Edward Thomas, poet and casualty of war, did not it is true to say, spend many months in Hertfordshire. But if we think about how he spent that time and how Hertfordshire shaped his thoughts and words, then we can appreciate why his experience resonates with those living in the county today.
His story is over a century old yet it raises issues that concern us now, with no solutions in sight. What to do about our loss of biodiversity? How to save our green belt from over development? How to connect with nature in our search for health and wellbeing? How can we journey through our landscape, as he did, free from online maps and digital downloads to show us the way?
Edward Thomas was born in London in 1878. His parents were Welsh and he grew up loving the Welsh landscape and its Celtic traditions. He studied History at Oxford University. While still an undergraduate, he married Helen Noble (1878-1967), became the father of a son and published his first book, The Woodland Life (1897). Thomas made decisions young in life, decisions that could reasonably take someone a decade or so to make. With early responsibilities came hardship and a sense of entrapment.
With no family wealth to support him, Thomas’s life was a struggle to survive the consequences of his youthful actions. He decided on a career in journalism, not through a sense of vocation but because he thought it the best means to provide for his growing family. He wrote extensively on travel, biography and criticism, working long, tedious hours.
An obsessive walker from childhood, Thomas found relief from depression in the solitude and natural beauty of the pathways of southern England. It was writing for bread and a passion for walking that led him to The Icknield Way in 1911.
Two years later, in 1913 Thomas became friends with the American poet, Robert Frost. Frost saw the nascent poetry in Thomas’ hack writing, especially his travel books, and encouraged him to try reshaping some passages into poems. During the winter of 1914 Thomas tried his hand at writing poetry. He wrote swiftly and prolifically, producing 142 poems in just over 2 years.
First Word War
By 1915, with the First World War raging in Europe, Thomas found himself at a crossroads in both his personal life and his relationship with England. Robert Frost offered him safe passage to America, his wife Helen begged him to remain where they were, living in Hampshire; but he made the decision to fight for his country. There was no pressure to enlist; he was 36 years old with a family to support. In July 1915 he joined the Artists’ Rifles. Before sailing for France, Thomas entrusted Helen with a journal in which he had copied out all his poems.
He found the landscape of The Western Front reminiscent of the hilly terrain of England’s Home Counties. Sadly though, war had all but destroyed the natural world he loved. He was killed in the opening hours of the Battle of Arras on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917.
His collected poems were published in 1920. He is a great poet, concerned with war and nature, but mainly with the state of our modern fractured consciousness. Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, among others, recognised his indebtedness to Thomas, saying: ‘he was the father of us all’ (speech delivered Westminster Abbey, Armistice Day, 1985).
The Icknield Way in Hertfordshire
The Icknield Way travels through six counties across the south and east of England. It is the oldest road in Britain, stretching for 105 miles. It was made an official long distance footpath in 1992, starting at Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire and finishing at Knettishall Heath in Suffolk. The Hertfordshire leg crosses into the county from Bedfordshire shortly after descending Galley Hill. It then travels through Pirton, Hitchin, Letchworth, Baldock, and Royston, from where it crosses into Cambridgeshire two miles or so further along the route. The name may well be linked to the Iceni, a Celtic tribe of eastern Britain which possessed lands in the area during the Iron Age and early Roman period.
Thomas loved The Icknield Way because of its great age and the witness it bears to human activity over millennia. It had been a route for wild animals, flint traders, cattle drovers and migrants long before the Romans came. As it isn’t of Roman making it escapes the rigidity and practicality of Roman roads. Instead it is skeined and meandering, sitting at ease with the land’s natural contours rather than trying to dominate them. These contours get their shape from the land’s ancient chalk escarpment. The chalk is permeable, making the route dry and lonelier, as it is settlement free for the most part.
A large number of archaeological features survive along the way and Thomas found them fascinating. The barrows or burial mounds continue to have great presence in the Hertfordshire landscape. They date from the late Neolithic to the early Bronze Age (2400-1500 BCE). In Royston alone about 100 of these barrows survive, bearing witness to prosperous and organised ancient settlement along the route. A number of Iron Age hill forts (750 BCE-43 AD) remain and strip lynchets, worked by medieval farmers can be traced on the slopes of Deacon Hill at Pegsdon. Thomas’ creative mind was attuned to the endeavours and spiritual beliefs that had made Hertfordshire’s chalk escarpment a place of settlement dating back to the last ice age about twelve thousand years ago.
Thomas’ working method
Thomas lived in Kent, East Hampshire and Essex between 1905 and 1917. From his base he ventured out whenever possible to walk the lanes and footpaths of the southern counties. A commission brought him north to Hertfordshire to walk The Icknield Way and write what was to become a ground breaking travel book. The journey began when Thomas was suffering one of his deepest depressions.
