Updated: Feb 18, 2022
A fortnight before Christmas Gypsies were everywhere:
Vans were drawn up on wastes, women trailed to the fair.
'My gentleman,' said one, 'You've got a lucky face.'
'And you've a luckier,' I thought, 'if such a grace
And impudence in rags are lucky.' 'Give a penny
For the poor baby's sake.' 'Indeed I had not any
Unless you can give change for a sovereign, my dear.'
'Then just half a pipeful of tobacco can you spare?'
I gave it. With that much victory she laughed content.
I should have given more, but off and away she went
With her baby and her pink sham flowers to rejoin
The rest before I could translate to its proper coin
Gratitude for her grace. And I paid nothing then,
As I pay nothing now with the dipping of my pen
For her brother's music when he drummed the tambourine
And stamped his feet, which made the workmen passing grin,
While his mouth-organ changed to a rascally Bacchanal dance
'Over the hills and far away'. This and his glance
Outlasted all the fair, farmer and auctioneer,
Cheap-jack, balloon-man, drover with crooked stick, and steer,
Pig, turkey, goose, and duck, Christmas corpses to be.
Not even the kneeling ox had eyes like the Romany.
That night he peopled for me the hollow wooded land,
More dark and wild than stormiest heavens, that I searched and scanned
Like a ghost new-arrived. The gradations of the dark
Were like an underworld of death, but for the spark
In the Gypsy boy's black eyes as he played and stamped his tune,
'Over the hills and far away', and a crescent moon.
Edward Thomas wrote The Gypsy on 22 January 1915 based on earlier recollections from his time at Selsfield House, near Turners Hill, West Sussex during 1913. It followed The Source (4th January) and The Penny Whistle (5th January) - see separate post. They, together with The Other, The Gallows and The Long Small Room, all drew on observations from his field note books and other recollections from his time at Selsfield.
On 11th December 1913 he visited the Christmas fair at East Grinstead which he wrote up in detail in Field Note Book 67. The fair took place round the junction between the High Street and Cantelupe Street. Stalls can still be found there though the last animal market was in the 1990s.
The 11th December was a dull cloudy wild day. ET visited East Grinstead in the morning when the auction of cattle- around 50, some cows well advanced in-calf, some large calfs - and some cart horses was underway. The auctioneer is "bulging-eyed" and "bulging cheeked" who went up in half a crown increments in the bidding. Small knots of farmers were gathered dressed drably in ready-made overcoats or waterproofs - some with old style whiskers and shaven lip but most were indistinguishable from shopkeepers. ET noted the lack of sound except for one or two cattle that "try a boeuf" (the French for moo) As well as the auctioneer and farmers, other characters mentioned in the poem, besides the gypsies, include drovers with crooked sticks ("one with no arm"), a cheapjack spreading a table on the pavement, a balloon seller, and lots of cattle - "black & white or red curly" in High Street "at foot of steps, some kneeling down opposite principal butcher's".
The cheapjack, a "little black-haired pale man of 30" was obviously quite a wit. He asked a rough simple labourer if he was married and said "You have my sympathy" and shook his hand and said "Do you love your wife?" to lots of laughter.
On the road between Selsfield House and East Grinstead ET came across "little traps and small rough ponies" at the fork to Turners Hill - presumably of the farmers and other country visitors to the Fair. At other forks in the road and turnings into some of the principal farms along the road there were lots of gypsy caravans parked up on the waste. The gypsies were coming into East Grinstead fair with sham flowers, "begging money or 1/2 pipe of tobacco". One talked of "My lucky gentleman" "You've got a lucky face" ET noted "But she had much luckier face in reality". He omitted from the poem his response to one encounter, described in the field note book, "One boy & girl I ran away from"!
He described "One boy playing rapid rascally Bacchanal tune on a mouth organ while he drums on a tambourine (&) stamps his feet & workmen grin". A few days after on 17th December two gypsy boys came to Selsfield House, presumably door-to-door busking with that "rascally Bacchic music". "One has mouth organ, the other drums on tambourine not lacking cymbals. They play 'Over the hills & far away' and 'If I were Mr Balfour'". The latter was presumably a popular song of the time about a recent Prime Minister.
'Over the hills and faraway' is a marching song best known nowadays as the theme song for the Sharpe television series and the one song that Tom, the piper's son, could play in the nursery rhyme. There are various versions but as ET described how the boy "that night..peopled for me the hollow wooded land" he was probably singing the dramatist George Farquhar's lyrics which describes Tom, an apprentice leaving his apprenticeship and joining other boys to head off to war:
"The queen commands and we obey
Over the hills and far away"
The older lyrics by D'Urfey are of a more solitary escape.
