Dymock & Daffodils & Days of Song
Saturday I set off ‘in pursuit of Spring’, alluding to the classic book by First World War poet Edward Thomas, who in 1913 (21-28 March) recorded his literary pilgrimage from Clapham to the Quantocks – the home of Coleridge. My destination was Dymock, where, during a brief time leading up to that fateful conflict, a coterie of poets, their spouses and offspring, gathered: Lascelles Abercrombie; Wilfrid Gibson; John Drinkwater; Edward Thomas; Robert Frost; & Rupert Brooke – the Dymock Poets, as they became known afterwards. Their story, charged with poignancy in the shadow of war and the tragic death of two of their key members (Thomas and Brooke – who enlisted, and never returned), inspires and moves me. Nearly a hundred years on it seems more relevant than ever in the shadow of current conflict and the all-too-common reports of young men and women meeting their fate in a foreign theatre of war. Yet it was with joy I set off early on Saturday, having prepared the night before for a couple of days away. The forecast was good – the early reports were of heavy rain, but the nearer the time came, the more they improved, until I was fortunate to be blessed by a weekend of Spring sun. It made the ride up to just south of the Malverns a real pleasure. It was great to leave the city, and my week of toil, behind. When the sun is shining it is important to – seize the day! A sunny day is not to be squandered – they are ‘golden’, like the heart-breakingly brief days of bliss the Dymock poets shared together: the summer of 1914.
Twas in July
of nineteen-fourteen that we sat and talked:
Then August brought the war, and scattered us.
Wilfrid Gibson, The Golden Room
Following the precise directions to the wonderfully named village of Redmarley D’abitot, of Janice – whose writer’s retreat I had booked for the night – I soon arrived at Mellow Farm: a charming cluster of red-bricked and beamed style farm buildings distinctive of the area. Janice’s husband answered and didn’t seem to be aware she was running a writer’s retreat – but eventually Janice was able to pull herself away from her cooking and shown me my room, in Courtyard Lodge, which had lovely views towards Dymock Woods and May Hill – two numinous poetic ‘hotspots’. I was shown the meditation room, but not how to work the shower. Still it was a comfortable roomy place – all to myself. The charming garden vibrated with daffodils and birches – similarly associated with the Dymock Poets. Sitting in the window seat later, enjoying the late afternoon sun, I wrote:
‘The Spring sunlight – the banks of daffodils – creates a ‘golden’ effect; dazzling after the gloom of winter. Now have the brighter days come!’
Yet on my arrival, I didn’t have time to linger. Shedding my biker gear, I headed off to the village hall, where the Friends of the Dymock Poets were gathering for their annual Spring Day. The first item on the programme was a walk to Cobhill Rough, the location of the famous altercation between Robert Frost and a gamekeeper.
I entered the hall – which was brimming with Senior Citizens in walking gear, ‘warming up’ for the ramble, ie expelling hot air. Although it’s nice to be the youngest one present, it did feel a little odd. Still, I was warmly welcomed and signed up to the Society there and then. And off we set! The walk wasn’t very far – a couple of miles – but it took somewhat longer than it should have because the narrow track we took was ‘boggy’. This proved a navigational hazard for some and so it was requested the men present offered assistance. And so I found myself up to my ankles in mud, helping OAPs scrambled along the sides, offering encouragement and motivation – like some Assault Course for geriatric poet-lovers. This obstacle overcome with teamwork, we had ‘bonded in peril’ and carried on in affable, ambling manner to the site of the gamekeeper’s cottage in the corner of Cobhall Rough (a sign on the way in warned: PRIVATE SHOOTS Please keep to Rights of Way & Dogs Under Control). Here, Frost and Thomas, while out on one of their customary perambulations, was accosted by a bullish keeper called Bott. Frost didn’t take kindly to his manner and put his fists up in defiance. For a tense moment a kind of standoff took place – between the Old and New World – feudal know-your-place politics vs the Land of the Free. Until, that is, Bott pulled down his hunting gun from the wall. After that, they ‘moved off pretty sharpish’, according to an eye-witness. Frost’s blood was up, indignant and incredulous at such treatment. Thomas felt even worse – as though he had acted cowardly in some way – this, speculated our guide, might have influenced his decision to enlist soon after. The incident certainly ruffled feathers. Apparently Gibson was entitled to walk the lands owned by the Lord of the Manor, Beauchamp, but not his guests – this put Frost out somewhat and spoiled their friendship. Still, it was an iconic moment, echoed in his poetry, e.g. ‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening’:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
The whole incident was described memorably by our guide, Barbara Davis – who knew somebody who had witnessed the incident as a child, (a 10 year old boy, visiting a friend of his grandmother’s) all those years ago! A living link with literary history. We had a stirring rendition of a ‘Lincolnshire Poacher’ by Roy, which some joined in with (it is customary for the FDP to pepper their walks with ‘guerrila’ poetry recitals. After inspecting the ruins of the keeper’s cottage, we finished with a stirring reading of a poem by Wilfrid Gibson ‘To John Drinkwater’ – which was interrupted by a man on a quad bike, rattling along like a Gatling gun. The spell broken, we continued on our way. The temperature had dropped and so, woolly hat on, we walked up through Ryton Firs, the setting for another classic from the Dymock Poet cannon, this time by Abercrombie – the first to move to Dymock and the last to leave. Returning there, after the War, he discovered a favourite wood of his had been felled for pit props, leaving a scene reminiscent of the ruined landscapes of the Trenches:
Ryton Firs, like Europe, fell…
At the edge of the woods, before we turned back to the village, our guide speculated on the repercussions of the incident and Wynne read ‘The Road Not Taken’, which had extra resonance and meaning now. As I lingered, gazing at the track. The secretary, Cate Luck, said this could have been the very tracks Frost referred to. Certainly his phrase ‘the yellow woods’ could certainly describe the wood that day, brightened by daffodils and Spring sun. It was a tantalising thought.
