NATURE NEAR LONDON
AUTHOR OF "THE LIFE OF THE FIELDS," "THE OPEN AIR," ETC.
CHATTO & WINDUS 1905
Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSON & CO. At the Ballantyne Press
It is usually supposed to be necessary to go far into the country to find wild birds and animals in sufficient numbers to be pleasantly studied. Such was certainly my own impression till circumstances led me, for the convenience of access to London, to reside for awhile about twelve miles from town. There my preconceived views on the subject were quite overthrown by the presence of as much bird-life as I had been accustomed to in distant fields and woods.
First, as the spring began, came crowds of chiffchaffs and willow-wrens, filling the furze with ceaseless flutterings. Presently a nightingale sang in a hawthorn bush only just on the other side of the road. One morning, on looking out of window, there was a hen pheasant in the furze almost underneath. Rabbits often came out into the spaces of sward between the bushes.
The furze itself became a broad surface of gold, beautiful to look down upon, with islands of tenderest birch green interspersed, and willows in which the sedge-reedling chattered. They used to say in the country that cuckoos were getting scarce, but here the notes of the cuckoo echoed all day long, and the birds often flew over the house. Doves cooed, blackbirds whistled, thrushes sang, jays called, wood-pigeons uttered the old familiar notes in the little copse hard by. Even a heron went over now and then, and in the evening from the window I could hear partridges calling each other to roost.
Along the roads and lanes the quantity and variety of life in the hedges was really astonishing. Magpies, jays, woodpeckers—both green and pied—kestrels hovering overhead, sparrow-hawks darting over gateways, hares by the clover, weasels on the mounds, stoats at the edge of the corn. I missed but two birds, the corncrake and the grasshopper lark, and found these another season. Two squirrels one day ran along the palings and up into a guelder-rose tree in the garden. As for the finches and sparrows their number was past calculation. There was material for many years' observation, and finding myself so unexpectedly in the midst of these things, I was led to make the following sketches, which were published in The Standard, and are now reprinted by permission.
The question may be asked: Why have you not indicated in every case the precise locality where you were so pleased? Why not mention the exact hedge, the particular meadow? Because no two persons look at the same thing with the same eyes. To me this spot may be attractive, to you another; a third thinks yonder gnarled oak the most artistic. Nor could I guarantee that every one should see the same things under the same conditions of season, time, or weather. How could I arrange for you next autumn to see the sprays of the horse-chestnut, scarlet from frost, reflected in the dark water of the brook? There might not be any frost till all the leaves had dropped. How could I contrive that the cuckoos should circle round the copse, the sunlight glint upon the stream, the warm sweet wind come breathing over the young corn just when I should wish you to feel it? Every one must find their own locality. I find a favourite wild-flower here, and the spot is dear to me; you find yours yonder. Neither painter nor writer can show the spectator their originals. It would be very easy, too, to pass any of these places and see nothing, or but little. Birds are wayward, wild creatures uncertain. The tree crowded with wood-pigeons one minute is empty the next. To traverse the paths day by day, and week by week; to keep an eye ever on the fields from year's end to year's end, is the one only method of knowing what really is in or comes to them. That the sitting gambler sweeps the board is true of these matters. The richest locality may be apparently devoid of interest just at the juncture of a chance visit.
Though my preconceived ideas were overthrown by the presence of so much that was beautiful and interesting close to London, yet in course of time I came to understand what was at first a dim sense of something wanting. In the shadiest lane, in the still pinewoods, on the hills of purple heath, after brief contemplation there arose a restlessness, a feeling that it was essential to be moving. In no grassy mead was there a nook where I could stretch myself in slumberous ease and watch the swallows ever wheeling, wheeling in the sky. This was the unseen influence of mighty London. The strong life of the vast city magnetised me, and I felt it under the calm oaks. The something wanting in the fields was the absolute quiet, peace, and rest which dwells in the meadows and under the trees and on the hilltops in the country. Under its power the mind gradually yields itself to the green earth, the wind among the trees, the song of birds, and comes to have an understanding with them all. For this it is still necessary to seek the far-away glades and hollow coombes, or to sit alone beside the sea. That such a sense of quiet might not be lacking, I have added a chapter or so on those lovely downs that overlook the south coast. R. J.
Flocks of Birds 24
Nightingale Road 35
A Brook 48
A London Trout 59
A Barn 70
The Crows 90
The River 111
Nutty Autumn 124
Round a London Copse 133
Magpie Fields 147
Trees About Town 172
To Brighton 181
The Southdown Shepherd 193
The Breeze on Beachy Head 204
NATURE NEAR LONDON
The tiny white petals of the barren strawberry open under the April sunshine which, as yet unchecked by crowded foliage above, can reach the moist banks under the trees. It is then that the first stroll of the year should be taken in Claygate Lane. The slender runners of the strawberries trail over the mounds among the moss, some of the flowers but just above the black and brown leaves of last year which fill the shallow ditch. These will presently be hidden under the grass which is pushing up long blades, and bending over like a plume.
Crimson stalks and leaves of herb Robert stretch across the little cavities of the mound; lower, and rising almost from the water of the ditch, the wild parsnip spreads its broad fan. Slanting among the underwood, against which it leans, the dry white "gix" (cow-parsnip) of last year has rotted from its root, and is only upheld by branches.
Yellowish green cup-like leaves are forming upon the brown and drooping heads of the spurge, which, sheltered by the bushes, has endured the winter's frosts. The lads pull them off, and break the stems, to watch the white "milk" well up, the whole plant being full of acrid juice. Whorls of woodruff and grass-like leaves of stitchwort are rising; the latter holds but feebly to the earth, and even in snatching the flower the roots sometimes give way and the plant is lifted with it.
Upon either hand the mounds are so broad that they in places resemble covers rather than hedges, thickly grown with bramble and briar, hazel and hawthorn, above which the straight trunks of young oaks and Spanish chestnuts stand in crowded but careless ranks. The leaves which dropped in the preceding autumn from these trees still lie on the ground under the bushes, dry and brittle, and the blackbirds searching about among them cause as much rustling as if some animal were routing about.
As the month progresses these wide mounds become completely green, hawthorn and bramble, briar and hazel put forth their leaves, and the eye can no longer see into the recesses. But above, the oaks and edible chestnuts are still dark and leafless, almost black by contrast with the vivid green beneath them. Upon their bare boughs the birds are easily seen, but the moment they descend among the bushes are difficult to find. Chaffinches call and challenge continually—these trees are their favourite resort—and yellowhammers flit along the underwood.
Behind the broad hedge are the ploughed fields they love, alternating with meadows down whose hedges again a stream of birds is always flowing to the lane. Bright as are the colours of the yellowhammer, when he alights among the brown clods of the ploughed field he is barely visible, for brown conceals like vapour. A white butterfly comes fluttering along the lane, and as it passes under a tree a chaffinch swoops down and snaps at it, but rises again without doing apparent injury, for the butterfly continues its flight.
From an oak overhead comes the sweet slender voice of a linnet, the sunshine falling on his rosy breast. The gateways show the thickness of the hedge, as an embrasure shows the thickness of a wall. One gives entrance to an arable field which has been recently rolled, and along the gentle rise of a "land" a cock-pheasant walks, so near that the ring about his neck is visible. Presently, becoming conscious that he is observed, he goes down into a furrow, and is then hidden.
The next gateway, equally deep-set between the bushes, opens on a pasture, where the docks of last year still cumber the ground, and bunches of rough grass and rushes are scattered here and there. A partridge separated from his mate is calling across the field, and comes running over the short sward as his companion answers. With his neck held high and upright, stretched to see around, he looks larger than would be supposed, as he runs swiftly, threading his way through the tufts, the docks, and the rushes. But suddenly noticing that the gateway is not clear, he crouches, and is concealed by the grass.
Some distance farther there is a stile, sitting upon which the view ranges over two adjacent meadows. They are bounded by a copse of ash stoles and young oak trees, and the lesser of the meads is full of rush bunches and dotted with green ant-hills. Among these, just beyond gunshot, two rabbits are feeding; pausing and nibbling till they have eaten the tenderest blades, and then leisurely hopping a yard or so to another spot. Later on in the summer this little meadow which divides the lane from the copse is alive with rabbits.
Along the hedge the brake fern has then grown, in the corner by the copse there is a beautiful mass of it, and several detached bunches away from the hedge among the ant-hills. From out of the fern, which is a favourite retreat with them, rabbits are continually coming, feeding awhile, darting after each other, and back again to cover. To-day there are but three, and they do not venture far from their buries.
Watching these, a green woodpecker cries in the copse, and immediately afterwards flies across the mead, and away to another plantation. Occasionally the spotted woodpecker may be seen here, a little bird which, in the height of summer, is lost among the foliage, but in spring and winter can be observed tapping at the branches of the trees.
