In Search of In Pursuit of Spring
From Clapham Junction to the Quantocks in the tyre tracks of Edward Thomas
Of these primal things the least obvious but the most important is The RoadÖWe take it so much for granted that its original meaning escapes us. Men, indeed, whose pleasure it is perpetually to explore even their own country on foot, and to whom its every phase of climate is delightful, receive, somewhat tardily, the spirit of The Road. They feel a meaning in it; it grows to suggest the towns upon it, it explains its own vagaries, and it gives a unity to all that has arisen along its way... it is the humblest and most subtle, but, as I have said, the greatest and the most original of the spells which we inherit from the earliest pioneers of our race.
Hilaire Belloc, The Old Road (1910)
As popular consciousness has embraced cool, the idea of anyone finding almost anything remotely interesting has become ludicrous.
Ian Marchant, Parallel Lines (2003)
When I was about five years old the family took a summer holiday at Port Gaverne in Cornwall- a tiny bay with a small caravan site. My hard-working parents' object was to relax on the beach, where I was of course also deposited. Every so often I would look up to see a car ease down the narrow lane then climb to disappear around the next headland. I knew that one day I would follow that driver and see what lay around the corner.
Twenty years later in 1977 I was staying with a girlfriend who had a summer job at a seaside restaurant in Ilfracombe, Devon. One morning I set off walking down the coast. Official long distance paths were in their infancy- I went thru fields, across beaches, along the side of busy main roads, got physically completely stuck in gorse bushes. I slept in a sleeping bag inside two plastic bin liners which I'd welded together with an electric iron. I ate bacon over an open fire with Ryvita crispbread. Eventually I reached Tintagel, of King Arthur fame (now full of new-agey attractions like the Excaliburger).
For many miles as you approach this village from the north the King Arthur Hotel is silhouetted on the clifftop. The building has a distinctively shaped carriage entrance, which gives it a unique outline. This image somehow etched itself on my consciousness as the archetypal next headland which must be reached, only to find out what lies beyond the headland after that, and so on until old age or sickness intervenes.
My music career crept forward, first with Robyn Hitchcock's now-legendary Soft Boys, then with Katrina and the Waves. This ultimately came to resemble what people who told me the world doesnít owe you a living, get a proper job call a proper job in that it brought a house, car and so on. My father was still suspicious but relented when a song of mine won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1997. By this time I was 45.
In 1991 I drove down to the North Foreland in Kent for the first of a series of journeys on foot and bike that in the next five years took me around the coast of England and Wales. After that I started to walk all the inland waterways.
In 2005 the waterways project is creaking away. What survives of the largely eighteenth-century canal system is now a playground for leisure boaters and home to the houseboat people. LTC Rolt fought to save the canals from dereliction, in the face of bureaucracy which would have filled in the lot as the easiest course; he piloted an early self-converted cruiser on the canals in the dark days of the Second World War. I went to the library in search of his classic Narrow Boat (1939). It wasn't in, but there was In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas, describing his cycle journey from London to the Quantocks in 1913. There was a much later introduction by PJ Kavanagh, initials in place of a first name his criticís credentials, whose thrust was to deny that this book had its own value and that its interest was as an early work by the poet of Adlestrop fame.
Yes, I remember Adlestrop. Second or third form, age 13 or 14, English literature class, Mr Lafferty. This was literature, because it said one afternoon of heat not one hot afternoon- and furthermore this phrase was spead licentiously over the end of one line and the beginning of the next. A songwriter wouldnít get away with that. It was whispered amongst knowledgeable train spotters in the class that the train in the poem had made its unscheduled stop at Adlestrop because the locomotive had broken down- this was the former Great Western and most of them were fiercely loyal to other regions, which meant denigrating their rivalsí motive power.
I suspect Thomas thought Adlestrop a peculiar name- addle meaning confound or mess up, strop - barber's honing implement- did it also mean a foul mood then? The dictionary says first recorded mid-twentieth century, so probably not. Trop, throp, or thorp, is an outlying village. The place-name book tells me the village was home to one Tatel. Tatel's trop. The first T was lost in the same way that secretary or library is now losing the first of its two Rs.
Did In Pursuit of Spring have any merit of its own despite the dismissive introduction? PJ Kavanagh contrasts Thomas' role therein as jobbing hack with his later elevation to Parnassus. The authorís concern is with trees, birds, the weather, literary associations. Journeying in March, he examines all for signs of spring and the regeneration of life. The earth does not belong to man, but man to the earth; this was at odds with the weight of Christian tradition which had long sat unchallenged on everyoneís shoulders and was about to endorse the First World War.
Was there a market for this book amongst aesthetes? Anyhow it was the coming taste. Edward Thomas himself was an aesthete and also a hard-working family man trying to make a living as a writer. And he later endured hardships in the trenches which our generation, in this country, can only vaguely imagine- he and countless others, were killed in that war- Thomas age 39 in 1917. The bulk of his poems was published, and his critical reputation cemented, posthumously. Like Adlestrop they deal with his emotional bond to the English countryside.
What if I repeated Edward Thomasí journey now? I ordered In Pursuit of Spring from Laurel Books. The writer of the foreword of this edition, Patrick Ingram, reconstructed the journey in 2001- and thereís his picture on the website, standing by his bike at journey's end on Cothelston Hill.
Iíd be on a wobbly footing if I tried this myself- to me the natural world is, on a good day, simply the source of a benevolent feeling. Birds and trees I can barely identify. In 1913 Thomas was reintroducing urbanised man to the natural world, since when the battle cry back to nature has followed the cycle of old hat and parody then rediscovery and revival. I associate the Return of the Chiff-Chaff more with Willansí and Searleís Molesworth books- did they actually have in mind Thomasí lengthy passage about the chiff-chaffís song being a sign of returning spring?
The same year Edward Thomas wrote The Icknield Way- which is right on my Cambridge doorstep- a prehistoric man-made route which follows the natural feature of the steep, chalky northern edge of the Chilterns. But the route of In Pursuit of Spring has everything, from Clapham Junction to the great natural divide of the Quantock Hills. At last some common ground- I share Thomasí instinct about the Quantocks, the psychological boundary between plain England, with its ridgeways, its Isle of Wight, its sailing barge-haunted marshes and so on- and the wild south-west- high moors, huge bare rocks either in their natural positions or placed by man, tidal estuaries snaking far inland among the woods to utterly isolated cottages- the setting for summer adventures, first as a child brought by oneís parents, then as a young man on arduous hitch-hiking journeys, now by the measured explorations of middle age.
Edward Thomas flexes his inkstand with a visit to Londonís Bond Street, then as now the entrepot where you trade your wealth for adornment. There are fabulously dressed ladies, a tramp whom the dance heeded not, nor he the dance, and an apparently disembodied hand which adjusts a jewellerís window display, delicately lest it should work harm to these dazzling cressets.
I can match his day of raw March bite and leaden sky. I expected women festooned with gold chains and leopard skin, but the only fur coat is on a bloke whose expression shows he thinks he is a flower to be looked at from the Kinksí Dedicated Follower of Fashion. And thereís never a tramp when you actually want one. But in a jewellerís window a white-gloved assistant drapes a pendant and chain over a diagonally-truncated-cylinder-shaped glass stand, which makes the draping quite a task. Then a button is pressed, the back panel of the display is closed and all begins to revolve again to whet our covetousness. The assistant unlike in 1913 is female. So as not to appear rude I attempt a discreet nod and smile. Eyes meet uncomfortably then look away (social embarrassment copyright Alan Bennett).
Thomas designates himself Clapham Junction man (he lived there)- the ultimate faceless district, its raison díetre that vast, nodal suburban railway station, and therefore mobility. So none there have roots and traditions, all are strangers to each other and uncomfortably so. Clapham Junction man owes no loyalty to class, type or home, the better to engage unmediated with nature, the opposite of Clapham.
Meanwhile the intervening century of upheaval has spread this once novel social anonymity- same plastic shopping bags, same trainers, same baseball caps and hoods turned against the chill. Social indicators, once instantly comprehensible like the blazons over castle gateways- hessians, cretonnes, bays, shalloons, bombazines, fustians, voiles, cambrics, moires, shantungs etc that supplied social nuance across the pages of English Lit, are gone taking their significance with them.
