It was upon
Updated: Sep 21, 2022
It was upon a July evening.
At a stile I stood, looking along a path
Over the country by a second Spring
Drenched perfect green again. 'The lattermath
Will be a fine one.' So the stranger said,
A wandering man. Albeit I stood at rest,
Flushed with desire I was. The earth outspread,
Like meadows of the future, I possessed.
And as an unaccomplished prophecy
The stranger's words, after the interval
Of a score years, when the fields are by me
Never to be recrossed, now I recall
This July eve, and question, wondering,
What of the lattermath of this hoar Spring?
Edward Thomas wrote It was upon on 22nd June 1916 at Hare Hall Camp, Romford. He was a map-reading instructor and was uncertain what his next step would be, though he increasingly felt compelled to go to France to fight.
The poem looked back "a score of years" to the time he had left St Paul's school after the spring term of 1895, ostensibly to prepare for his civil service exams. In fact he had set off in mid-April on a walking expedition to Wiltshire where he stayed for the spring and summer in Swindon with his grandmother and other relatives, exploring the countryside of North Wiltshire. He kept notes of his observations (Field note book 2) which, two years later, he edited and expanded into The Woodland Life, his first published book.
It was upon also drew on a number of observations in the same notebook. He had made a couple of notes about the aftermath, a term meaning the second mowing of grass in the same season:
"Aftermath is called Lattermath in Wilts & Gloucester" (June 16th)
and a couple of weeks later on July 1st:
"Excess of the aftermath beautifully green after a week's rain so different to the pasture grass"
In The Woodland Life he described the pasture grass in more detail, as "thistled" and "grey". Neither in this book nor the note book is there a reference to the stranger who passed on the information, recalled in the poem. His early notes are just a record of his nature observations and the landscapes and skyscapes.
ET stayed with his relatives at Cambria Place, Swindon, during that summer, but spent much of his time in the countryside. In his notebook (and The Woodland Life) there are only one or two pointers to where he explored that summer of 1895. He visited Coate, just outside Swindon, where his favourite writer, Richard Jefferies, has been born and brought up. There are occasional references to a canal, which was the Wiltshire Berks canal, which ran through Swindon, passing close by where he was staying and along which he would walk out of town.
He seems to have spent his time fishing, wandering and exploring, locally with his uncle and Swindon friends and more widely with his old friend and mentor, Dad Uzzell. He knew the Wiltshire countryside well from Swindon south, to beyond Avebury and Marlborough, into Savernake Forest and the Pewsey Vale. Years later he wrote up his appreciation of its extensive hills and tracks in an introductory chapter to his biography of Richard Jefferies.
The only other place name mentioned during this period is somewhere called "Widewaters" or "Wide Waters" which he visited on at least two occasions. On June 12th he noted:
"Turtle doves cooing in corner of field by Widewaters - double hedge by favourite stile. Meadows tinted with red by the sorrel flowers - almost a copper hue."
The mention of the favourite stile suggests this was the one he recalled standing by in the poem "looking along a path". Though his visit was in June he also visited Wide Waters in early July and noted "Yellow Hammer still sings from ash opposite Wide Waters".
Confusingly there are two pieces of water in Wiltshire with a similar name. The first is Wilton Water, also known as "The Wide Waters", between the village of Wilton and the Kennet & Avon canal below the Crofton Pumping Station.
The second "Wide Water" is actually part of the Kennet & Avon canal, a few miles west on the other side of Pewsey, close to the village of Wilcot.
Both names are longstanding. "Wide Water" appears on contemporary and current maps. "Wide Waters" does not - it is called Wilton Water, and described on contemporary maps as a fish pond. According to the local village history (Grafton Parish History), it " is known locally (and on the signpost in the village) as 'The Wide Waters'".
Both stretches of water had been created as a result of the building of the Kennet & Avon canal: Wide Water to please the local landowner who wanted an ornamental lake in recompense for allowing the canal to be built across her property; Wilton Water/Wide Waters was created as a reservoir to capture water from local springs to supply water to the highest point of the canal, raised by the beam engines of Crofton Pumping Station.
As ET wrote specifically of Wide Waters, it seems probable that he was writing about Wilton Water. Wide Waters is also an entity unto itself, separate from the canal, unlike Wide Water which is very much part of the canal and nearly indistinguishable from it, though it may have been wider in ET's day. Wide Waters would also seem the more likely candidate if other evidence is examined, including how he may have come across it, its accessibility to Swindon (compared to Wide Water) and also the landscape it fits into.
