Steep!

In which I discover the most aptly named village in Britain…

Mrs. P and I were on our way to Winchester and driving around the beautiful Hampshire countryside. We visited East Meon, where Izaak Walton fished for trout in the Itchen; Selbourne, where Gilbert White wrote his Natural History and Uppark House, where HG Wells’s mother worked as a housekeeper. We ended up at the village of Steep, where the poet Edward Thomas made his home

The pub with no name, Steep, Hampshire

We planned to lunch at the White Horse: a very old pub with very old interiors and very old customers. The barman was a strange young man, who seemed to be getting inordinately stressed with his job. He seemed to think his life would be much easier if all these people stopped coming into his pub and asking him for things. This was the favourite pub of the poet, Edward Thomas. He liked its remoteness: it is about two miles from Steep, is set well back from the road and with no sign to indicate its whereabouts, it has the nickname of the ‘pub with no name’. There is a small shrine to Thomas in the bar: a carved plaque with some press cuttings and photographs. I spent a short while having a look at it. One of the customers noticed my interest. “are you a fan of Edward Thomas?” she asked me and I replied that I was a fan of literature in general. “I have a book of his poems at home” she said. I asked her if she was a fan and she stopped to think for a moment. “Not really” she eventually replied.

Two roads cross, and not a house in sight
Except the ‘White Horse’ in this clump of beeches.
It hides from either road, a field’s breadth back;
And it’s the trees you see, and not the house,
Both near and far, when the clump’s the highest thing
And homely, too, upon a far horizon
To one that knows there is an inn within.

Edward Thomas, ‘Up in the Wind

Born in London, Thomas began writing as a journalist, becoming a literary reviewer and biographer. Thomas loved poetry and had always considered it to be the highest form of art. He never considered himself good enough to be able to write poetry himself until he met the great American poet, Robert Frost, in 1914. At the time, Frost was part of a community of poets who lived around the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire. Thomas was visiting them here and he and Frost became firm friends. There is a rumour that Frost’s great poem ‘The Road Less Travelled‘ is about Thomas’s indecision about which path to take whilst out walking. It was Frost who suggested that Thomas try his hand at writing poetry.

Thomas and his wife, Helen, moved to Steep in 1906 and immediately fell in love with the countryside and the scenery. They lived in three different houses in the village: a circular walk, available from Hampshire County Council, will take you past all three houses, along with other sites of interest, including Thomas’s favourite spot on Shoulder of Mutton Hill. It was this walk which I intended to follow today. So, lunch finished, Mrs. P dropped me outside the Red House, Helen and Edward’s second Steep address, and drove off to Petersfield. She had been instructed to call in at The Old Drum, where HG Wells would sometimes write, and meet me later at The Harrow, another of Thomas’s favourite pubs and where I planned to finish my walk. “You’d better take your boots” she said. I almost scoffed at the preposterous idea. This is just a gentle walk on country lanes! There’s no need for walking boots!” I did take a stick, however, and thank God I did!

Now first, as I shut the door,
I was alone
In the new house; and the wind
Began to moan.

Edward Thomas, ‘The New House

The Red House, named for its combination of red brick and tiles, perches on the edge of a wooded slope, or ‘hanger’ as they are known in the area. These hillsides are known for their wildlife and magnificent scenery. Unfortunately, the trees were so dense along the road that I was unable to see very much. Still, it was a nice day for a walk: the previous day’s rain had stopped and the sun was shining. It was bright and warm as I tripped along, bouyed by good ale, in anticipation of a pleasant afternoon’s stroll.

“The trees parted and…”

I left the road and headed into the woods, following the signposts through the beech trees, until, the trees parted and… my God, what a view! The South Downs far in the distance across the wide flat valley. The village nestled in the dense woodland far below me. It was absolutely breathtaking. I continued to marvel at it as I walked down to the memorial stone, erected to Thomas’s memory on his favourite hillside in 1937. I had to check my route a couple of times as the ground was getting a bit steep here and was very slippery underfoot but the dog walkers skipping along the slope reassured me that I must be on the right path. Eventually, I arrived at the stone. It was erected in 1937, when the whole hillside was dedicated to the poet.

…Sixty miles of South Downs at one glance.
Sometimes a man feels proud of them, as if
He had just created them with one mighty thought.’

