J. Arthur Gibbs.

Cotswold village; or, Country life & pursuits in Gloucestershire online

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she was meditating moving the litter to this earth on
some future occasion.

I shall never forget discovering this litter. When
looking down a rabbit-hole I heard a scuffle. A young
cub came up to the mouth of the hole, saw me, and
dashed back again into the earth. This was the
smallest place I ever saw cubs laid up in. The vixen
happened to be a very little one.

It is amusing to watch the cubs playing in the
corn on a summer's evening. If you go up wind you
can approach within ten yards of them. Round and
round they gambol, tumbling each other over for
all the world like young puppies. They take little
notice of you at first ; but after a time they suddenly
stop playing, stare hard at you for half a minute,
then bolt off helter-skelter into the forest of waving
green wheat.

One word more about the scent of foxes. Not
long ago a man wrote to the Field saying that he
had proved by experiment that on the saturation or
relative humidity of the air the hunter's hopes depend :
in fact, he announced that he had solved the riddle
of scent. It so happened that for some years the
present writer had also been amusing himself with



334 SPRING IN THE COTSWOLDS. [CH.

experiments of the same nature, and at one time
entertained the hope that by means of the hygrometer
he would arrive at a solution of the mystery. But
alas ! it was not to be. On several occasions when the
air was well-nigh saturated, scent proved abominable.
That the relative humidity of the air is not the all-
important factor was often proved by the bad scent
experienced just before rain and storms, when the
hygrometer showed a saturation of considerably over
ninety per cent. But there are undoubtedly other
complications besides the evaporations from the soil
and the relative humidity of the air to be considered
in making an enquiry into the causes of good and bad
scent. The amount of moisture in the ground, the
state of the soil in reference to the all-important
question of whether it carries or not, the temperature
of the air, and last, but not by any means least, the
condition of the quarry, be it fox, stag, or hare, are all
questions of vital importance, complicating matters
and preventing a solution of the mysteries of scent.

As the atmosphere is variable, so also must scent
be variable. The two things are inseparably bound
up with one another. For this reason, if after a period
of rainy weather we have an anti-cyclone in the
winter without severe frost, and an absence of bright
sunny days, we can usually depend on a scent. In-
stead of the air rising, there is during an anti-cyclone,
as we all know, a tendency towards a gentle down-
flow of air or at all events a steady pressure, arid this
causes smoke, whether from a railway engine or a
tobacco pipe, to hang in the air and scent to lie
breast high.



XIV.] THE SCENT OF FOXES. 33$

Unfortunately the normal state of the atmospheric
fluid is a rushing in of cold air and a rushing
out or upwards of warmer air, causing unsettled
variable equilibrium and unsettled variable scent.
The barometer would be an absolutely reliable guide
for the hunting man were it not for the complications
already named above, complications which prevent
either barometer or hygrometer from offering in-
fallible indications of good or bad scenting days.
However, scent often improves at night when the
dew begins to form ; and it may also suddenly im-
prove at any time of day should the dew point be
reached, owing to the temperature cooling to the
point of saturation. This is always liable to occur at
some time, on days on which the hygrometer shows
us that there is over ninety per cent, of moisture in
the air. But here again radiation comes in to com-
plicate matters ; for clouds may check the formation
of dew. It may safely be said, however, that other
conditions being favourable, a fast run is likely to>
occur at any time of day should the dew point
be reached. Thus the hygrometer is worthy to be
studied on a hunting morning.

In May there is a good deal of weed-cutting to be
done on a trout stream. Our plan is to have a couple
of big field days about May I2th. The weeds on
over two miles of water are all cut during that time,
As they are not allowed to be sent down the stream,
we get them out in several different places; they
are then piled in heaps, and left to rot. The opera-
tion is repeated at the end of the fishing season.
About a dozen scythes tied together are used. Two-



336 SPRING IN THE COTSWOLDS. [Cn

men hold the ends and walk up the stream, one
on each side of the river, mowing as they go.

There is a certain amount of management required
in weed-cutting. If much weed is left uncut, the
millers grumble ; if you cut them bare, there are
no homes left for the fish. The last is the worse
evil of the two. The millers are usually kind-hearted
men, whilst poachers can commit fearful depredations
in a small stream that has been cut too bare.