Clapham South tube station. On this first two-day instalment of the journey Iím walking rather than cycling thru London after another 93 years of civilisation have turned the roads to lethal racetracks (and tomorrow to take the Pilgrimsí Way footpath along the North Downs).
Itís six months since the last growing season. The exhalation from the grass of Clapham Common carries me back to rugby football, Thursday afternoons, age twelve, keeping at the back and out of the way. The villas around the common are the last of architectural elegance until the orderly 1930s apartment blocks of Morden, except for the tube stations of the southern extension of the Northern Line, designed in 1926 by Charles Holden- usually an entrance way at a busy intersection. The white Portland stone façade with glazed white tiles, a green dado, very dark stained panelling and geometrical skylights hints at the better quality of life those early suburbanites hoped for- they achieved it and I take it for granted, walking down Nightingale Lane and the succeeding streets, cursing dull houses which at least have inside toilets.
Soft Boys and Waves producer Pat Collierís recording studio is nextdoor to Tooting Bec station, behind a Japanese restaurant, having moved from Alaska Street, under a mighty brick railway arch, by Waterloo. On the morning of December 9th 1980 I met Robyn Hitchcock there. He told me that John Lennon had been shot. We walked over the road to the La Ronde cafe (which has now disappeared to make way for a shaft to the new Jubilee tube line) where I had bread pudding (Katrina acquired a great taste for this). I had a feeling that from here advances in popular music would pass me by. I'd started to climb down from the illusory bandwagon of musical progress in 1972 on hearing the Velvet Underground for the first time. Now in 1980 my feet reached the ground and stuck firmly in the mud.
1981ís Stars on 45 craze confirmed that the times were marching on without me. From here it was a rearguard action; I watched, clinging to the overhanging branch of Katrina and the Waves, as boatloads of bands, each younger, prettier and more outlandishly dressed and coiffed than the last, surged by on the rapids. But good; Walking on Sunshine (1985) was a most un-eighties and timeless hit.
Over the Wandle; water power gave rise to an industrial corridor, now engulfed by suburbs. 1913ís sea of mud becomes concrete with drifts of wind-borne plastic. Juggernauts from all over Europe inch past burger vans. You can take a train to Merton Park, Morden Road, South Merton, Morden South or plain Morden.
A great advantage of the succession of unpretentious neighbourhoods is the choice fry-up now, or in half an hour? In 1979 I got thru rehearsals with egg and chips at 40p. In 2005 I ate the same in Birmingham for £1.50.
The Ordnance Survey map has the next few straight miles as the Roman Stane Street; Hilaire Belloc, in The Stane Street (also 1913, and a companion volume to Edward Thomasí The Icknield Way), has the present road as a medieval deviation. The adjoining Nonsuch Park, which once surrounded a royal palace, brings deep mud and no relief from traffic noise.
Houses ease out of the metropolitan corset to acquire a comfortable strip of garden, mock timbering and leaded lights. Along here cyclists singing who were you with last night, out in the pale moonlight? overtook Edward Thomas.
The Rockiní Berries (a nod to Chuck) sang Who were you with last night, out in the pale moonlight? on the TV show Sunday Night at the London Palladium in 1964. Their current hit was Goffin and Kingís Heís in Town. They moved onto this old song, each chorus finishing with the lines It looked like (for example) Tommy Cooper but that couldnít be right, so who were you with last night?- the cue for the front manís impression of Cooper or whatever other comedian of the day. So in 1964 Who Were You With Last Night? was at least 51 years old- a bit like a pub band of now launching into Muddy Watersí Hoochie Coochie Man.
Into Ewell, for the first time almost sharing that 1913 feeling of arriving dustily in a country town. The Victorian church tower peeps over the attempted art deco shopping strip, then come a few weatherboarded cottages crusted with traffic dirt. The municipal park has been reclaimed from the demesne of a country mansion- a mighty carriage arch with boastful heraldic beasts still fronts the high street. Schoolboys drift home, unfurled shirt tail as always the badge of rebellion.
Edward Thomas uses a stock of literary references, all beyond me except the description of Epsomís heyday from Daniel Defoeís A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724). The merry monarch Charles II installed his mistress Nell Gwynne at the medicinal springs here. Epsom became a suburb ahead of the suburban age, with City of London merchants riding to town every day in summer. Today a pleasing cigar-shaped widening of the main street marks the historic centre. Thereís a Wetherspoonís named the Assembly Rooms- whether because thatís what it was before or because thatís what Wetherspoon called it to capture those exalted associations I donít know. Rush hour traffic stands stationary; it starts to rain. (It rained all Edward Thomasí first day but he only complained when the mud impeded his bike).
On to Leatherhead. Another button on the metropolitan corset is undone- thereís even a glimpse of dark, wooded hills between the buildings. The town has a beautiful war memorial; thereís a cloistered arcade, as in a crematorium, with individual commemorative tablets for the fallen; all is on a comfortingly human scale. The gate is chained up for security reasons, says the sign, the saddest sight of the day.
A horrible thought- was Thomas' reputation enhanced by being slaughtered so briefly into his poetic career, like the critical lionising of the early death rock stars of the turn of the 1970s? It would be insulting to compare his ultimate demise after years of the hardships and deadly dangers of war in a collective history-changing tragedy with that of a young rock star, four years into his career with no way mapped down or forward, taking refuge in dangerous drugs and things going tragically wrong. Sometimes late-sixties druggery caused not death but permanent mental illness, leaving a reduced but live Brian Wilson, Peter Green or Syd Barrett still on the planet. Concerning Green, who after his LSD-induced breakdown spent two decades on the streets of Richmond, Surrey, receiving a modest allowance from his accountant brother, and has now recovered to play respectable blues-rock at medium-sized venues, you get the nasty feeling that the critics would have given him more gold stars for his immaculate late sixties music had he died in 1970.
Here is the setting for Aphrodite at Leatherhead by John Helston, the townís second poet, says Edward Thomas, familiar with not only the first (unnamed) but the second poet of a modest town, who conventionally peopled it with characters from classical mythology.
The Travelodge is all I could find- no blackened-raftered hostelry where fellows with pewter tankards, out of HV Morton or JB Priestley, offer homespun insights into our ills and uncertainties. But perhaps the Lodge is the natural home (from home) of Clapham Junction man.
South-west out of Leatherhead on another day of uniform grey, climbing the lower slopes of the North Downs by bridleways used by the equestrian daughters of the stockbroker belt. Spread below is Edward Thomasí cycle route, now the A24, thru the Mole gap to Dorking by Box Hill, which also has its own poet, George Meredith. Defoe describes a vault there, selling Sunday refreshments, which was blown up by overenthusiastic sabbatarians from Dorking.
Ever deeper into the narrow wooded valleys of the Downs, past Tanners Hatch youth hostel. I stayed here in 1966. It hasnít changed- an isolated cottage which the YHA converted by filling two upstairs rooms with bunk beds and constructing a small shower block in the garden.
West at the lip of the southern escarpment onto the Pilgrimsí Way, the medieval name of a route which must be as old as manís habitation of Britain, from the Straits of Dover, the only place these shores are visible from the continent (tho the two were divided after manís arrival), following the dry scarp of the North Downs, with few river crossings, towards Salisbury Plain, from where you can take a similar route to most points of the compass.
Below and east are Dorking and Box Hill, with the greying recession of the Sussex Weald beyond. Down into the triplet villages of Abinger Hammer (a memento of the Sussex iron industry), Gomshall and Shere, to rejoin the route of In Pursuit of Spring, now the vicious A25. On Good Friday 1913 the road was filled with walkers, including muscular Christians and people disputing as to the comparative merits of Mr Belloc and Mr Arthur Sidgwick. According to the encyclopaedia Sidgwick played an active part in social and political movements from an advanced Liberal point of view. Into the White Horse; piped music ranges from the Trumpet Voluntary to a Brazilian arrangement of Tea forTwo.
Muddy tracks still deep in autumn leaves lead back to the Pilgrimsí Way and a climb to the isolated St Marthaís church, on a lonely hilltop, and surely significant to those pilgrims. Here lies General Bernard Freyburg VC, of the New Zealand army, Churchillís salamander, with a fresh poppy wreath on his tombstone.
