Updated: Dec 13, 2021
Gone the wild day:
A wilder night
Coming makes way
For brief twilight
Where the firm soaked road
Mounts and is lost
In the high beech-wood
It shines almost.
The beeches keep
A stormy rest,
Of wind from the west.
The wood is black
With a misty steam.
Above, the cloud pack
Breaks for one gleam.
But the woodman's cot
By the ivied trees
To light or breeze.
It smokes aloft
It hunches soft
Under storm's wing.
It has no care
For gleam or gloom:
It stays there
While I shall roam,
Die, and forget
The hill of trees,
The gleam, the wet,
This roaring peace.
Interval written in December 1914 is one of Edward Thomas's earliest poems. Together with After Rain which was written at the same time, it describes the very turbulent weather conditions during that month. From the Field Note Books that Edward Thomas kept it is clear that the two poems are not just describing what he had experienced recently but also drew on notes he had jotted down in previous years about his observations of the hangers during his periods at home in Steep.
Whereas After Rain focuses on that element, Interval is about the wind and has an aural backdrop in "stormy rest" and "roaring peace". The wind is a perpetual theme in ET's writing whether creative or destructive, raging or soft. The years he spent in the family house at Wick Green on top of the hangers took its toll - here the wind became an adversary as described in Wind and Mist and The New House. The wind, like the rain, is elemental for ET - it is often the first thing he notes each day in his FNBs - recording wind direction and strength, when it changes, what weather it brings, how it changes the sky and moves the clouds.
Interval uses observations in a number of field note books including those for the autumn of 1913 for particular inspiration. His daily routine was to go up and down, often twice, between the house they had moved into that summer, Yew Tree cottage in Steep, and his study in the garden of the house they had lived in at Wick Green. He could use a number of routes but normally went up Stoner Hill road, straight up from Steep crossroads by his house. This road was (and is) also the main thoroughfare from Petersfield to Ropley and Alton.
On 8th October 1913 he writes from his study of a West wind blowing showers and huge clouds all day, with some thunder and then at 4 a "brief bright moment" when he could see "a little oriel of blue high in S(outh)..." (FNB66)
On 26th October, he writes "After a day of quiet rain suddenly on Stoner certain rich beeches & chestnuts are lit by the travelling light of sunset - far behind the smoke is a grand world of white peaks & blue gulfs & when the smoke undoes(?) the blue the fulvous light falls fr(om) on high to the trees - in the east stationary white mountains rise up into the purest cold green-blue, the mountains lightly flushed." (FNB 70)
By 1914 ET had had nearly 8 years to get to know the hangers and how they looked at different seasons and times of the day. Besides the wind, there were other particular features he frequently noted. The westering sun had a very specific effect on these hangers which face south and east - creating gloom below while the moving light gleams on top. ET described this gleam along Ashford Hangers as the sun goes down in the west in many different ways - for instance as "a glow travelling like a blush"; or "the 100 beautiful illuminations of vale and of tops of hangers when light comes from the W(est) at 5"; or the "sun being low & dazzling & unlookable at 5 in W(est)".
On 16th October 1913 he wrote "the Hanger being almost under the sun is a nearly indistinguishable smoky dark mass w(ith) a few coloured tips of beeches emerging softly bright like glowing rods". He adds "impossible to say what colour it is - part below brightness in gloom - a feathery scattered brightness of green-gilt leaves." On Easter Day the following year (12th March) he wrote "sun just (at 5) touches tips of trees over Shoulder (of Mutton hill) by Ashford hangers, leaving rest in darkness."
Later in June he described the "near woods as I walk fr(om) top of Old Stoner have dark edges invisible in shade with as it were a burning thatch of green."
Observations of the "firm soaked road" which "shines almost" also frequently appears in his Field Note Books. Below are observations on Stoner Hill on his way up and down from his study in the autumn of 1913 (FNB 66). On 20th September he described the road as being shady and moist; on 7th October "the wet hard smooth road...is almost emerald with reflections of overhanging green". Four days later he talked of "the green reflecting road where it is wettest" and on the morning of 15th October he wrote how "the sun lights the glistening surface of Stoner hill."
As always ET's observations are precise - how often at dusk do light sources seem to come more strongly from the earth than the sky, though in fact they are merely reflections from the light in the sky (from high clouds still reflecting the sun below the horizon). The cloud pack that breaks for one gleam at the end of a day can appear a mysterious coincidence. ET describes an occurrence of this phenomenon on 25th October 1913 "in the W(est) a quiet dark tunnel of cloud has accumulated w(ith) a gap down wh(ich) the sun has gone burning his way red gold to the horizon". (FNB 66)
This is also described in a letter to his close friend, Eleanor Farjeon (10.i.15) after sending her Interval with other early poems "I mean in 'Interval' that the night did postpone her coming a bit for twilight. Night might have been expected to come down at the end of the day and didn't. "Held off" would have been stricter" (rather than "make way").
