Updated: Jan 16, 2022
The rain of a night and a day and a night
Stops at the light
Of this pale choked day. The peering sun
Sees what has been done.
The road under the trees has a border new
Of purple hue.
Inside the border of bright thin grass:
For all that has
Been left by November of leaves is torn
From hazel and thorn
And the greater trees. Throughout the copse
No dead leaf drops
On grey grass, green moss, burnt-orange fern,
At the wind's return:
The leaflets out of the ash-tree shed
Are thinly spread
In the road, like little black fish, inlaid,
As if they played.
What hangs from the myriad branches down there
So hard and bare
Is twelve yellow apples lovely to see
On one crab-tree,
And on each twig of every tree in the dell
Crystals both dark and bright of the rain
That begins again.
After Rain is an evocative description of a rain-drenched hanger at sun-rise in early winter. One of Edward Thomas's earliest poems, written in December 1914, it describes one of those moments between days of rain and more rain, at dawn when it lets up. Interval, a poem with a similar theme was written at the same time and describes a brief twilight between a wild windy day and a wilder night - see previous February 2021 post.
The winter of 1914 was a very wet one - especially in December. There were only 6 days when it did not rain in the whole month and total rainfall was measured across the U.K. at 167mm and an extraordinary 250mm in Hampshire, a record not surpassed for the rest of that century. There had been a few wet winters in the years before World War 1. In December 1912 ET wrote a letter to his friend and fellow-poet, Gordon Bottomley, describing the rain from Wyck Green, his house at the top of the hangers, with typical wit:
"The rain up here is incredible. It is like living before the creation, like the Niflheim (the underworld of the dead in Scandinavian mythology) that men ultimately emerged from: when will they come?... I wish I could hear your hunting "Pleur du cerf" out of the woods below us. Goodbye - a great while ago the world began and still the rain it raineth every day."
Rain is a key trope throughout ET's poetry and indeed his prose. He wrote five specific rain poems and many others mention rain. Rain drew a deep response from him and in his poetry he explores the myriad aspects of rain and its impact on how he feels. Like the wind, which also inspired many poems, it can be both depressive and inspirational. The predominance of rain during these years gave him plenty of opportunities for observation!
The source of inspiration for After Rain becomes clear from studying his Field Note Books at the time. An entry in FNB79 from 14th December 1914, shortly before he wrote the poem, describes:
"Dripping clear (wind light) after days of rain and about 12 yellow apples are scattered smooth bright all over big crab in leafless dark copse (below Lupton's steps) All boughs and berries plastered with rain drops. Robin sings. Linnet twitters flying. Rain shines on boughs and drops on dead leaves(.) Stoner has a green edge of grass but also under that a purpled narrow edge of dead moist leaves thick together."
So in After Rain, ET is describing what he saw that day in the copse at the top of Ashford Hangers and on Stoner Hill.
But he was also remembering an encounter over a year before in the autumn of 1913.
In a letter to his friend, Eleanor Farjeon in January 1915, he discussed the poem which was among several early poems he had sent her. He is pleased she likes After Rain best. He says of his description of the leaflets of the ash tree "like little black fish inlaid,/As if they played" that it is "at any rate perfectly precise as I saw the black leaves two years ago up at the top of the hill, so neither is a rhyme word only."
He was drawing on an observation on 26th October noted in FNB 70:
"The little leaves of the ash by Wick Green are black & lie stamped in the hard wet rd like little fishes."
That day he had previously described - "the noise of entering dripping woods in rain 4.30pm...after a day of quiet rain". It was he noted the day the weather broke after what had previously been a glorious October.
Wick Green, or Wyck Green, as he often wrote it, was the address of the Red House on Cockshott Lane that ET and his family had lived in for 3 1/2 years until the summer of 1913 when they had moved down to Yew Tree Cottage in Steep. The house had been built for him as a tenant by Geoffrey Lupton, next door to a cottage and workshop Lupton had built a few years earlier for himself. ET had been allowed to use the Bee-House (built to store bee-keeping equipment c 1900) in the grounds of the workshop as his study after they had moved from the Red House. Lupton was a highly talented, pragmatic and energetic engineer, wood worker and builder who had gone to Bedales School and was later responsible for the building of the Bedales Hall and Library. He had bought the land along the south side of Cockshott Lane on top of Ashford Hangers. As well as the grounds where he built his house and workshop and later the Red House and the Bee-House, there was some woodland stretching west to the junction of Cockshott Lane and Stoner Hill. This would have included what ET described in his FNBs as Lupton's copse and Lupton's steps.
It's still very much as ET would have known it. A track enters this woodland from Cockshott Lane and contours round the southern boundary following an old hedge-bank. On one side the slope falls away to a precipitous drop into the coombe below. On the other side below the lane and the workshop there is woodland including two dells which may have been chalk pits. (Long before ET's day chalk had been dug out of the hangers by farmers for use as fertiliser, before the introduction of lime.) The path extends along the side of the Hangers to the Red House and its lower garden entrance and beyond. This woodland would have been another way for ET to take to his study, instead of following Cockshott Lane to get from the top of Stoner Hill or the woodcutter's path, both routes up from his house. There would have been steps that led up from one of the dells, probably the far one, into the gardens of the cottage and workshop above.
