Summer in Somerset

Reflections from Jefferies about time spent on Exmoor and the Quantock Hills in the early 1880s, which were published as ‘Summer in Somerset’

new forest dawn

“The brown Barle River running over red rocks aslant its course is pushed aside, and races round curving slopes. The first shoot of the rapid is smooth and polished like a gem by the lapidary’s art, rounded and smooth as a fragment of torso, and this convex undulation maintains a solid outline. Then the following scoop under is furrowed as if ploughed across, and the ridge of each furrow, where the particles move a little less swiftly than in the hollow of the groove, falls backwards as foam blown from a wave. At the foot of the furrowed decline the current rises over a rock in a broad white sheet–white because as it is dashed to pieces the air mingles with it. After this furious haste the stream does but just overtake those bubbles which have been carried along on another division of the water flowing steadily but straight. Sometimes there are two streams like this between the same banks, sometimes three or even more, each running at a different rate, and each gliding above a floor differently inclined. The surface of each of these streams slopes in a separate direction, and though under the same light they reflect it at varying angles. The river is animated and alive, rushing here, gliding there, foaming yonder; its separate and yet component parallels striving together, and talking loudly in incomplete sentences. Those rivers that move through midland meads present a broad, calm surface, at the same level from side to side; they flow without sound, and if you stood behind a thick hedge you would not know that a river was near. They dream along the meads, toying with their forget-me-nots, too idle even to make love to their flowers vigorously. The brown Barle enjoys his life, and splashes in the sunshine like boys bathing–like them he is sunburnt and brown. He throws the wanton spray over the ferns that bow and bend as the cool breeze his current brings sways them in the shade. He laughs and talks, and sings louder than the wind in his woods.

Here is a pool by the bank under an ash–a deep green pool inclosed by massive rocks, which the stream has to brim over. The water is green–or is it the ferns, and the moss, and the oaks, and the pale ash reflected? This rock has a purple tint, dotted with moss spots almost black; the green water laps at the purple stone, and there is one place where a thin line of scarlet is visible, though I do not know what causes it. Another stone the spray does not touch has been dried to a bright white by the sun. Inclosed, the green water slowly swirls round till it finds crevices, and slips through. A few paces farther up there is a red rapid–reddened stones, and reddened growths beneath the water, a light that lets the red hues overcome the others–a wild rush of crowded waters rotating as they go, shrill voices calling. This next bend upwards dazzles the eyes, for every inclined surface and striving parallel, every swirl, and bubble, and eddy, and rush around a rock chances to reflect the sunlight. Not one long pathway of quiet sheen, such as stretches across a rippled lake, each wavelet throwing back its ray in just proportion, but a hundred separate mirrors vibrating, each inclined at a different angle, each casting a tremulous flash into the face. The eyelids involuntarily droop to shield the gaze from a hundred arrows; they are too strong–nothing can be distinguished but a woven surface of brilliance, a mesh of light, under which the water runs, itself invisible. I will go back to the deep green pool, and walking now with the sun behind, how the river has changed!

Soft, cool shadows reach over it, which I did not see before; green surfaces are calm under trees; the rocks are less hard; the stream runs more gently, and the oaks come down nearer; the delicious sound of the rushing water almost quenches my thirst. My eyes have less work to do to meet the changing features of the current which now seems smooth as my glance accompanies its movement. The sky, which was not noticed before, now appears reaching in rich azure across the deep hollow, from the oaks on one side to the oaks on the other. These woods, which cover the steep and rocky walls of the gorge from river to summit, are filled with the June colour of oak. It is not green, nor russet, nor yellow; I think it may be called a glow of yellow under green. It is warmer than green; the glow is not on the outer leaves, but comes up beneath from the depth of the branches. The rush of the river soothes the mind, the broad descending surfaces of yellow-green oak carry the glance downwards from the blue over to the stream in the hollow. Rush! rush!–it is the river, like a mighty wind in the wood. A pheasant crows, and once and again falls the tap, tap of woodmen’s axes–scarce heard, for they are high above. They strip the young oaks of their bark as far as they can while the saplings stand, then fell them, and as they all lie downhill there are parallel streaks of buff (where the sap has dried) drawn between the yellow-green masses of living leaf. The pathway winds in among the trees at the base of the rocky hill; light green whortleberries fill every interstice, bearing tiny red globes of flower–flower-lamps–open at the top. Wood-sorrel lifts its delicate veined petals; the leaf is rounded like the shadow of a bubble on a stone under clear water. I like to stay by the wood-sorrel a little while–it is so chastely beautiful; like the purest verse, it speaks to the inmost heart. Staying, I hear unconsciously–listen! Rush! rush! like a mighty wind in the wood.

