Guest reviewer Tim Pinks finds his spirits lifted by an entrancing but bittersweet rural adventure from a little over a century ago
“AS he walked out one Good Friday morning…”
Once upon a time one Easter morning, a man walked out of his house in Balham, grabbed his bicycle and set off to walk and cycle south and south-westwards, in search of spring.
It was a very early Easter, Friday March 21st, 1913, and the man’s name was Edward Thomas: a London Welshman born into a Welsh family who loved nature, especially that of his family’s adopted country.
My apologies for borrowing and twisting the title of Laurie Lee’s classic memoir, but the book Thomas wrote and published the following April, in glorious innocent springtime before the nightmare abyss of World War One, is as beautiful and poetic as Lee’s. More so, actually. Cycling With Teddie, perhaps.
In Pursuit Of Spring is not just an evocative journey back to times past, but a homage to England’s countryside, from the flowers and the birds to its villages and pubs. Wonderfully, he took a camera with him.
Although written in prose, it reads so much like a poem in places that the American poet Robert Frost encouraged Thomas to take up poetry. Which he did. Thank you, Mr Frost. The two became friends, until Thomas’s death.
Philip Edward Thomas was born in 1878 and died in 1917. Yes, just four years after he walked out to find life one Good Friday morning, he died one Easter Monday morning in Arras, France. From one Easter to another, four years later, the writer who became a poet was dead. It would be almost poetically beautiful if it wasn’t so sad.
It’s said he took any opportunity while in the trenches to look for any sign of a bud or see a flower bloom, to see a bird or hear its song. One can only hope that his last sight and sound was of the nature that he loved.
He left behind a wife and three children, some books and many poems. His wife Helen also wrote about him, so there is plenty to read from him, about him and his circle.
You see, for those who don’t know, he had become known. It is down to not just his poetry, but his books. I first came across him thanks to a second-hand copy of The South Country, about his ramblings in mostly the southern counties of England. These gentle meandering books bring back a not-too-recently lost past and are full of the flora and fauna that surrounded his wanderings.
In Pursuit Of Spring takes us from Balham (yes, ‘the Gateway to the South’!) in a roughly straight but intermittently twisting tour to the coast and the Quantocks. On the way he stays in inns and walks the roads, byways and tracks of the southern lands. The very occasional ‘motor car’ passes, but horses and carts are more likely to be seen.
The journey actually begins at chapter two of the book, ‘The Start – London to Guildford’. There’s a lovely bit where he hides from the rain by a shop that sells chaffinches and linnets, and ‘little, bright foreign birds’. All sold because they sing. The less battered, the more expensive. I know, I know…horrible.
A man enters and buys something and takes it away in a little paper bag. Further down the road, Thomas sees him stop, take the bag, and open it. A chaffinch flies away. Lovely. Told you Thomas loved nature.
The book winds delightfully through the southwest until the sea at Bridgwater Bay, and the Quantocks. The first paragraph of the last chapter has this: “The end of the rain, as I hoped, was sung away by the missel (sic) thrushes in the roadside oaks, by a train of larks’ songs which must have reached all over England.” Told you it was poetic!
His wonderful book ends with a little recount of some of the signs of spring he saw on his journey, writing: “Thus I leapt over April and into May, as I sat in the sun on the north side of Cothelstone Hill on that 28th day of March, the last day of my journey westward to find the Spring.”
The poet W H ‘The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp’ Davies wrote this poem about his friend’s death:
Killed in action
Happy the man whose home is still
In Nature’s green and peaceful ways;
To wake and hear the birds so loud,
That scream for joy to see the sun
Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.
And we have known those days, when we
Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;
When you and I, with thoughtful mind,
Would help a bird to hide her nest,
For fear of other hands less kind.
But thou, my friend, art lying dead:
War, with its hell-born childishness,
Has claimed thy life, with many more:
The man that loved this England well,
And never left it once before.
It encompasses Thomas’s love of life and nature, and his death. I’ll leave the last words to Edward Thomas himself, from Light and Twilight: “And I rose up, and knew that I was tired, and continued my journey.”
Somewhere out there, I hope he wanders still, in this land he loved.
In Pursuit Of Spring by Edward Thomas is published by Little Toller Books and features nearly 40 photos Thomas took on the trip.