At last thereís a faint view, thru the gloom, to the North Downsí geological twin, the South Downs. The Pilgrimsí Way meets the abrupt termination of a Guildford suburban street, which descends to become the sweeping High Street. Off to join the ticket queue at the station. The clerks gather with furrowed brows behind a single window to puzzle over one youthís request, no doubt for a fare of arcane availability at an obscure discount, requiring him to produce a raft of documents. Guildford is home to a music academy and young hopefuls with guitar backpacks throng the platform, trousers resembling the Cutty Sark under full sail (and thatís just the girls).
Cycle westwards out of Guildford and the Wey gap and up the slope of the North Downs again, here no broader than than the width of the Pilgrimsí Way itself, now the dualled A31. This should mean extensive views north and south, but winterís relaxing its grip, appropriately for the theme of the journey, the temperatureís crept up, and all beyond the first hedgerow is misty. Iím the only cyclist.
A strip of common once bordered the Hogís Back- gypsies were there along Edward Thomasí way whose children played in the road motor cars or no motor cars. It was still a popular stop for motorists in the 1950s- I can just remember being at a family picnic with cars drawn up on the grass.
Here the architect Clough Williams-Ellis upbraided a driver who had pulled off the road to enjoy this beauty spot for listening to the fatstock prices on his car wireless. Before, you did one thing wholeheartedly or you did something else; now you classified nature as another amusement with ice-creams, radios or whatever- the ancestor of the mentality that places a theme park on the cliffs of Landís End. LTC Rolt expressed the same feeling about the crowds who picnicked alongside main roads on bank holidays. Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island (1992) was reduced to dressing down Macdonalds assistants who are under orders to ask if you want an apple turnover with your Egg McMuffin. The nearest thing I witnessed to spontaneous environmental protest was on old lady on a tricycle who courageously blocked a car crossing the pedestrianised medieval bridge in the Cambridgeshire town of St Ives.
The common along the Hogís Back is now fenced off, with a caravan-proof bank and ditch.
Into Farnham, wobbling across the cordon of ring roads, which loop incomprehensibly to the stranger, all seemingly one-way and back towards Guildford. Now as in 1913 Castle Street is the most pleasing- eighteenth century builders created a finer streetscape here with red bricks than anything since. Up to the station and two stops to Alton to avoid more of the fearsome A31, and change for the steam-powered Mid-Hants Railway. An immaculately uniformed official writes out my ticket by hand as thereís little call for a single. The carriage décor is stained and scratched plywood; seat springs boing comically with every fidget of the children in the next booth. The folding bike looks lonely in a corner of the guardís compartment which would once have been piled high with mailbags. The carriage clunks over every rail join in the rhythm beloved of the opening chapters of Enid Blytonís childrenís adventure books as the line climbs up and out of the Wey valley, sometimes in a vertically-sided cutting thru solid chalk. Iím conscious of the strain on the three-link chain, slung over a mighty hook, by which the carriage is hauled by the next and so on to the locomotive- and of the change in attitude of the train as it completes the climb and begins the descent into the Itchen valley. Above all is the smell of burning coal, hot oil and steam.
LTC Rolt was the first railway preservationist, on the Talyllyn in 1950. He was capable of building a railway with his own hands, having as a young man in the 1920s constructed steam locomotives, diesel lorries, and even steam lorries alongside other professional craftsmen. His current publisherís blurb describes him as a proto-hippy but he would hardly have considered himself a dropout. He also started the first vintage car club and was one of the first to convert a working boat and take to the canals, then the little-known poor relation of the transport world, inspiring his first successful book Narrow Boat (1939). Canals familiar to me appear in these pages, once away from the industrial conurbations, as decaying, weed-choked arteries. A single working boat stops at an isolated pub. The widower boatman is drinking more since one of his children who live on the boat and cannot read drowned. Other canals, even by the time the book was finally published in 1944, were abandoned and are often now obliterated under modern development.
Rolt developed his literary ability and taste, initially kept secret from his public school and motor racing chums, ultimately to earn his living by the pen. In his time progress meant thatched cottages rotting in village streets, eighteenth-century town houses giving way to Woolworths. Betjeman and the rest had yet to become mainstream.
Two generations later we liberal types are thus more in tune with Rolt than his contemporaries. Ian Marchant rightly praises him in Parallel Lines (2003). Britain is seen from train windows. Rail journeys mean discomfort and delay and are haunted by Scottish serial drinkers and the forlorn figure of the access dad. Yet in our minds there lives a positive image of a train like the one Iím on now, puffing to summer holidays, adventure, sunshine.
Alresford has the best high street yet- Georgian with the odd timbered inn for accent, sweeping west by a stately avenue complete with octagonal toll house, towards the clean, expansive skyline of chalky hills. Elizabeth Bennett could walk round the corner.
Edward Thomas quotes yet another local poet who praised the days when Thetis resorted thither. You couldnít move for Greek deities.
Thru two Itchens, Stoke and Abbas, and four Worthys, Martyr, Abbots, Kings and Headbourne, along the last of the Pilgrimsí Way. The derelict continuation of the Mid-Hants line occasionally shows as an earthwork like a straightened-out Iron-Age hill fort. Here Thomas heard the first springtime song of the returning chiff-chaff. He describes the call as often coming to an end on the first half. This would make it chiff.
Into Winchester, city of Alfred and Arthur. In In Search of England (1927), like other travel books of the time peopled by stout yokels leaning on scythes to utter homespun philosophy, HV Morton visits Winchester Castle. He would like to believe the table-top hanging on the wall, blazoned with the Tudor rose, really is King Arthurís round table- that people were ready to believe this then and arenít now indicates historyís advance into mainstream consciousness- it was said TV would jellify everyoneís brain, and when it got everyone learning history (and gardening) we were mercifully proved wrong.
I caught the tail end of the older attitude to history when I helped start the Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow in Suffolk in 1973. The idea, revolutionary at the time, of rebuilding on their original sites houses whose remains had been uncovered in an archaeological dig was hatched by some college friends. Older middle-class visitors teased you with quotations from Sellar and Yeatmanís 1066 and All That (1930), a parody of contemporary school history lessons- asking if this was your tea-break from constant raping and pillaging etc. Children simply thought the Saxons funny because they lacked modern inventions like TV.
Winchester has an excellent High Street, from medieval gateway to Victorian Alfred statue. I like the inscription on the wall of the Guildhall, giving height above sea level, longitude and real time (five odd minutes later than Greenwich).
First man: always get a window seat
Second man: check out the chicks
First man: yah
Still not quite Alan Bennett. A sleek sports car makes a loud noise. The registration is 2VPL. A girlfriend once refused to buy a used car with these letters because it stood for visible panty line.
Edward Thomas cycles straight thru Winchester without stopping.
Off to the station for the two-stage ride to Romsey, cutting out more A-roads. This was where I first arrived in Winchester in 1963 on a weekly rover train ticket which cost 10 shillings and sixpence (52p) half fare. Until decimalisation in 1971 ten-and-six was half a guinea, a sort of posh pound, being worth twenty-one shillings not twenty. You paid in guineas for cars, furniture and electric guitars. In 1963 we lived in Southampton- next year the family moved to Harrow in the suburbs of North London. My accent labelled me as a pantomime yokel. Gone were the docks, ferries, steam trains, medieval castles- the backdrop to Blyton-style boyhood. In their place were the dreary semis of Rayners Lane, whose shopping centre admittedly now looks to me like an art deco set-piece. Soccer was replaced by rugby football, a sad imitation of the upper middle classes. The motto was virtus non stemma- worth not birth. So we were resentfully on the back foot from the start. The thrust was that here, whoever you were, you could get as good an education as the sons of privileged families at the public schools- be offered the chance to acquire worth, demonstrate worth academically or on the sports field, go on to achieve worth in adult life, usually it seemed to us as somebody with a job like chairman of the south-east water board who would be wheeled back in on prize day as the star exhibit.
But the Christmas show came around and where there had been chalk-encrusted schoolmasters, on the stage of the assembly hall were sixth-formers with Vox AC30s banging out British R&B like gods. Until then this activity had seemed unattainable, done by impossibly remote figures on a black-and-white TV with a two-inch loudspeaker. We didn't know it then, tho it was routinely rubbished by the headmaster (author of The Custodians of Western Civilisation) to his captive audience in morning assembly, but this was a golden age of popular music, particularly in Britain, and particularly in the London suburbs. Just down the road the Who were tearing up the Railway Hotel, Wealdstone. A little further, you'd have heard the Rolling Stones then the Yardbirds tearing up the Station Hotel, Richmond.
