Steep: a dot to dot walk
‘The world that revealed itself in the book and the book itself were never, at any price to be divided. So with each book its content, too, its world, was palpably there, at hand. But, equally, this content and world transfigured every part of the book. They burned within it, blazed from it… until one day from an alien source it flashes as if from burning magnesium powder… and while our walking, habitual, everyday self is involved actively or passively in what is happening, our deeper self rests in another place and is touched by the shock, as is the little heap of magnesium powder by the flame of the match. It is to this immolation of our deepest self in shock that our memory owes its most indelible images.’
(A Berlin Chronicle, Walter Benjamin)
This is an account of walking whilst at the same time searching for poems. The route taken links a number of poems by a single poet together – creating a dense loop of poetics. It was my first poetic hike of this kind; a whistle-stop tour of the poetic-sites associated with or shaped by Edward Thomas. There was a new poem around every corner, as the landscape was flooded with poetry, by way of an introduction to the poet, by two members of The Edward Thomas Fellowship. Days spent Literary Hitchhiking began here, walking dot to dot, poem to poem: it was high summer 2008, less than a week after the vertical walk in the epic Kotor. Driving down the a34 with very little in the way of a plan: armed with no questions but carrying a notebook and a book of collected poems. I struggle now to remember much of the car journey, bar the route taken. It was early in the morning and warm. The drive itself though has been wiped from my memory, usurped by more recent drives to the same place. Driving that day must have been pretty automatic. With myself and the car affected only by the ebb and flow of traffic. All that is left in my memory – perhaps for the reason that I wanted to write exactly this – is a vision of a version of myself, reclining in the car, on a nothing stretch of road. I recall being anxious about meeting some members of a literary society bent on revering a poet, with only a basic grasp of poetry to hand: Wordsworth essentially. As for Thomas, I knew virtually nothing about him: Adlestrop and The Manor Farm – poetic scratches on the surface of his life. Time appeared to be going slower, the faster I drove. It was not until a few miles from Petersfield that landscape and road began to have some sort of connection. As the road followed what appeared to the untrained eye to be ancient folds and gashes in the land. It twisted and dipped increasingly, hanging on to following and bridging a shallow meandering stream. Road and stream were knitting the landscape up, as a generic array of things slid past: field, hedgerow, field, hedgerow, field, hedgerow, green, brown, green, brown, green, brown, bisected by sky, blue, blue, blue, clouds, wispy white, crows, black swoops, a gap, five bar gate, oak tree, standing alone, one in every field, cow, cow, cow, side on, unmoving. The road descended rapidly into darkness at a copse. And turns became tighter and tighter to mediate for a slant in the land. While shadows danced on the car in front, as we bunched, and the dashboard lit up. A bright white light inundated my retina on leaving the copse. Petersfield Railway Station was on the left: the meeting place. I parked there and waited. After ten minutes or so, two gentlemen arrived sporting suitable attire, carrying a book of poems and an explorer map. Dressed in gear, which was less shiny than I had imagined. Woollen socks, corduroy trousers, leather boots, tweed cap. The cagoule was bagged; a blue aluminium stick was on show, jutting from a hand, indicating that I had not driven through time, but the Downs of Southern England.
