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The Source

Updated: Feb 9

All day the air triumphs with its two voices

Of wind and rain:

As loud as if in anger it rejoices,

Drowning the sound of earth

That gulps and gulps in choked endeavour vain

To swallow the rain.

Half the night, too, only the wild air speaks

With wind and rain,

Till forth the dumb source of the river breaks

And drowns the rain and wind,

Bellows like a giant bathing in mighty mirth

The triumph of earth.

The Source was written by Edward Thomas on 4th January 1915 at his home in Steep, shortly after he had sprained his ankle badly. He had started writing poetry at the beginning of the previous month and was still  in the first flush of inspiration. Handicapped by his ankle, he was confined to his home and was using his past field notebooks for ideas to develop into poems. 

In the original manuscript he actually entitled the poem “The Source of the Ouse at Selsfield”. He had stayed at Selsfield House near East Grinstead in West Sussex for many weeks a year before, during the autumn and winter of 1913/14. He had found solace there after a period of increasing depression at home. His time was spent writing two books - on Keats and an autobiography of his own childhood. When not writing he explored the countryside, which fascinated him, so very different from the countryside of chalk hangers and downs of his Hampshire home.

Selsfield was owned by the Locke Ellises. Vivian was an old literary friend of ET’s who had a bookshop in London, was a poet and published a literary journal which had included an essay by Thomas. The Queen Anne house stands high on the western borders of Ashdown Forest, with long views over wooded ridges to the South Downs. It sits above two quarries and was originally the quarry-master’s house. 

Below the house and beyond the quarries is a steep rocky valley, called the Ghyl, which stretches 2 miles or so from where its stream rises close to the house down to the Ardingly Brook. The Brook goes on to join the Ouse just to the south east of Ardingly.

The inhabitants of the house have always believed the Ghyl was the source of the Ouse. In fact the Ouse rises further south and west in Sussex between Slaugham and Lower Beeding. But the large number of its tributaries that fan back into the watershed west of Ashdown Forest would have made the choice of source confusing in earlier days. So it is not surprising that locals should lay claim to their stream being the source.  

There may have been an additional reason. The local ghylls, steep rocky muddy valleys peculiar to Ashdown Forest and its hinterland, are sometimes named - Ardingly Brook, Shell, Cob Brook and Cockhaise, Hook and Sedgy Ghyll among others. Others are unnamed and referred to generically as ghylls. Only the one rising below Selsfield House has the specific generic name, the Ghyl, (though it is occasionally referred to by ET as the Selsfield Brook). Perhaps this was why Selsfield residents regarded their stream as having particular significance, and inferred that it was the source of the Ouse. 

From his earliest times at Selsfield ET was intrigued by the Ghyl. The first mention was in a letter to his wife Helen when staying there with his son Mervyn after a long bike ride in the summer of 1912:

"Deep dark Ghyll where they quarried the sandstone hundreds of years ago, now full of hazel and oak. The Ellises are thinking of adding a newer bit to their garden - a square deep hollow with sandmartin’s nests and ragwort, suitable for an outdoor theatre, fives court etc.”

In May of the following year he spent a few days there resting after completing In Pursuit of Spring, his book about a bike ride from London to the Quantocks. 

It must have been a blissful time with the countryside looking glorious and he explored the immediate neighbourhood including the Ghyl. He wrote:

“The young Ouse valley of mossy woods, bluebell paths & oaks up to 

the rocky Ghyll - charcoal-burners caravan & blue smoke by wet old rd in woods.” 

A note made later in week described in detail his first encounter with the magic blue caravan of the charcoal-burners which was hoisted up on stilts above the mud close to the confluence of the Ghyl and the Ardingly Brook. Having come across the fields south of Selsfield via Newhouse and Great Strudgate farms he followed the Ardingly Brook down to where it met the Ghyl: 

“Here I turned left again up along & above Selsfield stream (Ouse) along  bluebell paths, sometimes past an exposed bit of darkened rock (once quarried). These little meeting valleys very deep & steep & covered entirely with oak wood & some hazel undergrowth.”