There is now an additional path and a series of steps below this woodland that makes it difficult to identify precisely what was there in ET's day. In the FNB79 quoted above, ET described the dark copse as being below Lupton's steps. In FNB 77 ET described "nr foot of
Lupton's steps the woods floor is moist". As the slope below the woodland boundary becomes very steep, it seems probable that Lupton's steps led from the woodland up to the level of the house, rather than from further down up to the woodland (where there are steps now).
The thorn that he writes of in the poem have largely disappeared though the hazel remains. He notes in another FNB, 72, - "hot, so that I smell the cool under the beeches in Lupton's copse. A few hawthorn still unblemished w(ith) may but isolated, & several of them are the very loose tall open hawthorns of the woods eg up New Stoner & in boundary of Lupton's copse."
So the leaves of the hawthorn, normally found on more open ground, would have been shed by November and joined that dead mass of other leaves including beech, ash and hazel on the roadside and the floor of the woodland. These remnants from previous seasons - what crosses over between seasons - is a perennial theme for ET in his prose and poetry. His Field Note Books are full of observations of first and last flowers, the leaves and fruit such as the "twelve yellow apples" left on trees as winter draws in. The crab-tree he describes in the dell has long since disappeared, but there are other apple trees elsewhere in the hangers. They are trees grown in the wild, sown by pip dropped by a passer-by whether person, animal or bird, rather than the garden genus of crab apple.
Whereas Interval is about the soundscape of the hangers, After Rain describes its range of colours. In the winter this is a palette of pale and dark but there are brighter colours to be seen - besides the grey grass and the purple decomposing leaves, there are "green moss, burnt-orange fern" and the "uncountable crystals both dark and bright of the rain". Again this is something of a theme in his FNBs picking out the colours that stand out in a winter landscape such as the different greens of the lichens and the dark glossy or dull greens of holly and ivy.
After Rain finishes where it began with more rain - a perpetual cycle in these autumns and winters before World War 1, where the dominant element was the rain.
So from all the evidence of the Field Note Books, After Rain was inspired by a small area of woodland just to the west of Lupton's workshop (now the Edward Barnsley workshop), and the roadside of Stoner Hill Road and Cockshott Lane,
This woodland is privately owned by the Barnsley family who have kindly agreed with the rangers of Ashford Hanger to allow permissive access across the woodland via its paths and steps. They are happy for walkers to enjoy occasional, unobtrusive visits there.
On a map the woodland's shape looks like a whale, its tail reaching to Stoner Hill. Its head and body comprise the two dells which were probably chalk pits. There is still a path crossing the copse and following its boundary bank. There are now steps that go down from it to a path. which to the left goes along to the main path from Lutcombe Bottom up t0 the top of Shoulder of Mutton, and to the right goes to the top of the Woodcutter's path which goes from Lutcombe Bottom to the top of Stoner Hill. The two dells are distinct - one filled with ash though with beech surrounding, the other deeper and darker, more dominated by yew and laurel.
One can imagine the woodland as a good play area for ET's children when living in the Red House, perched on top of the Hangers and masters of all they surveyed. And it was clearly a place ET enjoyed observing through the seasons.
There's a fine round walk along Cockshott Lane via the top of Shoulder of Mutton and back along the flanks of the Hangers.
Starting at the end of Cockshott Lane where it joins Stoner Hill you walk up the lane, passing Lupton's copse and the Edward Barnsley workshop, which was Lupton's cottage and workshop, originally built in the very early years of the 20th century. On the opposite side of the lane there are some hangers to store wood under some ash trees - possibly they or their predecessors were the source of the leaflets ET saw "like little black fish". Next door to the Edward Barnsley workshop is the Red House where ET and his family lived for a while. It is difficult to believe ET's description, in Wind and Mist and The New House, about how exposed the house was to the elements, yet a photograph of Lupton's cottage at the time shows a very bleak setting with no trees or other vegetation to provide protection.
Cockshott Lane gets rougher and rougher as fields replace houses on either side until it joins Old Litten Lane. The woodland on the right would have been fields in ET's day. Carrying straight on you turn right at the Hangers Way sign to reach the famous viewpoint at the top of Shoulder of Mutton hill looking over towards the Downs and, in particular, West Harting Down. Taking the path down to the right, the path curves with the hanger opening up views to the east and south-east along the Downs and up to Black Down above Haslemere.
As you follow the curve of the hangers down and round, there's a path up to the right of the main path (which would take you down to Lutcombe Bottom). Taking this path up along a precipitous contour under beech and yew, you get occasional glimpses of the collar bone of Lutcombe Bottom between Stoner Hill and Ashford Hanger, and further off tantalising views of the South Downs. There are some fallen trees to climb over and in one place steps have been built to bypass a massive fallen beech.
Further on there are some steps that take you up Lupton's copse. If you continue along the path there are more steps down to the Woodcutter's path, which leads up to the top of Stoner Hill Road your starting point.
Field Note Books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York
My thanks to James and Stephen of the Edward Barnsley Workshop for their useful help and information.
Also thanks to the Barnsley family for providing access to Lupton's copse and the Antonini family for their guidance.
Also finally my thanks as always to Ben Mackay for his editorial support.