The men stopped by the awkward automatic door of the old stone station. It opened and quickly closed unsurely. The bearded man was Colin – the honorary secretary of the Fellowship – and Larry – the honorary treasurer and membership secretary – was the one wearing flat cap and carrying the blue aluminium stick. I remember being struck throughout by a feeling of estrangement – despite being in a homely, safe landscape – aiding a little communion with Edward Thomas, wandering with the two for five or six hours. They were staunch Edward Thomas enthusiasts, frustrated that he was not a household name, like many of his run of the mill contemporaries. This corner of Hampshire provides the ground base to the majority of his poems. It is known as Little Switzerland locally. On the map we pored over it said Steep. The disciplined walk was so focused around Edward Thomas that at times the landscape felt unnecessary, a distraction from the poetry. The landscape became more noticeable at designated stopping points, where the scene unfurled itself, and we strained to get a better view. Or when the poetry told us to see and we tried to glimpse the past. We often stopped and pondered the poem in the place it was written almost a century earlier, before reading it aloud. The landscape is still apparently as it was, time has slowed down, but I was unable to substantiate this, merely picture. The poetry has according to Colin and Larry, preserved the landscape and given it blue-plaque status, national importance; a narrative, which was largely unreadable to me. When we were not talking about poetry, I was versed in the history of The Edward Thomas Fellowship, Edward Thomas, his life and his heroic death in the First World War. Colin spoke of how, on the morning of Easter day 1917, a stray shell blast stopped his heart and left not a scratch upon him – he was 39; the sombre landscape of the Arras offensive in North Eastern France is still haunting this quiet corner of East Hampshire, interrupting, displacing/dislocating, and merging different times and places, from Adlestrop to Arras. There was a letter found in his pocket when he died, with a diary, and a photograph of his wife. Written in the diary is a story of a shell landing beside Edward a day before his death. It did not explode. At Steep Church there is a memorial to the dead of the Great War. Inscribed on the wall of the church were the names of the men who perished in the trenches. Edward Thomas is one of the names in a list of around a hundred people from this small village. A sombre reminder of the great loss suffered before a walk in the footsteps of a great poet. A lost generation of heroes, of which Edward was one, memorialised here. It is perhaps the best way to begin Literary Hitchhiking, by beginning at the end. You get a sense of where the hero ends up; the culmination of their great life. Of course, explained Colin, Edward did not need to go to war. He was over the age of conscription. Reading the words, For King and Country, prompted Colin to question the devotion of Edward, to a monarch. Not so much King but certainly country, he went on to say. What followed, from Colin, is the most repeated story about Edward. And, along with his writing, is part of the reason why he is held in such high regard, by the people who wander this landscape regularly. It is the story of why Edward went to war. A friend, Eleanor Farjeon, asked why he was going to fight. Edward bent down, picked up a handful of earth, crumbled it between his fingers, and replied, literally for this. I think he was defending a way of life too, said Colin. A story then not of nationalism, but of preservation, gaining mythical status within a new band of brothers: the Fellowship. Edward essentially believed he had cherished England thoughtlessly, visually, slavishly. Fighting was necessary in order to look again, uniformly, at the English landscape. He wrote a few poems once enlisted; all but one written whilst training in England. Whilst other poets of the period produced verse verging on nationalist manifesto, Edward continued writing what he knew – the English landscape: a landscape now more disturbing than ever. Colin told me, it had been suggested by some, that Edward knew he would be killed at war, and that he welcomed death. Death was a final solution to the melancholy suffered as a man and a writer. It enabled the fusion of self and world – impossible in life – strived for by the poet.
Leaving the church through a gate cocooned in a wooden arch, we turned left past Bedales School. Students from the school were wandering around the impressive grounds. The glass entrance hall was filled with sculptures and two large leather couches. No one of authority was around. The students seemed to own the place, free to do as they please. They were carrying books and instruments. Edward sent his children to Bedales begrudgingly and did not agree with the teachers on occasion. Nor did he agree with the elitist education system in place at the time. He preferred to align himself with the working class, according to Colin, which comes through in the subject matter of his poetry. Edward often spoke with the peasant worker, the farmer, the mill-worker, the ploughman, and the quarry man on his many excursions. These conversations were later in his life written up into long prose poems. He was not a wealthy man himself, despite writing all his life. And would not have been able to afford the fees to send his children to Bedales and subsequently to university today. It was still a necessity for him to do hack work, as he called it, to pay the bills. This would irritate any writer and lead to his depression. Eventually, writing review after review became an unsatisfying existence for a man who had essentially always wanted to be a poet. To emphasise the struggle for money Edward faced, Colin and Larry, walked me across the road to number 2 Yew Tree Cottages. The cottage is set back from the road, down a narrow path, flanked by hardy hedges. The small white semi-detached cottage was the third and last house Edward rented in the area. He lived there with his wife Helen and their three children from 1913-1916 – the time when the majority of his poems were created. Edward could not afford to buy in the area, even then, which is why they rented. Luckily on occasion he was moved by what he saw in the village and would be able to write about it, which