Richard Jefferies.

Nature Near London online

. (page 8 of 15)
Online LibraryRichard JefferiesNature Near London → online text (page 8 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

hear him if they pause but one moment to listen to the nightingale.

The latter sings in one bush and the sedge-reedling in another close
together. The moment the nightingale ceases the sedge-reedling lifts his
voice, which is a very penetrating one, and in the silence of the night
may be heard some distance. This bird is credited with imitating the
notes of several others, and has been called the English mocking-bird,
but I strongly doubt the imitation. Nor, indeed, could I ever trace the
supposed resemblance of its song to that of other birds.

It is a song of a particularly monotonous character. It is
distinguishable immediately, and if the bird happens to nest near a
house, is often disliked on account of the loud iteration. Perhaps those
who first gave it the name of the mocking-bird were not well acquainted
with the notes of the birds which they fancied it to mock. To mistake it
for the nightingale, some of whose tones it is said to imitate, would be
like confounding the clash of cymbals with the soft sound of a flute.

Linnets come to the furze, and occasionally magpies, but these latter
only in winter. Then, too, golden-crested wrens may be seen searching in
the furze bushes, and creeping round and about the thorns and brambles.
There is a roadside pond close to the furze, the delight of horses and
cattle driven along the dusty way in summer. Along the shelving sandy
shore the wagtails run, both the pied and the yellow, but few birds come
here to wash; for that purpose they prefer a running stream if it be

Upon the willow trees which border it, a reed-sparrow or blackheaded
bunting may often be observed. One bright March morning, as I came up
the road, just as the surface of the pond became visible it presented a
scene of dazzling beauty. At that distance only the tops of the ripples
were seen, reflecting the light at a very low angle. The result was that
the eye saw nothing of the water or the wavelet, but caught only the
brilliant glow. Instead of a succession of sparkles there seemed to be a
golden liquid floating on the surface as oil floats - a golden liquid two
or three inches thick, which flowed before the wind.

Besides this surface of molten gold there was a sheen and flicker above
it, as if a spray or vapour, carried along, or the crests of the
wavelets blown over, was also of gold. But the metal conveys no idea of
the glowing, lustrous light which filled the hollow by the dusty road.
It was visible from one spot only, a few steps altering the angle
lessened the glory, and as the pond itself came into view there was
nothing but a ripple on water somewhat thick with suspended sand. Thus
things change their appearance as they are looked at in different ways.

A patch of water crowsfoot grows on the farthest side of the pond, and
in early summer sends up lovely white flowers.


Sandown has become one of the most familiar places near the metropolis,
but the fir woods at the back of it are perhaps scarcely known to exist
by many who visit the fashionable knoll. Though near at hand, they are
shut off by the village of Esher; but a mile or two westwards, down the
Portsmouth highway, there is a cart road on the left hand which enters
at once into the woods.

The fine white sand of the soil is only covered by a thin coating of
earth formed from the falling leaves and decayed branches, so thin that
it may sometimes be rubbed away by the foot or even the fingers. Grass
and moss grow sparingly in the track, but wherever wheels or footsteps
have passed at all frequently the sand is exposed in white streaks under
the shadowy firs. In grass small objects often escape observation, but
on such a bare surface everything becomes visible. Coming to one of
these places on a summer day, I saw a stream of insects crossing and
recrossing, from the fern upon one side to the fern upon the other.

They were ants, but of a very much larger species than the little
red-and-black "emmets" which exist in the meadows. These horse ants were
not much less than half an inch in length, with a round spot at each
end like beads, or the black top of long pins. The length of their legs
enabled them to move much quicker, and they raced to and fro over the
path with great rapidity. The space covered by the stream was a foot or
more broad, all of which was crowded and darkened by them, and as there
was no cessation in the flow of this multitude, their numbers must have
been immense.

Standing a short way back, so as not to interfere with their
proceedings, I saw two of these insects seize hold of a twig, one at
each end. The twig, which was dead and dry, and had dropped from a fir,
was not quite so long as a match, but rather thicker. They lifted this
stick with ease, and carried it along, exactly as labourers carry a
plank. A few short blades of grass being in the way they ran up against
them, but stepped aside, and so got by. A cart which had passed a long
while since had forced down the sand by the weight of its load, leaving
a ridge about three inches high, the side being perpendicular.