I think I have seen more spotted woodpeckers near London than in far distant and nominally wilder districts. This lane, for some two miles, is lined on each side with trees, and, besides this particular copse, there are several others close by; indeed, stretching across the country to another road, there is a succession of copses, with meadows between. Birds which love trees are naturally seen flitting to and fro in the lane; the trees are at present young, but as they grow older and decay they will be still more resorted to.
Jays screech in the trees of the lane almost all the year round, though more frequently in spring and autumn, but I rarely walked here without seeing or hearing one. Beyond the stile, the lane descends into a hollow, and is bordered by a small furze common, where, under shelter of the hollow brambles and beneath the golden bloom of the furze, the pale anemones flower.
When the June roses open their petals on the briars, and the scent of new-mown hay is wafted over the hedge from the meadows, the lane seems to wind through a continuous wood. The oaks and chestnuts, though too young to form a complete arch, cross their green branches, and cast a delicious shadow. For it is in the shadow that we enjoy the summer, looking forth from the gateway upon the mowing grass where the glowing sun pours down his fiercest beams.
Tall bennets and red sorrel rise above the grass, white ox-eye daisies chequer it below; the distant hedge quivers as the air, set in motion by the intense heat, runs along. The sweet murmuring coo of the turtle dove comes from the copse, and the rich notes of the blackbird from the oak into which he has mounted to deliver them.
Slight movements in the hawthorn, or in the depths of the tall hedge grasses, movements too quick for the glance to catch their cause, are where some tiny bird is passing from spray to spray. It may be a white-throat creeping among the nettles after his wont, or a wren. The spot where he was but a second since may be traced by the trembling of the leaves, but the keenest attention may fail to detect where he is now. That slight motion in the hedge, however, conveys an impression of something living everywhere within.
There are birds in the oaks overhead whose voice is audible though they are themselves unseen. From out of the mowing grass, finches rise and fly to the hedge; from the hedge again others fly out, and, descending into the grass, are concealed as in a forest. A thrush travelling along the hedgerow just outside goes by the gateway within a yard. Bees come upon the light wind, gliding with it, but with their bodies aslant across the line of current. Butterflies flutter over the mowing grass, hardly clearing the bennets. Many-coloured insects creep up the sorrel stems and take wing from the summit.
Everything gives forth a sound of life. The twittering of swallows from above, the song of greenfinches in the trees, the rustle of hawthorn sprays moving under the weight of tiny creatures, the buzz upon the breeze; the very flutter of the butterflies' wings, noiseless as it is, and the wavy movement of the heated air across the field cause a sense of motion and of music.
The leaves are enlarging, and the sap rising, and the hard trunks of the trees swelling with its flow; the grass blades pushing upwards; the seeds completing their shape; the tinted petals uncurling. Dreamily listening, leaning on the gate, all these are audible to the inner senses, while the ear follows the midsummer hum, now sinking, now sonorously increasing over the oaks. An effulgence fills the southern boughs, which the eye cannot sustain, but which it knows is there.
The sun at its meridian pours forth his light, forgetting, in all the inspiration of his strength and glory, that without an altar-screen of green his love must scorch. Joy in life; joy in life. The ears listen, and want more: the eyes are gratified with gazing, and desire yet further; the nostrils are filled with the sweet odours of flower and sap. The touch, too, has its pleasures, dallying with leaf and flower. Can you not almost grasp the odour-laden air and hold it in the hollow of the hand?
Leaving the spot at last, and turning again into the lane, the shadows dance upon the white dust under the feet, irregularly circular spots of light surrounded with umbra shift with the shifting branches. By the wayside lie rings of dandelion stalks carelessly cast down by the child who made them, and tufts of delicate grasses gathered for their beauty but now sprinkled with dust. Wisps of hay hang from the lower boughs of the oaks where they brushed against the passing load.
After a time, when the corn is ripening, the herb betony flowers on the mounds under the oaks. Following the lane down the hill and across the small furze common at the bottom, the marks of traffic fade away, the dust ceases, and is succeeded by sward. The hedgerows on either side are here higher than ever, and are thickly fringed with bramble bushes, which sometimes encroach on the waggon ruts in the middle, and are covered with flowers, and red, and green, and ripe blackberries together.
Green rushes line the way, and green dragon flies dart above them. Thistledown is pouting forth from the swollen tops of thistles crowded with seed. In a gateway the turf has been worn away by waggon wheels and the hoofs of cart horses, and the dry heat has pulverised the crumbling ruts. Three hen pheasants and a covey of partridges that have been dusting themselves here move away without much haste at the approach of footsteps—the pheasants into the thickets, and the partridges through the gateway. The shallow holes in which they were sitting can be traced on the dust, and there are a few small feathers lying about.
A barley field is within the gate; the mowers have just begun to cut it on the opposite side. Next to it is a wheat field; the wheat has been cut and stands in shocks. From the stubble by the nearest shock two turtle doves rise, alarmed, and swiftly fly towards a wood which bounds the field. This wood, indeed, upon looking again, clearly bounds not this field only, but the second and the third, and so far as the eye can see over the low hedges of the corn, the trees continue. The green lane as it enters the wood, becomes wilder and rougher at every step, widening, too, considerably.
In the centre the wheels of timber carriages, heavily laden with trunks of trees which were dragged through by straining teams in the rainy days of spring, have left vast ruts, showing that they must have sunk to the axle in the soft clay. These then filled with water, and on the water duck-weed grew, and aquatic grasses at the sides. Summer heats have evaporated the water, leaving the weeds and grasses prone upon the still moist earth.
Rushes have sprung up and mark the line of the ruts, and willow stoles, bramble bushes, and thorns growing at the side, make, as it were, a third hedge in the middle of the lane. The best path is by the wood itself, but even there occasional leaps are necessary over pools of dark water full of vegetation. These alternate with places where the ground, being higher, yawns with wide cracks crumbling at the edge, the heat causing the clay to split and open. In winter it must be an impassable quagmire; now it is dry and arid.
Rising out of this low-lying spot the lane again becomes green and pleasant, and is crossed by another. At the meeting of these four ways some boughs hang over a green bank where I have often rested. In front the lane is barred by a gate, but beyond the gate it still continues its straight course into the wood. To the left the track, crossing at right angles, also proceeds into the wood, but it is so overhung with trees and blocked by bushes that its course after the first hundred yards or so cannot be traced.
To the right the track—a little wider and clearer of bushes—extends through wood, and as it is straight and rises up a gentle slope, the eye can travel along it half a mile. There is nothing but wood around. This track to the right appears the most used, and has some ruts in the centre. The sward each side is concealed by endless thistles, on the point of sending forth clouds of thistledown, and to which presently the goldfinches will be attracted.
Occasionally a movement among the thistles betrays the presence of a rabbit; only occasionally, for though the banks are drilled with buries, the lane is too hot for them at midday. Particles of rabbits' fur lie on the ground, and their runs are visible in every direction. But there are no birds. A solitary robin, indeed, perches on an ash branch opposite, and regards me thoughtfully. It is impossible to go anywhere in the open air without a robin; they are the very spies of the wood. But there are no thrushes, no blackbirds, finches, nor even sparrows.
In August it is true most birds cease to sing, but sitting thus partially hidden and quiet, if there were any about something would be heard of them. There would be a rustling, a thrush would fly across the lane, a blackbird would appear by the gateway yonder in the shadow which he loves, a finch would settle in the oaks. None of these incidents occur; none of the lesser signs of life in the foliage, the tremulous spray, the tap of a bill cleaned by striking first one side and then the other against a bough, the rustle of a wing—nothing.
There are woods, woods, woods; but no birds. Yonder a drive goes straight into the ashpoles, it is green above and green below, but a long watch will reveal nothing living. The dry mounds must be full of rabbits, there must be pheasants somewhere; but nothing visible. Once only a whistling sound in the air directs the glance upwards, it is a wood-pigeon flying at full speed. There are no bees, for there are no flowers. There are no butterflies. The black flies are not numerous, and rarely require a fanning from the ash spray carried to drive them off.
Two large dragon-flies rush up and down, and cross the lane, and rising suddenly almost to the tops of the oaks swoop down again in bold sweeping curves. The broad, deep ditch between the lane and the mound of the wood is dry, but there are no short rustling sounds of mice.
The only sound is the continuous singing of the grasshoppers, and the peculiar snapping noise they make as they spring, leaping along the sward. The fierce sun of the ripe wheat pours down a fiery glow scarcely to be borne except under the boughs; the hazel leaves already have lost their green, the tips of the rushes are shrivelling, the grass becoming brown; it is a scorched and parched desert of wood.