is why they stayed. One such example of this is in front of the house, a large shrub, old man, or lad’s-love. The feathery shrub, which we rubbed on our hands, gave off a pungent scent. Myfanwy, would pick at the bush every time she walked in and out of the house. Her father, Edward, was guilty of doing exactly the same; on one occasion when he mislaid his key being transported Only to an avenue, dark, nameless, without end at the smell of the herb. Before we left the garden a ritual reading of the poem Old Man took place and we rubbed our hands on the leaves once more. The smell wafted up from my hands into my nostrils. The words began to play with the scent. And I was transported somewhere else by it. The poem modestly and clearly transcribed trying to remember. It was a beautiful example of a poet using simple words to say something profound. As when the childhood memory wanted was not filed away ready simply to be remembered, feelings of estrangement grew. It illustrates the slippery nature of memory. Important memories can be lost. Unimportant ones retained. We may remember one day but not the next. Memories change over time too. I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing; Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait For what I should, yet never can, remember; No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside, Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
Not far from Yew Tree Cottage is the Cricketers Pub. The pub stands on a cross roads; the entrance to the village. We waited in the empty tarmac square in front of the pub for a few moments. Across the road from where we were standing was a garage. The shape, brick and age of the building suggested it was a stop off point in the past. It was actually a blacksmith’s cavern and a little shop. The sounds of the pub and the smithy, glass and anvil, would have been clinking away all day, for half a century before even Edward moved here. Now there is no clinking left. The pub is nowhere near as lively as a pub should be. And the garage was silent. It at least had people working inside it though, but not today. We were left with only one noise above the distant hum of the a3; The Aspens. Blowing about in the wind they talk together Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top, as they did in the days when Edward walked this route. We turned back on ourselves away from the talking trees to another memorial. This time it was a marble column with a wreath of poppies placed carefully at the base. Once again we looked for the name of Edward Thomas. It was about half way up. We stood for a few moments, to pay our respects before turning left towards a cast iron bench, painted cream, looking out across fields where the rich kept their horses. We sat on the pretty bench, encircled by the Shoulder of Mutton in the distance and watched the horses prance – tails swishing side to side in unison. Their little white shoes amused me. These were no ordinary horses. They were new to his area. Immigrants. As such they altered the vista from this little cream cast iron bench we sat on. The Fellowship had no problem with the elegant prancing horses. Some of the ramblers and locals did though. Colin told me of how he had been approached by some local group to argue that because the site had special literary significance it should not be changed in any way. This includes allowing the stables to erect fences across the sloping fields. They had a petition with some names on and were ready to turf the horses off the land. Colin laughed at the ridiculousness of the story. The horses are still here, happily. Blissfully ignorant. They won their case for asylum and cockily strut about. Much to the annoyance of the locals and killjoy ramblers. We wandered down an anonymous lane past the field of horses, towards the Shoulder of Mutton. Gazing up at it, it looked more like a leg of mutton. The ghosts are up there, to be summoned. Visions of Edward running down the shoulder with Myfanwy on his shoulders were abounding. I read somewhere that this was a common sight. Collective memories it seems, of the once witnessed. There was a repeated excited noise from my fellow hitchhikers who were perceiving fading markers in the landscape. A water-mill: where once men had a workplace and a home. Traces of what it once was remain. Whilst the waterfall still flows, the mill and wheel are no longer there – not enough demand to turn a profit. The mill had given way to a large detached property, in keeping with the rest of the village. Ruins were a common sight even in the days of Edward, as people began to move out of the area to London and Southampton. Edward felt a duty to write poetry about their fleeting existence. But could not alter the fact that the world was becoming increasingly mechanised. Mass industry was coming. In the silence of the Downs, the waterfall roared away. It is useless now though, castrated, powering nothing, idly foaming. Pity thought the three of us, as we imagined it in its heyday, with workers clocking in. No trace of them remains; the site has returned to nature, who adds flowers here and there. We read The Mill-Water in homage to what was left and left.
Climbing upwards past the waterfall through Lutcombe Bottom following the river, eventually led us to a small crystal clear lake surrounded by trees. It had no right to be there amongst the deep coombe. It looked artificial. There were a number of interlinked pools, a small waterfall, and a bathing area on the shallow side. It reminded me of a Thomas Hardy novel, of wealthy Victorian landowners creating their own water supply and boating lakes to take in the health giving properties of water. This was not too far from the truth, as it happened. Lord Horder owned all of the lakes at one time. Giving all the land to the country of Great Britain under the care of Hampshire County Council only a few years ago – this should have allowed the area to become a part of the proposed South Downs National Park. But to control the saplings through coppicing is labour consuming. And it would very quickly fall apart. The area around Steep was therefore drawn around for maintenance reasons and sat for a while outside the boundary line of the new National Park. This was still a strange decision though; it appeared picturesque enough to be included and is a part of the South Downs. The decision has since been reversed.