In many of his field note books ET noted his encounters with gypsies - whether visiting an encampment, drawing a gypsy tent or describing their dress. He was fascinated by them as he was other itinerants with their own traditions and on the margin of society (such as pedlars, tramps and charcoal burners)
ET was also strangely fascinated by the landscape around Selsfield, part attractive, part alienating and very different from the chalk country of his home in the Hampshire hangers and the South Downs. In his field note books he often noted the dark wooded hollows and ghylls and dim houseless ridges towards the South Downs. On the evening of 14th December he wrote of "darkest possible night, the sky merely not as black as earth" at 6.30pm. A few days later he described the recollection of that moment in even more detail when he was a different mood: 'How different 2 days ago when I looked from a highish road.....over a houseless lowish but hollowed wooded country nothing but gradations of inhuman dark (beginning to get misty at nightfall) as of an underworld & my soul fled over it experiencing the afterdeath - friendless, vacant & hopeless."
This occurred at the end of a day when he had explored Hook Lane, south of West Hoathly. He had passed "high up a f(ar)m" which he misnamed Rook Farm, instead of Hook Farm, where he had noticed its "gallant" pheasant weather vane. Opposite was an old quarry filled with oak, elm, chestnut & fir. Ever present on this high road were the Downs far in the south, changing colour with the sky as evening drew in ("flame-cloured", then "duller marigold", finally "a reddish line") while the nearer ridge was blue. He passed a "pretty farm (Pickeridge), half of it tiled, the other half....cleanly white-boarded". Beyond he dropped down into the steep sided valley (Horn Coombe) "with oak wood & underwood & grass full of blackened ash & cherry leaves".
There are still far-reaching views to be enjoyed along Hook Lane on all sides and one can imagine ET experiencing up there all the changes in light and colour across the far-flung ridges as the winter night came on, until all was "inhuman dark". A few days later in a very different mood he described close to Selsfield "one of those eternal evenings - the wind gone, no-one upon the road.....a soft dulling flame-coloured sky." He asked "What does it mean?.. I feel an old inhabitant of earth at such times." He was later to incorporate this moment into The Other. Perhaps, as in the poem, the rascally Bacchic song he had heard the day before had helped shift his mood from despair to something closer to serenity.
ET's own solitary existence away from family and other distractions had proved very stimulating though he was still subject to occasional bouts of depression. Arguably his time at Selsfield in 1913 and early 1914 was one of the most influential periods in his development as a poet and where he began to develop some of his early poetic themes. He was there to complete some commissioned prose - an autobiography of his childhood and his biography of Keats - but he also spent a lot of time walking and exploring round Selsfield in ever widening circles. His notes and observations and direct encounters from these walks here proved a useful source of inspiration for a number of his early poems when he started to compose poetry a year later.
The walk that ET would have taken from Selsfield House to East Grinstead and back was along the road passing the places he noted where the gypsies had left their caravans - Selsfield Common, Tickeridge Farm, at the turning to Turners Hill where the road crosses the young river Medway, and the turnings to Saint Hill Farm and Hill Place Farm. The road is now busy with traffic and does not make a conducive place to appreciate what ET would have experienced over 100 years ago. It's a shame as besides The Gypsy, views from the road may have inspired parts of other poems including The Other and November. In FNB 70 ET described the country as "this land of great wooded knolls (eg on which Turners Hill, Selsfield, West Hoathley and East Grinstead stand) with steep mellowed oak slopes & winding grooves w(ith) tiny streams & rushy bottoms."
There are a number of footpaths that take one cross country, somewhat circuitously, to reach East Grinstead, and they can be put together to create a big circuit through this "hollow land". However I have outlined below a shorter walk running parallel to the road which minimises the amount of time spent road-walking while taking in the character of the countryside on the west side of East Grinstead.
The starting point is the turning off Vowels Lane down towards the Kingscote Estate vineyard, opposite Tickeridge Farm. There is a parking area a couple of hundred yards down on the right. On 7th December 1913, a Sunday, the day of the week ET had ambivalent feelings for, he wrote of a walk he does to Tickeridge Farm where by the old tiled farm, starlings were "thick on orchard tree all whistling". Some gypsies were to leave their
caravans here before the Christmas market the following Thursday. ET walked up the turning, making towards a high point above the railway cutting on which was gorse and heather "under 20 stately pale stemmed beeches" with hollies.
From there "you look over a rushy field below to Gravetye woods rising opposite". He could pick out the black fir line along Gravetye drive and the buildings of Moat farm. If you walk along the road you reach a series of paths converging, one goes under the railway towards
Mill Place Farm and the Kingscote Estate. If you head towards the railway and before going through the tunnel take the path up hill to your right, there is a knoll behind an old quarry, you reach what was probably ET's viewpoint. It's much more overgrown now with beech and yew, hazel and hollies so the views towards Gravetye Manor and its woods are very restricted.
He was there again 10 days later on 17th December for a longer walk noting another knoll which the railway line cuts through, topped with five beeches on western side (which can be found earlier on the left) and then taking the footpath under the railway to Mill Place Farm. Beyond the farm, which now has a vineyard and shop, the young Medway river is quite a presence already. Nowadays there are a series of lakes/ponds which did not exist in ET's day. He describes the Medway as "alder edged " with a group of black poplars, going "thro(ugh) rushy fields bordered by rough bank... w(ith) cavernous sandstone." There are now also vineyards extending all around but it remains a very attractive spot - with the Medway meandering through soggy fields with alders, poplars and willow. He walked up towards Stone Farm along "the winding farm road" to reach the sandstone ridge which is such a feature of this landscape. Some outcrops are still "overhung by yew & darker but gleaming holly", or "where slope is gentler with olive-silver gleaming barked oaks & sounding Scots firs".
