The Park in Early Summer

Rebecca Welshman

Tryon, Kate Allen, 1865-1952; Burderop Park, Wiltshire

Painting of Burderop Park by Kate Tryon

This extract is taken from Jefferies’ first book of critical acclaim The Gamekeeper at Home, first published in serial form in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1878. Jefferies befriended the gamekeeper Benny Haylock, of the Burderop Estate near Coate, Swindon, and accompanied him on his rounds. This extract connects with our previous post about the Roman Brook. The skeletons that come to light, and the idea that the tapestry of our environment is thickly interwoven with dead or past states, resonates even more as we step deeper into summer. The brightness of the hawthorn bloom, the lights of the horse chestnut candelabra and the flowering crab apple have emerged out of the season of loss and decay that preceded them. Human conflict has stained the ground, Jefferies says, yet the flowers still bloom.

“In summer from out the leafy chambers of the limes there falls the pleasant sound of bees innumerable, the voice of whose trembling wings lulls the listening ear as the drowsy sunshine weighs the eyelid till I walk the avenue in a dream. It leads out into the park—no formal gravel drive, simply a footpath on the sward between the flowering trees: a path that becomes less and less marked as I advance, and finally fades away, where the limes cease, in the broad level of the opening “greeny field.” These honey-bees seem to fly higher and to exhibit much more activity than the great humble-bee: here in the limes they must be thirty feet above the ground. Wasps also frequently wing their way at a considerable elevation, and thus it is that the hive-bee and the wasp so commonly enter the upper windows of houses. When its load of honey is completed, the bee, too, returns home in a nearly straight line, high enough in the air to pass over hedges and such obstacles without the labour of rising up and sinking again.

The heavy humble-bee is generally seen close to the earth, and often goes down into the depths of the dry ditches, and may there be heard buzzing slowly along under the arch of briar and bramble. He seems to lose his way now and then in the tangled undergrowth of the woods; and if a footstep disturbs and alarms him, it is amusing to see his desperate efforts to free himself hastily from the interlacing grass-blades and ferns.

When the sap is rising, the bark of the smaller shoots of the lime-tree “slips” easily—i.e. it can be peeled in hollow cylinders if judiciously tapped and loosened by gentle blows from the back of a knife. The ploughboys know this, and make whistles out of such branches, as they do also from the willow, and even the sycamore in the season when the sap comes up in its flood-tide.

It is difficult to decide at what time of the year the park is in its glory. The may-flower on the great hawthorn trees in spring may perhaps claim the pre-eminence, filling the soft breeze with exquisite odour. These here are trees, not bushes, standing separate, with thick gnarled stems so polished by the constant rubbing of cattle as almost to shine like varnish. The may-bloom, pure white in its full splendour, takes a dull reddish tinge as it fades, when a sudden shake will bring it down in showers. A flowering tree, I fancy, looks best when apart and not one of a row. In the latter case you can only see two sides and not all round it. Here tall horse-chestnut trees stand single—one great silvery candelabrum of blossom. Wood-pigeons appear to have a liking for this tree. Nor must the humble crab-tree be forgotten; a crab-tree in bloom is a lovely sight.

The idea of a park is associated with peace and pleasure, yet even here there is one spot where the passions of men have left their mark. As previously hinted, the gamekeeper, like most persons with little book-learning and who take their impressions from nature, is somewhat superstitious, and regards this place as “unkid”—i.e. weird, uncanny. One particular green “drive” into the wood opening on the park had always been believed to be a part of a military track used many ages ago, but long since ploughed up for the greater part of its length, and only preserved here by the accident of passing through a wood. At last some labourers grubbing trees near the mouth of the drive came upon a number of human skeletons, close beneath the surface, and in their confused arrangement presenting every sign of hasty interment, as if after battle. Since then the keeper avoids the spot; nor will he, hardy as he is, go near it at night; not even in the summer moonlight, when the night is merely a prolongation of the day.

