STILL NOT MUCH GOING ON
Edward Thomas and Adlestrop
by Richard Medrington

Published: Monday, February 8th, 2010

Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

(From Edward Thomas, The Collected Poems, p27, Faber & Faber 2004)

Of course when I get to Adlestrop, it’s not as I remembered it – sorry, not as I imagined it. The mental image was so vivid – the feel of the velour seats, the smell of pipe smoke in the carriage, the red neck of the chap who cleared his throat, the shimmering stillness of the platform – paint peeling on benches, creosote bubbling from the hot sleepers. It had that wrong-end-of-the- telescope clarity that certain memories acquire with age, only more so because I was looking through the extra lens of someone else’s mind.

No train has stopped at Adlestrop station for forty years. Sleek, bullet-nosed machines thunder past on their way to Worcestershire or Oxfordshire, their schedules tight, their windows sealed against the unnecessary friction of birdsong. On the platform no one comes and no one goes. Well, actually that’s not quite true. I am about to come and go: a return ticket from Edinburgh to Adlestrop – a brief 24 hours in Gloucestershire. The owners of the guest house were excited to hear that I’m to write something about Edward Thomas and have arranged for me to meet some of the local characters – in particular Dorothy, who has lived in the village all her life and whose father worked for the railway in 1914, and John, an Edward Thomas expert.

But the truth is I know relatively little about Edward Thomas. Apart from Adlestrop – which happens to be my favourite poem and which I have often recited on the performance poetry circuit, I know a smattering of his poems and prose and some details of his life. I will probably be a disappointment to them. On the other hand, I have the books and a six hour train journey ahead of me. To work!

The village itself is quite beautiful, and seems not to have changed that much since 1914. Its seventy inhabitants mostly live in pretty golden stone cottages. I walk up the hill behind Adlestrop on a crisp winter morning and, in spite of the map on loan from my kindly hosts at ‘Lower Farm’, manage to get lost. I never was much good with maps. There is a momentary panic, reminiscent of school days and the horrors of compulsory Orienteering. Then I relax, slow down and decide to follow my nose.
There is a glen near my home where I walk often – usually very slowly. I have been there hundreds of times, but it is always a new experience. When I go there with so-called serious walkers they say: “You’ll never get fit that way.” But I don’t walk to get fit; I walk in the hope of finding … something. I want to tell them to slow down, to match the pace of the place, and the pace of that place is slow. It asks you to take the time to stand and stare, or as Thoreau called it, to saunter. He suggests that the word derives from pilgrims who wandered about the countryside in the middle ages, seeking for charity and claiming they were going to the Holy Land or Saint Terre. They were seen as being rather lazy, pausing to look at this and that, taking detours as and when the spirit led them:

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks – who had a genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING” (from Walking, The Atlantic Monthly, 1862)

Thomas himself was a great walker – he knew large areas of Wales and the south of England intimately. His good friend Eleanor Farjeon, who later wrote the famous hymn Morning Has Broken (with its reference to a certain blackbird), said of him:

“To walk with Edward Thomas in any countryside was to see, hear, smell and know it with fresh senses. You would not walk that road again as you did before. You would know it in a new way.” (from Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years, OUP1958)

Evidently he didn’t like the railway, and always chose to live as far from it as possible, but on a hot June afternoon in 1914 he found himself on the express train from Paddington to Worcester when it made an unscheduled stop at a small country station. And nothing happened. History tries to convince us that life is made up of a series of events, but actually it is made up of centuries when nothing much happens and a few years, or even days, of feverish activity. So here nothing happens except for the things that go on while nothing is happening: bodies function normally, breathing proceeds uninterrupted. The train exhales, then someone coughs. Apart from that there is a moment of absolute stillness.

When was it that we came to equate success with speed and mobility? Whenever you see a ‘successful’ person on telly they’re always going somewhere – in the back of a fast car or on a yacht or a private plane. Like dogs straining at the leash we are always trying to get to the place where we’re not. Rarely do we pause and breathe in and experience the joy – or the gloom – of being fully present. Some people find such moments vaguely disturbing. They fidget, unfold the newspaper, clear their throat, anything to break the stillness, to fill the void. But it strikes me that it is when nothing is happening that we have a chance to get in touch with what is. I find that the best ideas come in times of stillness, the most creative stuff happens when I’m not trying to be creative.

I wander back through the village, past the bus shelter, which now houses the original railway sign – the only surviving first-hand witness to Thomas’s transcendental moment. As I look at it I imagine him rolling this evocative new word around in his mind. Apparently he was a lover of curious sounding place names. Where does a name like Adlestrop come from? How does it evolve? Often in the frequent repetition of a word one loses touch temporarily with meaning – the word melts and becomes merely a collection of sounds. In Old Man (Andrew Motion’s favourite poem, incidentally) Thomas says:

Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.
(from Collected Poems, p9, Faber & Faber 2004)

I wait for some kind of powerful feeling to overwhelm me – but it doesn’t, so I take a few photos of the sign to show to my wife. Perhaps Thomas didn’t feel anything overwhelming during the unwonted pause at the station. It may have been one of those revelations that take root and grow gradually in the memory. At the time it seems a thing of no importance, but later, when you casually recount the story, the room grows quiet as people listen, and you realise that you have entertained angels unawares. It reminds me of something Patrick Kavanagh said about the subjects poetry ought to deal with:

“What seems of public importance is never of any importance. Stupid poets and artists think that by taking subjects of public importance it will help their work to survive. There is nothing as dead and damned as an important thing. The things that really matter are casual, insignificant little things, things that you would be ashamed to talk of publicly. You are ashamed and then after years someone blabs and you find that you are in the secret majority…” (from Self Portrait. Dublin: Dolmen 1964)

It seems that Thomas didn’t write Adlestrop until at least six months after the event (if it can be called an event). I find that memories often lurk for years in dark corners of my mind. They watch like ghosts from dingy doorways, and then it turns out that they just wanted me to write about them. As we begin to communicate, they open a door to a warren of interesting thoughts and revelations. These reminiscences are rarely of deeds or actions, more of things I felt or observed. The times when I was – not when I did. The times when I saw – even though at the time I may not have realised that I saw anything.

