Updated: 1 day ago
Some day, I think, there will be people enough
In Froxfield to pick all the blackberries
Out of the hedges of Green Lane, the straight
Broad lane where now September hides herself
In bracken and blackberry, harebell and dwarf gorse.
Today, where yesterday a hundred sheep
Were nibbling, halcyon bells shake to the sway
Of waters that no vessel ever sailed...
It is a kind of spring: the chaffinch tries
His song. For heat it is like summer too.
This might be winter's quiet. While the glint
Of hollies dark in the swollen hedge lasts -
One mile - and those bells ring, little I know
Or heed if time be still the same, until
The lane ends and once more all is the same.
The Lane was one of the last poems Edward Thomas wrote, in December 1916 a few weeks before embarking for France with his artillery unit. It is based on a memory of a day blackberrying with his wife, Helen, down Green Lane in Froxfield that September, when they were preparing to leave Hampshire after ten years. ET wrote to Helen on 22nd January 1917 from France "You never mentioned receiving those verses about Green Lane, Froxfield. Did you get them? They were written in December and suggested by our last walk there in September."
So The Lane is both a valedictory poem to the Hampshire countryside from a family moving away from their home of ten years, and also to England from a soldier bound to war.
It was a place he had written about in his field note books. On 17th April 1908, over eight years before, he had written:
"From S(outh) end of Green Lane by Warren Corner looking towards setting sun, first undulating ploughlands warm in red light, some stubble, also beech woods (smell), sheep square-hurdled in some green crop(,) young wheat misty: old stubble brown, then ridge beyond ridge of cloudy glowing trees, & more SW the line of the dim downs under a luminous airy level-clouded yellowish sky (large & windy)."
In January 1909 he had visited the other end of the Lane, by Claypits Farm on "a veiled sunny cold day" where he had experienced one of his transcendental moments, which he occasionally jotted down in his notebook:
" Gold light over swelling ploughland where gulls pay silent - no wind.....no houses - grey drab trees - no sound except in almost hid woods are axe sounds (this is nr Claypit farm).
Very silent & still as if all else had slept & I left alone awake."
On these previous visits to Green Lane ET had focused on the outward views over fields, "ridge beyond ridge" and to the Downs. In the poem he is much more closely confined by the hedges and trees on either side of the Lane, engrossed by the near at hand, as if he and Helen have stumbled on a magical fairyland, with all seasons present, and time standing still. The halcyon bells, as he described the hare bells, that "shake to the sway/ Of waters that no vessel ever sailed...", add a further magical touch. Halcyon refers to the blue of the kingfisher and it can also mean calm and peaceful. But its original meaning was a mythical kingfisher that was believed to build a floating nest on the sea, derived from the two Greek words for "sea" and "conceiving".
ET conjured up the same added dimension, when he described walking down a Welsh Lane in his book Beautiful Wales:
"I knew that I took up eternity with both hands, and though I laid it down again, the lane was a most potent, magic thing, when I could thus make time as nothing while I meandered over the centuries."
He had also described in one of his earliest poems, The Path, written nearly two years before, that same feeling of a place, outside time and everyday existence, this time about a path that he and his children used when walking up and down Stoner Hill, under a mile from where the Lane starts. "(T)he path that looks/ As if it led to some legendary/ Or fancied place where men have wished to go/ And stay: till, sudden, it ends where the wood ends."
The Lane has a similar abrupt ending to The Path, both in reality and poetically. as if in both cases the poet is coming down to earth and back to reality with a bump. A brief escape before contending again with everyday life, or as for ET in December 1916, with the trenches now looming firmly in prospect, a brief escape into a fond memory with a magical depth, a summation of the seasonal beauty that had surrounded him in Froxfield and Steep during an era of peace, before the horror of war.
Edna Longley suggests cogently in her notes to the poems, that The Lane "might be read as an epiphany of Thomas's epiphanies. It presents an abundant timeless moment, collapses the seasons, fuses the senses and lists flora and fauna." Of each of these there are examples in his notebooks over many years. The poetry is a fulfilment of a long gestation.
