Updated: Sep 27, 2021
At hawthorn-time in Wiltshire travelling
In search of something chance would never bring,
An old man's face, by life and weather cut
And coloured, - rough, brown, sweet as any nut, -
A land face, sea-blue-eyed, - hung in my mind
When I had left him many a mile behind.
All he said was: 'Nobody can't stop 'ee. It's
A footpath, right enough. You see those bits
Of mounds - that's where they opened up the barrows
Sixty years since while I was scaring sparrows.
They thought as there was something to find there,
But couldn't find it, by digging, anywhere.'
To turn back then and seek him, where was the use?
There were three Manningfords, - Abbots, Bohun and Bruce:
And whether Alton, not Manningford, it was,
My memory could not decide, because
There was both Alton Barnes and Alton Priors.
All had their churches, graveyards, farms, and byres,
Lurking to one side up the paths and lanes,
Seldom well seen except by aeroplanes;
And when bells rang, or pigs squealed, or cocks crowed,
Then only heard. Ages ago the road
Approached. The people stood and looked and turned,
Nor asked it to come nearer, nor yet learned
To move out there and dwell in all men's dust.
And yet withal they shot the weathercock, just
Because 'twas he crowed out of tune, they said:
So now the copper weathercock is dead.
If they had reaped their dandelions and sold
Them fairly, they could have afforded gold.
Many years passed, and I went back again
Among those villages, and looked for men
Who might have known my ancient. He himself
Had long been dead or laid upon the shelf,
I thought. One man I asked about him roared
At my description: ''Tis old Bottlesford
He means, Bill.' But another said: 'Of course,
It was Jack Button up at the White Horse.
He's dead, sir, these three years.' This lasted till
A girl proposed Walker of Walker's Hill.
'Old Adam Walker. Adam's Point you'll see
Marked on the maps.'
Lob is Edward Thomas's epic poem of England, a wide-ranging panorama of English folklore and history. It is one of his most loved poems and much studied and written about, yet much of Lob remains a mystery. Lob himself will always remain mysterious, a shape-shifting elusive green man only ever glimpsed as ET described in his poem. Yet other elements are also obscure especially in the first three verses (above). Was ET drawing on his own imagination, folklore or actual experience?
The answers to some of these mysteries lie in a particular corner of England. In his search for Lob, ET eventually covered much of England geographically and historically, though mainly seen through the prism of his beloved South Country. As Edna Longley points out in the annotated poems of Edward Thomas, his spiritual epicentre was Wiltshire and the county features prominently early in the poem.
ET made many trips to all parts of Wiltshire. He holidayed there with relatives throughout his childhood. He returned many times, either to stay or passing through on his journeys west. With Helen he made an expedition to research his book on Richard Jefferies, his literary hero who had been born and bred in Wiltshire; he did a cycle tour in 1911 with his son Mervyn; he travelled via Wiltshire in October 1914 where he had watched troops manoeuvre on Salisbury Plain. Later in the war he returned to military camp there before embarking for France.
A walk in May
One visit which he wrote up in three field note books - 54, 55 and 56 - was a walk along the Ridgeway in May 1912 from Chiseldon, south of Swindon to Salisbury and beyond via Avebury, Lavington and Bruton. FNB 54 described in detail the first two days' walk on May 10th and 11th which included on the second day, after a night at Avebury, his walk over the Pewsey Downs past Adam's Grave on Walkers Hill and the White Horse into Pewsey Vale through the villages of Alton Priors, Alton Barnes and Bottlesford - all mentioned in Lob. FNB 54 has been overlooked until now, yet the encounters and sights he saw and noted on that day illuminate much of what he wrote in the first three verses of Lob.
The walk along the Ridgeway was a continuation of a walk he had done the previous year along the Icknield Way from Thetford to Chiseldon. He had written a book, The Icknield Way, about the journey, which he was proofreading earlier in the Spring of 1912. It was to be published the following year.