Another common sight in the hangers is the "misty steam" that lingers in the coombes especially in the autumn and winter. ET often refers to this as smoke in his FNBs (as above) but had to choose a different description when he is also describing the smoke of the cot.
ET contrasts the permanence of the cot "under storm's wing" (which ET's wife, Helen used as the title for her collected memoirs) with the impermanence of storm, season, day, even himself. ET says of the phrase when responding to Farjeon who had "hit upon" some parts of the poem he himself was doubtful about, "But 'under storm's wing' was not just for the metre." Old houses which had almost become permanent parts of the landscape always attracted his interest and he would often write about their features and would occasionally draw them in his field note books.
The woodman's cot could be one of many he came across in his travels across Southern England and Wales. There are two candidates that are most likely as ET would have passed one or other on two of his ways up to his study from Yew Tree cottage. The first is the estate cottage, Upper Ashford Lodge, at the bottom of Stoner Hill, on the fork down to Ashford and opposite the entrance to the ancient Old Stoner Hill track.
Upper Ashford Lodge seems to have originally been called Ashford Lodge and it was the gatehouse to Ashford House, later renamed Ashford Lodge. Before and after ET's sojourn in Steep, it had various tenants including two well-diggers, a small farmer (6 acres) and carter, and later after WW1 a domestic gardener for the newly built house at Ashford Chace, At the 1911 census it was empty.
However the more probable candidate for the cot is Lutcombe cottage at the entrance of Lutcombe bottom, above Lutcombe pond. I have been persuaded by Fran Box of the Steep History Society that this is a much more likely, as far from being a ruin when ET was living in Steep as I had thought (and reputedly the place that inspired A Tale), it was still being lived in at least until the 1920s and possibly until the 1940s when it was destroyed by fire. Most compellingly the path that passes to its left coming up from Lutcombe Pond to "Cold Corner" at the top of Stoner Hill was called, traditionally and in living memory, the "woodcutter's path". Lutcombe Cottage is also very well sheltered from a westerly - much more so than Upper Ashford Lodge - and the coombe where it used to sit is still full of ivied trees. There is now no sign of its site among these trees but old photographs show a reasonably substantial (3 bedroom, 3 living room) thatched cottage sitting at the foot of Ashford Hangers, with "smoke aloft" from its chimney.
Photograph with thanks from the collection of the late father of Sue Inglis and copyright SteepHistoryGroup2021
Walks round Stoner Hill
Interval is full of noise and its absence - contrasting the calm below in the sheltered coombe with misty steam, the woodman's cot asleep and its unwavering smoke, with the stormy rest of the high beech wood, awaiting the next onslaught of the gale. A walk to experience the contrasts in the poem should be done around the flanks of Stoner Hill in a westerly gale - from which it is sheltered for much of the way up! Two are suggested below - the road has many disadvantages but one strong one that it is the route that ET most often took to his study: a better alternative for most will be the walk up Lutcombe past the site of Lutcombe Cottage.
Photograph with thanks from the collection of the late father of Sue Inglis and copyright SteepHistoryGroup2021
Following in ET's footsteps up the road of Stoner Hill is possible but not very alluring because of the traffic, which is a pity as it's an impressive thoroughfare, and without traffic would be a very fine walk. As ET's main route to his study from 1913 onwards, it's somewhere he was getting to know very well. So in a period which, from his field note books, would appear to have been especially fruitful for his early poetic ideas, his daily walks up and down Stoner Hill were a source of inspiration for a number of his poems besides Interval, including After Rain, Man and dog, The Path and possibly The New Year.
At the bottom the road passes Upper Ashford Lodge at the junction with Ashford Lane and opposite the entrance to the Old Stoner Hill track. It contours up the side of Stoner hill reaching the top at Ashford Hill at Cold Corner, with the beech and yew woods of Lutcombe Bottom "underyawning" (to use an ET word). Lutcombe Bottom is the source of Ashford stream and home of many owls. It also inspired other ET poems including The Combe and The Hollow Wood. The road in ET's day would have been much more used by pedestrians (including drovers and their cattle, itinerant agricultural workers etc).
The viewing points where cars can park do provide some excellent vistas though the trees - the lower one close to along the hangers to Wheatham Hill and the fields and farms at their base; the higher one has a wonderful window to the East/ESE, opening on to the woods of Adhurst and Liss, and beyond, in the distance, the distinctly angled slopes of Black Down above Haslemere and Woolbeding Common and Older Hill above Midhurst, seeming almost to reflect one another.
