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When first

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

When first I came here I had hope,

Hope for I knew not what. Fast beat

My heart at sight of the tall slope

Of grass and yews, as if my feet

Only by scaling its steps of chalk

Would see something no other hill

Ever disclosed. And now I walk

Down it the last time. Never will

My heart beat so again at sight

Of any hill although as fair

And loftier. For infinite

The change, late unperceived, this year,

The twelfth, suddenly, shows me plain.

Hope now, - not health, nor cheerfulness,

Since they can come and go again,

As often one brief hour witnesses -

Just hope has gone for ever. Perhaps

I may love other hills yet more

Than this: the future and the maps

Hide something I was waiting for.

One thing I know, that love with chance

And use and time and necessity

Will grow, and louder the heart’s dance

At parting than at meeting be.

Edward Thomas wrote When First as a valediction to Steep and Hampshire. It is about the only one of his poems undated and there is some debate about when he wrote the poem. He had cleared his study at the end of June 1916 but had visited Steep again on occasions and finally in October, writing on October 2nd to Gordon Bottomley “I have just seen Steep for the last time. I had 15 hours there.” He and his family were then moving to High Beech in Epping Forest after ten years in Hampshire. Edna Longley dates the poem to this visit in early October which seems to be the most likely timing.

The hill he describes coming down in the poem is the Shoulder of Mutton in the Ashford Hangers. As WM Whiteman wrote in The Edward Thomas Country: “If we know Steep, we know that he is walking down the Shoulder of Mutton Hill, one of the steepest climbs in the hangers and recognisable from a great distance by its grassy clearing, shaped more like a mutton chop than a shoulder, with a mass of old yews to the left.”

He had climbed and descended this hill countless times over the previous ten years. And one can imagine the emotion of the last time he walked down in a final tour of Steep, the highlight of which would have been this descent. From the outset of his time in Hampshire the Mutton (as he normally described the hill) featured often in his notebooks and is a constant presence even when not named.

Yet the Mutton is not an outstanding hill to look at - a steep strip of grassy downland among the hanging woods of beech and yew either side. The summit of Wheatham further to the east stands out more prominently as does Stoner Hill to the west where the hangers bend round back on themselves at Ludcombe before proceeding south and then back to their last march to the west.

Yet though not as salient as the summits of the Downs, the Shoulder of Mutton offers some of the finest views in the country. As you climb, the view spreads from a few fields to take in three counties and 40 miles of the South Downs from Butser Hill in the west to Chanctonury and, on a clear day, Ditchling Beacon in the east.

Berryfield Cottage, their first house in Hampshire, was at the foot of the Shoulder of Mutton. And from early days he climbed the hill regularly. A walk up Mutton could be a quick constitutional - or it could be a launch pad for longer walks. Or he would spend an hour or so surveying all the plants he could see on its slope and in the field at the top each season. Or watch pigeons taking off far below or jackdaws and kestrels soaring far above. Or he would just look at the spectacular view which changed continually throughout the day and in different weathers and seasons and whose panoramas varied as one climbed up or down the hill or side to side.

Early on in their time at Steep there was the exciting potential of a new hill. As he described in the poem, he hoped it would reveal “something that no other hill/Ever disclosed”, whether this was leading on to the next horizon or just showing the ever-changing panoply of vale and hill and sky in front of him, with the mist, cloud, rain or sun playing over them. There might be the smoke of a train, puffing between Petersfield and Midhurst, birds coming and going (ET devoted part of one of his early notebooks here to the subject of flight), smoke from chimneys rising and mingling with early morning mist, the glint of the sun on water, glass, frost or snow, the chequers of fields, woods and hedge trees, and the ever present Downs, their outline only occasionally extinguished in gloom or night. In an early note he describes the downs as like a line of elephants - later he was able to detail their every height and contour.

Mainly he seems to have enjoyed Mutton in solitude, though he would be joined by his children on occasions. And a couple of times he noted a hunt coming down the hill and once a mad lady at the top. The hill provided a quick way to escape the drudgery of his work or the family or himself, just to enter a new world literally on his doorstep. He could climb up into it in any weather, day or night, if he wanted a break for half an hour or an afternoon or a night walk.

