An acre of land between the shore and the hills,
Upon a ledge that shows my kingdom's three,
The lovely visible earth and sky and sea,
Where what the curlew needs not, the farmer tills:
A house that shall love me as I love it,
Well-hedged, and honoured by a few ash trees
That linnets, greenfinches and goldfinches
Shall often visit and make love in and flit:
A garden I need never go beyond,
Broken but neat, whose sunflowers every one
Are fit to be the sign of the Rising Sun:
A spring, a brook'd bend, or at least a pond:
For these I ask not, but, neither too late
Nor yet too early, for what men call content,
And also that something may be sent
To be contented with, I ask of fate.
For These was written on 13th and 14th July 1915, completed on the day Edward Thomas was passed by the doctor as fit for enlistment in the Artists Rifles. The following day he sent it with a couple of other poems to his friend, Eleanor Farjeon, describing it as a prayer. ET was preparing himself to leave home for army training camp and then France which he envisaged then as being much more imminent than it turned out to be, as he wrote to Gordon Bottomley on the 14th: "...Then in a few months I expect to go to France to finish my training." He goes on "Here then ends reviewing & I suppose verses, for a time."
So he may have regarded "For These" as a final poetic statement summing up an ideal retreat from the world just as he was entering the fray of World War One and a plea or prayer for contentment which he had lacked for long periods of time. The retreat was to remain an ideal but a sort of contentment did become a reality within a few months as he got used to and began to enjoy military training.
So where was the inspiration for this ideal retreat? The reference to the sea provides the best clue as it limits the number of possible locations. ET enjoyed the sea but much of his walking and bicycling through England and Wales took him through country far away from it. The South Downs had far views of the sea (described in The Sign-Post) and on the other side of the Downs, he regularly visited and holidayed in Flansham close to Bognor, staying with the Guthrie family. He had spent some time in 1908 writing at Minismere in Suffolk. He had also walked for a couple of weeks that year along the Cornish coastline round Land's End. In his childhood his family had holidayed on the Gower, which is the subject of his poem "The child on a cliff". And in his book "In Pursuit of Spring" he described his bike ride from London to the Quantocks in 1913 in which he found "Winter's grave" in the Somerset hills which reach down to the sea.
The poem includes a number of pointers to the Quantocks as being the location he was thinking about in particular, though he is also selecting some of his favourite things more generally. The landscape of the poem - with the house between hill and sea - describes well the Quantocks coming down to the sea with a shelf of land for the villages of Kilve and East Quantoxhead between hill and sea. In "In pursuit of spring" he describes on his ride into East Quantoxhead "thecottage gardens in this lane were rich in wall flowers, daffodils, and jonquils; and japonica was blood-red on the walls. Still better were the hedges past the few cottages because they were green entirely, and were the first I had seen so in that spring. Nor were they mere thorn or elder hedges, but interwoven elm, thorn, brier and elder...". The gardens are still well-hedged and there are a few ash trees, ET's favourite tree, remaining by the streams in the hill combes.
There is also lots of water. In East Quantoxhead the brook rushes down from the springs in the hills above - past the cottages' garden entrance. In the adjoining village of Kilve he describes "the Kilve brook....noisily twisting over the pebbles" to the sea. There's a large village pond at East Quantoxhead close to the Court House and on his way out along the track to Perry Farm, there are some flight ponds for wild duck.
A decisive clue is the reference to The Rising Sun. This is very likely the pub in West Bagborough on the other side of the Quantocks which is just below the end point of ET’s journey at the top of Cothelstone Hill. He biked there on the day after he had explored Kilve and East Quantoxhead. He stayed the night at the Hood Arms in Kilve and then biked round
the northern end of the Quantocks and up the western side with its glorious views of the Brendon Hills and Exmoor. He went via Crowcombe, passing the Carew Arms, before taking the turn to West Bagborough. He describes his visit to the Rising Sun in some detail in the final chapter of In Pursuit of Spring but unusually does not mention the pub by name. Two old men, sipping their beer, were discussing their health, the weather, planting beans and peas, stags and the hunt and some very fine local biscuits and where to get them.
As well as his ideal retreat, ET is also describing in For These an ideal balance between man and nature with the farmer taking what the curlew does not want. Curlews would have been found in the Quantocks in his day on both sides of the farm land - on the moor above and the shore below. It's an image of wildness in contrast to the gregarious linnets, greenfinches and goldfinches in the hedgerows. These are birds ET mentions regularly in his field note books, noting their songs and their movements. As well as being among his favourite birds, they may also have been included for a different, darker reason. All were prized for their song as well as their plumage and they were the targets of bird catchers in ET's day. Many thousands were caught each year, and taken to London and other towns and sold in markets. They were tied, caged and some, finches for instance, were blinded in the belief this improved their song. ET would have been well aware of this cruel trade. Was he drawing a parallel with his own plight now that he had effectively lost his freedom having signed up to the army, in contrast to the birds that remained free and unconstrained to visit, make love and flit?
