Shirley Toulson obituary

Other lives: Poet and writer who focused on Britain’s walks, ancient tracks and traditions

My mother, Shirley Toulson, who has died aged 94, was a highly regarded poet and an innovative writer about Britain’s walks, ancient tracks and traditions.

Her poetry was broadcast and published in journals (The Listener, Tribune, Ambit and Outposts), in a book, Shadows in an Orchard (1960), and in a poetry collection, A Group Anthology (1963), edited by Philip Hobsbaum and Edward Lucie-Smith. Further books included Circumcision’s Not Such a Bad Thing After All (1970) and The Fault, Dear Brutus: A Zodiac of Sonnets (1972), both published by Roy Lewis, the commonwealth correspondent of the Times, on his Keepsake Press for which she became adviser and commissioning editor following his death in 1996.

By then, as well as continuing to write poetry, Shirley had made a breakthrough with her eloquent account of the lives, countryside and people involved in bringing livestock from Wales to England. Her resulting book, The Drovers’ Roads of Wales (1977), magnificently illustrated by the photographer Fay Godwin, spawned many more evocative books, beginning with Derbyshire: Exploring the Ancient Tracks and Mysteries of Mercia (1980), including drawings by the artist Oliver Caldecott, and ending with The Landscape of Old Age (1998).

Born at Greys Court, near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, to Douglas Dixon, who was in the Royal Navy, and his wife, Marjorie (nee Brown), Shirley went to Prior’s Field boarding school in Godalming, Surrey. During the second world war she worked with the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service and met my father, Norman Toulson, an army lieutenant. They were married in 1944. When the war ended he returned to his old job as an insurance agent.

After they divorced in 1951 Shirley studied English at Birkbeck College, London University, and became a teacher. Then, wanting to get involved in publishing, she worked at the London bookshop Foyles, before becoming a freelance journalist, contributing mainly to the Times Educational Supplement, after which she became a features editor on the Teacher and editor of Child Education.

Together with her second husband, the poet and writer Alan Brownjohn, with whom she had a son, Steven, she edited a magazine, Writing Today, and served, while living in Putney, south-west London, as a Labour member of Wandsworth council from 1962 to 1965. From Putney she moved in the late 1960s to Wimbledon and then to Wells, Didcot, Chipping Norton, Bury St Edmunds, and finally to a nearby village, Stowlangtoft, where she died.

Her marriage to Alan ended in divorce in 1969. She is survived by her two children from her first marriage, Ian and me, by Steven, two grandsons and three great-granddaughters.

Janet Sayers

The GuardianTramp

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