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Walking In Pursuit of Spring – with Ben Mackay

Walks along the route of In Pursuit of Spring 

Edward Thomas Memorial Stone, Shoulder of Mutton Hill, Steep, Hampshire
Image Credit and copyright: Matt Cook

Introduction  

 Why walk?  

‘For exercise’ is an obvious answer.  ‘To familiarise oneself with and to connect with a locality’ is another.   Such exploration was a common source of solace for many discomforted by the 2020 Covid lockdowns.  Walking carries many health-giving advantages from weight control to fostering peace of mind.  Others, following the 18th century fashion, seek the ‘picturesque’ and the ‘romantic’.  Some journeys have been cathartic – done in fulfilment of a long-held ambition, in memory of a loved one, sometimes in a form of expiation or as a personal pilgrimage.  Following in the footsteps of Richard Jeffries, Thomas said, To go over this country now with physical footsteps is an act of pure piety. Many seek meaning.  There are frequent moments of delight to be found when the mind and heart are open.  Innumerable are the celebrated stories of long walks of escape to safety.  Historical exploration and investigation inspire others – walking ancient trackways, Roman roads, drovers’ lanes, greenways and holloways, ‘war paths’ or grounds of conflict.   Others walk the countryside with a measure of nostalgia, trying to recall or imagine days of greater eco-health and the thriving of habitats for flora and fauna before the post-war pervasive damage of monocultural farming, the abuse of destructive pesticides and industrial fertilisers.

Edward Thomas and Walking  

 Edward Thomas was an indefatigable walker, known to have covered 40 miles in a day.  His wife Helen said she could walk 30 miles and still feel unwearied on her return, such had been the invigorating nature of the activity.  Sometimes Thomas walked as impulse or curiosity drove him; at other times he studied maps (his walking jacket was designed to carry maps and notebooks) or, as in the Icknield Way, to seek out ancient routes.  His fieldwork workbooks trace his wanderings, his observations on flowers, trees, animals and birds.  He notes the settings, some of prehistoric antiquity, others of ancient rural life, taking in the decline and ruin of old settlements.  He observed meticulously: his young eye, as evidenced in his first book, The Woodland Life, scans his surroundings like later film-makers would pan a location, lingering, darting and evoking inherent beauty.  Helen, in her generosity, understood that walking afforded her sometimes fractious husband relief from the engulfing despair and melancholy arising from self-dissatisfaction, the grinding nature of much of his writing and his suicidal thoughts as well as from the domestic strains which sometimes engulfed him; she recognised its therapeutic impact, giving him the literal and inner space to reflect, research and write or to visit friends.  There were moments when he was able to empty his mind of concerns, to walk without thought and to experience profound calm.  He gives such a moment in In Pursuit of SpringI walked more slowly, and at a gateway stopped.  While I leaned over it looking at nothing, there was a long silence that could be felt, so that a train whistling two miles away seemed as remote as the stars.  The noise could not overleap the boundaries of that silence.   He walked to create and hold on to a sensibility of the rural setting that had been ravaged by agricultural depression throughout his lifetime.  While not necessarily excited by industrialisation, he appreciated the need for housing the growing population.  However, he deplored the creeping spread of villas encroaching into rural areas to which he alludes at the start of In Pursuit of Spring.  Walking fed his prose and poetry and could occasionally lead him to a form of ecstasy in the oneness of human and personal identity with the surroundings of nature.  

My Inspiration

 The inspiration for my set of walks resulted from enjoyment of Edward Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring.  Having followed the route on maps and driven the course, I drew and painted locations along the route, prompted by Thomas’s own appreciation of them.   

 It is one thing to read the text and enjoy it for its reflective writing, his observant and often wry comments, the descriptions of the countryside, particularly as seen in the oncoming Spring in pre-war southern England, to follow his interest in the places and people he noted, the inscriptions and weathervanes which caught his eye, the vicissitudes of cycling in variable weather.  More than that, I wanted to ‘get into’ the landscape of Thomas’s collaged route and see it at ground level, to be prepared to encounter some of his own inspiration.  I began to devise walks springing laterally off his route, beginning in Wandsworth with its strong family associations and ending up at Cothelstone Hill in the Quantocks.

The Walks   

 The walks vary in length and pass through varying landscapes – the chalklands of the North Downs and, later, Salisbury Plain, the well-watered dairy lands of Hampshire and the Somerset Levels.  They are predominantly rural walks though there are town walks, too.  A couple of them have elements that need a car to access what he describes. 

 The walking directions are in numbered bold statements.  Established footpaths and lanes are used, avoiding as far as possible the perils of walking on routes which were mostly free of motor vehicles in his day but now are a veritable hazard for pedestrians.     

 Each walk has its own introduction, invariably starting with an extract from In Pursuit – Thomas’s own words must have prime place. The accompanying text gives small histories of the settlements and land use, noting former worthies – his admired John Evelyn and Cobbett make appearances.  There are associations with artists and other writers (some, like George Sturt, whose work Thomas reviewed).  Places or objects of interest are noted.  In Somerset, his cycle route took him to many locations along the route of the hapless Duke of Monmouth and his tatterdemalion followers; they come into the text at appropriate points.  

 Such information is given alongside the relevant walk instructions. 

 The walks are accessible to those in good health who have appropriate footwear and can be completed in a morning or afternoon.  Nearby pubs are indicated for refreshment. 

Julian, Edward’s youngest brother, accompanied him on some of the walks – from Balham to Salisbury plain – as evidenced in this letter to ESP Haynes (the original is now in the collection at the Edward Thomas Study Centre in Petersfield Museum). It is interesting to note the date, which appears to be 3 March 1921. (With many thanks to Guy Cuthbertson for pointing this out on a recent visit to the Study Centre just over 100 years later – November 2021).

 

In Pursuit of Spring walks 

Level – Leisurely / Moderate / Challenging 

County  Walk location                            Level Distance (miles/km) 
London 1 Wandsworth L 3.9/6.5 
Surrey 2 Mickleham and Box Hill M 4.5/7.4 
3 Westcott C 5.4/8.8 
4 Silent Pool and Albury M 3.6/5.9 
5 GuildfordL 1/1.6 
6 The Hog’s Back M 5.4/5.8 
7 Farnham L 1.9/3.5 
Hampshire 8 Froyle and Holybourne L 4.3/8.9 
9 Alresford L 4/6.7 
10 Itchen Abbas and the Itchen valley L 4.3/6.3 
11 West Dean M 6.9/9.5 
Wiltshire 12 Salisbury  L 3.1/5.1 
13 Stapleford L 4.47/6.3 
14 The Orchestons and Salisbury Plain L 4.1/6.5 
15 Edington M 5.5/8.9 
16 Broughton Gifford – drive L 1.7/2.3 
Somerset 17 Rudge and Brook Farm – walk and drive L 6.6/2.7 
18 Tellisford L 4.4/7.2 
19 Nettlebridge and Oakhill L 3.6/5.8 
20 Shepton Mallet L 1.6/2.5 
21 Dinder and Wells M 5/7.5 
22 Glastonbury Tor and Town L 3.3/5.3 
23 The Polden Hills L 7.6/11.2 
24 Bridgwater L 1/1.5 
25 Nether Stowey L 4/6.8 
26 Kilve L 4.4/7.0 
27 Cothelstone Hill M 4.6/7.4 
Hampshire 28 Steep  M 4.1/6.8