Founding of the Friends of the Dymock Poets
by Linda Hart
The founding of the Friends of the Dymock Poets (FDP) is full of coincidence, serendipity and good luck. Although the society began on a specific date – 6 October 1993 – several things happened in the 1980s that prepared the ground very well. The historian, trying to understand why something happens at a particular time, looks not only for the immediate causes and occurrences but also for the remote factors and background circumstances.
It is 80 years since the phrase ‘The Dymock Poets’ was used for the first time. This was the title of a magazine article in the autumn 1933 issue of Gloucestershire Countryside. A humble magazine editor may thus be responsible for turning six disparate writers into a group of poets. But more likely, the author of the article came up with the title. He was John Haines, a Gloucester solicitor, naturalist and poetry-lover who was friendly with Gibson, Abercrombie, Frost and Thomas and visited Dymock now and again.
The poets were next recognised publicly by the Rev Eric Gethyn-Jones, vicar of St Mary’s church in Dymock. He published a book about Dymock in 1951, with a chapter titled ‘Dymock Personalities and Poets’. Here he described with pride the publication of New Numbers and its despatch from Dymock’s post office. When the book was updated and reprinted in 1966 Gethyn-Jones recounted how, in 1957, he had received a call from the American Embassy, asking if he would escort Robert Frost around Dymock. This visit took place two days after Frost received an honorary degree from Oxford University. Gethyn-Jones went with Frost to the Old Nail Shop, where Wilfrid Gibson and his wife had lived when Frost was in Dymock. Then they went on to the hamlet of Leddington where Frost was welcomed and shown around Little Iddens – where he, his wife and their four children had lived in 1914.
In 1978 a magazine called This England, based in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, published a short article titled ‘Dymock: A village of poets’. It had photographs of Little Iddens and The Old Nail Shop, as well as a field full of wild daffodils (narcissus pseudonarcissus) for which the area was, and still is, noted.
In the 1980s another Dymock vicar named Reg Legg was instrumental in creating a ‘Poets’ Corner’ at the back of the nave in St Mary’s church. He collected as much information about the poets as he could, from books, magazine articles, old photographs, and by asking residents to write down any memories they had of the time the poets were living nearby. As a result, on display in the church were some photographs, some hand-written copies of poems and letters by the Dymock Poets, and also memoirs by a few elderly residents who had met some of the poets in 1914. Barbara Davis, living a stone’s throw from The Gallows (where Lascelles Abercrombie had lived, in the hamlet of Ryton), helped Reg Legg to create this first exhibition about the Dymock Poets.
In 1984 The Countryman magazine, based in Burford, published a well-written and well-illustrated article about the Dymock Poets. It was by Bob Collins and titled ‘Laughter in a Golden Room’ (from Wilfrid Gibson’s poem entitled ‘The Golden Room’). With The Countryman’s wide circulation this article would have brought the poets to the attention of many people throughout Britain.
In 1985 Dymock celebrated its 900th birthday as a parish. One celebratory event was an evening of poetry and prose by and about the Dymock Poets, performed in St Mary’s church. The script was devised by Anne Harvey and titled Elected Friends. (These are the last two words of Frost’s poem ‘Iris by Night’, about his walk with Edward Thomas on the Malvern Hills.) Anne and four other actors told the story of the poets’ time in and around Dymock. Barbara Davis designed the poster and the programme for the event.
In 1986 a Dymock resident, Roger Clarke, put a note in the parish magazine decrying the state of the footpaths in and around Dymock; did anyone want to help him get obstructions removed, stiles repaired, and signposts restored so that the paths could be enjoyed by residents and visitors? Tony Williams, Janet Brooks, Barbara Davis and others responded to Roger’s suggestion, and before long two dozen enthusiastic walkers began meeting. The group decided to open up footpaths in four parishes – Dymock, Kempley, Donnington and Preston. Reg Legg had used the attractive name of a centrally situated crossroads – ‘Windcross’ – to describe these four parish churches that he was responsible for. So the walkers called their group the Windcross Parish Paths Project (WPPP).
