Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
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"ALWAYS get over a stile," is the one rule that should ever be borne in mind by those who wish to see the land as it really is — that is to say, never omit to explore a footpath, for never was there a footpath yet which did not pass something of interest.
In the meadows, everything comes pressing lovingly up to the path. The small-leaved clover can scarce be driven back by frequent footsteps from endeavouring to cover the bare earth of the centre. Tall buttercups, round whose stalks the cattle have carefully grazed, stand in ranks; strong ox-eye daisies, with broad white disks and torn leaves, form with the grass the tricolour of the pasture — white, green, and gold.
When the path enters the mowing grass, ripe for the scythe, the simplicity of these cardinal hues is lost in the multitude of shades and the addition of other colours. The surface of mowing grass is indeed made up of so many tints that at the first glance it is confusing; and hence, perhaps, it is that hardly ever has an artist succeeded in getting the effect upon canvas. Of the million blades of grass no two are of the same shade.
Pluck a handful and spread them out side by side and this is at once evident. Nor is any single blade the same shade all the way up. There may be a faint yellow towards the root, a full green about the middle, at the tip perhaps the hot sun has scorched it, and there is a trace of brown. The older grass, which comes up earliest, is distinctly different in tint from that which has but just reached its greatest height, and in which the sap has not yet stood still.
Under all there is the new grass, short, sweet, and verdant, springing up fresh between the old, and giving a tone to the rest as you look down into the bunches. Some blades are nearly grey, some the palest green, and among them others, torn from the roots perhaps by rooks searching for grubs, are quite white. The very track of a rook through the grass leaves a different shade each side, as the blades are bent or trampled down.
The stalks of the bennets vary, some green, some yellowish, some brown, some approaching whiteness, according to age and the condition of the sap. Their tops, too, are never the same, whether the pollen clings to the surface or whether it has gone. Here the green is almost lost in red, or quite; here the grass has a soft, velvety look; yonder it is hard and wiry, and again graceful and drooping. Here there are bunches so rankly verdant that no flower is visible and no other tint but dark green; here it is thin and short, and the flowers, and almost the turf itself, can be seen; then there is an array of bennets (stalks which bear the grass-seed) with scarcely any grass proper.
Every variety of grass — and they are many — has its own colour, and every blade of every variety has its individual variations of that colour. The rain falls, and there is a darker tint at large upon the field, fresh but darker; the sun shines and at first the hue is lighter, but presently if the heat last a brown comes. The wind blows, and immediately as the waves of grass roll across the meadow a paler tint follows it.
A clouded sky dulls the herbage, a cloudless heaven brightens it, so that the grass almost reflects the firmament like water. At sunset the rosy rays bring out every tint of red or purple. At noonday, watch as alternate shadow and sunshine come one after the other as the clouds are wafted over. By moonlight perhaps the white ox-eyed daisies show the most. But never will you find the mowing grass in the same field looking twice alike.
Come again the day after to-morrow only, and there is a change; some of the grass is riper, some is thicker with further blades which have pushed up, some browner Cold northern winds cause it to wear a dry, withered aspect; under warm showers it visibly opens itself; in a hurricane it tosses itself wildly to and fro; it laughs under the sunshine.
There are thick bunches by the footpath, which hang over and brush the feet. While approaching there seems nothing there except grass, but in the act of passing, and thus looking straight down into them, there are blue eyes at the bottom gazing up. These specks of blue sky hidden in the grass tempt the hand to gather them, but then you cannot gather the whole field.
Behind the bunches where the grass is thinner are the heads of purple clover; pluck one of these, and while meditating draw forth petal after petal and imbibe the honey with the lips till nothing remains but the green framework, like stolen jewellery from which the gems have been taken. Torn pink ragged robins through whose petals a comb seems to have been remorselessly dragged, blue scabious, red knapweeds, yellow rattles, yellow vetchings by the hedge, white flowering parsley, white campions, yellow tormentil, golden buttercups, white cuckoo-flowers, dandelions, yarrow, and so on, all carelessly sown broadcast without order or method, just as negligently as they are named here, first remembered, first mentioned, and many forgotten.