The way these limestone streams are netted is as
follows : About two in the morning, when there is
enough light to commence operations, a net is laid
across the stream and pegged down at each end ;
the water is then beaten with long sticks both above
and below the net Nor is it difficult to drive the
trout into the trap ; they rush down helter-skelter,
and, failing to see any net, they soon become hope-
lessly entangled in its meshes. The bobbing corks
intimate to the poachers that there are some good
trout in the net ; one end is then unpegged, and the
haul is made.

About ten trout would be a good catch. The
operation is repeated four or five times, until some
fifty fish have been bagged. The poachers then
depart, taking care to remove all signs of their night's
work, such as scales of fish, stray weeds, and bits of
stick.

In weed-cutting by hand, instead of with the long
knives, it is wonderful how many trout get cut by
the scythes. There used to be several good fish
killed this way at each annual cutting, when the
men used to walk up the stream mowing as they



XIV.] SCARCITY OF OTTERS. 337

went. One would have thought trout would have
been able to avoid the scythes, being such quick,
slippery animals.

Until the present season otters have seldom visited
our parts of the Coin. Unfortunately, however, they
have turned up, and are committing sad havoc among
the fish. It is such a terribly easy stream for them
to work. The water is very shallow, and the current
is a slow one.

We are not well up in otter-hunting in these
parts, there being no hounds within fifty miles. I
have never seen an otter on the Coin. But one day,
at a spot near which we have noticed the billet of
an otter and some fishes' heads, I heard a noise in
the water, and a huge wave seemed to indicate that
something bigger than a Coin trout was proceeding
up stream close to the bank all the way. On running
up, of course I saw nothing. But half an hour after-
wards I saw another big wave of the same kind.
It was so close to me that if it had been a fish or
a rat I must have seen him. I had a terrier with
me, but of course he was unable to find an otter.
A dog unbroken to the scent is worse than useless

On another occasion I saw a water-vole running
away from some larger animal under the opposite
bank of the river. Some bushes prevented my
seeing very well, but I am almost certain it was
an otter. " A Son of the Marshes " mentions in one
of his charming books that otters do kill water-rats.
I was not aware of this fact until I read it in the
book called " From Spring to Fall."

The broad shallow reach of the Coin in front of

22



338 SPRING IN THE COTSWOLDS. [CH.

the manor house seems to be a favourite hunting-
ground of the otter during his nocturnal rambles ;
for sometimes one is awakened at night by a
tremendous tumult among the wild duck and moor-
hens that haunt the pool. They rush up and down,
screaming and flapping their wings as if they were
"daft."

A few weeks after writing the above we caught
a beautiful female otter in a trap, weighing some
seventeen pounds. I have regretted its capture ever
since. Great as the number of trout they eat un-
doubtedly is, I do not intend to allow another otter
to be trapped, unless they become too numerous.
Such lovely, mysterious creatures are becoming far too
scarce nowadays, and ought to be rigidly preserved.
Last October we were shooting a withybed of two
acres on the river bank, when the beaters suddenly
began shouting, " An otter ! An otter ! " And sure
enough a large dog otter ran straight down the line.
This small withybed also contained three fine foxes
and a good sprinkling of pheasants.

The number of water-voles in the banks of this
stream seems to increase year by year. The damage
they do is not great ; but the millers and the farmers
do not like them, because with their numerous holes
they undermine the banks of the millpound, and
the water finds its way through them on to the
meadows. Country folk are very fond of an occa-
sional rat hunt : they do lay themselves out to be
hunted so tremendously. A rat will bolt out of his
hole, dive half way across the stream, then, taking
advantage of the tiniest bit of weed, he will come



XIV.] WATER-VOLES. 339

up to the surface, poke his nose out of the water
and watch you intently. An inexperienced eye
would never detect him. But if a stone is thrown
at him, finding his subterfuge detected, he is apt to
lose his head either coming back towards you, and
being obliged to come up for air before he reaches
his hole, or else swimming boldly across to the
opposite bank. In the latter case he is safe.

Tom Peregrine is a great hand at catching water-
voles in a landing-net. He holds the net over the
hole which leads to the water, and pokes his stick
into the bank above. The rat bolts out into the
net and is immediately landed. House-rats great
black brutes live in the banks of the stream as
well as water-voles. They are very much larger
and less fascinating than the voles. To see one of
the latter species crossing the stream with a long
piece of grass in his mouth is a very pretty sight.
They are rodents, and somewhat resemble squirrels.




