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.