The following year those inveterate walkers Roy and Pat Palmer moved to Dymock (opposite The Old Nail Shop) and were soon involved with the WPPP. The group’s footpath survey revealed what a colossal task they had taken on. They agreed to focus their efforts by devising and removing obstructions on one circular route of approximately 10 miles that went south from the village of Dymock. As an unobstructed and waymarked route began to appear on the ground, Barbara Davis worked on creating an illustrated map. The route needed a name, and someone thought of the Daffodil Way. Yes, perfect! The route and the map were launched in 1988. Sir Derek Barber, chairman of the Countryside Commission, came to Dymock for the official opening of the route.
After this first success, and with the offer of help from the Manpower Services Commission, the WPPP decided to clear and waymark another route. Someone suggested the Dymock Poets as a theme, and thus was born Poets Path, heading east from St Mary’s church towards The Gallows, in an eight-mile ‘figure of eight’. Barbara prepared another informative illustrated map (which like the previous map was on sale at the church). The Poets Path walk and map were launched in 1989. It was followed in 1990 by a second Poets Path route, heading north from the church and passing by Little Iddens and Oldfields. (Oldfields was where Edward Thomas, his wife and children had lived in August 1914.) Poets Path Two was launched by Edward Eastaway Thomas, the nephew of the poet, who came to Dymock along with Richard Emeny, founder and secretary of the Edward Thomas Fellowship (ETF). This resulted in the first links between members of the WPPP and the ETF, links that would prove useful three years later. Pat Palmer approached the Ordnance Survey on behalf of the WPPP to request that all three waymarked paths be indicated on the relevant OS maps, and this eventually happened.
In spring 1992 the first book about the Dymock Poets was published – a 126-page paperback titled The Muse Colony: Dymock 1914. The author was librarian and journalist Keith Clark. There is a generous selection of poetry in the book as well as many illustrations. Highlights include information about the publication of New Numbers and the Frost-Thomas friendship.
One year later, on 3 April 1993, The Daily Telegraph had a two-page spread about a walk in the footsteps of the Dymock Poets. This was in Christopher Somerville’s monthly Saturday walks column. He described an 8.5 mile route from Dymock church to the Old Nailshop, Little Iddens, Oldfields and back to Dymock church. At the end of the directions he mentioned the Poets Path maps, Keith Clark’s book and the exhibition in St Mary’s.
That same month Country Walking magazine published an article by Julie Meech titled ‘The golden tide of spring’, describing her 8-mile walk on the Daffodil Way. She describes Dymock Church, the official start of her walk, the Dymock Poets display she found inside the church, and mentions the Poets Path maps that were on sale.
The immediate factors
I will turn now to the immediate factors that led to the formation of the FDP in October 1993. Two unrelated things happened in the middle of that year.
Firstly, there were rumours in Dymock that Little Iddens was going to be sold. This was the cottage where Robert Frost and his family had lived from April 1914 to September 1914 (in September the Frosts moved to Ryton, then returned to America in February 1915.) Little Iddens was a 450-year old Grade II listed building in a very run-down state at this time. It was in Leddington, about two miles north of the village of Dymock, in the northernmost corner of Gloucestershire, situated on the border with Herefordshire. (Note 1).
The second ‘immediate factor’ is that I moved from London to Ledbury in mid-1993. Ledbury is a market town in Herefordshire, about four miles north of Dymock. I was an expat American; Robert Frost had always been (and still is) my favourite poet. I had bought a house in Ledbury the previous year, spending weekends and holidays there. I had joined a few societies, and began to meet a few people. On a visit in October 1992 I bought Keith Clarke’s book, The Muse Colony, and started exploring the ‘Dymock Poets countryside’ on my weekend visits.
I moved to Ledbury without having a job, and was looking for interesting things to write magazine articles about. This search started off the sequence of events that led to the founding of the FDP. In May 1993 I went to Ledbury railway station to meet Gareth Davies. I’d heard that he had rescued the station – keeping it open and selling tickets after British Rail had threatened to sell it. I thought there was a story here that I could turn into a magazine article. As Gareth and I chatted, I learned that in addition to our shared interest in railways we were both interested in literature and local literary links. He was chairman of the newly formed John Masefield Society (JMS), which I had just joined. Another coincidence was that my Ledbury house was a 5-minute walk from where he and his wife lived. The result was an invitation to dinner to meet some other people with literary interests.