CHAPTER XV.

THE PROMISE OF MAY.

"Quis desiderio sit pudor aut modus
Tarn cari capitis ? "

HORACE.

ABOUT the middle of May the lovely, sweet-
scenting lilac comes into bloom. It brightens
up the old, time-worn barns, and relieves the monotony
of grey stone walls and mossy roofs in the Cotswold
village.

The prevailing colour of the Cotswold landscape
may be said to be that of gold. The richest gold is
that of the flaming marsh-marigolds in the water
meadows during May ; goldilocks and buttercups of



CH. XV.] COLOURS OF FLOWERS. 341

all kinds are golden too, but of a slightly different and
paler hue. Yellow charlock, beautiful to look upon,
but hated by the farmers, takes possession of the
wheat " grounds " in May, and holds the fields against
all comers throughout the summer. In some parts
it clothes the whole landscape like a sheet of saffron.
Primroses and cowslips are of course paler still. The
ubiquitous dandelion is likewise golden ; then we
have birdsfoot trefoil, ragwort, agrimony, silver-weed,
celandine, tormentil, yellow iris, St. John's wort, and a
host of other flowers of the same hue. In autumn
comes the golden corn ; and later on in mid winter
we have pale jessamine and lichen thriving on the
cottage walls. So throughout the year the Cotswolds
are never without this colour of saffron or gold. Only
the pockets of the natives lack it, I regret to say.

Every cottager takes a pride in his garden, for
the flower shows which are held every year result in
keen competition. A prize is always given for the
prettiest garden among all the cottagers. This is an
excellent plan ; it brightens and beautifies the village
street for eight months in the year. In May the rich
brown and gold of the gillyflower is seen on every
side, and their fragrance is wafted far and wide by
every breeze that blows.

Then there is a very pretty plant that covers some
of the cottage walls at this time of year. It is the
wistaria ; in the distance you might take it for lilac,
for the colours are almost identical.

Then come the roses the beautiful June roses
the nimium breves flores of Horace. But the roses
of the Cotswolds are not so short lived for all



342 THE PROMISE OF MAY. [CH.

that Horace has sung : you may see them in the
cottage gardens from the end of May until Christmas.

How cool an old house is in summer ! The thick
walls and the stone floors give them an almost icy
feeling in the early morning. Even as I write my
thermometer stands at 58 within, whilst the one out
of doors registers 65 in the shade. This is the
ideal temperature, neither too hot nor too cold. But
it is not summer yet, only the fickle month of May.

Tom Peregrine is getting very anxious. He meets
me every evening with the same story of trout rising
all the way up the stream and nobody trying to
catch them. I can see by his manner that he
disapproves of my " muddling " over books and papers
instead of trying to catch trout. He cannot under-
stand it all. Meanwhile one sometimes asks oneself
the question which Peregrine would also like to pro-
pound, only he dare not, Why and wherefore do we
tread the perilous paths of literature instead of those
pleasant paths by the river and through the wood ?
The only answer is this : The daemon prompts us
to do these things, even as it prompted the men of
old time.

" There is a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough hew them how we will."

If there is such a thing as a "call" to any pro-
fession, there is a call to that of letters. So with an
enthusiasm born of inexperience and delusive hope
we embark as in a leaky and untrustworthy sailing
ship, built, for ought we know, " in the eclipse, and
rigged with curses dark," and at the mercy of every




SIDE VIEW OF MANOR HOUSE.



[To face page 342.



XV.] THE PATHS OF LITERATURE. 343

chance breeze are wafted by the winds of heaven
through chaos and darkness into the boundless ocean
of words and of books. When the waves run high
they resemble nothing so much as lions with arched
crests and flowing manes going to and fro seeking
whom they may devour, or savage dogs rushing
hither and thither foaming at the mouth ; and when
old Father Neptune lets loose his hungry sea-dogs of
criticism, then look out for squalls !

But again the daemon, that still small voice echoing
from the far-off shores of the ocean of time, whispers
in our ear, "In the morning sow thy seed, and in the
evening withhold not thine hand ; for thou knowest
not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or
whether they both shall be alike good."