The finches have gone forth in troops to the stubble where the wheat has been cut, and where they can revel on the seeds of the weeds now ripe. Thrushes and blackbirds have gone to the streams, to splash and bathe, and to the mown meadows, where in the short aftermath they can find their food. There they will look out on the shady side of the hedge as the sun declines, six or eight perhaps of them along the same hedge, but all in the shadow, where the dew forms first as the evening falls, where the grass feels cool and moist, while still on the sunny side it is warm and dry.
The bees are busy on the heaths and along the hilltops, where there are still flowers and honey, and the butterflies are with them. So the woods are silent, still, and deserted, save by a stray rabbit among the thistles, and the grasshoppers ceaselessly leaping in the grass.
Returning presently to the gateway just outside the wood, where upon first coming the pheasants and partridges were dusting themselves, a waggon is now passing among the corn and is being laden with the sheaves. But afar off, across the broad field and under the wood, it seems somehow only a part of the silence and the solitude. The men with it move about the stubble, calmly toiling; the horses, having drawn it a little way, become motionless, reposing as they stand, every line of their large limbs expressing delight in physical ease and idleness.
Perhaps the heat has made the men silent, for scarcely a word is spoken; if it were, in the stillness it must be heard, though they are at some distance. The wheels, well greased for the heavy harvest work, do not creak. Save an occasional monosyllable, as the horses are ordered on, or to stop, and a faint rustling of straw, there is no sound. It may be the flood of brilliant light, or the mirage of the heat, but in some way the waggon and its rising load, the men and the horses, have an unreality of appearance.
The yellow wheat and stubble, the dull yellow of the waggon, toned down by years of weather, the green woods near at hand, darkening in the distance and slowly changing to blue, the cloudless sky, the heat-suffused atmosphere, in which things seem to float rather than to grow or stand, the shadowless field, all are there, and yet are not there, but far away and vision-like. The waggon, at last laden, travels away, and seems rather to disappear of itself than to be hidden by the trees. It is an effort to awake and move from the spot.
"Always get over a stile," is the one rule that should ever be borne in mind by those who wish to see the land as it really is—that is to say, never omit to explore a footpath, for never was there a footpath yet which did not pass something of interest.
In the meadows, everything comes pressing lovingly up to the path. The small-leaved clover can scarce be driven back by frequent footsteps from endeavouring to cover the bare earth of the centre. Tall buttercups, round whose stalks the cattle have carefully grazed, stand in ranks; strong ox-eye daisies, with broad white disks and torn leaves, form with the grass the tricolour of the pasture—white, green, and gold.
When the path enters the mowing grass, ripe for the scythe, the simplicity of these cardinal hues is lost in the multitude of shades and the addition of other colours. The surface of mowing grass is indeed made up of so many tints that at the first glance it is confusing; and hence, perhaps, it is that hardly ever has an artist succeeded in getting the effect upon canvas. Of the million blades of grass no two are of the same shade.
Pluck a handful and spread them out side by side and this is at once evident. Nor is any single blade the same shade all the way up. There may be a faint yellow towards the root, a full green about the middle, at the tip perhaps the hot sun has scorched it, and there is a trace of brown. The older grass, which comes up earliest, is distinctly different in tint from that which has but just reached its greatest height, and in which the sap has not yet stood still.
Under all there is the new grass, short, sweet, and verdant, springing up fresh between the old, and giving a tone to the rest as you look down into the bunches. Some blades are nearly grey, some the palest green, and among them others, torn from the roots perhaps by rooks searching for grubs, are quite white. The very track of a rook through the grass leaves a different shade each side, as the blades are bent or trampled down.
The stalks of the bennets vary, some green, some yellowish, some brown, some approaching whiteness, according to age and the condition of the sap. Their tops, too, are never the same, whether the pollen clings to the surface or whether it has gone. Here the green is almost lost in red, or quite; here the grass has a soft, velvety look; yonder it is hard and wiry, and again graceful and drooping. Here there are bunches so rankly verdant that no flower is visible and no other tint but dark green; here it is thin and short, and the flowers, and almost the turf itself, can be seen; then there is an array of bennets (stalks which bear the grass-seed) with scarcely any grass proper.
Every variety of grass—and they are many—has its own colour, and every blade of every variety has its individual variations of that colour. The rain falls, and there is a darker tint at large upon the field, fresh but darker; the sun shines and at first the hue is lighter, but presently if the heat last a brown comes. The wind blows, and immediately as the waves of grass roll across the meadow a paler tint follows it.
A clouded sky dulls the herbage, a cloudless heaven brightens it, so that the grass almost reflects the firmament like water. At sunset the rosy rays bring out every tint of red or purple. At noonday, watch as alternate shadow and sunshine come one after the other as the clouds are wafted over. By moonlight perhaps the white ox-eyed daisies show the most. But never will you find the mowing grass in the same field looking twice alike.
Come again the day after to-morrow only, and there is a change; some of the grass is riper, some is thicker, with further blades which have pushed up, some browner. Cold northern winds cause it to wear a dry, withered aspect; under warm showers it visibly opens itself; in a hurricane it tosses itself wildly to and fro; it laughs under the sunshine.
There are thick bunches by the footpath, which hang over and brush the feet. While approaching there seems nothing there except grass, but in the act of passing, and thus looking straight down into them, there are blue eyes at the bottom gazing up. These specks of blue sky hidden in the grass tempt the hand to gather them, but then you cannot gather the whole field.
Behind the bunches where the grass is thinner are the heads of purple clover; pluck one of these, and while meditating draw forth petal after petal and imbibe the honey with the lips till nothing remains but the green framework, like stolen jewellery from which the gems have been taken. Torn pink ragged robins through whose petals a comb seems to have been remorselessly dragged, blue scabious, red knapweeds, yellow rattles, yellow vetchings by the hedge, white flowering parsley, white campions, yellow tormentil, golden buttercups, white cuckoo-flowers, dandelions, yarrow, and so on, all carelessly sown broadcast without order or method, just as negligently as they are named here, first remembered, first mentioned, and many forgotten.
Highest and coarsest of texture, the red-tipped sorrel—a crumbling red—so thick and plentiful that at sunset the whole mead becomes reddened. If these were in any way set in order or design, howsoever entangled, the eye might, as it were, get at them for reproduction. But just where there should be flowers there are none, whilst in odd places where there are none required there are plenty.
In hollows, out of sight till stumbled on, is a mass of colour; on the higher foreground only a dull brownish green. Walk all round the meadow, and still no vantage point can be found where the herbage groups itself, whence a scheme of colour is perceivable. There is no "artistic" arrangement anywhere.
So, too, with the colours—of the shades of green something has already been said—and here are bright blues and bright greens, yellows and pinks, positive discords and absolute antagonisms of tint side by side, yet without jarring the eye. Green all round, the trees and hedges; blue overhead, the sky; purple and gold westward, where the sun sinks. No part of this grass can be represented by a blur or broad streak of colour, for it is not made up of broad streaks. It is composed of innumerable items of grass blade and flower, each in itself coloured and different from its neighbour. Not one of these must be slurred over if you wish to get the same effect.
Then there are drifting specks of colour which cannot be fixed. Butterflies, white, parti-coloured, brown, and spotted, and light blue flutter along beside the footpath; two white ones wheel about each other, rising higher at every turn till they are lost and no more to be distinguished against a shining white cloud. Large dark humble bees roam slowly, and honey bees with more decided flight. Glistening beetles, green and gold, run across the bare earth of the path, coming from one crack in the dry ground and disappearing in the (to them) mighty chasm of another.
Tiny green "hoppers"—odd creatures shaped something like the fancy frogs of children's story-books—alight upon it after a spring, and pausing a second, with another toss themselves as high as the highest bennet (veritable elm-trees by comparison), to fall anywhere out of sight in the grass. Reddish ants hurry over. Time is money; and their business brooks no delay.
Bee-like flies of many stripes and parti-coloured robes face you, suspended in the air with wings vibrating so swiftly as to be unseen; then suddenly jerk themselves a few yards to recommence hovering. A greenfinch rises with a yellow gleam and a sweet note from the grass, and is off with something for his brood, or a starling, solitary now, for his mate is in the nest, startled from his questing, goes straight away.
Dark starlings, greenfinch, gilded fly, glistening beetle, blue butterfly, humble bee with scarf about his thick waist, add their moving dots of colour to the surface. There is no design, no balance, nothing like a pattern perfect on the right-hand side, and exactly equal on the left-hand. Even trees which have some semblance of balance in form are not really so, and as you walk round them so their outline changes.
