It stood in the sunset sky
Like the straight-backed down,
Many a time - the barn
At the edge of the town,
So huge and dark that it seemed
It was the hill
Till the gable's precipice proved
Then the great down in the west
Grew into sight,
A barn stored to the ridge
With black of night;
And the barn fell to a barn
Or, even less
Before critical eye and its own
But far down and near barn and I
Since then have smiled,
Having seen my new cautiousness
By itself beguiled
To disdain what seemed the barn
Till a few steps changed
It past all doubt to the down;
So the barn was avenged.
The poem was written towards the end of March 1915 probably shortly after he had visited Petersfield, where he had muddled up the barn on the edge of town with the down on the southern horizon. He had written down the event in his field note book book:
“At end of Charles St is a big slate barn - you see the length of it & its ridge is in evening like Down against sky & sometimes I think how straight & firm that ridge of Down - sometimes I mistake a Down (which is also visible from thereabouts) for the barn - sometimes barn is exalted, sometimes Down humbled.”
So the idea of the poem was encapsulated in the note and he almost certainly jotted it down for use as a poem. At the time he was writing poems that seem to have been drawn from immediate observation (But these things also, Sowing, Two Pewits) rather than his earlier poems which were largely drawn from notes in older notebooks from months or years before.
Charles Street runs parallel to the railway line on the east (town) side. It stretches down to Swan Street, beyond which the road becomes The Spain. In Edward Thomas’s day the cottage hospital, now taking up the whole block (together with Swan Street Surgery) to the south west of Charles Street and Swan Street, was on a smaller scale and footprint.
On the 1911 map the most obvious candidate for the barn is a building in this block on the South West side of Swan Street where it joins Charles Street, which could be described as “at end of Charles Street”. This would fit the perspective that Thomas describes in the poem whereby the barn and the Down could be confused in the dark.
What is less clear is which Down was causing the confusion. One of the beauties of Petersfield is the hills that surround the town - the Downs to the south and the hangers to the north. There are three downs that lie to the south and west of the end of Charles Street. From the other end of Charles Street, on Church Street, you can see the smallest of the three, Head Down, poking above the hospital, and to the west (right) a glimpse of War Down in Queen Elizabeth Country Park.
Not visible now from Charles Street at all is Butser Hill, the largest of the three and the highest summit of the South Downs. In ET’s day, where this end of Charles Street was less built up, there would have been a clear line of sight to Butser across the high grounds of Highfield House, some of which is now High Meadow.
The note refers to the down’s ridge as “straight & firm” and in the poem the down is “straight-backed”. These descriptions would suggest Butser with its flat top, a plateau, whereas Head and War downs both have rounded summits, much as downs are expected to look, though both are wooded. The angle of Butser’s slopes in darkness could be confused with the angle of a building (and vice versa), until “the gable’s precipice proved/It impossible.” The clinching point is the poem”s “the great down in the west” which could only be Butser, from the viewpoint of Petersfield.
Butser Hill loomed large from Petersfield and the surrounding area. Although he could not see Butser from his study, he could see it from further along the hangers, from Shoulder of Mutton, from his home at Yew Tree Cottage in Steep and in many places he walked. And it is still visible at almost every turn around Petersfield and Steep.
It was not just a dominating physical presence locally but also a major hill in ET’s iconography. When writing The Icknield Way, he had described Southern England as “several chains of islands, representing the Downs, the Chilterns and Gog Magogs, the Mendips, Cotswolds and Quantocks”. He goes on to mention Butser in a roll call of notable hills across the South Country. The list is clearly made up of his favourites as he included two small summits close by Petersfield which were under the main ridge of the Downs - Torberry and Barrow Hill, which would never normally have made it into a list of South Country, or even South Downs summits.
He first described Butser in his notebooks towards the end of April 1907, a few months after he moved to Hampshire. He had walked over to the hill - about four miles - and had gone up the Combe behind, which he described as “warm, smooth…with moss and over it bits of chalk like daisies strewn by burrowing rabbits.”
Later in the year in November on a misty still day he notes “Butser seeming a huge hill because a cloud veils very top & shows only long slope which might be continued infinitely.”
In July 1909 he writes on another misty day of Butser “Charm of (its) smooth slope curves with gradation of light & shade & half light over the bare grass with over slopes covered not quite symmetrically with little ripples of mole & ant heaps with junipers here & there.”
He had never written of mistaking the barn for Butser before the note in his 1915 notebook. But in December 1909 with light snow on the Downs “under a pale formless sky” he had seen Butser as a tract of sky, with the clouds dotting it being the “dark juniper & gorse”.