- I shall be telling this with a sigh
- Somewhere ages and ages hence:
- Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
- I took the one less traveled by,
- And that has made all the difference.
- Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
- We returned to the village hall, where people dispersed for lunch. I ate my sandwiches in the sun, then wandered to the local churchyard, fond a grassy gravestone, and promptly had a nap in the warm spring sun – a local cat curling around my legs. The early start – and my cold – had taken its toll. I was wiped out!
- Yet my cat-nap got me through the rest of the Spring Day – the afternoon consisted of two talks – one about ‘Dymock Poets: Wives and Muses’ by Sue Houseago; and then ‘Swords and Ploughshares: rivals and reputations in pre-war poetry’ by Dr Lynn Parker. Both were interesting, but I started to flag towards the end – despite being shored up by tea and cake.
- I left the hall and returned to my lodgings – running the gauntlet of some lively young bullocks, who insisted on seeing me off their muddy field, despite their scaring easily whenever I turned and waved my arms. The two little grey goats in the horse paddock were cuter – as were the two dogs belonging to the family who lived in the main house. I made some tea and sat in the sunny window seat, reading up on the Dymock Poets in Linda Hart’s book, Once They Lived in Gloucestershire – I was about to go to Ledbury to buy a copy when I found one on the shelf in my bedroom, inscribed by the author to the hosts. Gratefully, I curled up with it – recharging batteries for the evening jaunt.
- ‘Colour and Savour of Spring’ was an evening of ‘Dymock poets and friends in music and words’ at St Mary’s, Dymock. I set off in good time but hadn’t reckoned on the labyrinthine backroads and lack of signs for Dymock – there were signs for Ledbury, Gloucester, and Newent but not my destination. Taking May Hill as fix, I struck out along the most likely lane on my Triumph Legend. It was dusk – the trees silhouetted in the deepening sky. Bats flitted past my helmet – some looked huge! DH Lawrence’s poem came to mind – a visitor to the Dymock Poets:
Dark air-life looping
Yet missing the pure loop
…A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight
And serrated wings against the sky,
Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.
from Bats by DH Lawrence
I eventually found Dymock – lost in its own becloaked timewarp – and pulled up opposite the church, from which a promising glow exuded. I jogged over to the doorway – it was 7.30pm – and burst in: to a packed congregation and a concert in progress. The ‘stage’ was right by the door, so everyone looked at me. There was no way around it – I had to walk passed the performers and down the middle of the aisle to find somewhere to sit. Rather than waiting for a suitable gap – which would have been the sensible and polite thing to do, I strode to the back, hoping to look like I knew what I was doing. A man accosted me halfway – Bob May – the organiser. I gave him a tenner and he handed me the change later. He found me a seat, bless him – a row of ladies had to shuffle up – and finally I ensconced my bardic behind on the hard church pew. The children of what sounded like ‘Am Dram School’ were in full song (turned out to be Ann Cam School) – but I’d only missed a couple of tunes – four seasonal songs by Eleanor Farjeon. This was a May Pole, of all things, set up in the middle of the church – and I surmised the evening must have started with a dance. There followed some cute poems by the pupils. Next up, a little skit on the Friendship of Eleanor Farjeon and the Dymock Poets; then something on a poorly-tuned cello (that’s how it sounded to me) by a lovely young lass; Heroes & Heroines by the St Mary Singers – again, lyrics by Farjeon – and this time accompanied by a ‘fancy dress’ parade of each of the respective historical figures: Devonshire Drake; Grace Darling; Wellington; Florence Nightingale. After an interval – when refreshments were served and I picked up copies of the Poets Walk maps – there was a presentation of prints. Then a reading by a local poet about daffodils – daffodil doggerel – and an extra contribution from another ‘local poet’ of similar quality.
Fortunately, the standard picked up again with a masterful recital of Brooke’s immortal poem, ‘The Soldier’ by actor Peter Thorpe. More tuneless cello. Then the reading of ‘The Golden Room’, once more by Thorpe – but this time he didn’t stand so close to the mike and the power wasn’t carried so well. When I had read this earlier that day I was deeply moved by the vision it presented – of a brief, fragile flowering of fellowship:
Was it all for nothing that the little room,
all golden in the lamplight, thrilled with golden
laughter from hearts of friends that summer night.