Edward Thomas, ‘Wind and Mist
Edward Thomas Memorial, Shoulder of Mutton Hill

It’s in a beautiful spot, with a bench, dedicated to Rowland Watson, who was instrumental in the process of Thomas’s recognition. From which you can admire the valley in front of you and I stopped for a while to take in the ‘sixty miles of Downs’ in front of me on this beautifully clear, warm day. Having drunk it all in, I rose up and continued my journey. The slippery chalk underfoot was closer to the surface here and the slope becoming steeper. My feet slipped away from me several times, causing me to lurch and dance down the hill, stick in front of me to prevent tumbling down the hillside. Why didn’t I wear my walking boots? If only someone had reminded me to wear them! I was desperately trying not to slide and could only regulate my descent by placing my stick in front of me to slow me down; gradually shuffling forward. The drop in front of me (I was going to include a photograph, but no photo can do it justice!) was treacherous! what if I slipped? How long before I was found? Would they even be able to airlift me out of here? My life began to flash before my eyes: my father telling me never to run on a hillside; my boyscout training in mountaineering, all of it involved having ropes and harnesses as far as I could remember. What use was that now? My calves were bursting at the effort of keeping my flat-soled shoes from slipping. Eventually, the ground levelled out and I was on a field edge, with a road. A lovely, beautiful, smooth, level tarmac road, in front of me. My jelly legs somehow managed to transport me to it.

and I rose up and knew,
That I was tired,
And continued my journey.

Edward Thomas, ‘Light and Twilight

A short distance along the road is Berryfield cottage, the Thomases first house in the village, where they lived from 1906 to 1909. Berryfield cottage is rather a grand, double fronted house with a central bay. From here, I could look back at the hill I had just descended. It was difficult to see the path from here. I would need to get a bit further away.

There is a path from here to the village. A stream runs alongside, as it flows through woods and meadows. This was more like it: gently sloping ground through sun dappled woods and fields full of wildflowers. This is good birdwatching country and I saw a hide alongside the path. From here you could see Nuthatches and treecreepers, woodpeckers and buzzards. Before long, the sound of rushing water could be heard as the stream tumbled down the side of the hill in a rather pretty little waterfall. I set out on the road towards the village, grateful now to be on flat ground and not regretting having set out on this bloody walk in the first place.

War Memorial, Steep

A short distance along this road brings you to the main street through Steep. Here is th war memorial with the names of the men from the village who died in the First World War. Edward Thomas’s (Lieut RGA) is clearly visible among the fallen. Thomas enlisted in 1915 and, as a mature married man, was under no obligation to serve. He strongly disagreed with the war but felt he could not stand by while thousands of young men were sent to die in the trenches. He was killed in the battle of Arras in 1917. The battle of Arras was among the largest advances for the allies, who looked certain to break the enemy line, until German defences rallied and the whole thing turned into a bloody stalemate. Some 300,000 casualties from both sides. 300,000. Let that sink in for a moment.

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

Edward Thomas, In Memoriam (Easter 1915)

There is a slight detour to the other Thomas house. 2 Yew tree cottages is a modest, semi-detached cottage, set way back from the road. To find it.you need to follow a pathway between two houses. It’s very easy to miss but, if you follow it, you will find the house, with a plaque on the wall, informing you of its previous occupant. He was living here when he enlisted in 1915, so it’s the last house he owned in the village. A little further along the road a plaque records that Thomas Sturge Moore also lived in the village. A little known poet and friend of WB Yeats, he lived in Steep from 1922 to 1932. I retraced my steps, back past the junction with the war memorial and past the entrance to Bedale’s school. The reason the Thomases moved to Steep in the first place was so that the children could attend Bedale’s: a well-known preparatory school with an outstanding aptitude for turning out actors. The science fiction novelist John Wyndham went to school here from 1918 – 1921. He went on to write The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos and was a childhood favourite of mine.

All Saints’ Church, Steep

Just past the school is the most beautiful, picture-book church, with a shingled, half-timbered tower topped with an octagonal, rustic steeple. There must have been a wedding here recently, as a garland of flowers adorned the door, setting it off perfectly. Inside, a pair of engraved glass windows remember Thomas’s close association with the village. These were installed in 1978, created by Laurence Whistler, a master glass engraver and brother or the artist, Rex. One has his poem, The New House, inscribed on it, the other, a scene of the local countryside, featuring a path crossing a hillside.

I walked a bit further to meet Mrs. P and get some refreshment after my walk. I have never wanted a pint so much; I was absolutely gasping! At the end of the village is another of Edward Thomas’s favourite pubs. The Harrow is an unspoilt country inn and a lovely place to spend half an hour sitting in the sunshine. It was closed. No cool, inviting pint waiting for me on this hot, July afternoon, after facing grim death on a treacherous hillside! Still, Mrs. P had some warm bottled water in the car.

2 thoughts on “Steep!

  1. The pub that was closed at the end your walk is called The Harrow, not the Barley Mow. Definitely worth visiting when open – another little gem.
    You may also be interested in taking a look at our History of Steep website. There’s still lots more information to upload. A number of well known people have been connected with Steep. https://historyofsteep.co.uk/

    Like

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