Till they came to this cliff the two ants moved parallel, but here one
of them went first, and climbed up the bank with its end of the stick,
after which the second followed and brought up the other. An inch or two
farther, on the level ground, the second ant left hold and went away,
and the first laboured on with the twig and dragged it unaided across
the rest of the path. Though many other ants stayed and looked at the
twig a moment, none of them now offered assistance, as if the chief
obstacle had been surmounted.

Several other ants passed, each carrying the slender needles which fall
from firs, and which seemed nothing in their powerful grasp. These
burdens of wood all went in one direction, to the right of the path.

I took a step there, but stayed to watch two more ants, who had got a
long scarlet fly between them, one holding it by the head and the other
by the tail. They were hurrying their prey over the dead leaves and
decayed sticks which strewed the ground, and dragging it mercilessly
through moss and grass. I put the tip of my stick on the victim, but
instead of abandoning it they tugged and pulled desperately, as if they
would have torn it to pieces rather than have yielded. So soon as I
released it away they went through the fragments of branches, rushing
the quicker for the delay.

A little farther there was a spot where the ground for a yard or two was
covered with small dead brown leaves, last year's, apparently of birch,
for some young birch saplings grew close by. One of these leaves
suddenly rose up and began to move of itself, as it seemed; an ant had
seized it, and holding it by the edge travelled on, so that as the
insect was partly hidden under it, the leaf appeared to move alone, now
over sticks and now under them. It reminded me of the sight which seemed
so wonderful to the early navigators when they came to a country where,
as they first thought, the leaves were alive and walked about.

The ant with the leaf went towards a large heap of rubbish under the
sapling birches. While watching the innumerable multitude of these
insects, whose road here crossed these dead dry leaves, I became
conscious of a rustling sound, which at first I attributed to the wind,
but seeing that the fern was still, and that the green leaves of a
Spanish chestnut opposite did not move, I began to realise that this
creeping, rustling noise, distinctly audible, was not caused by any
wind, but by the thousands upon thousands of insects passing over the
dead leaves and among the grass. Stooping down to listen better, there
could be no doubt of it: it was the tramp of this immense army.

The majority still moved in one direction, and I found it led to the
heap of rubbish over which they swarmed. This heap was exactly what
might have been swept together by half-a-dozen men using long gardeners'
brooms, and industriously clearing the ground under the firs of the
fragments which had fallen from them. It appeared to be entirely
composed of small twigs, fir-needles, dead leaves, and similar things.
The highest part rose about level with my chest - say, between four and
five feet - the heap was irregularly circular, and not less than three or
four yards across, with sides gradually sloping. In the midst stood the
sapling birches, their stumps buried in it, the rubbish having been
piled up around them.

This heap was, in fact, the enormous nest or hill of a colony of horse
ants. The whole of it had been gathered together, leaf by leaf, and twig
by twig, just as I had seen the two insects carrying the little stick,
and the third the brown leaf above itself. It really seemed some way
round the outer circumference of the nest, and while walking round it
was necessary to keep brushing off the ants which dropped on the
shoulder from the branches of the birches. For they were everywhere;
every inch of ground, every bough was covered with them. Even standing
near it was needful to kick the feet continually against the black stump
of a fir which had been felled to jar them off, and this again brought
still more, attracted by the vibration of the ground.

The highest part of the mound was in the shape of a dome, a dome
whitened by layers of fir-needles, which was apparently the most recent
part and the centre of this year's operations. The mass of the heap,
though closely compacted, was fibrous, and a stick could be easily
thrust into it, exposing the eggs. No sooner was such an opening made,
and the stick withdrawn from the gap, than the ants swarmed into it,
falling headlong over upon each other, and filling the bottom with their
struggling bodies. Upon leaving the spot, to follow the footpath, I
stamped my feet to shake down any stray insects, and then took off my
coat and gave it a thorough shaking.

