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Bright Clouds



Bright clouds of may

Shade half the pond.

Beyond,

All but one bay

Of emerald

Tall reeds

Like criss-cross bayonets

Where a bird once called,

Lies bright as the sun.

No one heeds.

The light wind frets

And drifts the scum

Of may-blossom.

Till the moorhen calls

Again

Naught's to be done

By birds or men.

Still the may falls.


Edward Thomas wrote Bright Clouds in early June 1916 on his return to Hare Hall camp in Romford from a weekend's leave at home in Steep. At the time he was still an instructor in map-reading with the Artists Rifles but he was seeking a commission in the artillery though "without military influence" he felt it might be a long wait. He was thinking in particular of joining the Anti-Aircraft Corps which were expanding rapidly to deal with the increased threat of enemy aircraft, especially over the lines in France. This would include a period of training in London which he looked forward to as he could see much more of his friends. Meanwhile military discipline got stricter and the work harder, having been quite idle for much of May.


So Bright Clouds was written at a time when ET could see change afoot but not imminently and to a large extent out of his hands - which may explain the fatalistic, almost zen-like, sense that pervades it.



While on leave at Steep that weekend he had found the garden in a shocking state, (except for the peas), that he wrote to Robert Frost "nearly broke my heart". Besides seeing the family and gardening, on his home leave ET would typically spend time in his beloved study at the top of Ashford Hangers. To get there and back he would normally use the road up Stoner Hill but he could also choose other routes, including one that would have taken him past Lutcombe Pond and up the woodcutter's path to the top of the hangers.


Lutcombe Pond is a dammed reservoir though with the feel of a pond. There are a series of such man-made ponds, all the way down the Ashford stream to Steep Mill. Nowadays the pond is surrounded by trees within woodland not conducive to hawthorn, but in ET's day it was more open in fields and hawthorns (may) surrounded it (see photo from the early 1900s). May blossom can start falling from early June, depending on the prevailing seasonal and weather conditions. ET was very sensitive to such changes and used to note them down in his field note books - though by 1916 he was no longer keeping one.



The weather that June was somewhat changeable but with bright sunshine. ET also wrote of the heat that had prevailed in a letter to Frost a few days later, so similar to the conditions described in the poem about the pond where "Still the may falls".


Ponds were a common feature of the South Country landscape and ET described a few in his field note books. One at Old Farm, near Selsfield House, Turner's Hill where he stayed for some time in 1913, he described in particular detail: "Kingfisher sweeps across to low alder at dark narrow shallow end....Moorhens call in copse or in darker shadows to left.....A weedless pond nowhere over a y(ar)d deep, w(ith) bottom of dead leaves lying on deep black mud,...brown water reflecting bright & dull foliage of overhanging oak & alder." He could be describing Lutcombe Pond, other than the muddy bottom - Lutcombe's is chalk.



ET's bright clouds of may that shade the pond were the reflection of the may blossom still on the hawthorns, overshadowing the pond, which fell to become the "scum" drifting on its surface. Part of the natural cycle - an early autumn and one of the seasonal changes whose inevitability ET was often noting. Beyond the reflections of the trees and bushes on its banks, the pond would have also reflected the bright clouds above, as it does now. ET was fascinated by cloudscapes and wrote about them in many entries in his FNBs, especially when viewed from his study, often noting the changes hour by hour. Here reflected in the pond they are framed as in a picture - with much less choice than ET would have had from his study, where his eye would range west, south and east picking out the detail across a vast panorama.


So away from the imperative of doing something at home or in his study, without the commitment of going on a long walk in the limited time he spent at Steep, here at Lutcombe Pond he could spend time at one of his favourite pursuits - "looking and learning". It was something he would not have had time for in military camp in the previous weeks.


Observing these changes, whether seasonal or weather would have taken him out of himself and also reinforce his feeling of fatalism, of having neither control nor choice.


Writing to Eleanor Farjeon later in June about an even shorter home leave of 24 hours he wrote of trying "not to be hurried" - and perhaps this was what he managed to do in his previous stay as he sat by the pond and thought "naught's to be done".


Yet despite his being peacefully in the moment there are undertones in the poem which are more threatening - the moorhen's call acts like a trumpet 's reveille or call to arms; and he saw the tall young green reeds as bayonets - a simile he had used in his youth when writing for the Sunday School Association magazine Young Days ("Birds in March" 1895). Now it had a sharper, more imminent resonance.