There is nothing unusual in such a discovery: skeletons are found in all manner of places. I recollect seeing one dug out from the bank of a brook within two feet of the stream. The place was perhaps in the olden time covered with forest (traces of forest are to be found everywhere, as in the names of hamlets), and therefore more concealed than at present. Or, possibly, the stream, in the slow passage of centuries, may have worn its way far from its original bed.

It is strange to think of, yet it is true enough, that, beautiful as the country is, with its green meadows and graceful trees, its streams and forests and peaceful homesteads, it would be difficult to find an acre of ground that has not been stained with blood. A melancholy reflection this, that carries the mind backwards, while the thrush sings on the bough, through the nameless skirmishes of the Civil War, the cruel assassinations of the rival Roses, down to the axes of the Saxons and the ghastly wounds they made. Everywhere under the flowers are the dead.”

horse chestnut tree

hawthorn bloom

‘A ROMAN BROOK’

SIMON COLEMAN

paola dastra brook in the woods

Here is the full text of Jefferies’ subtle and poignant short essay, ‘A Roman Brook’.  This is a work that, for me, opens up creative pathways for thought – pathways into deep questions about life, death, love and time. The brook nourishes both the life of the fields and human life and it seems to wind through time as well as through the fields.  Jefferies explores the highly visual character of his memory which seems to acquire greater importance after he has reminded us that the brook possesses no memories of him.  Throughout there are references to hidden, forgotten or disappearing things.  He observes that nature’s beauty does not exist for human admiration, but for purposes beyond our ideas – a recurring theme in his late works.  The brook, having been associated with so much life, at the end reveals its melancholy secret.  Death, however long concealed, exists side by side with life.

 

The deceptively simple descriptions are coming directly from memory, shaped so as to present us with clear images – memory pictures.  His imagination adds some touches that point to a real depth of perception, such as  “…something that carries the mind home to primitive times”, and “… just where the ancient military way crosses the brook there grow the finest, the largest, the bluest, and most lovely forget-me-nots that ever lover gathered for his lady.”  And, typically, his beloved Homeric Greece is not left out.

 

‘A Roman Brook’

 

“The brook has forgotten me, but I have not forgotten the brook. Many faces have been mirrored since in the flowing water, many feet have waded in the sandy shallow. I wonder if any one else can see it in a picture before the eyes as I can, bright, and vivid as trees suddenly shown at night by a great flash of lightning. All the leaves and branches and the birds at roost are visible during the flash. It is barely a second; it seems much longer. Memory, like the lightning, reveals the pictures in the mind. Every curve, and shore, and shallow is as familiar now as when I followed the winding stream so often. When the mowing-grass was at its height, you could not walk far beside the bank; it grew so thick and strong and full of umbelliferous plants as to weary the knees. The life as it were of the meadows seemed to crowd down towards the brook in summer, to reach out and stretch towards the life-giving water. There the buttercups were taller and closer together, nails of gold driven so thickly that the true surface was not visible. Countless rootlets drew up the richness of the earth like miners in the darkness, throwing their petals of yellow ore broadcast above them. With their fulness of leaves the hawthorn bushes grow larger—the trees extend farther—and thus overhung with leaf and branch, and closely set about by grass and plant, the brook disappeared only a little way off, and could not have been known from a mound and hedge. It was lost in the plain of meads—the flowers alone saw its sparkle.

 