Highest and coarsest of texture, the red-tipped sorrel — a crumbling red — so thick and plentiful that at sunset the whole mead becomes reddened. If these were in any way set in order or design, howsoever entangled, the eye might, as it were, get at them for reproduction. But just where there should be flowers there are none, whilst in odd places where there are none required there are plenty.
In hollows, out of sight till stumbled on, is a mass of colour; on the higher foreground only a dull brownish green. Walk all round the meadow, and still no vantage point can be found where the herbage groups itself, whence a scheme of colour is perceivable. There is no "artistic" arrangement anywhere.
So, too, with the colours — of the shades of green something has already been said — and here are bright blues and bright greens, yellows and pinks, positive discords
and absolute antagonisms of tint side by side, yet without jarring the eye. Green all round, the trees and hedges; blue overhead, the sky; purple and gold westward, where the sun sinks. No part of this grass can be represented by a blur or broad streak of colour, for it is not made up of broad streaks. It is composed of innumerable items of grass blade and flower, each in itself coloured and different from its neighbour. Not one of these must be slurred over if you wish to get the same effect.
Then there are drifting specks of colour which cannot be fixed. Butterflies, white, parti-coloured, brown, and spotted, and light blue flutter along beside the footpath; two white ones wheel about each other, rising higher at every turn till they are lost and no more to be distinguished against a shining white cloud. Large dark humble bees roam slowly, and honey bees with more decided flight. Glistening beetles, green and gold, run across the bare earth of the path, coming from one crack in the dry ground and disappearing in the (to them) mighty chasm of another.
Tiny green "hoppers" — odd creatures shaped something like the fancy frogs of children's story-books — alight upon it after a spring, and pausing a second, with another toss themselves as high as the highest bennet (veritable elm-trees by comparison), to fall anywhere out of sight in the grass, Reddish ants hurry over. Time is money; and their business brooks no delay.
Bee-like flies of many stripes and parti-coloured robes face you, suspended in the air with wings vibrating so swiftly as to be unseen; then suddenly jerk themselves a few yards to recommence hovering. A green-finch rises with a yellow gleam and a sweet note from the grass, and is off with something for his brood, or a starling, solitary now, for his mate is in the nest, startled from his questing, goes straight away.
Dark starlings, green-finch, gilded fly, glistening beetle, blue butterfly, humble bee with scarf about his thick waist, add their moving dots of colour to the surface. There is no design, no balance, nothing like a pattern perfect on the right-hand side, and exactly equal on the left-hand. Even trees which have some semblance of balance in form are not really so, and as you walk round them so their outline changes.
Now the path approaches a stile set deep in thorns and brambles, and hardly to be gained for curved hooks and prickles. But on the briars June roses bloom, arches of flowers over nettles, burdock, and rushes in the ditch beneath. Sweet roses — buds yet unrolled, white and conical; roses half open and pink tinted; roses widespread, the petals curling backwards on the hedge, abandoning their beauty to the sun. In the pasture over the stile a roan cow feeds unmoved, calmly content, gathering the grass with rough tongue. It is not only what you actually see along the path, but what you remember to have seen, that gives it its beauty.
From hence the path skirts the hedge enclosing a copse, part of which had been cut in the winter, so that a few weeks since in spring the bluebells could be seen, instead of being concealed by the ash branches and the woodbine. Among them grew one with white bells, like a lily, solitary in the midst of the azure throng. A "drive," or green lane passing between the ash-stoles, went into the copse, with tufts of tussocky grass on either side and rush bunches, till farther away the overhanging branches, where the poles were uncut, hid its course.
Already the grass has hidden the ruts left by the timber carriages — the last came by on May-day with ribbons of orange, red, and blue on the horses' heads for honour of the day. Another, which went past in the wintry weeks of the early year, was drawn by a team wearing the ancient harness with bells under high hoods, or belfries, bells well attuned, too, and not far inferior to those rung by handbell men. The beat of the three horses' hoofs sounds like the drum that marks time to the chime upon their backs. Seldom, even in the far away country, can that pleasant chime be heard. But now the timber is all gone, the ruts are hidden, and the tall spruce firs, whose graceful branches were then almost yellow with young needles on the tip, are now clothed in fresh green. On the bank there is a flower which is often gathered for the forget-me-not, and is not unlike it at the first glance; but if the two be placed side by side, this, the scorpion grass, is but a pale imitation of the true plant; its petals vary in colour and are often dull, and it has not the yellow central spot. Yet it is not unfrequently sold in pots in the shops as forget-me-not. It flowers on the bank, high above the water of the ditch.
