February and March are full of trickery. By the close of winter we're hardwired to detect the slightest shift in the air, poised to shake free from the cold and damp. We look to nature for a sign that the cycle has been rebooted: sunlight through the window or a warmth on the wind. But all too often one forgets that spring is suggested before it is readily offered. We must first undergo the days of mirage; illusions of change presented on freak afternoons of alien sunshine. Plants are also among nature's lively decoys: the early blossoming blackthorn, for example, lighting up along hedgerows and motorways. I am reminded each year that the garden snowdrop is a flower of winter and should be appreciated as such, rather than as a harbinger of the season to come.
A regular at the ponds on London's Hampstead Heath, I recently fell prey to such springtime deceptions following a snappy March swim. Returning to the changing room I was met with a row of bathers sunning quietly along the outer bench, steeped in a pool of warming sunshine. The scene was like a British equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting: men transfixed by sunlight, clad in Speedos rather than stetsons. But less than two hours later the sun had disappeared and the grey gloom reinstated.
These seasonal false starts are no more astutely documented than by the naturalist and poet, Edward Thomas, during a literary pilgrimage in 1913. Composed of prose less acknowledged than the poetry with which he was later immortalised, In Pursuit of Spring captures both Thomas's affection for the season and his anguished anticipation of its arrival. The book was commissioned as a celebration of the onset of spring in the English countryside, taking Thomas westwards on a bicycle from London to Somerset. At the close of winter, as he eagerly awaited his departure from the city, premature declarations of spring pressed upon his patience. Thomas' opening chapter describes shafts of sunlight flooding into city rooms through windows that shut out both sky and earth'. And later he recounts; I should have liked to set forth immediately, to travel day and night [...] until I reached the nightingale's song, the apple blossom, the perfume of sunny earth. But nothing was more impossible. The next day was sleet.'
On March 21st Edward Thomas began his pursuit of true spring, seeking it out along rivers, through towns and villages and across the undulating hills of the Home and Western counties. He read the season's developing narrative in wild flowers, birdsong and woodland glades, committing each indication to the pages of this modest yet wonderful work of nature writing. On March 21st, just over a century later, I decided to pursue his trail to see if spring revealed itself to me as it had done Thomas. I selected a short Hampshire stretch of the route, between Farnham and Chawton, and, like Thomas, took with me a compact film camera, bicycle and notebook.
Farnham, 9am: ...so into Farnham at a quarter to nine, which I felt to be breakfast time.' In agreement I sought out toast and coffee, reward for my early morning drive from North London. Leaving Farnham I followed Thomas' road (now the A31) westwards along the river Wey. Just beyond Willey Mill I came to a crossing where the road, actually touched the river'. I took in the surroundings and noted spring. Waterside goat willows in thickly fluffed bud. Rosettes of foxglove leaves in the arching bank. Bright green hawthorn leaves and glinting blackthorn flowers. Down in the water, the new shoots of water mint? A robin close by calling and great tits in the alder trees above. Alders, by contrast, as sullen and dark as on any winter's day.
Froyle, 11am: Thomas noted the calling of rooks from nearby rookeries at Froyle, and their presence remained as I came up into the village. I located the red church tower', but assumed its accompanying elm trees to be long gone. The rest was reassuringly as he described, including the low-lying wall abutting Froyle park and its mile of mounted grass'. At this wall Thomas encountered the song of his beloved chiffchaff, among his most cherished proclamations of spring. Though I couldn't discern a chiffchaff, a chaffinch sang proudly in the churchyard, and I watched a kestrel glide gently across neighbouring fields. Purple dog violets flowered on the chalk sprung turf, as did white spires of dead nettle under the still bare stems of hedging maple.
Holybourne, 12:30pm: The smell of cut grass hung sweetly in Holybourne, an attractive Hampshire village sat atop the South Downs. Distant drone of a lawnmower; the modern herald of spring. Thomas' description of the church (Holy Rood'), and Manor Farm fitted neatly with the view. Holybourne's village pond, chalk-bottomed' and of clear water' appeared also as it had been written (although now rather less clear, as remarked by Alan Titchmarsh who, by some strange coincidence, I bumped into on this horticultural pilgrimage).
On many occasions in the book, In Pursuit of Spring adopts an anthropological inquisitiveness whereby Thomas observes manmade artefacts alongside those of the natural world. He notes the names engraved in village churchyards, for example, and at Holybourne I was excited to trace a just-about-visible, Lilywhite' on a yellow, lichen-emblazoned gravestone. Inside the church itself I found the narrow window that had caught Thomas' eye; decorated with tiny flowered discs of alternating blue and orange'. It's an understated feature, and far less striking than the stained glass throughout the rest of the church. Only when up close is the floral embellishment revealed within the discs. So like the writer, I thought, to be drawn to such an unassuming horticultural display. Outside the sun brightened and I sat for a moment in stained celestial light, listening to my ringing city ears while trying to identify a bird calling by the road.
Chawton, 2:45pm: The road, as did Thomas', took me on to Chawton, a village well aware of the fact' that Jane Austen once lived there. In fact, Thomas himself was far from unaware of the literary realms through which he was passing and took care to note them throughout In Pursuit of Spring. In Farnham he seeks out the birthplace of William Cobbett and rides in the company of W.H Hudson and Coleridge as he travels towards Somerset. At Chawton, therefore, it struck me as something of an oddity that Thomas did not pursue spring into Selborne, the birth- (and death) place of arguably Britain's greatest naturalist, Gilbert White. Perhaps the natural attributes of this village were already too well documented (in White's, The Natural History of Selborne), or perhaps, despite its close proximity, the slightest southward detour would contradict Thomas' westward pilgrimage. However for me, the draw of Selborne, with its wealth of natural curiosities and resident wildlife, became too irresistible a diversion. I decided to follow my own springtime pilgrimage into the hills and dells that Cobbett once announced unsurpassable in beauty.
Turning South with the geographical design of In Pursuit of Spring still fresh in mind, I became aware of an absence of chronology in the narrative structure of Thomas' book. No dates are listed beyond his starting point, only place names. Spring is documented across a journey from East to West, but it is the journeying itself that alerts and tunes Thomas to the unveiling season. It is a season of movement, of reinvigoration and change, and to witness it best is to witness it on the move, no matter in which direction.
In Pursuit of Spring was published at the outbreak of the Great War. In short succession Edward Thomas would be separated from his beloved countryside and displaced among the trenches of France. Recollection of his cross country excursions informed the poetry which elevated him among the war poets of the age, so steeped in faithful observation as to stir courage in the hearts of homesick soldiers. Thomas never returned to the landscape of his poems; he was killed at Arras in 1917.
Cycling through the downland woods leading out from Chawton, great trunks of beech and ash intersected swathes of newly flowering dog's mercury and lesser celandines. There too I found, minute among the undergrowth, the understated green-yellow flowers of moschatel: spring spoken softly yet definitively upon the woodland floor.
A new edition of In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas, complete with his personal photographs, is published by Little Toller Books. For further information visit www.littletoller.co.uk.
Words by Matt Collins