Now the path approaches a stile set deep in thorns and brambles, and hardly to be gained for curved hooks and prickles. But on the briars June roses bloom, arches of flowers over nettles, burdock, and rushes in the ditch beneath. Sweet roses—buds yet unrolled, white and conical; roses half open and pink tinted; roses widespread, the petals curling backwards on the hedge, abandoning their beauty to the sun. In the pasture over the stile a roan cow feeds unmoved, calmly content, gathering the grass with rough tongue. It is not only what you actually see along the path, but what you remember to have seen, that gives it its beauty.
From hence the path skirts the hedge enclosing a copse, part of which had been cut in the winter, so that a few weeks since in spring the bluebells could be seen, instead of being concealed by the ash branches and the woodbine. Among them grew one with white bells, like a lily, solitary in the midst of the azure throng. A "drive," or green lane passing between the ash-stoles, went into the copse, with tufts of tussocky grass on either side and rush bunches, till farther away the overhanging branches, where the poles were uncut, hid its course.
Already the grass has hidden the ruts left by the timber carriages—the last came by on May-day with ribbons of orange, red, and blue on the horses' heads for honour of the day. Another, which went past in the wintry weeks of the early year, was drawn by a team wearing the ancient harness with bells under high hoods, or belfries, bells well attuned, too, and not far inferior to those rung by handbell men. The beat of the three horses' hoofs sounds like the drum that marks time to the chime upon their backs. Seldom, even in the far away country, can that pleasant chime be heard.
But now the timber is all gone, the ruts are hidden, and the tall spruce firs, whose graceful branches were then almost yellow with young needles on the tip, are now clothed in fresh green. On the bank there is a flower which is often gathered for the forget-me-not, and is not unlike it at the first glance; but if the two be placed side by side, this, the scorpion grass, is but a pale imitation of the true plant; its petals vary in colour and are often dull, and it has not the yellow central spot. Yet it is not unfrequently sold in pots in the shops as forget-me-not. It flowers on the bank, high above the water of the ditch.
The true forget-me-not can hardly be seen in passing, so much does it nestle under flags and behind sedges, and it is not easy to gather because it flowers on the very verge of the running stream. The shore is bordered with matted vegetation, aquatic grass, and flags and weeds, and outside these, where its leaves are washed and purified by the clear stream, its blue petals open. Be cautious, therefore, in reaching for the forget-me-not, lest the bank be treacherous.
It was near this copse that in early spring I stayed to gather some white sweet violets, for the true wild violet is very nearly white. I stood close to a hedger and ditcher, who, standing on a board, was cleaning out the mud that the water might run freely. He went on with his work, taking not the least notice of an idler, but intent upon his labour, as a good and true man should be. But when I spoke to him he answered me in clear, well-chosen language, well pronounced, "in good set terms."
No slurring of consonants and broadening of vowels, no involved and backward construction depending on the listener's previous knowledge for comprehension, no half sentences indicating rather than explaining, but correct sentences. With his shoes almost covered by the muddy water, his hands black and grimy, his brown face splashed with mud, leaning on his shovel he stood and talked from the deep ditch, not much more than head and shoulders visible above it. It seemed a voice from the very earth, speaking of education, change, and possibilities.
The copse is now filling up with undergrowth; the brambles are spreading, the briars extending, masses of nettles, and thistles like saplings in size and height, crowding the spaces between the ash-stoles. By the banks great cow-parsnips or "gix" have opened their broad heads of white flowers; teazles have lifted themselves into view, every opening is occupied. There is a scent of elder flowers, the meadow-sweet is pushing up, and will soon be out, and an odour of new-mown hay floats on the breeze.
From the oak green caterpillars slide down threads of their own making to the bushes below, but they are running terrible risk. For a pair of white-throats or "nettle-creepers" are on the watch, and seize the green creeping things crossways in their beaks. Then they perch on a branch three or four yards only from where I stand, silent and motionless, and glance first at me and next at a bush of bramble which projects out to the edge of the footpath. So long as my eyes are turned aside, or half closed, the bird perches on the branch, gaining confidence every moment. The instant I open my eyes, or move them, or glance towards him, without either movement of head, hand, or foot, he is off to the oak.
His tiny eyes are intent on mine; the moment he catches my glance he retires. But in half a minute affection brings him back, still with the caterpillar in his beak, to the same branch. Whilst I have patience to look the other way there he stays, but again a glance sends him away. This is repeated four or five times, till, finally, convinced that I mean no harm and yet timorous and fearful of betrayal even in the act, he dives down into the bramble bush.
After a brief interval he reappears on the other side of it, having travelled through and left his prey with his brood in the nest there. Assured by his success his mate follows now, and once having done it, they continue to bring caterpillars, apparently as fast as they can pass between the trees and the bush. They always enter the bush, which is scarcely two yards from me, on one side, pass through in the same direction, and emerge on the other side, having thus regular places of entrance and exit.
As I stand watching these birds a flock of rooks goes over, they have left the nesting trees, and fly together again. Perhaps this custom of nesting together in adjacent trees and using the same one year after year is not so free from cares and jealousies as the solitary plan of the little white-throats here. Last March I was standing near a rookery, noting the contention and quarrelling, the downright tyranny, and brigandage which is carried on there. The very sound of the cawing, sharp and angry, conveys the impression of hate and envy.
Two rooks in succession flew to a nest the owners of which were absent, and deliberately picked a great part of it to pieces, taking the twigs for their own use. Unless the rook, therefore, be ever in his castle his labour is torn down, and, as with men in the fierce struggle for wealth, the meanest advantages are seized on. So strong is the rook's bill that he tears living twigs of some size with it from the bough. The white-throats were without such envy and contention.
From hence the footpath, leaving the copse, descends into a hollow, with a streamlet flowing through a little meadow, barely an acre, with a pollard oak in the centre, the rising ground on two sides shutting out all but the sky, and on the third another wood. Such a dreamy hollow might be painted for a glade in the Forest of Arden, and there on the sward and leaning against the ancient oak one might read the play through without being disturbed by a single passer-by. A few steps farther and the stile opens on a road.
There the teams travel with rows of brazen spangles down their necks, some with a wheatsheaf for design, some with a swan. The road itself, if you follow it, dips into a valley where the horses must splash through the water of a brook spread out some fifteen or twenty yards wide; for, after the primitive Surrey fashion, there is no bridge for waggons. A narrow wooden structure bears foot-passengers; you cannot but linger half across and look down into its clear stream. Up the current where it issues from the fields and falls over a slight obstacle the sunlight plays and glances.
A great hawthorn bush grows on the bank; in spring, white with May; in autumn, red with haws or peggles. To the shallow shore of the brook, where it washes the flints and moistens the dust, the house-martins come for mortar. A constant succession of birds arrive all day long to drink at the clear stream, often alighting on the fragments of chalk and flint which stand in the water, and are to them as rocks.
Another footpath leads from the road across the meadows to where the brook is spanned by the strangest bridge, built of brick, with one arch, but only just wide enough for a single person to walk, and with parapets only four or five inches high. It is thrown aslant the stream, and not straight across it, and has a long brick approach. It is not unlike—on a small scale—the bridges seen in views of Eastern travel. Another path leads to a hamlet, consisting of a church, a farmhouse, and three or four cottages—a veritable hamlet in every sense of the word.
In a village a few miles distant, as you walk between cherry and pear orchards, you pass a little shop—the sweets, and twine, and trifles are such as may be seen in similar windows a hundred miles distant. There is the very wooden measure for nuts, which has been used time out of mind, in the distant country. Out again into the road as the sun sinks, and westwards the wind lifts a cloud of dust, which is lit up and made rosy by the rays passing through it. For such is the beauty of the sunlight that it can impart a glory even to dust.
Once more, never go by a stile (that does not look private) without getting over it and following the path. But they all end in one place. After rambling across furze and heath, or through dark fir woods; after lingering in the meadows among the buttercups, or by the copses where the pheasants crow; after gathering June roses, or, in later days, staining the lips with blackberries or cracking nuts, by-and-by the path brings you in sight of a railway station. And the railway station, through some process of mind, presently compels you to go up on the platform, and after a little puffing and revolution of wheels you emerge at Charing Cross, or London Bridge, or Waterloo, or Ludgate Hill, and, with the freshness of the meadows still clinging to your coat, mingle with the crowd.
The inevitable end of every footpath round about London is London. All paths go thither.
If it were far away in the distant country you might sit down in the shadow upon the hay and fall asleep, or dream awake hour after hour. There would be no inclination to move. But if you sat down on the sward under the ancient pollard oak in the little mead with the brook, and the wood of which I spoke just now as like a glade in the enchanted Forest of Arden, this would not be possible. It is the proximity of the immense City which induces a mental, a nerve-restlessness. As you sit and would dream a something plucks at the mind with constant reminder; you cannot dream for long, you must up and away, and, turn in which direction you please, ultimately it will lead you to London.