When he stayed at Selsfield for another week in September, on his last evening he spent time in the fields south of Selsfield toward Gunters (the family who lived at Old House, the neighbouring farm to Selsfield), looking over to the Ardingly Road and down to the South Downs. He noted sheaves of wheat in a narrow strip sloping down to the Ghyl and a blackbird retreating into it from the mangolds and a robin singing there. He goes on “Extraordinary satisfaction in the still clear evening pale & soft in South, dark in East” followed by a paeon for “stationary” Autumn, which he was to use as the basis for his poem, October, two years later at military camp. 

The Ghyl in May and September was very different to his later experience of it that winter. The valleys became much wetter and muddier but as he wrote to his friend, Eleanor Farjeon the weather was often perfect for walking. The walk he had found in May became a favourite one at the end of a day’s writing before it got too dark. In December he walked there at least three times, twice encountering the charcoal-burners by their magic-blue caravan, which inspired his later poem The Penny-Whistle (see separate post for more detail of the notes he wrote about these walks).

On the way back from one of these encounters he wrote:

“Wood pigeons detaching themselves from spruces by Gunters. A goldfinch goes over. A wren makes its one shrill call. Thrush sings till 4.15 as rain comes & I approach Selsfield House by the valley (the Ghyl)  in which I have been for 2 miles or more, winding by timber paths above stream, with oak & hazel etc under bigger oaks on either side of vale, but  at first (inset) half way up far side (a) some (crossed out) grass fields, one with mown bracken lying in rows on slope (Bloomer’s Valley part of the Wakehurst Estate). 

Late that month, on the night of Christmas Eve he experienced the full force of the elements that inspired The Source. He wrote:

“at 10.30 it began to drizzle & rained harder & harder, through night

till 5, the Ouse ?spewing/spuming by Selsfield House pounding away like a giant having a bath, audible thro the rain, which stopped at 5 or so.” 

The weather previously that autumn and winter had been very mixed. Though bright and sunny by day, the nights had often been very wet, windy and occasionally stormy. So the eve of Christmas Eve was not a one-off although it was certainly extreme. 

In November he had written of a quiet roar of steady windless rain early one morning, with the following night “wild rain” all through dawn and the next night he woke to “a deep roar of the whole earth in/vs? the wind & the rustle of near trees which were exchanged at 6.30 imperceptibly for the steady….roar of rain & less wind, but still thrush sings & sparrow chirip & starlings pipe & robins “pit-pit”mingle with rain”.

The wind and rain seem to win most of these “battles” so the night of 23rd December must have been especially memorable with the “triumph of the earth”. His years living at the top of Ashford Hangers where wind, rain and mist had predominated had made him a supporter of the earth in these struggles! The family had left the Red House that summer, after three and a half years there, for the much smaller, but more sheltered, Yew Tree Cottage, in Steep below. His poems The New House and Wind and Mist describe the immediate and long term depressive effects that these airy elements of “wild air” had on him during his time living at the top of the hangers. 

Much of the bad weather at Selsfield seems to have occurred when he was lying awake in bed, unable to sleep, listening to the turmoil outside. This bedroom at Selsfield House was also a place he associated with another, even more memorable occasion which may have been in his mind when writing The Source. 

On the first night of his stay in September he had noted: 

“It is Sept 7th & the year is gone. All night the 100 firs by the Ardingly road sound like a far forest or sea. Then at 4.30 the cocks crow, none hears & a robin begins to sing its pausing unbroken song & sounds quite monotonous & quite expressionless outside in the dark hushed garden. He continues & the light grows & the firs never cease & I try to sleep but

can only try to compose verse on the occasion, beginning something like

The 7th of September

The sere & the ember 

Of the year & of me

There will always be firs to

moan & robins to sing at 

cold dawn.”

