Richard Jefferies – His Passion Lives On

Great artists such as Gainsborough, Turner and Reubens speak to us down the centuries through their work as do poets but how many people still read the great – or the lesser – writers from years past?  The Bible is still read regularly by some, Shakespeare’s more famous lines are often quoted and we all think we know Bronte and Dickens whereas, in reality, most of us know the characters only as interpreted through television and film.  However, authors from past centuries still  have much to offer whether it be for historical background, research or, simply, pleasure.

I have always lived in the country and my fascination with the natural world began at a very early age.  My kindergarten class was taken on a nature walk and, as our teacher showed us the magical things to be found along the way, I became hooked and wanted to know more.  There are many excellent wildlife manuals and handbooks, new and old, that give detailed descriptions more often than not, in a rather dry, analytical way.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was someone who could give all this information in great detail; who would notice the minutiae of everyday things, whether a flower, a wild creature or even of man, himself?  In the late nineteenth century there was one such person, now forgotten by most, and his name is Richard Jefferies – most definitely not a poet but there is poetry in his words.

Jefferies, born in 1848, in a Wiltshire (England) farmhouse suffered ill-health and subsequent poverty for much of his life.  From a young age he had enjoyed solitude and wandering about the countryside and here he developed a fascination for the Iron Age hill fort on nearby Liddington Hill and the wildlife that could be found there.  Employment as a reporter, initially with a local newspaper, developed his writing skills and his literary work began to be published, first as a series of essays and later in book form, from 1874.  He died from tuberculosis in 1887.  His books vary from collections of nature notes and the countrymen he encountered on his travels to novels, including one, After London, which would now be described as post-apocalyptical.  In it he describes how nature has taken over the now vanished city with its few surviving inhabitants returning to the lifestyle of many centuries before.  Jefferies still has his devotees, myself included, and he deserves better recognition.  The remainder of this post is my demonstration of how his words are of relevance to everyone today, especially those who are passionate about the wonders of nature – not the awe-inspiring world famous creatures or places but the everyday ones, found all around us, that should be equally awe-inspiring.

Nothing sums up my feelings towards the natural world better than these words of his.  They almost seem to have been written to illustrate this photograph of myself aged four with my father.

“So it seemed to me as a boy, sweet and new like this each morning; and now after the years they have passed, and the lines they have worn in the forehead, the summer mead shines as bright and fresh as when my foot first touched the grass…”      
The Open Air, 1885

“Next he stepped into the current, which, though shallow, looked strong enough to sweep him away. The water checked against him rose to the white mark on his breast. He waded up the rapid, every now and then thrusting his head completely under the water; sometimes he was up to his neck, sometimes not so deep; now and then getting on a stone…”                                                                 The Water Colley (Dipper), The Life of the Fields, 1884
“In the evening of a fine day the mists may be seen from hence as they rise in the meadows … beginning first over the brooks, a long white winding vapour marking their course, next extending over the moist places and hollows.”    
Wild Life in a Southern County, 1879
“Sometimes through these narrow slits (of cloud), long beams of light fall aslant upon the distant fields of the vale.  They resemble, only on a greatly lengthened scale, the beams that may be seen in churches of a sunny afternoon, falling from the upper windows on the tiled floor of the chancel, and made visible by motes in the air.  So through such slits in the cloudy roof of the sky the rays of the sun shoot downwards, made visible on their passage by the moisture or the motes of the atmosphere… the labourers say that the sun is sucking up water there.”   
Wild Life in a Southern County, 1879
“It is midsummer, and midsummer, like a bride, is decked in white. On the high-reaching briars
white June roses; white flowers on the lowly brambles; broad white umbels of elder in the corner,  and white cornels blooming under the elm; honeysuckle hanging creamy white coronals round the ash boughs; white meadow-sweet flowering on the shore of the ditch; white clover, too, beside the gateway. As spring is azure and purple, so midsummer is white, and autumn golden. Thus the coming out of the wheat into ear is marked and welcomed with the purest colour.”
Nature Near London,  1883
“…and finally is lost in the vast marshes which cover the site of the ancient London…  There exhales from this oozy mass so fatal a vapour that no animal can endure it. The black water bears a greenish-brown floating scum, which for ever bubbles up from the putrid mud of the bottom. When the wind collects the miasma, and, as it were, presses it together, it becomes visible as a low cloud which hangs over the place. The cloud does not advance beyond the limit of the marsh, seeming to stay there by some constant attraction; and well it is for us that it does not, since at such times when the vapour is thickest, the very wildfowl leave the reeds, and fly from the poison. There are no fishes, neither can eels exist in the mud, nor even newts. It is dead.”      
After London, 1885
“…the heat pours down by day as if an invisible lens in the atmosphere focussed the sun’s rays.
Strong woody knapweed endures it, so does toadflax and pale blue scabious, and wild mignonette…”                                       
Pageant of Summer, 1884
“Nature is a miniature painter and handles a delicate brush, the tip of which touches the tiniest
spot and leaves something living. The park has indeed its larger lines, its broad open sweep,
and gradual slope, to which the eye accustomed to small inclosures requires time to adjust
itself. These left to themselves are beautiful; they are the surface of the earth, which is always true
to itself and needs no banks nor artificial hollows. The earth is right and the tree is right: trim
either and all is wrong.”                                                 
Field & Hedgerow, 1889
 