So we sow in weakness and in fear and trembling,
" line upon line, line upon line ; here a little and there
a little," sometimes in mirth and laughter, sometimes
in tears. Let us not ask to be raised in power. Let
us resign all glory and honour and power to the
Ancient of Days, prime source of the strength of
wavering, weak mankind. Rather let us be thankful
that by turning aside from " the clamour of the
passing day " to tread the narrow paths of literature,
however humble, however obscure our lot may have
been, we gained an insight into the nobler destinies
of the human soul, and learnt a lesson which might
otherwise have been postponed until we were hovering
on the threshold of Eternity.

In spite of complaints of east winds and night
frosts, May is the nicest month in the year take it
all in all. In London this is the case even more



344 THE PROMISE OF MAY. [CH.

than in the country. The trees in the parks have
then the real vivid green foliage of the country.
There is a freshness about everything in London
which only lasts through May. By June the smoke
and dirt are beginning to spoil the tender, fresh
greenery of the young leaves. In the early morning
of May 1 2th, 1897, more than an inch of snow fell
in the Cotswolds, but it was all gone by eight o'clock.
In spite of the weather, May is "the brightest,
merriest month of all the glad New Year." Every-
thing is at its best. Man cannot be morose and
ill-tempered in May. The " happy hills and pleasing
shade " must needs " a momentary bliss bestow " on
the saddest of us all. Look at yonder thoroughbred
colt grazing peacefully in the paddock : if you had
turned him out a month ago he would have galloped
and fretted himself to death ; but now that the
grass is sweet and health-giving, he is content to
nibble the young shoots all day long. What a lovely,
satin-like coat he has, now that his winter garments
are put off ! There is a picture of health and sym-
metry ! He has just reached the interesting age of
four years, is dark chestnut in colour, and sixteen
hands two and a half inches in height ; grazing out
there, he does not look anything like that size. Well-
bred horses always look so much smaller than they
really are, especially if they are of good shape and
well proportioned. Alas ! how few of them, even
thoroughbreds, have the real make and shape neces-
sary to carry weight across country, or to win races !
You do not see many horses in a lifetime in whose
shape the critical eye cannot detect a fault. We



XV.] DESCRIPTION OF A HORSE. 345

know the good points as well as the bad of this
colt, for we have had him two years. Deep, sloping
shoulders are his speciality ; and they cover a multi-
tude of sins. Legs of iron, with large, broad knees ;
plenty of flat bone below the knee, and pasterns
neither too long nor too upright. Well ribbed up,
he is at the same time rather "ragged-hipped,"
indicative of strength and weight-carrying power.
How broad are his gaskins ! how " well let down "
he is ! What great hocks he has ! But, alas ! as
you view him from behind, you cannot help noticing
that his hindlegs incline a little outwards, even
as a cow's do they are not absolutely straight,
as they should be. Then as to his golden, un-
docked tail : he carries it well a fact which adds
twenty pounds to his value ; but, strange to say,
it is not "well set on," as a thoroughbred's ought
to be. He does not show the quality he ought in his
hindquarters. Still his head, neck and crest are good,
though his eye is not a large one. How much is he
worth twenty, fifty, a hundred, or two hundred
pounds ? Who can tell ? Will he be a charger, a
fourteen-stone hunter, or a London carriage horse?
All depends how he takes to jumping. His height
is against him, sixteen hands two and a half inches
is at least two inches too big for a hunter. Never-
theless, there are always the brilliant exceptions.
Let us hope he will be the trump card in the pack.
Talking of horses, how admirable was that answer
of Dr. Johnson's, when a lady asked him how on
earth he allowed himself to describe the word pastern
in his dictionary as the knee of a horse. " Ignorance,



346 THE PROMISE OF MAY. [CH.

madam, pure ignorance," was his laconic reply.
So great a man could well afford to confess utter
ignorance of matters outside his own sphere. But
how few of mankind are ever willing to own them-
selves mistaken about any subject under the sun,
unless it be bimetallism or some equally unfashion-
able and abstruse (though not unimportant) problem
of the day !

What beautiful shades of colour are noticeable in
the trees in the early part of May ! The ash, being so
much later than the other trees, remains a pale light
green, and shows up against the dark green chestnuts
and the still darker firs. But what shall I say of the
great spreading walnut whose branches hang right
across the stream in our garden in the Cotswold
Valley ?

