Monday, January 28, 2013

Steep, Robert Frost visits, and three local pubs


The plaque on the memorial stone, erected on Shoulder of Mutton hill, Steep, in 1935. After his name and dates is written  "And I rose up and knew I was tired and I continued my journey."

 I believe it's from 'In Pursuit of Spring' but not sure  - ( Guy, forgive me!) A comment would be welcome.

A very  important pub - or inn as Thomas would have called it - is the  Pub-with-no-name at Froxfield, a comfortable walk from Steep: it is the subject of  his first known poem, Up in the Wind.(3rd December 1914).

The Pub with no name - the inn sign frame remains blank. ( Its name is The White Horse)

In November 1914  he drafted a piece in his exercise book about the inn and the 'wild girl' who worked there, "a daughter of the house, fresh from a long absence in service in London, a bright  active wildish slattern with a cockney accent and her hair half down."  He begins:

"Tall beeches overhang the inn, dwarfing and half hiding it, for it lies back a field’s breadth from the by road. The field is divided from the road by a hedge and only a path from one corner and a cart track from the other which meet under the beeches connect the inn with the road. But for a signboard or rather the post and empty iron frame of a signboard close to the road behind the hedge a traveller could not guess at an inn. The low dirty white building looks like a farmhouse, with a lean-to, a rick and a shed of black boarding at one side . . . "

As Edna Longley writes, "Up in the Wind is Thomas's closest approximation to the Robert Frost "eclogue" in which rural speakers tell or act out their story." Her annotation to the poem adds so much to the reading of it.

Another inn that appears in the novel is at the village of Hawkley, a walk away down the 'other' side of the hill, through Oakshott with the watercress stream. This is part of the Hanger's Way walk (beech hangers are wooded slopes.)This extract concerns the imminent move of Edward from Steep - really the beginning of the end:

After a morning’s work he decided that instead of going back to Yew Tree he would go to the inn at Hawkley; it was hardly a greater distance, but in the other direction. From Old Litten Lane he followed the north-side hanger, passing the great excavations of badgers whose destruction someone had overlooked. Tiny chips of white snail shell glinted in the russet-brown earth.

Beyond the cropped flinty sheep-fields lay the lushness of Oakshott stream valley.

Its green bowl was surrounded by high hills, with Cheesecombe Farm lying comfortably at the base. Watercress grew all along the stream and under the plank bridge. It hadn’t been gathered this year. He thought that the old man, who he always thought of as Jack Noman, must be dead; ‘Jack’ had last appeared with watercress on a lovely May day more than two years before. Edward reached down and dipping his hand into a cluster of the streaming leaves, he snapped off some stalks, bringing them up to his face. The water cooled him and the tang of the cress filled him with memories.

Crossing Oakshott Rill

With bread, cheese, cress and ale he sat facing the sun outside Hawkley Inn. He was suddenly sad. At the cottage he had only been fretful at the disruption and nuisance of moving, but now, after this walk, he felt what Steep and Hampshire meant to him and what it was to leave. It was a landscape which had often made his life bearable, had helped him to find something of himself, just by walking, feeling the earth under his feet or his whole body when he lay down to rest. He had come near to wanting to root there, to do no more roaming.

The climb back up to Wheatham Hill from the valley bottom was strenuous, a steep path through the woods. Down its centre was a cleft, a miniature canyon of creamy chalk where rain formed a stream-bed in wet weather. Once at the top, he went a little lower down the Shoulder of Mutton to where the trees were thinner and he could see over six English counties at a glance. His eyes followed the long white road away towards the downs and the distant estuaries of the south coast.

He sensed that there was some knowledge that he was not quite allowing himself; that this was more, perhaps, than leaving Steep. Was it because of what they meant to him, those counties – his Hampshire, and Wiltshire, Berkshire and the rest, that he must leave them? He believed that for him, now, all roads must lead to France.

His view from the hill was blurred with tears. The thought of parting from everything he knew brought for a moment a sense of dread. It was this loss, rather than what he was going towards, that he felt and feared.

He had after all, found a home, and it was at Steep.


The third pub brings us back to Steep, or at least its outer borders, almost in the village of Sheet. It is the lovely little Harrow Inn - a tiny bar which is surely much as it was in 1915 when I have Robert visiting Edward just before he leaves with his family and Merfyn Thomas for America.

