"24th [June 1914] a glorious day from 4.20am and at 10 tiers above tiers of white cloud... then at Oxford tiers of pure white with loose large masses above and gaps of dark clear blue above haymaking and elms.
Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam." (Edward Thomas)AdlestropYes. I remember Adlestrop—The name, because one afternoonOf heat the express-train drew up thereUnwontedly. It was late June.The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.No one left and no one cameOn the bare platform. What I sawWas Adlestrop—only the nameAnd willows, willow-herb, and grass,And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,No whit less still and lonely fairThan the high cloudlets in the sky.And for that minute a blackbird sangClose by, and round him, mistier,Farther and farther, all the birdsOf Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.Edward Thomas
On June 23rd Edward and Helen Thomas had attended the Russian ballet in London, setting off the next day to visit Robert Frost in Ledbury, Herefordshire and to find summer holiday lodgings there. It is 104 years today since that journey and on June 24th 2011, as part of a shared reading project here entitled Team Edward Thomas, one of our number, Hilary, retraced the train journey that Edward Thomas and his wife Helen had taken on June 24 1914 by catching the train from Oxford to Malvern.
I thought today would be a good day to revisit Hilary's wonderfully atmospheric account.
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.