Beyond the lake system was a chalk track about ten feet in width. It led us up steeply in to some trees. Water ran down the chalk eroding away the surface, revealing the past in tiny rivulet. The story of a lady who dropped a box of blue plates on the path we walked was regaled; smashed fragments still sparkle against the white rock, just, and tell the tale. The wood cutters cottage had gone bar footings, leaving the path redundant, going nowhere but to a clasp of trees. Nettles grow making visible what once was. I picked up a blue shard but later lost it, it disappeared into emptiness, swallowed by landscape – trampled back down to be found again next year or the year after. Luckily the event is immortalised in verse by the poem: A Tale – a tale through which to see this coombe. Memories fixed in space. The shards continue to be found a century after the event. It must have been a large box. When they eventually are all gone, the site will lose the enchantment with which it held us. This prompted Colin to ponder dropping another box of willow pattern plates. It was the authenticity of the story and the site, which made it special. There was no plaque. No staging of the past. It was not being sold to us as a heritage. We read oddly two versions of the poem. Edward could not decide on which one was best. Before walking up the chalk hill and out of the trees, until the deep coombe, dark and wet, was below us. Fern and wild garlic almost covered the bracken completely. We had walked up a narrow path along the eastern edge of what now appeared to us as a large valley. The path narrowed further the higher we climbed Stoner Hill. Little steps had been cut into the chalk and mud to allow the ascent to be done upright. I was unsure whether they had been ground down by the feet of people over centuries or had been dug away by a single person. To my left on the edge of the steep drop was an embankment of moss, under which could have been anything. It served well as a banister rail. The blue aluminium stick was now a useful appendage. We stopped and leafed through the book of poems to the poem: The Path. I presumed that this must be the path Edward wrote about. The one we had just used to climb the hillside. It runs along a bank and there is a precipitous wood below. It was not though. For many years people had walked to this site and read the poem, without realising it was the wrong path. There was another, which has gone to the winding prickles of bramble branches. Left to return to nature. Unused for so long by humans. It went nowhere but to the top of the deep coombe. Stopping suddenly at the edge where the trees end. It overhung us by thirty feet or so. A vista before the trees topped it perhaps. An old lady remembered the path though, the one which led to some legendary or fancied place. We tried to find the entrance to the secret path. Cockshott Lane though was now a tarmac ribbon, which extended across almost the full length of the Shoulder of Mutton. Some of the path was covered over because of this. We could see some smaller trees and a line of nettles. I walked into the trees a little further to gain a better view. But only succeeded in getting myself entangled. The entrance to the path was now locked. I wondered whether the path was as thickly covered with prickly branches beyond the part we could see. And hoped there was an area at the end of the path left untouched by the workers – the bramble and the nettle – where you could still stand and look over the edge, down at the deep coombe and dream of diving over the parapet. The aspens will catch you. If not the damp ground would at least soften your fall. Darkest days spent looking in to the darkest deepest ancient coombe. Stare for too long and you will get vertigo and go.
The route we took from Stoner Hill must have been unremarkable as I am struggling to remember any of it. We turned left and on to a busy b road towards Froxfield. The road winded around the opposite side of the coombe. It looked like a great driving road. It also looked like I imagine Switzerland to be. Fir trees and steep hills. We followed the busy road for a while leaving Little Switzerland behind. I remember the road widened, straightened, and descended. There was a pub at the lowest point of the road on the right. It was bright blue and looked old. The road then ascended again. For the first time on the walk I could see for miles in every direction across fields of corn and barley. North Downs clear behind, south clear before. I wonder whether to trust what I am now writing. Perhaps the more I think and re-think these sentences the further away from the original memory I am getting. There was definitely a succession of turns, all along narrow straight lanes. We passed a farm with a metal five bar gate. There was a cow trough and cow pat but no cows. A big dark blue barrel type object. A tractor. The ground had been concreted. I think I can remember a ploughed field. There were some quad bikes over the hedgerow out of sight. The sound was piercing. Nothing was said. We left a lane and crossed one of the many freshly ploughed corn fields. In front of us was a meadow with a town in the distance that I am unable to remember the name of. It had something to do with either Ivor Gurney or Richard Jefferies. The pub with no name was on the other side of the meadow. I have no idea of the route we took to reach the meadow. My memories of the meadow are a little more vivid. No doubt because I have a point of poetic reference: the pub. Images flash now and again of a view over towards the pub with no name.