At this dinner party I met Peter and Diana Carter. He was the treasurer of the JMS. I also met Penny Ely – and this is where the story really begins. Gareth had invited her because she lived near Little Iddens and Gareth knew of my interest in Robert Frost. Penny had been for some years concerned about the dilapidated state of Little Iddens, with no money being spent on its upkeep. She had created (though it seems on paper only) a ‘Robert Frost Cottage Appeal Executive Trust’, with the idea that it could take action if Little Iddens was ever threatened.
A few weeks after the dinner party Penny Ely rang; she had to see me, urgently. When we met she explained that she had heard a reliable rumour that Little Iddens was going to be sold. She had asked a few people to a meeting at her house to discuss this; could I join them on 22 July. The assumption seemed to be that because I was an American, I could help do something about this. (Note 2).
Most of us at the 22 July meeting had never met before. There was Barbara Davis, Dymock resident and WPPP member, who had been flying the flag for the Dymock Poets for many years. Some members of the ETF were there, including Roger Pope from Cheltenham, Graham Fowler from Staunton, and Gordon Ottewell from Winchcombe. A Ledbury sculptor and painter, Nick Pope, was also there. I had recently joined the ETF, so when I learned that its founder and secretary Richard Emeny would be at the meeting, I invited him to come to supper at my house after his drive from Somerset. I thought it would be helpful if, before the meeting, I learned about his views on what the options were. When we all gathered various ideas were discussed. Could Little Iddens be purchased? could it be restored? could it be an exhibition centre, a poetry centre, an educational centre? could it play a role in the cultural life of the community? All of these possibilities would require money. We didn’t think about practical problems, such as the fact that the cottage was on a narrow remote lane not suitable for coaches and difficult for car parking.
After the meeting I wrote begging letters to US companies with offices in London, such as American Airlines and Continental Airlines. But I wasn’t hopeful – who would donate or guarantee funds for the purchase of a dilapidated 450-year-old cottage, when the sale price was not known? And who would they donate the money to? We were just a small group of disparate people; most of us had only recently met one another.
Three weeks later I went on a WPPP guided walk, where Barbara and I discussed the situation regarding Little Iddens, and I met some of the WPPP footpath stalwarts such as Roy and Pat Palmer, Tony Williams and Roger Clarke. Here was another coincidence: Roger was deputy director of the Countryside Commission, and we had worked together on various matters when I was an assistant director at the Ramblers’ Association. He lived in Dymock and was able to give me advice and moral support during the forthcoming hectic months.
At the beginning of August the estate agent Howard Pugh announced that Little Iddens would be auctioned on 6 October. This resulted in another smaller meeting at Penny’s house on 22 August. This meeting was discouraging. None of us could see any likelihood of finding funds to purchase Little Iddens for literary or educational purposes. But after the meeting Barbara and I agreed that we did not yet want to give up. On our own we decided to call a meeting at Dymock Parish Hall to gauge local interest and see if anyone else had any ideas. I booked the hall for 9 September.
Planning the public meeting
Richard Emeny sent me the names and addresses of two dozen ETF members in Gloucestershire and surrounding counties, so that I could inform them of the public meeting. I also wrote and distributed a press release about Frost’s time at Little Iddens and the forthcoming auction, expressing the hope that anyone interested should attend the meeting in Dymock for a discussion about possible options. Barbara and I got busy preparing a poster about the meeting. We combined our different skills – I wrote the text and she produced the artwork and design. As the author I must therefore take responsibility for using the phrase FRIENDS OF THE DYMOCK POETS, which is on the poster in large upper case letters. Was this the first time we had used these words? Probably. But at this stage it was a short-hand phrase meaning ‘people who care about the Dymock Poets’. However, as Barbara and I were both members of the JMS, and as Richard Emeny from the ETF had been at our first meeting, it is possible that we were thinking of starting a literary society. The poster says that the Friends ‘hope to purchase the cottage and turn it into a poetry centre’ with a variety of educational and literary functions. I think we were guilty of some Panglossian optimism here. In any case, we put the posters up all over Dymock, Newent and Ledbury.