Fortunately, much of his work is still readily available as books and, often, as free e-books.  The Richard Jefferies Society promotes his writing and holds regular meetings.  Visit their website by clicking the link here.  The farmhouse where Richard Jefferies grew up is now a museum dedicated to his life and work and well worth visiting.  Click here for details.
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Ireland’s Connemara Ponies

Rugged and beautiful, Connemara is situated on Ireland’s west coast.  It’s a wild place: a rock strewn landscape softened by the lush green of field and bog; of purple heather interwoven with the golden flowers of gorse; of towering scarlet and purple fuchsia hedges; of blue sea and empty, sandy beaches and of vast skies.  On a warm, summer’s day there can be no more benign a place yet when the gales and driving rain arrive, you are reminded that there is nothing but open Atlantic until you reach the shores of America. It is here that the Connemara pony, as enigmatic as the land that produced it – gentle but tough – developed.

The origins of the ponies are lost in time.  Some believe that they date back to the Vikings, others that the local breed crossbred with shipwrecked Spanish Armada horses.  What is known with certainty is that during the 19th century they were crossbred with Hackneys, Thoroughbreds and Arabians until by the early 1900’s the pony bloodlines were being lost.  In 1923 the Connemara Pony Breeders Society was set up to preserve the breed, the result being that the Connemara is now thriving with societies, clubs and shows worldwide. 

The most important of all of these shows – and rightly so – is the one of its birthplace, the Connemara Pony Festival at Clifden, held each year during August.  It is to the Festival that I was lucky enough to be invited last week.

 
My interest in horses, I have to admit, is somewhat limited.  I ride and (even if I say so myself) am quite good at it, despite only learning ten years ago but I do find the prospect of sitting watching horses for three days going around a ring rather daunting.  But this is Ireland and the craic is as good as you would expect it to be – here you can wander in and out of the showground, the locals are happy to chat to you about anything and everything and the setting is superb: a small showground in the centre of a pretty, brightly coloured town bounded by a dark brown, peaty watered river and backed by mountains.  And of course, there is Guinness!  A bonus was the weather – hot and sunny, every day.

I stayed and watched some of the jumping competitions before my attention waned.  The standard of the riding was very mixed but fun was had by all and it was interesting to see how the children just climbed back on board and carried on without, it seems, a second thought.  Perhaps that is why so many of the top jockeys are Irish ….

However, when it comes to ‘loose’ jumping, I can stay all day.  To watch the ponies move without the restraints of rider and tack, I find fascinating.  Here, the atmosphere is very much more relaxed and the banter never ending.

After a long day, what better way can there be than to end it with a stroll through the town, visiting a bar or two along the way?  Clifden is also a stronghold of traditional Irish music and from every open doorway the sound of the fiddle eminates.  Traditional music has been a lifelong interest of mine and I have had all the elements of a terrific day out – horses, Guinness, Ireland, song and warmth.  I walk back to my house, twenty-five minutes outside the town, set high up on the cliffs, as the sun begins to set.  The perfect end to a perfect day.

This seems an opportunity to talk of my own horse, Barney.  A giant of a horse (who, by coincidence, also came over from Ireland), gentle, wicked and a lot of fun, he helped teach me to ride by ensuring, I like to think, that the saddle was safely underneath me when I landed after a jump.  After months of treatment for lameness, he was ‘put down’ – a very sad day.  However, I now have Bart who compared to Barney goes like a Ferrari.  An ex-eventing horse, he is beautifully schooled and very disciplined, it has taken me a while to feel comfortable with his power and speed.  More of all this on a later post – below is an image of him and Ernie, our other horse, as a taster!

