As unscheduled stops go, this is surely one of the most famous in English literature. To judge from the poem of the same name, Edward Thomas was expecting his train on June 23rd 1914 to steam straight through such backwater stations in rural Gloucestershire on its way to Worcester and the Welsh border.
For some reason this one came to a halt. “Unwontedly” was the poet’s choice of word. The engine hissed and waited in the heat of the afternoon. Nobody was coming or going. Somewhere a man cleared his throat. Thomas’s sharp country eye took in the trees and grasses; also the strange, almost comical word on the platform’s nameplate. A blackbird piped up, and then all the birds of the county and their Oxfordshire neighbours seemed to be joining in.
It’s a peace poem if ever there was one, the more so since the train journey was made so close to the time when its author was to be recruited to the ranks of war poetry by the conflict of the age. On this particular day he was travelling up to join his fellow members of the Dymock Group of poets in Herefordshire. Four days later Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. In a matter of weeks Britain had, in the later words of Prime Minister Lloyd George, “stumbled and staggered into war”.
Thomas himself was to join the army as a volunteer, his pacificist inclinations overcome by the rightness of the cause and the depth of his devotion to the English countryside. He would die on the first day of the Battle of Arras on April 9th 1917, three weeks before the poem’s publication in the New Statesman.
One hundred years after his glimpse of Adlestrop, the sixteen-line composition bearing the station’s name had become so famous that a special centenary train repeated the journey, complete with halt, and hundreds of enthusiasts gathered to hear the actor Robert Hardy recite its four verses.
For various reasons the piece has become a member of that strange and unpredictable genre, the celebrity poem. It is among the most anthologised and learned-by-heart in the English language. It has so transcended its point of origin that eastbound motorists on the A436 from Stow-on-the-Wold can sense an unexpected familiarity as the name flashes by on a signpost.
Mention of the place quickens the appetite for nostalgia, as if some essential past Englishness has been lodged in its quaintly robust syllables. And while it may call back to view a vanished time, its observations are sensuous and specific enough to let readers feel it is their own eyes and ears which are discovering the scene and reporting their findings. In this respect, Thomas’s skill was, and remains, that of touching ephemera with permanence.
Impossible not to dwell on the war. That afternoon, as the train passed through the heart of England on what is now called the Cotswold Line, no-one knew quite how horrific the destruction and death toll would be over the next four years; how countryside such as this would become empty of young men, its villages full of their gravestones.
Armed with this knowledge, we cannot help but see that moment as something made even more precious by its imminent passing; a thing as fragile an eyeball. Retrospective prescience may be a suspect skill, but it adds a heavy freight to Thomas’ recording of the view from that unexpected station. This becomes a world in suspension, a process temporarily stalled, like his train. Like his own life too, as he contemplated the change of profession from critic to soldier. Both as the title of a poem and the name of a place, the sound of Adlestrop is made precious by the knowledge of what happened next.
Visitors to the village acknowledge that they are coming to a place composed of something larger and less tangible than the streets and houses, the Post Office and the church; a mood, a sense, perhaps a condition. Mrs. Jinnie Holt, a longstanding village resident, agrees that you can detect something of that mission from the look of the people who have come because of the poem. She makes them sound a little like pilgrims, hushed and reverend, but dogged too.
Thomas would have recognised the description since he had been a self-styled literary pilgrim, travelling the length and breadth of England to evaluate the nation’s great poets in their respective habitats: Blake in London, Hardy in Wessex, Wordsworth in the North, and so on.
When I first went there in the late 1990s, I had no idea what I might find. Like others before and since, I supposed I might see the remnants of the station itself, elegantly decomposing into its rural setting; the kind of place which the famous railway lover John Betjeman loved to haunt and eulogise. It was no such thing. In fact it was nothing at all. Just a vista of smooth straight rail with a distant curve, midway between the still-functioning stations of Kingham to the south and Moreton-in-Marsh to the north.
Tantalisingly, Station House is still there today, although the GWR sign which once stood at the mouth of the drive is long gone. The place is now home to Larkswold, which describes itself as a crafting destination. Its aim: “to bring the sense of rejuvenation that comes from being in a beautiful, natural environment with warm, genuine people.”
As for the old station’s platforms, they were removed many years ago because of the Thomas tourists who had been gathering there, dangerously close to the diesels flying by at modern speeds. Today there is no public access to the trackside ground on which the station stood.
This knowledge I got from Ralph Price, a lifelong resident of Adlestrop. Both his father and grandfather worked at the station, and he remains bemused by British Rail’s apparent indifference to the feelings of the villagers when the buildings were demolished. It was, he says, as if they didn’t want there to be any memory of the place.
In the field of railway nostalgia the word Beeching is hardly less potent than Adlestrop. It was he, Dr. Richard Beeching who, as chairman of British Rail in the 1960s, had produced a report advocating the removal of 4,000 miles of track, about a quarter of the network’s total. One third of the 7,000 stations were earmarked for closure. Adlestrop was among the condemned. A little later the renowned music duo Flanders and Swann came up with a lyric of gentle outrage, composed almost entirely of the names of the fallen.
At least one of the station signs did survive and can now be seen in the village bus shelter. Its presence there is both incongruous and strangely reassuring. As to the other sign, its disappearance remained a source of controversy for years. One version of its fate was that it had been sent to an Oxfordshire museum, and then destroyed. There have also been rumours of sightings closer to the village, rather as if it is a revenant seeking out its old location. None of these has been confirmed.