ET's walk to Wiltshire in April 1895 had taken three days from London to Marlborough Forest (Savernake)), staying at inns and cottages on the way. The following day he reached Swindon.
We know he went by Hungerford (where he noted snipe in the water-meadows). The direct route from Hungerford to Savernake Forest would then, as now, have been along the main road to Marlborough. However, this cuts out most of the forest. A better way to explore more of the forest would have been to walk up the old Roman Road or other path which traverses the forest on its South East/North West axis. He could have done this by heading South West from Hungerford down the road or canal and then heading up to the forest. If he had done this he could have come across Wide Waters and maybe made a note to return to explore it further. But he may have come across it on previous holidays in Wiltshire - a fishing pond would have been an attraction for him and "Dad" Uzzell - or he may have only come across it later in the summer, though his note about "favourite stile" suggests an earlier familiarity.
From Swindon, Wide Water is marginally closer than Wide Waters as the crow flies or a walker cross country. However, it would have taken a walker, even one as quick as ET, a very long day to get to either place and back to Swindon. Much more likely would have been for ET to use the train, whose networks were much more extensive than now - he noted a couple of times in his notebook that he was writing his notes up in a railway carriage. Railways had proliferated during the late 19th century and there was a particular profusion to the south of Savernake Forest where three railway lines ran alongside the Kennet & Avon canal within a few yards of each other: one was the GWR route to the West Country, in the middle was a spur line to Marlborough and the third was the Midland and South West Junction Railway between Andover and Swindon (extended to Cheltenham and Southampton).
So on the final leg of his journey in April, ET may have caught the train from Marlborough Low Level station, at the North West tip of Savernake Forest to Swindon, a couple of stops. When coming back to explore Wide Waters, he would have taken the same line and got off a stop or two further south, either at Savernake High Level or at Grafton & Burbage, both a mile or so away from Wide Waters. For Wide Water ET would have to change at Savernake High Level to catch the GWR train west, perfectly feasible but the journey would have been at least double the length of time.
The other reasons to think that Wide Waters may be the original inspiration for the poem lie in the landscape around it. Wide Waters sits in a bowl of fields "outspread" and rising, while the landscape round Wide Water is a more distant combination of downland and fields which merge into a continuous "wood" of hedgerows and their trees. The stiles and footpaths also match the poem's description better at Wide Waters than at Wide Water. There is an existing stile, which could be his favourite from his notebook, where he could have looked along a path at the country "drenched perfect green" by a second Spring. The historic footpaths around Wide Waters were quite extensive, as now, unlike those round Wide Water, which are much scarcer.
As in his earlier poem, Ambition, which was based on a later memory from his days in Steep - see separate post - ET remembered feeling ownership of the earth, "flushed with desire". In his 1895 notebook there are quite a number of references to the evening sky and earth in various shades of red - besides the previously quoted "Meadows tinted with red by the sorrel flowers - almost a copper hue" around Wide Waters. On June 16th he was watching a sunset on gateway, with the sky turning "pink almost flesh colour...then pink turns to crimson....then at last, crimson glow." The following day he wrote of one ultramarine cloud at sunset, several amid the crimson"; a few days later the sunset was "rich crimson glow blending to purple later"; and in July he observed a "strange ruddy glow of vapour not the usual solid crimson like a red mist above the gold."
Did all this redness impinge on his consciousness twenty years later when rereading his notebook again before writing the poem, so that he transferred the flush from the landscape and the evening sky to his face and desire?!
He would have certainly contrasted the weather in 1916 with 1895, and these were not just the fond memories of an adult looking back at the sunny days of youth. June 1916 - with temperatures much below average and above average rainfall - would have felt like a hoar spring, both in the sense of old, as the summer arrived so late that year, and cold. The summer of 1895 was much warmer and sunnier - as also evidenced by the observations in his notebook of lots of "red sky at night".
That summer of 1895 must have been a time of great riches and promise for ET. Having left school, purportedly to study for the Civil Service exams at the behest of his father, he had instead pursued his own path in Wiltshire - wandering in company or alone, observing nature, developing his writing. As his hero Richard Jefferies put it in ET's favourite book The Amateur Poacher: "the free open-air life, the spice of illegality and daring, roguish characters - the opportunities so far exceeding my own, the gun, the great pond, the country life, the apparently endless leisure."
