Monday, July 22, 2013



Settings, High Beech, Epping Forest and Loughton

The Thomases left Steep, but Steep has never forgotten the Thomases. Edward's name is on the war memorial there, not here.

The old nurseryman' s cottage at High Beech (now Beach) was Edward's home very briefly:from November 1916 to early January 1915.  And for most of that he was away in  Army Camp at Romford and later Trowbridge. Helen stayed on only a very short time after his death.
They moved for several reasons: to be nearer to London, for family and Merfyn's apprenticeship, and also because of some disappointment with Steep.
A third reason - being closer for Edward to come on leave - had no meaning given the decision he was about to make, of volunteering to go abroad. Possibly Edward thought it would be better for Helen to be nearer London, her sister and Eleanor, should the worst happen

The cottage where they lived is no longer there, but this is the area, on the western side of Epping Forest, Paul's Nursery Road, High Beech.

An extract from 'Helen's'
Half a kiss, half a tear.

'In October we moved to High Beech, a part of Epping Forest – Edward found the house for us. He had been there briefly on a training camp and liked the open commons and miles of ancient forest. It was convenient for London, for Walthamstow where Merfyn was working, and we heard that quite a colony of artists and writers was beginning to live in the area.

Ours was the abandoned cottage of a nurseryman who was away at the front, so we had good well-tilled soil, and a hen-run, important because of the shortages – I managed to buy some Leghorn pullets. In late September, with the beech leaves turning russet and the sun still slanting warmly through the trees it looked quite hospitable. Silver birches, always a favourite of mine, swayed delicately together at the end of the garden. Edward and I put up wire-netting to protect the vegetables against rabbits.

He took Bronwen and Baba walking in the forest, showing them the strange old trees once pollarded for firewood and grown into curious shapes. They found secret ponds, places where we might go to catch a glimpse of fallow deer coming to drink. Bronnie, who was such an expert on wild flowers, would have to learn about mushrooms and toadstools. Edward showed the girls how to leave a trail of white pebbles as they went, like Hansel and Gretel, so that they would not be lost.

This was somewhere perhaps for us to make a new start after the war, close to many of our friends and to London, but still as rural as we could wish. Merfyn could bicycle to his work; he was earning fifteen shillings a week so we were better off in that way. Bronnie would have to go a cheaper school in Loughton, the Girls’ High School, though for a time she’d stay on with my sister Mary and her cousin Margaret.

Edward was on his Officer training in Wiltshire – so near to Steep! It was a long slow train journey for him to come to us. I longed for him to be with us, there on the edge of the forest. We were like woodcutters in a fairy tale, our only neighbours deer and badgers. Myfanwy would have no playmates and before long I would have to find her a school. I was doing my best, making the most of things.

But by November, with the dark coming early, I felt differently about the house and the Forest. The lovely canopy of summer and autumn had turned to nothing but a brown muddy mulch underfoot. It rained and rained, the house was cold and the dreadful little paraffin stove instead of a proper range was a great nuisance.

Still Edward liked the little house, the deer, the starlight, lamplight on the trees by the window. He liked the way darkness rushed in when the lamp was turned out. He would walk into the deepest, darkest part of the forest and come home very late. No white pebbles for him. This was habitual with him. It seemed as though he chose to lose himself whenever he found a forest that would serve. But I was afraid of what he was thinking while he walked alone so long.'
Loughton station features in my novel as the end, essentially, of the Thomas's life as a complete family, and the location of Eleanor Farjeon's last sighting of Edward.
Loughton has had three stations and I can't find a picture of the second, the one they would have used. The first was built in 1856, replaced only nine years later. Then in 1940 that was demolished and replaced by a rather striking building, now Grade II Listed.

In  Loughton too  is the Lopping Hall, built to compensate the inhabitants for losing their ancient rights to cut firewood when the Forest was taken over by the Forestry Commission.

                                                                        Pollarded trees grown old.     

The Poem: The Dark Forest
Thomas was wary of using 'a too obvious metaphor' and 'entirely conscious symbolism' and had some anxiety about the poem.  Edna Longley comments that 'one context may be the increasing 'multitudes' of war dead.
She prints a discarded last stanza from the second draft, which I have added after the asterisk. What do we make of it, I wonder - comments most welcome.

Dark is the forest and deep, and overhead
Hang stars like seeds of light
In vain, though not since they were sown was bred

Anything more bright.

And evermore mighty multitudes ride
About, nor enter in;
Of the other multitudes that dwell inside
Never yet was one seen.

The forest foxglove is purple, the marguerite
Outside is gold and white,
Nor can those that pluck either blossom greet
The others, day or night.
Not even beloved and lover or child and mother,
One from within, one from
Without the forest could recognise each other,
Since they have changed their home.

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