Wilfrid Gibson, The Golden Room
The penultimate act was a pleasant surprise – a whole bevvy of young lovelies got up (pupils of St Mary’s School, Worcester) and sang Brooke’s trio of sonnets entitled The Dead in haunting falsetto voices. Thorpe returned to the mike for his version of Edward Thomas’ ‘The Sun Also Shine’; and the evening ended with a singalong to ‘A Song for Gloucestershire, by Johnny Coppin. There followed lots of thank yous and the handing out of bouquets – the contributors getting well-deserved applause for their efforts: a fine community event.
Afterwards, I browsed the display at the back of the church about the Dymock Poets – deciding to return the following day to read it when I was more awake.
It had been a lovely evening of poetry, song and music – it was wonderful to see the Dymock Poets honoured in a such a way. They have clearly been taken to the heart of the locals and their words have become also liturgical in the way they mythologize and sanctify the local landscape. And quite rightly so – that is the true poet’s role.
I walked out into the night – taking in the sky full of stars, the moon shining merrily. The interior of the remarkable Norman church of St Mary’s reminded me of the abbey on Iona – and so to did this experience – from sacred space to Sacred Space: the cathedral of the Stella Maris. The change of scale, and interiority to exteriority, brings about an oceanic feeling of amplification. Looking up, it feels like you could fall forever – and be drowned in the night.
Before I floated off into infinity, I popped to the Beauchamp Arms next door for an ale – needing to ground myself and enjoy the atmosphere of human company before I struck out alone once more into the dark (‘Yes I have been acquainted with the night’, Frost).
I supped my pint and made some field notes.
And then off I went, fortunately finding it easier to get back – a needle in a haystack – to my dwellings. I gratefully fixed myself a hot drink and retired to bed with a book – not the liveliest of Saturday nights, but certainly fulfillingly wholesome. I felt like I had drank from a purer font – took a road not travelled (by many) – and that, I hope, makes all the difference.
The next day I visited the various dwellings of the Dymock Poets, (Gallows Cottoage – Lascelles Abercrombie; The Old Nail Shop – Wilfrid Gibson; Little Iddens – Robert Frost; Old Fields Farm – Edward Thomas) which was particularly moving – from such humble, unassuming places came words of such power. No blue plaques adorned their walls – all were private residences – no tourist signs pointed snap-happy hordes to their doorsteps. At Old Fields Farm, Thomas’s residence, a woman came over to see what I ‘wanted’: ‘To pay my respects to Mr Thomas’, I said. She was friendly enough after that. I said they must get fed up of all the people traipsing by – some do think the footpath runs through their garden, which it doesn’t. But she replied that ‘surprisingly few’ walk in the area.
I made it to Dymock in time for the afternoon ‘Daffodil Walk’ – a permanent marked trail that has become an annual tradition – a way of seeing in the Spring. Dymock is very proud of its daffodils. At one time there used to be a special train between Gloucester and Ledbury called the Daffodil Line, which was popular with Spring spotters (local lads used to collect bunches of daffs – a bakers’ dozen in each posy – 39 would get a tanner). First I had stow my togs – I couldn’t walk in my leathers now, could I. I found a place to stash them in the church – my helmet, trouser,s and jacket – in the pulpit! I joined the group of two dozen tourists just as they set off from the lych-gate of St Mary’s. We went on a relaxing hour’s amble to simply … go and look at daffodils, as though we don’t see them anywhere else (they’re coming out in my garden). Folk took photos – and yes, I did too, caught up in the herd instinct and photo-frenzy.
We bimbled in a long, lazy line back to the church. I went to get a cuppa at the village hall, where the Spring Fair was taking place – realizing my change was back in my bike trouser pockets I went back to the church, and found, to my surprise – a young waif curled up asleep on top of my togs. He drowsily awoke. ‘Sorry to disturb you,’ I said. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Ryan.’ I gave him my hand and introduced myself. I asked him where his folks were. His mum was in the Spring Fair next door – good, he wasn’t homeless then! Perhaps still rumpled from his nap, he did look a bit of a ragamuffin: like Master Robin Goodfellow, in fact – the spirit of Spring himself – awakening from his winter’s sleep! I said I didn’t mind him using my things as bedding – the pilot jacket, with its thick fleece lining, would make comfortable bedding, as I know. I apologised by disrupting his siesta – his afternoon nap, I explained – and went on my way, charmed by this lovely encounter. How special!
I got myself a drink from the pub – the thirsty walkers had all arrived and there was quite a queue – and sat in the sun, preparing for my journey home. It had been a very pleasant weekend and I felt very relaxed. Peaceful. Dymock had worked its magic on me – I had something of an epiphany of the hill overlooking Thomas’ place: I had a glimpse of an ‘English heaven’ – as Brooke put it; here was a little corner of England, to paraphrase his classic poem, that will be forever sanctified by the lives and words of the remarkable Dymock Poets. Briefly, during that last summer of peace, the sun did shine in the golden glow of friendship and inspiration.
The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted
Edward Thomas, ‘The Sun used to Shine’