First world war poet Edward Thomas, who died in the trenches in 1917, loved these woods and hills at Ashford Hangers, next to this week’s Country Walk near Petersfield.
As I strolled the lanes and rues and climbed the hills and crossed the streams last week, whole lines of his poems came leaping out of the trees and meadows and closed, secret valleys.
“I have come to the borders of sleep, the unfathomable deep forest where all must lose their way, however straight or winding, soon or late. They cannot choose.”
The poems have much of the terrible ring of finality that Dylan Thomas often captured. Both men died in their 30s. Both could see through the thin veil of life that encloses our mortal coil.
I am fortunate, maybe just plain simple, not to feel this dark resonance. My father did, but my mother was an optimist and I take more after her. Wandering the forest I see no shades of night in the head, only the glorious intensity of light that is the life of the planet that includes the midnight skies of stars. So it was here on my walk last week.
Thomas would have been pleased that the hanging woods of Steep have national recognition for their wildlife. I passed this NNR sign in Old Littlen Lane just before dipping down north of the reserve on to the other side of the Shoulder of Mutton.
I thought: “Ha ha! The new sign from Natural England shows not only a purple emperor butterfly, a spring of yew berries and Thomas’ memorial stone (small grey dot in centre) but also a couple of flower spikes of narrow-leaved helleborine. I wonder if I shall find said rare orchid for myself.”
The time was right, early June, As you can see from the photo, I did. Not one, but dozens. It is 20 years since I saw these delicate orchids at their last site in West Sussex where it is now extinct.
I had to place my hand behind the picture to get the wretched camera to focus itself. They were growing under the old beech trees as I climbed up Down Hanger woods on the way back. The purple emperor will be flying there next week in its short aerial life of a week.
Then next September the yew trees of these old woods will produce their crop of red juicy berries that birds will eat, and badgers too.
Down on the footbridge over Oakshott stream, I remembered the poet’s thoughts here by the brook: “A butterfly alighted. From aloft he took the heat of the sun, and from below. On the hot stone he perched contented so, as if never a cart would pass again that way; as if I were the last of men, and he the first insect to have earth and sun together and to know their worth. I was divided between him and the gleam, the motion, and the voices of the stream...”