Hidden in those bushes and tall grasses, high in the trees and low on the ground, there were the nests of happy birds. In the hawthorns blackbirds and thrushes built, often overhanging the stream, and the fledglings fluttered out into the flowery grass. Down among the stalks of the umbelliferous plants, where the grasses were knotted together, the nettle-creeper concealed her treasure, having selected a hollow by the bank so that the scythe should pass over. Up in the pollard ashes and willows here and there wood-pigeons built. Doves cooed in the little wooded enclosures where the brook curved almost round upon itself. If there was a hollow in the oak a pair of starlings chose it, for there was no advantageous nook that was not seized on. Low beside the willow stoles the sedge-reedlings built; on the ledges of the ditches, full of flags, moor-hens made their nests. After the swallows had coursed long miles over the meads to and fro, they rested on the tops of the ashes and twittered sweetly. Like the flowers and grass, the birds were drawn towards the brook. They built by it, they came to it to drink; in the evening a grasshopper-lark trilled in a hawthorn bush. By night crossing the footbridge a star sometimes shone in the water underfoot. At morn and even the peasant girls came down to dip; their path was worn through the mowing-grass, and there was a flat stone let into the bank as a step to stand on. Though they were poorly habited, without one line of form or tint of colour that could please the eye, there is something in dipping water that is Greek—Homeric—something that carries the mind home to primitive times. Always the little children came with them; they too loved the brook like the grass and birds. They wanted to see the fishes dart away and hide in the green flags: they flung daisies and buttercups into the stream to float and catch awhile at the flags, and float again and pass away, like the friends of our boyhood, out of sight. Where there was pasture roan cattle came to drink, and horses, restless horses, stood for hours by the edge under the shade of ash trees. With what joy the spaniel plunged in, straight from the bank out among the flags—you could mark his course by seeing their tips bend as he brushed them swimming. All life loved the brook.

 

Far down away from roads and hamlets there was a small orchard on the very bank of the stream, and just before the grass grew too high to walk through I looked in the enclosure to speak to its owner. He was busy with his spade at a strip of garden, and grumbled that the hares would not let it alone, with all that stretch of grass to feed on. Nor would the rooks; and the moor-hens ran over it, and the water-rats burrowed; the wood-pigeons would have the peas, and there was no rest from them all. While he talked and talked, far from the object in hand, as aged people will, I thought how the apple tree in blossom before us cared little enough who saw its glory. The branches were in bloom everywhere, at the top as well as at the side; at the top where no one could see them but the swallows. They did not grow for human admiration: that was not their purpose; that is our affair only—we bring the thought to the tree. On a short branch low down the trunk there hung the weather-beaten and broken handle of an earthenware vessel; the old man said it was a jug, one of the old folks’ jugs—he often dug them up. Some were cracked, some nearly perfect; lots of them had been thrown out to mend the lane. There were some chips among the heap of weeds yonder. These fragments were the remains of Anglo-Roman pottery. Coins had been found—half a gallon of them—the children had had most. He took one from his pocket, dug up that morning; they were of no value, they would not ring. The labourers tried to get some ale for them, but could not; no one would take the little brass things. That was all he knew of the Caesars: the apples were in fine bloom now, weren’t they?

 

Fifteen centuries before there had been a Roman station at the spot where the lane crossed the brook. There the centurions rested their troops after their weary march across the downs, for the lane, now bramble-grown and full of ruts, was then a Roman road. There were villas, and baths, and fortifications; these things you may read about in books. They are lost now in the hedges, under the flowering grass, in the ash copses, all forgotten in the lane, and along the footpath where the June roses will bloom after the apple blossom has dropped. But just where the ancient military way crosses the brook there grow the finest, the largest, the bluest, and most lovely forget-me-nots that ever lover gathered for his lady.

 

The old man, seeing my interest in the fragments of pottery, wished to show me something of a different kind lately discovered. He led me to a spot where the brook was deep, and had somewhat undermined the edge. A horse trying to drink there had pushed a quantity of earth into the stream, and exposed a human skeleton lying within a few inches of the water. Then I looked up the stream and remembered the buttercups and tall grasses, the flowers that crowded down to the edge; I remembered the nests, and the dove cooing; the girls that came down to dip, the children that cast their flowers to float away. The wind blew the loose apple bloom and it fell in showers of painted snow. Sweetly the greenfinches were calling in the trees: afar the voice of the cuckoo came over the oaks. By the side of the living water, the water that all things rejoiced in, near to its gentle sound, and the sparkle of sunshine on it, had lain this sorrowful thing.”