There is a fascination in it; there is a magnetism stronger than that of the rock which drew the nails from Sindbad's ship. You are like a bird let out with a string tied to the foot to flutter a little way and return again. It is not business, for you may have none, in the ordinary sense; it is not "society," it is not pleasure. It is the presence of man in his myriads. There is something in the heart which cannot be satisfied away from it.
It is a curious thing that your next-door neighbour may be a stranger, but there are no strangers in a vast crowd. They all seem to have some relationship, or rather, perhaps, they do not rouse the sense of reserve which a single unknown person might. Still, the impulse is not to be analysed; these are mere notes acknowledging its power. The hills and vales, and meads and woods are like the ocean upon which Sindbad sailed; but coming too near the loadstone of London, the ship wends thither, whether or no.
At least it is so with me, and I often go to London without any object whatever, but just because I must, and, arriving there, wander whithersoever the hurrying throng carries me.
FLOCKS OF BIRDS
A certain road leading outwards from a suburb, enters at once among fields. It soon passes a thick hedge dividing a meadow from a cornfield, in which hedge is a spot where some bluebells may be found in spring. Wild flowers are best seen when in masses, a few scattered along a bank much concealed by grass and foliage are lost, except indeed, upon those who love them for their own sake.
This meadow in June, for instance, when the buttercups are high, is one broad expanse of burnished gold. The most careless passer-by can hardly fail to cast a glance over acres of rich yellow. The furze, again, especially after a shower has refreshed its tint, must be seen by all. Where broom grows thickly, lifting its colour well into view, or where the bird's-foot lotus in full summer overruns the thin grass of some upland pasture, the eye cannot choose but acknowledge it. So, too, with charlock, and with hill sides purple with heath, or where the woodlands are azure with bluebells for a hundred yards together. Learning from this, those who would transplant wild flowers to their garden should arrange to have as many as possible of the same species close together.
The bluebells in this hedge are unseen, except by the rabbits. The latter have a large burrow, and until the grass is too tall, or after it is cut or grazed, can be watched from the highway. In this hedge the first nightingale of the year sings, beginning some two or three days before the bird which comes to the bushes in the gorse, which will presently be mentioned.
It is, or rather was, a favourite meadow with the partridges; one summer there was, I think, a nest in or near it, for I saw the birds there daily. But the next year they were absent. One afternoon a brace of partridges came over the hedge within a few inches of my head; they had been flushed and frightened at some distance, and came with the wind at a tremendous pace. It is a habit with partridges to fly low, but just skimming the tops of the hedges, and certainly, had they been three inches lower, they must have taken my hat off. The knowledge that partridges were often about there, made me always glance into this field on passing it, long after the nesting season was over.
In October, as I looked as usual, a hawk flew between the elms, and out into the centre of the meadow, with a large object in his talons. He alighted in the middle, so as to be as far as possible from either hedge, and no doubt prepared to enjoy his quarry, when something startled him, and he rose again. Then, as I got a better view, I saw it was a rat he was carrying. The long body of the animal was distinctly visible, and the tail depending, the hawk had it by the shoulders or head. Flying without the least apparent effort, the bird cleared the elms, and I lost sight of him beyond them. Now, the kestrel is but a small bird, and taking into consideration the size of the bird, and the weight of a rat, it seems as great a feat in proportion as for an eagle to snatch up a lamb.
Some distance up the road, and in the corner of an arable field, there was a wheat rick which was threshed and most of the straw carted away. But there still remained the litter, and among it probably a quantity of stray corn. There was always a flock of sparrows on this litter—a flock that might often be counted by the hundred. As I came near the spot one day a sparrow-hawk, whose approach I had not observed, and which had therefore been flying low, suddenly came over the hedge just by the loose straw.
With shrill cries the sparrows instantly rushed for the hedge, not two yards distant; but the hawk, dashing through the crowd of them as they rose, carried away a victim. It was done in the tenth of a second. He came, singled his bird, and was gone like the wind, before the whirr of wings had ceased on the hawthorn where the flock cowered.
Another time, but in a different direction, I saw a hawk descend and either enter, or appear to enter, a short much-cropped hedge, but twenty yards distant. I ran to the spot; the hawk of course made off, but there was nothing in the bush save a hedge sparrow, which had probably attracted him, but which he had not succeeded in getting.
Kestrels are almost common; I have constantly seen them while strolling along the road, generally two together, and once three. In the latter part of the summer and autumn they seem to be most numerous, hovering over the recently reaped fields. Certainly there is no scarcity of hawks here. Upon one occasion, on Surbiton Hill, I saw a large bird of the same kind, but not sufficiently near to identify. From the gliding flight, the long forked tail, and large size I supposed it to be a kite. The same bird was going about next day, but still farther off. I cannot say that it was a kite, for unless it is a usual haunt, it is not in my opinion wise to positively identify a bird seen for so short a time.
The thick hedge mentioned is a favourite resort of blackbirds, and on a warm May morning, after a shower—they are extremely fond of a shower—half-a-dozen may be heard at once whistling in the elms. They use the elms here because there are not many oaks; the oak is the blackbird's favourite song-tree. There was one one day whistling with all his might on the lower branch of an elm, at the very roadside, and just above him a wood-pigeon was perched. A pair of turtle-doves built in the same hedge one spring, and while resting on the gate by the roadside their "coo-coo" mingled with the song of the nightingale and thrush, the blackbird's whistle, the chiff-chaff's "chip-chip," the willow-wren's pleading voice, and the rustle of green corn as the wind came rushing (as it always does to a gateway).
Goldfinches come by occasionally, not often, but still they do come. The rarest bird seems to be the bullfinch. I have only seen bullfinches three or four times in three seasons, and then only a pair. Now, this is worthy a note, as illustrating what I have often ventured to say about the habitat of birds being so often local, for if judged by observation here the bullfinch would be said to be a scarce bird by London. But it has been stated upon the best authority that only a few miles distant, and still nearer town, they are common.
The road now becomes bordered by elms on either side, forming an irregular avenue. Almost every elm in spring has its chaffinch loudly challenging. The birdcatchers are aware that it is a frequented resort, and on Sunday mornings four or five of them used to be seen in the course of a mile, each with a call bird in a partly darkened cage, a stuffed dummy, and limed twigs. In the cornfields on either hand wood-pigeons are numerous in spring and autumn. Up to April they come in flocks, feeding on the newly sown grain when they can get at it, and varying it with ivy berries, from the ivy growing up the elms. By degrees the flocks break up as the nesting begins in earnest.
Some pair and build much earlier than others; in fact, the first egg recorded is very little to be depended on as an indication. Particular pairs (of many kinds of birds) may have nests, and yet the species as a species may be still flying in large packs. The flocks which settle in these fields number from one to two hundred. Rooks, wood-pigeons, and tame white pigeons often feed amicably mixed up together; the white tame birds are conspicuous at a long distance before the crops have risen, or after the stubble is ploughed.
I should think that the corn farmers of Surrey lose more grain from the birds than the agriculturists whose tenancies are a hundred miles from London. In the comparatively wild or open districts to which I had been accustomed before I made these observations I cannot recollect ever seeing such vast numbers of birds. There were places, of course, where they were numerous, and there were several kinds more represented than is the case here, and some that are scarcely represented at all. I have seen flocks of wood-pigeons immensely larger than any here; but then it was only occasionally. They came, passed over, and were gone. Here the flocks, though not very numerous, seem always to be about.
Sparrows crowd every hedge and field, their numbers are incredible; chaffinches are not to be counted; of greenfinches there must be thousands. From the railway even you can see them. I caught glimpses of a ploughed field recently sown one spring from the window of a railway carriage, every little clod of which seemed alive with small birds, principally sparrows, chaffinches, and greenfinches. There must have been thousands in that field alone. In autumn the numbers are even greater, or rather more apparent.
One autumn some correspondence appeared lamenting the scarcity of small birds (and again in the spring the same cry was raised); people said that they had walked along the roads or footpaths and there were none in the hedges. They were quite correct—the birds were not in the hedges, they were in the corn and stubble. After the nesting is well over and the wheat is ripe the birds leave the hedges and go out into the wheatfields; at the same time the sparrows quit the house-tops and gardens and do the same. At the very time this complaint was raised, the stubbles in Surrey, as I can vouch, were crowded with small birds.
If you walked across the stubble flocks of hundreds rose out of your way; if you leant on a gate and watched a few minutes you could see small flocks in every quarter of the field rising and settling again. These movements indicated a larger number in the stubble there, for where a great flock is feeding some few every now and then fly up restlessly. Earlier than that in the summer there was not a wheatfield where you could not find numerous wheatears picked as clean as if threshed where they stood. In some places, the wheat was quite thinned.
