Wednesday, 27 March 2013

In pursuit of spring

The other weekend, a series of meetings and a conference took me south through the Chilterns, west to Reading and beyond. Any journey south that is made at this time of the year has the lure of spring about it. Spring is more advanced on the south coast than here in East Anglia; the buds more strongly swollen and the spring flowers further into bloom. It feels as if you are passing through time, rather than space.

Driving through mixed arable land, I passed many a clump of trees that hosted a rookery, with birds in attendance and standing sentinel over nesting attempts that already well underway. Skirting further south I drove through Gilbert White’s Selborne, dominated by its beech hanger and the surrounding downs. On another day I would have stopped here, walked the zig-zag path up the hanger or tacked across the fields towards Noar Hill. There is a strong sense of history in this landscape, the feeling that it has not changed quite so much as to now be unrecognisable to its former inhabitants.

The poet and writer Edward Thomas made a not dissimilar journey almost exactly a century ago. Heading west out of London with his bicycle, Thomas set out ‘In Pursuit of Spring’ documenting the landscape, its people and its sense of place. Although sometimes portrayed as a piece of nature writing, Thomas’s book is, in reality, something rather different. The wildlife described in his account is not central to the text. Instead it is part of the backdrop, contributing to the sense of landscape and place, working its part alongside names marked on the gravestones of the churchyards visited or the character of the buildings that sit within the folds of countryside that are passed.

Thomas’s journey is also a personal one and through his words you can discover something of the man and his reactions to a landscape that was undergoing a period of change. There are passages where Thomas laments what has been lost, something that I suspect is common to most writers on landscape, but these are balanced by moments where the joy of being at one with the landscape pushes through strongly. Landscape has this amazing ability to take hold of us and to lift our spirits. For me the sight of these springtime rookeries is a case in point; they are so characteristic of spring in the south of England, reflecting the wider landscape within which they sit. To see such a rookery can transport me immediately back to my childhood, delivering me to a landscape that skirts the downs and which appears timeless in its associations. This remains the landscape of Edward Thomas and those writing before him.

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