Following in Edward Thomas' cycle tracks

During the spring of 2013 Kym Martindale followed in the cycle tracks of Edward Thomas from London to the Quantock hills, exactly a hundred years after he rode and wrote his In Pursuit of Spring.
This article was published in issue 104 of the New Welsh Review

In Pursuit of Spring

Kym Martindale cycles Edward Thomas’ westward route from London on the centenary of his prose classic’s publication

The air fell like a blessing on him, promising a garlanded ride back to London; I can barely stand the wind’s tyranny

In 1913, the poet Edward Thomas cycled west, from London to Kilve, Somerset, in search of spring. He wrote that he found spring above Kilve, on Cothelstone Hill… gazing still further west to Wales. Wales was just a ‘blueness’ through a ‘low-arched rainbow’, beyond the Mendips, Steep Holm and Flat Holm ‘resting like clouds’ on the sea; like them, it was unreal, and yet for Thomas, ‘much more’, where perhaps the quest really might end… or where it might begin.

In 2013, I ride in pursuit of Thomas.

It is cold.

March 1913, both Thomas and the Met Office record, was rain and bluster, cold only where it was wet – which is to say, if one was wet, one was cold. Out of that mildness blossomed the bluebells and cowslips that Thomas saw, dropped as if on winter’s grave; lying ‘in the sun, they were as… fragments fallen out of that rainbow over against Wales.’ On Cothelstone Hill in March 2013, I am dry, but the wind, trailing sleet and ice, scores the skin. Mud is iron-hard, ice grows dusty in the gun-grey bitterness, ice falls in shards from the very trees. Light comes unchanging, northern in its evenness, like a Vermeer, but bleached of colour; no sunrise, no sunset: the day pales into being, and later dies. No stars, no moonlight. It is cold beyond cold.

Now this should be a gift: the drama of contrast, so wilful and extreme: the satisfying roundness of the century’s distance between him and me, between my Cothelstone and his. The air fell like a blessing on him, promising a garlanded ride back to London; I can barely stand the wind’s tyranny. The land recoils from the fleshless winter. The broad saddle-summit of the hill is glassy, the turf could shatter bone. And that panorama, to Wales and back, wavering, even Hinckley Point curving stupidly as my eyes brim in the wind.

What am I to do with this? Thomas’ spring is twisted into reverse, but the contrast may seem overwrought – this, like the glassy summit of Cothelstone, needs care.

I have circled Thomas today, joining the final stage of his pursuit at Nether Stowey. I crossed the now terrifying A39 (which he shared only with Coleridge) to meander over the flatlands. I thought to approach Kilve from the sea, ambushing it from the future, with Wales a gleaming reinforcement across the Channel. I then cycled inland to stand on Cothelstone Hill and consider that tracery of poets – Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Thomas – which shimmers from the Quantocks to the shore at Kilve.

All day, this moment glimmered ahead with the expectancy of encounter. I expect to feel. Damn it, I have looked forward to feeling. But on Cothelstone it eludes me, just as the panorama does, spilling instead like blotted ink. At Nether Stowey, too, even Kilve, Thomas remains fast to the page, where I want – impossibly – an experience of him that is beyond language.

At Kilve, a sad gravestone noted the passing of a nine-year old girl in 1973 but I hurried past it; in the church, I shivered impatiently to the tablets that Thomas saw. I wish I had rested my eyes on them. I wish I had stood knowingly before those plaques in memory of Cunditt and Sweeting, and ‘Norah Muriel Sweet-Escott, aged 20, who died in South Africa of yellow fever’, and made room for him beside me. But all I saw was more words; all I noticed, thick in the stony stillness was the smell of polish, as if the parish had recently buffed each pew; and the trapped hours eddying restlessly at the affront of my noise. I had wanted to ambush Kilve Church, squat and famously lacking a weather-cock, for its ghosts; but in the end, it ambushes me out.

I cycle to the Hood Arms on the A39, and wait for my partner to collect me. Thomas stayed here. There are old photographs in the bar, which I examine, still hoping for the proper shiver. The bar is strangely ornamented with hunting jackets and leggings, as if the hunt had just returned, disrobed and dematerialised. In Nether Stowey, Coleridge’s cottage has been ‘recreated’ to look as if the family had just gone out for a walk. The irony of my own pursuit is suddenly depressingly clear.

But, later I do find Thomas, and I find him where he never was: at the crack of midnight – beautifully and aptly – I see the sky clear, the moon set light to the frozen fields, as the wind howls, and howls again, as I stalk the sitting room of our cottage on Exmoor. At the crack of midnight, the moment that becomes the poem, blossoms. And there in time, I am consoled.

Kym Martindale is Award Leader/Senior Lecturer in English and Writing at Falmouth University. She is also a poet with Redbeck Poetry Press and has published on the poet Alice Oswald. This piece records her diary as she cycled in the tracks of Edward Thomas riding from London to Somerset, a journey captured in his journal, In Pursuit of Spring, published in 1914 and reissued as an ebook by the Pwllheli-based press, Cromen,

In Pursuit of Spring is available as a digital e-book in epub and mobi formats through the Cromen shop and as a paperback book on Amazon and Lulu – go to In Pursuit of Spring page for further information.