It draws me on to the deep green pool inclosed about by rocks–a pool to stand near and think into. The purple rock, dotted with black moss; the white rock; the thin scarlet line; the green water; the overhanging tree; the verdant moss upon the bank; the lady fern–are there still. But I see also now a little pink somewhere in the water, much brown too, and shades I know no name for. The water is not green, but holds in solution three separate sets of colours. The confervae on the stones, the growths beneath at the bottom waving a little as the water swirls like minute seaweeds–these are brown and green and somewhat reddish too. Under water the red rock is toned and paler, but has deep black cavities. Next, the surface, continually changing as it rotates, throws back a different light, and thirdly, the oaks’ yellow-green high up, the pale ash, the tender ferns drooping over low down confer their tints on the stream. So from the floor of the pool, from the surface, and from the adjacent bank, three sets of colours mingle. Washed together by the slow swirl, they produce a shade–the brown of the Barle–lost in darkness where the bank overhangs.

Following the current downwards at last the river for awhile flows in quietness, broad and smooth. A trout leaps for a fly with his tail curved in the air, full a foot out of water. Trout watch behind sunken stones, and shoot to and fro as insects droop in their flight and appear about to fall. So clear is the water and so brightly illuminated that the fish are not easily seen–for vision depends on contrast–but in a minute I find a way to discover them by their shadows. The black shadow of a trout is distinct upon the bottom of the river, and guides the eye to the spot; then looking higher in the transparent water there is the fish. It was curious to see these black shadows darting to and fro as if themselves animated and without bodies, for if the trout darted before being observed the light concealed him in motion. Some of the trout came up from under Torre-steps, a singular structure which here connects the shores of the stream. Every one has seen a row of stepping-stones across a shallow brook; now pile other stones on each of these, forming buttresses, and lay flat stones like unhewn planks from buttress to buttress, and you have the plan of this primitive bridge. It has a megalithic appearance, as if associated with the age of rude stone monuments. They say its origin is doubtful; there can be no doubt of the loveliness of the spot. The Barle comes with his natural rush and fierceness under the unhewn stone planking, then deepens, and there overhanging a black pool–for the shadow was so deep as to be black–grew a large bunch of marsh-marigolds in fullest flower, the broad golden cups almost resting on the black water. The bridge is not intended for wheels, and though it is as firm as the rock, foot passengers have to look at their steps, as the great planks, flecked with lichen at the edges, are not all level. The horned sheep and lambs go over it–where do they not go? Like goats they wander everywhere.

In a cottage some way up the hill we ate clotted cream and whortleberry jam. Through the open door came the ceaseless rush! rush! like a wind in the wood. The floor was of concrete, lime and sand; on the open hearth–pronounced ‘airth’–sods of turf cut from the moor and oak branches were smouldering under the chimney crook. Turf smoke from the piled-up fires of winter had darkened the beams of the ceiling, but from that rude room there was a view of the river, and the hill, and the oaks in full June colour, which the rich would envy. Sometimes in early morning the wild red deer are seen feeding on the slope opposite. As we drove away in reckless Somerset style, along precipices above the river, with nothing but a fringe of fern for parapet, the oak woods on the hills under us were shading down into evening coolness of tint, the yellow less warm, the green more to the surface. Upon the branches of the trees moss grows, forming a level green top to the round bough like a narrow cushion along it, with frayed edges drooping over each side. Though moss is common on branches, it does not often make a raised cushion, thick, as if green velvet pile were laid for the birds to run on. There were rooks’ nests in some tall ash trees; the scanty foliage left the nests exposed, they were still occupied by late broods. Rooks’ nests are not often seen in ashes as in elms.

By a mossy bank a little girl–a miniature Audrey–stout, rosy, and ragged, stood with a yellow straw hat aslant on her yellow hair, eating the leaves from a spray of beech in her hand. Audrey looked at us, eating the beech leaves steadily, but would not answer, not even ‘Where’s your father to?’ For in Somerset the ‘to’ is put last, and must never be omitted; thus, instead of saying ‘I bought this at Taunton,’ it is correct to say ‘I bought this to Taunton.’ There are models under glass cases in places of entertainment with a notice to say that if a penny be inserted the machine will go. Audrey the Little would not speak, but when a penny was put in her hand she began to move, and made off for home with the treasure. The road turned and turned, but whichever way the Barle was always under us, and the red rock rose high at the side. This rock fractures aslant if worked, vast flakes come out, and the cleavage is so natural that until closely approached a quarry appears a cliff. Stone got out in squares, or cut down straight, leaves an artificial wall; these rocks cannot be made to look artificial, and if painted a quarry would be certainly quite indistinguishable from a natural precipice. Entering a little town (Dulverton) the road is jammed tight between cottages: so narrow is the lane that foot passengers huddle up in doorways to avoid the touch of the wheels, and the windows of the houses are protected by iron bars like cages lest the splash-boards should crack the glass. Nowhere in closest-built London is there such a lane–one would imagine land to be dear indeed. The farm labourers, filing homewards after their day’s work, each carry poles of oak or fagots on their shoulders for their hearths, generally oak branches; it is their perquisite. The oak somehow takes root among the interstices of the stones of this rocky land. Past the houses the rush! rush! of the brown Barle rises again in the still evening air.