While working with Barbara on the poster, Gordon Ottewell and I got together to plan a leaflet about Little Iddens. I felt it was important to have something to hand out to people attending the meeting in Dymock on 9 September, and the leaflet could also be sent to the press. The leaflet says that if the cottage could be purchased and sensitively restored, it could provide a ‘study base, seminar room, or exhibition centre to promote the cause of literature, especially poetry’. Gordon wrote the leaflet while I was busy contacting and meeting various people who might provide advice, information, funding or support.
- I contacted the Royal Oak Foundation. This is the American fund-raising arm of the National Trust, which enables Americans to make donations in dollars and to benefit from USA tax breaks. Another coincidence occurred: I was put in touch with Gwen Tutt, director of public affairs for the Royal Oak Foundation, and she lived in Newent (a small market town four miles south of Dymock). I went to meet her and she was sympathetic, and said they would look into the possibility of acting as a conduit for American dollars being donated to buy Little Iddens.
- I contacted the president of the American Society in London. She got back to me to say she knew of two people who might be interested in buying Little Iddens; she wanted the estate agent to send the property details to her work address for forwarding to them. Her address was the US Financial Advisory Service, which seemed to me a good omen. One of these people did phone me and we had a long talk about Robert Frost, Dymock and Little Iddens.
- I contacted Bill Cronin, conservation officer in the planning department at the Forest of Dean District Council. He was responsible for dealing with Listed Buildings. I wanted him to know about the Dymock Poets, in particular the poet who had lived in Little Iddens, and the forthcoming public meeting in Dymock. I learned more about his role as conservation officer, and what he would do if/when it was sold at auction. This initial contact proved to be useful later when the new owner put in a planning application for changes to the grounds and the cottage.
- I contacted the Poetry Society in London to tell them what was happening, in case they knew of other poets’ houses that had been turned into literary centres. I was put through to Chris Green, the director. Another amazing coincidence: he had a house near Ross-on-Wye (seven miles west of Dymock) where he went every weekend. He loved the Dymock countryside, was keen to help, and wanted to see Little Iddens as soon as possible. At the same time I learned that Mr and Mrs Gouldstone, the owners of Donnington Hall (a mansion on the Ledbury-Dymock road) had told Barbara that they might be interested and would like to see Little Iddens. The Gouldstones had lived in Boston for many years, so they knew about New England’s famous poet and liked the idea of owning a house he had lived in. I convinced the estate agent to let me have the key to Little Iddens for a few hours on Saturday 27 August. I showed Chris Green around Dymock in the morning, and then we went to Little Iddens to meet Jane Gouldstone and Barbara – and to see Little Iddens. This was my first time inside the house.
- I was still busy contacting people, for example, two highly respected journalists I knew: Christopher Somerville and Marion Shoard. I had commissioned both of them to write various articles about the countryside when I was editing the Ramblers’ Association magazine. Christopher’s Telegraph article about walking on Poets Path One had been published in 1992, so I knew that he already was acquainted with the area. I told him about the auction of Little Iddens and asked if he could get an article published in the national press about what was going on. Marion Shoard had been writing and campaigning on issues of countryside conservation for many years, and was the author of The Theft of the Countryside. I had known her for over fifteen years (from my own countryside campaigning days). She had come to Ledbury in June for my house-warming party, when I had shown her around the Dymock countryside and told her about the poets. So I contacted her, told her about the forthcoming sale of Little Iddens, and asked if she could get an article published in the national press.
- Through my membership in the Council for the Protection of Rural England I knew the Herefordshire branch chairman Joe Hillaby. One day in early September he told me that D.M. Thomas lived in Herefordshire, and as a published Penguin poet he might be interested in helping. Thomas’s novel, The White Hotel, had been an international best seller translated into 30 languages. I obtained his phone number and after I told him about Little Iddens he asked me if Frost’s three years in England had gained him recognition as a poet. I said yes that’s exactly what happened. He offered to give me a statement of support that I could read to the public meeting in Dymock. He composed it then and there, while I wrote it down. The gist was that Frost was a very important poet, and that Little Iddens should be used for literary purposes. After this conversation I went to Ledbury library, and there on the shelves was Thomas’s most recent novel, Flying in to Love – about the John F. Kennedy assassination in Dallas. (Love is the name of the Dallas airport.) I opened the book and there, facing the title page, I found Frost’s enigmatic two-line poem, ‘The Secret Sits’:
We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
– Robert Frost.
