Over the glorious weekend I want on a ‘rideabout’ on my Triumph Legend, making the most of the sun.
Friday I rode to the coast – ostensibly to pick up some biker boots from Hayling Island, but I made the most of my blat to the South Downs by visiting Steep, Hampshire – the stomping ground of the much-loved poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) who had three homes in the area over a period of a decade (1906-1916). I have long wanted to visit this ‘holy place’ of English Literature and so arrived at the vertiginous village with a pilgrimage consciousness. I hunted down Thomas’ three domiciles, obscure cottages tucked away in backlanes, unadorned by blue plaques. There were no signposts from the road pointing the way, and so it was with some satisfaction that I managed to track down all three, beginning with Yew Tree Cottages, near the Cricketers Inn.
This was the last house Thomas lived in in the area, and I felt a poignant sadness, imagining him saying goodbye to his wife Helen from the doorstep before heading off to France, never to return. Nearby I found the village war memorial – and spotted Thomas’ name there amongst the fallen – this I also found incredibly moving in its understated tragedy. From here I retraced the footsteps of Mervyn, Thomas’ son, who would walk from the privileged fastness of Bedales School back to Berryfield – their first home in the area. This I wended my way too through ancient chalk woodlands, thrilling as I walked in Thomas’ footsteps – trying to see the botany of the area as he would have seen it (the undergrowth in ancient woodlands is especially rich). The interpretation signs encouraged visitors to look down as well as up, and this I did – enjoying the cool shade on a hot day. The footpath came out onto a lane and I followed this to Berryfields – an impressive house hidden behind a hedge. I took a sneaky peak – and a lady came out, wondering what I was doing. ‘I’m just a Thomas fan, paying my homage,’ I explained, and she seemed to accept this. From here, I traipsed up Shoulder of Mutton Hill – hard work in the hot sun – stopping at the top to enjoy the splendid view of the Sussex Weald. Here, a memorial stone was placed by poet John Masefield – and I enjoyed the fact it was a sarsen ‘from Avebury’ (presumably from Fyfield, rather than the stones themselves), connecting me back to Wiltshire and Gloucestershire simultaneously.
My reverie was somewhat disrupted by the arrival of a couple of mums with their little boys, but the juxtaposition of memento mori and youthful energy was piquant. I took the Hangers Way – following the folds of the dramatic chalk escarpment, back down into Steep. I jumped on my bike to find Thomas’s third house, up Cockshott Lane. Here, a little girl behind a garden gate kindly gave me directions to the Red House. The newest of the three properties – although especially made for the Thomas’ in the style of William Morris – the family were the least happiest here. Thomas was prone to bouts of depression and the incessant wind troubled him – but as a lover of the elemental this was perhaps more indicative of his nerves than anything. Until Thomas found his Muse he was deeply unhappy in his lot as ‘hack’, bringing home the bacon for his growing family. By now I was hot and thirsty, and so with relief I made my way to the Pub with No Name – by a crossroads above Steep.
The sign is indeed empty – and I only found it because a wedding was due to take place the next day and a sign was up. It really is off the beaten track, and the Edward Thomas Bar, in the former smithy, drips with atmosphere. Here Thomas wrote his first poem, ‘Up in the Wind’, inspired by the monologue of the bar-maid. I savoured the Boondoggle in a dimple that I ordered – wishing I could stay the night, enjoying the campsite, but I had to get back and hope that the winding road brings me here another time.
The reason I had to get back (tired and sweaty) was because the following day I was due to do some storytelling at the new SEED Festival, Hawkwood College, back in Gloucestershire. I set off in the morning on a mission. I made my way to Stroud town centre, then onto the site – a stunning location overlooking the Severn estuary. The grand old Sycamore tree (2nd oldest in the country) had lost a substantial limb on the Monday prior – nearly taking out the main hall, and so that area was ring-fenced off. Some took it as a sign, although of what was a matter of rumination. The tree had spoken … but nobody could agree on what it was trying to say. After the opening ceremony I performed a set of ‘Green Tales and Verdant Verse’ to a small but appreciative audience. Acquitted of my bardic duties I cracked open and beer and kicked back, enjoying the rest of the day – a stimulating mixture of talks, workshops and performances. I did sit in on a couple of talks (Theo Simon from Seize the Day; and ecocide lawyer Polly Higgins) but felt more inclined to soak up the vibes and connect with folk around the ‘party tree’. There was a sublime Japanes duo; an amazing kora and djembe player; Kiwi Sika on digd; and the prolific Seize the Day, who wrapped things up with a stonking set that got everyone dancing.
The next day – an astonishingly hot one – I took it easy, chilling out around Daisybank and the Heavens, and saving my energy for the evening, when I was co-hosting Awen Forum with my friend Jay Ramsay. We had invited up a bunch of talented folk from Frome and London (award-winning author Lindsay Clarke; ecopoet Helen Moore and International Times poetry editor, Niall McDevitt; and the Children). The theme of the evening was ‘Soul of the Earth’, which the company explored through different art forms with equal eloquence and intelligence. I performed my story of the ‘White Horse of Uffington’ (from my collection of Oxfordshire Folk Tales) and this seemed to go down well. Afterwards, we had a well-earned beer in the Golden Fleece – delighted that the evening had been a success (decent crowd; excellent discussion; lovely atmosphere). A result! Not bad, considering I’ve been moving house and living in a different county. Sometimes, the awen flows – and we just have to ride with it.