Later his study provided another means of escape. Geoffrey Lupton who built the Red House at the top of the hangers for ET and his family, had offered him a room in the neighbouring Bee House a few months before the Red House was ready to move into. The small thatched dwelling, where Lupton kept his bee keeping equipment, was also next door to his house and workshop. ET took up residence in spring 1909 and worked there for most of his next seven years at Steep, looking out at the high woods of Stoner Hill and Ludcombe and the vale and Downs beyond. When working there in these early months, before The Red House was completed, he would walk up most days, often by Shoulder of Mutton Hill. Later when they moved to The Red House at the top of Ashford Hill, with its equally spectacular views, he visited Shoulder of Mutton much less, and when they made their final move in Hampshire to Steep, he would come up to his study by other shorter routes than Mutton.

So when ET described the growth of love being “with chance/ And use and time and necessity” as well as making a generic point, he also clearly had the Shoulder of Mutton in the forefront of his mind, a place he knew like the back of his hand. It was chance that brought them in to such close proximity to Mutton, living in Berryfield Cottage at its foot. It became a hill he made habitual use of at different times in different ways, and did so continually over the ten years that they lived in Hampshire. The final criteria, necessity, may have been the need to manage his moods and refresh himself - as he wrote in one of his earliest notebooks in Hampshire in January 1907:

“Going out in a high blue windy moist golden wintry morning with jaded mind - as when a man takes rusty hammer & rusty nail & hammer polishes nail & nail hammer”!

If the youthful expectancy he felt - looking forward with excitement, keen to explore a new place, a fresh start, - “has gone for ever”, now he looked back with fondness.

In fact it had been a hard first year for him when they first arrived at Berryfield as letters to Gordon Bottomley attest. He was overworked, dissatisfied with family life and acutely self-conscious. New surroundings may have been incredibly beautiful but did not necessarily create a happy home.

As he wrote to Bottomley in May 07:

“It is a beautiful still evening at 7:o’clock & I sit & look at the most luxuriant beechen hill & coombe in the world…. then suddenly seeing how beautiful it was, I thought I ought to enjoy it & could not think how.”

A similar sentiment was expressed in a notebook at the time: “Now & then the smell of it all brings summer & the past summers to my mind & then I wonder how I can fit myself to enjoy - the white clouds plunged in blue floating heavy over Mutton treetops & down behind them - the delicate thrushes with speckled breasts in dew..”

Dissatisfaction in his own response to his surroundings continued to haunt him through much of his time living in the Hampshire hangers. In his earlier poem The Glory, written about a glorious May morning in 1915, he summed up this mismatch between the beauty that surrounded him and the lack of happiness he felt, in the cry of the concluding line “I cannot bite the day to the core” (see separate post on The Glory).

Now at the end of his time in Hampshire he had come to recognise that familiarity had bred love. When First answers to some extent the conundrum he had raised in The Glory some 18 months previously and the questions that had worried him from his early days at Berryfield. Building love through familiarity enabled him to live with the beauty that surrounded him. Losing the hope of something more, stopping the search to understand more, to appreciate better, and the attempt to match his mood to the surroundings, enabled him to accept the beauty and look back on his time here with love. He had mellowed.

ET knew and loved many hills across the South Country besides Mutton. In the first chapter of his book about the Icknield Way he wrote:

“It is particularly easy to think of Southern England as several chains of islands, representing the Downs, the Chilterns and Gog Magogs, the Mendips, Cotswolds and Quantocks. “

He then picked a number of specific hills across the South Country that he knew well as examples of these islands or atolls. He did not include Shoulder of Mutton. As part of the Ashford Hangers ridge it does not make for an imposing hill that stands out from others. Yet of the eight hills he mentioned three can be seen from the south flank of Mutton (Butser, Torberry and Chanctonbury) and a fourth, Barrow Hill is just round the corner to the south west behind Stoner Hill. And a fifth, Noar Hill can be seen to the North East from the top of Mutton. Interestingly two of these hills - Torberry and Barrow - are no more than foothills of the Downs, so the size of a hill did not matter to ET. Indeed arguably his favourite hill besides Shoulder of Mutton, not itself lofty as he referenced in the poem, was Torberry, a hill he wrote about more often than any other hill, including Mutton, in his notebooks. It was a small hill (he described it as “like a mussel”) under the downs, “like (a) calf beside cows”. Unlike Mutton he rarely visited it, but on Shoulder of Mutton, in his study or at the Red House he would always look out for it and note its constantly changing appearance.