Immense ant-hills are often depicted in the illustrations to tropical
travels, but this great pile, which certainly contained more than a
cartload, was within a few miles of Hyde Park Corner. From nests like
this large quantities of eggs are obtained for feeding the partridges
hatched from the eggs collected by mowers and purchased by keepers. Part
of the nest being laid bare with any tool, the eggs are hastily taken
out in masses and thrown into a sack. Some think that ant's eggs,
although so favourite a food, are not always the most advantageous.
Birds which have been fed freely on these eggs become fastidious, and do
not care for much else, so that if the supply fails they fall off in
condition. If there are sufficient eggs to last the season, then a few
every day produce the best effect; if not they had better not have a
feast followed by a fast.

The sense of having a roof overhead is felt in walking through a forest
of firs like this, because the branches are all at the top of the
trunks. The stems rise to the same height, and then the dark foliage
spreading forms a roof. As they are not very near together the eye can
see some distance between them, and as there is hardly any underwood or
bushes - nothing higher than the fern - there is a space open and unfilled
between the ground and the roof so far above.

A vast hollow extends on every side, nor is it broken by the flitting of
birds or the rush of animals among the fern. The sudden note of a
wood-pigeon, hoarse and deep, calling from a fir-top, sounds still
louder and ruder in the spacious echoing vault beneath, so loud as at
first to resemble the baying of a hound. The call ceases, and another of
these watch-dogs of the woods takes it up afar off.

There is an opening in the monotonous firs by some rising ground, and
the sunshine falls on young Spanish chestnuts and underwood, through
which is a little-used footpath. If firs are planted in wildernesses
with the view of ultimately covering the barren soil with fertile earth,
formed by the decay of vegetable matter, it is, perhaps, open to
discussion as to whether the best tree has been chosen. Under firs the
ground is generally dry, too dry for decay; the resinous emanations
rather tend to preserve anything that falls there.

No underwood or plants and little grass grows under them; these,
therefore, which make soil quickest, are prevented from improving the
earth. The needles of firs lie for months without decay; they are, too,
very slender, and there are few branches to fall. Beneath any other
trees (such as the edible chestnut and birch, which seem to grow here),
there are the autumn leaves to decay, the twigs and branches which fall
off, while grasses and plants flourish, and brambles and underwood grow
freely. The earth remains moist, and all these soon cause an increase of
the fertility; so that, unless fir-tree timber is very valuable, and I
never heard that it was, I would rather plant a waste with any other
tree or brushwood, provided, of course, it would grow.

It is a pleasure to explore this little dell by the side of the rising
ground, creeping under green boughs which brush the shoulders, after the
empty space of the firs. Within there is a pond, where lank horsetails
grow thickly, rising from the water. Returning to the rising ground I
pursue the path, still under the shadow of the firs. There is no end to
them - the vast monotony has no visible limit. The brake fern - it is
early in July - has not yet reached its full height, but what that will
be is shown by these thick stems which rise smooth and straight, fully
three feet to the first frond.

A woodpecker calls, and the gleam of his green and gold is visible for a
moment as he hastens away - the first bird, except the wood-pigeons, seen
for an hour, yet there are miles of firs around. After a time the ground
rises again, the tall firs cease, but are succeeded by younger firs.
These are more pleasant because they do not exclude the sky. The
sunshine lights the path, and the summer blue extends above. The fern,
too, ceases, and the white sand is now concealed by heath, with here and
there a dash of colour. Furze chats call, and flit to and fro; the hum
of bees is heard once more - there was not one under the vacant shadow;
and swallows pass overhead.

At last emerging from the firs the open slope is covered with heath
only, but heath growing so thickly that even the narrow footpaths are
hidden by the overhanging bushes of it. Some small bushes of furze here
and there are dead and dry, but every prickly point appears perfect;
when struck with the walking-stick the bush crumbles to pieces. Beneath
and amid the heath what seems a species of lichen grows so profusely as
to give a grey undertone. In places it supplants the heath, the ground
is concealed by lichen only, which crunches under the foot like
hoar-frost. Each piece is branched not unlike a stag's antlers; gather
a handful and it crumbles to pieces in the fingers, dry and brittle.

