FINDING THE POETRY OF EDWARD THOMAS IN THE HAMPSHIRE VILLAGE OF STEEP
Lovers of poetry and Slow Travellers can often be synonymous. Here we look at some delightful areas in and around Steep in rural Hampshire where Edward Thomas and his family lived from 1906 until 1916 when he enlisted in the Great War.
Edward Thomas is usually remembered as a Great War poet and the author of Adlestrop – once voted the nation’s 20th favourite poem - although he had a distinguished career as a critic, prose writer and reviewer before he began to write in verse. Only the last three years of his life were devoted to poetry and not many themes are directly related to the war. His poems reflect the natural beauty of this small corner of Hampshire, his ideas and visions scribbled in his notebook as he walked, and put later onto paper with reflection and sensitivity.
His friendship with the American poet, Robert Frost, inadvertently seems to have been what propelled him to enlist. He was ashamed of his own relative cowardice and indecision when they were both confronted by an aggressive gamekeeper during a walk, and when Frost later sent him a copy of his recently penned poem The Road Not Taken, he interpreted the poem's choosing of the ways as a challenge to choose the bravest and most difficult route. He decided to fight for his country and was subsequently killed on the first day of the battle of Arras in April 1917.
He is buried at Agny in France, but he is commemorated at All Saints Church in Steep – a good starting point for a walk. You can download different routes from Hampshire websites, but there are certain interesting places associated with his life that are worth including on your itinerary. The church has a war memorial which includes his name, and a cherry tree in the churchyard in honour of his poem The Cherry Trees.
In 1978 Laurence Whistler engraved two clear glass lancet windows in his memory. The inscription and detail are difficult to make out against the view of the churchyard through the glass but if you look carefully you can see the poet’s jacket, clay pipe and walking stick hanging on a branch in the hedgerows of hawthorn and yew in the left hand window. The right hand window had to be re-engraved by a follower of Whistler after criminals smashed this window in 2010. His poem The New House is inscribed here; below this there is a sequence of doors, the last one opening on to a Western Front battlefield. The original window, thoroughly smashed, has nevertheless been put back together and mounted alongside the original.
Within the village you can find three of the houses where Thomas lived during his time in Steep. Berryfield Cottage was his first home – he and his wife Helen moved here in 1906 so that their two children, Merfyn and Bronwen could attend Bedales School. They then lived in The Red House (subject of the poem The New House) high above the village from 1909 – 1913 and they moved back down to 2 Yew Tree Cottages from 1913 – 1916.
There is a memorial stone to him on Shoulder of Mutton Hill, within the nature reserve of the Ashford Hangers. The views from up here are stunning and the area is carpeted with wildflowers below woods of beech, ash and yew on the steep chalk hillsides. It is a very fitting spot for a man whose poems were so deeply imbued with nature. One reference to this hill comes from When First
My heart at sight of the tall slope
Of grass and yews”
There is also plenty for the Slow Traveller to enjoy within the village and the surrounding area. Cobbett’s View is high above Ashford Hangers, a panorama noted by William Cobbett in his Rural Rides in 1822.
The Edward Barnsley Workshop and timber store lie on Cockshott Lane, very near to The Red House. It is possible to visit the workshop and learn more about this furniture designer and his importance in the twentieth century Arts and Crafts Movement. You can also walk past Bedales School, the liberal and progressive school which plays an important part in the village.
To find out more about Edward Thomas you can visit the Petersfield Museum which houses the Edward Thomas Study Centre.
He is also one of the sixteen WWI War Poets celebrated in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.
How to get to Steep
Steep is 2 miles north of Petersfield just off the Petersfield to Alton Road.
Public Transport: There is a bus service from Petersfield Station to The Cricketers Pub in Steep.