Updated: Jun 26
'Is this the road that climbs above and bends
Round what was once a chalk-pit: now it is
By accident an amphitheatre.
Some ash trees standing ankle-deep in briar
And bramble act the parts, and neither speak
Nor stir.' 'But see: they have fallen, every one,
And briar and bramble have grown over them.'
'That is the place. As usual no one is here.
Hardly can I imagine the drop of the axe.
And the smack that is like an echo, sounding here.'
'I do not understand.' 'Why, what I mean is,
That I have seen the place two or three times
At most, and that its emptiness and silence
And stillness haunt me, as if just before
It was not empty, silent, still, but full
Of life of some kind, perhaps tragical.
Has anything unusual happened here?'
'Not that I know of. It is called the Dell.
They have not dug chalk here for a century.
That was the ash trees' age. But I will ask.'
'No. Do not. I prefer to make a tale,
Or better leave it like the end of a play,
Actors and audience and lights all gone:
For so it looks now. In my memory
Again and again I see it, strangely dark,
And vacant of a life but just withdrawn.
We have not seen the woodman with the axe.
Some ghost has left it now as we two came.'
'And yet you doubted if this were the road?'
'Well, sometimes I have thought of it and failed
To place it. No. And I am not quite sure,
Even now, this is it. For another place,
Real or painted, may have combined with it.
Or I myself a long way back in time...'
'Why, as to that, I used to meet a man -
I had forgotten, - searching for birds' nests
Along the road and in the chalk-pit too.
The wren's hole was an eye that looked at him
For recognition. Every nest he knew.
He got a stiff neck, by looking this side or that,
Spring after spring, he told me, with his laugh, -
A sort of laugh. He was a visitor,
A man of forty, - smoked and strolled about.
At orts and crosses Pleasure and Pain had played
On his brown features; - I think both had lost; -
Mild and yet wild too. You may know the kind.
And once or twice a woman shared his walks,
A girl of twenty with a brown boy's face,
And hair brown as a thrush or as a nut,
Thick eyebrows, glinting eyes - ' 'You have said enough.
A pair, - free thought, free love, - I know the breed:
I shall not mix my fancies up with them.'
'You please yourself. I should prefer the truth
Or nothing. Here, in fact, is nothing at all
Except a silent place that once rang loud,
And trees and us - imperfect friends, we men
And trees since time began; and nevertheless
Between us we still breed a mystery.'
The Chalk-Pit was written in May 1915, a couple of weeks before Sedge-Warblers, as Edward Thomas was preparing to write his biography of the Duke of Marlborough. The poem, like Sedge-Warblers, concludes with the mystery between man and nature. But the whole poem is quite mysterious and intentionally ambiguous - what had happened in the chalk pit to create this atmosphere? As with other ET poems there are half-forgotten memories and doubt as to times, place and events.
The mystery extends to the place that may have inspired ET. He had written an essay on Chalk-Pits, published in The Last Sheaf, in which he described the chalk and marl pits that dotted the South Country as being "among the works of men that rapidly become works of Nature and can be admired without misanthropy." He listed great ones that "always assume a good shape, like those of a scallop shell or even a fan", as those above Lewes, Maidstone and Midhurst, and perhaps an ancient one at East Meon ('The vineyard"). He also mentioned approvingly the lime works on the South Downs at Buriton (with its black chimneys) and the Dinas above Llandebye in Carmarthenshire.
His preference was for smaller ones "the lesser chalk pits are the better... those upon a slope are usually the more charming to the eye" (rather than the second category, the hollow chalk pits of the fields). He goes on "They are met, for example, suddenly where the road bends round a steep bank, and whether the chalk is dazzling or shadowed it is welcome."
There are a couple of this type of chalk pit mentioned in the essay which he seems to draw on for his later poem. One he remembered fondly is half-way between the hollow pit and the hill-side scoop, "a vast one, (which) lies under a steep road which runs round it". It has a score of ash trees, with many butts of trees that "must have been two centuries old". The tops of trees catch the light but "the rest is dark and wild, and somehow cruel." Intriguingly "the hundred yards or so of road running round the edge of the ancient pit is as fascinating as any other similar length in England." He imagines it would be a fitting arena for characters from the works of George Borrow - the Romany Rye and the Flaming Tinman - to fight. This pit could be any of a number along the South Downs with a steep road/track round the edge of it. Another close to Goodwood was the scene of his encounter with a bear, presumably one that was part of a travelling entertainment, though he thought it looked indigenous! This dell could be "natural or artificial...It lies at the foot of a wild Down which is climbed chiefly for the sake of its chalk pits, by a slanting steep road." It also had a few ash trees and much gorse.
