It's July 2nd and I am at the Talbot Inn, Ledbury, where the sky is gently pinkening into a West Country sunset. The pastel hues cast a soft glow over black timber frame of the Tudor pub, whose sagging eaves and bulging, whitewashed walls are a reminder they have been standing on English ground for 400 years.
In July 1914, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas were ambling through a wheat field separating two cottages that sit quietly in the borderlands between Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. They would have stopped idly at a gate, talking probably about some convention of poetry or rumors of war in the far-off east of Europe. It would have been warm, the sun not fully set even though past 9 p.m. and the sparrows having tucked into the hedges for the evening. They hated saying goodnight, a fact Frost penned into verse in The Thatch.
Tonight, here, all is right with the world.
I'm not sure when I came to know of the Dymock poets. It was after some internet wormhole one night last year, or the year before, and I got it into my head I would go and trace their paths. Edward Thomas being possibly my favorite English poet, and Robert Frost the first poet that ever stirred my soul, and like me an American in England. I suppose there was some fate in their connection as best friends, which I knew not until this chance reading. I ordered Linda Hart's Once they lived in Gloucestershire about the Dymock poets, an almost homemade book in its careful rendering, and a used copy of the Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, which arrived with white stickers in the front jacket pasted over stamps from Wakefield College School of English. These sat on my shelf for 12 months unmoved.
I wasn't supposed to come here until this summer.
Robert Frost was 38—my age this month—when he uprooted his life in the US and moved to England, then an essentially unpublished and completely unknown poet. Proof there is hope for all of us. He eventually came to meet Edward Thomas and took a cottage in Gloucestershire near several other poets, and finally convinced Thomas—then a writer with no poetic background—that he too should write verse.
Today it is warm but not too hot, and I am following the Poets Path II, a waymarked walking trail that leads from St. Mary the Virgin, a Norman church in the hamlet of Dymock, to Thomas's and Frost's cottages. For a while, the path is clear and wends alongside the trickling stream that is the River Leadon. It skirts up over the disused Ledbury and Gloucester Railway line, which closed in 1964, when the tracks were pulled up, leaving an eerie shallow canal way where water has collected unnaturally.
Then through a field full of cows, where a bullock tries to bully me, so I walk quicker and jump through a stile to escape. Over the Monks Bridge, a Leadon crossing so overgrown it takes some minutes of searching around and behind a cockeyed gate-to-nowhere to even find it. Up a country laneway at Tillers' Green, place names belying the farming that has dominated life here and still does. Over fields, farms and more fields, and this is where things get hairy.
I expected these paths might be overgrown. First, I encounter long grass, not in and of itself a problem; then there is some cruelty of English herbiage I cannot identify, which obstructs a full half-mile before a wall of poisonous hogweed (or hemlock) turns me back for good. I've brought pruners, but they cannot compete, and when I find I've stepped on a small adder, I yelp partially in fear but mostly in complete surrender. He wiggles off without complaint as soon as I lift my foot off him.
Backtracking from here is painful, but I use meditations employed on my coast-to-coast walk of Hadrian's Wall National Trail a few years ago and find this is not so bad.
Edward Thomas's thatched-roof cottage, known as Oldfield, is within striking distance of Little Iddens, the black-and-white cottage where Robert Frost lived in the summer of 1914. They walked here and there all over the fields and hills nearby together, best friends of the sort you know you've met in a past life and decided to come here together again. They loved each other and loved each other's writing, and talked at length on the footpath that connected their two cottages and still does.
There is a laneway off the unbusy main road marked "restricted byway" which seems to lead to Oldfield, so I set off down it being too tired to care about trespassing. When I find a local resident gardening here, she happily directs me towards the footpath that leads between the cottages.
It is well after 2 p.m. and I am tired and hungry, having set off before nine and not stopped to eat or rest or even sit down due to the snake and poisonous plants. A large oak tree stands halfway between the two cottages, and here I plop down, pull out an over-warmed ham-and-mustard sandwich and read the poetry of these two great men until tears sting my eyes.
Under the moonlight-like those walks
Now-like us two that took them, and
The fallen apples, all the talks
And silences-like memory's sand
When the tide covers it late or soon
And other men through other flowers
In those fields under the same moon
Go talking and have easy hours.
(Excerpt from "The Sun Used to Shine")
Thomas never knew his poetic fame. A year after that summer and much mental anguish and uncertainty, he enlisted in the British Army and died in combat in World War I in 1917. Frost never really got over the death of his best friend and came later to revisit the cottages at Dymock twice before he died in 1963, decorated, having been the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration, for John F. Kennedy two years prior.
Robert Frost's most famous poem is The Road Not Taken and reading it was a pivotal moment in my life, in high school sophomore American Lit. It was probably the first poem I ever truly read.
But what needs to be understood about this key point in literary history is that the poem was actually a joke. Frost penned it as a chide to Edward Thomas, his best friend, who could never seem to make up his mind. Thomas agonized over even small choices, such as which side of the road to walk down, and whether to cross two bridges or four on his walks.
After an uncountable number of minutes under the poets' tree, the stillness of the Gloucestershire countryside broken only by the faint buzzing of bees in the high grass, I lift myself onto strained legs and walk on into unknown fields, back to Ledbury and London and whatever in life comes next.
Megan Eaves is a New Mexico-born, London-based travel writer specializing in northeast and Central Asia. She has researched and written Lonely Planet's guides to China, South Korea and Tibet and is a contributing author of Epic Hikes of the World (2018). Her words have also appeared in The Independent, Lonely Planet Traveller magazine, Wild Junket, Unearthing Asia, USA Today and Atlas by Etihad. Find her at www.meganeaves.com or on Twitter @megoizzy.
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