In the concluding pages of The Icknield Way he wrote: "The easiest, the pleasantest and the wrongest thing to do is to take the Ridgeway at Wanborough and follow it along the supposed south-westerly course under Liddington Hill, under Barbury Castle, and then up on the ridge to Avebury." His objection was that this was not a continuation of the Icknield Way (despite the maps of his day sometimes combining the two) which he had identified as a lower level summer route, a counterpart to the (usually) high level Ridgeway, better for winter travel.
In fact he did decide to pursue the "wrongest thing". Instead of trying to follow any speculative continuation of the Icknield Way, whose route had been lost to the plough, he followed the much more clearly defined Old Ridgeway.
Stepping out that May morning, "at hawthorn time", he may have been planning some form of follow-up to his yet to be published book. His field note book of these days are full of detail which he could have included in a book, but it never came about. Instead he was to turn to it nearly three years later in the spring of 1915 to create not only the foundations of Lob but also two other poems, A Private and A Gentleman.
"In search of something chance would never bring"
In the penultimate sentence of The Icknield Way, ET wrote "It is a game of skill which deserves a select reputation - to find an ancient road of the same character as the Oxfordshire and Berkshire Icknield Way, going west of south-west beyond Wanborough."
In May 1912 he was still in search of an ancient road, albeit more clearly defined than the Icknield Way. So does the above sentence provide a clue about the object of his search in the first two lines of Lob: "in Wiltshire, travelling/ In search of something chance would never bring'? Later in the third verse ("Many years passed") he returned to the same stretch of country in search of the ancient he met, who metamorphoses into Lob. But in the first instance, based on the field note book, he was in search of the Ridgeway. Though clearer to follow than the Icknield Way, it still required skill to navigate. His field note book testifies to his efforts to track the ancient way and distinguish it from other tracks, roads and hollows encountered along the route. He even spent some time trying to date it compared to the Wansdyke, an ancient earthworks, which it crosses at Red Shore below Furze Hill.
The first morning began with a meeting with an old lady - and a discussion about which way to travel to Rudge (the two disagreeing probably because there were two different Rudges - one east and the other west of where they met). ET took the opportunity to tell her about the Ridge(way) which she had not heard of. He was to ask the same of a couple of other locals the next day. They also had not heard of it, knowing it just as a footpath or a sheep drove. It seems likely, given these notes, that the Ridgeway is the road described in Lob: "Ages ago the road/ Approached. The people stood and looked and turned/ Nor asked it to come nearer..."
I had originally thought this road could be the toll road or a more modern road. But it would seem to have been the ancient way whose existence had been forgotten or never understood by locals and whose purpose had been largely irrelevant or even a threat. As ET wrote of the Icknield Way, it encouraged both long distance travellers and those who prey on them. To the ancestors of those who lived in these villages the Ridgeway had been a symbol of the outside world on which they had turned their backs and their descendants had kept their backs turned.
The old man
The old man whose face "by life and weather cut/ And coloured, - rough, brown, sweet as any nut", later in the poem identified by ET as Lob, has been said to physically resemble David ("Dad") Uzzel, ET's old friend and mentor from Wiltshire childhood days. However the man ET was also recalling was a 77 year old man he had met on that second morning of his walk close to Honeystreet on the southern side of the Kennet & Avon canal. He had asked him about the route of the Ridgeway after Alton Priors and which side of the hedge it was on as it approached the canal. The man knew about the track as a footpath but not as the Ridgeway. As in the poem, he is quoted by ET in the field notebook saying "and nobody can stop 'ee" (walking on the footpath). He goes on to reminisce about when he was 25 "men dug in all barrows on Tan Hill etc. They thought as there was summat there as they wanted to find but the c(oul)dn't find it."
