The Tractor and the Caterpillar – The Dymock Poets and the Cotswolds

I’m five miles in and I have a fly up my nose. My legs are tired from wobbling on the tussocky grass; baby-fists of chalk protrude from the path, punching me through my shoes.
It is a much better run than it sounds. The fly doesn’t make it.
All year I have found it hard to get back into a running rhythm and today is the first six-miler in many months. Because I’ve been easing my way back to regular running, I’ve been using Saucony Kinvaras – they’re light, with some cushioning (a little too much for me to ‘love’ them), but at least they’re flexible – I like a shoe that gives to my foot, not bars its way. But they’re a London shoe; a roadrunner. They’re not built for Cotswold stone.  Now that I’m in the land of the Dymock poets, or Laurie Lee if you prefer, neither they nor I am cut out for this hilly and changeable terrain.
In only my first mile, the ground gives way so steeply that I have to walk the single-track road. I start to run again and the tarmac gives way to a footpath that leads into the tiny

hamlet of Nag’s Head – it has a plaque on the wall listing the eighteen men that died in the First World War – about a quarter of its inhabitants. One was only seventeen.

Down the side of a cottage, three men are working and they smile at me as I dance down a pathway littered with clumps of chalk. Then I realise why they were smiling: the pathway (after a few metres) comes to an end in a steep hillock like a 20 metre tide of grass. The psychology of the runner will not let me retrace my steps so early in the game, so I start fighting through ‘the nature’ to find the pathway. The wisps of grass are so tall they brush against my face, then the nettles attack.  All around my legs up to hips start tingling with stings (that go on to last for days). I angle my way up the hill only to discover there is a clear and short path that I somehow missed. The next couple of miles are all under the dappled luminosity of beeches. And I’m STILL climbing. To my left is a shorn meadow, golden, with great drums of gathered hay. There is something colour-wheel perfect about these three shades, gold, green and blue, that feels restorative, like an easy yoga-stretch for the eye. 
These are the landscapes that inspired the Dymock poets, a loose collection of lads who, for one reason or another, found their way out of London to their quiet hideaway. Although Edward Thomas was closely connected with them, he wasn’t yet writing poetry when he stayed here with Robert Frost, Lascelles Abercrombie, and Wilfrid Gibson. The Dymockers set themselves against the modernist turn that began to take place in the city.

Lascelles Abercrombie in later life

When Ezra Pound was busy recruiting Hilda Doolittle and Richard Aldington to his Imagist collective (espousing the importance of directness, precision, and spare musicality that ignored the metronome), the Georgians were rustic and simple, employing the language of the everyday, imitating the natural cadences of speech (we runners know all about cadence). It’s hard not to get behind an aesthetic whose founding principle is so democratic. Like pages tossed into a fire, many of the Dymock poets were consumed in the First World War. Edward Thomas, a career spent in prose, did not live to see his first collection of poems in print.

The beech cover breaks and I’m in a gulley that has been recently cut. Stubs of weeds snap and poke at me under foot; and the nettles, sensing their chance for dominance are creeping back into the empty space left by the cutter. After another mile I am back on single-track tarmac. It looks like a painting. The road, lined with hedges, runs straight to the horizon, then gold and green fields appear either side.  A tractor ambles over the hill and I have to flatten myself into the side of the road as it thunders past. And it is only then that I see a caterpillar, in the middle of the road, perfectly perpendicular, in full sprint to the other side. It oxbows and stretches in a line like it has done this journey tens of times. I laugh at the preposterous dynamic of perspective.
Signs of life are ahead. I reach a junction which signposts one way for Bath; the other, Cirencester.  Do I want times-old Roman, or times new Roman? After a few yards, I decide neither. There is no footpath and the thunderous traffic is so fast and heavy that the distraction of a dinging text in a lorry-driver’s cab would be enough to kill me. I am running for nothing, so I turn back onto the footpath and retrace my steps.
After Thomas’s death, Harold Monro’s collections of Georgian Poetry continued until that hot year of modernism, 1922; the year that saw the publication of Ulysses, Jacob’s Room, and The Waste Land. Even though Georgian Poetrysold more than 70,000 copies, its moment had passed. How could a verse form, so sense-making, so clear in its expression, survive the chaotic lunacy of a war that slaughtered so many? 

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