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Snowdonia: The Enchanted Forest – Death & Destruction

On our third day in Snowdonia we awoke again to brilliant sunshine.  Despite the hard frost that had turned every surface a sparkling white it did not seem especially cold for there was no wind.  A walk to the ‘enchanted’ forest beckoned, a great favourite of ours for it is a magical place with its mossy hummocks, hidden waterfalls and lichen encrusted conifers.  It is a place of total silence apart from the sound of water and ravens croaking overhead.  

There is an old track that leads to the forest  made by the miners that quarried for slate a long, long time ago before the trees were grown, for this is naturally a barren landscape of rock and bog and heather and bilberry.  The trees were planted – non-native conifers – in rows so that the forests appear from a distance as odd shaped rectangles stuck onto a landscape, rarely looking part of the natural scheme of things.  They support little in the way of wildlife either, perhaps a little shelter for some passing deer but nothing in the way of food apart for the flocks of crossbills that occasionally winter here feeding on the cones.  Yet, despite all these negatives, the enchanted forest is well, enchanting. 

Not anymore.  We reached the forest gate but, apart from a few trees clustering around the entrance as if trying to escape into the more open spaces beyond, there were just a few damaged and sad looking individuals, all their companions having been clear felled.  It was a shocking sight, looking as if a tornado had ripped through them, leaving just rows of broken stumps and, occasionally, an upturned root ball.  Sadder still, the tussocks and moss covered mounds that created the ‘Brothers Grimm’ feel had all been destroyed with them.  Instead of walking through a cool tunnel of overhanging branches we ventured along a broken landscape; there was not one section recognisable or familiar. 

Now it is quite possible that the original landscape will be restored as part of the overall long term plan, for Snowdonia is a National Park.  Or, perhaps, the forest will be replanted or allowed to regenerate from self-sown seedlings.  Having got over the initial shock of seeing the landscape looking at its worse, I hope it will be the former.  The trees really are out of place here and, for the first time (if you can see beyond the devastation) there are wide, uninterrupted views of bleak, harsh mountainside – Snowdonia as it should be.
Whatever the outcome, it will be interesting to watch how nature repairs itself.  One thing is quite certain: the landscape will never look the same in my lifetime.  Perhaps it may look better?

To see more of the enchanted forest in all its former glory, click on the link here.
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A Walk in the Doone Valley

Exmoor is one of England’s smaller National Parks and it is also has one of the most varied landscapes: heather moorland, grass moorland, wooded combes, rushing streams and waterfalls, the lush farmland of the Porlock Vale, high cliffs and sea views.

The moor is especially beautiful at this time of year now the heather flowers, which in midsummer had turned hundreds of acres purple, have changed to a golden bronze. The bracken, also yellowing as the autumn progresses, helps to make the landscape a combination of coppers, oranges, golds, browns and greens.

I had returned to my spiritual home to refresh my soul, as well as my body – for I was pretty knackered after a hard summer of gardening – hence the lack of posts recently. I always stay at the Blue Ball Inn, a traditional pub with rooms, where you can be certain of a warm welcome from the blazing log fire in the 13th century inglenook and an even warmer welcome from the owners, Phil, Jackie and Nick. An added bonus of being on Exmoor is that my mobile phone does not pick up a signal for miles so I am isolated from the world.

For an English holiday at this time of year, I couldn’t have been luckier with the weather either: day after day pleasantly mild and with only a couple of days rain. Perfect conditions for walking and, because it is now ‘out of season’ with the summer visitors long departed, the moor was even more empty of people than usual.

There must be many people that have read R D Blackmore’s great Victorian novel, set in the 1600’s, or seen the film ‘Lorna Doone’, yet never visited the area where the action took place or, perhaps, realise that it is an actual place. It is a tale of the Doone’s of Badgworthy (pronounced Badgery), wicked outlaws terrorising a remote rural community, of kidnap, love and, best of all, it has a happy ending. It is questionable how much is fact and how much is fiction but the places exist and, even now, there are Ridd’s (the hero’s family name) living on the moor. The Doone’s, if they existed at all, are all long gone.

One day, the Doone Valley, their remote moorland stronghold beckoned, a walk of some 15 miles. There are two ways into the valley, the easiest is at Malmsmead, a pretty little place with a couple of houses, farms and coffee shop. I chose the more difficult – and to my mind, more exciting, way across some of the wildest moor, Exmoor can offer. Parking the car at Brendon Two Gates (there isn’t a gate in sight – I’ll explain how it got it’s name another time!), my choice proved wise for I was met by the sound of the wild red deer stags calling, for this was the start of their breeding or ‘rutting’ season. Standing on the skyline a stag roared, keeping his herd of hinds close and to fend off rivals. As I took a photograph, a flock of curlew flew past, a lucky coincidence and a great start to the walk. The photo is rather small but I doubt if I will have the chance to take a second, larger one!