Intriguingly the old man pointed to a very precise date for when the barrows on Tan Hill and other neighbouring hills were excavated in 1860 (ie 52 years before when he would have been 25). The excavations were overseen by Dr John Thurman, a medical doctor and also medical superintendent of the Wiltshire County Asylum. He used the inmates to help in his many excavations which included the Long Barrow at West Kennett, Adam's Grave on Walkers Hill as well as Tan Hill and other barrows on the Pewsey Downs. Thurman was at work in the late 1850s and 1860s. He found a few remains in some of the barrows but others were long since empty and none had the treasure that the locals and the diggers would have counted "a find".
Edward Thomas noted down, somewhat obscurely, at the end of the record of the conversation with the old man "sapping miners working in Silbury?" This would seem to refer to an earlier excavation at Silbury in 1849, under the leadership of john Merewether, dean of Hereford Cathedral. He used miners to run a horizontal shaft into the ancient Silbury mound, just south of Avebury. ET had not been impressed by Silbury which he had seen the previous evening as he was walking off the hills into Avebury. He noted "Silbury...is too much like the tip from a mine.....made yesterday by Mr Carnegie. It is just gauche neither rude nor graceful"!
Had this observation on the previous day prompted a question to the old man about whether miners had been used in Silbury? Or was this a separate reminiscence by the old man? In any event what was said may have led to a confusion in the age of the old man in the poem where ET had him a young teenage sparrow-scarer c60 years before when Silbury was opened up, whereas in the notebook the old man was 25 (and long since a thatcher - see below) when the barrows of Tan Hill were opened c5o years before. Tan Hill would have also been visible from where they met, while Silbury was well out of sight.
Meet George Giddings
It's possible to discover more about the old man than ET did in that brief conversation, based on his age and a bit of detective work using the 1911 and previous censuses. There were a number of local residents in their seventies in the 1911 census, but only one stands out as being 77 in 1912, the age the old man gave ET. He was George Giddings and he put his date of birth in the census as 1835. (He had consistently filled in previous censuses with the same date unlike many who were inconsistent or did not know.) He was a labourer on a farm for a farmer's merchant, possibly working for the main business employer in Honey Street. He had originally been a thatcher as his father had been, in the mid-nineteenth century when many more local houses were thatched. He had married late, Anna Matilda, and they had lived at a cottage in The Sands in Honey Street on the road south according to the 1881 census. As they still had three adult children living at home in the 1911 census it seems likely that they still lived there. The Sands is on the line of the original Ridgeway and a track leads up from it to the Kennet & Avon canal close to the bridge that ET crossed over and where he was trying to identify the precise route of the Ridgeway. So it is easy to envisage the two men bumping into each other. George would have been the sort of local ET would have been keen to talk to and ask about the Ridgeway.
A further pointer to where they met is George's mention of Tan Hill specifically. Adam's Point on Walker's Hill is usually the most prominent barrow on the hills above, much closer than Tan Hill and it had been excavated at a similar time, as had other nearby barrows. On the south side of the canal at the point where the Alton bridge and the Ridgeway crossed it and in the meads to the south, only Tan Hill is visible. The rest of the nearer hills are hidden by trees on the north bank of the canal. Tan Hill, though somewhat distant, would have been well known locally as the site of an ancient annual sheep fair every August offering a range of entertainments, which people flocked to from miles around.
George Giddings died a year after meeting ET in 1913. It seems unlikely that ET knew this - despite what he wrote in Lob when searching for the identity of his ancient 'many years" later that "He himself/Had long been dead or laid upon a shelf."
Of dandelions and weather vanes
The Pewsey Downs include Tan Hill in the west, and travelling east, Milk Hill, Walkers Hill (topped by the long barrow of Adam's Grave) and, on the eastern side of the Ridgeway, Knap Hill and Golden Ball Hill. They feature in ET's sketches in his field note book as do the subsidiary hills to the south of Woodborough Hill and Picked Hill. As he walked south along the Ridgeway from Alton Priors, he looked up towards his left (east) and saw a field of dandelions stretching "up to the pale sky & soft dissolving white clouds & above the dandelion presently is Woodboro Hill & clump". The dandelions were clearly flourishing that year as a mile or two on from Honey Street, he joked of "some meads wired by the Society of Preventing Cruelty to Dandelions"! This seems to be what prompted the reference in the poem to the villagers harvesting dandelions for gold. Behind him on the northern horizon would have been Golden Ball Hill. Was this an additional connection ET made between dandelions and gold, besides the dandelions' colour? Had the old man's mention of the absence of treasures in the barrows on these hills also suggested this other way for villagers to harvest gold?