In the 1999 book Adlestrop Revisited, its compilerAnne Harvey devotes a small section to “The Search for the Other Nameboard”, which leans towards the conclusion that in the summer of 1970 or 1971 caretakers working at an Oxford college had cleared and burned a pile of supposed junk, including the sign.
As the author Sean Street wrote in the same volume, there is no evidence that Thomas wanted to go back and explore the place behind the name. “Nevertheless,” says Street, “ his poem has changed the village’s relationship with the world. Poems of place are events in themselves, and the fact of their existence, of our knowing them, means that we are changed in our view of their subject, whatever it may be. The image of the place is filtered through the perception that originally caught the essence in words.”
An irony of the poet’s association with Adlestrop is that he never set foot there. Nor did the village form part of his view from the train window, being almost a mile from the station. As he says, what he saw was “only the name.”
Although this is Cotswold country, Adlestrop inhabits a different England, a different world, from that of the so-called Chipping Norton set of influential media, political and show-business figures. It has a population of just seventy-two. There is no pub. The beautiful church of St. Mary Magdalene, with its thirteenth century chancel arch, has congregations often numbered in the low teens. Much of the family shopping is done in the town of Stow, four miles away. Unlike some of its neighbouring villages this is not a place of London weekenders, barn conversions and recording studios.
However, there is a beautifully restored post office and village shop which has largely reinvented itself during the pandemic to become a thriving arts-and-crafts outlet. One of the books on sale here is Jane Austen and Adlestrop, an absorbing and exhaustively researched account by Victoria Huxley of the novelist’s connections with the village.
In 1801, she writes, a few years after Austen’s first visit, a census showed the population to be 225, more than three times its present size. What brought her here on at least three occasions was the presence of the aristocratic Leigh family, of which her mother Cassandra was a scion. Jane kept in touch by letter with her cousins at the magnificent Adlestrop House, across the way from the church. Almost certainly, says Huxley, this home was at least partially the model for such fictional residences as Thornton Lacey in Mansfield Park. Equally, Austen’s observations of rural husbandry and estate management in her cousins’ community were to influence the portrayals of such as her Mr. Knightley in Emma or her Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.
Thomas’ connection with the place, though tangential, was explicit. It was also part of a momentous personal journey, involving the most influential of his fellow members of the Dymock group, the American poet Robert Frost. Without him, Adlestrop and the other 150-odd poems of Thomas’s final two years would never have come to be written.
For all his talent and industry, his life was in a dark place. He was bound on a wheel of what he considered hack literary work. This was a harsh and mistaken judgement, but he held it with his usual intensity. He was struggling with the state of marriage, fatherhood, overwork, and bore all the signs of what would today be identified as acute depression.
He had reviewed Frost’s poetry favourably. The American was in turn impressed by Thomas’s literary skill and told him that he was writing poetry already. This was as perceptive as it was radical. Thomas, he said, was producing prose which, without knowing it, had qualities of lyricism, rhythm and imagery normally found in poetry. The essence of Frost’s advice was blunt: chop the lines up.
Of course there was more to it than that, but if you look at the earliest poems in his immensely creative last years, you find that he has followed Frost’s advice so closely that you could almost make the writing revert to prose by removing the line-breaks.
Although the same cannot be said for Adlestrop, with its quietly rigorous crafting, its origins are prosaic. “Then we stopped at Adlestrop,” he had written of the train journey in his field notebook “through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.”
Such has been the fascination of the poem that enthusiasts have long debated the details of the journey. Was it really an express? The only timetabled express that June day in 1914 would have left London too late to reach Adlestrop at that time. In the view of his biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Thomas probably converted a scheduled halt on a stopping train to the unexpected one on an imagined express.
As the critic John Carey has noted: “Thomas’s voice is not only distinctive, it is elusive, like a persistent regretful note heard at the edge of hearing.” The poet’s cadences are “the sound of a mind communing with itself”.
When communing with Frost on their long and frequent country walks, Thomas had no idea that his dilemma about enlisting would inspire the American’s own best-known poem, The Road Not Taken.
For Matthew Hollis, author of Now All Roads Lead to France about the last years of the poet’s life, it is not the pinpointing of any particular episode or event that stirs Adlestrop to life. Rather, it is “something about the wordlessness of thought and memory, the power of recall, the notion that the senses are capable of remembrance, and that the mind can overcome things lost or misplaced to travel across space or time.”
For years after his death at Arras, the received version was that Second Lieutenant Thomas of the Royal Garrison Artillery had been killed by the concussive blast of a shell passing inches from him as he stood to light his pipe. This image, homely and heroic, the body undamaged, may have been some solace to his distraught widow Helen.
The truth was less poetic, less marbled, and Thomas himself would probably have seen the official line as an unwarranted manipulation of memory. After the (second) war a letter from his commanding officer Franklin Lushington, written in 1936, was found in an American archive. Thomas’s death, it said, was the result of having been “shot clean through the chest”.
While the inscription on Westminster Abbey’s commemorative stone to sixteen war poets is of Wilfred Owen’s declaration that “the Poetry is in the Pity,” Thomas continues to assert through his work that the poetry is also in the place. None more entrenched than Adlestrop.
Adlestrop Edward Thomas - 1878-1917 Yes. I remember Adlestrop — The name, because one afternoon Of heat the express-train drew up there Unwontedly. It was late June. 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 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 for that minute a blackbird sang Close by, and round him, mistier, Farther and farther, all the birds Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.