The Victoria County History describes the road in 1908 as "winding up the steep slopes of Stoner Hill with a skilfully engineered gradient through beautiful hanging beechwoods. It was laid out by private enterprise early in the last century (18th) in the expectation of a grant of the tolls on it, but this being refused by the government the promoters lost heavily by their undertaking." The backers who lived in Ashford House, now Ashford Lodge, had to sell up as result.
Rather than negotiating the road and its inevitable traffic, the walker can instead start at the parking place down Ashford Lane, opposite Ashford Lodge. You follow the path along Ashford stream, past Lutcombe pond, continuing straight up the path, which rises above
the stream on the right. There are a few springs feeding the stream, some of the higher ones dry up for much of the year, though in winter the water rises further up in Lutcombe Bottom. The path gets muddy as water comes off the northerly flank of Stoner Hill. There are a number of forks and turnings especially to the right, which will take you at various different levels round Ashford hangers. At the first junction to the right is the site of Lutcombe cottage, sheltered from most winds and also direct sunlight especially in winter ("Awakens not/To light or breeze"). "The ivied trees" have now spread to cover the space the house, its garden and orchard would have occupied. The main track, "the woodcutter's path", crosses a stream, if it's still flowing, and then heads up the hill, bearing left, climbing quite steeply. On the left there's a bank the other side of which the ground falls away precipitously into Lutcombe Bottom.
There are beech and yew trees as well as chestnuts and ash up the slopes, some tumbled. In Lutcombe Bottom below the beeches reach great heights as they do on the ridge on the rim of Ashford Hanger. There are also ash trees both below and on the ridge, some of which have been chopped down because of ash dieback, though those in Lutcombe Bottom still remain upright, or have fallen of their own volition.
While the lower slopes are sheltered from most points of the wind, the trees at the top bear the brunt of the westerly gales. ET writes evocatively of the "high beech wood" and later "the hill of trees" . On this route up you can see, as you climb, these stretch out round the hub of Lutcombe Bottom, protecting it from almost all sides from the wind. As you climb in a high westerly wind the aptness of ET's description of "stormy rest" and "roaring peace" becomes apparent - not only does this describe well the "interval" when the wind is blowing at a lesser force between longer blows at gale force, but also the experience as you climb towards the crest when you have some protection from the full onslaught. Against such might, there's a sense of helplessness, and almost surrender which may have given the depressive ET some sense of peace and rest.
Photograph of Lutcombe Cottage - thanks to and copyright SteepHistoryGroup2021
Getting to the top at Cold Corner the woodcutter's path meets the main road and Cockshott Lane to the right which ET would have walked along to get to his study. Either you can retrace your steps or take a path, up steps to the left as you head back down, that contours round Ashford Hill. This is a high level path with some excellent views of Lutcombe Bottom and Stoner Hill opposite, when the yews and other trees allow. Looking back you can see the crest of beeches above the road which ET describes as "Breathing deep/Of wind from the west." Further on there are tantalising views of what ET called "the vale" stretching between the hangers and the Downs.
Reaching the main path (on the Hangers way) up to Shoulder of Mutton from Lutcombe Bottom, you can head up to this hill which was of such significance to ET, or go down to Lutcombe Bottom. If the latter, you take a left at the junction at the bottom and then back past Lutcombe pond to your starting point. You could extend the walk by turning right when the main track crosses the stream (if still running) and immediately bear sharp left running parallel with main track below and the stream below that, along the side of Stoner Hill.
If you take the path to the right as the path you're on descends towards Lutcombe
pond, you follow an unfrequented path up under yew and beech, some fallen, past chalk pits and badger setts. It reaches eventually the road up Stoner Hill and the traffic noise above becomes louder as you approach. Detouring into the field below you can see the northerly aspect of Upper Ashford Lodge. Retracing your steps you turn right to join the main track back to the parking place.
Map/coordinates, acknowledgements and thanks
The OS Explorer map for Ashford Hangers is OL33: Haslemere & Petersfield
Grid reference SU7328 2468
As ET wrote a number of poems about Ashford Hangers there will be other walks described around them in future posts. Meanwhile a good longer circular walk can be found here:
Thanks to Fran Box of Steep History Group for all her help in identifying the woodman's cott and other Steep history matters. More on Steep History can be found at:
Photographs of with thanks from the collection of the late father of Sue Inglis and copyright SteepHistoryGroup2021
Acknowledgements and copyright for Field Note Books - Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York