So Butser mimicked the sky and in another note the following year he wrote of the opposite effect - the clouds becoming like the Downs below them:
“Behind the dark blue Downs at dawn was an almost exactly similar cloud range a little higher & with mane of trees apparently, one or two isolated tufts of pine! This range was a dark olive under the sky’s pale green & crimson mixed together like chemicals in river.”
Later in May 1914, he wrote similarly, after a walk or bike ride along the Rother valley to Trotton and the Downs at Treyford, of “Heavy rain at 4 & above the soft dark downs is a mimic loftier & similar range, depressing & dwarfing it, but with rougher ridge ag(ain)st the ruddy lightening clouds.”
He knew better than anyone the shape and contours of the hills around him and how they were affected by light. The changing colours and textures of the Downs were regularly described, as was the sky and its cloudscape. One day Butser was “dark blue & soft & porous”, another it was suffused in a purplish haze. Each change of hue and shade on these hills was followed and described in detail all the way to darkness. And even then he was aware of the different nuances of black. In The Other and its associated field note, ET wrote of the “gradations of inhuman dark”. He goes on (in the note written on an especially bleak day staying in West Sussex in the winter of 1913) “as of an underworld & my soul fled over it experiencing the afterdeath - friendless, vacant & hopeless.”
The Barn and the Down finds him in a much cheerier frame of mind, viewing the gradations of the black as a puzzle to be worked out. From his note he seems to have been regularly caught out by this particular illusion - and one can imagine him walking back and forward at the end of Charles Street, possibly on the way back from the Petersfield Post Office, a frequent trip, delighting in his repeated mistake and trying to spot the join, where barn ended and the Down began.
He never wrote another poem about Butser. His most well known poem about a hill is When First, describing his love of Shoulder of Mutton on the other side of the valley. But the view of the Downs from Shoulder of Mutton, “60 miles at one leap” was what made the Shoulder so special to him, with Butser Hill at the western end, the crowning glory.
Petersfield is a town much walked to and from, being on both the Hangers Way and close to the South Downs way. With hills popping up all around, it is also a good town to walk in.
ET’s route, the day he muddled up the Barn and the Down, would have probably been on his way to or back from the Post Office in Petersfield from his home in Steep. He would have gone down the road from the crossroads by his house through Bell Hill, then a separate hamlet. It was a walk he did regularly - he would have also taken the same route to the station, on his frequent trips to London. For the Post Office he may have turned right up Frenchman’s Road rather than going over the level crossing by the station, going under the railway bridge and into Swan Street, crossing Charles Street, and going straight on to reach The Square and along the high street to the Post Office, which in that period was at the far end of the High Street, on the corner of Dragon Street, rather than in The Square whither it moved between the wars. Alternatively, he may have crossed over the level crossing and then gone down Charles Street to the corner of Swan Street and gone left to the Market Square.
A short walk round Petersfield taking in what he saw that day, could start at The Square, going down Sheep Street to The Spain, the oldest part of Petersfield. At the western end you can see Butser Hill and War Down to the south. Following the Borough path, directly west below the hospital, you find on the right steps up to Upper Meadow, which in ET’s day was part of Highfield House. From here there are good views of Butser and War Down. Continuing along the same line you reach Borough Hill on the left where the view of Butser opens up.
Retracing your steps, you cross over Upper Meadow on to Swan Street and go right past the surgery and hospital and then left into Charles Street. This is where ET confused the barn and the down - the barn would have probably been on the corner of Charles Street and Swan Street, going west, where the forge and hospital car park are now. Walking up Charles Street to the top by Church Street, Head Down appears low at the end of the street looking south. Retracing your steps to the corner of Charles Street and Swan Street, you go left back to The Square. The church and its graveyard on the south side of The Square are well worth a visit.
Even more worthwhile is the Edward Thomas Study Centre in the Petersfield Museum just round the corner, from the South East corner of the Square. The Museum is housed in the old police station and the Study Centre is in one of its cells. It is a lovely space with a marvellous and vast array of books either by Edward Thomas or about him and his milieu and literary peers. It’s a fitting place to end the walk.
The OS map for Petersfield is OS Explorer OL33 Haslemere & Petersfield.
More on Petersfield Museum and the Edward Thomas Study Centre can be found here:
Field note books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York.
My thanks as always to Ben Mackay for editorial support. Thanks also to Alex Berkeley for the use of her photograph of Butser Hill.