The Harrow, Steep.
From my 'Helen' memoir :
 'Robert did come to Steep after all. The Frost family had all had such a busy time, hurrying down to London to see certain officials, one concerning Merfyn, but Robert was kind: he sent a telegram and arrived from the station almost at the same time. Edwy was so pleased. With Robert’s help he could reach the old Harrow Inn. He was so keen that Robert should see it – its tiny room no bigger than our living room and Mr Coffin the landlord with his droll ways. So Edwy sat on his Humber and half scooted with his good ankle for the mile past the church, with Robert pushing on the saddle, both of them laughing like children. They stayed there most of the day until it was time for the train.

 It was all arranged – Merfyn and I would come to Dymock by train on the fifteenth, meet them there, then take a train to Liverpool. And then I would have to come home without my son.

Edwy and Robert stood at our gate in the twilight, still talking. They stopped for a moment to marvel at our blackbird, still singing his heart out. Then they embraced and Robert was gone. The talk was all of how soon Edward would be following them to America. He limped back into the cottage with his eyes shining. I turned away so that he would not see my face and be angry with me for spoiling his mood.'


From 'Up in the Wind:'

Two roads cross, and not a house in sight
Except " The White Horse " in this clump of beeches.
It hides from either road, a field's breadth back ;
And it's the trees you see, and not the house,
Both near and far, when the clump's the highest thing
And homely, too, upon a far horizon
To one that knows there is an inn within.

" 'Twould have been different," the wild girl shrieked, " suppose
That widow had married another blacksmith and
Kept on the business. This parlour was the smithy.
If she had done, there might never have been an inn ;
And I, in that case, might never have been born.
Years ago, when this was all a wood
And the smith had charcoal-burners for company,
A man from a beech-country in the shires
Came with an engine and a little boy
(To feed the engine) to cut up timber here.
It all happened years ago. The smith
Had died, his widow had set up an alehouse —
I could wring the old thing's neck for thinking of it.
Well, I suppose they fell in love, the widow
And my great-uncle that sawed up the timber :
Leastways they married. The little boy stayed on.
He was my father." She thought she'd scrub again —
" I draw the ale and he grows fat," she muttered —
But only studied the hollows in the bricks
And chose among her thoughts in stirring silence.
The clock ticked, and the big saucepan lid
Heaved as the cabbage bubbled, and the girl
Questioned the fire and spoke : " My father, he
Took to the land. A mile of it is worth
A guinea ; for by the time all trees
Except these few about the house were gone :
That's all that's left of the forest unless you count
The bottoms of the charcoal-burners' fires —
We ploughed one up at times. Did you ever see
Our signboard ? " No. The post and empty frame
I knew. Without them I should not have guessed
The low grey house and its one stack under trees
Was a public house and not a hermitage.
" But can that empty frame be any use ?
Now I should like to see a good white horse
Swing there, a really beautiful white horse,
Galloping one side, being painted on the other."
" But would you like to hear it swing all night
And all day ? All I ever had to thank
The wind for was for blowing the sign down.
Time after time it blew down and I could sleep.
At last they fixed it, and it took a thief
To move it, and we've never had another :
It's lying at the bottom of the pond.
But no one's moved the wood from off the hill
There at the back, although it makes a noise
When the wind blows ; as if a train were running
The other side, a train that never stops
Or ends. And the linen crackles on the line
Like a wood fire rising." " But if you had the sign
You might draw company. What about Kennington ? "
She bent down to her scrubbing with " Not me :
Not back to Kennington. Here I was born,
And I've a notion on these windy nights
Here I shall die. Perhaps I want to die here.
I reckon I shall stay. But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off.
Or once now and then quite still, though when I die
I'd have it blowing that I might go with it
Somewhere distant, where there are trees no more
And I could wake and not know where I was
Nor even wonder if they would roar again.
Look at those calves."

Between the open door
And the trees two calves were wading in the pond,
Grazing the water here and there and thinking,
Sipping and thinking, both happily, neither long.
The water wrinkled, but they sipped and thought,
As careless of the wind as it of us.
" Look at those calves. Hark at the trees again."

ACE can be found(early for some reason) on Amazon.

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