Country Matters: A simple life of cider and poetry

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HAVING long been tantalised by scraps of information about the Dymock poets, I at last galvanised myself to go and find out more about the little band of writers who gathered on the borders of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire just as the First World War was about to break.

The village of Dymock lies a few miles south of Ledbury, birthplace of the Poet Laureate John Masefield; and although Masefield was never a member of the group, the fact that he came from the area, and was christened in the nearby hamlet of Preston, adds lustre to the area's literary associations.

The best-known (in England) of the Dymock band was the divinely gifted and handsome Rupert Brooke; and Robert Frost later won national fame in his native America. The rest of the group - Edward Thomas, Wilfrid Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie and John Drinkwater - were minor literary figures; but it is clear from the records which they left that their immersion in the deep rusticity of Dymock proved a catalytic experience from which they all drew strength and inspiration.

The first to arrive, in 1911, was the Liverpool poet and critic Lascelles Abercrombie, whose sister had married a farmer at Much Marcle. In the village of Ryton, three miles east of Dymock, Abercrombie and his wife Catherine rented The Gallows, a black-and-white, timber-framed house belonging to the owner of the surrounding estate, Lord Beauchamp, and there settled to a simple life of writing, walking and rural chores.

Next came Wilfrid Gibson, from Northumberland, who in 1913 rented a thatched cottage known as The Old Nail Shop at Greenway Cross, and it was he who persuaded Robert Frost to forsake the suburban horrors of Beaconsfield, where the American was staying, and to rent a tiny black-and-white cottage called Little Iddens at Leadington. Rupert Brooke - already established in smart social and literary circles at the age of 26 - was also a friend of the Gibsons, and stayed with them at The Old Nail Shop.

Frost in turn attracted the Welsh poet Edward Thomas, whom he had met in London, and in August 1914 the Thomas family took rooms in Old Fields, a farmhouse across the meadows from Little Iddens. Hard on their heels came Eleanor Farjeon, the children's author, whose passion for Thomas was unrequited, and could be expressed only by her performing services for him such as typing poems. She, too, took lodgings, only a few yards from the Frosts.

This influx did not please all the natives. At a time of acute international tension, any newcomer was suspect, especially if, like Frost, he was foreign; and the Thomases had barely arrived before people began writing to the local police with reports that the area had been infiltrated by spies.

The poets' habit of constantly walking about the fields, either in company or to meet each other, led to a clash with one of Lord Beauchamp's gamekeepers, who threatened Frost and Thomas with a shotgun. The incident caused such ill-feeling that the landlord himself had to defuse the tension: he apologised, and gave Frost permission to roam wherever he liked.

The poets had certainly landed in real country: to this day the gently undulating environs of Dymock are soft and lush, with the little River Leadon meandering southwards through the meadows. In 1914 much of the land was down to fruit - orchards growing cider apples, perry pears, plums, greengages and nectarines.

Eighty years on, the landscape has changed mercifully little. There are fewer orchards now, and the elm trees celebrated by the poets have gone. So, too, have some of the hedges, and arable cultivation has reduced the number of grass meadows. But peace still reigns; whole fields of wild daffodils still blossom in the spring, very little modern building has taken place, and, with the exception of The Gallows, which has been demolished, the little houses rented by the writers still stand. Could they return, they would recognise their old haunts without too much distress.

The most significant result of their stay was the publication of New Numbers, an anthology of poetry prepared by the Abercrombies at The Gallows, printed in Gloucester, and sent out to subscribers from the post office in Dymock. Four issues appeared during 1914, with no mean financial success, before the outbreak of war closed down the operation; but its immortality was assured by the fact that its fourth and final issue published for the first time the sonnet which ensured Rupert Brooke's renown:

If I should die, think only this

of me:

That there's some corner of a

foreign field

That is forever England . . .

The poets were mouse-poor, and their rented habitations were primitive, but they seem to have revelled in the simplicity of their existence at Dymock. Frequent references to cider show that ferocious home-brews were their great comforter: always, it seems, there was a barrel of cider in the cellar and an earthenware pitcher on the sideboard.

Eleanor Farjeon left a splendid description of how one evening she persuaded her landlords, Mr and Mrs Farmer, to invite four of the poets to supper. At first proceedings were painfully formal, with host and hostess both stiff in their best black; but as the cider went to work, Mr Farmer scandalised his wife by removing his collar and coat, and when, at the end of the meal, the poets tried to rise, they were unable to do so individually, and were obliged to reel away into the night clinging to each other in pairs.

Their love-affair with Dymock came to a sudden end as the onset of war scattered them. Brooke went to fight, and died of blood poisoning in April 1915. He was buried on the Greek island of Skyros, leaving his royalties to Abercrombie, Gibson and another author of distinction, Walter de la Mare. Edward Thomas was killed by a shell-blast at Arras in April 1917.

So the poets are long gone from Dymock - and yet their association with the area is alive and well, for it is fostered now by a latter-day band of enthusiasts, the Windcross Public Paths Group, who over the past six years have opened up local tracks so that people may once again walk in the poets' footsteps. The group has published three admirable leaflets - 'The Daffodil Way', 'Poets' Path I' and 'Poets' Path II' - each describing the route and highlights of an eight-mile circuit.

Needless to say, history has thrown up an equivalent of Lord Beauchamp's gamekeeper, in the form of a farmer who seeks not to recognise public footpaths, even when they are marked on Ordnance Survey maps, and sometimes confronts walkers angrily. But in general the countryside is as somnolent as it was in 1914.

It gives one a strange but agreeable feeling to cross a clover meadow on what Robert Frost so aptly described as a 'wavering path' - for humans, even when sober, find it hard to walk in a straight line across country - and to listen for distant echoes from that halcyon time when poets perambulated here.

An excellent paperback on the Dymock Poets, 'The Muse Colony' by Keith Clark, has recently been published by the Redcliffe Press, 49 Park Street, Bristol BS1 5NT, at pounds 7.50.