A quarry for sand has been dug down some eight or ten feet, so that
standing in it nothing else is visible. This steep scarp shows the
strata, yellow sand streaked with thin brown layers; at the top it is
fringed with heath in full flower, bunches of purple bloom overhanging
the edge, and behind this the azure of the sky.

Here, where the ground slopes gradually, it is entirely covered with the
purple bells; a sheen and gleam of purple light plays upon it. A
fragrance of sweet honey floats up from the flowers where grey hive-bees
are busy. Ascending still higher and crossing the summit, the ground
almost suddenly falls away in a steep descent, and the entire hillside,
seen at a glance, is covered with heath, and heath alone. A bunch at the
very edge offers a purple cushion fit for a king; resting here a
delicious summer breeze, passing over miles and miles of fields and
woods yonder, comes straight from the distant hills. Along those hills
the lines of darker green are woods; there are woods to the south, and
west, and east, heath around, and in the rear the gaze travels over the
tops of the endless firs. But southwards is sweetest; below, beyond the
verge of the heath, the corn begins, and waves in the wind. It is the
breeze that makes the summer day so lovely.

The eggs of the nighthawk are sometimes found at this season near by.
They are laid on the ground, on the barest spots, where there is no
herbage. At dusk, the nighthawk wheels with a soft yet quick flight over
the ferns and about the trees. Along the hedges bounding the heath
butcher-birds watch for their prey - sometimes on the furze, sometimes on
a branch of ash. Wood-sage grows plentifully on the banks by the roads;
it is a plant somewhat resembling a lowly nettle; the leaves have a
hop-like scent, and so bitter and strong is the odour that immediately
after smelling them the mouth for a moment feels dry with a sense of

The angle of a field by the woods on the eastern side of the heath, the
entire corner, is blue in July with viper's bugloss. The stalks rise
some two feet, and are covered with minute brown dots; they are rough,
and the lower part prickly. Blue flowers in pairs, with pink stamens and
pink buds, bloom thickly round the top, and as each plant has several
stalks, it is very conspicuous where the grass is short.

There are hundreds of these flowers in this corner, and along the edge
of the wood; a quarter of an acre is blue with them. So indifferent are
people to such things that men working in the same field, and who had
pulled up the plant and described its root as like that of a dock, did
not know its name. Yet they admired it. "It is an innocent-looking
flower," they said, that is, pleasant to look at.

By the roadside I thought I saw something red under the long grass of
the mound, and, parting the blades, found half-a-dozen wild
strawberries. They were larger than usual, and just ripe. The wild
strawberry is a little more acid than the cultivated, and has more
flavour than would be supposed from its small size.

Descending to the lower ground again, the brake fills every space
between the trees; it is so thick and tall that the cows which wander
about, grazing at their will, each wear a bell slung round the neck,
that their position may be discovered by sound. Otherwise it would be
difficult to find them in the fern or among the firs. There are many
swampy places here, which should be avoided by those who dislike snakes.
The common harmless snakes are numerous in this part, and they always
keep near water. They often glide into a mole's "angle," or hole, if
found in the open.

Adders are known to exist in the woods round about, but are never, or
very seldom, seen upon the heath itself. In the woods of the
neighbourhood they are not uncommon, and are sometimes killed for the
sake of the oil. The belief in the virtue of adder's fat, or oil, is
still firm; among other uses it is considered the best thing for
deafness, not, of course, resulting from organic defect. For deafness,
the oil should be applied by pouring a small quantity into the ear,
exactly in the same manner as in the play the poison is poured into the
ear of the sleeping king. Cures are declared to be effected by this oil
at the present day.

It is procured by skinning the adder, taking the fat, and boiling it;
the result is a clear oil, which never thickens in the coldest weather.
One of these reptiles on being killed and cut open was found to contain
the body of a full-grown toad. The old belief that the young of the
viper enters its mouth for refuge still lingers. The existence of adders
in the woods here seems so undoubted that strangers should be a little
careful if they leave the track. Viper's bugloss, which grows so freely
by the heath, was so called because anciently it was thought to yield an
antidote to the adder's venom.


