Sunday, March 3, 2013

Edward Thomas Fellowship Birthday Walk at Steep.

On the  3rd of  March the annual walk at Steep marking Edward Thomas birthday went well. It began in near freezing temperatures but at about 2pm the sun shone, The familiar format is  a longish morning walk and a shorter afternoon one, interspersed with readings.

Exceptionally, today we were joined by a Radio 4 reporter and sound engineer who recorded people on the walk, including me. There will be five broadcasts over Easter - whether all Edward Thomas, or  walking groups, or South Downs, I'm afraid I'm not sure, but I do know that Robert MacFarlane will be reading Thomas's poems, so it should be excellent.

What was very good for me was to meet face to face two people I've known of and wanted to meet. One was  Fran Howard-Brown, a wise maternity nurse/adviser who is also a regular Edward Thomas correspondent on   dovegreyreaderscribbles to which I've often referred.
And also Lucy Milner, Edward's great-granddaughter, Merfyn's grandaughter, daughter of Edward Cawston Thomas, now the sole young and  female member of the Edward Thomas Fellowship Committee
Here is Lucy reading The Brook,  the poem which features her great-aunt, Myfanwy.

Seated once by a brook, watching a child
Chiefly that paddled, I was thus beguiled.
Mellow the blackbird sang and sharp the thrush
Not far off in the oak and hazel brush,
Unseen. There was a scent like honeycomb
From mugwort dull. And down upon the dome
Of the stone the cart-horse kicks against so oft
A butterfly alighted. From aloft
He took the heat of the sun, and from below.
On the hot stone he perched contented so,
As if never a cart would pass again
That way; as if I were the last of men
And he the first of insects to have earth
And sun together and to know their worth.
I was divided between him and the gleam,
The motion, and the voices, of the stream,
The waters running frizzled over gravel,
That never vanish and for ever travel.
A grey flycatcher silent on a fence
And I sat as if we had been there since
The horseman and the horse lying beneath
The fir-tree-covered barrow on the heath,
The horseman and the horse with silver shoes,
Galloped the downs last. All that I could lose
I lost. And then the child’s voice raised the dead.
“No one’s been here before” was what she said
And what I felt, yet never should have found
A word for, while I gathered sight and sound.

 In my novel I transposed that scene to Leddington but drew on the poem substantially:

'They travelled so speedily that they reached a place they’d never visited, where a stony track forded the Preston Brook. Myfanwy paddled. Edward sat still on the bank by the glinting, murmuring stream. A dragonfly suddenly landed on a large stone by the water’s edge and warmed itself, taking heat from the stone and sun together. There it stayed motionless and timeless, as he felt himself to be, sitting still in the sun.

Above the trees he could see March Hill, the last of the Malverns, prominent against the sky, a place of legends and ancient mysteries. He pictured Thomas Traherne, strolling in  Herefordshire centuries before, meditating on the boundless potential of man’s mind and spirit and enjoying the easy hours as a child did. He would have to read Centuries, again – such extraordinary and unconventional verses. Traherne’s ‘child’ was a marvellous creature who could wander free of boundaries with no property to bind him. Edward shared his way of looking at the world; Traherne saw that we don’t own the world or any part of it, at best we hold it on ‘an everlasting lease’ and must care for it.

For a while he lost all sense of present time, of time itself. A walk like this, a place like this, could take him meandering through the centuries. It was as if he and the dragonfly were unchanged since Traherne’s days. Or even since the long-dead chieftains were buried in the barrow up on the hill. This was England for him: timeless, the England that had roots far back in the earth of the ancient past and that still in moments like these could be found and would always be found.

A chaffinch flew down and perched on the wooden rail of the bridge, cocking its head a little and looking into the brook. How contained they are, he thought, the dragonfly, the chaffinch; these creatures aren’t troubled like us, always reflecting and theorising. They have intuition and a wholeness of being. We are cast out from that – the Fall, there’s a real truth in the story. These creatures are still in Eden, they’re in touch with the world, with now, in some immediate way that Man never is. We have history – our awareness of history, those barrows, the past, what it gives us. And our own pasts.

And along with that is the fact that we’re always thinking of the future too, he thought. Children escape that for a little while, before schooldays at least. He watched Myfanwy building a row of stones across the stream - even she had a clear plan, she couldn’t leave the stream to be itself. It was the nature of Man. But then of course the stream would win. Within minutes of their leaving the little dam would be gone. '

He could foresee that, but it was his belief that the only certain thing about the future was its unpredictability.'

Next  was The Chalk Pit, a rather Frosty, dialogue-based poem:

From The Chalk Pit
'Is this the road that climbs above and bends
Round what was one a chalk pit: now it is
By accident an amphitheatre.
Some ash trees standing ankle-deep in brier
And bramble act the parts, and neither speak
Nor stir.' 'But see: they have fallen, every one,
And briar and bramble have grown over them.'
'That is the place. As usual no one is here.
Hardly can I imagine the drop of the axe,
And the smack that is like an echo, sounding here.'
'I do not understand.' 'Why, what I mean is
That I have seen the place two or three times
At most, and that its emptiness and silence
And stillness haunt me, as if just before
It was not empty, silent, still, but full
Of life of some kind, perhaps tragical.
Has anything unusual happened here?'

And so we continued. March the 3rd, the poem I printed a week ago, was read at the memorial stone.

The Thomas's first Steep cottage, Berryfield, on the right


Yew Tree cottage, their last Steep home
I sold and signed some books and bought some of the excellent poem/woodcut illustrated cards, which you can see on the ETF website.
There has been  the most exciting find, books of Helen and Edward, with inscriptions, lost for eighty years. We will be hearing much more about them before long. 
The day ended with the annual meeting in the church and good news that by next year the memorial window which was smashed will be replaced by a replica to the same Whistler design.
The New House - the poem from the broken window to be restored. It is about the Wick Green house where they were never settled or happy. I think of Yew Tree Cottage as having been a happier house on the whole.
NOW first, as I shut the door,
I was alone
In the new house; and the wind
Began to moan.

Old at once was the house,
And I was old;
My ears were teased with the dread
Of what was foretold,

Nights of storm, days of mist, without end;
Sad days when the sun
Shone in vain: old griefs and griefs
Not yet begun.

All was foretold me; naught
Could I foresee;
But I learnt how the wind would sound
After these things should be

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