The coincidences were certainly piling up, and then there was one more.
The most amazing coincidence
The public meeting in Dymock was approaching. About ten days before it was to take place, it was agreed that I would chair it. I made some notes for introducing the discussion, hoping to elicit contributions and ideas from those present. Gordon Ottewell had sent me the final draft of the leaflet about Little Iddens, and I had several dozen copies printed. Then, late one night, the most amazing coincidence occurred. My father in New York City had searched bookshops and contacted publishers to see if there were any books focusing on Frost’s time in England. There was (and still is) only one book entirely about those three years in Frost’s life. My father found it and sent it to me: John Walsh’s Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost (New York, 1988). Of course I wanted to read every word of it before the public meeting took place. Late one night I read that on 6 October 1913 Frost and Thomas had met for the first time. 6 October. Wasn’t that the date for the auction of Little Iddens? Yes! First 1913, now 1993. Exactly 80 years to the day. It was a shivers-down-the-spine moment. Was this a message from the literary gods? Was this what convinced me that a literary society should be formed?
I have evidence that by 4 September I was definitely thinking about the creation of a literary society. I wrote a note to myself that begins: “if FDP gets off the ground....”
On 8 September I went to a Howard Pugh auction at The Feathers to see what it was like. Forewarned is forearmed. That same day I received a long letter from Chris Green on Poetry Society stationery analysing the Little Iddens situation and suggesting a 3-point plan: urgently obtain a loan to buy Little Iddens; obtain grants to restore and repair it; work towards creating a small museum in the summer and a home for a poet in the winter.
I began the day of the public meeting, 9 September, by going to the BBC Hereford and Worcester studio to be interviewed about Little Iddens and the likely outcome of the meeting in the village hall that evening.
Public meeting in Dymock
Barbara and I arrived early and put out some display materials. Copies of the leaflet about Little Iddens were distributed to the forty people who turned up – more than we had expected. (Note 3). I made a few opening remarks about Frost’s time at Little Iddens, and his return visit in 1957 after receiving an honorary degree from Oxford the day before. (There are photos of this visit – e.g. Frost at the entrance to Little Iddens – in Gethyn-Jones’s book Dymock Down the Ages.) I said that it had not been possible to find sponsorship or donations, or anyone who wanted to buy Little Iddens. A good discussion took place. People accepted that buying a Listed Building that required so many repairs was not feasible at this time. So comments turned to the idea of creating a literary society. But this too would require people’s time, money and enthusiasm. Was there enough of that available?
In summing up after the discussion, I said that the friendship between Frost and Thomas was central to the story of the Dymock Poets. I had recently made an amazing discovery: they had met on 6 October 1913 and Little Iddens would be auctioned on 6 October 1993. There was not quite an audible intake of breath, but certainly wide eyes all around. I remember saying that John Masefield had a Society and Edward Thomas had a Fellowship, but the Dymock Poets could have Friends in honour of the Frost-Thomas friendship. I joked that 6 October could be a good day to launch the society.
Jackie Denman – I can still see her, waving her hand from the back row, obviously inspired by some idea – took me seriously and made a brilliant suggestion: let’s all go to the auction and immediately afterwards let’s have the first meeting of the FDP, where we can choose a committee and get going.
This was quickly agreed. A few people volunteered to be on a temporary steering committee and I was asked to chair it. Then someone said that Barbara and I had been spending money on printing, postage, hiring the hall, etc., and more money would be needed for the launch meeting. So a hat went around and £53 was collected. Such support was truly wonderful. The first meeting of the steering committee took place at my house a few days later.
More developments and help
At the beginning of September I had received a phone call from Sean Street, a freelance writer and BBC radio producer. He told me he was writing a book about the Dymock Poets and also producing a radio programme about the homes of famous writers. He had heard about me and the Little Iddens situation from Richard Emeny, and wanted to interview me for the radio programme which would be broadcast quite soon. We fixed for him to visit Ledbury on the weekend of 11-12 September. On the Saturday we talked for five hours non-stop, and he recorded those aspects of our discussion that fitted in with the theme of the radio programme. Next day we met up with Christopher Somerville (another coincidence is that they were old friends). After my request to Christopher about publicity in the national press, he had now been commissioned to write an article about Dymock, Little Iddens and the poets for The Independent. The three of us walked some of the paths, and Sean interviewed me on the footpath between Little Iddens and Oldfields for his radio programme (which was broadcast on Sunday 3 October – three days before the auction and launch).