There were also several cocks ET spotted on this stretch of the walk - not crowing but on wind vanes. Wind vanes were particular favourites of ET and he often noted down and drew ones he had spotted in his field note books.
ET spotted a "very rustic cock" on top of the church at Alton Bowers. He may have jotted this down mistakenly for there is now a very fine one on top of Alton Priors church and none on top of the much smaller, chapel-like Alton Bowers church. Later he spotted two more weathercocks in the wood mills of Honey Street to the north of the canal. One was on top of the clock tower - ET described as "a pretty little wooden room (painted white) on staddles & above it a turret clock and vane" which he drew in his field note book. The other "rustic cock" may have been on a turret on one of the boarded warehouses, next door to the chimney, a local landmark. This was probably the same "half tumbled cock in vane" which he noted in the next line of the note book. Did this collapsed cock generate three years later the idea of the dead copper weathercock, which had been shot by villagers?
Both the stories of dandelions being harvested for gold and the copper weathercock being shot by villagers have a feel of authentic English folklore, suitable to sit alongside well known stories such as Jack the giant killer, the men of Golem and the giant of Shrewsbury which ET features later in Lob. However there seems to be no local tradition for either the former tales that I can find. If not, was ET creating his own folklore alongside the elusive figure of Lob, based on memories of his journeying through Wiltshire on that May day?
Walker, Bottlesford and Button
In the third verse, the list of three names - Adam Walker, Bill Bottlesford and Jack Button - that the poet was given by locals for the ancient he was in search of, drew on two local place names and one local worthy ET came across that day. He had met a labourer on his walk
who "says 'Adam's Point' ('where they dug for coffin') is on Walker's Hill". Bottlesford came from the village south of Honey Street that ET walked by later that day (in the parish of Manningford). The third name came from his visit to the Alton Priors church. Visiting churches and noting the architectural details and the inscriptions on the graves and monuments was another favourite pastime of ET on his expeditions. In Alton Priors church he had found a monument to William Button erected by his grandson, Sir William Button. In his field note book he wrote: "Monument....standing on an old stone table looks much more venerable than altar & might suggest worship of Buttons"! He refers back to Walker, Bottlesford & Button later in the poem as "a mere clown, or squire, or lord". It's not clear which of Walker or Bottlesford was the clown or squire - but Button was probably the lord as the Buttons were lords of the manor of Alton Priors from the 13th to 18th centuries.
The Ridgeway vs the village
The poet's second search for Lob in the poem over the last three verses extends beyond Wiltshire across the breadth of England through its history, traditions, folklore, folk names for flora and fauna and old place names.
The object of the poet's original search, The Ridgeway, is a key though often hidden thread throughout the poem, sometimes as elusive as Lob. The Ridgeway is not just the route that brought ET to the places, the encounters and sights that he later included in the first verses of Lob. It, together with other ancient long distance tracks, also became the means of disseminating local folklore to a wider audience, making the local national and vice versa.
Lob is a walker of these roads, either from place to place (e.g. Exeter to Leeds) or as a local custodian keeping paths open which no one uses but once. The flowers and birds he names and the place names and battles are all encountered on his journeyings along roads like the Ridgeway or paths off them. These threads of roads across England, when drawn together, bring and hold together the diversity of English folklore. Yet all folklore starts by being local and, if villagers are too successful at resisting the outside world and modernity, then their local stories will remain local, never spreading beyond the village. ET seems to be using the stories of the dandelion harvest and a weathercock being shot as an illustration of such stories not getting beyond their locality because of the locals' reclusiveness (despite ET probably making the stories up!)
