Richard Shepherd undertakes two unbirthday walks for Edward Thomas.
The first time we had got it together to go on the birthday walk organized by the Edward Thomas Fellowship and…it was cancelled: not because of coronavirus but because of the wettest February on record. The ground was waterlogged and there was storm damage in the hangers – the densely wooded hills above the village of Steep, Hampshire, which were home to the poet and his family in the decade before World War I, and the locus of inspiration for much of his late-flowering poetry. But, but…we’d booked a hotel – and trains. We went anyway.
On the 25th of February, I had been to Epping Forest. I schlepped around Copped Hall on the estate road, then through the forest on drives and quieter roads, avoiding the mud, via High Beech to Chingford. There is a modern house on the site of the cottage which the Thomases moved to from Steep in the autumn of 1916. I often go to an open patch of grass next to it, kept short by descendants of the rabbits that Thomas kept out of their garden by wire netting. It is a lovely place to sit. It feels like a carpet, somewhere to take your boots off. Low evening sunshine turns the grass into a stage and the trees into ghosts. The map calls the area Paul’s Nursery. I prefer to think of it as Thomas’s garden. It is, in fact, a legacy of a nursery garden which used to be here – as are the rhododendron and azaleas, copper beech and various other exotic trees competing with the more familiar beeches and hornbeams of the forest.
Thomas had discovered Epping Forest when the Artists’ Rifles established a base there in 1915. The King’s Oak Hotel, close to the cottage, is still a prominent landmark. It was their HQ (Telephone Loughton 111 on the Artists’ headed notepaper). The Artists’ – and Edward – had left the forest for Romford earlier in 1916 and by the summer the army had released the hotel and various commandeered tea rooms back to their civilian owners. All very quiet, he wrote to Robert Frost in October, during the week they might see only aeroplanes and deer. But the war was never completely absent, the noise from the munitions factory in the valley ‘like a huge woodpecker tapping in the forest.’
Helen Thomas refers to the cottage as ‘standing in the grounds of a nursery garden which had run wild owing to the lack of men to keep it in order’. The observation is true but doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, the seeds (sorry) of the nursery’s decline were sown before the war.
When Epping Forest was saved from development by public campaigns in the middle of the nineteenth century, an act was passed which meant that all lands enclosed unlawfully since 1851 would be returned to the forest. In 1879, the right of the nursery to its portion of the People’s Forest was tested in court.
Newspaper reports show that the court was amenable to the Paul family case (they bought the land in good faith) and some sort of fudge was worked out whereby they continued to trade but they had to leave the gate open so that members of the public could enjoy this part of the People’s Forest as much as any other: at least during the hours of daylight. The court made it clear that the Conservators could pull the plug at any time if the nursery was deemed to be unsympathetic to the forest. Before either party could fall out, the war, for the reasons Helen Thomas suggested, sealed its demise and the land was bought by the Conservators of Epping Forest in January 1920. OS maps show that the ‘rewilding’ of the area happened between 1915 and 1935. The cottage and other buildings still exist at the later date but the nursery gardens have gone.
“Mr. George Paul, proprietor of the Old Nurseries, Cheshunt [addressing the court in 1879], said he had paid £1,116 for his ground, which consisted of 14 acres. The cost of fencing, draining, etc., was about £1,450. His grounds were mostly open to the public, but he had secured a certain amount of privacy in connection with a cottage at one end of his gardens. Botanists had expressed much satisfaction with his plants, some of which had been submitted to Mr. Darwin. A large number of people constantly visited his gardens at High Beech.”
‘Epping Forest Arbitration’ Essex Herald – Tuesday 24 June 1879
The cottage had its own front gate from the road so the Thomases weren’t troubled by nosy visitors to the nursery gardens behind – if there were any visitors, other than the post-boy, during the coldest winter in living memory. Sometime after 1935, the buildings were demolished and two houses were built on the footings. For Thomas fans though there is an interesting architectural survival from the nursery garden days. A small brick lodge – I always think it would make a good writer’s study. It even has a fireplace, though not much room for books.
The talk in the public bar at the Harrow Inn, Steep, on Saturday night (29th Feb) was about coronavirus. There was a confirmed case in Haslemere, 12 miles away – the first case of local transmission in the UK it was thought; the patient hadn’t been abroad or in contact with anyone who had. A couple of the punters had been involved in a BBC documentary in 2018 which launched a virus outbreak in the town and tracked its progress via a smartphone app. My memory of a slightly strained edge to our laughter may be tainted by subsequent events – our own woodpecker hammering at the edge of consciousness.
Sunday – sod’s law – was a beautiful day of intermittent warm sunshine. Following the stream up from the village we located the site of the cottage in Lutcombe Bottom which may (according to our downloaded guide) have inspired “A Tale”. There may be other candidates around the village and poems are about words as much as places, but still, I can’t resist the urge to look at old maps or stick a pin in a new one.
There once the walls,
Of the ruined cottage stood.
The periwinkle crawls
With flowers in its hair into the wood.
In flowerless hours
Never will the bank fail,
With everlasting flowers
On fragments of blue plates, to tell the tale.
The Annotated Collected Poems, Edna Longley ed., Bloodaxe Books, 2008.
I couldn’t identify any periwinkle in the lost garden, but there was a cheery primrose on the 1st March 2020. I even found a fragment of blue tile, dug out of the bank by a poetically-minded mole. I photographed it and left it to tell its own tale to future generations of Thomas fans.
The tithe book lists the landowner of the cottage and garden as William Frederick Thomas Vernon Wentworth Esq. The occupier was James Reed. Cross-checking census information I was able to give a name to our house of ghosts. In 1841 Lutcomb Cottage was home to James Read (spelling of surnames wasn’t consistent in those days). He was a 60-year-old agricultural labourer born c. 1781 living with his wife, Lydia (55), daughter, Mary (20) and sons James (20), William (20) and Joseph (12). Ten years later the cottage at the end of Ludcombe Lane had a new inmate: grandson, Jacob. William had moved out and Joseph was now also described as an ag. lab. Mary was a laundress.
I can’t tell you what James Read was like, or why he liked throwing crockery about. Then again, part of the heft of the poem is that the story fails to quite materialize from the thought. It remains a beautiful fragment. I was sorry not to have been able to share my interest with other Edward Thomas aficionados this time round – but grateful to have caught a glimpse of two lost gardens associated with the poet before the whole world slunk off into the woods, uncertain that any amount of china could make up for the loss of the plate.
This article originally appeared in longer form on Richard’s blog, which you can access here.