In early September I heard from Marion Shoard that her proposal to The Times had been successful; her article about the Dymock Poets and their countryside was scheduled to appear in November. She came out from London shortly after Sean’s visit, and stayed with me for two days while we explored Dymock, Ryton, Leddington and Greenway, and I told her about the plans to launch a society.
After the meeting in Dymock someone told me to contact P.J. Kavanagh – a poet, novelist, lecturer and columnist for The Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement. He lived near Cheltenham. I got in touch and told him what had been happening, and that a literary society would be launched after the auction of Little Iddens on 6 October. This had a superb effect: in his column in The Spectator on 2 October he wrote about Dymock, Frost, Thomas and Little Iddens and he gave the date and place of the auction.
On Saturday 25 September Christopher Somerville’s article about Little Iddens and the Dymock Poets appeared in The Independent, giving my phone number for further information. I received ten calls in the next few days, most of them enthusiastic and helpful. One was from a professor of American literature at the University of Kent who gave me the phone number of an American Frost scholar and the address of the Robert Frost Society. But most important was his advice to contact Dr Peter Easy, the assistant director at Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education. When I did so, I was surprised that a college administrator was so enthusiastic to learn about Frost’s cottage, and he invited me to visit him. Only then did I learn that Peter’s PhD had been about American ‘beat’ poetry. (Yes, another nice coincidence.) A year or so later I asked Peter if the FDP could have a shelf in the College library, for safe storage of a few books and papers about the Dymock Poets and about the FDP (e.g. copies of lectures that were given at our events). He agreed, and before long we were talking about the College library buying books by and about the Dymock Poets. That was the start of the Dymock Poets Special Collection at the College.
Preparing for the FDP launch
- I wrote and distributed a press release about the auction of Little Iddens at The Feathers Hotel on 6 October which would be followed by the launch of the Friends of the Dymock Poets. This produced requests from two local newspapers, wanting photos of the steering committee standing in front of Little Iddens, to go with articles they were publishing. So on 27 September a few of us drove out to Leddington to be photographed.
- I asked The Feathers if we could have a meeting room after the auction for maybe two or three dozen people. Yes, there was a meeting room adjacent to where the auction would take place. I expect there was a fee for this but I can’t recall.
- I went to Westons Cider, in Much Marcle, and told someone there about the Dymock Poets and the plan for a literary society. I expect I described the ‘cider supper’ at Glyn Iddens that Elearnor Farjeon described in her book about Edward Thomas. I explained to Westons that I needed to raise a small amount of money to help get the society started. Would they be willing to donate some cider that we could raffle on 6 October. A few days later they said yes, and off I went to pick up a few flagons and to buy raffle tickets.
- I invited Roger Garfitt to the launch meeting, and asked him to make a short speech and read some poems. Roger had been editing The Poetry Review and was a former presenter of Radio 3’s ‘Poetry Now’ series. He was also the literature development officer for Hereford and Worcester County Council. I also invited Keith Clark, author of The Muse Colony, to come to the launch. I sent out another press release and had another chat with the young man at the Ledbury Reporter.
- I went to banks and building societies in Ledbury to get information about where a small non-profit voluntary organisation could have an account and write cheques.
- I wrote a provisional membership leaflet and arranged for a small print run. I wanted to have copies available on the night, as people were more likely to join if they had a piece of paper in front of them. Membership was set at £5.00.
- On 4 October I had a long phone conversation with Sean Street about plans for the launch on 6 October. Did I sound him out at this time on being our first president? I think so, but perhaps I was waiting for a committee to be formed and to have its first meeting. On 5 October and again on 7 October I was interviewed by radio reporters from BBC Hereford and Worcester about Frost, Little Iddens and the Friends of the Dymock Poets.