During our reunion the Soft Boys played a warm-up gig at the Railway Inn in Winchester (seems like weíre doomed to these draughty Victorian establishments) prior to London's Mean Fiddler. Warm-up gigs were a bit above our station but we had the strange experience of briefly being legendary. The band broke up in 1981- the reunion ran 2001-2002. A US tour was then arranged where we had the satisfaction of for example selling out the Fillmore West in San Francisco; in our original career we'd managed 150 faithful souls at the Hope and Anchor, Islington. All over just pre-9/11 America the band was praised in the weekly arts sections, inviting people to participate retrospectively in the exotic spirit of London 1979. The effect wore off fast, and next year shows were switched to smaller venues as the 1979 brigade headed elsewhere.
Teenage girl passengers to conductor: is that a stamp?
Conductor: yes (girls borrow ticket stamp, stamp their shoes etc)
Girls: how much does it cost?
Conductor: £2.50 at Office World- you can get a stamp with anything on it
Girls (to me) do you want a stamp?
Me: no thanks
Girls: whatís that?
Me: a folding bike
Girls: can you get one in pink?
Conductor: you probably could if you asked
At that point, mercifully, we arrived in Romsey. Move over the comparative merits of Mr Belloc and Mr Arthur Sidgwick. Another fine townscape, this time around a market place enlivened by the Abbey gatehouse in one corner. The White Horse has a decent Georgian façade which hides one of those timber-framed coaching inns that ramble in a piecemeal way back from the street, requiring Theseusí trail of string to find your way back from room to bar, with odd turns, five steps up here, two steps down there, pleasingly like Jacques Tatiís house in Mon Oncle.
This night Edward Thomas considers putting up in a woodmanís shelter by the roadside, with frames of stout green branches thatched with hazel peelings and vaulted with faggots.
In the summer of 1974 the West Stow group made hurdles to form a base for a thatched roof. Every morning we set out from our electricity- and plumbing-free cottage to walk two miles to woods where hazel had once been coppiced- that is, chopped to the ground so that seven yearsí regrowth would produce a crop of straight poles which could be split and woven into hurdles.
Down the road we walked, with a backpack of tools, water container, kettle, grub. Someone had a dog. The country lanes were still free of todayís mad traffic. In the woods we toiled, and brewed up on a fire of shavings. The hurdles were probably rubbish. In a few weeks we were done and back working at the main site. In a year I was back in Cambridge and on the path to the music world. But it was a time of brief and odd contentment.
North out of Romsey on the main Andover road and over the River Test. Every upper-class English boyís name goes down at birth for Eton, a London gentlemenís club I canít remember, and a rod on the Test. Its estuary, shading into Southampton Water, is lined with miles of docks; here tho is a shallow, scampering stream, clear to the chalky bed.
Mercifully onto a B-road to meet Edward Thomasí route from Winchester via Timsbury, and on to Dunbridge. Thomas had considered cycling directly from Kings Worthy, north of Winchester, to Salisbury, twenty railwayless miles. Railways meant modern mobility and development, therefore less nature, which was what interested him. At Dunbridge Thomas couldnít find a room on the busy Easter weekend, so took a train to Salisbury, found a hotel, then dutifully returned to Dunbridge by train the next morning to cycle back to Salisbury in time for breakfast. Remarkably Dunbridge station is still open, tho the decent Victorian-sub-Elizabethan building is a private house. A train arrives, a single motorised carriage whose sides depict the tourist destinations it serves. Three or four older people get on, probably to shop in Southampton.
A sign invites you to alight and take a mile-and-a-quarter walk to the National Trustís Mottisfont Abbey. For some reason this is a funny name. Mott the Hoople, Jethro Tull. History (before it was mainstream), third form, 1966. The industrial and agrarian revolutions- Arkwrightís water frame, Cromptonís mule and the spinning jenny. The seed drill invented by Jethro Tull. Cue laughter (this was before the eponymous band). Another schoolboy-amuser was the Spanish pongo meaning I put. Also to be learned were Latin constructions for eitherÖor, ifÖthen and not onlyÖbut also. A boy named Wallace who stood in the school mock election for the National Schoolboy Party laughed because Not Only But Also was the title of the current TV show with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Have frostily demanded an explanation (judicial ignorance) the teacher went into a long put-down along the lines of I fail to see the humour etc etc concluding with (dramatic pause) Very cheap of you, Wallace.
Appearing at the pub are Bogus Quo- whatís advertised is what you get. Pub band names are intriguing (Dangerous Colin), beery (Ratzinasack), pretentious (Human Condition), boring (Last Resort) or dully informative (The Jon Matthews Blues Band).
The distant aftershock of the rhythm and blues explosion which I witnessed as a child settled upon obscure pubs in that indeterminate area between the city centre drinking-holes and the family joints on the edge of town. Receding on top and expanding round the middle, we take our approximation of that remarkable regional style that became a world language into rooms that would once have resounded to sing-songs round the piano. Thru the door trickle an appreciative bunch whoíve had the instinct not to agonise about what they should and shouldnít listen to. They donít usually sing with us of course but itís possible by eleven to turn what was a disparate roomful of people in an into a united force (and thatís just the band).
Ever further up the valley of the small River Dun, into the beginnings of chalky downland, to the watershed with the Wiltshire Avon. The steep, winding, narrow main road thru Alderbury was bypassed, probably in the coaching era, with one a little gentler, straighter and broader, then in our own time with a four-lane racetrack.
Into Salisbury and the first eatery I see, over the Sharp Practise tattoo shop, trying not to dislodge racks of samurai swords, long black leather coats, long lacy black dresses and black basques on my way thru. A half-open door reveals the tattooistís chair, reminiscent of the dentistís. Upstairs, the walls are decorated with album covers from the 1970s- Paul Simon, Ringo, Mike Oldfield, Don McLean.
In Salisbury Edward Thomas finds a cow with udders wagging was being hustled up the road by motor cars and that black and white pigs were being steered cautiously past plate glass.
Off to the station. In the terminal bay where the London train stands, the tracks beneath the toilet compartments are strewn with used and flushed bog roll. What happened to the prohibition do not flush when the train is standing in a station? And who now has heard of gentlemen lift the seat?
Itís Easter Monday and Iím a day behind Edward Thomas, who started on Good Friday and reached Salisbury in two days. Cycle west out of the city by the River Nadder, then the Wylye, into the small town of Wilton. Wilton house dominates it- first the long, high, blank park wall (even the Wylye is culverted under it) forces the road round three right angles, then comes the impressive gateway with equestrian statue- but not for us who are admitted via the gift shop. Past the crumbling stump of the market cross and the ruins of the church, now replaced by a Victorian barn on the outskirts, and into the pub.
The eight commandments of the pub.
The staff will be a sixteen-year-old girl and a middle-aged couple whose job is to keep the sixteen-year-old girl in ignorance of the workings of the business.
The sixteen-year-old girlís attention will be monopolised, either willingly or as captive audience, by a baseball-capped admirer.
A trio of middle-aged blokes with personalised pewter tankards, or in down-market joints anoraks and 1970s hairstyles, will occupy the rest of the elbow space at the bar. In the case of pubs open thru Saturday and Sunday afternoons they will have been drinking there since eleven in the morning.
The menu will be a red or brown plastic-bound booklet with the pubís name in gilt Gothic lettering.
Because pubs aspire to more up-market restaurant customs, there will be an awkwardness in establishing whether to settle up before or after eating. In the case of coffee there will be a misunderstanding as to whether youíre settling now, and if so for the coffee or the whole tab, or after, and as to whether theyíve gone to fetch the coffee to the bar or to your table.
The other diners will be a couple with a young child, who will constantly charge around the room. The parents will continually but ineffectually forbid him from doing so.
There will be a montage of colour flash photos, uncredited but probably of a fancy-dress event within the last few years. Most shots will feature a grinning bald bloke with a moustache.
In the gents will be a framed print of an oil painting of a Second World War fighter plane.
