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NATURE NEAR LONDON
"THE LIFE OF THE FIELDS," "THE OPEN AIR," ETC.
CHATTO & WINDUS
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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