So on June 24th Hilary retraced the Adlestropian footsteps of Edward Thomas (and we now discover his wife Helen was on that train journey too) by catching the train from Oxford to Malvern, here's her wonderful account and I particular love this very 21st century addition...
Throughout the day I was conscious of what would have seemed strange to a time traveller from 1914, and what would have seemed familiar. The vapour trails which we now take for granted as features of the skyscape on a fine day would not have been there in 1914, but a train journey is an activity which - in its essentials at least - hasn't changed. Oxford is quite a small station with only two main platforms. Facing me on the opposite platform while I waited for my train was a young soldier in desert combat dress with his kit bag. This was the first of several reminders during the day of the extent to which images from the First World War now shape our perceptions.
The train was full of people escaping for the weekend (in 1914, June 24th fell on a Wednesday). Sitting opposite me were a young couple going to visit his parents in Hereford. The husband was very young, intense and bookish-looking, and it was impossible not to be reminded of how young Edward and Helen were when they married and how unusual it must have been for an undergraduate to have a wife and child.
Oxford is still a very rural county, and on leaving the station the train quickly enters open countryside. Between Oxford and Worcester the only significant cluster of buildings is the market town of Evesham. The stations that remain on this stretch of track are small commuter stations with car parks. I had imagined Adlestrop in its heyday to be no more than a small country halt, but postcards show it to be a proper little station like those that still remain at Kingham and Moreton-in-Marsh.
Between stations the view from the window alternates between open fields and deep banks of vegetation, all very green in that unique English way that you only appreciate when you return to it after an absence. There are still willows in abundance and masses of pinky-purple willowherb. Probably some meadowsweet, but it's less distinctive and I can't swear to it. Many fields edged with red poppies which in 1914 had yet to gain their symbolic significance. No haycocks – it felt a bit early for haymaking, but I'm not really a country person so I can't be sure. And I couldn't help noticing that there is still a hiss from the brakes and the automatic doors when the train stops at a station.
I travelled to what is now the end of this particular route at Great Malvern. You can still change here for Ledbury, but the line no longer continues on to Dymock. Great Malvern station was a revelation – a Victorian station restored to its brightly-coloured glory with an original station clock, and no modern intrusions apart from a discreetly placed electronic departure board.
Here I had a cup of tea and a slice of bread pudding in the platform tea room, which really deserves a write-up of its own:
On the way home the weather was cloudier and the train less crowded, so I decided to dip into "Under Storm's Wing". Slowly I realised that I had not only been replicating the journey that had inspired "Adlestrop"; I was also replicating - perhaps more closely - a second journey that Helen had made.
Six weeks after the hot journey on 24th June, Helen embarked on another train journey. She set off from Hampshire with three children (her two daughters and a Russian pupil from Bedales who was boarding with them for the summer holidays) and a dog. They were heading back to the Dymock area to spend a month on a family holiday with the Frosts. Edward and his teenage son had left earlier to make the trip by bicycle; it seems unlikely that they would have been able to take much luggage with them, so presumably Helen had the family's luggage as well. It was Tuesday, August 4th 1914 – the day war was declared. Helen writes:
"As we proceeded on our journey it was obvious from the crowds in the stations ... that people were in a state of excitement. Families on holiday were hurrying home, reservists were being called up and soldiers recalled from leave, and everywhere the stations were thronged with trunks, kitbags and other luggage and with restless and anxious people. However, very much later than our scheduled time we reached Oxford. Here we were told to leave the train which, in the ordinary way, would have gone on to complete our journey. The station was in a state of chaos. It was now late in the day and I asked the station master when I could expect a train to Ledbury. He said he could not tell me, and advised me to stay the night in Oxford when I told him I had three children with me. But even if I had been able to afford such a thing, all available accommodation was filled, I was told by a man who had helped me with the luggage.
So we waited and waited, after sending Edward a telegram. At last a train came in and the station master told me it was at least going in the direction of Ledbury, so I and the children got in hopefully. After a slow journey with many stops between stations, we arrived in Malvern at midnight and here we were told the train would go no further. So out we all bundled, the children tired and frightened."
Helen eventually found a cab at Malvern and arrived at her destination in the early hours, having been stopped in Ledbury by an over-zealous policeman and asked to give an account of why she was travelling by night with three children.
So this was the counterpoint to the first Adlestrop journey – not quiet and reflective, but undertaken at night by a woman on her own, weighed down with weary children, luggage and a dog.
The two journeys seem to encapsulate the bright and dark sides of Edward and Helen's life together.