The description "the lovely visible earth and sky and sea" suggest two literary connections - both with a Quantocks link. The first is the repeated phrase "sea and hill and wood" which appears in Coleridge's Frost at Midnight, composed in Nether Stowey, another Quantock village, when Coleridge and the Wordsworths were staying in the Quantocks in the 1790s. ET had passed through Nether Stowey on his way from Bridgwater to Kilve and he had visited Coleridge's cottage and written a critique of some of Coleridge's early poetry, including Frost at Midnight in "In pursuit of spring". The second link is a homage to Richard Jefferies who writes in "The Story of my heart" of when lying down on the grass sward of a Wiltshire down how "it spoke in my soul to the earth, the sun, the air and the distant sea far beyond sight..." At the northern end of the Quantocks, ET does not only find spring but also this idyllic combination including a visible sea! It was a combining that Jefferies would also have been aware of, having visited and written about the Quantocks.
A walk on the Quantocks
An excellent walk can be had by following ET's journey from East Quantoxhead west along farm tracks before turning up to the hills via a small combe on the west side of West Hill, reaching the trig point of Beacon Hill on the ancient Great Road, before heading down the more substantial Smith's combe back to East Quantoxhead. It provides a good mix of country as ET describes in the poem - beach with ancient fossils, coastal fields, hillside woods, Quantocks moorland, and steep combes with rushing streams. It captures much of the Quantocks landscape within a two hour walk. And if it's a clear day there are views of Wales up to the Brecons over the Bristol Channel and on top of the Quantocks you can see the Brendons and Exmoor.
East Quantoxhead is still much as ET would have remembered - the cottagers are still as proud of their gardens. A Luttrell still lives in "the pale court house" and the path ET took on his bike along Underway Lane is still as rough as he found it. As he describes the track goes up and then precipitously down before emerging into fields. Climbing up through fields you can look back and see flight ponds for ducks and beyond the sea and beyond that if clear Wales. Following the track by a hedge you eventually get to a track heading down, called Church Lane which takes you to Perry Farm . Going left up the lane you reach the hamlet of Perry and opposite on the lower hillsides of West Hill and Stowborrow Hill are the sandstone quarries that ET described. He noted the gorse, still prevalent, "beautiful" on the hillside above, and "the sides of these quarries... bearded with it". He also noticed early signs of "hundreds" of foxgloves on the newly exposed sandstone, where the rock had been cut away for the widening of the road. ET seems to have regained the road across sheep folds earlier than Perry and then rode westward towards West Quantoxhead past the quarries.
We part company with him here, cross the road and take the path up through the quarry and then following the combe slightly to the right, walking through an oak wood with trees in various states of decomposition, past beeches and then along a grass path on the open hillside between bracken with the occasional thorn tree. Here are delectable views of the narrow coastal strip and the sea across the flanks of West Hill. Passing the tumulus and cairn at the top, we walk on to Beacon Hill as the view westwards towards Exmoor opens up. Beacon Hill or Flagstaff Hill is the highest of the north Quantocks at 1019ft The trig point reached one can rest and enjoy the 180 degree views and decide whether to go on one stage to the multiple cross paths at Bicknoller Post or return to East Quantoxhead.
ET was in two minds about taking this high level route which could have taken him on "one
of the green lanes to the left, that would have led me past a thatched cottage up to the ridge
of the Quantocks”. He would have reached his end destination of Cothelstone Hill via
Beacon Hill, Will’s Neck and Lydeard Hill. A pity he didn’t, as he missed out on one of the finest high level walks in the West
Country along the Great Road - he never had another chance to do so. Instead he went on the low road via West Quantoxhead along the highway from Williton to Taunton visiting the villages and the pubs at the foot of the Quantocks on the way, before climbing to Cothelstone Hill . There were consolations as he experienced “the mystery of inaccessibleness to the west wall of the Quantocks....a wall covered by ruddy dead bracken and dark gorse, but patched sometimes with cultivated strips and squares of green, and trenched by deep coombs of oak and by shallow winding channels of streams - streams not of water but the most emerald grass.”
Returning to the top of the Quantocks, we turn down from Beacon Hill, we pass the top of Herridge Combe and Round Hill before following the footpath on right, down into a steep rocky cleft with fir trees and birch.
Turning left at the bottom one enters Herridge Combe before Smith's Combe begins at the junction with Gay' house combe. This combe is another delight with old willow and oak by the rushing stream and later huge ash trees below Smith's Knapp. Thorn trees speckle the slopes, with hawthorn, hazel and holly along the valley bottom. The stream curves this way and that and its pools deepen, the path crosses back and forth, until another cross-paths is reached underneath the huge ash trees.
Over a stile, and crossing a field, the stream alongside one reaches an old farm building and then a narrow path following the hedge of an old cottage - thick and ancient, another example of what ET describes as "well-hedged". Crossing the road (be careful as it's a blind corner with fast traffic) one follows the lane straight ahead and round to the right back to East Quantoxhead.
Here are some post code and grid references for the walk and ET's journey:
East Quantoxhead Grid reference ST 1376 4344 (Post code TA5 1EJ)
Perry Farm, West Quantoxhead, TA4 4DZ
Perry Combe Grid reference ST 1212 4234 (P
Beacon Hill Grid reference ST1244 4099 (Post code TA4 4EB)
OS Explorer map 140 Quantock Hills & Bridgwater
For other walks on the Quantocks the National Trust has a good selection covering the Great Road and the high points and combes and there are many other sources on the internet.