There were a vast number of old chalk pits dotted around the countryside in ET's day, many still there today. Chalk had been used in earlier times by farmers to lighten clay soils and as an early form of fertiliser. Many were normally empty except for the occasional visit from woodmen, but some were used by gypsies and other itinerants on their travels, as temporary camps. ET described chalk pits round Goodwood being used by gypsies during the racing. To give an idea of scale, there were at least 12 substantial chalk pits in the immediate vicinity of Goodwood and about 20 good-sized chalk pits he would have come across along the South Downs on his way from Steep to Goodwood.
Closer to home there are three chalk pits along the Ashford Hangers which ET would have known especially well, being close to where he lived. They included the Old Chalk Pit below Old Litten Way a little to the east of the top of Shoulder of Mutton Hill. His children would often play in this pit. Further west on Ashford Hill was the site of another pit, which WM Whiteman describes in The Edward Thomas Country as "a considerable quarry known as 'My Lady's Garden',... hidden in the woods on Ashford Hill". This is probably the dell below what was Lupton's cottage and workshop, now the Edward Barnsley workshop.
The third chalk pit on this stretch of hangers is at the bottom of Wheatham Hill, off Cottage Lane, opposite Wheatham Farm. This is the chalk pit that has been most widely accepted as being the place that inspired the poem. As WM Whiteman pointed out it has the feeling of an amphitheatre and an ancient road climbs along its rim towards Old Litten Lane. It was known as Dell (as in the poem) and it was a favourite camping ground for gypsies until after WW1. It is still full of giant ash trees - and the boles of their fallen predecessors. Although there is some bramble and briar, there is now much nettle, ransom and dog's mercury. The atmosphere of this chalk pit still feels very much as ET described in the poem.
As ET spent much of his time at home during the first half of 1915 it seems probable that the main inspiration was of a local chalk pit which he could easily visit on a walk from home and which would spur him to write. However as noted above the poem is ambiguous about the number of the protagonist's visits and his familiarity with, and memory of, the chalk pit. So it is probable that ET was combining recollections of other chalk pits as well.
Similarly ET combined disparate jottings about poetic subjects in his 1915 notebook "to make a tale" about the chalk-pit. He used these jottings, which seem unconnected to create a number of poems - including The Brook and Haymaking. He used half a dozen of them in The Chalk-Pit.
The first appeared in his note for January 1st 1915, the only one that's dated and when we know from his letters he was at home in Steep:
"Men felling trees and the sound of axe is like an echo because it comes after the stroke''
Later in the notebook in one of the sections full of poetic ideas, appears:
"40 years had crisscrossed his cheeks with pain & pleasure"
And a bit later
"Man(?) stiff every spring w(ith) looking for nests."
Then several sections later, seemingly unconnected to the man:
"A girl of 20 with a brown boy's face
Thick eyebrows glinting eyes:
But we said enough
And two jottings later:
"'Brown hair, brown as a thrush or as a nut"
Earlier there was a jotting that pointed to the mystery at the heart of the poem
"Did something once happen here at the bend of the road(?)
Round the chalk pit old"
The event is never disclosed in the poem but a previous field note book from five years before, does provides a brief summary of a series of events, including one if not two tragedies. In FNB 42 from 1910, when he had recently moved into the new house at Wyck Green (The Red House) on Cockshott Lane that connected with the track to the chalk pit at the bottom of Wheatham Hill, he noted as a subject for a possible prose piece:
"That romantic chalk pit by curve in road once a house there - a woman who turned into a hare - house left empty - stones carted away - chalk pit opened - a man killed his brother there - now only ash trees & they cut down lately."
There is no evidence of these "tragical" events having taken place close to Wheatham or other local chalk pits, either in fact or legend, though a woman turning into a hare was common in local county folklore. It may well have stemmed from ET's imagination as a subject for a piece with a chalk-pit setting. What does seem probable is that ET, when noting down the question five years later, was recalling this previous note. In the poem the question remains unanswered, and this evasion is part of the poem's mystery. An oblique reference to whether something happened spurs the imagination of the reader more effectively than the detail of the event would, however intriguing.
(As an aside this earlier notebook -FNB42- is largely devoted to his time at Steep in early 1910, in the first few months after the family's move to the new house. It also had other notes on subjects originally intended for prose pieces which he had used for poems written before The Chalk-Pit, namely Beauty and Ambition, so it had been well thumbed during his first few months of poetic creativity five years later.)
From the separate jottings about the man and girl, ET has combined to create a relationship between the two. Edna Longley links the girl to Hope Webb, a 17 year old whom he'd met while staying in Minsmere in Suffolk and with whom he'd had a platonic relationship which had been ended by her parents. Earlier R George Thomas believed the man and girl to be based on ET's memories of his "open-air courtship of Helen" (later his wife) though this seems unlikely as Longley points out the age gap is wrong.
"Free thought, free love" may have also been a tangential humorous recollection of another itinerant tramp and his younger wife who he met coming up Tarberry Hill outside South Harting in February 1910, espousing free trade! They attempted to sell him studs, laces and razors. An exchange followed in which they fulminated against tariff reform and denied that free trade had led to increase in the price of leather.
