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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Stonehenge – 5000 years later

Stonehenge is one of the most important and instantly recognised ancient sites in the world yet those of us that live in the British Isles tend to take it rather for granted.  Perhaps this is inevitable with anything that is on your doorstep, however it is strange that whereas many of us long to see (or perhaps have been lucky enough to have visited), say, the Pyramids of Giza or Machu Picchu, very many Brits have never visited Stonehenge.  Perhaps if they had made the trip they would have been rather surprised at what they saw – and I don’t mean the majesty of the stones.

Over the years, the numbers of visitors to the stones has increased dramatically from twenty thousand a year in the 1920’s to over a million last year.  As numbers increased so erosion and vandalism began to take its toll and access within the circle was stopped.  Now it is only possible to enter the stones on special occasions, such as the summer solstice.  This means that the majority of visitors are only able to walk around the perimeter of the henge.  The memory of my first visit as a child is of running amongst the stones, of being able to touch them and to look up at their immense height – would I remember it now if I hadn’t had this intimate contact with them then?

To view a video of how the Stonehenge area is being transformed into a spectacular, world-class attraction, click the link here

Some years after that early visit and with numbers rapidly increasing a ‘temporary’ visitor centre was built in the late1960’s.  This, along with inadequate car parking  and lack of modern interpretation facilities makes the first impressions of this World Heritage Site poor, to say the least.  Two busy main roads also pass closeby the stones destroying much of the quality of the landscape.  Traffic jams are frequent.

Now this may all sound rather depressing (which it is) and a good reason to cross a visit to Stonehenge off your list of ‘must see’ places.  Fortunately, despite everything, the grandeur of the stones remain and it is an awe-inspiring place to be, especially if you are able to arrive early in the day or when the stones are shrouded in mist.

Now the good news!  After many years of discussion, Stonehenge is about to be ‘returned’
to its original landscape: the visitor centre, car parks and main road leading to them are being swept away and landscaped back to open grassland, giving the stones a greater sense of isolation.  A new centre with educational and other facilities are being built further away and  a low impact shuttle service will transport those visitors that don’t wish to – or are unable to – walk.  This may be a few years away from completion but work has started.  In the not-so-distant future, Stonehenge will have the facilites and landscape that such an important site deserves.

Stonehenge is part of a vast conservation area with over three hundred burial mounds and also includes the Avebury stone circle (link here).  It is about 85 miles south-west of London.  Although not as huge or as frequently visited we have many ancient stone monuments in the Cotswolds too.   The Rollright Stones, a stone circle, photos below, are also 5000 years old, their shapes distorted and lichen covered with age.  To read my earlier post about them, click here.



For information on visiting Stonehenge and its history (and how some of their huge stones are thought to have been dragged 150 miles from Wales), click here

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The Roman Mosaics of Cirencester

The making of mosaic patterns is often associated with the Romans although the earliest known examples pre-date them to 3000BC.  Associated with many cultures, mosaic artists still flourish today, an unbroken tradition of five thousand years.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic: head of Oceanus  2nd century AD

In Britain, one of the finest collections of early mosaics can be found in the Cotswold town of Cirencester, situated 93 miles west of London.  With a population of 18000, it is one of the larger hubs in the Cotswolds yet has maintained a lot of its old charm for there are still many independent shops as well as the usual High Street chain stores.

History oozes from the very fabric of Cirencester: home to the the oldest agricultural college (Royal Agricultural College) in the English speaking world, founded in 1845; it is also home to the oldest polo club in England (Cirencester Park Polo Club) which was founded in 1894.  The charter for the market, still held twice weekly, was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic:  Sea Leopard   3rd century AD

However, when the words Cirencester and history are linked together it is the Romans that predominate for their town, Corinium – now modern day Cirencester – was the second most important city in Britain.  Corinium lay at the centre of their great road network where Akeman Street,  Ermine Street and the Fosse Way all meet, still busy roads today.  There are still the remains of a number of  their villas in the region that are possible to explore.

The great Roman ampitheatre here was also the second largest in the country with tiered wooden seating for eight thousand spectators.  Today, all that remains are a series of banks and ditches, still impressive and well worth visiting.

The Seasons mosaic:  2nd century AD   Actaeon being attacked by his own hunting dogs

If there is not a huge amount to see of the original splendour of the ampitheatre, you will not be disappointed by a trip to the town’s Corinium Museum which has recently been extended and refurbished making it one of the best museums in the country.  The museum holds over one and a half million artefacts but the most impressive of all of their exhibits have to be the Roman mosaics.

