On a Baking Hot August Day (As Poets Do)

[Editor's Note] James Fairbank is the head of central and brand marketing at Rapha, but he's a wanderer to his core. While living in London, presently, the countryside is his true home. This is a story of a day in the countryside, on a quest for what's calling him.

Daydreaming about riding still occupies me, but, back when I had the time to kill, I used to spend a lot more of that time rolling along trying to join things up: linking the things I’d read with the exhibitions I’d seen, to the conversations I’d had. Occasionally these disparate thoughts would coalesce and form as seeds in my mind. I used riding to help germinate those thoughts, and this is a story about one of them…

One baking hot August day I set off from London on a solo pilgrimage to the gloriously named Hampshire village of Steep, to pay homage to a man whose work has affected me profoundly.

The British poet Edward Thomas is often referenced these days – he had a view of Britain that seems to resonate with the 21st century, one similar to Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and latterly J.L. Carr. Thomas was also deeply flawed, suffering from bouts of depression that sent him marching deep into the countryside to confront his darkness.

He left part of himself on the roads and lanes of pre-First World War England, but thanks to his eye for detail and deep sensitivity to the natural world, it is a world that still lives in his pages, a hundred years later. A world suspended, a vanished idyll that paradoxically seems to have been preserved by the war that also marked its end.

Edward Thomas’s story has a tragic ending, he was killed on the first day of the battle of Arras in 1917. As a mature, married man he could have easily avoided active service but chose to serve and die for his country, a decision that puzzled me. A seed was germinating.

That August day I set off to find his memorial.I was Garmin-less and used the Coyle method (named after my great friend and adventurer, Ultan Coyle) of following my nose for three hours. Grippy rolling roads, scents of a late-summer day and the words of Thomas’s friend Robert Frost accompanied me, and I spent much of the journey trying to work out if ‘The Road Not Taken’ is exhorting the reader to stick or twist:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference”

I got lost, and then found, and it was England distilled that August afternoon. It was me. By the time I’d arrived at Steep I had a clearer idea of why Thomas signed up, the idyll he communicates is worth dying for. Not in a jingoistic, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ sense, but for all this Island’s subtleties and nuance.

Nationalism can be an ugly word that stands for ugly things, but this countryside bore me and this countryside will take me to dust, and, for that, I owe it a profound debt.

Broadly speaking we are a profoundly lucky generation. We get to daydream about riding bikes and have avoided becoming involved in any conflagration similar to those that twice almost immolated the world in the 20th Century. Those reminders
I never made it up to Thomas’s memorial: it’s perched in the middle of a field up a steep bank and I wanted to leave it unvisited so I’d have a reason to go back and think again.

This all happened years ago. Perhaps it’s time to head into Thomas’s beloved South Country and get lost again. In the meantime daydreaming remains a constant companion, regardless of the season. Whether it’s under the dull January skies that stare blankly back at themselves from the roadside puddles or by the dun grass of a March verge, rebounding slowly from a late snowfall, I can see the ghosts of previous rides alongside me or crossing my path. The ghost of Edward Thomas rolls alongside me too.