From the Devon border I drifted like a leaf detached from a tree, across to a deep coombe in the Quantock Hills. The vast hollow is made for repose and lotus-eating; its very shape, like a hammock, indicates idleness. There the days go over noiselessly and without effort, like white summer clouds. Ridges each side rise high and heroically steep–it would be proper to set out and climb them, but not to-day, not now: some time presently. To the left massive Will’s Neck stands out in black shadow defined and distinct, like a fragment of night in the bright light of the day. The wild red deer lie there, but the mountain is afar; a sigh is all I can give to it, for the Somerset sun is warm and the lotus sweet Yonder, if the misty heat moves on, the dim line of Dunkery winds along the sky, not unlike the curved back of a crouching hare. The weight of the mountains is too great–what is the use of attempting to move? It is enough to look at them. The day goes over like a white cloud; as the sun declines it is pleasant to go into the orchard–the vineyard of Somerset, and then perhaps westward may be seen a light in the sky by the horizon as if thrown up from an immense mirror under. The mirror is the Severn sea, itself invisible at this depth, but casting a white glow up against the vapour in the air. By it you may recognise the nearness of the sea. The thumb-nail ridges of the Quantocks begin to grow harder, they carry the eye along on soft curves like those of the South Downs in Sussex, but suddenly end in a flourish and point as if cut out with the thumb-nail. Draw your thumb-nail firmly along soft wood, and it will, by its natural slip, form such a curve. Blackbird and thrush commence to sing as the heavy heat decreases; the bloom on the apple trees is loose now, and the blackbird as he springs from the bough shakes down flakes of blossom.

Towards even a wind moves among the lengthening shadows, and my footsteps involuntarily seek the glen, where a streamlet trickles down over red flat stones which resound musically as the water strikes them. Ferns are growing so thickly in the hedge that soon it will seem composed of their fronds; the first June rose hangs above their green tips. A water-ousel with white breast rises and flies on; again disturbed, he makes a circle, and returns to the stream behind. On the moist earth there is the print of a hare’s pad; here is a foxglove out in flower; and now as the incline rises heather thickens on the slope. Sometimes we wander beside the streamlet which goes a mile into the coombe–the shadow is deep and cool in the vast groove of the hill, the shadow accumulates there, and is pressed by its own weight–up slowly as far as the ‘sog,’ or peaty place where the spring rises, and where the sundew grows. Sometimes climbing steep and rocky walls–scarce sprinkled with grass–we pause every other minute to look down on the great valley which reaches across to Dunkery. The horned sheep, which are practically wild, like wild creatures, have worn out holes for themselves to lie in beside the hill. If resolution is strong, we move through the dark heather (soon to be purple), startling the heath-poults, or black game, till at last the Channel opens, and the far-distant Flat and Steep Holms lie, as it looks, afloat on the dim sea. This is labour enough; stern indeed must be the mind that could work at summer’s noon in Somerset, when the apple vineyards slumber; when the tall foxgloves stand in the heavy heat and the soft air warms the deepest day-shadow so that nothing is cool to the touch but the ferns. Is there anything so good as to do nothing? …

Everywhere wild strawberries were flowering on the banks–wild strawberries have been found ripe in January here; everywhere ferns were thickening and extending, foxgloves opening their bells. Another deep coombe led me into the mountainous Quantocks, far below the heather, deep beside another trickling stream. In this land the sound of running water is perpetual, the red flat stones are resonant, and the speed of the stream draws forth music like quick fingers on the keys; the sound of running water and the pleading voice of the willow-wren are always heard in summer. Among the oaks growing on the steep hill-side the willow-wrens repeated their sweet prayer; the water as it ran now rose and now fell; there was a louder note as a little stone was carried over a fall. The shadow came slowly out from the oak-grown side of the coombe, it reached to the margin of the brook. Under the oaks there appears nothing but red stones, as if the trees were rooted in them; under the boughs probably the grass does not cover the rock as it does on the opposite side. There mountain-ashes flowered in loose order on the green slope. Redstarts perched on them, darting out to seize passing insects. Still deeper in the coombe the oaks stood on either side of the stream; it was the beginning of woods which reach for miles, in which occasionally the wild red deer wander, and drink at the clear waters. By now the shadow of the western hill-top had crossed the brooklet, and the still coombe became yet more silent. There was an alder, ivy-grown, beside the stream–a tree with those lines which take an artist’s fancy. Under the roots of alders the water-ousel often creeps by day, and the tall heron stalks past at night. Receding up the eastern slope of the coombe the sunlight left the dark alder’s foliage in the deep shadow of the hollow. I went up the slope till I could see the sun, and waited; in a few minutes the shadow reached me, and it was sunset; I went still higher, and presently the sun set again. A cool wind was drawing up the coombe, it was dusky in the recesses of the oaks, and the water of the stream had become dark when we emerged from the great hollow, and yet without the summer’s evening had but just commenced, and the banks were still heated by the sun.”

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