The Seasons mosaic: 2nd century AD

The Seasons  is one of the most impressive mosaics in Britain, discovered in Cirencester in 1849, with pictures of goddesses depicting spring, summer and autumn.  Winter is missing.  In the museum the floor has been laid in an area reproducing a room in a Roman villa.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The hare is frequently used in Celtic art and fables but was rarely used by the Romans, making this central motif of the mosaic floor unique.  If you click on the photo above to enlarge it, you will see that there have been shards of green glass laid into the hare’s back.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The museum does not just hold Roman aretfacts, it also covers finds from pre-history as well as more recent times such as Saxon brooches and a large hoard of coins dating back to the English civil war, subjects of a later post.  The Cirencester Museum is really worth making the effort to visit – you can find out more details by visiting their website, here.

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New Year in London

Perhaps it is because London will be hosting the Olympic Games later this year that the capital seemed rather quiet and devoid of people and traffic when I visited it at the beginning of the month.  Although it lacked its usual ‘buzz’ it did mean more comfortable walking and it was definitely easier to catch a taxi.  I imagine when the Games are in full swing you will not be able to move for people and public transport of any type will be crowded.

 We tend to follow the same plan when we visit; not because we want to play safe, it is just that we cannot bear to miss a morning coffee and an almond croissant at the Bluebird cafe.  A slow walk up the King’s Road with it’s exclusive shops and boutiques brings you to Sloane Square – just in time for lunch.  This time we found, to our dismay, that our usual dining spot had closed down so we tried the Botanist, almost opposite, instead.  It proved to be a good choice for the food was excellent, as was the service.  My biggest criticism of it is its name which, of course, with me being a ‘planty’ person had rather appealed.  The decor consisted mostly of pictures of insects so we now refer to it as The Entymologist instead. 

A taxi ride took us to the National Portrait Gallery.  One of our New Year resolutions is to take in a bit more culture as we are becoming rather reluctant to move out of the secret valley, generally preferring the peace and quiet of the rural life.   A trip to ‘the smoke’ from time to time is just what’s needed to stop us from becoming complete country bumpkins.  We hadn’t allowed enough time to look at the pictures in any depth –  we really need to visit when we are not being dictated by the thought of food.  A mental note has been made to visit again quite soon, that time bypassing the restaurants ….. Mmm, we’ll see.

When we came out of the gallery daylight was fading fast and London appeared to have renewed energy.  Somehow a city at night with all it’s lights seems a more exciting place.  I seemed far more aware of statues, theatres and red buses – I’d forgotten just how much I like cities!  I’ve never lived anywhere other than in the country and I’m not too sure how I would fare if I suddenly found myself in one permanently.  Not too well, I would think.

Another taxi ride took us to my favourite London store; favourite perhaps because it is another food place.  Forget Harrods, which I’m afraid I dislike intensely, give me Fortnum & Mason’s anytime. The Christmas windows and decor were still in place but even without those, F & M exudes quality from every pore – or do I mean from every chocolate? 

Who could possibly bite into these white chocolate bears, though?

The first thing I do when I enter the store isn’t to think of my stomach, surprisingly, as I am surrounded by goodies to eat.  I always go to the central circular staircase and lean over to look down which is dramatic, then descend down the old wooden staircase which is equally full of character.

A wander around the coffee and tea halls with their wonderful aromas is another must.

The store has a reputation for making some of the best hampers in England.  I was lucky enough once to be given one for a Christmas present and it was such an exciting treat unpacking it and seeing what all the tins and shiny wrappers contained.  I was rather taken with their picnic hampers but there would be no point in us having one: although we picnic rather a lot because of our outdoor life, they always end up big social events.  What starts off as a casual chat with a couple of friends snowballs and it is not unusual to find twenty or thirty arriving to enjoy the feasting.  Fortunately they usually bring food and drink with them too.  If we had a Fortnum’s picnic hamper it would have to be a quiet, small affair – just the sight of the baskets conjures up images of check tablecloths laid on the grass, eating in the shade of the willows down by our little winding river.

And what would a visit to Fortnum’s be without having one of their splendid traditional afternoon teas?  By the time I had forced down two scones with strawberry jam and Cornish clotted cream and cake, all washed down with a pot or two of Orange Pekoe tea it was time to think about returning home.

If we were lucky and didn’t get held up in traffic jams we would be back in the secret valley just in time for supper.  I think a belated New Year’s resolution ought to be excercise more and eat less …..

PS  Don’t forget you can find me on Facebook now and get regular updates from the secret valley

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