About the middle of May the walnut leaves
resemble nothing so much as a mass of Virginia
creeper when it is at its best in September. Beautiful,
transparent leaves of gold, intermingled with red,
glisten in the warm May sunshine, the russet
beauties of autumn combined with the fresh, bright
loveliness of early spring !

Not till the very end of May will this walnut tree
be in full leaf. He is the latest of all the trees. The
young, tender leaves scent almost as sweetly as the
verbena in the greenhouse. It is curious that ash
trees, when they are close to a river, hang their
branches down towards the water like the " weeping
willows." Is this connected, I wonder, with the
strange attraction water has for certain kinds of
wood, by which the water-finder, armed with a hazel



XV.] BEAUTY OF TREES. 347

wand, is able to divine the presence of aqua pura
hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth ?
What this strange art of rhabdomancy is I know
not, but the "weeping" ash in our garden by the
Coin is one of the most beautiful and shapely trees
I ever saw. It will be an evil day when some cruel
hurricane hurls it to the ground. We have lost many
a fine tree in recent years, some through gales, but
others, alas ! by the hand of man.

A few years ago I discovered a spot about a quarter
of a mile from my home which reminded me of the
beautiful Eton playing-fields,

" Where once my careless childhood stray'd,
A stranger yet to pain."

It consisted of a few grass fields shut off by high
hedges, and completely encircled by a number of fine
elm trees of great age and lovely foliage. At one
end a broad and shallow reach of the Coin completed
the scene.

Having obtained a long lease of the place, I grubbed
up the hedges, turned three small fields into one, and
made a cricket ground in the midst. My object was
to imitate as far as possible the " Upper Club " of the
Eton playing-fields.

I had barely accomplished the work, the cricket
ground had just been levelled, when the landlord's
agent or more probably his " mortgagee " arrived on
trie scene, accompanied by a hard-headed, blustering
timber merchant from Cheltenham. To my horror
and dismay I was informed that, money being very



348 THE PROMISE OF MAY. [Cn

scarce, they contemplated making a clean sweep of
these grand old elms. On my expostulating, they
merely suggested that cutting down the trees would
be a great improvement, as the place would be opened
up thereby and made healthier.

In the hope of warding off the evil day we offered
to pay the price of some of the finest trees, although
they could only legally be bought for the present
proprietor's lifetime.

The contractor, however, rather than leave his work
of destruction incomplete, put a ridiculous price on
them. He refused to accept a larger sum than he
could ever have cleared by cutting them down. This
is what Cowper would have stigmatised as

" disclaiming all regard
For mercy and the common rights of man,"

and " conducting trade at the sword's point."

We then resolved to buy the farm. But the stars
in their courses fought against us ; we were unsuccess-
ful in our attempt to purchase the freehold.

And so the contractor's men came with axes and
saws and horses and carts. For days and weeks I
was haunted by that hideous nightmare, the crash
of groaning trees as they fell all around, soon to
be stripped of all their glorious beauty. The cruel,
blasphemous shouts of the men, as they made their
long-suffering horses drag the huge, dismembered
trunks across the beautifully levelled greensward of
the cricket ground, were positively heart-rending.
Ninety great elms did they strike down. A few



XV.] THE LOSS OF TREES. 349

were left, but of these the two finest came down in
the great gale of March 1896.

" Sic transit gloria mundi."

Trees are like old familiar friends, we cannot bear
to lose them ; every one that falls reminds us of
"the days that are no more." Struck down in all
the pride and beauty of their days, they remind
us that

" Those who once gave promise
Of fruit for manhood's prime
Have passed from us for ever,
Gone home before their time."

They remind me that four of my greatest friends
at school, ten short years ago, are long since dead.
Like the trees felled by the woodman's axe, they
were struck down by the sickle of the silent Reaper,
even as the golden sheaves that are gathered into
the beautiful barns. Other trees will spring up and
shade the naked earth in the woods with their mantle
of green : so, also,

" Others will fill our places
Dressed in the old light blue."

And just as in the woods fresh young saplings are
daily springing up, so also the merry voices of happy,
generous boys are ringing, as I write, in the old, old
courts and cloisters by the silvery Thames ; their
merry laughter is echoed by the bare grey walls,
whereon the names of those who have long been


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