Story Path: Poetry for Today, ‘Feeling’ History and Leaving Footprints for the Future
Base Camp for a Walk
I have been investigating paths of all sorts lately. In my travels down this subject, I came across the poet Edward Thomas whom I’d heard of but hadn’t read. I have now, mostly due to a mention of him by Robert Macfarlane, a travel writer, nature writer and academic. The two men have a common interest in the spiritual relationship between nature and mankind.
Thomas was attracted by the idea ‘of inner landscapes being powerfully shaped by outer.’ Macfarlane also talks of ‘Thomas’s vision of path as story, with each new walker adding a new route or plot-line to the way.’
I love that viewpoint and it inspired the following poetry.
In the Lee of the South Downs
I walk the chalk in shadow of Down,
down where slim waters bubble
over stones, in the rill
scribed ‘twixt fern and
cow parsley, burbling the tale
of way-farers compounding the track.
Listen to its soft, ethereal back-words
from those who trod the beat afore,
leaving track, leading
pack-horse, hoofs a-thud
on chalk-floor, d-dum, d-dum, d-dum,
following upwards white-winding to ridge.
Chalk takes up the baton, weaving porous beneath the sole
of souls brushing leaf, catching bramble, siding fields
of buttercup meadow, bees a-dancing
yellow, generating buzz, back-hum to
rhythmic stride, rising, rounding, resting, gazing
ever up, gaining the voyage along the mystic Ancient Way.
Ancient Way, brighter white, conductive, flat-ridge track
compounded, solid, where jostled routes from Weald
and sea swap prints and stories. Wide
sky-canopies of wind, glimpse of waves
from lime-green commons, dark wood finger-signs
to past encounters, to future mind-meld, trading of wares,
following the path of compassionate history
to future sites, understandings and friendships.
Chalk Tracks and Chalk ManClick thumbnail to view full-size
Chalk paths, single file man-imprinted here, there parallel ruts of invisible carts pulled by middle prints of silent hoof.
Chalk figures, the Long Man of Wilmington carved in powdered grooves, leaning on his calcareous canes.
Porous hue creates back-lit grass, my green, the green that draws me home.
Devil's Dyke and Sussex WealdClick thumbnail to view full-size
I’m keening my eye through the mists of the Weald
from my kingly vantage point where the Devil was thwarted.
Atop the Downs my ancestors watch me, crowding round
to share the view, to share the story.
“At night the Devil swore he would cut through to the sea,
drown the Weald and all within. A nun challenged him and
he took the sweet nun’s bet, ‘You must do it before dawn breaks.’
Almost through, the Devil swore his victory, then ceased his dig -
a faint light appeared, he cursed the dawn and fled in anger.
The pious nun smiled. Her candle flickered higher and higher
until the dawn broke through to full day.”
My ancestors cheer, echoing stories told round the camp fires,
on the battlegrounds, on journeys to find freedom and prosperity.
I spy the church tower, the grazing fields and a small cottage below,
my home so many years ago. I join the group nearby.
We will disperse along these ways, to merge the paths and the stories,
the history and the myths, connecting the children to their futures
and their dreams, guiding the way, giving them stories of their own.
The Well by the Roadside
Memories of a walk in Sussex are mirrored here, especially in ‘Story Path’. An almost hidden, narrow path goes from Fulking in the lee of the South Downs, to Devil’s Dyke, atop the thread of folding ridges on the South Downs Way.
I used to tread this path often at weekends, with my cousins. We would start at the top of Devil’s Dyke high above Hove, from where you can see the sea to the south and Sussex Weald to the north. We’d walk down to the small flint village of Fulking, have lunch at the pub by the roadside, then, fortified with a juice drink, walk back to the top. There was always something different to notice along the way, a variety of plants depending on the season and if snow was around in the winter we’d finish with a snowball fight at the top. Those are some of my happiest memories; me, Mum and Dad, Mum’s cousin and his wife and their two boys (more like brothers to me).
The little brook was one which fed a well at the bottom, a wayside drink for travellers down the ages. It is next to 'The Shepherd & Dog' inn which has served passers-by with stronger stuff for hundreds of years.
My roots are in the South Downs. I was brought up just north of them (in the house I talk of in ‘Downland’), went to school just south of them (Hove) and followed numerous paths up and down them, even through them when the train to school ventured through a pots-and-pans clatter in a tunnel through the chalk. My heart still soars when I turn a corner and see them on my occasional visits.
The South Downs Way
The area called the South Downs was designated a National Park in 2010.
It is one of 15 National Trails in England and Wales and was the first bridleway National Trail in England. It is also the only National Trail to lie entirely within a National Park.
Stretching from the ancient cathedral city of Winchester, first capital of England, in the west, through to the white chalky cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head at Eastbourne in the east, almost all of its stunning 160 kilometre length is off-road.
I referred to Thomas in my introduction. Born as Philip Edward Thomas (3 March 1878 – 9 April 1917), he was 'a British poet, essayist, and novelist. He is commonly considered a war poet, although few of his poems deal directly with his war experiences and his career in poetry only came after he had already been a successful writer and literary critic.
In 1915, he enlisted in the British Army to fight in the First World War and was killed in action during the Battle of Arras in 1917, soon after he arrived in France.
Thomas immortalised the now-abandoned railway station at Adlestrop in a poem of that name after his train made a stop at the Cotswolds station on 24 June 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War.’
Paths of Choice
What are the paths you enjoy following? As well as inviting you to answer the poll, I would love to hear why you enjoy them, what you know about their origin, their purpose and their make-up. Whether land-based or sea-based or air-based, I’d like to know. Thank you.
Information on Edward Thomas from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Thomas_(poet)
and from Robert Macfarlane's ‘The Old Ways’, published by Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0-141-030358-6
Information on the South Downs National Park from
What paths do you enjoy?
© 2020 Ann Carr