The path joins the High Weald Landscape Trail, as ET noted "the track is on rock here" and you have to peer over to appreciate the sandstone ridges's height and admire its exotic outcrops - or just walk along its base. He described these outcrops as "huge rounded boulders of lichenous mossy stone on steep slope looking SW". He noted its base "in bracken, stubble and lesser rocks & topped with oak & holly whose roots they mingle with". The ridge is known as Ardingly Sandstone and it stretches from Tunbridge Wells to East Grinstead. It produces some of the finest rock climbing sites in the South of England and the Stone Fram site is much used by boulderers. The bracken at the foot of the sandstone ridge stands out in autumn/winter when brown - more dominant than green - and seems to have taken over even more since ET's day. On another longer walk on 19th December to the top of Ashdown Forest he passed this way again and described its outcrops as presenting "round fronts like round bathhouses or towers". He drew them in his field note book, curved units with growths of trees and vegetation on top.
The path reaches West Hoathley road and you go right along road before turning the next left down the path past Stone Hill House (joining the Sussex Borders path). Here the landscape has changed dramatically since ET's day as a result of the creation of the Weir Wood Reservoir in the early 1950s by damming the River Medway. It is a now nature reserve and a beauty spot and fits very well into the landscape of rolling hills.
ET described on another of his walks the landscape which the reservoir later submerged "1/2 way to Walesbeech (a farm) - a thatched shed over a stream & a hatch below....a plantation of osier near it. Alders & ash & oak & hazel all along Medway. Alders thick purple with catkins. Later after the tiled and tilehung farmhouse of Walesbeech (now submerged) as he headed towards Brambletye Farm he spotted rooks in the oaks of a big level meadow and three herons flying low together. He sketched the Medway and its banks at Brambletye where he noted a mill house among yew trees and a "white boarded mill working".
For the next stage of the walk, the track past Stone Hill House takes you down to the north side of the reservoir. Once into a field, there are two footpaths to the left off the Sussex Border path, taking you up through the field to the sandstone ridge. The path climbs through the bracken and wooded sandstone outcrops. Looking back, you see wonderful glimpses and flashes of the Weir Wood reservoir.
From the field above the sandstone ridge you can see Standen House, one of the finest examples of arts & crafts workmanship by Philip Webb and Morris & Co. Built for James and Margaret Beale and their family in the 1890s - he was a prosperous solicitor from Birmingham - it looks as if it has grown out of the sandstone landscape, constructed with local materials and traditional construction methods. Yet it was also a substantial modern home in its day, with a very different feel to the surrounding ancient Wealden farmhouses and cottages.
Passing by Standen, you follow the path (the High Weald Landscape Trail) up through the field along trees on one side, on the other far reaching views to the west over the "hollowed land" up to Selsfield Common and West Hoathly. Closer to is the cream bulk of the Saint Hill Manor complex, now the UK home of Scientology, whose entrance we later pass.
Joining the drive to Standen House you turn left up towards the road (West Hoathly Road again) which you cross to the sports ground of East Grinstead RFC. Along the path to the right are extensive views of East Grinstead town. After passing an interesting chapel-shaped house you go right along Saint Hill Road passing the entrance to Saint Hill Manor on the left. Further on there is the entrance to the East Grinstead Sports Club and you follow the footpath signs past the hockey pitches into High Wood. (If you carry on up Saint Hill Road you arrive at one of the cross-roads where some of the gypsy caravans congregated that December.) The path now goes through a series of woods and fields with occasional views south over the rolling countryside. After the darkness of Mary Wood turn right along the side of a big field and then at the cottage turn left down to Mill Place Farm and the Kingscote Estate again, past orchards and the larger pond.
ET described the landscape when he walked through it on a November day up to Ridge Hill Farm on a footpath which sadly no longer exists.
"Streamlet (the baby Medway), alders & very few cattle & a solitary cottage or 2 & a farm & precipitous black smooth bulging rock meshing with yew and hazel; & larch plantations & rambling paths & bridges by alders & along edges of wood & so nxt by Ridge Hill Farm". As the afternoon wanes "the pewits began to settle and shift their lodgings with low flight & the mist thickened".
It's very different to today's more manicured (though attractive) estate. Once back at Mill Place there are refreshments available at the wine shop. You can retrace your steps to where you parked your car.
Map, further information, acknowledgements
Map - Ashdown Forest OS Explorer Map 135
More on Kingscote Estate, Standen House, East Grinstead markets, Stone Farm and Weir Wood reservoir can be found on links below:
Photograph of Selsfield House thanks to and copyright the Lines Family
Field Note Books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York
Thanks as ever to Ben Mackay for editorial assistance.