Saturday, June 10, 2017 may become known as the day the literary critic and poet Edward Thomas ‘came home’ to Steep and Petersfield.
Just over 100 years since, in a letter to his friend Gordon Bottomley, he wrote on October 2, 1916: “I have just seen Steep for the last time” as he took the train from Petersfield to their new home at High Beech, near Loughton in Essex (just over six months later he was killed in action on April 9, 1917 at the start of the Battle of Arras).
This ended a 10-year association with Petersfield, but the literary connection has never been lost, and a wonderful Study Day, with a stellar line-up of speakers and readers, was crowned with a moving tribute to Tim Wilton-Steer and the official opening of the Edward Thomas Study Centre at Petersfield Museum.
The Study Centre, a collaboration between Petersfield Museum and the Edward Thomas Fellowship, is based on a most important collection of 1800 books by and about Edward Thomas put together by the late Tim Wilton-Steer during his lifetime and donated to the Fellowship by his widow Hilary following his death in 2011.
Prior to the tribute and opening, the 170 attendees to the Study Day, which was held in St Peter’s Church owing to demand for places, were treated to a full programme of readings and presentations by Edward Thomas specialists, actors, poets and authors who have been inspired by Thomas’s work.
These included Michael Longley, considered to be amongst Ireland’s most prominent poets, his wife Edna, Professor Emerita of English at Queens University Belfast, Richard Emeny, Chairman of the Fellowship and widely respected ‘Thomas specialist’, Guy Cuthbertson, Professor of English at Liverpool Hope University, and Matthew Hollis who rounded off the ‘Study’ part of the day with an engaging and professionally delivered talk on Thomas’s ‘Path to Poetry, Path to War’.
Readings were provided by the actor Edward Petherbridge and by Petersfield’s local author Michelle Magorian. Amongst the most moving, however, were the readings delivered with full feeling and from memory by another actor, Tom Durham, who enraptured the audience.
The event culminated in a moving eulogy to Tim Wilton-Steer delivered by his son Christopher, followed by a few words from Tim’s widow, Hilary, before the family party moved over to Petersfield Museum for the formal opening of the Study Centre.
The day ended with a tour of the museum and tea and cakes in St Peter’s Hall.
For many attendees it was the first time they had visited Petersfield and for almost a third the first time they had been introduced to Edward Thomas.
In summing up the day, Jeremy Mitchell, on behalf of both Petersfield Museum and the Edward Thomas Fellowship, said: “It was a truly wonderful, and moving day enjoyed by all and I would also like to thank the South Downs National Park Authority, East Hampshire District Council and Petersfield Town Council for their financial support which helped make the day so successful.”
Edward Thomas was a renowned poetry and literary critic who turned to writing poetry late in life. Over a 20-month period from December 1914 he wrote 144 poems, that we know of, including two of the Nation’s favourites – Adelstrop and As the teams head brass. He and his family lived in Steep from 1906 – 1916 and he wrote his first poem Up In The Wind at The Pub With No Name (The White Horse) at Priors Dean.
Petersfield Museum is open between March and the end of November on Tuesdays – Saturdays inclusive between 10am and 4pm. It is an independent, accredited Museum and receives no statutory funding. A small admission charge of £3 is payable (children free).
The Edward Thomas Study Centre is currently located in temporary space (pending completion of the Museum’s re-development in 2021) outside public areas. From mid-July it will be open to visitors, by appointment, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons between 2pm and 4pm. It is primarily a research and reference resource and will be open at other times to students and researchers by appointment.