The true forget-me-not can hardly be seen in passing, so much does it nestle under flags and behind sedges, and it is not easy to gather because it flowers on the very verge of the running stream. The shore is bordered with matted vegetation, aquatic grass, and flags and weeds, and outside these, where its leaves are washed and purified by the clear stream, its blue petals open. Be cautious, therefore, in reaching for the forget-me-not, lest the bank be treacherous.
It was near this copse that in early spring I stayed to gather some white sweet violets, for the true wild violet is very nearly white. I stood close to a hedger and ditcher, who, standing on a board, was cleaning out the mud that the water might run freely. He went on with his work, taking not the least notice of an idler, but intent upon his labour, as a good and true man should be. But when I spoke to him he answered me in clear, well-chosen language, well pronounced, "in good set terms."
No slurring of consonants and broadening of vowels, no involved and backward construction depending on the listener's previous knowledge for comprehension, no half sentences indicating rather than explaining, but correct sentences. With his shoes almost covered by the muddy water, his hands black and grimy, his brown face splashed with mud, leaning on his shovel he stood and talked from the deep ditch, not much more than head and shoulders visible above it. It seemed a voice from the very earth, speaking of education, change, and possibilities.
The copse is now filling up with undergrowth; the brambles are spreading, the briars extending, masses of nettles, and thistles like saplings in size and height, crowding the spaces between the ash-stoles. By the banks great cow-parsnips or "gix" have opened their broad heads of white flowers; teazles have lifted themselves into view, every opening is occupied. There is a scent of elder flowers, the meadow-sweet is pushing up, and will soon be out, and an odour of new-mown hay floats on the breeze.
From the oak green caterpillars slide down threads of their own making to the bushes below, but they are running terrible risk. For a pair of white-throats or "nettle-creepers" are on the watch, and seize the green creeping things crossways in their beaks. Then they perch on a branch three or four yards only from where I stand, silent and motionless, and glance first at me and next at a bush of bramble which projects out to the edge of the footpath. So long as my eyes are turned aside, or half closed, the bird perches on the branch, gaining confidence every moment. The instant I open my eyes, or move them, or glance towards him, without either movement of head, hand, or foot, he is off to the oak.
His tiny eyes are intent on mine; the moment he catches my glance he retires. But in half a minute affection brings him back, still with the caterpillar in his beak, to the same branch. Whilst I have patience to look the other way there he stays, but again a glance sends him away. This is repeated four or five times, till, finally, convinced that I mean no harm and yet timorous and fearful of betrayal even in the act, he dives down into the bramble bush.
After a brief interval he reappears on the other side of it, having travelled through and left his prey with his brood in the nest there. Assured by his success his mate follows now, and once having done it, they continue to bring caterpillars, apparently as fast as they can pass between the trees and the bush. They always enter the bush, which is scarcely two yards from me, on one side, pass through in the same direction, and emerge on the other side, having thus regular places of entrance and exit.
As I stand watching these birds a flock of rooks goes over, they have left the nesting trees, and fly together again. Perhaps this custom of nesting together in adjacent trees and using the same one year after year is not so free from cares and jealousies as the solitary plan of the little white-throats here. Last March I was standing near a rookery, noting the contention and quarrelling, the downright tyranny, and brigandage which is carried on there. The very sound of the cawing, sharp and angry, conveys the impression of hate and envy.
Two rooks in succession flew to a nest the owners of which were absent, and deliberately picked a great part of it to pieces, taking the twigs for their own use. Unless the rook, therefore, be ever in his castle his labour is torn down, and, as with men in the fierce struggle for wealth, the meanest advantages are seized on. So strong is the rook's bill that he tears living twigs of some size with it from the bough. The white-throats were without such envy and contention.