Later in the year there seems a movement of small birds from the lower to the higher lands. One December day I remember particularly visiting the neighbourhood of Ewell, where the lands begin to rise up towards the Downs. Certainly, I have seldom seen such vast numbers of small birds. Up from the stubble flew sparrows, chaffinches, greenfinches, yellow-hammers, in such flocks that the low-cropped hedge was covered with them. A second correspondence appeared in the spring upon the same subject, and again the scarcity of small birds was deplored.
So far as the neighbourhood of London was concerned, this was the exact reverse of the truth.
Small birds swarmed, as I have already stated, in every ploughed field. All the birdcatchers in London with traps and nets and limed twigs could never make the slightest appreciable difference to such flocks. I have always expressed my detestation of the birdcatcher; but it is founded on other grounds, and not from any fear of the diminution of numbers only. Where the birdcatcher does inflict irretrievable injury is in this way—a bird, say a nightingale, say a goldfinch, has had a nest for years in the corner of a garden, or an apple-tree in an orchard. The birdcatcher presently decoys one or other of these, and thenceforward the spot is deserted. The song is heard no more; the nest never again rebuilt.
The first spring I resided in Surrey I was fairly astonished and delighted at the bird life which proclaimed itself everywhere. The bevies of chiffchaffs and willow wrens which came to the thickets in the furze, the chorus of thrushes and blackbirds, the chaffinches in the elms, the greenfinches in the hedges, wood-pigeons and turtle-doves in the copses, tree-pipits about the oaks in the cornfields; every bush, every tree, almost every clod, for the larks were so many, seemed to have its songster. As for nightingales, I never knew so many in the most secluded country.
There are more round about London than in all the woodlands I used to ramble through. When people go into the country they really leave the birds behind them. It was the same, I found, after longer observation, with birds perhaps less widely known as with those universally recognised—such, for instance, as shrikes. The winter when the cry was raised that there were no birds, that the blackbirds and thrushes had left the lawns and must be dead, and how wicked it would be to take a nest next year, I had not the least, difficulty in finding plenty of them.
They had simply gone to the water meadows, the brooks, and moist places generally. Every locality where running water kept the ground moist and permitted of movement among the creeping things which form these birds' food, was naturally resorted to. Thrushes and blackbirds, although they do not pack—that is, regularly fly in flocks—undoubtedly migrate when pressed by weather.
They are well known to arrive on the east coast from Norway in numbers as the cold increases. I see no reason why we may not suppose that in very severe and continued frost the thrushes and blackbirds round London fly westwards towards the milder side of the island. It seems to me that when, some years since, I used to stroll round the water meadows in a western county for snipes in frosty weather, the hedges were full of thrushes and blackbirds—quite full of them.
Now, though there were thrushes and blackbirds about the brooks by London last winter, there were few in the hedges generally. Had they, then, flown westwards? It is my belief that they had. They had left the hard-bound ground about London for the softer and moister lands farther west. They had crossed the rain-line. When frost prevents access to food in the east, thrushes and blackbirds move westwards, just as the fieldfares and redwings do.
That the fieldfares and redwings do so I can say with confidence, because, as they move in large flocks, there is no difficulty in tracing the direction in which they are going. They all went west when the severe weather began. On the southern side of London, at least in the districts I am best acquainted with, there was hardly a fieldfare or redwing to be seen for weeks and even months. Towards spring they came back, flying east for Norway. As thrushes and blackbirds move singly, and not with concerted action, their motions cannot be determined with such precision, but all the facts are in favour of the belief that they also went west.
That they were killed by the frost and snow I utterly refuse to credit. Some few, no doubt, were—I saw some greatly enfeebled by starvation—but not the mass. If so many had been destroyed their bodies must have been seen when there was no foliage to hide them, and no insects to quickly play the scavenger as in summer. Some were killed by cats; a few perhaps by rats, for in sharp winters they go down into the ditches, and I saw a dead redwing, torn and disfigured, at the mouth of a drain during the snow, where it might have been fastened on by a rat. But it is quite improbable that thousands died as was supposed.
Thrushes and blackbirds are not like rooks. Rooks are so bound by tradition and habit that they very rarely quit the locality where they were reared. Their whole lives are spent in the neighbourhood of the nest, trees, and the woods where they sleep. They may travel miles during the day, but they always come back to roost. These are the birds that suffer the most during long frosts and snows. Unable to break the chain that binds them to one spot, they die rather than desert it. A miserable time, indeed, they had of it that winter, but I never heard that any one proposed feeding the rooks, the very birds that wanted it most.
Swallows, again, were declared by many to be fewer. It is not at all unlikely that they were fewer. The wet season was unfavourable to them; still a good deal of the supposed absence of swallows may be through the observer not looking for them in the right place. If not wheeling in the sky, look for them over the water, the river, or great ponds; if not there, look along the moist fields or shady woodland meadows. They vary their haunts with the state of the atmosphere, which causes insects to be more numerous in one place at one time, and presently in another.
A very wet season is more fatal than the sharpest frost; it acts by practically reducing the births, leaving the ordinary death-rate to continue. Consequently, as the old birds die, there are none (or fewer) to supply their places. Once more let me express the opinion that there are as many small birds round London as in the country, and no measure is needed to protect the species at large. Protection, if needed, is required for the individual. Sweep the roads and lanes clear of the birdcatchers, but do not prevent a boy from taking a nest in the open fields or commons. If it were made illegal to sell full-grown birds, half the evil would be stopped at once if the law were enforced. The question is full of difficulties. To prevent or attempt to prevent the owner of a garden from shooting the bullfinches or blackbirds and so on that steal his fruit, or destroy his buds, is absurd. It is equally absurd to fine—what twaddle!—a lad for taking a bird's egg. The only point upon which I am fully clear is that the birdcatcher who takes birds on land not his own or in his occupation, on public property, as roads, wastes, commons, and so forth, ought to be rigidly put down. But as for the small birds as a mass, I am convinced that they will never cease out of the land.
It is not easy to progress far along this road, because every bird suggests so many reflections and recollections. Upon approaching the rising ground at Ewell green plovers or peewits become plentiful in the cornfields. In spring and early summer the flocks break up to some extent, and the scattered parties conduct their nesting operations in the pastures or on the downs. In autumn they collect together again, and flocks of fifty or more are commonly seen. Now and then a much larger flock comes down into the plain, wheeling to and fro, and presently descending upon an arable field, where they cover the ground.
The wayside is open to all, and that which it affords may be enjoyed without fee; therefore it is that I return to it so often. It is a fact that common hedgerows often yield more of general interest than the innermost recesses of carefully guarded preserves, which by day are frequently still, silent, and denuded of everything, even of game; nor can flowers flourish in such thick shade, nor where fir-needles cover the ground.
By the same wayside of which I have already spoken there is a birch copse, through which runs a road open to foot passengers, but not to wheel traffic, and also a second footpath. From these a little observation will show that almost all the life and interest of the copse is at, or near, the edge, and can be readily seen without trespassing a single yard. Sometimes, when it is quiet in the evening and the main highway is comparatively deserted, a hare comes stealing down the track through the copse, and after lingering there awhile crosses the highway into the stubble on the other side.
In one of these fields, just opposite the copse, a covey of partridges had their rendezvous, and I watched them from the road, evening after evening, issue one by one, calling as they appeared from a breadth of mangolds. Their sleeping-place seemed to be about a hundred yards from the wayside. Another arable field just opposite is bounded by the road with iron wire or railing, instead of a hedge, and the low mound in which the stakes are fixed swarmed one summer with ant-hills full of eggs, and a slight rustle in the corn as I approached told where the parent bird had just led her chicks from the feast to shelter.
Passing into the copse by the road, which is metalled but weed-grown from lack of use, the grasshoppers sing from the sward at the sides, but the birds are silent as the summer ends. Pink striped bells of convolvulus flower over the flints and gravel, the stones nearly hidden by their runners and leaves; yellow toadflax or eggs and bacon grew here till a weeding took place, since which it has not reappeared, but in its place viper's bugloss sprang up, a plant which was not previously to be found there. Hawkweeds, some wild vetches, white yarrow, thistles, and burdocks conceal the flints yet further, so that the track has the appearance of a green drive.
The slender birch and ash poles are hung with woodbine and wild hops, both growing in profusion. A cream-coloured wall of woodbine in flower extends in one spot, in another festoons of hops hang gracefully, and so thick as to hide everything beyond them. There is scarce a stole without its woodbine or hops; many of the poles, though larger than the arm, are scored with spiral grooves left by the bines. Under these bushes of woodbine the nightingales when they first arrive in spring are fond of searching for food, and dart on a grub with a low satisfied "kurr."
