Feature of the Month: Edward Thomas, The Icknield Way

The Icknield Way
Edward Thomas
London: Constable, 1913
[WdlM] 405

For the poet and writer Edward Thomas (1878-1917), the city was normally alien territory, the country his imaginative ground. The Icknield Way is one of several country books he produced, starting with The Woodlands Life (1896). Thomas was under instructions to produce a literal account, with accurate description of places. But like his other country books, the work combines fact with observation, anecdote, literary criticism and reflection, in an account which is half a guide book, half, in Thomas’s own words, ‘diluted me’. Thomas was something of a trailblazer in this discursiveness: although not the only writer to extend travel writing from the merely factual, he was probably the most influential on the genre’s subsequent progression.

The Icknield Way is a prehistoric path, dotted with archaeological remains, which can claim to be the oldest road in Britain. It is now thought to run for 110 miles between the start of Peddar’s Way at Knettishall Heath near Thetford, Tring, in Norfolk, and the Ridgway Path at Ivinghoe Beacon near Tring, on the coast of Dorset. Thomas traced it from Thetford to Wanborough, near Swindon in Wiltshire, beyond which: ‘At present documents and traditions keep a perfect silence west of Wanborough, and among mere possibilities the choice is endless’ (pp. 309-10); in his introduction, he wrote: ‘I could not find a beginning or an end of the Icknield Way. It is thus a symbol of mortal things with their beginnings and ends always in mortal darkness’ (p. vii).

Thomas wrote the book in 1911. He began with research at home and in the British Museum Library in February and March, when he also undertook a few short expeditions along his conjectured path. He explored the route more fully by bicycle in April and May and again in June and July before writing the book between July and September, a year and a half before publication. Ostensibly the book recorded a ten-day journey, with a chapter for each day following two introductory chapters, ‘On Roads and Footpaths’, and ‘History, Myth, Tradition, Conjecture and Invention’.

How well Thomas succeeded in the work has been disputed. He was melancholy at the time of writing and the book reflects his depression. An acerbic review in the Athenaeum of 26 April 1913 stated:

The ordinary reader may gain the impression of a tired man struggling with blistered feet over hot, dusty roads, with so many miles a day to walk in order to write a book so many words in length, rather of a writer fresh and eager, entering upon his task with zest. A tried author soon fatigues his reader … His absorption in his own views and sensations leads him to occupy much space that might have been devoted to matters more germane to the subject.

Sixty-five years later, Jan Marsh in a biography of Edward Thomas echoed these sentiments, describing The Icknield Way as dragging itself along heavily. On the other hand, R. George Thomas in a later biography thought the book moved easily from guide book to personal essay.

This copy of The Icknield Way was a presentation copy to the poet Walter de la Mare. De la Mare and Thomas both attended St Paul’s School, although there they were unacquainted, De la Mare being five years older. The two became close friends in adult life, when they corresponded prolifically and at one time met weekly. Thomas commented and advised on De la Mare’s poems. De la Mare was to write a foreword for an edition of Thomas’s Collected Poems (1920), and The Icknield Way is one of three books held at Senate House Library known to have come to De la Mare from Thomas.

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