1 August 2022 Susannah

John Drinkwater & The Toll-Gate House

Old English Tollgate

As you travel around England, it is still quite common to see a toll-gate house. This month’s poem is on that subject and is by one of the Dymock poets, John Drinkwater (1882 – 1937). Dymock is a little village in Gloucestershire where some fabulous poets gathered in the early 20th century – they include Robert Frost and Edward Thomas, two great favourites of mine.

The Toll-Gate House by John Drinkwater

The toll-gate’s gone, but still stands lone,
In the dip of the hill, the house of stone,
And over the roof in the branching pine
The great owl sits in the white moonshine.
An old man lives, and lonely, there,
His windows yet on the cross-roads stare,
And on Michaelmas night in all the years
A galloping far and faint he hears. . . .
His casement open wide he flings
With “Who goes there,” and a lantern swings. . . .
But never more in the dim moonbeam
Than a cloak and a plume and the silver gleam
Of passing spurs in the night can he see,
For the toll-gate’s gone and the road is free.

Many toll houses were built around Britain by turnpike trusts in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These trusts were established by acts of parliament, so that roads could be built and maintained. Charges depended on whether you were simply a pedestrian, or had a carriage and the number of horses used. In 1840 there were over 5,000 of them operating in England, but after the turnpikes were closed in the 1880s (they declined with the coming of the railways), many were demolished.

This is a poem about change, and yet it shows how the past can cling to a place and live on in human memory. The old man living in the toll-gate house hears a ghostly rider pass by at Michaelmas. The cloak, plume and spurs conjure up an image of an 18th century rider. He flings open the window, just as a toll-collector would have done, but the sound of galloping disappears and there is no longer a charge for usage of the road. It’s a mysterious, atmospheric poem and I think a rather lovely one.

The poem was written in 1921. Drinkwater loved the countryside of Worcestershire and Oxfordshire and wrote many poems celebrating the beauty of the English countryside. He was buried in the Oxfordshire village of Piddington.

Did you enjoy this poem? Let me know by leaving a comment.

You can listen Seamus Heaney himself read it here:

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Featured image credit- Old English toll gate, 1840?, by Sir Richard Neave. Gift of Archdeacon F.H.D. Smythe, 1957. Te Papa (1957-0009-193), https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/37046
Body image credit- By Bain – Library of Congress, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58868635

Comments (18)

  1. Barbara McKay

    We met a working toll house in Wales. It was situated on a private road that provided a short cut across a big bay. The keeper was a cranky lady who refused to accept a €1 coin which was far more valuable than the charge. Not sure how we managed this encounter.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Gosh, personal experience of a toll house must be a rare thing these days.

  2. Robyn gooden

    Loved the Toll Gate poem, easy to read, good rhythm and rhyme poignant. Robyn

  3. Pam Lofthouse

    As well as the toll house in Windsor there is another on the left as you head west at Mt Victoria. And the only remaining one in Sydney itself is part of the Moore Park Golf Club – the little stone building on the corner of Cleveland St. Recently restored. Thank you, I loved the poem.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      The Moore Psrl Golf Club is near me, so I must go and look for that one. Many thanks for letting me know.

  4. Paddy Mullin

    Very reminiscent of The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, especially the imagery. Also let us not forget Georgette Heyer had a whole book about a toll-keeper. All my knowledge of this subject comes from her.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, there are echoes of The Highwayman and also of Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners.
      I am a huge Georgette Heyer fan and love The Toll-Gate.

  5. Lindy Bonham

    This memorable poem reminds me of the toll house next to the bridge at Windsor. The worn sandstone steps and quaint bay windows makes me ponder how many toll keepers peered out to watch for customers travelling to and from Sydney.
    Thanks for your inspiring look at the past and keeping literature alive.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I didn’t know there was a toll-house at Windsor and will look out for it next time I am there. Thanks for letting me know.

  6. hilary wallace

    What a wealth of memories your Tollgate poem has wrought. I lived in Dulwich -and we had the last remaining TollGate in London–and I see that it is once again charging for passage !There used to be a board up with the prices for animals passing through I’ve also learnt that it has become part of The Dulwich Estate–and a nice Pisarro painting.The area peppered with Shakespearean names- James Alleyn,Burbage Rd etc. College Rd leads up to the Crystal Palace which I saw burning down–earliest memory.
    So thanks for that-and I used your last poem Mid-Term Break for our Poetry group too.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad you are enjoying the poems I choose. That’s fascainting about a toll gate in Dulwich, and I will look out the Pissarro painting. Did you know that the Alleyn who was associated with Dulwich College ws John Donne’s son-in-law?

  7. Megan Pierson

    Thank you Susannah. I have been receiving your newsletter about 4 months and enjoying the Poem of the Month very much and slowly expanding my poetic repertoire.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That’s great, Megan. Thanks for letting me know how much you are enjoying the poems. It seems to be one of the most popular segments of the newsletter.

  8. Heather Grant

    A beautiful, reflective poem. Thanks Susannah for an informative and interesting Newsletter. I always look forward to the 1st of the month .

    Very pleased that you are now able to go overseas.

    Take care,

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I’m delighted you enjoy my newsletter, Heather. Thanks for the lovely feedback.

  9. Charlotte Nattey

    Love these poems!- I grew up near just such a toll place – two little ones one either side of a bridle way – known as the pepper pots!

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