Updated: Nov 28, 2022
The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark.
Its mouth is stopped with brambles, thorn and briar;
And no one scrambles over the sliding chalk
By beech and yew and perishing juniper
Down the half precipices of its sides, with roots
And rabbit holes for steps. The sun of Winter,
The moon of Summer, and all the singing birds
Except the missel-thrush that loves juniper,
Are quite shut out. But far more ancient and dark
The Combe looks since they killed the badger there,
Dug him out and gave him to the hounds,
That most ancient Briton of English beasts.
The Combe was one of Edward Thomas’s earliest poems written on the penultimate day of 1914, drawing on his memories from over five years before. It describes one of the combes that scallops the Ashford Hangers above Steep.
The Combe has been commonly associated with Lutcombe where the Ashford stream rises. Lutcombe Bottom is a strange, other-worldly valley between Ashford Hill and Ashford Hanger and below the Stoner Hill road. Lutcombe has many of the characteristics ET described in the poem, including beech and yew, and precipitous sliding chalk “with roots/ and rabbit holes for steps”.
However it was not the Combe where the badger was killed. According to ET’s notebook this happened on 26th October 1909, over 5 years before he wrote the poem. He noted the following day: “Rain rain all day battering down leaves & falling on bones of the badger they killed yesterday in Berryfield Combe.”
He had been away the previous day in Surrey and had probably been told the news of the death on return. In his notes he did not explicitly mention that the badger had been given to the hounds but as the bones have been left bare within a day, the dogs must have taken all its flesh off.
In the next note in his notebook, probably linked to news of the badger's death and touching on the atmosphere of ancient time that ET sensed in the Combe, he wrote: "The day still cold & indefinite is thinking - & a sigh comes over it more out of time than space."
A month earlier on 26th September, ET described a walk up the hanger in similar terms to those used in the poem:
“Scrambling walk on steep chalk - tall juniper - ripe blackberries - basil & marjoram flowers - ragwort & spikenard - elderberries thick, w(ith) wood pigeons at? them - tits overhead - larch wood - changing leaves - solitude high up on old track above Ashford Farm & coombes.”
Berryfield Combe is a much smaller Combe than Lutcombe, with no stream. It can be found just to the west of Shoulder of Mutton Hill (to the left as you are looking at it from below). There is an unnamed combe of similar size on the eastern side of the hill.
The entrance path is not obvious and can be missed either walking along the bottom path round the hangers or on the path midway up the hangers. It is the closest combe to Berryfield Cottage where the Thomas family lived during their early years in Hampshire - just over the lane and a field away, a wild place on Thomas's doorstep. From the lane, rather than going up the steps of Shoulder of Mutton, you follow the path to the left along the bottom of the hangers and as it turns left, the entrance to the Combe, still choked with vegetation, is ahead.
Berryfield Hanger was one of a number of routes ET used to climb the hangers. Though he did not use it as regularly as the path up Shoulder of Mutton Hill, he does seem to have used it occasionally especially in the early days of living in Berryfield Cottage. But the Combe was not just a route up, it was also a wild place unto itself, a place to visit to get away from everyday life. In his notebooks he wrote of it as:
“Bare floor of yew temple - sound outside where foliage is but inside is brown green & rosey & silent.”
He exclaimed in another note “Oh the seclusion of the still dripping beech & yew woods veiled fr(om) the valley in mist, & blackbirds song.”
In these early days he often described the natural life of Berryfield Hanger, some of which he must have been able to see from the upstairs windows of Berryfield Cottage:
“In sunny windy blue hour of rainy day Berryfield Hanger is full of chinking of chaffinches.” (July 1907)
Later in the month he told of finding a bugloss in the field above the hanger:
“Tall barbaric ancient pride of the bugloss spire in multitude in barren corn field above Berryfield Hanger - the blueness w(ith) flush of pink here & there, the hairiness, the curious blue make it a survival fr(om) some different scheme of greater wildness - as if it had recently risen upwards from snakedom or lizarddom & had not shed its old insignia - so that it is astonishing among docks & brown/bronze grass.”
In May 1908 he noted “Superb dignified flight of a jackdaw up & down & round about Berryfield Hanger ere he alighted - especially one slanting plunge so still winged that it seemed the woods moved & he stood still only leaning forward eagerly in air.”
The following day (15th May) he wrote of the hanger:
“Now that beeches are at this finest early but full green, one dark yew am(on)g them looks just a dark gulf or cave, not a real or solid thing.”
Later in the autumn of that year he observed in Berryfield Combe "small crowds of whitish missel thrushes at junipers."
His observations of the Combe and its hanger accumulated and spurred his imagination. Towards the end of July 1908 he wrote in his notebook, citing Richard Jefferies “There are now no symbols for people like me - no gods or deities - must we not go to Nature & follow….”
On the next page, he synthesised the denial and the assertion into an outstanding imaginative passage headed The Combe, describing it as a place where one of the cornerstone Greek myths could have occurred:
“Greatest antiquity of all broods about it - the earliest peace & simplicity & promise. Hence its serious solemnity as if mother Ceres waiting for Persephone or of earth wondering when her children will be wise as she seems (Earth) Anyway mother beautiful. Here in midst of age sits the earliest thing the Earth Mother.”