Thomas thought he was seeing only a name, but the train window opened onto another dimension, where the blackbird was speaking “like the first bird”. Did he trill a three-note song? And did Thomas hear in it a transliteration of what he could see: Ad-le-strop… Wil-low-herb… Mead-ow-sweet… Glouce-ster-shire? The poem is full of such dactyls – as if the bird were calling out like an efficient station master, listing all things, as his ancestors had done since long before the Anglo-Saxon Johnny-come-latelies got in on the act. Before he knows it, the poet’s consciousness is soaring out over the English countryside and beyond. He finds himself rising above the realm of what can be understood into the realm not of the meaningless but of that which is beyond meaning – what the ancients might have called the peace of God which passes all understanding. I came across this description of a bicycle ride in one of Thomas’s prose works:

“At that time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be… I fed through the senses directly… through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is explicable or seems reasonable. This pleasure of my disembodied spirit was an inhuman and diffused one, such as may be attained by whatever dregs of this our life survive after death.”
(from In Pursuit of Spring, p210, Thomas Nelson & Sons 1914)

A year after Adlestrop Edward Thomas joined the Royal Garrison Artillery and trained, appropriately enough, to be an observer. Reading through the diary he kept in the trenches in 1917, I’m interested by his preoccupation with birds and planes – it’s as if he were scanning a wider and wider horizon. In a letter to his son Merfyn he describes how, on the 15th of March, he climbed up the inside of a tall chimney to get a better view of enemy positions. He had to come down before he reached the top, due partly to the shells bursting around him and also to the fact that he knew one rung of the ladder was unstable, but not which one. A few weeks later, on the first morning of the battle of Arras, he was killed by an enemy shell. It was Easter Day, 1917. One of his senior officers wrote to his wife Helen describing the funeral: “As we stood by his grave the sun came up and the guns seemed to stop firing for a short time. This typified for me what stood out most in your husband’s character …”

But I must tell you what I found when I reached the station. There was a tall wire fence and the following notice:

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

This is the site of the former Adlestrop Railway Station, the inspiration for Edward Thomas’s famous poem Adlestrop.
British Railways closed the Station in 1966 and all the buildings, platforms and infrastructure were demolished and removed.
The land is now privately owned and you are asked NOT to trespass onto this land NOR disturb the occupants of Station Cottage with enquiries.
Thank you.

I got as close as I could and viewed a scene of desolation:

ADLESTROP 2006

They have forgotten Adlestrop
Again. All hopeful I began
To wander by the railway line
One afternoon. It was late Jan.

A wire fence, a terse, official note
Ensured that no one came
To the old platform. What I saw
Was entropy! That and the shame

Of motor-coaches sprouting grass
And rubbish scattered carelessly,
A layering of negligence
Upon a poet’s memory,

A ruined double-decker bus
And dismally, round it, rustier,
Sadder and sadder, rotting hulks
From Bedfordshire and Lancashire.

Where are the blasted railway enthusiasts when you need them? If only the land had been sold to someone who wanted to restore it, instead of someone who didn’t give a damn. How hard would it be to erect a shelter and replace the old sign, to make a place where people could sit for a while, as restless commuters whistling past look and think – ‘Ah yes, Adlestrop’? And of course there should be a copy of the poem in each carriage of every train that uses the line – Poems on the Overground.

On the other hand, shouldn’t the saunterer be able to find Adlestrop wherever he or she is? Actually it’s probably more to do with Adlestrop finding the saunterer. You can go out wandering on your own, (it is generally a solitary thing, a lonely-as-a-cloud experience) you can slow down, you can keep your eyes and ears peeled, you can even do nothing, but in the end you can’t make it happen. It comes to you. It is a gift. It is the Present. It is here and it is now.

Sauntering back through the village I meet a man with a pot of paint sprucing up the village hall. This is Terry, who tells me he has escaped the rat race and come to Adlestrop seeking a quieter life. I tell him what I’m thinking of writing about – those moments when you see through a layer and touch something, you’re not sure what. He seems to know what I mean: “I remember coming down the hill through the village one evening on my bike and seeing a stag in the wood. I stopped and stared at him – and for a moment he stared back. It was like something passed between us. It was just a moment and then he was gone. I don’t know what it was.”

I spend a fascinating hour chatting to Dorothy Price about her memories of the railway and later I sit with John Gillett, the Adlestrop church organist and Edward Thomas expert, who has strong Quaker leanings. When I explain my theory of inactivity he comments that it’s a very Quaker-like idea, this waiting in silence for the spirit to move. Mostly we rush around trying to do stuff – to boost our standing or make a living – then the train stops (sometimes with a bump) due to circumstances beyond our control, and while we clear our throats, look at our watches and curse the inefficiency of the service, we notice a fellow-traveller staring out of the window with what can only be described as a faraway look in his eyes.

Notes

Collected Poems, Edward Thomas, published by Faber & Faber. The latest 2004 edition contains Thomas’s prose War Diary of 1917.

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