From hence the footpath, leaving the copse, descends into a hollow, with a streamlet flowing through a little meadow, barely an acre, with a pollard oak in the centre, the rising ground on two sides shutting out all but the sky, and on the third another wood. Such a dreamy hollow might be painted for a glade :n the Forest of .Arden, and there on the sward and leaning against the ancient oak one might read the play through without being disturbed by a single passer-by. A few steps farther and the stile opens on a road.
There the teams travel with rows of brazen spangles down their necks, some with a wheat-sheaf for design, some with a swan. The road itself, if you follow it, dips into a valley where the horses must splash through the water of a brook spread out some fifteen or twenty yards wide; for, after the primitive Surrey fashion, there is no bridge for waggons. A narrow wooden structure bears foot-passengers; you cannot but linger half across and look down into its clear stream. Up the current where it issues from the fields and falls over a slight obstacle the sunlight plays and glances.
A great hawthorn bush grows on the bank; in spring, white with May; in autumn, red with haws or peggles. To the shallow shore of the brook, where it washes the flints and moistens the dust, the house-martins come for mortar. A constant succession of birds arrive all day long to drink at the clear stream, often alighting on the fragments of chalk and flint which stand in the water, and are to them as rocks.
Another footpath leads from the road across the meadows to where the brook is spanned by the strangest bridge, built of brick, with one arch, but only just wide enough for a single person to walk, and with parapets only four or five inches high. It is thrown aslant the stream, and not straight across it, and has a long brick approach. It is not unlike — on a small scale — the bridges seen in views of Eastern travel. Another path leads to a hamlet, consisting of a church, a farmhouse, and three or four cottages — a veritable hamlet in every sense of the word.
In a village a few miles distant, as you walk between cherry and pear orchards, you pass a little shop — the sweets, and twine, and trifles are such as may be seen in similar windows a hundred miles distant. There is the very wooden measure for nuts, which has been used time out of mind, in the distant country. Out again into the road as the sun sinks, and westwards the wind lifts a cloud of dust, which lit up and made rosy by the rays passing through it. For such is the beauty of the sunlight that it can impart a glory even to dust.
Once more, never go by a stile (that does not look private) without getting over it and following the path. But they all end in one place. After rambling across furze and heath, or through dark fir woods; after lingering in the meadows among the buttercups, or by the copses where the pheasants crow; after gathering June roses, or, in later days, staining the lips with blackberries or cracking nuts, by-and-by the path brings you in sight of a railway station. And the railway station, through some process of mind, presently compels you to go up on the platform, and after a little puffing and revolution of wheels you emerge at Charing Cross, or London Bridge, or Waterloo, or Ludgate Hill, and, with the freshness of the meadows still clinging to your coat, mingle with the crowd.
The inevitable end of every footpath round about London is London. All paths go thither.
If it were far away in the distant country you might sit down in the shadow upon the hay and fall asleep, or dream awake hour after hour. There would be no inclination to move. But if you sat down on the sward under the ancient pollard oak in the little mead with the brook, and the wood of which I spoke just now as like a glade in the enchanted Forest of Arden, this would not be possible. It is the proximity of the immense City which induces a mental, a nerve-restlessness. As you sit and would dream a something plucks at the mind with constant reminder; you cannot dream for long, you must up and away, and, turn in which direction you please, ultimately it will lead you to London.
There is a fascination in it; there is a magnetism stronger than that of the rock which drew the nails from Sindbad's ship. You are like a bird let out with a string tied to the foot to flutter a little way and return again. It is not business, for you may have none, in the ordinary sense; it is not "society," it is not pleasure. It is the presence of man in his myriads. There is something in the heart which cannot be satisfied away from it.
It is a curious thing that your next-door neighbour may be a stranger, but there are no strangers in a vast crowd. They all seem to have some relationship, or rather, perhaps, they do not rouse the sense of reserve which a single unknown person might. Still, the impulse is not to be analysed; these are mere notes acknowledging its power. The hills and vales, and meads and woods are like the ocean upon which Sindbad sailed; but coming too near the loadstone of London, the ship wends thither, whether or no.
At least it is so with me, and I often go to London without any object whatever, but just because I must, and, arriving there, wander whithersoever the hurrying throng carries me.