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.”