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Two Houses

Updated: Jan 29

Between a sunny bank and the sun

The farmhouse smiles

On the riverside plat:

No other one

So pleasant to look at

And remember, for many miles,

So velvet-hushed and cool under the warm tiles.

Not far from the road it lies, yet caught

Far out of reach

Of the road's dust

And the dusty thought

Of passers-by, though each

Stops, and turns, and must

Look down at it like a wasp at the muslined peach.

But another house stood there long before:

And as if above graves

Still the turf heaves

Above its stones:

Dark hangs the sycamore,

Shadowing kennel and bones

And the black dog that shakes his chain and moans.

And when he barks, over the river

Flashing fast,

Dark echoes reply,

And the hollow past

Half yields the dead that never

More than half hidden lie:

And out they creep and back again for ever.

Two Houses is one of Edward Thomas’s more mysterious, haunting poems. Entries in his field note books provide some partial answers and point towards the two houses that inspired the poem. However some of the evidence is confusing and there are gaps, so some speculation is required to provide a more complete answer to the poem’s mysteries.

On the face of it the poem seems to describe a house in the same location, the first one where the second one had "stood there long before". However his field note books suggest the answer is more complex, and can only be found by going back six years before he wrote the poem.

However the starting point to deciphering the poem is a reference in Edward Thomas’s last notebook, written in 1915, to the origins of the poem. He wrote:

“Dog that barks/barked so hoarse and old by Luff’s house (near old farmyard & trees) and also by river - Rother under echoing banks.”

This notebook is full of initial thoughts and sketches for some of his early poems. The note is a reminder of two earlier encounters with dogs and houses, which he had written in two previous notebooks.

The first was from an early morning in July 1909.

“20 vii 09 6.45 am

Little farm in hollow of Rother nr Stodham in the early light the opposite woods being shadowy & huge & apparently boxed/barred? in there fr(om) grey boles rising fr(om) edge of water wh(ich) alone are distinct - dog barks fr (om) within/this? silent house.”

The other note was made a few months later in December 1909, shortly after they had moved house from Berryfield Cottage at the base of Ashford Hangers to The Red House at Wick Green at the top of the hangers.

“Black tall retriever chained barks harsh & deep at us under a black cluster of dead old trees close to a new house - his bark seems very old & primitive & puts the new house out of harmony - in the misty boundless rainy land w(ith) no sound (Boxing Day) except clustering sparrows.”

The poem has its origins in these two encounters on walks in 1909, with dogs barking at two different houses.

The two houses can be identified by some easy detective work. The first he described as being in a hollow by the River Rother, near Stodham. Stodham is Stodham Park, a large house and park between Petersfield and Liss. There is only one house that fits the geographic location ET described of a farm in a hollow by the Rother, close to Stodham: Tankerdale Farm. Tankerdale Lane which overlooks the farmhouse was more of a thoroughfare in those days, and in earlier days had been the main London to Portsmouth road. The views over the house and the river and the woods beyond would have been clearer then than they are now and one can imagine a passer-by looking down on it delightedly "like a wasp at the muslined peach".

The second house cannot be identified from his description in the original note. He and his family seem to have been on a Boxing Day walk from The Red House on top of the hangers, which they had recently moved to. On this walk they passed Slade House, 1/2 a mile or so along the road in the parish of High Cross, Froxfield. On their way there and/or back they would have passed Crab Tree Cottage which was lived in by the Luff family (referenced in the later 1915 note). The house had originally been a farm in the 1870s but was a cottage on a later OS map, a change, which may have accounted for the old farmyard and trees which ET noted near by. Albert Luff was an estate carpenter and he and his wife, Bessie, had 5 children under the age of ten in the 1911 census. The family were still there 10 years later in 1921.

On the earlier July day, ET was also on a walk but a much longer one. After an early start from Berryfield Cottage, their first Hampshire house at the bottom of the hangers, he had walked to Haslemere, 13 miles as the crow flies, but on a long, circuitous route via Rogate Common, Harting Combe, Milland, Linchmere, Fernhurst, Lurgashall, Northchapel and Aldworth. He would have passed along Tankerdale Lane to get from Berryfield Cottage to Rogate Common. After Tankerdale he got lost in oak and fir woods, having to half walk half swim through the deep bracken, heather and bilberry, wet with dew and a hot sun above. In an old lane cows strolled and he could smell strawberries as well as bracken, heather, hay and pine. It was clearly a lovely day and he noted down the birds he spotted including yellowhammers, swifts, cirl buntings and turtle doves. The walk must have been a fine and memorable one.

