Edward Thomas on waterproof cycling gear

A hundred years ago, on Good Friday, 1913, a London-born Welshman, writer and cyclist set out on an Easter cycle tour from Clapham Common to the Quantock Hills in Somerset. Four years later, having enlisted in the British Army to fight in the Great War, he was killed by the shockwaves of one of the last shell explosions in the battle of Arras.

Edward Thomas is best known (and to too many, only known) as a ‘war poet’, but he was also richly observant of nature and the countryside. His work owes much to the time he spent  outdoors, walking or cycling, travelling at the speed of the land. His verse is regarded as among the best in the English language. Former poet laureate Ted Hughes described him as ‘the father of us all’.

Thomas wrote a book about his cycle journey, called In Pursuit of Spring, published just before the outbreak of war.

With all the foul weather we’re having, this seems like an appropriate passage to quote, and reveals something of Thomas’s lighthearted side:

The rain ceased just soon enough not to prove again the vanity of waterproofs. I have, it is true, discovered several which have brought me through a storm dry in parts, but I have also discovered that sellers of waterproofs are among the worst of liars, and that they communicate their vice with their goods. The one certain fact is that nobody makes a garment or suit which will keep a man both dry and comfortable if he is walking in heavy and beating rain. Suits of armour have, of course, been devised to resist rain, but at best they admit it at the neck. The ordinary (and extraordinary) waterproof may keep a man dry from neck to groin, though it is improbable exceedingly that both neck and wrists will escape. As for the legs, the rain gets at the whole of them with the aid of wind and capillary attraction. Whoever wore a coat that kept his knees dry in a beating rain ? I am not speaking of waterproof tubes reaching to the feet. They may be sold, they may even be bought. They may be useful, but not for walking in.

For moderate showers one waterproof is about as good as another. The most advertised have the advantage of being expensive, and conferring distinction otherwise : they are no better, and wear worse, than a thing at two-thirds of the price which is never advertised at all. In such a one I was riding now, and I got wet only at the ankles. It actually kept my knees dry in the heavy rain near Timsbury. But if I had been walking I should have been intolerably hot and embarrassed in this, and very little less so in the lighter, more distinguished, more expensive garment. Supposing that a thorough waterproof exists, so light as to be comfortable in mild weather, it is certain to have the grave disadvantage of being easily tearable, and therefore of barring the wearer from woods. Getting the body wet even in cold weather is delicious, but getting clothes and parts of the body wet, especially about and below the knee, is detestable. Trousers, and still more breeches, when wet through, prove unfriendly to man, and in some degree to boy. If the knees were free and the feet bare, I should think there would be no impediment left to bliss for an active man in shower or storm, except that he would provoke, evoke, and convoke laughter, and ninety-nine out of a hundred would prefer to this all the evils of rain and of waterproofs. It is to save our clothes and to lessen the discomfort of them that a waterproof is added.

At first thought, it is humiliating to realise that we have spent many centuries in this climate and never produced anything to keep us dry and comfortable in rain. But who are we that complain? Not farmers, labourers, and fishermen, but people who spend much time out of doors by choice. We can go indoors when it rains; only, we do not wish to, because so many of the works of rain are good in the skies, on the earth, in the souls of men and also of birds. When youth is over we are not carried away by our happiness so far as to ignore soaked boots and trousers. We like hassocks to kneel on, and on those hassocks we pray for a waterproof. As the prayer is only about a hundred years old – a hundred years ago there were no such beings – it is not surprising that the answer has not arrived from that distant quarter. Real outdoor people have either to do without waterproofs, or what they use would disable us from our pleasures. Naturally, they have done nothing to solve our difficulties. They have not written poetry for us, they have not made waterproofs for us. They do not read our poetry, they do not wear our waterproofs. We must solve the question by complaint and experiment, or by learning to go wet – an increasingly hard lesson for a generation that multiplies conveniences and inconveniences rather faster than it does an honest love of sun, wind, and rain, separately and all together.

You can read the whole book for free at archive.org.