Up the Wylye valley thru Wishford, Stoford and Stapleford, then along a tributary the map calls the River Till, and Edward Thomas the Winterbourne, past Berwick St James. The Boot Inn is still there, exhaling chip fat. Over the London-Exeter road at Winterbourne Stoke. Iíve known the village for its speed camera, now I can dash across the raging traffic as the inhabitants have to every day. Wheezingly up the southern slope of Salisbury Plain to an ever-finer sweep of horizon. Eastwards, moving dots mark the receding Exeter and Devizes roads- they meet just over the skyline at Stonehenge- westwards the dots grind to a halt as a section of dual carriageway reverts to single. First buzzard of the trip- if I can spot them theyíre no longer a rarity. At Shrewton the little domed dungeon of blackened stone (a beehive-shaped village lock-up) still stands.
Up ever narrower lanes thru Orcheston St George until there comes the sign Public Byway- a line of red dashes on the map. Thomas attaches great importance to crossing Salisbury Plain, the single biggest geographical feature along the route. (He also takes a chapter to review its literary associations). The north side of the triangular Plain drops to the Vale of Pewsey; the other sides are marked by the railways (still operational) of the of the Wylye valley in the west and the Bourne valley in the east which must be regarded as the boundaries of a reduced Plain. Near the middle stands Stonehenge. There are two north-south motor routes, both A-roads. The army is in even firmer possession than in 1913 when the continent was on the brink of a military cataclysm; solitary Imber is more solitary than ever since the army evacuated the village in the Second World War.
Will I be turned back by the Ministry of Defence, or the mud of the off-roaders? The Wessex Ridgeway echoed to the trudge of Alfredís army advancing to oppose the Danes- successfully or Iíd be writing this in Danish. The turnpike era consigned the green roads to agricultural traffic. Now affordable four-by-fours turn them into long, thin lagoons.
No military red flag so up and over Salisbury Plain on a bicycle a la Gilbert and Sullivan. The rutted way stretches to the empty horizon. Where the mud gets deep the track divides to run in tandem for a distance in traditional green lane style. This is the nearest yet to 1913- it even looks like an illustration from Thomasí The Icknield Way (In Pursuit of Spring isnít illustrated). Itís so quiet, save the birdsong, and the occasional distant whine of a motorbike, that you realise how noisy the rest of your and everyone elseís life is, and how much noisier our lives are than our grandparentsí (wars and factories excepted).
Ever northwards into still lonelier country. Not a hedge, nor a yard of cultivation is sight, and rarely a tree. Deep valleys plunge from the trackside without a trickle of water at the bottom. Hulks of military vehicles, practice targets of old, punctuate the skyline.
A strange, magical place. By commandeering the Plain to test their weapons, the armyís accidentally preserved it, if you can get past the red flags and the mud, as perhaps the nearest thing we have to the old downland of southern England, frequented only by the occasional shepherd, before the days of intensive agriculture.
Cross the Wessex Ridgeway at the northern scarp, whose complicated folds recede westwards. After the Plain all below looks strangely lush and wooded. Northwards the Marlborough Downs are just visible thru the haze. Descend to Market Lavington- an easing-out of the closely built-up street indicates the market place, but there are no shops around it.
Begging was a routine occurrence all along Edward Thomasí way, town and country. The most elaborate incident was here- two men and two women pushing prams, walking along the highway to Devizes. Thomas is sickened by the complicated hard-luck story, cycles off, and is then attacked by remorse.
The idea of oneís wealth being at the mercy of arbitrary demands is disconcerting. On the other hand for an amount youíd never miss you can make a huge difference to someoneís day who may be the victim of genuine misfortune. Those times were the era of the classic tramp. There was also the impoverished itinerant craftsman- I remember one with the legend well-known grinder blazoned on his bike. The historic centre of Cambridge is where I meet beggars now, resembling the characters you used to find on the fringes of the music world. Sometimes they are women, never men, with young children, placing responsibility for feeding them on you. In Spain the cry of spare change is replaced by muttered religious formulae. But they have vanished from the English lanes and highways.
The shuffling, raincoated tramps of my youth declined in numbers as welfare and prosperity increased, then Thatcherism brought the new breed of beggars. I resolved to give when asked. Then I gave or refused civilly. Then I awarded myself the right to ignore. Iíve been reproached by beggars for ignoring them but havenít quite worked up to explaining the above to them, which is as well.
A literary tramp, and like Edward Thomasí Adlestrop much loved of the compilers of 1960s O-level English syllabi, was WH Davies of Autobiography of a Super-tramp (1907) fame. The eponymous 1970s band no doubt ran across this book at school. The right time had elapsed- half a century- to render it modern ie of the twentieth century and just about still connected to the present world- but old enough for further critical bets to be off.
But Autobiography of a Super-tramp fell off its popular perch soon after my prescribed encounter with it. I asked for the biography section in Borders. The assistant explained they didnít have one but that biographies could be found under whatever heading the biographee had distinguished himself in, and what was Daviesí field?
Er, I think he just wrote an autobiography.
Anyhow, they didnít have it. Neither was it on the public library shelves but it could be ordered from reserve stock. When it arrived, it was a reprint of 1949 (it had been reprinted twenty-eight times to that date) held together with sticky tape. It bore the old-style date-stamp sheet inside the cover, going back to 1978. It was borrowed seven times in the 1980s, seven in the 90s, but eight already in the current half-decade. A super-tramp revival?
Anyhow, this was proper travel, thru America at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, riding the bumpers. The brakesman was entitled to kill you if he could, tho you could also threaten him with death. Or if you took a job you could be murdered after you collected your pay. Then Davies had some equally hard episodes thru England, trying to raise enough to print privately the volume of poems which set him on the road to fame. This compares to any subsequent travel book, except George Orwellís Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), as being a musician does to real work, for example digging up the road.
Autobiography of a Super-tramp undoubtedly declined thanks to Daviesí scornful (but ordinary at the time) attitude to negroes. He witnessed a pitched battle between black and white at a levee camp, also a lynching, where his principal emotion was disgust not at the event but at the abject terror and cowardice of the victim. In fact whenever negroes are mentioned itís invariably in the context of some dastardly or sneaky crime.
Edward Thomas turns west for Dillybrook Farm, just beyond Trowbridge, to stay with friends. Iím drawn six miles northwards by the comforts of the Bear at Devizes, another of those venerable joints, fronting a market square, that ramble delightfully back from a neat Georgian frontage thru several preceding centuriesí worth of timber framing that never quite achieves a right angle. The town preserves a great feeling of decency- one comfortable eighteenth-century town house succeeds another to the big square, now a car park, this evening enjoying some end-of-bank-holiday quiet except for the mating calls of the obligatory knot of teenagers.
Devizes passed into Rew legend as the point on those epic annual family holiday treks to the west country that you had to reach by a certain hour to stay ahead of the fearsome build-up of traffic. The day began when my mother roused us at five in the morning. Beyond Devizes there would be a roadside picnic, after which she would wipe our hands with a soapy wet flannel from a plastic bag, then with a second wet but unsoapy flannel from a second plastic bag. We would sometimes crawl as a flock of sheep was driven along the road. At Okehampton the highway opened out into the main square. The Saturday market would be in full swing with cows and sheep everywhere. Carloads of families, roofracks piled high, crept by to the resorts of Cornwall.
John Betjeman, pioneer of the unregarded, came to Devizes in the early 1960s with a TV crew. Few recordings from this era werenít erased- luckily this and a handful of others survived to become the Lost Betjemans. So I can now see on video an exact time and place from those childhood journeys
Rain- outside the window the downpipe spits and splutters onto the flat roof. Check out and scuttle over the square to the covered market- an antiques fair is advertised which turns out to contain little more than recently published novels preparing for their last sleep. On to Little Brittox and the nearest caff. Take a window seat, so as to reach around from time to time to wipe away the steam and see that the shoppers still have their hoods and umbrellas.
Edward Thomas took a round trip north-east from Dillybrook Farm thru Trowbridge to Semington, Melksham and Staverton, then the day after a short detour north to Bradford-on-Avon before turning westwards again towards the Quantocks. So I need to head west to rejoin his route at Semington- thereís an A-road, but, praise Rolt, tho Betjeman didnít live to see it, the Kennet and Avon Canal has reopened and the towpath forms part of the National Cycle Network.
The K&A reached Devizes in the 1810s- then Brunel routed the Great Western Railway (now a World Heritage Site) north of the Marlborough Downs thru Swindon, which became far and away the biggest town in Wiltshire.