Thomas wrote The Icknield Way in 1911. In February and March of that year he researched the historical records of the route in the British Museum. He decided to walk from north east to south west from April through to July. His brother Julian kept him company some of the way, but he relished walking alone. Sometimes he revisited areas on his bike to make final checks on places and facts. For the sake of structure he presented the walk as a single journey, taking ten days. He wrote up his journey notes chiefly in Laugharne, South Wales, finishing the task on 19th September 1911. The book was published by Constable in 1913.
Thomas believed that a travel book should be much more than the sum of its parts. He was under pressure from his editor to present a lot of factual information, but for Thomas route finding was never the book’s centre. He used the stages of the journey as a framing device in which to discuss the route’s deep history. He contrasted the old ways of agriculture with, as he saw it, the imposition of new towns, which he disliked. He was a sensitive and knowledgeable recorder of the natural world. He liked to get into conversation with local people, especially those who made a living from the land. He needed walking, solitude and landscape as an antidote to low mood and the stresses of family life. So, a long journey, most of which was walked alone, became for him a way into self-examination and confirmation of his identity. As such he was an early exponent of the current trend for writing confessional works that link nature with personal journeys into the self for healing and wellbeing.
The book is uneven in quality. When his imagination takes hold of mood or place the writing evokes the English countryside most powerfully and he is very observant. In the best passages you can see how his language, feelings and ideas were worked into some of his most famous poems. At times though, the book is repetitive and rather disengaged, reminding us that Thomas was tired of having to write to order, tired of:
‘burning my candle at three ends’. At all times on the way Thomas wore a tweed suit that he said ‘smelt of old dog’ because it had been caught out in the rain so many times.
Walking and the creative mind
Thomas set himself a fearsome pace, starting at first light in early spring he could cover 20 or more miles a day with ease. The route was unchallenging, the path finding secure by sunlight or compass point. His mind was perfectly free to respond to his surroundings. His thoughts were many, some simple, some complex. He was aware of the legions of people in whose footsteps he walked, their multitude of presences still palpable to him. He felt an affinity for a route so aged that it evaded the confines of rules and map making. It was to him, without beginning or end. As such, it became a metaphor for his own life and the human condition generally.
Surrounded by the encroaching suburbia, which he resented, it held out against modernity as not fully rational or knowable. He believed there was something sacred about it and this took him out of his troubled self and humbled him.
Thomas’ decision to fight for his country was shaped and given meaning by his deep felt response to the English landscape. He wrote about how he was gradually becoming ‘more consciously an Englishman’, as he walked. He had found what he wanted to defend.
Today we are sobered by scientific reports of the depleted biodiversity of our landscape, with Hertfordshire being particularly at risk. Thomas seems to have had prescience here. He saw the countryside as tenuous and precious; back in 1911 nature didn’t seem threatened but he sensed that it would be in the future. He was concerned with suburban encroachment and the loss of natural habitats that attended house and road building. With suburbia came a growing middle class appetite for walking. As fewer people experienced the land as a place to live and work on, so it was becoming a sightseeing destination to fill leisure time.
As England’s wild places gave way to suburban development, Thomas felt his imaginative well spring coming under threat. He didn’t want open country to dwindle into a park but had to accept that his guide books were assisting the process.
Today we can read The Icknield Way and poems like Rain, Roads and Adlestrop and appreciate the part Hertfordshire played in creating Thomas’ legacy, rich with a poet’s insights and expression.
Poems by Edward Thomas
The power of this poem lies in the way Thomas uses landscape to suggest state of mind. It is an example of a poem that began as a prose passage in The Icknield Way.
This is probably Thomas’ best known and most anthologized poem. It captures a fleeting moment in time and place with delicate feeling. For many readers it stands for an England of beauty, harmony and completeness on the eve of war and radical change.
A poem that expresses how deeply Thomas felt about ancient footpaths, journeys and landscape. It is a prophetic poem, as he sees that he will soon make the choice to take the road to France as a soldier.
I have borrowed freely from the following sources in writing this piece:
Various online resources: Wikipedia, The Wild Life Trust, English Nature.
The British Library: Discovering Literature online resources
The Old Ways Robert Macfarlane Hamish Hamilton 2012
The Hertfordshire Way Bert Richardson and Ian Hirst, 3rd edition 2017
The Icknield Way Path: A Walkers’ Guide, edited by Alan Jenyon, 4th edition 1998
The Icknield Way (Chapters 4 and 5 cover the Hertfordshire section of the route) Edward Thomas Constable 1913
Edward Thomas Collected Poems faber & faber 1936