Years ago, when cycling along the lanes of mid-Wiltshire, truly, deeply, madly in love, I stopped to ‘phone Trish at a call box opposite an old pub which had just been closed down. When I came out of the phone box I heard not just all the merry sounds of a public bar, circa 1935, but I could also smell stale beer and strong cigarettes. It was as weird and inexplicable an experience as I have ever had. I looked at my mate Andy Beck and asked him if he had heard and smelled what I had heard and smelled.
That memory came back to me today when ambling around Avebury, with the ghost of Edward Thomas for company on the Ridgeway. A few lines from Aspens passed through my mind:
‘All day and night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.
Out of the blacksmith’s cavern comes the ringing
Of hammer, shoe and anvil; out of the inn
The clink, the hum, the roar, the random singing –
The sounds that for these fifty years have been. ‘
I had been reading Gurney and Will Harvey the night before, so it was hardly a surprise that Edward Thomas became a comrade on my walk: he, too, imagined mysterious and elusive partners accompanying him on his walks; just like Harvey (married in Swindon, lived at152 Goddard Avenue), Thomas had Swindon connections; Ivor Gurney composed music for some of Thomas’ poems; my mum and dad were, of course, married in Swindon and Thomas wrote For These on the day he enlisted – on the day my mum was born.
Thomas loved these ancient high hill tracks and this is where I developed a thirst for long distance walking: up on the Downs and on the Ridgeway. When I got out of town, I walked the big sky treeless chalklands of Berkshire and Wiltshire. This was the landscape I loved: so much so, that I initially found the steep, wooded hills and valleys of Gloucestershire utterly claustrophobic when I moved there. Now I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
But I went back ‘home’ a couple of weeks ago, however, with my brother, to visit my sister and her husband, Rod, who had been admitted to hospital in Swindon. Rod had quite an impact upon me as a boy; he read widely, he painted and he walked. He was also a lover of Edward Thomas, a lover of Wiltshire, a keen historian, a photographer and an observant recorder of his walks. (He still is.)
But the biggest impact he had upon me was when he and my sister, Fliss, took me up to the Tower of London when I was nine. It was there that I had an odd and powerful ‘red shift’ moment – it was then that I first became conscious of the power of historical imagination and recreation. I realised that we could re-envision past time in whatever space we trod. This was, needless to say, a bit of a turning point in my young life.
Small wonder then that I could see Edward Thomas’ ploughman today, down in the valley:
As the Team’s Head-Brass
As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away? ‘
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out? ‘ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps? ‘
If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…Have many gone
From here? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost? ‘ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.
But this is 1830 Captain Swing country, too: threshing machines were hated rather more in this county than any other – and they were hated enough anywhere else. Farm labourers rioted all over southern England, demanding winter work and higher wages, burning hayricks, sending threatening letters to farmers: ‘This is to tell you that if you don brake down yor threshing masheens then we wil do it for you. You have bin warned. Swing.’
When you walk around here, don’t be surprised to hear horses’ hooves on the air. The yeomanry were out and about and all around these villages in the winter months of late 1830; in consequence, transportation was particularly attractive to Wiltshire JPs. The hearts of many villages were ripped out in 1831 – it wasn’t just the Tolpuddle Martyrs who suffered from vindictive injustice.
A generation later, Richard Jefferies wrote about the Wiltshire farm labourers around Coate and Hodson, near Swindon: ‘Hodge’ had become much more quiescent by then. Giving the vote to farm labourers in the mid 1880s hardly changed anything in terms of squirearchical control either: cottages remained tied and damp; wages remained scant and low; the workhouse still loomed large for the elderly. But all would shift thirty years later.
The landscape changed dramatically in North Wiltshire in 1914: Chisledon army camp opened. A railway halt followed on the Midland and South Western Railway; tents were succeeded by barracks; trench systems were constructed to replicate the western front; in short, over 10,000 troops were accommodated and trained at any one time, in the rain, clay, mud and chalk of Chisledon.
The camp not only did a job in WW2; it lingered on until the Cold War and 1962. I remember walking there in my youth, staggered to be walking through a camp with street names referencing the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele, and so on. It is perhaps unsurprising that there have been many sightings of a wounded ghost-soldier on the road between Chisledon and Ogbourne St. George. He stands with one foot on the grass verge and one foot on the road, gripping his rifle, motionless, staring at the passing traffic.
Small wonder then, that I could see A Private known by Thomas:
‘This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many a frozen night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores:
“At Mrs Greenland’s Hawthorn Bush,” said he,
“I slept.” None knew which bush. Above the town,
Beyond `The Drover’, a hundred spot the down
In Wiltshire. And where now at last he sleeps
More sound in France -that, too, he secret keeps.’
No small wonder either, that I conclude with the remaining lines from Aspens:
‘The whisper of the aspens is not drowned,
And over lightless pane and footless road,
Empty as sky, with every other sound
No ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,
A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom,
In the tempest or the night of nightingales,
To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.
And it would be the same were no house near.
Over all sorts of weather, men, and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.
Whatever wind blows, while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree.’