The glory of the canal thru Devizes is the flight of twenty-nine locks, down from the Vale of Pewsey, where the bare sweep of the Marlborough Downs rises from the bankside for fifteen miles, to join the headwaters of the Bristol Avon- not absolutely the longest flight but the longest anywhere in a straight line, which can thus be viewed spectacularly of a piece (and the only place on the system where you can freewheeel down the towpath with the brakes on). Here and there hooded boaters strain against the balance beams, extracting what fun they can from their trip in the relentless wet. This is national character in action- every Easter families determine to enjoy themselves in the teeth of wind and rain, and to make the kids enjoy it too.
Down the path to Semington then back on motor roads north to Melksham on the Avon, its fine stone banks and solicitorsí offices besieged by unsympathetic infill, the warm Cotswold colour reduced to dark grey by traffic dirt and wet. Into The Tavern. Iíve stumbled on the venue of the local meat market- thereís a bar long enough to make me reach for the monocular, and a dance floor, devoid of natural light. I have the odd feeling Iíve arrived, cold and hungry, to set up for a gig.
Over the Avon, past Melkshamís faceless industries, thru Challymead and Holt to tiny Staverton, dominated by the factory of Nestle, the Swiss giant that encouraged African mothers to stop breast-feeding and buy their products instead. Canít find Thomasí enormous stone cube but thereís a decent two-storey range, overshadowed by big-shed style additions- in 1913 this was the Phoenix Swiss milk factory. On this good dayís ride Thomas considers himself a disembodied spirit, as he envisages he will be after death, rejecting the afterlife of doctrine because, amongst other reasons, you canít get a decent cup of tea there. But he would like to take a few things with him, Desert Island Discs style, including oddly the milk factory. Just tea and sugar needed, then.
Into Bradford-on-Avon. The Avon enters a deep valley, later to be graced by the Avoncliff and Dundas aqueducts, then the Clifton suspension bridge over the final spectacular gorge. From Bradford bridge the houses pile up the hillside like an Italian fortified town, all in the rich local stone. Ancient cloth mills line the riverbank, most now boarded up, awaiting the urban regenerators. Just legible on the wall of the Swan is:
Family & Commercial
For Cyclists and Motorists
And Prime Sitting Rooms
Luncheon and Dining
Off to the organic, fairtrade café, to skulk out of the neverending rain to South American pipe band music, the third world style of choice for first world ears, before dashing to the station for the return ride via Trowbridge to Salisbury.
Graffiti in a pedestrian subway: No Pakis in Trowbridge.
One day the author is abducted in a flying saucer and interrogated.
Flying saucer captain: How did you get on with the Earthling?
Interrogator: He boasts that his greatest achievement is to live in a country town with no humans of a different race, sir. Also some incomprehensible remarks about Ďbloody greensí.
Captain: Mark Earth down as Ďno intelligent lifeí.
Edward Thomas finds Easter holiday crowds streaming out of Trowbridge on foot or bicycle for beer or tea and watercress.. He dislikes crowds, of which Clapham Junction is his worst example. In a town such as Trowbridge a crowd will at least contain (in 1913) types identifiable by their dress, and on holidays or whenever will act as a unit. At Clapham Junction, the crowd shows societyís creeping anonymity and fragmentation. This has continued since to the point where whole new estates of houses are planted among the fields, where you can neither be born, go to school, work, shop, take recreation, die (probably) or indeed enter or leave except by car.
Defoe (1724) says the country around is infinitely populous and nearby Frome is one of the greatest and wealthiest inland towns in England. He lists no less than twenty-five principal clothing towns, Bradford-on-Avon, Trowbridge and Shepton Mallet among them.
Cycle westwards, gaining height from the flat valleys of the Avon and the small tributary Biss. The four-square house at Dillybrook Farm must be the same as in Thomasí day, set in an orchard caught at its blossoming best. Itís home these days to D.A.N. Toilet Hire and a collection of Portaloos.
On another grey day the scarp of Salisbury Plain looms on the eastern horizon like a fortress. Gain more height to the deep and narrow valley of another tributary of the Avon, the Frome; Thomasí imaginary friend the Other Man got £50 for writing a book about this river. The winding streets of Rode cluster up the slope like a multiple Clovelly. On to Beckington and the splendid Woolpack.
Thomas took whatís now the A366 Radstock road west out of Trowbridge, to meet and turn south onto the A367, the Roman Fosse Way. Iím shadowing his route along minor roads to the south- but weíre both crossing the Somerset coalfield, in his case as it ran down, in mine long after the last lump was trundled away. Highbury retains the shabby look of a mining village on hard times, especially after the postcardish Mells.
Down into Coleford to meet the route of the derelict Dorset and Somerset Canal, with a surviving aqueduct, now thick with ivy and crowded by garden sheds, known as Hucky Duck; this is linguistics in action.
South on to the Fosse Way at Nettlebridge to rejoin Edward Thomasí route- now as then the coach road diverges in a double S-bend to cross the Mells Brook valley on a gentler slope than the original Roman road that serves the village, so that you look straight down onto the roofs; such were the different needs of marching armies and horse-drawn coaches.
Wheezingly up to 271 metres, my highest altitude so far, to cross the Mendip Hills.
Every song that phased out of Radio Luxemburg via the floor-standing steam wireless in my brotherís and my bedroom seemed to trump every other. Nothing had previously had the impact of the opening seconds of You really got me, then nothing had had the impact of the opening seconds of Paperback writer; even this was an aftershock of the original rockíníroll explosion of the 1950s.
Mixed with this were two further ingredients. It was illegal to begin the school day without an act of worship. The ambitious Harrow County ran to an organ, so hymns sounded not far short of the real thing. I became aware that many hymn tunes were lash-ups of others with a few tweaked notes, and that sense and word order were often stretched, squeezed and contorted. But there were unforgettable phrases, if only by repetition: thereís no discouragement shall make him once relent his first avowed intent, still to the lonely soul he doth himself impart, how beauteous are the feet, whose goodness faileth never etc.
Secondly, TV commercials. Advertisers consider us to be constantly increasing our sophistication thus immunising ourselves from their blandishments. Adverts therefore race on to ever more obscure depths of what their creators consider subtlety ie obliqueness and obsession with style. So if you see them again on a video recorded from the TV in the 1980s they date badly. From beyond gleam the slogans of oneís childhood: Cartoon crow: Aark! Whereís my dinner? Voice over: Sorry mate, youíre too late- the best peas went to Farrows! One Thousand And One cleans a big, big carpet for less than half a crown (12p)! This is luxury you can afford by Cyril Lord- wash it and it just springs back- give it the treatment, the family treatment- Enkalon is made to last for years and years and years and years and this is luxury you can afford by CYRIL LORD!). One of the sorrows of being eighteen years in a band with two Americans was being unable to share these memories.
By the time I arrived on the scene those seismic waves of the original rockíníroll explosion had died down. To meet musicians in Cambridge in the post-hippie era, I would be admitted to some darkened bedsit. Characters lounged on mattresses. Introductions were unheard of, smiles rare. Conversations would gravitate towards the phrase man, itís doing my head in. This was up-to-the-minute style and I was awed. Technique was scrutinised, danceability never considered. Long and devious was the path back towards the true rockíníroll spirit.
Down into Shepton Mallet, under a soaring railway viaduct, now disused, that lodged in my consciousness on trips, aged around six, in the family Austin A35, from our home in Yeovil to the ancestral seat of Bristol. Also along the route were the unforgettable Cannardís Grave and Gurney Slade (to be pronounced with my childhood West Country burr).
Shepton boasts a decent market square midway along a pleasingly steep and narrow main street. I can stroll the streets with a takeaway kebab or burger, or find some joint to drink lager and play fruit machines among the all-day drinkers. What I canít find is a place to update these jottings sitting at a table over a pot of tea.
A four oíclock shadow descends over small and medium-sized English towns. The inner ring road chokes with homebound traffic, the pedestrianised streets empty out. Stallholders have long gone leaving only those metal frameworks. The alarms of shops and cafes sound, the shutter is pulled halfway down, the manager ducks under and out, then all is quiet. The wine bars, blazoned with offers of three vodkas for the price of two and so on, have yet to open. Everyone you pass is thus bent on getting away and home. You, however, have just arrived, and must continue your journey or make your way to bus or train station unrefreshed.
Such is the decline of the town centre among a nation who claim four oíclock tea as a tradition. In 1927, at four-thirty, in Christchurch, Dorset, HV Morton was offered tea with lobster, damn it.
