The day the First World War broke out, 4 August 1914, the future poet Edward Thomas was waiting for his wife and children to arrive on holiday with him by train – their first holiday with his new American poet friend, Robert Frost, in the tiny Gloucestershire village of Dymock.
He had left his home in Steep by bike with his eldest child Mervyn the day before. For his wife, Helen, the journey was a great deal more difficult, with the two younger children and a boy from Russia, Peter Mrosovski, a pupil at Bedales School who was now prevented from going home because Germany had declared war on Russia.
Their train stopped in Oxford and wouldn’t move. Together with all their luggage and their dog, Rags, she was just getting ready to sleep on the platform when a train arrived that took them as far as Malvern. Then, just as she was despairing of getting there that night, a taxi picked them up and took them to Ledbury.
“I shall never forget that drive over the Malvern hills with a huge full, harvest moon lighted up like a stage set,” she wrote later. “Even in my distress and weariness, I was entranced by the beauty of the scene and the silence and the mystery of the deserted countryside, either in deepest shadow or brilliant moonlight.”
The driver then asked directions from a policeman, who shone a flashlight over the sleeping children, suspicious about Peter the Russian boy. There was also some suspicion that they were on their way to stay with a foreigner, albeit an English-speaking one.
Three miles further on from Ledbury, there was Edward waiting for them at the gate – and Helen met the Frosts and their four children for the first time.
The early days of the war were spiced up with the usual stories about fifth columnists, and their encounter with the constabulary in Ledbury led to the arrival of the village bobby. He claimed to be on their side, but he had to follow up – well, of course he did! Thomas thought it was a great joke; Frost was cross. Afterwards, he said that, if the policeman came around again, he would shoot him.
Three years later, Edward Thomas would be dead, but an acclaimed poet. Frost would have retreated to his farm in New England, but something of their friendship would have changed both of them. Briefly and at the time, Dymock was a kind of ground zero for English poetry. The poet Lascelles Abercrombie and his wife Catherine had taken a cottage there first. They were followed by Walter de la Mare and Wilfred Gibson.
The idea was that they would be self-sufficient on the land, a ‘Georgian’ poetic ideal if ever there was one. As a poetry critic, Thomas had ‘discovered’ Gibson. The phrase ‘Georgian poetry‘ had been coined by Rupert Brooke and Eddie Marsh, at that time Winston Churchill’s private secretary at the Admiralty, where he was the political chief of the navy.
Something about Frost’s pugnaciousness was also to drive Thomas into the army by 1915.
It was on another walk around Dymock that autumn when the two friends were confronted by a bovine gamekeeper and his shotgun. They felt that, because they were staying with the Abercrombies, they could walk wherever they wanted. The gamekeeper disagreed.
For Frost, this was the personification of the rural landowners – those behind the poverty he saw all around him in Gloucestershire. He wanted to take the confrontation further, but Thomas held him back – though afterwards, they agreed that something should be done. They turned back, but the gamekeeper had gone. “It would have been [done] if you had let me,” said Frost.
He never accused Thomas of cowardice, but the whole incident left Edward haunted. “That’s why he went to war,” said Frost later.
The plan had been to join Frost at his farm on the other side of the Atlantic. He had sailed early in 1915, with Edward’s son Mervyn going with them as an advance party.
But Edward, who was 37 in 1915 – quite old enough to have avoided joining up without shame – began to agonise about the decision. Should he go or should he stay and defend his land? He went and was killed at the battle of Arras in 1917.
It was precisely this dilemma that Frost wrote his most famous poem about. ‘The Road Not Taken’ is a “tricksy poem”, said Frost many years later – the two ways were actually virtually identical.
Now Sarah and I happened to be driving home from a brilliant holiday in Hay-on-Wye at the weekend and we stopped in Dymock and we went to walk around the village and surrounding area on one of their poet walks, through an orchard, and through a potato field and fields of dead black field beans.
I found myself wondering whether the same snobbish sense that had so assailed Frost in 1914 – that the land was unassailably owned by the rich and powerful – still applied.
I came to the conclusion that this is no longer the case – with all those public footpaths criss-crossing the neighbourhood.
But I still felt nervous walking across some of the fields, especially seeking out the path across the field of corn – which was not quite as ‘high as an elephant’s eye’, but was certainly taller than I was.
I was aware that this crop, like so many other similar fields across Europe at the moment, was planted as a cash crop for burning for energy.
I was afraid that it was quietly undermining my health from breathing in the remains of the weedkiller and other chemicals that farmers use these days.
I am a member of the Soil Association and a follower of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, which kicked off the concern about the number of chemicals that are used regularly on farms.
The huge effort it takes to persuade any government regulators to ban any chemical means that campaigners are constantly on the back foot, when it so ought to be the other way around.
And if they can’t face banning chemicals which might – for example – have an impact on our bee populations, how will we ever get a realistic assessment of the risks of mobile phone signals on whales, children and the health of us all.
Until it is just too late for many of us.
Especially since the chattering classes on the left now look down their noses at anyone who raises health concerns about virtually anything – for fear that it is just a hairsbreadth away from casting aspersions, Trump-like, on Covid vaccines.
What a god thing we are no longer in the age of Thalidomide or mad cow disease…