Yet there's a balance to be struck between village and outside world - as ET states towards the poem's end. The local figure of Lob (and other local folklore) will cease when "I remove my house out of the lane/ On to the road", so when villagers completely embrace the outside world. This development was already underway in ET's era and now, sadly, is very largely completed in ours.
Lob becomes a figure that might bestride England but is at heart local. The foundations of Lob, the poem, also lie firmly in a locality, in that stretch of country between Avebury and Bottlesford, via Alton Priors and Honey Street, ET traversed along the Ridgeway on 11th May 1912. After all as he writes of Lob at the end of the poem - "now a Wiltshireman/ As he has oft been since his days began".
The suggested walk is to follow in ET's footsteps that day which he described very precisely in his field note book as he followed the Ridgeway. It's a landscape largely unchanged as can be seen from his drawings of the various hills of the Pewsey Downs. However arable fields have encroached on the hills which would have been the domain of shepherd and sheep in his day. And Pewsey Vale which was misty that day had arable stretching all the way to Martinsell, with more hedgerows and elms in the hedges than now.
The path of the Ridgeway is much more used now than then, when very few used it for its ancient purpose of long distance travel. For travellers like ET it would have seemed much more untouched, the past would have felt closer and what he found more significant than would be possible nowadays with signs and notices, stiles and gates, and the volume of users. Yet the Ridgeway path does not track the ancient route precisely so there are parts which are as ET would have found it, especially in the fields south of Alton Priors.
The start of the walk can be from the Pewsey Downs Car Park on the road under Knap Hill and Walkers Hill. These hills encourage the walker, like a wave the surfer - Richard Jefferies and ET both noted the sea-like qualities of this landscape. The Ridgeway follows the course of the road south and down. ET described it as "here where it his hard r(oa)d by Walkers Hill it is very deep with [drawing of Picked Hill and Woodborough Hill] in sight now & the misty plain beyond." A detour should be made to Adam's Grave at the top of Walkers Hill, which gives a good view of the Pewsey Downs extending east and west. Heading down off Walkers Hill, keep left and join the road and the Ridgeway again before taking a path off to the left which takes you down to Alton Priors. This is the Hollow, which ET noted was "full of meadow cranesbill leaves, thorns & ash trees & flowering parsley" still much the same today. On the opposite side of the road at the bottom, the long thatched black cart lodge, which he passed, is still there. You can then follow the lane along its side, past some thatched cottages, down to the field where Alton Priors church stands.
Before going to the church you can walk along the side of the field to the left, reaching the fence - here looking south you can see the field where ET was trying to track the Ridgeway before he met George Giddings. By the hedge to the left there are what look like ancient tracks running parallel which would have been part of the broad path of the Ridgeway. The church has a fine weathercock on top and also an ancient split yew, both of which he attributed to the neighbouring church of Alton Barnes. The monument to William Button he noted is still very much in place and as dominant compared to the humble altar and cross as he described, certainly suggesting "worship of Buttons"! He goes on to describe "A thick stone tablet with an oblong brass plate & inscription framed by stone pillars & capped by stone coat of arms. This was but one, tho taking room for three".
Following the track across the field and over a couple of small streams into another field you see Alton Barnes church to the left. It's smaller than Alton Prior's church, almost chapel-like. Here in between the two villages you still get the sense of agelessness and a diffusion, as ET described in the poem "churches, graveyards, farms, and byres,/Lurking to one side up the paths and lanes,/Seldom well seen...." In the field note book he describes it as a "sq(uare) of grass full of light, with old houses & farm buildings all round & willows by tiny stream & old bricks & thatch & mud wall & sedgewarblers & on the Down above a steam plough." On the Down above is the Alton White Horse, which ET noted, comparing it to the horse in the contemporary advertisement for Thorley's Horse Food! The ancient barrow of Adam's grave on Walkers Hill is also prominent from the graveyards of both churches - a reminder that the layers of history can seem very close together in these parts adding to the coherence and timelessness of the landscape. You can see why it stimulated ET to base his epic here.