Nonetheless he never found another hill he loved more than Mutton. A few months after he wrote this poem, one of his last, he went to France with his artillery battery where he was killed on April 9th 1917, aged 39. The Shoulder of Mutton is dedicated to his memory.

To illustrate his love for the Shoulder of Mutton, below are some selected early entries in his field note books about the hill.

3 January 07

Every day 2 kestrels play together (especially on lofty blue windy days) over Mutton or Wheatham & with joy as when a man & woman dance or talk, obviously, in the(se) lovely loops.

Also jackdaws 5 or 6

April (07)

Hunt coming down Mutton - evening - horns in the twilight - red coats & hounds downhill - still - promise of spring & yet farewell.

Hour after hour a little sunlight moves up the hill, lighting a group of oaks, or a fir copse, or easing the gloomy crags of all the heavy weight of shade.

30 vi 07.

(The first of his plant surveys on the hill)

Beauty of the Mutton in warm sunlight - rock rose, lotus, eye bright, wild thyme, centaury, tiny cathartic flax. agrimony, daisy, milkwort, buttercup, a pale purple orchis, marjoram, agrimony. Leaves of all these & small thistle, small hawkbit, small scorpion grass, small salad burnet, small cowslips, goats beard, cinquefoil, grasses, hop trefoil

All these sometimes gathered in an old mole heap mound, finer than ever & all massed together.

7 xi 07

Blue-shadowy recesses among distant amber beeches seen fr top of Mutton towards Froxfield this blue of shadow & amber leaves and blue of sky and amber & orange bracken is a beautiful thing on a windy day as autumn is breaking up & loose woolly grey clouds begin? to drift heavily fr NW

14 xii 07 9.30am

Majestic feeling that the furious NW wind is scouring the world as I stand on top of Mutton in the lane & look towards Noar Hill & the Badger deep in the stream of the wind - while overhead the clouds* drive in a clear blue sky & the sun shines warmish - the thrice washed travellers joy is now specially beautiful clean & silky. Kestrels sway & lunge. Branches gleam & waters glitter.

24 iv 08

Quite heavy snow at night - sunny morning - yews in coombes all white, yews & junipers at Mutton & open hills chequered

21 v 08

Scene of ambiguity like a passion as I near top of Mutton after sunset & see nought but black boles barring the pale blue sky with its lowest stratum still partly gold & a N(orth) wind arrives in firs...

9 viii 08 9pm

The moon is full & exactly over the downs at Harting (seen) fr Mutton,& 1/2 way up the sky which is pale & clear except that under moon - along the 20 miles of Down is a thin strip of

white cloud; the Downs & all the woods between me & them are dark as possible except P(etersfield) Pond & some train smoke. It has been rainy & now every leaf is brighter than any of the few stars above & on every glass blade & leaf is a star as bright & large as glow worms amongst them; larger by a little but not brighter are the 3s &4s of lights from houses in valley. Wind has ultimately dropped, but the dripping woods sound like wind except that the trees nearest me make the dripping sound drop by drop peacefully & contentedly as if talking over the kisses of the rain again. No sound of crickets tonight.

The big oak meadow like a lake in South moonlight along it.

Dark heaves of downs against moonlit sky. Could swear they heaved.

4.30 pm 16 viii 08

Marvellous clear day of blue sky & white biggish clouds from the Mutton, Chanctonbury clear & 4 or 5 ridges beyond, but the Harting Down greeny brown - almost olive -could almost be touched & I could revel in the moulding as if they were an animal at hand - & all

the rounded golden woods & the white roads.

17 viii (08)

Wonderful strong sweet piny smell on Mutton nowadays from yew, juniper & thyme.

9 xi 08

(A rare description in his notebooks of looking at Mutton from afar rather than from Mutton)

Mutton seen from Steep church, the beeches on right are warm light rosy browns & darker

browns glowing dry, the boles at winding ascending edge of wood are visible & at their feet a surf of pale fox-coloured leaves fallen.

13 ii 09 2.30pm

Bright sunny day (the NE wind gone) & half way up Mutton under yew I see N the pale pure blue sky marbled exquisite with fine white but changing cloud like the roof of a divine hall to which the silver stemmed glowing ruddy beeches seem a door.

Air on Mutton balmy

Sunday 21 ii 09 10am

Furry frost on top of Mutton

Flint trenches & pits - delicious sun & silence - the children striking flints & enjoying the smell of sparks: - the veiled Downs - the tender woods - the waste drab grey green fields - Rags (their dog) lying idly watching.