Looking back at his youthful exuberance and expectations, the contrast with the situation in which he wrote the poem in June 1916, could not have been more stark. The war had taken a huge toll already. With the Battle of the Somme imminent (it was to start ten days after he drafted his poem), ET's question - "What of the lattermath of this hoar Spring?" - seems to be eerily prescient. But he was also questioning his own capabilities and how these had changed, now he was considering going to war at the age of 38. He expressed his self-doubts about going to war more explicitly a couple of days after drafting It was upon, in There was a time. Then he remembered his careless youth and strength again but now finds himself denying "the age,/ the care and weakness that I know - refuse/To admit I am unworthy of the wage".
In It was upon, ET was remembering fondly these youthful days but was also saying goodbye to them and his peacetime existence, Despite his doubts he was to apply for the siege artillery, having also considered joining the anti-aircraft section, and was accepted at the end of the following month. a change that would inevitably lead to France. He was already adopting a fatalistic and valedictory attitude apparent in other poems of this time - Bright Clouds (see separate post) and Early one morning, as well as There was a time. In It was upon this becomes explicit when he writes of "those fields are by me/Never to be recrossed". He had continued to travel in Wiltshire throughout his adult life but does not seem to have ever revisited Wide Waters. Now he could not envisage returning either physically or metaphorically to the meadows of his youth.
The walk round Wide Waters can be simply done following the paths on either side of the pond. However, it is also worthwhile ascending Dodsdown which the old Roman road goes over, which opens up great vistas on all sides. All the footpaths followed would have existed in ET's day.
Starting out from Wilton village you join the path opposite the village pond that skirts the eastern side of Wilton Water and you follow the path up towards the Kennet & Avon canal, with views of the pond and the fields opposite. Wilton Water is best seen from the canal or this eastern bank - further away it disappears amidst its surrounding trees and bushes.
Reaching the canal opposite Crofton Pumping Station you go left along the tow path. Crofton Pumping Station, built in the early, 19th century to pump water from Wilton Water into the Kennet & Avon canal at its highest point, is in sight for much of the walk.
You walk along the canal path, past locks, to Freewarren bridge and then take the left lane up past Freewarren farm before going over a stile on the left into some fields.
Identifying which was the stile he looked out from on that July evening over 125 years ago is probably an impossible task. There is no double hedge evident any more but looking at the field layout then, similar to now, it seems likely that the stile and the path that he looked along would have been in these fields. Mowed meadows no longer surround the pond - fields are now mainly arable and some pasture. The drenched perfect green of ET's July has been replaced by stubble yellow, but the lineaments of the landscape remain the same. The fields rise up from the canal and the pond and further away there are tantalising glimpses of higher downland.
Following the path through the fields you descend into a wooded stream - welcome on a hot day - before climbing up steps to a path that then joins the track back to Wilton. Taking a left you go down the hill back to the village pond.
To climb Dodsdown you go back into the field and rather than follow the path left round the pond, you go straight on up the footpath that crosses the field to the Roman road.
Going left up the Roman road, the countryside is raised as if on show - and as height is gained the country rolls out and higher hills farther away come into view. Close to is Wilton Windmill on Wilton Hill, another local landmark, which can only be seen from higher ground. The windmill was built a bit later than the pumping station to replace mills that had been destroyed when the canal was built or could no longer operate because the water levels were lower as a result of pumping.
Heights that can be seen from the top of Dodsdown, and glimpsed lower down, include Botley Hill and Rivar Down to the South East, on a ridge stretching away east, out of sight, to Ham Hill and Inkpen; further away to the South West is Easton Hill with its clump above Burbage; and in the West the dark heights of Martinsell. To the North West are the margins of Savernake Forest whose oaks and beeches become an increasing presence as you head towards it.
It's a fitting place to celebrate the poem - "The earth outspread,/ Like meadows of the future." You can either turn back or on towards Crofton, following the lefthand tow path to the beginning of Wide Waters and then following the path back round its lefthand side to Wilton.
The OS map for Wilton Water and environs is OS Explorer 157, Marlborough & Savernake Forest
Grid square for Wilton Water, Crofton Pumping Station etc SU2662
The Visit Pewsey website has a good circular walk round Wilton, among other Wiltshire walks: https://www.visitpewseyvale.co.uk/walk-10-wilton-circular/.
Field Note Books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York.
I have also drawn from The Woodland Life, Edward Thomas's first published book.
My thanks as always to Ben Mackay for editorial support.