There is a slight but perceptible colour in the atmosphere of summer. It
is not visible close at hand, nor always where the light falls
strongest, and if looked at too long it sometimes fades away. But over
gorse and heath, in the warm hollows of wheatfield, and round about the
rising ground there is something more than air alone. It is not mist,
nor the hazy vapour of autumn, nor the blue tints that come over the
distant hills and woods.

As there is a bloom upon the peach and grape, so this is the bloom of
summer. The air is ripe and rich, full of the emanations, the perfume,
from corn and flower and leafy tree. In strictness the term will not, of
course, be accurate, yet by what other word can this appearance in the
atmosphere be described but as a bloom? Upon a still and sunlit summer
afternoon it may be seen over the osier-covered islets in the Thames
immediately above Teddington Lock.

It hovers over the level cornfields that stretch towards Richmond, and
along the ridge of the wooded hills that bound them. The bank by the
towing-path is steep and shadowless, being bare of trees or hedge; but
the grass is pleasant to rest on, and heat is always more supportable
near flowing water. In places the friable earth has crumbled away, and
there, where the soil and the stones are exposed, the stonecrop
flourishes. A narrow footpath on the summit, raised high above the
water, skirts the corn, and is overhung with grass heavily laden by its
own seed.

Sometimes in early June the bright trifolium, drooping with its weight
of flower, brushes against the passer-by - acre after acre of purple.
Occasionally the odour of beans in blossom floats out over the river.
Again, above the green wheat the larks rise, singing as they soar; or
later on the butterflies wander over the yellow ears. Or, as the law of
rotation dictates, the barley whitens under the sun. Still, whether in
the dry day, or under the dewy moonlight, the plain stretching from the
water to the hills is never without perfume, colour, or song.

There stood, one summer not long since, in the corner of a barley field
close to the Lock, within a stone's throw, perfect shrubs of mallow,
rising to the shoulder, thick as a walking-stick, and hung with flower.
Poppies filled every interstice between the barley stalks, their scarlet
petals turned back in very languor of exuberant colour, as the awns,
drooping over, caressed them. Poppies, again, in the same fields formed
a scarlet ground from which the golden wheat sprang up, and among it
here and there shone the large blue rays of wild succory.

The paths across the corn having no hedges, the wayfarer really walks
among the wheat, and can pluck with either hand. The ears rise above the
heads of children, who shout with joy as they rush along as though to
the arms of their mother.

Beneath the towing-path, at the root of the willow bushes, which the
tow-ropes, so often drawn over them, have kept low, the water-docks lift
their thick stems and giant leaves. Bunches of rough-leaved comfrey grow
down to the water's edge - indeed, the coarse stems sometimes bear signs
of having been partially under water when a freshet followed a storm.
The flowers are not so perfectly bell-shaped as those of some plants,
but are rather tubular. They appear in April, though then green, and may
be found all the summer months. Where the comfrey grows thickly the
white bells give some colour to the green of the bank, and would give
more were they not so often overshadowed by the leaves.

Water betony, or persicaria, lifts its pink spikes everywhere, tiny
florets close together round the stem at the top; the leaves are
willow-shaped, and there is scarcely a hollow or break in the bank where
the earth has fallen which is not clothed with them. A mile or two up
the river the tansy is plentiful, bearing golden buttons, which, like
every fragment of the feathery foliage, if pressed in the fingers,
impart to them a peculiar scent. There, too, the yellow loosestrife
pushes up its tall slender stalks to the top of the low willow-bushes,
that the bright yellow flowers may emerge from the shadow.

The river itself, the broad stream, ample and full, exhibits all its
glory in this reach; from One Tree to the Lock it is nearly straight,
and the river itself is everything. Between wooded hills, or where
divided by numerous islets, or where trees and hedges enclose the view,
the stream is but part of the scene. Here it is all. The long raised
bank without a hedge or fence, with the cornfields on its level, simply
guides the eye to the water. Those who are afloat upon it insensibly
yield to the influence of the open expanse.

The boat whose varnished sides but now slipped so gently that the
cutwater did not even raise a wavelet, and every black rivet-head was
visible as a line of dots, begins to forge ahead. The oars are dipped

1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryRichard JefferiesNature Near London → online text (page 8 of 15)