The moorland here, is a vast, open and empty space, full of bogs to catch the unwary. Although not dangerous in themselves, it is unpleasant, to say the least, to be up to your knees in cold, black, peaty water. A minor injury such as a twisted ankle in bad weather, or as dusk falls, could become potentially life threatening. Squelching my way along, my strong, waterproof boots made light work of this first stage and after an hour or so the first fold of the combe appeared – I had reached the head of the Doone Valley.

The path from here is well marked, yet even in midsummer, few but the intrepid walk as far. The only sounds are of water rushing over rocks and the occasional calls of sheep, ravens and buzzards. The walk is now downhill all the way as the path follows the river back to Malmsmead although it is still far from an easy stroll. As the walk continues, more and more side streams meet the main river and Badgworthy Water becomes faster flowing and wider, although two or three bounds and you would be across it. This time it was gentle and the sound relaxing: after heavy rains it will become thunderous and capable of sweeping you away.
A third of the way down the Doone Valley, Hoccombe Combe is reached, said to be the site of the Doone’s village although the ‘waterslide’ that John Ridd climbed to reach Lorna is not here. Some say that it is based on the river that runs through Lank Combe a little further to the north.

The photograph below is of the waterslide at Watersmeet some miles further west and not part of the Doone country.

Soon the valley becomes more gentle and lush although the hills of the moor still tower above. There are trees too: larch, beech and rhododendron. Soon the river will run through farmland and to Malmsead itself, a good place for a rest and a coffee. It is also a place where the walk could stop if another car was available to take you back to your starting point. However, I was only halfway and so turned up the steep lane making my way back to the open moorland.

It was a long and tiring walk back across the heather. In the distance a small group of the wild Exmoor ponies, the oldest native breed in the UK and virtually unchanged from pre-history. Athough free to roam the moors they tend to keep to their own territories and are quite tolerant of strangers approaching. Only those that live in the tourist ‘hotspots’ will allow themselves to be touched and these ones soon galloped off once I got too close.

By the time I reached Brendon Two Gates, a pint of ale at the Blue Ball and a hot bath beckoned. It was almost dark when I returned to be greeted by a spectacular sunset, the perfect end to a very satisying day.

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Mad Dogs and Englishman…

…go out in the midday sun, according to the song sung by Noel Coward. But I don’t think it was the noon heat that made She-Dog behave more like a deranged She-Devil, I think it was an extremely herb scented and squelchy bog that got her all worked up. Although she does certainly looks completely mad in this photo!

I had gone to investigate the wetland that is below the fields where we keep the horses. The horses have access to this area too and, like She-Dog, become totally hyper when they have been grazing it. It is necessary to keep your wits, as well as your nerve, when Henry, Barney and Rambo come galloping and bucking and rearing their way up to you after they have spent time in there. The overwhelming scent is of water mint but meadowsweet is also very dominant – perhaps it is one of these that gives them all this burst of energy. If so, I should try eating some too.
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The purpose of the visit was to photograph dragonflies but, needless to say, thanks to She-Dog, it proved virtually impossible. She turned what is usually a peaceful, rarely visited by humans, wildlife haven into a race track. However, I did manage to get this photo of the Common Blue Damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum. It is found near water everywhere. In fact, it is one of those few species in the animal kingdom that is found virtually throughout the northern hemisphere.

A lurcher and part whippet, She-Dog can run pretty fast but I have never seen her move so rapidly and for as long as this day. Back and forth, round and round – even when we came to the river she couldn’t stop galloping through it. It reminded me of when we had deep snow, the first she had ever seen, earlier this year.
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A fallen tree brough about another burst of energy, just when I thought she had settled down. Ignoring her as she investigated the bridge that it had created, I was surprised and somewhat alarmed to discover her seven foot up in the canopy. Before she could be rescued she took a flying leap to the ground below, landing in a heap, before accelerating into the distance.

She-Dog’s madness meant that very little in the way of wildlife was seen. I had to content myself with being in peaceful surroundings on a warm summer’s day, listening to the brown trout rising for mayfly. I spent some time trying to catch both trout and fly on camera and just about managed to get a trout breaking the surface of the water.

It was only when I returned to the car I was able to get a picture of the elusive mayfly – there was one resting on the door. The vagaries and frustrations of being a wildlfe photographer, I suppose. I think I shall stick to gardening for a living!

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