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In the footsteps of a giant

Posted by Jonathan Broom on 16 March 2018
Related property: Upper Norton
In the footsteps of a giant

This year there are going to be a series of ‘Wilfred Owen 100’ events commemorating the last 100 days of the life of this country’s most celebrated First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, and the centenary of his untimely death. But visitors to beautiful, bucolic Shropshire and Upper Norton won’t have to visit the battlefields of the Western Front to retrace the poet’s early footsteps; local historian Keith Pybus has created a walk around Owen’s Shrewsbury, just 20 miles or so north of Upper Norton, using as ‘checkpoints’ the houses where he spent much of his childhood, as well as the surrounding sites and countryside in which his poetry had its roots.

The walk takes in four houses with Owenite associations. Starting from Shrewsbury Abbey, with its impressive Wilfred Owen memorial, it follows the Severn, including the dramatic Weir. The Shropshire Anglers’ Federation describes this stretch of the Severn thus: “The river takes on a more gentle, sedate pace... and deepens as it glides beautifully along an elongated, gentle ‘S’ bend... Good sport above the Castle Walk footbridge. Deeper water below the bridge with 10′ not uncommon right off the edge of the path.”

The houses in the attractive suburb of Cherry Orchard all enjoy the pleasantest of associations of the poet, and with nature.

Hawthorn Villas was the home of Wilfred’s grandfather and grandmother. Any grandchild who came to stay would be allotted a plot in the garden. When Wilfred was nine he wrote: “Grandpa has given me as much garden as what you see from the dining room window. I have got about six potatoes planted... We are going to market this afternoon and I might buy some seeds.” No doubt the botany which appears in the poetry took root in the garden here.

At the house in Underdale Road (now no. 18) Wilfred was allowed to work at the table and chair, christened his ‘study’. A boy opposite would see Wilfred, in the unheated attic bedroom, wrapped in blankets and working by candlelight at his table. Here in 1908 he wrote Description of a Railway Station at a Busy Time of Day: “The first striking impression on entering one of our large stations at a busy time is the number of people crowding the platforms and jostling and hurrying to and fro apparently in the greatest confusion…” This early essay now forms part of the Oxford University Faculty of English Library’s Owen Collection.

In 2014, Mahim (the Owens’ last Shrewsbury house) was listed by English Heritage for its “intactness: the house is little altered since the Owen family left, retaining its plan and the majority of its fixtures and fittings from the early years of the 20th Century that Owen would recognise...

“Far from the Western Front, [it] is the place where Owen began to find his own poetic voice,” continues the historic buildings preservation charity. “The house is little altered, and he would still feel at home in his attic bedroom.” Peter Owen, the poet’s nephew, commented that “the landscape of the area where [Wilfred] grew up appeared in the verses he wrote in the trenches of wartime France”.

Provided spring obliges, the circular walk crosses the Severn to reach a meadow filled with buttercups. According to Peter Owen: “When [Wilfred] lived in Mahim he could look out over the open fields... He used to walk down to church in Uffington across the river with his family. Once, his younger brother Harold was lagging behind and called out to the others that his boots were covered in gold from where they had been walking through the buttercups.”

In his poem Spring Offensive, Owen describes the men moving up to the Front, comparing and contrasting the battlefield his company are approaching with the beauties of nature. Few would guess that these, famous, buttercups had been ‘poetically’ transplanted from Shrewsbury’s Severnside meadows.

Hour after hour they ponder the warm field —

And the far valley behind, where the buttercups

Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up,

Where even the little brambles would not yield,

But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands;

They breathe like trees unstirred.

Till like a cold gust thrilled the little word

At which each body and its soul begird

And tighten them for battle. No alarms

Of bugles, no high flags, no clamorous haste —

Only a lift and flare of eyes that faced

The sun, like a friend with whom their love is done.

O larger shone that smile against the sun, —

Mightier than his whose bounty these have spurned.

The first walk is scheduled for 19th May, when the buttercups should be in flower. However, other walks may be arranged during the year, to honour and celebrate the early (and all-too-short) life of one of England’s most heroic and tragic sons.

The rendezvous point for the walk is in front of Shrewsbury Abbey – there is plenty of car parking opposite.

The start time for the walk on 19th May is 10:30am.

The circular walk comprises a leisurely 2½ miles, taking approximately two hours. The cost is £5 per person.

Further information can be obtained from Keith Pybus, who can be contacted by email to keithpybus@googlemail.com.

Jonathan Broom

Jonathan Broom

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