CLOSE TO LONDON

by Simon Coleman

 Hogsmill Surrey

The Hogsmill River, Surrey

In 1877 Jefferies moved to Surbiton, Surrey, to be closer to the journal editors for whom he was writing.  The outcome of his explorations in Surrey was a book, Nature Near London, published in 1883, which was a collection of articles that he had written for “The Standard”.  This book, in a number of ways, was a departure from his earlier country books such as Wild Life in a Southern County and Round About a Great Estate.  It represents a shift in his perception, as he now examines the relationship between city and country in a way that had not been possible in his native Wiltshire.  And, furthermore, he was exploring the effect of the new landscape and the altered rhythm of life on himself.

In these articles he provides some fine sketches of typical scenes in Surrey which, in those days, was considerably more rural than it is today.  He finds as much in the way of animals, birds and plants to write about as in his earlier books.  As he explains in his preface to Nature Near London, his expectations regarding the quantity of wildlife to be found near London turned out to be completely at odds with actual experience.

“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…

“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.”

During his excursions into his new environment, however, Jefferies began to become conscious of “a dim sense of something wanting”.  In the country lanes and woods “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.”

So, while the complete sense of tranquillity found in the deep countryside was absent, he felt, nevertheless, some indefinable attraction to the great city’s power.  He had come into its orbit and the effect could not be ignored.  One of his biographers, W.J. Keith, notes that Jefferies, alone among English nature writers, possessed a strong sensitivity to London and a fascination with its dense human life.  Jefferies’ impressions of the life and atmosphere of London contribute much to his later writing, resonating strongly in The Story of My Heart and in his last novel, Amaryllis at the Fair.

In Nature Near London, a wide-ranging and contemplative essay, “Wheatfields”, explores the meeting place of city and country.  Jefferies describes a vivid scene in a cornfield close to London, before shifting his attention to the complex life of the city.  A short distance away a train passes over an iron bridge, but the reapers at work in the field are too busy to notice the sound.  He then imagines a commuting businessman on the train who is himself completely wrapped up in his own world of city institutions.

“And if the merchant spares an abstracted glance from the morning or evening newspaper out upon the fields from the carriage window, the furrows of the field can have but little meaning. Each looks to him exactly alike. To the farmers and the labourer such and such a furrow marks an acre and has its bearing, but to the passing glance it is not so. The work in the field is so slow; the passenger by rail sees, as it seems to him, nothing going on; the corn may sow itself almost for all that is noteworthy in apparent labour.”

The highly contrasted worlds of country and city come into brief contact but they remain separated, apparently incomprehensible to each other.  This in-between land, where the fields approach the edge of the city, allows Jefferies’ imagination to wander between the two environments.  He finds that repetitive patterns of labour are largely to blame for this puzzling division in the human mind.  While the merchant’s mind is “rapt and absorbed in discount and dollars, in bills and merchandise”, he cannot see that his dependence on the wheat produced by agriculture has in no way diminished.  And those at work in the fields, whose lives are “hard toil and hard fare”, haven’t even the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful colours and sounds all around them.

Faced with this dispiriting state of human civilisation, Jefferies, instinctively, looks for some simple, visible connection between city and country: something to provide a sense of beauty and hope.

“It is easy in London to forget that it is midsummer, till, going some day into Covent Garden Market, you see baskets of the cornflower, or blue-bottle as it is called in the country, ticketed ‘Corinne’, and offered for sale. The lovely azure of the flower recalls the scene where it was first gathered long since at the edge of the wheat.”

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