This is ET's first attempt at verse as an adult (as opposed to his teenage writings). It has never been included in his collected poems but it is clear from his note that this was a moment of significance to him, even though this may be partially tongue in cheek. As Jean Moorcroft Wilson writes in her biography, this fledgling attempt bears some of the hallmarks of Thomas’s later poetry. She goes on to suggest Robert Frost should not necessarily be regarded as “the only begetter” of Thomas’s verse as Thomas himself claimed, but that he turned to writing poetry in trying to combat his depression before he met Frost. (He was to meet him a few weeks later in London.) Faced with being unable to sleep, a symptom of depression, he “can only try to compose verse on the occasion.”

So The Source, one of his first poems written when his inspiration was rising to its full flood, may well look back further back beyond the immediate inspiration of Christmas Eve night a year before to this “occasion”, when he had made his first attempt to write a poem. He would have seen this as the moment he had turned his mind to becoming a poet - the source of all his subsequent poetry, which had occurred in the bedroom where he later heard the triumph of the earth. 

He had moved away from home because of his increased depression and his moods during his stay at Selsfield had continued to oscillate. He had reached a crisis point of despair earlier in December but his mood thereafter changed  for the better. These different moods are reflected in his poems The Gypsy and The Other.

A few days later his witnessing the triumph of the earth on Christmas Eve seems to have been cathartic. 

After the outpourings of the night before, Christmas Eve dawned with “the white frost lay thick under a clear pale sky & the day was lovely & bright & mild, at 4 there was a burning golden sun falling out of a band of soft dark cloud thro a space of glowing primrose sky, against which Chanctonbury is soft, pale & clear, upper sky clear. At 4.30 a dark soft 

wall of cloud in SW & some loose cloud mountains but at 5 a clear few-starred quiet night.”

Chanctonbury would have connected ET to his home in Hampshire as it was a prominent hill on the South Downs which he saw, and often noted, from both Selsfield and Steep. Meanwhile from Steep, Helen and the children had arrived to spend a few days over Christmas at Selsfield. His last visit home for a weekend at the beginning of December had been a disaster. But Christmas was much more successful as ET’s mood had changed, like the weather, for the better.

When looking back at the inspiration of The Source and his note about a giant bathing, did he add “mirthful” to express recollections of his own changed mood? And perhaps he also had in mind another mirthful figure whom his children would have been expecting to visit on Christmas Eve - a role which he took seriously as we know from Myfanwy’s memoirs. She described her brother Mervyn’s proof of the existence of Father Christmas. One Christmas at their earlier home at Elsted Farm in Kent, Father Christmas had eaten the orange left for him and cut out a Thank You in orange peel, which Mervyn had found on Christmas morning beside his “bulging stocking”! 


The land above Selsfield extending east to Ashdown Forest is one of the great watersheds of England. Not only do dozens of tributaries rise here flowing south into the Ouse but many flow north and east into the Thames and the Medway. On high ground there are long and wide views south and west over a series of wooded ridges to the South Downs. But this is also close country with ghylls multiplying across the rolling wooded landscape, winding through woods of oak and hazel. The spurs and isthmuses of high land between the ghylls create physical boundaries that are difficult to cross and even see past. These valleys, sometimes within a hundred yards of each other, are “overlookable but often inaccessible and secret,” even to locals. As described above, ET was fascinated by this strange landscape very different for the chalk hangers and downs of Hampshire, half attracted, half repelled by its strangeness, depending on his mood. 

The Ghyl originates in the high meadows around Selsfield Common just to the north of Selsfield House, passing the house underground, before entering the sandstone sided valley below and spouting forth.

It is not possible, without trespassing, to follow the Ghyl the two miles down to where it joins the Ardingly Brook as ET would have walked. However it can be crossed in three places by public footpath. All of them existed in ET’s day and he used them to explore the country as well as going through the wooded valleys along private paths (with or without permission!).