So the two houses, which ET saw on these two, very different walks in 1909, were connected in ET's field notes by their dogs barking. He would have been aware of the significance of dogs barking in folklore - he had written books on Norse and Celtic mythologies. Not only were dogs watchdogs and guardians of homes, barking at passers-by, but, they were also known to be omens of death, and to bark at, and raise ghosts and unseen spirits.

However the houses, described in his notebooks, confusingly do not match the description of the first house in the poem which he describes in fond detail in the first two verses. This seems to be Tankerdale Farm, the one he saw early one July morning, but at a different time of day when the farmhouse was between the sun and the sunny riverbank "So velvet-hushed and cool under the warm tiles". This would have been on an afternoon or evening with the sun westering, not at 6.45 in the morning.

The second house of the last two verses seems to be two houses which makes little sense on the face of it. In the third verse the house which “stood there long before” with "the black dog that shakes his chain and moans" appears to be the Luffs' in High Cross. And in the final verse he goes on to describe the dog barking at Tankerdale, echoing over the river Rother, that early July morning.

We are entering the realms of speculation here but he may have combined the experience of the dogs barking so that the two houses, physically apart, became one in his memory- the second house. They both had the same sense of disharmony and eeriness, with their dogs both challenging and raising the ghosts of the past. The first house, harmonious under the afternoon sun, was a more recent encounter - possibly just before the poem was written in 1915 - hence the second house standing “long before”, in his memories from 1909.

The note he made about his idea for the poem suggests he was thinking originally of the two separate houses as the “two houses” with the connection of the dogs barking. But when he wrote the poem, the physical differences became less significant and their similar atmosphere - and the past this evoked - more so. In the poem he contrasted the comfortable appreciation of the beauty of an old rustic tile-hung farmhouse on a sunny afternoon, with the same farmhouse in the shadowy early morning light and Crab Tree Cottage on a rainy Boxing Day, both out of harmony, with their dogs raising the ghosts of their past.

If the description of the house in the first two verses was Tankerdale, feeling and looking very different from when he passed by on the road that earlier murky morning, it would suggest ET passed by the house again more recently, in all likelihood after he had jotted down his idea for a poem in his 1915 notebook. This may have occurred during July 1915 when he came back to Steep after signing up to join the Artists Rifles. We know he was planning a walk on the Downs with his wife Helen before starting his military training  (letter to Gordon Bottomley 14th July 1915). This later encounter may have rekindled the idea of the poem but in a different form to when he jotted down his note earlier in the year. For now the house looked much more comfortable in its skin and in harmony with its surroundings, aglow in the afternoon sun. The freshness and limpidness of the first two verses of the poem suggests such a recent encounter. In contrast, the two houses he had passed in 1909 had merged in the poem, with their haunting presences, dogs barking, and an overall lack of harmony, bringing the past back.

ET had written of this difficult past in an even earlier notebook in 1908: “The goodly calm & richness of some Southern English places that could not have been purchased except by 100s of years of serfdom & tyranny.”

If the dogs barking and the echoes over the Rother brought this difficult past back, raising the ghosts of the houses, where was the heaving turf “as if above graves” half hiding the dead? Again some speculation is required. At first it seemed this might refer to some previous dwelling at Tankerdale but there is no evidence that this existed - the farmhouse goes back 600 years. It might also refer to the tumuli over the other side of the road from Crabtree Cottage, which were excavated within living memory of Edward Thomas’s time.  More probably it referred to the grounds round Crabtree Cottage, which he described in his notebook as a “new house”. There had previously been a farm here and he referred in his 1915 note to the “old farm buildings”. Either part of the old farm or farm buildings may have been knocked down with the turf heaving above the remnants.

He may also have be thinking about where he had actually seen the heaving turf above graves, because it was the same day of, or the day after, the July walk, when he had first seen Tankerdale. He and his son Mervyn visited Steep church where he showed him the monuments to the Baker family of Ashford and Priors Dean. They saw from inside the church the sunny bright turf and the grey stones of the graveyard, the yews and golden flowers and a thrush running softly among green mown mounds. He concluded the note with “I tell Mervyn of Bakers 300 years at Ashford”. This branch of the family had died out at the beginning of the 19th century. 

Two Houses was the last poem of his time as a civilian. Other than being probably written shortly after he had revisited Tankerdale, there may be wider significance in his choice of subject for his last poem. The two houses - Tankerdale Farm and Crabtree cottage - are (more or less) at the edge, and the church and its graveyard at the centre, of the realm round Steep which ET was leaving to go to war.

Tankerdale under a westering sun was also the epitome of a mellow Merry England (in much the same way as The Manor Farm, the subject of one of his earliest poems.) He had written in the early months of the war a piece about Merry England, in which he had defined patriotism as developing from “love of the place where you ‘have your happiness or not at all’, and a more fitfully conscious love of the island, and glory in its glories.” 

