Updated: Aug 6
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
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, enigmatic 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.
There 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. 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.
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 a carpenter working on an estate 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 longer, 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. It must have been a fine and memorable walk.
The two houses were connected by their dogs barking. ET 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 seem to match the description of the two houses in the poem. The first house described in fond detail in the first two verses 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. 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” 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 contrasts 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. These experiences summoned up the difficult past beneath both houses' surfaces, combining the two in his memory.
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.”
He may have remembered - or his 1909 notebook would have reminded him - that very shortly after his walk to Haslemere that took him past Tankerdale Farm for the first time, he had taken his son Mervyn to see where “the turf heaves” over the dead.
Either the day of the walk on return from Haslemere (probably by train) or the next day, he and Mervyn went to Steep church where he showed him the monuments to the Baker family of Ashford and Priors Dean. They saw from inside the church the 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”. So here also are the graves over which “the turf heaves” and “the dead that never/More than half hidden lie.”
Almost exactly six years after the initial encounter with Tankerdale, he wrote the poem, Two Houses. That July ET had joined the army and was preparing to go to military training camp in Essex. He had spent some time in London signing up and seeing friends, but came back to Hampshire in mid-July to do a walk on the Downs with his wife, Helen. Was it on this occasion that he walked past Tankerdale again, this time aglow in the afternoon or evening sun? The freshness and limpidness of the first two verses of the poem suggests a recent encounter. Perhaps some further discoveries in notebooks will uncover whether he did revisit Tankerdale on such a day. Meanwhile one can only speculate.
ET was very conscious of the atmosphere of houses, how they looked and how they felt. His notebooks are full of descriptions of the variety of houses he encountered on his journeyings. Closer to home The Red House at Wick Green, built specially for ET and his family, inspired two poems about its atmosphere - Wind and Mist and The New House. It was a house he came to hate for a number of reasons, mainly because of its exposure to the elements. Yet it was also a house he had loved when they first moved there - as evidenced in his field note books and recounted in his poem, Beauty - see separate post. There are also parallels between Two Houses and The Other, the enigmatic poem about his pursuit of his double - two people who may be one person - while in Two Houses, two different houses become one.
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 Cockshot Lane to the main Stoner Hill road, right along the main road and then immediately left along the road to High Cross, passing Crabtree Cottage (now farm) on the left. On the right there are ancient earthworks and tumuli in the fields which, as well as Steep church, may also 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 Cockshot Lane by the woods above Shoulder of Mutton hill. Turn right down Cockshot 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.