Shepton prisonís still there, with architectural features otherwise found on suburban 1950s Catholic churches, but I canít seem to approach it by Edward Thomasí lanes and high-walled passages.
Thomasí invisible friend the Other Man arrives for a church service in Shepton, which doesnít go ahead because only he and the bell-ringer have turned up and donít make a quorum.
The opposite happened to me in Horningsea, Cambridgeshire, in the 1970s. The church door was unlocked, the church empty; I sat down at the back. Entirely unexpectedly a lone priest arrived and went thru a service, reciting the various forms to the middle distance. I sat thru it. Concluding, the priest made for the door, stopping by my pew to mumble without making eye contact about having to lock up.
Like Hilaire Belloc but with less earnest intellectual energy I walked the Pilgrimsí Way to Canterbury. At journeyís end (The Old Road, 1910, companion to Thomasí The Icknield Way), Belloc finds the cathedral an empty shell, for the scholarly reason of Englandís having been cut off from the mainstream of European spiritual life and civilisation at the Reformation.
I reached the cathedral at four on a December afternoon and sat down. A service was in progress out of view around a corner or behind a screen somewhere in the vast edifice. But a disembodied voice was audible, in that strangely inadequate way of public address systems, reading the lesson.
It was Ezekielís vision. On it went- the figures, their four faces each, of what creatures were the faces, the wings, what side they were joined, what colour, the wheels with eyes in them. Should you have wished to make one this was your manual.
I might otherwise have sat and said truth, please show yourself because this is a good time to do it. What I got was information- fine, but why not three faces, eight wings, or whatever? So on to the next Pilgrimsí Way. Or perhaps arriving is not the important part.
Woody Guthrie on the other hand wrote Ezekiel Saw the Wheel. But it has the lines brothers and sisters, tell you what you got to do, join that union two by two so maybe for him the vision wasnít the important part.
On towards Wells. The Anglo-Bavarian Brewery is now the Anglo Trading Company. Now as then the road descends along the floor of a narrow ravine, with bare rocks above. The first of Wells you see from the east is the cathedral, unobstructed by later development. The miniature city is the home of Auntie Phyl, eldest of four, who first came to notice in the family history as an embryo- my grandparents had rented a flat in Bristol on the false assurance that they weren't planning to start a family.
Into the Crown. A plaque records that William Penn, of Pennsylvania fame, preached from an upper window; of course thereís a Pennís Bar, in the same way that Wigan Pier now boasts an Orwellís.
Into Wells cathedral at eight-thirty in the morning. This is the nearest Iíll get to Edward Thomasí twenty miles on the bike before breakfast. Past the usual jumble of information desk, leaflet stands and poster displays to the central aisle of the nave. Here all is uncluttered and harnonious, leading the eye to the unique scissor arches with their pierced spandrels. Thereís a faint rumble of voices, heavily reverbed, from beyond the organ case that screens the chancel, then rapid steps, and a cassocked figure exits thru a side door. Then all goes quiet and for a few minutes the twenty-first century falls away.
The National Cycle Network spares me the A-roads that have hijacked Thomasí route, leading past the walled and moated bishopís palace, immediately beyond which are open fields, then by narrow lanes across a southern outpost of the Mendips. The black woods of the main range stretch behind, tops disappearing into the low grey clouds. Ahead is Glastonbury Tor, then the east-west line of the Polden Hills, then faintly beyond, the Quantock Hills- journeyís end!
Two dead straight miles across Queenís Sedge Moor- this is the Somerset Levels, from which the high ground around Glastonbury was an island for our ancestors, the Avalon of tradition. Around the townís interminable bypass, and up the High Street- which has everything for the new age. And itís my second brush with King Arthur (thanks to a publicity stunt by twelfth-century monks).
A glance at the map shows Glastonbury to be contiguous with the less illustrious Street, home now as in 1913 of Clarkís, whose sensible sandals (with socks) encased our young feet, and Millfield School, where my older brother Jonathan was sent on a scholarship,age nine. Beyond the disappearance of the occupant of the upper bunk bed my memory is of Sunday expeditions to the school, always somehow in winter, sisters and I muffled in coats on the back seat of the Austin A35 thanks to the ineffectual heater, from Yeovil or Southampton, passing thru the market squares of towns like Ilminster and Ilchester as main roads did then. We went on for snacks in a cafe, which we never otherwise did, on best behaviour. The Gaggia machine, then brand-new and outlandish, was deafening and its purpose a mystery. But I'm invading Alan Bennettís territory again.
In 1913 there were excavations at Glastonbury Abbey. I am not an archaeologist, and I left it, says Edward Thomas. He continued thru Street and along the crest of the Polden Hills- a route thatís both an ancient ridgeway and a Roman road, now the trunk A39. Again the National Cycle Network helps by shadowing this route to the north, initially along a derelict railway line west from Glastonbury across the Levels.
Dr Richard Beeching masterminded the then-nationalised railway systemís closure program in the 1960s, his name becoming a British household word. The resulting fifty-one railwayless miles between Trowbridge and Bridgwater knock Thomasí twenty railwayless miles west of Kings Worthy into a cocked hat.
Of intermediate towns:
Radstock was served by the Great Western Bristol-Frome line and the Somerset and Dorset (Midland and London and South Western Joint) main line.
Shepton Mallet- the Great Western Yatton-Witham branch and the S&D main line.
Wells- the Yatton-Witham line and the S&D branch from Glastonbury.
Glastonbury- the S&D Evercreech Junction-Highbridge line (which also had a branch to Bridgwater) and branch to Wells.
All were closed in the 1950s and 60s.
In 1913 Edward Thomas passed the occasional peat cart. Peat extraction swelled to a mighty industry, to place bagfuls of the Somerset Levels on everyoneís flower beds. Then came the conservationists. The gravelly, gently embanked former railway track now runs thru miles of reeds, scrubby woodland and open water, utterly quiet save the birdsong, with occasional signboards describing the wildlife. And preserved beneath the peat, unsuspected in 1913, lies a wooden trackway, linking the villages on higher ground to north and south, which thanks to tree-ring dating we know was built in the spring of 3,806 BC- as old to the builders of Stonehenge as the ancient Romans are to us.
The cycle route turns to climb thru Shapwick onto the southern slope of the Poldens, then bears west again to Catcott and the King William. The Levels are spread below; west is Brent Knoll, another of those distinctive Somerset hills.
Cross the Poldens by another railway path, for a view of Ball Hill, Thomasí favourite natural feature of the trip, then descend to the flatlands for the last time and over the man-made Kingís Sedgemoor Drain. The Quantock Hills fill the horizon ahead with promise of leg-ache to come. Over the M5 and into the dreary fringe of Bridgwater, a modest port astride the tidal River Parrett, which flows between the streets in a big muddy chasm, now empty of boats. Past the statue of Admiral Robert Blake, less lionised now than two generations ago, to a last pot of tea, then backtrack thru traffic-grimed streets to the station.
Sign on the gate of a roadside burial ground in Bridgwater:
Warning! Cemeteries can be dangerous.
Yet again Edward Thomasí route is now a trunk road. Cycle along minor roads parallel to and north of the A39- as I gain height, first Brent Knoll and the Mendips come into view, then the island of Steep Holm, and finally the Bristol Channel, with the concrete cubes of Hinkley Point nuclear power station in the foreground, which Thomas might have seen had he survived the First World War and reached age 79. The Quantock Hills, my highest landmark yet, are thus visible from some distance, therefore seem to take an age to approach- obvious, but it still fools me every time.
Bypassing the A39 means skipping Nether Stowey, which may be no loss as the village offered no temptations to be compared with those of the road leading out of it, says Thomas, who then evaluates local resident Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of Ancient Mariner fame.
I share Jesus College, Cambridge with Coleridge. A personal brush with Thomasí pre-First World War confidence in high culture was meeting Dr Leo Pars, who in 1971 resided in a bachelor suite in the medieval college, well into his seventies (older than John Betjeman), so an authentic representative of Edwardian university life.
A printed invitation to tea arrived in my pigeon-hole (he sent them out routinely to new arrivals). There was one other guest- a young chap who uniquely in those sub-hippie times wore short hair and a sports jacket and tie, and was right-wing, which made him something of a mascot, a part he acted up to by riding a tricycle (not during tea). Pars asked our opinions on Ulster, at the time a fresh topic, tho sadly not for him. I had little to offer; at that point I knew nothing except how to pass A-level exams and that I wanted a Gibson guitar and Marshall amp. My fellow guest was of course an honorary Unionist.
