From Steep to the Somme

On Thursday 27 March a full coach of first year AS English Literature students set off for two days to trace the footsteps of local poet, Edward Thomas. English students are very fortunate to be studying a poet whose main body of work was inspired by, and written in, Steep. 6am found the group on the top of Shoulder of Mutton Hill in the pouring rain, thinking about Thomas, seeing more or less what he saw, only with slight differences to the landscape. A breakfast stop at the Pub with No Name where Thomas wrote his first poem, fortified the party as they set off across the Channel, as Thomas did in 1917, and embarked on what has become an annual pilgrimage to the battlefields of Ypres and the Somme.

One of the most emotional visits of the first day was to Tyne Cot, the largest British Military Cemetery in the world containing 11,908 graves, 70% of which commemorate men only ‘Known Unto God’. As is now the custom, students were given the opportunity to find the final resting place of a soldier bearing their family name. 

It is always one of the highlights of the trip to lay a wreath on behalf of the College at the Menin Gate Ceremony in Ypres. This year it was the privilege of Lucy Granger (Farnborough Hill), Frankie Williams (Heath End) and Lydia Playle (Weydon) to carry out this very special honour which they undertook with great dignity. Lucy said, “Edward Thomas has been a great influence on my life. His dealing with mental illness and his relationship with nature holds a strong personal connection to myself and my own experiences.” Frankie remembers how emotionally powerful the role was and Lydia recollects what it meant to her: “Standing at the Menin Gate ceremony made me finally realise how traumatic and devastating the war was. Before this trip I thought of both World Wars as just history subjects but the ceremony, the trip and seeing all the names made me realise how vast and touching the wars were”. 

One of the most poignant events of the trip was the discovery of a fallen ancestor by Daniella Howe. She records her own special ‘journey’: “When I received the itinerary for our English poetry tour, I saw that we were going to a South African memorial and my mum asked me to try to find a relative, as we are originally from South Africa. We thought he was gone and forgotten. When I mentioned it to my teachers, they arranged for me to spend a little extra time at the South African memorial in order to undertake my search. There was a very helpful man at the memorial site who looked up the name for me. It was very emotional for me when he found the right name and the area he was from in South Africa. I immediately messaged my mum and told her the news. We have yet to confirm whether or not it is him, because most of the family have now passed away but all signs point to a positive identification. We feel blessed and at peace that we have potentially found our loved one and he has not been forgotten, but is remembered in the book of honour.”

Entitled ‘In the Footsteps of Edward Thomas’ the aim of the trip was to commemorate Thomas at his grave at Agny and this was indeed a significant place. The day before had found the group at the Poet’s Stone on Shoulder of Mutton Hill and twenty-four hours later at the pure white stone marking the fallen poet, father, husband, friend and soldier. It was truly moving.

The final stop at Vimy Ridge, built as a solemn tribute to the Canadian Armed forces in Arras, is the setting for the group photograph and where Luke Bateman (Amery Hill) read Thomas’ poem Lights Out: “To read Lights Out, one of Thomas’ last poems, was a real honour. The monument at Vimy complemented perfectly the themes of closure and finality.”

Students were given the opportunity to write, draw and respond creatively to their experiences and their thoughtful and emotional contributions did far more than support their academic study of a literary genius! Rob Lentz (Weydon) commented that the trip was “consistently appropriate” and “furthered (his) comprehension of Edward Thomas’s work greatly, particularly the growth of Thomas’s poetic voice.”

This is the last trip of this kind after 17 years and it is with much poignancy that the staff and students have reflected upon it.

Find out more information about studying English Literature here