6 October – the FDP comes into existence
At the auction, a builder from Redmarley (a village near Dymock) made the successful bid for Little Iddens – which was £29,000. Shortly afterwards about 30 people – some from the auction room but most not – gathered together next door. Roger Garfitt was there, and opened the meeting with a few well-chosen words of encouragement. Keith Clark was there as well, and said a few words about the importance of the Dymock Poets. (I see from my copy of The Muse Colony that he wrote an inscription in it that evening.) I said that exactly 80 years ago to the day, Frost and Thomas were introduced to one another at a restaurant in London. I then read from Edward Thomas’s article about his walks with Frost in 1914, and from Helen Thomas’s memoir, and from Edward Eastaway Thomas’s speech when he came to Dymock and launched Poets Path Two. John Burns, my poetry-loving joiner, brought along his friend Peter Arscott. They volunteered to help, and both became valued FDP committee members and friends. Peter’s wife Viv soon joined the committee, and most of our meetings – not to mention newsletter-folding, envelope-stuffing and stamp-licking – took place around their kitchen table. The raffle raised £30 and by the end of the evening there was an FDP committee with a treasurer, secretary and chairman.
Marion Shoard’s article about the Dymock countryside and the poets was published in The Times on Saturday 20 November. This was great timing as a few days later I went to a seminar at the American College in London, to hear Seamus Heaney talk about Robert Frost. I had copies of Marion’s article with me, as well as FDP membership leaflets, and I was able to tell Seamus Heaney and almost everyone else present about the FDP. I think this was my first meeting with Anne Harvey (actress and author, with a special interest in Edward Thomas) and Steven Stuart-Smith (the director of Enitharmon, a prestigious poetry press).
The early years
It was an extremely busy first few years. The FDP committee organised lectures, performances, walks, lunches and suppers each year. We even put on two plays, one by Rupert Brooke and one by Lascelles Abercrombie; both were performed splendidly by the Ledbury Amateur Dramatic society. We recreated the ‘cider supper’ in Brooms Green Memorial Hall, with our after-dinner speaker Eric Freeman telling us about his life as a rare breeds farmer near Newent. We arranged a concert by Johnny Coppin in St Katherine’s Hall Ledbury followed by supper there; John Drinkwater’s daughter Penny was overwhelmed with emotion when she heard Johnny’s musical rendition of her father’s poem ‘Cotswold Love’.
I encouraged Keith Smith Books, a small second-hand bookshop on the high street in Ledbury, to start buying up everything on the Dymock Poets and related subjects. Before too long the shop had an excellent collection of books by and about each of the Dymock Poets and more generally on Georgian poets and First World War poets. Keith Smith Books and Ledbury Books and Maps were invited to have stalls at all of our events.
We liaised with Bill Cronin and the Forest of Dean District Council about our views on some of the changes being proposed to Little Iddens (e.g. the addition of a garage, the addition of much fencing around the property, the planting of leylandii hedges). We complained to Gloucestershire County Council about obstructions and vandalism on Poets Path One and Two. We battled with the farmer in Leddington who removed a hedgerow between Oldfields and Little Iddens that Edward Thomas referred to in his essay ‘This England’ (the headline in the Daily Telegraph, page 4, on 31 October 1994 read ‘Anger as farmer rips out poets’ hedgerow’.) We successfully proposed that six roads on a new Ledbury housing estate be named after the Dymock Poets.
As I worked as a writer and editor it seemed sensible for me to also produce the FDP newsletter. These were mailed out approximately quarterly to our growing list of members. As Barbara was such a wonderful artist, she produced our logo and any other designs that we required. We produced packs of notecards/envelopes, with Barbara’s design on the front. These sold out after being on display at our events, and we also sold the complete run of 20 navy blue polo shirts which had the FDP logo in yellow.
Sean Street’s excellent book, The Dymock Poets, was published in 1994. By way of background he thoroughly describes Georgian poetry and the early 20th century literary scene, as well as the Dymock countryside, before discussing the development of the Dymock Poets’ friendships and poetry especially in the crucial year, 1914. Sean’s book raised the profile of the Dymock Poets, as did the various events and activities organised by the FDP.
As a result, I received a flood of inquiries about the Dymock Poets and their poems. One problem was that so many of the Abercrombie, Gibson and Drinkwater poems were out of print. This made me realise that all the poems relating to their friendships, their time in Dymock, and the Dymock countryside had never been published together in one place. So I searched for every poem with a Dymock link – and found over 50 of them – and published them in a paperback entitled Once They Lived in Gloucestershire: A Dymock Poets Anthology . The book has detailed headnotes about the background to and composition of each poem. As copies of the anthology began to sell I was invited to give lectures to a wide range of groups from literary societies to Women’s Institutes to Probus to local history groups, especially in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire.