Ignoring the previous paragraph where I lost myself: we somehow walked from the secret path to a pub with no name. Once inside the pub we were confronted by a stick and boots belonging to Edward Thomas; material reminders, resonances, traces. This was his favourite haunt, apparently. The pub was dark and cool. It was also very nice. There was a wedding party in. The bride squeezed past our sweating dirty bodies propping up the bar in order to reach the door. She was still in her flowing white gown. A line of people followed her until we were the only people left in the pub except the bar staff. I ordered a pint of no name bitter. Larry tried the no name strong bitter. It was a lot darker and clung to the glass as he tipped it down his throat. We sat for a while to rest. I began to relay what had just happened in my head of the lost journey. My hay fever had become uncontrollable, allowing me to concentrate on nothing else but my body. This must have wiped my memory of what we had been discussing. I could remember only the basics of the landscape we wandered through to reach the pub; a green corn field, barbed wire fence, a line of trees in the distance, a desire path. I followed it out of the green blur, embarrassed at the extent of my sneezing, embarrassed at the affect pollen has upon me. Sitting there now in a local country pub, I began to feel like a city boy more than ever; too clean, not used to the pungent country air, completely out of place. And longed to be back in the warm beating heart of natal Manchester, with its grey concrete and red brick, the grime, decay, noise, life, fear, love, and the Smiths. While feeling more and more dreadful in the countryside, sneezing away and folding the one tissue I had this way and that, my companions looked increasingly at home, their tensions were visibly seeping away. We walked over to the stick and boots and stared. Quality pieces of kit even now. The stick was a perfect fit for the hand of Edward. Carved from one thick branch of holly. The leather boots still looked useable, and were about my size. The corporeal techniques Larry and Colin employed seemingly began working whilst sat near the artefacts that once belonged to Edward. Some sort of mystical connection with Edward was being awakened. They talked of him and stared deep into the things left in the corner of his pub. It seemed as if they were attempting metamorphosis! Colin reaching for the stick, and a world beyond this life, transmogrified before me, becoming a strange new modern Edward. No one else had grazed any of the anonymous lanes with us. Even the cows, sheep, and wild horses had gone. No doubt to make way for the very modest influx of cagouled ramblers we had not witnessed jostling with the ghosts of place. Outside the pub there is a large pond. It lies only a few strides from the door. I had not noticed it when we entered the pub with my face inside a tissue. Lilly pads floated on its surface and reminded me of Kotor. Grass surrounded its gently sloping sides. Rushes growing around the edge merged the water further with the bank. It is difficult to see where the pond begins. A sign notes this along with the depth of the water. Ignoring the sign, a single cow stood at the water’s edge, eating the lush grass. On the other side of the pond from us were a few pub benches. The sort of benches which remind me of childhood sat eating salt and vinegar crisps and drinking syrupy coke. On these benches the Fellowship used to sit each year to write a huge birthday card for Edward. Colin has kept all of the cards and looks back through them occasionally to remember the names and faces of the people who sadly no longer make the walks. The wind picked up as we walked away from the pub in order to take a photograph. In my view now was the pub in its entirety, and the pond – very little else. This was a rather isolated local. A public-house that is public for birds, squirrels and such-like. An outpost up in the wind, as Edward noted in his very first poem – a long poem describing the pub. In it there is also a tale about a bar-maid with a cockney accent. It is very conversational, simple poem, written in a low-key tone. This was to become his style.
