The Alfred Williams Heritage Society has located the willow tree where Alfred composed verses in his head before returning home to get the poems down on paper.
He describes it in A Wiltshire Village, and, 82 years after his death, society vice-chair Graham Carter discovered the tree is still standing.
Graham said: "We always assumed that the tree would be gone or that it would be difficult to identify it among all those that stood along the banks of the Cole - that it would be looking for a needle in a haystack.
"However, during the Swindon Festival of Poetry, I was approached by a man who said he thought he had tracked it down, so it became a mission to find it in time for our celebration of the centenary of the publishing of A Wiltshire Village. So I visited the spot near Acorn Bridge and found two trees that seemed like good candidates. But then I noticed a third and instantly realised this was the correct tree.
"Alfred's description of the willow tree branching out only two feet above the ground was a big help, even though the tree has obviously grown larger and into a different shape since he last sat in it. We also had a photograph (above) to help us. It was taken sometime after Alfred's death and shows his friend and biographer, Henry Byett, sat in the tree. Another clue is in Alfred's list of plants growing near the base of the tree, which includes comfrey - and I discovered some still growing there."
But Graham inadvertently trespassed on private land before finding what he considers to be the clinching evidence that the tree in question was Alfred's.
"It is easy to reach the tree on the Swindon side of the River Cole. Just park up near the last of the short tunnels under the railway line on the main road, just before it reaches Acorn Bridge. Walk through the tunnel and to the right, where you soon meet the Cole after it has passed under the railway. The tree is the first large one next to the river, but it's on the opposite bank.
"I wanted to get a closer look at the tree so found my way round to the other side, but just as I was about to leave I was challenged by the gamekeeper, who wanted to know what I was doing as it is private land!
"Sadly, he'd never heard of Alfred Williams, but believed my story when I explained what I was doing! He accepted my apology for trespassing, and proved very helpful because I asked him about the pool close to the tree. He confirmed it is deep - 15 feet in October 2012 following a period of rain - and never dries up, even in summer. He said the pool must be fed by a spring rather than the nearby River Cole, which you might expect to be the source.
"This is the final proof that we have located the correct tree because Alfred talks about it being close to the "deep pool" and there is the only one in the area that seems to fit the description. It's not really possible to sit where Alfred used to sit, because the shape of the tree has changed over the years, but it is easy to imagine him sat there, disturbed only by occasional passing trains, contemplating his writing.
"I think to the gamekeeper and to many people, it's just a willow tree, but to fans of Alfred Williams, it's not just any old tree, but the tree!"
The tree can be easily seen from public land on the northern bank of the Cole, as shown on the map below.
Note on Acorn Bridge: In Swindon, the large double-arched bridge that takes the railway over the road (and formerly took it over the road and canal) is often referred to as Acorn Bridge. Technically, however, Acorn Bridge is the original small low bridge that takes the road over the River Cole, rather than its larger railway-carrying neighbour. Also: although most local people pronounce it simply as Acorn, in South Marston it was (and sometimes still is) Ackern Bridge.
See also The Writer's Craft.
Alfred's description of the tree in A Wiltshire Village:
A large willow-tree, strong and three-forked, grows over the deep pool just below the hatch. The branching takes place about two feet or so from the base of the tree; one arm juts out over the water, and then grows upward, forming an ideal seat. Here, in the sultry days of summer, when the sun's rays pour down from the cloudless sky like a furnace, and the whole earth is parched and withered with it, you may sit in luxury, cool and undisturbed, for scarcely anyone ever comes to disturb the solitude of the place. The express trains, from time to time, thunder along the embankment; far off you may dimly hear the wheels of traffic proceeding up the highway, but it does not interfere with your peace and reverie, for you are most completely concealed from all this, and are inured to the sound of it. The meadow-sweet and willow-herb blossom around you, high clumps of hawthorn, overhanging the stream, protect you on that side; abundant crane's-bill and comfrey grow on the banks beyond, pretty cinquefoil blooms and hangs from the walls of the hatches in traces, large clusters of luxuriant forget-me-not thrive right under the walls themselves.
If you remain silent enough you will soon discover that you are not alone here. Presently a little dark brown mouse will run along the wall and sit cleaning itself; then a tiny wren hops deftly from twig to twig in the hawthorn, and among the roots in the bank denuded by the water's action, and looks at you as if to ask what your business may be there, if you please? By-and-by a wagtail comes to wade in the shallow drinking-place; then a blackbird flies and perches for a moment in the boughs above you, and hurries off again, uttering shrill notes of surprise and alarm; or a large brown water-rat appears from his hole under the bushes, and, after a little philosophic reflection, takes the water and paddles right up beneath you, then, discovering the presence of a stranger, plunges with the sound of a small stone cast in, chunk! And safe dives down out of sight, soon to reappear at a safe distance away from you. Very often, too, the gay and beautiful kingfisher flies over your head through the tree, the moorhen swims cautiously in the shadows of the hawthorn beyond you, or the old heron alights very close to you, and immediately flies off again, for he is very susceptible to danger, and keeps well out of the reach of human kind. Below, every now and then, you may see a dace glance and shoot like a ray of light through the rich dark water, but there is perfect silence all around you except for the melody of the hatches; it is an ideal spot for repose and thought. Fancy lurks there under the boughs, and Contemplation dwells in the magical pool beneath.