Pars invited me to dine at his London club, followed by the theatre, which was Alec Guiness in the autobiographical A Voyage round my Father by barrister-playwright John Mortimer. I barely grasped the quality of what I was seeing. Following the customs of his generation and class, and the gentlemanly traditions of university life, which by then the swinging sixties had all but lobbed out of the window, Pars was helping to pass on a taste for the finer things. Luckily, in my case this took much longer to sink in as I still had another fourteen years to go of being a skint musician.
Thomas lunches at the Hood Arms in Kilve- itís still there. Down to the roofless medieval chantry, where priests were paid to recite prayers for the dead, securing their remission from purgatory. The chantry, one gable end shored against collapse by giant metal props, is of a single fabric with a farmhouse that offers cream teas in the garden- timely, but the stiff breeze makes you look forward to getting back on the move and warming up. And cream has a knack of letting you eat too much and wishing you hadnít.
On to Kilve beach. White horses toss against a thin strip of shingle flanked by low cliffs. Iíve crossed England under my own steam for the fifth time (three along the waterways, one walking the south coast), from the unprepossessing little Wandle that flows into the tidal Thames, to the Bristol Channel. The south Welsh coast is the faintest grey line on the horizon.
Sneak the bike up the cliff footpath to the ruined limekiln below East Quantoxhead, dominated by the fearsomely private Court House. It looks almost fortified, and has captured the parish church within its defences.
There begins a tussle between the Quantocks, trending ever northwards, the now unavoidable A39, and the sea (I know youíre not supposed to say between three things). The road is carried lung-achingly high, with a rock face, then towering heathlands to the left, and a narrow strip of pasture, then the blue-grey waves way below on the other side.
Round and over at last. The complicated bulk of Exmoor closes the view of the coast ahead, with the roof of Butlins catching sparkles at its foot. Between is a rich, green bowl of land, Brendon Hills to the south, sea to the north.
Edward Thomas sticks to the main road as far as Williton, for tea at six, which puts twenty-first century teashops to shame, and furthermore ate cream with a spoon, with no mention of regretting it. I turn right for the small, ancient port of Watchet, with its sinuous High Street, harbour full of fibre-bodied yachts, and statue of the Ancient Mariner, then Blue Anchor, a small resort comprising the eponymous pub and a caravan site.
In the mid 1950s my mother brought my brother and me here, where as usual I was parked on the beach. The railway curves coastwards which meant that, in those days of steam for real, every so often I would see a plume of smoke appear over the horizon, progress behind the trees, and after stopping at the station carry on to disappear in the opposite direction; I had a great desire to board and see what lay over the horizon.
My girlfriend and I returned to Blue Anchor in 1999. Leaning on the prom railings we watched a dog that delighted to swim out, then let a wave carry him back to shore. I wrote on the spot:
Surf, surf, surfing dog
Surf, surf, surfing dog
Surf, surf, surfing dog
Surf, surf, surfing dog
Aah, aah, aah
Still not quite the relative merits of Mr Belloc and Mr Arthur Sidgwick.
Off to the very comfortable Dragon House in Washford.
But the stout woman refused me, almost beyond doubt, because I was a stranger whom she could not immediately classify. I could not be classed as a gentleman, as a young gent or swell, or as a plain young fellow She decided not to risk it. Perhaps she had savings about the house. Or did she think that underneath less than two daysí beard, that oldish and not very clean Burberry waterproof, those good but very baggy trousers, murder was lurking? No, probably she felt not the very slightest inclination to please me, and as it only meant half a crown, her one difficulty in refusing was her natural sullenness increased by the presence of the nondescript and unsympathetic casual stranger on a Sunday. Country people know a country gentleman, a sporting financier, a tradesman, a young townsman (clerk or artisan), a working man, and a real tramp or roadster. Some of them know the artist or distinguished foreigner, with a foot of hair, broad-brimmed hat, and corduroy or soft tweeds, a cloak and an ostentatious pipe, tasselled, or of enormous bulk, or elaborate form or unusual substance. Some know the hairy and hygienic man in sandals.
Thomas meets the village bed-and-breakfast landlady in The Icknield Way (1913). In his photo on the website, to the eye of 2005, he looks like a poet of the outdoors. (Thereís also a shot of him a couple of years later with uniform, cropped hair and neat moustache). But you have to live with judgements passed according to the popular conceptions of your time rather than by amateur critics of the following century. Now, on approach to a reception desk, Iím merely nondescript. But in my younger days the no-neck types who minded for example hotel swimming pools would hasten to turn me out, my unclassifiability troubling their particle of brain.
This was the result of years of accidental fringedom. Poor at school sports, avoiding school debating societies, political clubs etc. The Soft Boys were spurned by punk and old wave alike. Katrina and the Waves were pop by virtue of a hit single without critical endorsement but desperately fashion-proof. What we sounded like was in danger of actually rocking yet serious rockers would have run a mile.
One great gift of being young in that brief window between the crushing conformity of the generation that had had to fight for its life against the Nazis but had at least known some community spirit, and the fragmented and paranoid present, was the feeling you could try anything. I can admire the hard-working commuters of Rayners Lane so long as I donít have to go back and trudge those endless streets to that art deco tube station myself. So I became a musician and was sickened by feckless druggery and desperate self-promotion (and thatís just the studio tea-boy).
Luckily by the time I woke up to this Iíd done enough to have the luxury of being unclassifiable in comfort.
Beechingís closures of the 1960s made many of my railway dreams impossible but not that of travelling on the line thru Blue Anchor, preserved by the West Somerset Railway. Down to Washford station for a second thrill, after half a century, of seeing that plume of smoke appear round the bend, this time to hop on for further adventures.
I greatly confuse the conductor as unlike everyone else Iím boarding at an intermediate stop, buying a single not a return, and carrying a bike which needs its own ticket. The train clanks into the deepest countryside yet of the trip- thru dense trees rapidly putting on their summer garb, over mysterious path crossings with dire warnings against trespass, past isolated farms strewn with rusting machinery not worth clearing away. There are glimpses, from the opposite side to yesterday, to the ever-closer and more towering Quantock Hills. Out at Crowcombe Heathfield. No-one else leaves, or boards, and after the train chugs away all is quiet, but itís hardly an Adlestrop moment as the brisk wind is reminding me to keep moving.
Rejoin Edward Thomasí route at the highway thru Fishpool, barely more than a garage, then thru West Bagborough to climb the Quantocks in earnest. As just pushing the bike soon gets too much for me, I find a place to rest on the hedge bank opposite Tilbury Farm. Below, the route of the railway now looks like flat, even farmland. Beyond are Exmoor and the unmissable Butlins, south are the Blackdown Hills.
A passing walker points out the classical statue, now headless, which Thomas considered mainly pathetic and partly ridiculous.
There are twelve of them around the Cothelston Manor estate, the walker continues. Rew 12, Thomas 1 for once.
The statue was knocked down by a falling branch, then restored to its plinth at the millenium in memory of my wife. Itís her birthday today.
The road ascends to a saddle of the Quantock ridge, Thomasí destination, where a discarded bunch of primroses appeared to mark the grave of winter. I take a short walk to the summit of the 330-metre Cothelston Hill, satisfyingly just into four figures if you prefer feet. Behind is the foreshortened ridgeway; ahead the bulk of Hinkley Point nuclear power station and the sinuous gleam of the Parrett estuary, the limit of visibility on this gloomy day. Down to the Vine for leek and potato soup, then to coast gently back to Bridgwater.
Thomas sets off to ride back to London and find Spring all along the road.
Hats off to Edward Thomas. He knew the natural world and the literary canon. He was always in tune with the surroundings he passed thru whether tired, wet or hungry, before the days of lightweight bicycle frames and ensuite bathrooms. Iíve been flippant about his seriousness of purpose, made diversions to my own ends, broken the journey into easy stages and taken train rides. So much the greater was his original idea, its execution and the account- and he wrote it to earn his crust too. But my understandingís increased a little of why, after a long, dreary winter, a man would wish to cut loose from Clapham and venture under his own steam out of the home counties, then across deeper countryside, to the distant western shore of England.