Though valedictory, ET also looks ahead in The Lane to a very different future Froxfield than the one he has known - "Some day, I think there will be people enough/ In Froxfield to pick all the blackberries." Green Lane is in an empty part of Froxfield, the Barnet side, with only a few farms and, in his day, one or two cottages on the road that passes its southern entrance. The cause of the increase in population he predicted, may have been the return of those fighting in the war, but he may also be envisaging the empty land at this end of the parish being developed to accommodate more people. In any event, with the war over two years old and having caused significant loss of life in every parish in the country, this is an optimistic view, sadly not borne out personally for ET.
Blackberrying was a favourite pastime of ET. The year before the poem he had written of: "Beautiful soft dark tansy flowers - picking blackberries, my mouth waters all the time"!
As always with ET's poems the observations are precise. He described the Lane as "straight/Broad". As WH Whiteman points out in The Edward Thomas Country. the Lane is so straight as it was probably designed on a map following enclosure to serve the new farms created in the 18th century. This would also explain its breadth as the enclosure commissioners made roads to standard width with a grass verge on either side.
He always noted the appearance of holly in his notebooks - its dark green providing such a distinctive tone in woodland and hedgerows throughout the year, but especially in the winter months. By September the chaffinch has normally stopped its song but, if it sings, it reverts to an incomplete song as in early Spring when it practises its first note or two before bursting into full song later. As Lord Grey of Fallodon wrote in his excellent book The Charm of Birds: "Up to the last week of June the chaffinch continues in vigorous song: then it ceases. In September an occasional subdued and imperfect song may be heard, but it comes to nothing..."
Moments of merging of the seasons is a theme in other ET poems, notably The Manor Farm ("The Winter's cheek flushed as if it had drained/Spring, Summer, and Autumn at a draught") and October ("The rich scene has grown fresh again and new/ As Spring..").
As Whiteman wrote in The Edward Thomas Country "if we need proof of Thomas's exact observation and his power to make poetry out of notebook stuff, The Lane is a telling exhibit."
The Lane can be found on the road from Petersfield to Ropley by way of Stoner Hill. The entrance is a few hundred yards after the Trooper Inn, opposite Warren Lane, and before the sharp corner, after which is the lane on the right to the Pub with No Name. This part of the Froxfield plateau is still an empty stretch of country, though a number of houses have been built to the east of the main road since ET's day.
You can walk the length of the Lane down to where it joins the junction of King's Lane and Ragmore Lane by Ragmore Farm, which leads to Claypit Lane and Claypit Farm.
The Lane's hedges have grown up considerably since ET's visit. It still has bramble and bracken and lots of holly. The hedges are now bushes and trees - elder, hazel, hawthorn, and holly with ashes and oaks overhead and chaffinches and tits calling in them. In September there are lots of blackberries, some Herb Robert, red campion, mugwort, hemp agrimony and wild basil, but sadly no halcyon bells (harebells) nor gorse.
The Lane is quite enclosed though there are still the wide ranging views over the empty countryside that ET noted at the start of the Lane, opposite Warren Corner. As well as being empty the land was much rougher in ET's day - as he described in his first poem, Up in the Wind, about the Pub with No Name, which is just across the main road from here. There was also a substantial wood, Chawners, a little further along the road, on the left. It was an oak wood of some maturity covered in blue bells in May. (ET used their alternative name of hyacinth when describing them in his notebook.)
A walk up and down the Lane - as ET wrote it's almost exactly a mile - will take c45 minutes, longer if blackberrying. Views open up on the left hand side of gates and the occasional gap in the foliage, less far-ranging than at the beginning as the lane dips down. But it's still largely a place unto itself, secluded from the outside. You rarely encounter any other walker and only an occasional tractor interrupts the peace.
The OS map for the Lane is OS Explorer OL33 Haslemere & Petersfield.
Field Note Books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York
I have quoted directly once from Edna Longley's Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems but have also drawn on other insights from her notes about the derivation of halcyon, and the quote about the path in Beautiful Wales.
My thanks as always to Ben Mackay for editorial support.