During June he remained uncertain about his future. He had been recently promoted to corporal but as many of the NCOs were being commissioned as lieutenants to go to France to replace the numerous casualties, he could see if he stayed put there would be plenty of work to do. He wrote to Eleanor Farjeon "I imagine I shall be always on guard."


But in the next few weeks changes came on apace for Thomas and his family - as he wrote to Frost early in June "...the only certain thing is that the unexpected will happen." The most unexpected was that he was asked to move out of his beloved study by Mrs Lupton, the wife of the friend who had built The Red House where the Thomas family had lived for four years. The eventual consequence of this was for the family to move from Steep where they had lived for ten years to Essex, to be close to where Mervyn was apprenticed. At the end of July he finally opted for the Artillery, leaving the Artists' Rifles, a step he knew would take him to France after Artillery School in the autumn.


A walk



I've suggested a stroll up to Lutcombe Pond and beyond. Nowadays the bright clouds to be seen on a June day in Lutcombe pond are much higher than the may blossom in ET's day. The pond is among trees - lime, sycamore and beech, with hazel, willow and a few hoary old hawthorns and yews on the pond's banks. The pond must now be less bright, though the reflection of sky and the chalk bottom free of weed lightens it. The pond is now a favourite destination especially in hot weather for walkers with dogs and young families.


Parking opposite Ashford Lodge, you follow the path up the beautifully clear stream to the pond under chestnuts, alders and sycamores. You go past a bridge and a ruined pump house (the haunt of bats) which used to contain an old hydraulic ram, probably used for irrigation purposes.



You will often see the moorhen scurrying around on the mud or retreating rapidly over the water. In an earlier FNB when at Steep he wrote, probably of Lutcombe pond: "Bronwen [his eldest daughter] says moorhen's track on water is like a peacock's tail" (Sept 09 FNB36). Always on the look-out for apt similes within the natural world, in September 1914 he wrote "the fine sparse foliage of a spindly ash in Hangers prints sky like bird's footmarks on shore of pond".



Other rarer birds can be seen - a kingfisher used to be spotted occasionally, an over-wintering lesser egret has made the combe and the stream its home for a few years, and buzzards occasionally come down to these woods, off their patrol high along the hangers. The identity of the unnamed bird which called from the reeds remains unclear - maybe an unread field note book will clarify.


Woods have taken over what were pastures leading west into the combe to the long since vanished Lutcombe Cottage. On the ground below the ivied ash trees, dogs mercury and harts tongue ferns predominate despite the proliferation of wild garlic elsewhere in the hangers, whose invasive smell is now a sign of spring there. The tall spindly ash trees are already showing signs of ash dieback and will have to be cut down at some stage. At least the clearing will then show throughout the seasons what could have been seen from the fields - the tops of Ashford Hangers.



You can spend a very enjoyable time (especially if accompanying a child or dog) walking up the stream, climbing over fallen trees and jumping on precarious stones from one side to the other. Nothing remains of Lutcombe cottage so its position can only be found from old maps. It was inhabited until after ET's day, probably into the 1920s. The cottage is close to a confluence of paths and a seasonal stream crossing, which now goes through a pipe under the path, but then would have probably run through the cottage garden.


From the stream crossing there are various ways to prolong the stroll - either to the left of the stream you can walk up to Lutcombe Bottom, strangely remote despite the noise of traffic high above on Stoner Hill. Or you can head straight up the side of the combe on the steep woodcutters path to the top of Stoner hill road. Before reaching the road there are steps on the right which take you up to a path that contours around towards Shoulder of Mutton Hill. Along this path there is a turning to the left which ET may have used as a short cut to reach his study at the top of Ashford Hangers. The chalk pit that can be found on the way was played in by ET's children. Or you can take lower level paths to right or left which will take you back to Lutcombe Pond sooner or later.


In both his poetry and field note books, ET described these hangers using marine metaphors. Now the woods have spread further into the combe, his descriptions seem even more apt.



Map and grid reference


The map for this walk is OS Explorer OL33 Haslemere & Petersfield


Car parking at the entrance to the track up to Lutcombe Pond on Ashford Lane is at SU737264.


Acknowledgements


Thanks to Fran Box, leader of Steep History Group (https://historyofsteep.co.uk) for her help on all matters Steep; and also for Kate Ford for the supply of the Edwardian postcard of Ludcombe Pond. Also my thanks to Ben Mackay for proof-reading.


Field note books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York

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