I always thought the poem, "Adlestrop," was a family secret. Its author, Edward Thomas, was like some long-passed uncle, kept alive by his diaries which contained this quaint poem about being aboard a train which stopped at a tiny village in June. It seemed like part of my heritage, whose origin I never really questioned, but felt possessive of nonetheless.
Cross-legged on the floor of the school gymnasium I sat laughing with the other young children at the children's poet, Michael Rosen. Everyone liked Michael Rosen due to his wonderful volume of verse, "You Tell Me." Then his funny beard-and-no-moustached face looked even funnier when he started to say the word, "Adlestrop," in a silly voice. He spoke about how, when he was at school, he had to attend phonics lessons in which he was taught to enunciate correctly. His school master made him read the poem, Adlestrop, again and again until he had each syllable spot-on. This annoyed me--how dare anyone (Michael Rosen or no Michael Rosen) mock our family motto. I sat, stony-faced, among the fidgeting arms and legs.
"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."
Years later, at college, I was sitting my "unseen poetry" exam. Now this exam bothered me. Give me an exam on a set text any day and I can crib up and have every critical point at hand to combat any question. But the thought of turning that page over and facing a hitherto unseen piece of verse and having to make spontaneous comment upon it filled me with dread. The hall smelt of graphite and eraser rubbings and the clock was noisy. I turned over the unseen poetry paper and saw Edward Thomas' name at the top of it. I chuckled to myself. Oddly, it was a poem I had never read before but the beauty came in it being quite atypical for a Thomas poem and I composed a fine essay pointing this fact out.
Some further years later I found myself at a loose end on one of the handful of perfect summers' mornings in England. I have a pocket edition of Thomas' verse--it is faded and taking on the curve of a buttock--and I saw it stuck out between two large volumes of something historical. I had been wondering where that volume was for some time and seeing it appear out of nowhere inspired me to hunt out Adlestrop, the place.
While Thomas stopped at Adlestrop by train I would have to find another mode of transport, as trains stopped at Adlestrop no more. However, Thomas was a walking man who rambled the nearby countryside regularly, so I figured a hearty walk finishing in Adlestrop would follow the spirit of the law, if not the letter. By rail and then by local bus I alighted at Charlbury, only about thirty miles from where I lived and about another ten by foot through paths that appeared like ghost-roads on the orange Ordinance Survey map.
Charlbury, Chadlington and Sarsden, and on in to the heart of the Cotswolds. I saw my first ever hare on that stretch of countryside. People often expect they've seen hares and have mistaken them for rabbits. Hares are hares and rabbits are rabbits. Then a pleasant Ploughman's and cider for lunch; setting off again in the heat with salt-stain socks.
At Kingham I fell into conversation with a near-deaf German lesbian on a cycling holiday--that seems likes a lot of information, but we seemed to hit it off. She had never heard of the poem but was delighted with the idea of walking to a village which gave name to a poem just because it was a beautiful day and the right time of year. It was, after all, June.
"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 finally to Adlestrop. This tiny village is the kind of place where people who have never visited England think most English people live. There are little more than a couple of rows of gorgeous flower-draped houses, a green, a bus stop, and a church. There is a shop, but it was shut and it gave the impression that it was shut most of the time. I stood at the end of the single street looking for some kind of sign, either for inspiration or to that which was once the train station. It was silent enough to hear a door creak, which is what happened, and in the doorway stood an old woman.
"I'm looking for the station," I said.
"There's been no trains here since 1966," said she, "you after the poem are you?"
It turned out that the old lady, Dorothy, was the only original member of the village left. Her husband, father and grandfather worked at Adlestrop station before it was closed along with countless others in a mass reorganization of the railway network.
"My father worked the station back in 1914, when the poem was written. He only had a few days off that year so we think there's a pretty good chance he was working the station the day Edward Thomas stopped there.
"Is there anything left of the old station?" I asked.
"Not much--it's about a mile back down the road. We're still on the mainline, mind," she spoke proudly as if an apologist for the village.
A mile back down the road I found what was left of the station. It was closed off behind some railings which looked like the entrance to a building site. Someone was unloading a van.
"You looking for the station?" he said.
"Yes, I am."
"Plenty of people come here looking for the station--there's not much to see now."
Straining over the railings I peered up and down the length of the track and at the remnants of what was once the platform, now absorbed by time and undergrowth. I imagined the foliage cleared and the extra light that would come in, but even in 1914 the platform was bare, so little else would have filled the picture.
As I made my way back through the evening sun towards the nearest train station an hour or so away, I contemplated whether or not this mini-pilgrimage had fulfilled its function, but I soon realized that I had no particular function in mind. Yes, the station wasn't there anymore, but as a result the moment may have been easier to relive. The absence of station, rather than the presence of a new platform with a ticket machine and digital display, preserved the quiet of the moment. If Thomas had alighted at Adlestrop and walked the mile up the road to the village, he would have seen much the same as I had. Were the station to have remained I would have seen a very different place.
As a boy I used to enjoy the beginning of the poem more than the end, which I always thought came around rather abruptly. Now I see the conversational element of the poem more easily and imagine that Thomas is indeed a long-passed uncle, sat with a friend while fishing, and describing what he saw from the carriage window.
"And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire."
Joseph Gelfer (www.gelfer.net) was born in Southampton, England. His writing has appeared in various magazines such as Spirituality & Health and Fate. He is the author of several humor collections. He currently lives in New Zealand's South Island.
Photos for this article are courtesy of Barry Samuels. More of his work can be seen at www.beenthere-donethat.org.uk
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