Of love of places he wrote: “England then as now was a place of innumerable holes and corners, and most men loved - or, at any rate, could not do without - some one or two of these, and loved all England….”

ET himself knew and loved a number of “holes & corners” across England and Wales. The Manor Farm at Priors Dean was certainly one and Tankerdale Farm seems to have been becoming another, both not only sources of poetic inspiration but also of patriotism and a spur to fight.

The spur to fight for his country came inevitably with awareness of his own mortality. And the poem shows a heightened awareness of the dead all around, in war less hidden and in this war especially not. Talk of death was everywhere. Myfanwy, his younger daughter, recalled in her memoirs asking: ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could see all the dead people in the churchyard’ and getting a short negative response! On another occasion her father had given her more encouragement. On a lovely bright day in November 1914 ET had written in his note book: “Shadows very clear on the smooth dry road (on the road up to their home from Petersfield)  &  I told Baba (the family nickname for Myfanwy) only the dead would be shadowless on such a day.”

In Two Houses as he prepared to leave Steep to fight, he was more acutely conscious of the layers of dead from the village past and present, be they the ghosts of houses or the dead from the church graveyard or tumuli. Raised by the recollection of the dogs barking, these haunting images of “the dead that never/ More than half hidden lie” would not be laid to rest. Though unsettling, they are integral to the history of a parish, something Thomas had explained to his son in the Steep church that July day long before the war. 

Unsettling and haunting as these images of the dead creeping out and back for ever are, a few months later, after months of being immersed in military training and continuing battlefield massacres in France, he created an even more haunting and poignant image. In the last verses of his poem, Roads, he wrote of the dead soldiers from France that “Returning lightly dance…..They keep me company/With their pattering,/ Crowding the solitude/ Of the loops over the downs/Hushing the roar of towns/ And their brief multitude.” Dogs were no longer required to raise the ghosts of the dead as he imagined the vast numbers of those killed in battle, untethered from place, wandering across the English landscape that he so loved.

A walk

Edward Thomas's two walks that originally inspired Two Houses are still possible but are mainly along roads much busier than in his day.

The Boxing Day walk from the Red House would have been along Cockshott Lane to the main Stoner Hill road, right along the main road and then immediately left along High Cross Lane, passing Crabtree Cottage (now farm) on the left. On the right there are ancient earthworks and tumuli in the fields which, as touched on above, as well as Steep church, may have had a bearing on the poem's reference to "the turf heaves" and "the dead that never/More than half hidden lie". In ET's day the tumuli would have been opened within living memory. The Slade is reached in a dip on right before the village of High Cross begins. A round walk along less busy roads can be made by going right, well before The Slade, along a track to Rings Green before following the footpath right over a field and then up what was Rings Green Lane to the main road. Crossing over the main road, with The Trooper Inn in the dip below, you go up Honeycritch Lane and take the right hand fork into Old Litten Lane. This becomes a track after Old Litten Cottage, somewhere ET wrote about on occasions in his notebook. This track meets Cockshott Lane by the woods above Shoulder of Mutton hill. Turn right down Cockshott Lane back to The Red House and the Edward Barnsley Workshop.

The second longer walk that ET did in July 1909 to Haslemere via Milland and Fernhurst, taking in various high points would be an excellent long day's walk. ET would have used lanes as well as tracks and footpaths across Rogate Common, Harting Combe, Linchmere and Black Down, which can still be explored today.

For a short walk it is still possible to walk down Tankerdale Lane from the A3, passing Tankerdale Farm on the right after Petersfield Golf Club. The lane continues across the railway line (steep steps over) and across the young Rother at Stodham Bridge before Stodham Park is reached on left. In ET's day the lane was clear of woods on either side until Stodham Bridge, beyond which the woods of Stodham Copse came down on the right as now. The lane climbs between deep banks before reaching the Estate Cottages. ET would probably have turned right up Stodham Lane that day. Crossing the main Petersfield-Godalming road (now the old A3) he would have waded through the thick vegetation of Rogate Common. Instead of following in his footsteps to the right up Stodham Lane, you can continue straight along Stodham Lane keeping straight on until it becomes a track under Farther Commons, which can be walked round, before retracing your steps.


My thanks to Hugh and Sarah Green for access to photograph, and their help with the history and geography of, Tankerdale Farm and to Lindsay and Sue Clegg for access to photograph, and their help with the history of Crab Tree Farm.

Edward Thomas Field Note Books copyright Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York.

Thanks to Fran Box of the Steep History Society for information about the Luff family.

Thanks as always to Ben MacKay for editorial support.

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