The Ghyl may be difficult to access but other ghylls are even more inaccessible. The local Ardingly resident, AI Hett (Sandie), to whom I am indebted for much of the above, wrote a fascinating piece published in the Highbrook Chronicle in May 1969 on the ghylls and watershed of West Sussex. He identified only a handful of places where public rights of way intersected with the many streams across the area. He wrote of one discovery that he had happened upon only after many years exploring the area: “When I used to stand on the road near Lywood, I would see the rising fields of Goddenwick Farm, and wonder where the valley of the Cockhaise brook disappeared to. Only recently did I see from near Sherriff Farm, beyond the disused railway, a quiet, sheltered rather secret little valley leading to lower pastures. A revelation.” 

So much time can be spent wandering between these paths and getting a feel for the countryside that Thomas spent so many days exploring.

Little has changed. There are a few more dwellings as barns and other farm buildings have been converted but otherwise the countryside is remarkably unspoilt. Sadly the roads not so. The Ardingly Road is nowadays a difficult barrier and two footpaths stop at the road with no immediate continuation on the other side. The road is not one to walk on for any distance as the traffic is fast and there is no footpath, with impenetrable hedges at the edge of the road. So any walk should avoid making use of the roads where possible. 

A good place to start the walk is at Selsfield Common where there are parking places. The wooded common and the fields around it provide panoramic views north, south and west. Crossing the busy Turners Hill, West Hoathly road there is a path that follows the isthmus of land between the Ghyl  and Ardingly Brook. From this ridge two paths go left down to the Ghyl, one just before Great Strudgate Farm and one at Newhouse Farm.

The first takes you down into the Ghyl and then up to Old House, (which ET called Gunter’s) and the pond which ET described in detail in one of his notebooks. It is better kept than in ET’s day but still matches much of his description. The second path is on the left at Newhouse Farm and passes Bushycroft Wood and then down steeply into the Ghyl. Here the oak and hazel woods with sandstone and the muddy stream would be much as ET knew it. The path splits on the other side of the Ghyl - the left takes you up to Pearcelands, the right takes you through Pearcelands Woods to the car park of Wakehurst Place where you go right and follow the footpath past the house into the field leading down to Horsebridge Wood.

The path takes you down to a footbridge and the confluence of two streams - the Ghyl on the right and the Ardingly Brook straight on, with the combined stream on the left heading towards Ardingly Reservoir. Here at the confluence of the two streams ET found the charcoal-burners’ caravan hoisted up above the mud. Crossing the stream on a wooden bridge you climb the wooded bank on the other side reaching fields at the top. The path takes you round the fields to Paddockhurst Lane where there are some good views back over the wooded valleys of the Ghyl and Ardingly Brook up to the Ardingly Road. 

Following the lane to the right you reach a cross roads by Little Strudgate Farm. Go right through the gate and along the lane, which loops down to cross the Ardingly Brook just below a woodland lake. Just beyond this on the right is the path that ET would have taken through private woods to reach the charcoal burner’s caravan.  The lane takes you back to Newhouse Farm and the path back up the isthmus of land to Selsfield Common. 

Acknowledgements etc

Field note book copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York.

I have drawn in particular on Jean Moorcroft Wilson's Edward Thomas From Adlestrop to Arras and Myfanwy Thomas's Childhood Memoirs. Also a piece about the watersheds and streams that flow into the River Ouse by Mr A I (Sandie) Hett of Hapstead House, Ardingly published in the Highbrook Chronicle in May 1969 and republished by The West Hoathly Local History Archive.

My thanks to Charles Knowles and Paula Reeves for showing me round Selsfield House and allowing me to take photographs, and to Charles for taking, and allowing me to use, photographs of The Ghyl and providing me with pictures of Selsfield House from the 1920s. 

Also thanks to my cousin, Michael Lines for providing the photographs of Selsfield House from the 1960s. 

Thanks as always to Ben Mackay for editorial support.

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