agency, nature, culture, person, thing, place, space, country, city, wilderness, farmland, sublime, mundane: none pure – edgelands. What was it Billy Bragg sang of the Plain? After all this it won’t be the same Messing around on Salisbury Plain… I hate this flat land, there’s no cover for sons and fathers and brothers and lovers I can take the killing, I can take the slaughter But I don’t talk to Sun reporters. I never thought that I would be Fighting fascists in the Southern Sea I saw one today and in his hand Was a weapon that was made in Birmingham… I wish Kipling and the Captain were here To record our pursuits for posterity Me and the Corporal out on a spree Damned from here to eternity. It was death that Edward saw too straddling a stream drain as we continued over the Plain past the central village, Tilshead. As for the military camps, nothing may be seen of them for days beyond the white tents gleaming in the sun like sheep or clouds. When they are out of sight the tumuli and ancient earthworks that abound bring to mind more forcibly than anywhere else the fact that, as the poet says, the dead are more numerous than the living. Before descending off the Plain completely, a promenade of trees – elms lining both sides of the road in mourning.
At West Lavington we turned to trace the foot of the Plain. And rode via Little Cheverell, Erlestoke, Tinhead, and Edington. The Plain visible between villages on the left. At Erlestoke was a tiny front garden, raised above the road slightly, full to the brim of bright plastic and painted pottery – animals, humans, and mythical creatures mingling. It was the sort of cheerful tat that needed to be shoved together and displayed in close proximity – a single gnome is sinister. And be viewed as a public service. Or a little intervention that breaks with conventional aesthetic guidelines. Other gardens in the village were pruned, neat, boring. It stuck out like a sore thumb, cheering as we dropped down further and swept under the Plain, until we were beneath a steep ridge that carried a railway. It was the grandest, cliffiest part of the Plain wall, the bastioned angle where it bends round southward. We kept it alongside, with the tips of Trowbridge and the darker Mendips the horizon. It was a mostly bare stepped scarp, marked with the White Horse, and ploughed nearer bike level; a greener vale sank between. We ended the day as we began it, zigzagging down lanes, following old white arrowed signposts. And could not fail take the correct lane. But we still wanted to travel all – to ride off into the sunset and never come back. Edward would never come back soon enough. His poems and his poetic quests were roads to France. All proceed dialectically. They counterpose war and peace, death and life, presence and absence. Sharing an affinity with the grand arcades project Walter Benjamin undertook but was similarly unable to complete. His was a negative dialectics, or perhaps more appropriately for a poet, a negative phenomenology in the ilk of W.G Sebald, Walter Benjamin himself, and Franz Kafka. It is this aesthetic of failure that underwrites his poems and makes them compelling to read – the failure ultimately of the poet to intertwine, to bridge the chasm of self and world, and revelling in the Derridean impossible possibility. Cycling these lanes and roads honed his poetry. And like the lanes his poems crisscrossed. England is never the same from one poem to the next – in a poem such as Rain the same crisscrossing happens in a single verse – decentring the subject, the nation state, and the human in nature. It was March 1913 when Edward rode west. In October 1913 he met Robert Frost. Frost urged him to turn his description of this journey into poetry, without changing its tone in the slightest. Their friendship helped with his depression and self doubt. Frost concluding In Pursuit of Spring was poetic; prose poetry of the highest order. Edward did what Frost suggested, writing verse that was not constrained by form or rhyme. They wrote alone but walked together many times in Gloucestershire. These talks-walking sketching out their shared aim – poetry should mimic speech. Frost called this cadence. It was a different road to their contemporaries. Frost went to New Hampshire, Edward to France; their signpost moment. I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. I read the sign. Which way shall I go? A voice says: You would not have doubted so At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born. One hazel lost a leaf of gold From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told The other he wished to know what ‘twould be To be sixty by this same post. You shall see, He laughed – and I had to join his laughter – You shall see; but either before or after, Whatever happens, it must befall. A mouthful of earth to remedy all Regrets and wishes shall be freely given; And if there be a flaw in that heaven Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be To be here or anywhere talking to me, No matter what the weather, on earth, At any age between death and birth, – To see what day or night can be, The sun and the frost, the land and the sea, Summer, Winter, Autumn, Spring, – With a poor man of any sort, down to a king, Standing upright out in the air Wondering where he shall journey, O where?
We arrived in Steeple Ashton after travelling the wide flat lanes for about an hour. The old pub there made from the fifteenth century timber and red brick was showing the rugby. A church towered behind white cottages of the same period. It looked like rain. From the village Edward took the road to Trowbridge. I chose not to join him and continued on to Bradford-on-Avon down Cock Hill – a steep decline to town blocked by a broken down car, which wanted no assistance. Off the byways again and on the arterial routes I ploughed a lone furrow, against a tide of motors. Edward loved roads. Roads go on While we forget, and are Forgotten as a star That shoots and is gone. On this earth ’tis sure We men have not made Anything that doth fade So soon, so long endure: The hill road wet with rain In the sun would not gleam Like a winding stream If we trod it not again. They are lonely While we sleep, lonelier For lack of the traveller Who is now a dream only. From dawn’s twilight And all the clouds like sheep On the mountains of sleep They wind into the night. The next turn may reveal Heaven: upon the crest The close pine clump, at rest And black, may Hell conceal. Often footsore, never Yet of the road I weary, Though long and steep and dreary, As it winds on forever. Helen of the roads, The mountain ways of Wales And the Mabinogion tales Is one of the true gods, Abiding in the trees, The threes and fours so wise, The larger companies, That by the roadside be, And beneath the rafter Else uninhabited Excepting by the dead; And it is her laughter At morn and night I hear When the thrush cock sings Bright irrelevant things, And when the chanticleer Calls back to their own night Troops that make loneliness With their light footsteps’ press, As Helen’s own are light. Now all roads lead to France And heavy is the tread Of the living; but the dead Returning lightly dance: Whatever the road may bring To me or take from me, They keep me company With their pattering, Crowding the solitude Of the loops over the downs, Hushing the roar of towns And their brief multitude.
The road taken extended over the Avon, the town sat on it and extended upwards behind the twinkling lights reflected in the water. A mill rose out of the depths and was being updated to house a museum. Before taking the bridge arching into town some teenage lads shouted and gestured to me out of a car window – fucking wanker – and threw an empty bottle. The car had scattered a group of other boys. Look out cried one and as the thing passed by turned to the next boy with; there’s a fine motor, worth more than you are, cost a lot of money. Is this not the awakening of England? At least, it is truth. I spotted the guest house on the opposite bank. One pink foxy boy laughed in my face as if there had been iron bars or a wall of plate glass dividing us; another waited till I had started, to hail me, long legs.
Preston, August 2011