A letter from Richard Jefferies to Oswald Crawfurd (1876) concerning Coate Farmhouse and Coate Water

Coate and May 048

Coate Farmhouse, the birthplace of Richard Jefferies (now the Richard Jefferies Museum)

Oswald Crawfurd edited the New Quarterly Magazine, to which Jefferies contributed papers on rural life during the 1870s. Crawfurd records being ‘immensely struck with the lucidity of these papers, the rare faculty of co-ordination possessed by the writer, and the strong, nervous, simple English which he had taught himself to use.’ In Jefferies’ writing, Crawfurd detected a ‘fresh, rhythmic note in style, the stamp of an original artist.’ A few years after Jefferies’ death, Crawfurd paid a visit to Coate Farm and found it, perhaps disappointingly so, to be ‘a plain, small, bare, rather poverty-stricken farm-house, by the roadside.’ He was more impressed by the ‘meadow land’ to the rear, through which a path led to the reservoir – ‘a picturesque and partly tree-embowered mere’. In 1898 Crawfurd published ‘Richard Jefferies: Field-Naturalist and Litterateur’ in The Idler, an illustrated magazine, in which he quoted several paragraphs of a letter Jefferies wrote to him in December 1876:

“I should certainly be pleased to meet you personally. My personal connection with farming is now almost at an end, though my father still retains his property at Coate. I find literature more congenial to my tastes, and have spent the greater part of the year near town. I expect I shall be there in the spring most of the time. I stay in Sydenham Park, at Shanklin Villa, where, if you should be in England, I should be glad to meet you. With respect to the Natural History papers, my principal ideas are these. While at home, having very little to do, I studied natural history from Nature – excuse the tautology. I used to take a gun for nominal occupation, and sit in the hedge for hours, noting the ways and habits even of moles and snails. I had my especial wasps-nest, and never was stung. The secret with all living creatures is – quiet. Be quiet, and you can form a connection, so to say, with everything, even with such a brute as the pike-fish. This went on for six or seven years – idle, you will say. Whether it was summer or winter, I would always find something to interest me, and, in time, extend these observations to the great Downs adjacent, which are literally teeming, so to say, with matter for thought. I own that the result has been a profound optimism – if one looks at Nature metaphysically. Since that pleasant time, which I still regret, I have corrected my notes and endeavoured to organise them by reading the best books I could find on such subjects, including geology. There is at Coate a reservoir – it is sixty years old, and looks quite as a lake – of some eighty acres of water. I think I could write a whole book on that great pond. I mapped it, and laid down the shallows and sand-banks, when I was a schoolboy, and I learnt how to manage a sailing boat on it. Even the mussels slowly crawling on the bottom, I believe, have taught me something. You can trace the action of the rain and frost and the waves on its banks, just as Lyell delineates the effect of the ocean on our coast line; of course, on a smaller scale, but the illustration is perfect. You can trace the action of the brook which feeds it – the sediment and sand carried down have formed shallows and banks, like the delta of a river. If the birds, that I and others have shot there, had been preserved – as now I wish they had been – they would form a little museum. My brother shot a brace of grebes there last week. The auk, the Northern diver, gulls of almost all varieties, come occasionally after storms. I should not attempt a laborious learned description, but rather choose a chatty style. I would endeavour to bring in some of the glamour – the magic of sunshine and green things and calm waters – if I could. It would give me much pleasure to write such articles for you”

Coate Reservoir, today part of Coate Water Country Park