The place is so favourite a resort with these birds that it might well be called Nightingale Copse. Four or five may be heard singing at once on a warm May morning, and at least two may often be seen as well as heard at the same time. They sometimes sing from the trees, as well as from the bushes; one was singing one morning on an elm branch which projected over the road, and under which the van drivers jogged indifferently along. Sometimes they sing from the dark foliage of the Scotch firs.
As the summer wanes they haunt the hawthorn hedge by the roadside, leaving the interior of the copse, and may often be seen on the dry and dusty sward. When chiffchaff and willow-wren first come they remain in the treetops, but in the summer descend into the lower bushes, and, like the nightingales, come out upon the sward by the wayside. Nightingale Copse is also a great favourite with cuckoos. There are a few oaks in it, and in the meadows in the rear many detached hawthorn bushes, and two or three small groups of trees, chestnuts, lime, and elm. From the hawthorns to the elms, and from the elms to the oaks, the cuckoos continually circulate, calling as they fly.
One morning in May, while resting on a rail in the copse, I heard four calling close by, the furthest not a hundred yards distant, and as they continually changed their positions flying round there was always one in sight. They circled round, singing; the instant one ceased another took it up, a perfect madrigal. In the evening, at eight o'clock, I found them there again, still singing. The same detached groups of trees are much frequented by wood-pigeons, especially towards autumn.
Rooks prefer to perch on the highest branches, wood-pigeons more in the body of the tree, and when the boughs are bare of leaves a flock of the latter may be recognised in this way as far as the eye can see, and when the difference of colour is rendered imperceptible by distance. The wood-pigeon when perched has a rounded appearance; the rook a longer and sharper outline.
By one corner of the copse there is an oak, hollow within, but still green and flourishing. The hollow is black and charred; some mischievous boys must have lighted a fire inside it, just as the ploughboys do in the far away country. A little pond in the meadow close by is so overhung by another oak, and so surrounded with bramble and hawthorn, that the water lies in perpetual shade. It is just the spot where, if rabbits were about, one might be found sitting out on the bank under the brambles. This overhanging oak was broken by the famous October snow, 1880, further splintered by the gales of the next year, and its trunk is now split from top to bottom as if with wedges.
These meadows in spring are full of cowslips, and in one part the meadow-orchis flourishes. The method of making cowslip balls is universally known to children, from the most remote hamlet to the very verge of London, and the little children who dance along the green sward by the road here, if they chance to touch a nettle, at once search for a dock leaf to lay on it and assuage the smart. Country children, and indeed older folk, call the foliage of the knotted figwort cutfinger leaves, as they are believed to assist the cure of a cut or sore.
Raspberry suckers shoot up in one part of the copse; the fruit is doubtless eaten by the birds. Troops of them come here, travelling along the great hedge by the wayside, and all seem to prefer the outside trees and bushes to the interior of the copse. This great hedge is as wide as a country double mound, though it has but one ditch; the thick hawthorn, blackthorn, elder, and bramble—the oaks, elms, ashes, and firs form, in fact, almost a cover of themselves.
In the early spring, when the east wind rushes with bitter energy across the plains, this immense hedge, as far as it extends, shelters the wayfarer, the road being on the southern side, so that he can enjoy such gleams of sunshine as appear. In summer the place is, of course for the same reason, extremely warm, unless the breeze chances to come up strong from the west, when it sweeps over the open cornfields fresh and sweet. Stoats and weasels are common on the mound, or crossing the road to the corn; they seem more numerous in autumn, and I fear leveret and partridge are thinned by them.
Mice abound; in spring they are sometimes up in the blackthorn bushes, perhaps for the young buds. In summer they may often be heard rushing along the furrows across the wayside sward, scarce concealed by the wiry grass. Flowers are very local in habit; the spurge, for instance, which is common in a road parallel to this, is not to be seen, and not very much cow-parsnip, or "gix," one of the most freely-growing hedge plants, which almost chokes the mounds near by. Willowherbs, however, fill every place in the ditch here where they can find room between the bushes, and the arum is equally common, but the lesser celandine absent.
Towards evening, as the clover and vetches closed their leaves under the dew, giving the fields a different aspect and another green, I used occasionally to watch from here a pair of herons, sailing over in their calm serene way. Their flight was in the direction of the Thames, and they then passed evening after evening, but the following summer they did not come. One evening, later on in autumn, two birds appeared descending across the cornfields towards a secluded hollow where there was water, and, although at a considerable distance, from their manner of flight I could have no doubt they were teal.
The spotted leaves of the arum appeared in the ditches in this locality very nearly simultaneously with the first whistling of the blackbirds in February; last spring the chiffchaff sang soon after the flowering of the lesser celandine (not in this hedge, but near by), and the first swift was noticed within a day or two of the opening of the May bloom. Although not exactly, yet in a measure, the movements of plant and bird life correspond.
In a closely cropped hedge opposite this great mound (cropped because enclosing a cornfield) there grows a solitary shrub of the wayfaring tree. Though well known elsewhere, there is not, so far as I am aware, another bush of it for miles, and I should not have noticed this had not this part of the highway been so pleasant a place to stroll to and fro in almost all the year. The twigs of the wayfaring tree are covered with a mealy substance which comes off on the fingers when touched. A stray shrub or plant like this sometimes seems of more interest than a whole group.
For instance, most of the cottage gardens have foxgloves in them, but I had not observed any wild, till one afternoon near some woods I found a tall and beautiful foxglove, richer in colour than the garden specimens, and with bells more thickly crowded, lifting its spike of purple above the low cropped hawthorn. In districts where the soil is favourable to the foxglove it would not have been noticed, but here, alone and unexpected, it was welcomed. The bees in spring come to the broad wayside sward by the great mound to the bright dandelions; presently to the white clover, and later to the heaths.
There are about sixty wild flowers which grow freely along this road, namely, yellow agrimony, amphibious persicaria, arum, avens, bindweed, bird's foot lotus, bittersweet, blackberry, black and white bryony, brooklime, burdock, buttercups, wild camomile, wild carrot, celandine (the great and lesser), cinquefoil, cleavers, corn buttercup, corn mint, corn sowthistle, and spurrey, cowslip, cow-parsnip, wild parsley, daisy, dandelion, dead nettle, and white dog rose, and trailing rose, violets (the sweet and the scentless), figwort, veronica, ground ivy, willowherb (two sorts), herb Robert, honeysuckle, lady's smock, purple loosestrife, mallow, meadow-orchis, meadow-sweet, yarrow, moon daisy, St. John's wort, pimpernel, water plantain, poppy, rattles, scabious, self-heal, silverweed, sowthistle, stitchwort, teazles, tormentil, vetches, and yellow vetch.
To these may be added an occasional bacon and eggs, a few harebells (plenty on higher ground), the yellow iris, by the adjoining brook, and flowering shrubs and trees, as dogwood, gorse, privet, blackthorn, hawthorn, horse chestnut, besides wild hops, the horsetails on the mounds, and such plants as grow everywhere, as chickweed, groundsel, and so forth. A solitary shrub of mugwort grows at some distance, but in the same district, and in one hedgerow the wild guelder rose flourishes. Anemones and primroses are not found along or near this road, nor woodruff. At the first glance a list like this reads as if flowers abounded, but the reverse is the impression to those who frequent the place.
It is really a very short list, and as of course all of these do not appear at once there really is rather a scarcity of wild flowers, so far at least as variety goes. Just in the spring there is a burst of colour, and again in the autumn; but for the rest, if we set aside the roses in June, there seems quite an absence of flowers during the summer. The wayside is green, the ditches are green, the mounds green; if you enter and stroll round the meadows, they are green too, or white in places with umbelliferous plants, principally parsley and cow-parsnip. But these become monotonous. Therefore, I am constrained to describe it as a district somewhat lacking flowers, meaning, of course, in point of variety.
Compared with the hedges and fields of Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Berkshire, and similar south-western localities, it seems flowerless. On the other hand, southern London can boast stretches of heath, which, when in full bloom, rival Scotch hillsides. These remarks are written entirely from a non-scientific point of view. Professional botanists may produce lists of thrice the length, and prove that all the flowers of England are to be found near London. But it will not alter the fact that to the ordinary eye the roads and lanes just south of London are in the middle of the summer comparatively bare of colour. They should be visited in spring and autumn.
Nor do the meadows seem to produce so many varieties of grass as farther to the south-west. But beetles of every kind and size, from the great stag beetle, helplessly floundering through the evening air and clinging to your coat, down to the green, bronze, and gilded species that hasten across the path, appear extremely numerous. Warm, dry sands, light soils, and furze and heath are probably favourable to them.