With a pint of no name bitter sloshing around inside me, I regained some composure and cheeriness. Sneezing abated we began walking down a narrow sunken lane, with trees on either side casting shadows on the shiny damp tarmac; we aimed for The Manor Farm with the sound of Larry’s stick staining the immense silence. A bright light at the end of the dark tunnel, opened out and gave onto a scene, which seemed uncannily like I had been there before. The power of representation perhaps, or the quintessential village green, or maybe I had been here before, it felt homely, comforting; a large, grand farm-house, a small church, a great yew tree, cross-roads, signpost, and post-box, all in the misty haze of a late summer day. Everything was incredibly silent and still. Wandering away from the others, I opened the wooden gate of the little church and walked beneath the great yew tree, opposites in size and age then and now. I could still hear nothing, wandering amongst the old crumbling grave stones, no voices, no birds, no wind, indeed no life bar my crunching soles. Turning to leave the church yard with its overgrown grass, brambles, ivy, and that great yew, I looked over the hedge and at the Manor Farm and knew exactly what Edward meant. This England, old already, was called merry. Yes, perhaps this place is in, as the poet writes, a perpetual season of bliss unchangeable, slept in Sunday silentness! Upon which a car drove past and the spell was broken with a splutter. Disappointed I walked back through the gate, underneath the yew tree, now less enchanting, and met Colin and Larry once more who were still reading the poem aloud beside the farm.
To reach Edward’s memorial stone, we had to travel down a halcyon green lane, where now September hides herself, which seemed endless in its density. A tunnel of green, with deep trenches a couple of metres apart where wheels had passed over for centuries; no doubt deepened since Edward wrote the poem: The Lane. Some water had gathered in the trenches making it difficult to walk along the narrow lane and the cheap trainers that had been digging at my feet all day were now drenched. I toyed with the idea of taking them off but thought better of it. Instead I was looking down more often to concentrate, slowing, and studying my gait, not bothering to look over the top of the sharp hedges of holly. In doing so I noticed a dead mole on the ground, face up with arms outstretched. There was not a scratch on it. Its heart stopped from a fright, a loud noise, perhaps a blast from a gun. Colin bent down, reached for the mole, and stroked the fur on its belly, before picking it up. It was not larger than his palm; touching it I was surprised at its warmth and its softness. Not long since it had gone. The end of the long, narrow, straight, arduous lane, felt like the gateway to another world. I could now see cars shooting past and the fleeting fusion of self and world was over.
With only gratitude instead of love a pine in solitude cradling a dove. With only gratitude instead of love a pine in solitude cradling a dove. Colin was looking over at a solitary pine in a corn field. Breaking out of a day dream I acknowledged Colin and his repeated excited statement. The pine looked lonely in the centre of a vast expanse of dusty green: a dot on the horizon. Colin explained how the pine was written about in the love poem, No One so Much as You, by Edward. Colin knew the significance of the pine, even if no one else did, making it a special tree, symbolising his connection to this landscape. It was a humbling moment witnessing this very personal knowledge of the landscape we wandered – a simple example of individual place-making. We stood and waited for a moment in silence, and then Colin read the whole poem aloud. The sad words of a dying love drifted on the breeze. Expertly delivered, in an accent befitting the poet himself, Colin read the final lines: That I could not return, All that you gave, And could not ever burn, With the love you have. The words were now cradled by the pine not a dove. Colin returned to the solitary pine year on year with the rest of the Fellowship for the Birthday Walk. A line of people waiting to be shown the next poetic-site wander past the pine. Larry and Colin always stop and look at the pine. I wanted to get a photograph of it. But struggled to make the pine look as solitary as it actually is though. Colin said he can feel the other members of the Fellowship watching him whenever he wanders over to the pine, wondering what they had missed, doubting their detective work. I got closer to the pine becoming as solitary as it and imagined a line of people watching on. The words from, No One so Much as You, stream back now as I write and I am back under the pine – stuck in a metaphor of my own life. I had done too little too late and C had walked away. Never again am I going to be late. Never again will I see my best mate. Lost love flashes and burns, as I see the lonely tree and only dissipates once I remove it from my thoughts, and fell the solitary pine. I know how my melancholia came to be; it is still unclear, however, who the poem is about. It could be his wife Helen, or his mother, we will never be sure. The solitary pine loiters in my head sometimes: alone, rooted, and lonely, it lights faded memories and brings to an end any distant dreams of redemption.
