Edward Thomas and Helen - home in Steep.
Writing about Steep, a village near Petersfield, Hampshire, is quite emotional for me. I have been there many times, most often with the Edward Thomas Fellowship, sometimes just with Marc.
It seems to me the place where Edward Thomas's spirit is present most strongly. Steep and the countryside and villages around are reflected in so many of the poems - I could have chosen perhaps any one of half his poems today, and will stay with Steep and the area around for a while.
|Yew Tree Cottage, Steep.|
During most of the period of the novel the Thomases lived in this fairly unprepossessing semi-detached house in Steep. They had lived in much grander houses, like this attractive chalk house, Berryfields,
and for over three years in the Arts and Crafts ' Red House', Wick Green, which is at the top of the hillside behind Yew Tree.
The Wick Green house
This is the house that features in the poem, ' Wind and Mist'. During their most difficult year, 1913, they moved from it because the rent was too much, the wind unpleasant and to be near to Bedales school.
Helen made a home out of the rather uninspiring Yew Tree Cottage, contrasting it with Wick Green. Here is an extract from the novel, based of course on her own 'Under Storm's Wing':
'Yew Tree Cottage was quite different, just a newly-built semi-detached workman’s cottage in Steep, without much character and less charm, until we made it home. Its good feature was that it was set back from the road between the other pairs, peeping out down the long path between them like a shy child hiding behind its parents’ legs. We had gardens on three sides and at the back of the house was the openness of a meadow and the hill with its beech hangers.
The six cottages had no bathrooms, yet the rent was more than a working villager would be prepared to pay. It was cheaper than Wick Green, though, and better for the children, because Bedales was close by and they could join in more school activities. When we moved in, I’d hoped for so much. I always did when we moved house, hoping above all that Edward would be happier.
He kept on his Wick Green study for a rent of only a shilling a week. It was separate from the house, a long low building called the Bee House, perched at the steepest point of the hanger on Cockshott Lane with a grand view down the hill towards Steep. So if I stood in our garden and waved a linen-cloth Edward could see me when the trees were bare. Or I would walk up to the start of the hanger and call ‘Coo-ee’ for him to come for his lunch.
Up in the study he had a fire, a desk and chair and his books and papers. He would have breakfast and then set off up the hill, coming home at noon. Then he would work in the garden, or walk until tea-time Sometimes he went up to his study again until supper at half-past eight, or would read through at home what he’d been writing.
Yew Tree cottage pleased me, even though it was so small, and I worked to make it a real home. The kitchen was simply a corner in the living room; there was a tiny back room and three small bedrooms – that was all. We bathed in a tin bath in front of the big fireplace. But I loved the built-in dresser in the kitchen, and my solid kitchen table, which had moved from one home to another with us. Edwy had given me a decorated cottage tea-set to hang on the dresser, white earthenware, with a wreath of flowers and leaves in red, blue and green.
An ancient yew tree stood in the garden, leaning over the gate. The six cottages were built on the plot of an old house that had been demolished. The garden, worked for centuries, was fine and fertile once we had cleared the building rubble, the soil a beautiful rich brown crumb, not white and stony and dry as it was up at Wick Green.
Edward and I gardened together, mostly growing vegetables. He found so much satisfaction in digging and seed-sowing. We wasted nothing, preserving our vegetables and fruits as if our lives depended on it. But we had some flowers for their beauty and climbing plants that we brought home from the wild to clamber up the straggly hedges.
By the front door the grey-green bush of Old Man grew, and the other herbs we brought from cuttings whenever we moved house, lavender and rosemary. We hid the harsh pebble-dash walls with trained fruit.
Edward built a porch around the front door and it was soon covered in jasmine. It had a seat on either side where we could sit talking in the evenings, listening for the calls of our own blackbird and thrush.'
Of course this rather sentimental picture doesn't tell the whole story of their time there - lack of money and once war was underway, lack of work. Worries about Merfyn's future, Edward's indecision, depression and ill-temper - but it is there that most of the poetry was written, before and to some extent after he enlisted, and I believe it was the nearest thing to a home that he found.
In January 1915 Edward had an accident running from his study down the hill to Yew Tree, a bad sprain that left him barely able to walk for several weeks, very irritable but also very productive - the marvellous 'Beauty' written then.
The Shoulder of Mutton Hill is very steep indeed - it's quite difficult to convey how steep but this picture from the top gives a sense of it perhaps:
Shoulder of Mutton Hill, Steep.
This is the back of the Memorial Stone half-way down the hill - we'll see the plaque on the front another day.
Poem : The Wick Green house poem - part of it. The first part is even more in the 'Frosty', dialogue mode. As Edna Longley says, it is a poem of retrospection and introspection.
Wind and Mist
.... Doubtless the house was not to blame,
But the eye watching from those windows saw,
Many a day, day after day, mist--mist
Like chaos surging back--and felt itself
Alone in all the world, marooned alone.
We lived in clouds, on a cliff's edge almost
(You see), and if clouds went, the visible earth
Lay too far off beneath and like a cloud.
I did not know it was the earth I loved
Until I tried to live there in the clouds
And the earth turned to cloud." "You had a garden
Of flint and clay, too." "True; that was real enough.
The flint was the one crop that never failed.
The clay first broke my heart, and then my back;
And the back heals not. There were other things
Real, too. In that room at the gable a child
Was born while the wind chilled a summer dawn:
Never looked grey mind on a greyer one
Than when the child's cry broke above the groans."
"I hope they were both spared." "They were. Oh yes.
But flint and clay and childbirth were too real
For this cloud-castle. I had forgot the wind.
Pray do not let me get on to the wind.
You would not understand about the wind.
It is my subject, and compared with me
Those who have always lived on the firm ground
Are quite unreal in this matter of the wind.
There were whole days and nights when the wind and I
Between us shared the world, and the wind ruled
And I obeyed it and forgot the mist.
My past and the past of the world were in the wind.
Now you may say that though you understand
And feel for me, and so on, you yourself
Would find it different. You are all like that
If once you stand here free from wind and mist:
I might as well be talking to wind and mist.
You would believe the house-agent's young man
Who gives no heed to anything I say.
Good morning. But one word. I want to admit
That I would try the house once more, if I could;
As I should like to try being young again."
'Adlestrop' on BBC Radio 4 today, 30th January - Catch-up if you missed it. Ian, Morton, Secretary of the Edward Thomas Fellowship, is talking.
It will be the Centenary on June 24th 2014 of the day that express train stopped unwontedly at Adlestrop.