The Chalk-Pit's location is part of the mystery of the poem. Further discoveries from the field note books may make the location clearer. Meanwhile the best candidate would appear to be the one it is commonly assumed to be, the chalk pit under Wheatham Hill. However given the number of chalk pits ET knew it is likely that he had others also in mind.
In both the poem and his essay ET makes the case for old chalk pits to be considered as objects of interest and beauty in the countryside, each with its own special atmosphere, appreciated in their different ways by those with vivid imaginations and those more inclined to observation of the natural world.
So it seems appropriate that a walk to celebrate The Chalk-Pit should take in two chalk pits. A fine walk can be done from the bottom of Wheatham Hill, where you can visit the chalk pit up to the top of Wheatham Hill and then, by the old chalk pit, below Old Litten Lane, to the view from the top of Shoulder of Mutton hill, before heading back along the path halfway down the hill.
The chalk pit at the bottom of Wheatham Hill is still full of ivied ash, with the occasional yew and a sycamore and a wych elm grown large and tumbled. Above the path at its rim on banks are yews and beeches. The underwood is hazel and elder. On the floor are profusions of dog's mercury with wild garlic encroaching. Nettles guard the chalk-pit from the lane. As you venture in you can see the bare slopes up to the path and, at the end, glimpses of vertical chalk cliff half-covered in vegetation.
The first section of the walk climbs steeply either following the path up the rim of the chalk pit or along the main track - an extension to Old Litten Lane - just on the other side of the bank. The former joins the latter after the remains of an old fallen yew and you continue steeply up among the yew trees to the top of the first part of Wheatham Hill. The track levels off and you walk past the old tumulus on your right, that in ET's day would have been just above the tree level and would have had a panoramic view North, East and South, encompassing other tumuli on surrounding high tops. In ancient times the tumuli would have been bare of vegetation and much more visible from a distance so a network would perhaps have been some sort of ancestor guarding system for the local tribes. Nowadays the tumulus is covered in hemp agrimony under a woodland canopy.
The track rises and the top of Wheatham Hill is reached going though a gate on the right on to grazing land. Its North East view over Hawkley and Noar Hill and stretching to the Hogs Back and beyond is very fine - second only to that from the Shoulder of Mutton which we reach later. This is noted as the site where William Cobbett in 1822 was amazed and delighted at the view, which he compared to "looking from the top of a castle down into the sea; except that the valley was land not water". (This may have happened further north on top of one of the east facing hangers above Oakshott valley but the view would have been much the same.) ET loved Wheatham Hill and often visited it - The Glory was probably inspired by a visit in early May shortly before he wrote The Chalk-Pit, maybe he had visited them both on the same day. Jack Norman in May 23rd (written in March) had picked his cowslips here after the water cress from Oakshott Rill below.
You get back to the main track by following the path to the left of the Trig point by the fence through the trees. Going right up the track you continue to climb before taking a left hand bridleway. This takes you round the hill on a contour until on your right you see a hollow which is The Old Chalk-Pit where ET and his children played. It's got a few large beech trees, one possibly old enough for ET to have seen. In those days it was a chalk-pit in a field. It's an impressive space, even surrounded by woodland, but not of the size or atmosphere of the chalk-pit at the foot of the hill. Below it you join another track which leads up the top of Shoulder of Mutton Hill, going past a huge fallen beech on your right.
From the top of Shoulder of Mutton you get one of the outstanding views of England over Petersfield to the South Downs, in particular West Harting Down. The view gets better and better as you descend the hill past the poet's stone commemorating Edward Thomas. On the lateral path below the memorial stone, the view extends to the heights of Chanctonbury Rings and beyond, nearly 40 miles away, occasionally and dimly, Ditchling Beacon.
You follow the path back along the wooded side of the hanger with occasional darker patches under yew trees. You pass a bench dedicated to Ellen McCutcheon, legendary landlady of the Harrow Inn at Steep, with a view to South Harting Down. Further on you cross the track down from the tumulus to Ashford Farm. Crossing the track you go through a gate or over style into a pasture which has good views of the South Downs from Butser to Cocking. In season the path has orchids, cinquefoil and agrimony as well as bugle. Entering the wood again you continue to contour round until the extension of Old Litten Lane is reached and you head down to the car. You may wish to take a quick detour over a stile and along the path to your right which gives you a view of Wheatham Farm and closer to the line of poplars that rustle endlessly in the wind.
Maps and Acknowledgements
The OS map for the Ashford Hangers is OS Explorer OL33 Haslemere & Petersfield
Field Note Books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York
I have also quoted from Edward Thomas's final book of essays, The Last Sheaf.
My thanks as ever to Ben Mackay for editorial support and also to Fran Box of the Steep History Society.