Cycling with the World War I Poet Wilfred Owen

Contributor: Caroline Burrows

Wilfred Owen’s World War I poetry is a passion of mine, so after discovering there were some Wilfred locations in the northwest of England, I set off on a mini cycling adventure, a Wilfred Owen odyssey.

In early May, I cycled from near Blackpool, fifty miles south, to Liverpool. I headed past the Fylde district’s lamb-filled farmlands until having to face Preston’s busy city roads. Once through but still on a major A-road, I passed a World War II Centurion tank parked on the roadside with a sign welcoming me to Leyland, where those tanks used to be manufactured.

I got back on country roads until the suburbs of Liverpool. It was a relief to find some dedicated cycle lanes and ride to a fine finish at the Albert Docks with its waterside museums, cafés, and a large statue of the Beatles.

The following day, I left my bike to get a train under the River Mersey to Birkenhead, where Wilfred lived from age seven. First, I found Jim Whelan’s statue commissioned for the centenary of the end of World War I, which depicts a soldier slumped with his head in his hands. Its plaque displays Owen’s poem ‘Futility’, about a soldier from a farm who’s frozen to death overnight in the trenches. It was Owen’s anger at the propaganda of war that was the subject of his poetry, in which he aimed to communicate the reality of trench warfare.

Round the corner was the Wilfred Owen Story Museum (it’s since moved location a few miles away), run by a musician who’d attended Birkenhead Institute, Wilfred’s school.  It was filled with artifacts: photos of Wilfred with his siblings and as a boy dressed up as a soldier, and an advert for local Sunlight Soap showed an example of War propaganda: ‘The cleanest fighters in the world.’ A gas mask brought to mind Wilfred’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est.’ His Latin title was a protest and quote from a poem taught in schools, which translates as: ‘It is Sweet and Brave to Die for One’s Country.’ Instead, Owen’s poem describes the horrific effects of a mustard gas attack on a soldier unable to get his mask on.

The next day, with my bike, I crossed the Mersey again, ready to pedal fifty miles to Oswestry, Wilfred’s birthplace. I cycled past his Birkenhead home on my way out of the urban landscape, then onto forested back roads, which abruptly ended at a dual carriageway.  At a junction, like a mirage, was ‘Eureka’, a cycling café. I went in for a coffee and local knowledge on how to survive cycling into Chester. As soon as I pulled my map out, I was surrounded. Friendly cyclists inundated me with options, with one going my way. Cycling on the Millennium Greenway, Roy pointed out a cemetery and said, ‘Biggest population in Chester.’ It was filled