25 iv.09

Glory of going up Mutton the beeches brown having much gold mist & all wavy agst huge

loose white cloud going fast W to E agst deep blue sunny? sky?

Mutton 27 iv 09

Barbed wire at top of Wheatham fastened to oak & beech & ash & hazel & maple wherever possible. By what right?

9am 28 vi 09

After days of rain & cold evening, the Mutton is hot & dry - buzzing, but the vale is still

dark in mist & fresh : the sun shining between massed of steady white cumulus. In the S the

Harting Downs are clear with hollow & wood, but E ward they are misty outline only, to Chanctonbury. Some hay cut & sound of a mower.

A walk

The best way to appreciate the poem is to walk up and down Shoulder of Mutton as ET did so many times between the first time he climbed the hill and the last time he came down it.

At different times of the day, in varying weathers and through each season, the view changes and there is always much to dwell on.

The Hangers owe more to the Downs than the Downs receive from the Hangers. The line of Downs marches east for many miles in a series of rises and falls, their tops and flanks sometimes with trees, sometimes bare so that their slopes and contours (their moulding as ET sometimes called it) could be seen with different degrees of clarity and changes of hue and colour with the light. In contrast the hangers are a series of wooded ridges, hanging woods and tree-filled coombes along their base that creates much more uniformity, with less of the variation at play on the Downs. By contrast the Downs have endless viewpoints - the Hangers, smothered in woods, much less so with the Mutton the main glorious exception.

It's a steep climb up the chalk steps from the Mutton's foot across the field on the opposite side of the lane from Berryfield Cottage,

The stone commemorating Edward Thomas, put up in 1937, twenty years after his death, is about 3/4s of the way up and there is a welcome bench to rest and enjoy the view. The viewpoint at the very top is celebrated as one of the finest in England. Framed by the beeches, you look over Berryfield Cottage, overshadowed by the bulk of Ashford Chace (not completed until ET had moved out of Berryfield), over fields and woods to the tower of Steephurst and other buildings of Bedales School. Behind is Petersfield, much grown since Edward Thomas's day, but mainly hidden by folds in the land. Beyond the vale of the Rother spreads out with the distinctive summit of West Harting Down behind, with the lower Torberry Hill so often noted by Edward Thomas to its right.

The view must be largely unchanged from when ET looked out. There are no longer steam trains plying between Petersfield and Midhurst - that line was closed in the 1960s. You can spot the occasional glimpse of the London train and the hum of the A3 can pervade the bird song and the sound of the wind.

The longest, and arguably, better view is actually halfway down the hill on the path that crosses the Mutton's flank below the poet's stone. To the right of the path just before it enters into the shadow of the yew trees above Berryfield Coombe (see post on The Coombe), the viewpoint looking South East along the Downs extends to Chanctonbury on many days and in an increasingly indistinct thin line as far as Ditchling Beacon, near Lewes Further up the slope among the beeches there are good views of Butser Hill in the South West, but further views West are curtailed by Stoner Hill.

Up and down the sward at different seasons are the full range of chalkland flowers. Earlier in the year there are profusions of violets and cowslips. They reach their apogee in July and August. On August 1st 1909 Edward Thomas did one of his surveys of flowers on the hill which included "on the Mutton - basil, thyme, centaury, cistus, self heal, big tufted knapweed, yellow wort, lotus, ragwort, vervain, agrimony, eyebright, St John's wort, harebell, yarrow".

On the same day 112 years later in 2021, we conducted a similar survey, with more observers, and found that all of the flowers ET had identified were still there as well as a number of others. At a time of much pessimism about the state of the natural world, it was heartening to find that at least among the flowers of Shoulder of Mutton there was continuity and, possibly, some increased diversity from a century ago. On the hill dedicated to his memory, it can be seen as another small but significant part of the legacy of Edward Thomas - and one he would be pleased to leave on his favourite hill.


The OS map for Shoulder of Mutton Hill and the Ashford Hangers is OS Explorer OL33 Haslemere & Petersfield.

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

My thanks to David Shaw-Stewart for his wonderful watercolour looking out from the Shoulder of Mutton which appears at the beginning of the Walk section. Also thanks as always to Ben Mackay for editorial support.

The latterday botanical expedition described in the last section was written up by Ben Mackay in the January 2022 Edward Thomas Fellowship newsletter.

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