Searching for Robert Frost in England

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(Host) A report issued recently by the Vermont Council on Culture and Innovation makes the connection between historic preservation and a community’s economic life. Commentator Peter Gilbert has been thinking about how hard – but how important – it is to preserve what’s special about rural village life.

(Gilbert) England, like Vermont, takes great pride in the beauty, charm, and history of its villages and countryside. When in England recently, we took a short train trip out of London to the town of Beaconsfield.

Near the train station is a miniature 1930’s English village, with countless buildings no more than three feet high. There are people and animals, farms, roads, cars, and trucks. There’s a little pub, school, church, and vicarage. Trains run ’round the one-acre site, and fishing boats bob in a harbor. It gives new meaning to Shakespeare’s loving description of England as "this demi-paradise!"

The place is a particularly big hit with the "under eight" set. Indeed when Queen Elizabeth II was a mere princess of eight, she visited the little town for a birthday treat – as a charming old photo attests.

The other reason for our visit to Beaconsfield was to see the cottage where Robert Frost and his family lived from 1912 to 1914. In 1911, Frost sold his New Hampshire farm, packed up a few things, wife, and four children, and in 1912 moved to England – in part to focus entirely on writing, in part because, he said, his wife always wanted to live "under thatch."

Frost’s three years in England were critical in his development and success as a poet. It was in England that America’s favorite poet published his first book of poems. Those years meant a lot to him. "I had nearly a perfect life over there," Frost later recalled, "a romance such as happens to few."

In his biography of Frost’s English years, John Evangelist Walsh tells of Frost’s return visit to the house in Beaconsfield and to another house where Frost had lived briefly. That was in 1957, Frost was 83, and in England to receive honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. Of the five family members with whom he lived in England, three had died – his wife, daughter Marjorie in childbirth, and son Carol by suicide – and a fourth, daughter Irma, was institutionalized. When he visited the other English house a week before going to Beaconsfield, the daughter in the house had told Frost, "We are six." Frost replied softly, "And so were we."

It was only a five minutes walk to 28 Reynolds Road. I was confused by the house numbers, and couldn’t recognize the bungalow from the published photos. A man walked by me, stopped, and then called out, "If you’re lookin’ for Robert Frost’s house, you’ll be very disappointed. They knocked it down. About five years ago. I think it was a crime. We get a lot of people looking for it. Japanese visitors, and others. On the lot where it was, they put up those two houses."

Seems it’s easier to preserve the charm and heritage of English village life in miniature for children and tourists than it is to preserve the real thing.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities

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