Saturday. It is supposed to be hot – well, hot by English standards, but when you are used to cool weather, 27 feels hot – and I am going in search of the poet Edward Thomas.
It’s not the first time. Midsummer 2019, I went in search of the footpaths of Edward Thomas and his best mate, Robert Frost. They had matching cottages over the hill from one another in Gloucestershire and spent many fine, late summer evenings talking and walking through high grass on the path that connected them. Back then, I was in the middle of staring down the void – a ragged shell of a woman just after a series of ego-stripping life events culminating in being laid off from my dream job, the one I’d built my entire life and identity and friend circle around.
Three days alone, walking footpaths, climbing steep Malvern Peaks, one after the other: Midsummer Hill, Swinyard Hill, Hangman’s Hill, Millennium Hill, Black Hill, Jubilee Hill. Finally, Perseverance Hill, and this was the sort of metaphorical place naming synchronicity I couldn’t even take in fully at the time.
Years of perseverance, before and since, and now, we have reached June 2021. Well?
Back to this hot Saturday, and I pull on the lightest-weight mask I have (as there is now a choice of four masks, one for almost any occasion) and board a Southwest Trains service to Petersfield. I have been to this little town once before, and it occurs to me as I leave the station that Petersfield was, literally, the first place I ever really walked from. Sure, I had walked and hiked and all the rest of it. Most of my young life was hiking. But that trip from Petersfield was different. It was my first overnight across the South Downs in preparation for 2017’s coast-to-coast walk across England. I was haggard and in deep grief, my stepfather having passed away that week. I needed to cry, and spent 48 hours sobbing up and down chalk hills, through mud and rain; the Earth cried with me.
So, Petersfield is a special place.
Today, I am not going east to the South Downs, but instead, walk northwest out of the station, up over the A3 screaming with Saturday sunseeker traffic heading to the south coast, and into the hamlet of Steep. This Hampshire village was where Edward Thomas spent most of his life, moving from cottage to cottage with his wife, Helen Noble, and their family.
There’s not much in Steep. Some quaint homes and cottages. A large boarding school, where Helen Thomas taught for many years. A tiny, medieval church with a small yard full of wonky headstones – the windows on the south wall were apparently dedicated to Edward Thomas in the 1970s, but sadly the doors remain firmly locked on my visit. I go looking for the cottages where Thomas lived, but all are privately owned or difficult to find now.
Thomas’s name appears on a small but lovingly tended World War I memorial on the main corner of the village. Thomas came to poetry late in life at the prodding of his best friend, Robert Frost, and was only a working poet for about three years. His first poem, “Up in the Wind”, was published in 1914 and a slew of some of the finest verse on landscape, nature, solitude and love followed until he died in the trenches in France in 1917.
Thomas was a walker like me. He loved being in nature and revered the English countryside, and was lucky enough to have lived in it before the advent of motorways and mass tourism. Most of his poems address nature, many of them set in the hills around Steep.
These are the Ashford Hangers, a series of escarpments running north-to-south, west of Petersfield, perpendicular to the South Downs. A small internet wormhole into the etymology of the word ‘hanger’ yields very little, leaving me to believe these may be the only ‘hangers’ in existence.
A path leads me past a small waterfall marking the site of an old mill, through a dappled woodland, up a quiet country laneway and onto a steep forest path leading to the summit of the main hanger: Shoulder-of-Mutton Hill. At 750ft, it’s no Sandia Peak, but the rocky trail leading past pines to a view across what feels like all of Hampshire is perfect.
It’s hot and I’m sweaty and breathing as though I’ve been sedentary through a pandemic for a year. Partway up, I plunk down on a log and pull out my copy of The Selected Poems of Edward Thomas and turn to ‘When First’.
When first I came here I had hope,‘When First’
Hope for I knew not what. Fast beat
My heart at sight of the tall slope
Of grass and yews, as if my feet
Only by scaling its steps of chalk
Would see something no other hill
Ever disclosed. And now I walk
Down it the last time. Never will
My heart beat so again at sight
Of any hill although as fair
Edward Thomas knew what it was to stare into the void. Later in the poem, he hints at a changing tide in the world, as whispers of the Great War were reaching Britain. Thomas vacillated and eventually decided to enlist in the British Army, motivated mainly by a desire to protect the pastoral life of the English countryside that he so loved. “Something, I felt, had to be done before I could look again composedly at English landscape,” he wrote to Robert Frost about his choice to go to war. He left England to fight in France in early 1917 and would never see his beloved landscape again.
Walking on this hot Saturday is easier than so many before it. For a good handful of years, I cried everyday. Purging things I didn’t know I needed to purge from childhood and maybe lives lived before this one. I was silent and felt broken, staring into the void. Walks were another place to commune with the darkness, and I found in those footsteps – one after the other – a form of meditation and healing that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.
Keep on walking! a friend messaged me during my coast-to-coast walk. There is no simpler and more profound a life meditation. These words are now etched on my heart.
Though many forms of movement can incorporate meditation – yoga being one I also practice weekly – it is only in walking that the body assumes a kind of methodical, gentle purpose. Running is too intense to be meditative and other sports occupy the mind in such a way as to distract. Only walking allows you to experience the void while moving through it with direction.
The day passes and the sun is high. I stop at the top of Shoulder-of-Mutton Hill to eat a warm chicken-and-tomato sandwich and some crisps in the company of a few pollen-fat bees. Today, there is only one other set of hikers – a mother and daughter, who I run into several times over the hours, each time offering one another friendly words of encouragement about the steepness of the trail and the heat. Keep on walking! I tell them.
By the end of the day, I haven’t come close to many Edward Thomas landmarks, but his soul is everywhere. And somewhere between back then and now along this long path of perseverance, I seem to have reached contentment.
Of the footsteps of life,
The friendliness, the strife;
In its beds have lain
Youth, love, age, and pain:
I am something like that:
Not one pane to reflect the sun,
For the schoolboys to throw at—
They have broken every one.
I am something like that;-excerpt of ‘Gone, Gone Again’
Only I am not dead,
Still breathing and interested
In the house that is not dark:—
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