An imposing house peering over the edge of a steep hill down Cockshott Lane: inscribed on the side of it were the words, Edward Thomas poet and h1is wife Helen lived here 1909-1913. The Fellowship had organised the hanging of this plaque and took great pride in it, as a material celebration of his work and life. Colin explained that Edward hated the house. A story of him leaving the house late at night during a storm with a gun was eagerly regaled. Helen saw Edward leave with the gun. A shot rang out moments later across the fields through the gloom. She heard the shot from the house and feared the worse. Edward was particularly depressed during this period. An hour after hearing the shot Edward returned with the gun in his hand. On cue the weather began to change, mist descended and the wind began to moan in the trees, who were seemingly talking to each other. Still feeling a sense of dread after hearing the previous depressing poem I wanted to get a move on, back to C. Not before reading a poem about the house, The New House, upon hearing which my sense of dread became deeper. I heard distorted by the wind: Nights of storm, days of mist, without end; Sad days when the sun shone in vain: Old griefs and griefs not yet begun. Then it was over. End of a poem, end of the loop almost. We had only one more thing to see on this whistle-stop tour: the memorial stone, which has sat on the Shoulder of Mutton since 1937, when the hill itself was dedicated to the memory of Edward Thomas.
Walking past an ancient byway called Old Litten Lane, we reached the pinnacle of the dot to dot loop: the Shoulder of Mutton Hill. A name, which until the Fellowship petitioned the Ordinance Survey, was not on the map. It had been replaced by a newer name with less history and no residue. The hill dedicated to Edward Thomas needs to have a name, which the poet himself would remember. The landscape unfurled itself and the memorial stone could be seen stood about 30 feet in front of us, looking solid, almost human like in its qualities, surveying the landscape imperiously. With trepidation due to the steep slope and the incoming gusts, I walked slowly and carefully towards it with Colin and Larry following a pace or two behind. Stopping next to the memorial stone, I looked out with Edward over the South Downs. Colin and Larry did the same. It was a while before anyone said anything. After what seemed like an age, I turned to look at the inscription on the memorial. Written on the octagonal plaque set into the hard Sarsen stone was: And then I rose up, and knew that I was tired, and continued my journey. Colin explained that this is taken from an essay written by Edward. How true it felt to me and my aching body, dressed in inappropriate, wet, clinging, painful clothing at that moment. Peering deep into the stone, silently staring, Colin placed a hand upon its shoulder and lent for a while in thought. After a minute or so he began describing the difficult task of erecting the stone in 1937. The story involved winches, a film star, a life-long friend and writer, a wealthy land owner, Rowland and Cherry Watson, Edward’s children, and a team of people to remove it from Avebury, where it once stood in a sacred Sarsen stone circle. The spot henceforth was a place of pilgrimage. Each year the Fellowship come to pay their respects. A poem has been written about the stone, but I forget who by. Edward would like the fact that the stone has mystical inclinations attached to it, as he liked to think of a world beyond the world we know. The eroding memory-prompt silently stared back at us before we broke its gaze and turned around to look over the landscape once more.
Still gazing across the Downs Larry opened a Kit-Kat, carefully scribing a finger nail down the foil, before cracking open the large silver flask full of coffee. He began to regale a story of an elderly member of the Fellowship. Not being able to quite remember a name, I was told and shown with actions, how he rolled head over heels down the hill regaining his footing occasionally, and only stopping once at the wooden fence about twenty feet below. The gentleman was fine but did not attempt the entire walk again. Colin was laughing loudly by this point and was also joining in with the actions where appropriate. Subsequently he told a similar story involving his grandson and himself and of course Edward and Myfanwy who used to hurtle down this very hill. Before we descended the vertiginous escarpment following in the footsteps of Edward and Myfanwy, we passed a bench looking out over the 60 miles of downs. The bench had written on it: In memory of Rowland and Cherry Watson whose enthusiasm led to the dedication of the Memorial to Edward Thomas in 1937. I stopped there for a moment letting the others wander on and sat with the dead on Edward’s Hill, looking out through the gloom thinking sad is the parting thou make me remember. What an elaborate suicide note these poems have unfortunately turned out to be. The smashed fragments still sparkle Edward you mirror of England, you father of all of us. And then I rose up, and knew that I was tired, and continued my journey, pondering what could have been had his life not been cut tragically short.
Exeter, February 2010.