Rather than retrace steps, as ET did, to pick up on the track of the original Ridgeway (which crosses private land south of Alton Priors), we follow the modern path along the Alton Bowers lane and then left down the road to Honey Street on the Kennet & Avon canal. Honey Street was a creation of this canal, when a privately owned wharf was constructed in 1810. It developed into a thriving site with sawing and planing mills, timber merchants and importers, barge builders and chemical manure manufacturers. A chimney was built to extract the steam from the steam engine that powered the saw mills. It became a landmark and still is, though its height has been reduced. Honeystreet must in its heyday have been a bustling place, and though less so now, with some of the old boarded warehouses in a state of collapse, it is still thriving with a saw mill, shops and an excellent cafe - the Honeystreet Mill Cafe. Sadly the two weathercocks are no longer in evidence and the clock tower was taken down in the 1960s.
Following the south bank of the canal east from the Honeystreet bridge, there are normally a number of barges moored up or nosing slowly along the canal. Round the curve is another bridge which was the one ET crossed over that day trying to trace the course of the Ridgeway. To the south of the canal are the "lush buttercup meads full of cattle lying down under willow by ditch or midfield chestnut" where he most likely met the old man. These fields are in sight of Tan Hill, some four miles away, but closer hills are obscured by the trees on the northern side of the canal. Although there is no footpath through the fields or over the bridge, there is a path to a WW2 memorial for a bomber crew that crashed close by. It's well worth seeing anyhow, but also provides the opportunity on the way to look over the bridge at the route of the Ridgeway and to stand in the fields and look at distant Tan Hill and, closer to, the Honeystreet chimney.
Returning to the canal path, you carry on further to a footpath on the left. This takes you through a field, across a stream past an old sarsen stone to a track that leads down to the road and The Sands where George Giddings and his family lived. Returning to the banks of the canal you can turn right and then take a left over a bridge on to a track that takes you to the top of Woodborough Hill, below which ET saw the field of dandelions. From here you have a good view of the walk you have done from the top of Walkers Hill. You can then retrace your steps or you can go further south through Woodborough to Bottlesford where there is a good pub.
There are good walks in the Pewsey Downs - following the northern ridge from Tan Hill to Golden Ball Hill and beyond via Milk Hill, Walkers Hill and Knap Hill; and going north along the Ridgeway and exploring the Wansdyke that crosses it by Red Shore. For Tan Hill, in particular, there's a fine walk via Rybury camp on Clifford's Hill, up and back from Canning Cross between Stanton St Bernard and Allington.
Map and grid reference
OS Map 157 Marlborough & Savernake Forest
Alton Priors Grid Ref SU 1105 6233
Honeystreet Grid Ref SU1040 6150
Pewsey Downs Car Park Grid Ref 116 638, Post Code SN8 4JX
Honeystreet Mill Cafe www.honeystreetmillcafe.co.uk
A shorter version of this piece first appeared in the Edward Thomas Fellowship Newsletter in August 2021. More on the Fellowship and its excellent newsletters can be found here on - www.edward-thomas-fellowship.org.uk
More about the history of Alton Barnes, Alton Priors, Honeystreet can be found on www.altonsandhoneystreet.org.uk
Thanks to Ian Pillinger for the use of his painting of The Wooden Clock Tower which he painted from life in 1961 as part of his degree coursework. It hangs at Mill Street Cafe, Honeystreet.
The painting of Kennet and Avon Canal at Honeystreet Wharf, Woodborough (1873/8) is by J Barnard Davis and the original is in the Wiltshire Museum, Devizes.
Field note books thanks to and copyright Henry W. and Albert. A Berg Collection, New York