The first part of the passage describes the myth of the goddess Demeter/Ceres, the Greek/Roman goddess of agriculture, and her daughter Persephone who was abducted by Hades and fell in love with him. As a result her mother, in her grief, neglected her agricultural duties and the earth suffered, until Zeus adjudicated a compromise whereby Persephone would return from Hades to above ground for six months in a year, so reestablishing the seasons. ET envisaged the Combe as where Ceres/Demeter waits for her daughter's return from the underworld.
Thomas goes on to imagine Gaia, the earth goddess and grandmother to Demeter and Zeus among others, also sitting in this place “in the midst of age”. Gaia’s children were many and included Titans, Cyclops and Gigantes, (as well as many others including the Meliae, the nymphs of the ash trees, common in Berryfield Combe). Many of the giants she gave birth to were legendarily foolish and received their come-uppance at the hands of her grandchildren the Olympians, led by Zeus.
None of these gods receive a direct mention in the poem but there is the echo of the idea that the Combe is a domain of certain gods in his description of “The sun of Winter, The moon of Summer…..Are quite shut out.” On the face of it, this is an accurate description of both the summer moon and winter sun both low in the sky at these respective solstices, so neither of them rise high enough for their rays to enter the choked mouth of Berryfield Combe. But ET could have also been giving an added significance in the poem to this astronomical observation in his earlier imaginings of the Combe as the realm of Earth and the earth gods, not the sky gods.
Following on from his note about Gaia's progeny, ET wrote of other handicaps faced by the gods - “dim consciousness of wars that happen in the grass/grain without a sound - toil & love etc wh(ich) are but as a dimming of light & a solemnising of shadow in the grove.” But this solemnised temple grove and its peace and promise was changed by the much more noticeable upset of the badger’s death. For ET, the Combe then became far more ancient and dark than even the era of the earth goddess, taking it back to a primeval time when death and blood lust ruled above all.
Later in November 1909 the badger’s death was memorialised by ET in his field notebook, renaming the Combe as Badgers Holt and noting the ash tree was still green.
A few weeks later he was to describe these woods below their new house at the top of the hangers that they had just moved into:
“The woods below very dark & ag(ain)st them wheel 100s of pigeons frighted by gun - they look as if an underworld, remote, serene & sad & clear & dark.”
So from the outset of his years at Berryfield, the neighbouring Combe was a spur to ET’s imagination, a place to set out to climb and explore the mysterious wild dark hangers, while also being a place of seclusion, a wild fastness and even a temple grove, summoning up images of earth goddesses and the underworld.
His perceptions were dramatically changed by the killing of the badger in October 1909. Shortly afterwards ET and his family moved up from Berryfield Cottage to the Red House at the top of the hangers, in a long-planned move. There he began to explore other new places, more in reach from the new house, leaving Berryfield Combe and its ancient and dark associations behind.
He continued to walk regularly up and down the neighbouring Shoulder of Mutton right up to his last days in Steep, which inspired his wonderful valedictory poem “When First”, where he speaks of his love for the hill. The Combe next door had inspired more complex feelings from his earliest days in Hampshire, which he revived when writing the poem. These feelings - and the poem - can be better understood from the stream of observations about Berryfield Combe and Hanger that he jotted down in his earlier field note books.
The Combe can be easily reached from Ashford Lane. There is a car park by the gates leading up to Lutcombe pond. If you follow the Hangers Way and, before the pond is reached, take the path on the right over the small bridge. Keeping right along the path it takes you up and round in woods between the field and the bottom of the hanger. Walk along the path with some wonderful views of Ashford Chase and the Downs beyond. Before the path takes a sharp right back down towards the lane, there are two entrances into Berryfield Combe on the left.
The Combe is spotted with harts tongue ferns and dog's mercury. There's little sign of perishing juniper but some beech and much yew, hazel and elder and also ashes (many fallen - where have the Meliae gone?!). Climbing, you have to use the roots for steps as ET described - scrambling up the steep slope you go from tree to tree to get purchase to move to the next one.
While the slopes get barer and steeper as they get higher, the Combe bottom is choked all the way up with vegetation and trees that have fallen into it. There is no sign of any badger setts, though there are are a number in other parts of Ashford Hangers.
The Combe still has a primeval wildness and an otherworldliness that you can see ET would have found attractive. A wild place so close to home, where no-one but he and his family scrambled up.
The easiest way up the Combe is to make for a track that starts up on the right-hand slope. It peters out further up into an indistinct deer path that reaches the midway path along the hangers via various yew trees. It is steep going and can be slippery. To the right the midway path takes you shortly to Shoulder of Mutton hill and its glorious views along the South Downs, to the left it winds round Berryfield Hanger before reaching the main track back down into Lutcombe from the top of Shoulder of Mutton.
Maps and acknowledgements
The map covering the Ashford Hangers and Berryfield Combe is OS Explorer OL33 Haslemere and Petersfield.
Car parking in Ashford Lane at the entrance to the track (Hangers Way) up to Lutcombe Pond is at SU737264.
Field note book copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York
Thanks as ever to Ben Mackay for his editorial assistance.