From this roadside I have seldom heard the corncrake, and never once the grasshopper lark. These two birds are so characteristic of the meadows in southwestern counties that a summer evening seems silent to me without the "crake, crake!" of the one and the singular sibilous rattle of the other. But they come to other places not far distant from the road, and one summer a grasshopper-lark could be heard in some meadows where I had not heard it the two preceding seasons. On the mounds field crickets cry persistently.
At the end of the hedge which is near a brook, a sedge-reedling takes up his residence in the spring. The sedge-reedlings here begin to call very early; the first date I have down is the 16th of April, which is, I think, some weeks before they begin in other localities. In one ditch beside the road (not in this particular hedge) there grows a fine bunch of reeds. Though watery, on account of the artificial drains from the arable fields, the spot is on much higher ground than the brook, and it is a little singular that while reeds flourish in this place they are not to be found by the brook.
The elms of the neighbourhood, wherever they can be utilised as posts, are unmercifully wired, wires twisted round, holes bored and the ends of wire driven in or staples inserted, and the same with the young oaks. Many trees are much disfigured from this cause, the bark is worn off on many; and others, which have recovered, have bulging rings, where it swelled up over the iron. The heads of large nails and staples are easily discovered where the wire has disappeared, sometimes three or four, one above the other, in the same tree. A fine avenue of elms which shades part of a suburb appears to be dying by degrees—the too common fate of elms in such places.
How many beautiful trees have thus perished near London?—witness the large elms that once stood in Jews' Walk, at Sydenham. Barking the trunks for sheer wanton mischief is undoubtedly the cause in some cases, and it has been suggested that quicksilver has occasionally been inserted in gimlet holes. The mercury is supposed to work up the channels of the sap, and to prevent its flow.
But may not the ordinary conditions of suburban improvement often account for the decay of such trees without occult causes? Sewers carry away the water that used to moisten the roots, and being at some depth, they not only take the surface water of a storm before it has had time to penetrate, but drain the lower stratum completely. Then, gas-pipes frequently leak, so much so that the soil for yards is saturated and emits a smell of gas. Roots passing through such a soil can scarcely be healthy, and very probably, in making excavations for laying pipes the roots are cut through. The young trees that have been planted in some places are, I notice, often bored by grubs to an extraordinary extent, and will never make sound timber.
One July day, while walking on this road, I happened to look over a gateway and saw that a large and prominent mansion on the summit of some elevated ground had apparently disappeared. The day was very clear and bright, sunny and hot, and there was no natural vapour. But on the light north-east wind there came slowly towards me a bluish-yellow mist, the edge of which was clearly defined, and which blotted out distant objects and blurred those nearer at hand. The appearance of the open arable field over which I was looking changed as it approached.
In front of the wall of mist the sunshine lit the field up brightly, behind the ground was dull, and yet not in shadow. It came so slowly that its movement could be easily watched. When it went over me there was a perceptible coolness and a faint smell of damp smoke, and immediately the road, which had been white under the sunshine, took a dim, yellowish hue. The sun was not shut out nor even obscured, but the rays had to pass through a thicker medium. This haze was not thick enough to be called fog, nor was it the summer haze that in the country adds to the beauty of distant hills and woods.
It was clearly the atmosphere—not the fog—but simply the atmosphere of London brought out over the fields by a change in the wind, and prevented from diffusing itself by conditions of which nothing seems known. For at ordinary times the atmosphere of London diffuses itself in aerial space and is lost, but on this hot July day it came bodily and undiluted out into the cornfields. From its appearance I should say it would travel many miles in the same condition. In November fog seems seasonable: in hot and dry July this phenomenon was striking.
Along the road flocks of sheep continue to travel, some weary enough, and these, gravitating to the rear of the flock by reason of infirmity, lie down in the dust to rest, while their companions feed on the wayside sward. But the shepherds are careful of them, and do not hasten. Shepherds here often carry the pastoral crook. In districts far from the metropolis you may wander about for days, and with sheep all round you, never see a shepherd with a crook; but near town the pastoral staff is common.
These flocks appear to be on their way to the southern down farms, and, as I said before, the shepherds are tender over their sheep and careful not to press them. I regret that I cannot say the same about the bullocks, droves of which continually go by, often black cattle, and occasionally even the little Highland animals. The appearance of some of these droves is quite sufficient to indicate the treatment they have undergone. Staring eyes, heads continually turned from side to side, starting at everything, sometimes bare places on the shoulders, all tell the same tale of blows and brutal treatment.
Suburban streets which a minute before were crowded with ladies and children (most gentlemen are in town at midday) are suddenly vacated when the word passes that cattle are coming. People rush everywhere, into gardens, shops, back lanes, anywhere, as if the ringing scabbards of charging cavalry were heard, or the peculiar thumping rattle of rifles as they come to the "present" before a storm of bullets. It is no wonder that townsfolk exhibit a fear of cattle which makes their friends laugh when they visit the country after such experiences as these. This should be put down with a firm hand.
By the roadside here the hay tyers, who cut up the hayricks into trusses, use balances—a trifling matter, but sufficient to mark a difference, for in the west such men use a steelyard slung on a prong, the handle of the prong on the shoulder and the points stuck in the rick, with which to weigh the trusses. Wooden cottages, wooden barns, wooden mills are also characteristic.
Mouchers come along the road at all times and seasons, gathering sacksful of dandelions in spring, digging up fern roots and cowslip mars for sale, cutting briars for standard roses, gathering water-cresses and mushrooms, and in the winter cutting rushes.
There is a rook with white feathers in the wing which belongs to an adjacent rookery, and I have observed a blackbird also streaked with white. One January day, when the snow was on the ground and the frost was sharp, when the pale sun seemed to shine brightest round the rim of the disk, as if there were a band of stronger light there, I saw a white animal under a heap of poles by the wayside, near the great hedge I have mentioned. It immediately concealed itself, but, thinking that it was a ferret gone astray, I waited, and presently the head and neck were cautiously protruded.
I made the usual call with the lips, but the creature instantly returned to cover. I waited again, hiding this time, and after an interval the creature moved and hastened away from the poles, where it was, in a measure, exposed, to the more secure shelter of some bushes. Then I saw that it was of a clear white, while so-called white ferrets are usually a dingy yellow, and the white tail was tipped with black. From these circumstances, and from the timidity and anxious desire to escape observation, I could only conclude that it was a white stoat.
Stoats, as remarked previously, are numerous in these hedges, and it was quite possible for a white one to be among them. The white stoat may be said to exactly resemble the ermine. The interest of the circumstance arises not from its rarity, but from its occurring so near the metropolis.
Some low wooden rails guarding the approach to a bridge over a brook one day induced me to rest under an aspen, with my back against the tree. Some horse-chestnuts, beeches, and alders grew there, fringing the end of a long plantation of willow stoles which extended in the rear following the stream. In front, southwards, there were open meadows and cornfields, over which shadow and sunshine glided in succession as the sweet westerly wind carried the white clouds before it.
The brimming brook, as it wound towards me through the meads, seemed to tremble on the verge of overflowing, as the crown of wine in a glass rises yet does not spill. Level with the green grass, the water gleamed as though polished where it flowed smoothly, crossed with the dark shadows of willows which leaned over it. By the bridge, where the breeze rushed through the arches, a ripple flashed back the golden rays. The surface by the shore slipped towards a side hatch and passed over in a liquid curve, clear and unvarying, as if of solid crystal, till shattered on the stones, where the air caught up and played with the sound of the bubbles as they broke.
Beyond the green slope of corn, a thin, soft vapour hung on the distant woods, and hid the hills. The pale young leaves of the aspen rustled faintly, not yet with their full sound; the sprays of the horse-chestnut, drooping with the late frosts, could not yet keep out the sunshine with their broad green. A white spot on the footpath yonder was where the bloom had fallen from a blackthorn bush.
The note of the tree-pipit came from over the corn—there were some detached oaks away in the midst of the field, and the birds were doubtless flying continually up and down between the wheat and the branches. A willow-wren sang plaintively in the plantation behind, and once a cuckoo called at a distance. How beautiful is the sunshine! The very dust of the road at my feet seemed to glow with whiteness, to be lit up by it, and to become another thing. This spot henceforward was a place of pilgrimage.
Looking that morning over the parapet of the bridge, down stream, there was a dead branch at the mouth of the arch, it had caught and got fixed while it floated along. A quantity of aquatic weeds coming down the stream had drifted against the branch and remained entangled in it. Fresh weeds were still coming and adding to the mass, which had attracted a water-rat.
Perched on the branch the little brown creature bent forward over the surface, and with its two forepaws drew towards it the slender thread of a weed, exactly as with hands. Holding the thread in the paws, it nibbled it, eating the sweet and tender portion, feeding without fear though but a few feet away, and precisely beneath me.