On the southerly ascent out of Bruton, an ancient Somerset town cradled in a basin of undulating farmland, we struggled through a bog of mud. A great froth of cloud threatened overhead, while a bright orange sun smeared the horizon with an incandescent pink. The air was cold and only the occasional birdsong slid into the silence on a bitter breeze.
It had been 18 months since I last attempted this walk, one of 10 on waterproof paper available for less than the price of a pint at the town’s community office. A small notation indicated that a solitary white cottage on the brow of a hill was once home to the novelist and Nobel prizewinner John Steinbeck. It was cause enough for investigation.
What would an American writer, famed for his championing of his nation’s proletariat during the Depression and used to the expansive topography of California’s Central Coast, be found doing in a small town in the west of England?
Bruton might seem an unobtrusive place, but delve beneath the surface and you will find that history’s tentacles extended to this apparent backwater.
Our Anglo Saxon heritage and Roman influence are marked, as is both the destructive dissolution of an abbey by Henry VIII and, as if in appeasement, the presence and beneficence of Elizabeth I’s auditor, Sir Hugh Sexey. His patronage still aids the local elderly today: he bequeathed money to found an almshouse after his death which, as Sexey’s Hospital in the High Street, provides accommodation for the elderly. Daniel Defoe, passing through the area in 1724, saw Bruton as the only stop worthy of note.
In the small museum in the High Street, almost the only street there is, the story of the silk, wool and rail industries unfolds. In one corner is a tribute to Henry John Pitman, third officer of one SS Titanic. He survived the disaster, and a protracted interrogation at US Senate hearings, and now lies buried at Pitcombe Cemetery just a mile away.
As we passed through a riverine channel of hazels, climbed a field and spotted the two chimneys of a whitewashed Discove Cottage, I turned and saw the real reason for Steinbeck’s interest. It was none of the above.
Glastonbury Tor remains a potent symbol of Arthurian mythology and a vision of the Quest that suffused Steinbeck’s works. Ever since his mother read to him in the Salinas Valley of his boyhood, the hill was central to his thinking.
“He seems to liken himself to Lancelot”, says Bruton’s leading Steinbeck enthusiast, Andrew Pickering. “But he also identifies very closely with [Thomas] Malory.” He believes that the 15th-century writer’s Le Morte d’Arthur, with its outline of a nobler age, was crucial for Steinbeck.
Like most significant writers, Steinbeck was at odds with his times, constantly frustrated by the selfishness he perceived as destructive to the common good. And, like Malory, he paid a high price for his integrity. Steinbeck’s very nature inviting condemnation by others, which fed a gnawing self-doubt contributing to the collapse of his health.
He had visited Somerset with his third wife, Elaine, in 1958 and had met the playwright Robert Bolt who was then teaching locally. It was Bolt who found the cottage now facing me on the Discove estate. Steinbeck wrote in one of his many letters that the estate’s name could be derived from a monk’s hermitage from the 6th century.
By the time it was entered in the Domesday Book, Dicove Cottage was already old. It stands like a minor citadel, a vision of whitewashed history, on what was once a main Roman thoroughfare to the coast.
In a letter to the film director Elia Kazan, Steinbeck could scarcely have been more excited about living in a building that had been home to dozens of generations on land rich in story. But this was more than an American’s nostalgia for his own provenance. For Steinbeck, it was as if his soul could finally be at peace, the great work of his imagination at last accomplished.
The couple arrived in England by ship in March 1959, took possession of a Hillman, and drove to Somerset where they would remain until the autumn.
Below us lies the main house — reputedly the longest domestic thatch in the country. Another man in tune with nature, Rob Howard, the estate gardener and current tenant, invites us in for a mug of Earl Grey. There is some confusion over the extent of the improvements Steinbeck, a practical man, made to the house, but there is little doubt the cottage may have been too primitive for a wealthy American. Water was plumbed into the kitchen during the couple’s stay and the state of the pipes in the bathroom next to it are circa 1959, says Howard (as a former plumber, he should know).
Steinbeck impressed the locals with the swing of his scythe but, with the urgency of his solitary vocation pressing in on him, left most of the socialising to the gregarious Texan, Elaine.
After all, his reworking of Malory was, he believed, the most significant project of his life. With the supposed site of Camelot less than 10 miles away at South Cadbury, and Glastonbury Tor within view, he was offered a window of opportunity that would not come again.
In the mornings he would rise early and listen to birdsong. Rapt by the mystical qualities of the ancient land, Steinbeck was transported into another world. He believed his work was going well. But to his profound shock and ultimate despair, it was precisely the quixotic quality of his vision that seemed to disturb his publisher.
A damning letter shattered the author’s dream, as if the corrupt and populist world he despised had risen up to consume all that was good and decent. In the end, the Steinbecks journeyed home in October, the writer depressed and feeling a failure.
They returned with Steinbeck’s sons two years later during a tour of Europe, and it is said that on his deathbed Steinbeck spoke glowingly of his time in Somerset as his happiest.
As I walked home with my son on my back and a ball of orange sun sitting on a hedgerow shedding light on this landscape, I understood why.
copyright simon heathcote