Speaking of books, the FDP hosted three major book launches in Ledbury, with the help and cooperation of Ledbury Books and Maps. There was Mike Read’s biography of Rupert Brooke, in 1997, with Mike Read spending the day in Ledbury with us. There was the British edition of Jay Parini’s biography of Robert Frost in 1998, and weren’t we pleased to have an American author with us for a book launch. And there was Dominic Hibberd’s biography of Harold Monro, launched in Ledbury and accompanied by a lecture that Dominic gave on the subject.
It is still gratifying that so many people cared enough back in 1993 to help get the Friends up and running. They cared because of the poets and the poetry and the countryside they loved and the footpaths they walked on and the talks they had and the local cider they drank. The FDP has just turned 20. I am writing this in November 2013, shortly after delivering a much shorter talk on the subject at the FDP’s October weekend. My idea of having a weekend of events at the beginning of October every year, to commemorate 6 October, continues today. The Frost-Thomas friendship began on that date, and friendships among the Friends are renewed and revived every year at the October weekend.
(1) There is some interesting background to this. Just a stone’s throw from Little Iddens there is a farm called Henberrow. It was sold early in 1993, and as Little Iddens had always been part of the same estate, Barbara Davis became concerned about the future of Little Iddens – partly because of its run-down condition, and especially when she saw the new owner of Henberrow using a bulldozer around the estate. She contacted the Forest of Dean District Council (FoDDC) and expressed her concern, and explained that Little Iddens was in a very bad state of repair. She learned that Little Iddens had not been sold. The next day Bill Cronin from the planning department came to investigate. He was shocked by the dilapidated state of Little Iddens, and said that the FoDDC had a statutory duty to protect the tenant who was living there. The FoDDC told the owner of Little Iddens that it was a Listed Building and he had to make repairs on it that kept to Listed Building guidelines. The owner then decided to sell Little Iddens.
(2) What follows might make more sense if the reader knows a bit more about me. With two degrees in politics from American universities, I continued my studies at Oxford from 1969 to 1971. I was a lecturer in politics at an American university for the next three and a half years, and then moved permanently to England in 1975. My thesis at Oxford was concerned with pressure groups campaigning to protect the English countryside from development. So I knew about the British planning system, legislation to protect the countryside, the workings of local government, environmental campaigning, and so on. In 1977 I became the first director of a newly formed pressure group, the Council for National Parks. Later I campaigned on environmental issues for various London-based organisations such as the Women’s Institute. At my last job before moving to Ledbury, I was an assistant director at the Ramblers’ Association, in charge of publications (a quarterly magazine and annual yearbook) as well as the information service (providing advice for members on rights of way, how to plan guided walks, access to the countryside). In the early 1990s I was chairman of my local branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England and my local branch of the Ramblers’ Association.
(3) For the record: from Ledbury there were several members of the John Masefield Society present such as Ronald and Beth Sandison, Peter and Diana Carter, Peter Cartwright, Brian Nixon; Cheryl Davies at whose house I first met Penny Ely and the Carters; also living in Ledbury, John Burns, a superb joiner who came to my house to make bookshelves and banisters, but spent much time talking to me about poetry; Cecil Pearce from the National Trust and Gwen Tutt from the Royal Oak Foundation; Ted Roberts from Dymock who represented the parish on the Forest of Dean district council; Roger Pope and Graham Fowler, members of the Edward Thomas Fellowship who had attended the first meeting at Penny’s house; Bill Cronin, the Forest of Dean conservation officer, made the long journey from Coleford; Jackie Denman, a rural tourism consultant from Ledbury; Mary Turner and her mother Joan Kilbey, both from Malvern, who had read the press release in the Malvern Gazette. Joan’s ashes were interred behind St Mary’s Church, Dymock, in 2000 and Mary’s son Greg became a member of the FDP committee in 2011.
© Linda Hart 2013
Linda Hart is the author of Once They Lived in Gloucestershire: A Dymock Poets Anthology , Green Branch Press, 1995, 2011