Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
SANDOWN has become one of the most familiar places near the metropolis, but the fir woods at the back of it are perhaps scarcely known to exist by many who visit the fashionable knoll. Though near at hand, they are shut off by the village of Esher; but a mile or two westwards, down the Portsmouth highway, there is a cart road on the left hand which enters at once into "the woods.
The fine white sand of the soil is only covered by a thin coating of earth formed from the falling leaves and decayed branches, so thin that it may sometimes be rubbed away by the foot or even the fingers. Grass and moss grow sparingly in the track, but wherever wheels or footsteps have passed at all frequently the sand is exposed in white streaks under the shadowy firs. In grass small objects often escape observation, but on such a bare surface everything becomes visible. Coming to one of these places on a summer day, I saw a stream of insects crossing and recrossing, from the fern upon one side to the fern upon the other.
They were ants, but of a very much larger species than the little red-and-black "emmets" which exist in the meadows. These horse ants were not much less than half an inch in length, with a round spot at each end like beads, or the black top of long pins. The length of their legs enabled them to move much quicker, and they raced to and fro over the path with great rapidity. The space covered by the stream was a foot or more broad, all of which was crowded and darkened by them, and as there was no cessation in the flow of this multitude, their numbers must have been immense.
Standing a short way back, so as not to interfere with their proceedings, I saw two of these insects seize hold of a twig, one at each end. The twig, which was dead and dry, and had dropped from a fir, was not quite so long as a match, but rather thicker. They lifted this stick with ease, and carried it along, exactly as labourers carry a plank. A few short blades of grass being in the way they ran up against them, but stepped aside, and so got by. A cart which had passed a long while since had forced down the sand by the weight of its load, leaving a ridge about three inches high, the side being perpendicular.
Till they came to this cliff the two ants moved parallel, but here one of them went first, and climbed up the bank with its end of the stick, after which the second followed and brought up the other. An inch or two farther, on the level ground, the second ant left hold and went away, and the first laboured on with the twig and dragged it unaided across the rest of the path. Though many other ants stayed and looked at the twig a moment, none of them now offered assistance, as if the chief obstacle had been surmounted.
Several other ants passed, each carrying the slender needles which fall from firs, and which seemed nothing in their powerful grasp. These burdens of wood all went in one direction, to the right of the path.
I took a step there, but stayed to watch two more ants, who had got a long scarlet fly between them, one holding it by the head and the other by the tail. They were hurrying their prey over the dead leaves and decayed sticks which strewed the ground, and dragging it mercilessly through moss and grass. I put the tip of my stick on the victim, but instead of abandoning it they tugged and pulled desperately, as if they would have torn it to pieces rather than have yielded. So soon as I released it away they went through the fragments of branches, rushing the quicker for the delay.
A little farther there was a spot where the ground for a yard or two was covered with small dead brown leaves, last year's, apparently of birch, for some young birch saplings grew close by. One of these leaves suddenly rose up and began to move of itself, as it seemed; an ant had seized it, and holding it by the edge travelled on, so that as the insect was partly hidden under it, the leaf appeared to move alone, now over sticks and now under them. It reminded me of the sight which seemed so wonderful to the early navigators when they came to a country where, as they first thought, the leaves were alive and walked about.
The ant with the leaf went towards a large heap of rubbish under the sapling birches. While watching the innumerable multitude of these insects, whose road here crossed these dead dry leaves, I became conscious of a rustling sound, which at first I attributed to the wind, but seeing that the fern was still, and that the green leaves of a Spanish chestnut opposite did not move, I began to realise that this creeping, rustling noise, distinctly audible, was not caused by any wind, but by the thousands upon thousands of insects passing over the dead leaves and among the grass. Stooping down to listen better, there could be no doubt of it: it was the tramp of this immense army.
The majority still moved in one direction, and I found it led to the heap of rubbish over which they swarmed. This heap was exactly what might have been swept together by half-a-dozen men using long gardeners' brooms, and industriously clearing the ground under the firs of the fragments which had fallen from them. It appeared to be entirely composed of small twigs, fir-needles, dead leaves, and similar things. The highest part rose about level with my chest — say, between four and five feet — the heap was irregularly circular, and not less than three or four yards across, with sides gradually sloping. In the midst stood the sapling birches, their stumps buried in it, the rubbish having been piled up around them.
This heap was, in fact, the enormous nest or hill of a colony of horse ants. The whole of it had been gathered together, leaf by leaf, and twig by twig, just as I had seen the two insects carrying the little stick, and the third the brown leaf above itself. It really seemed some way round the outer circumference of the nest, and while walking round it was necessary to keep brushing off the ants which dropped on the shoulder from the branches of the birches. For they were everywhere; every inch of ground, every bough was covered with them. Even standing near it was needful to kick the feet continually against the black stump of a fir which had been felled to jar them off, and this again brought still more, attracted by the vibration of the ground.
The highest part of the mound was in the shape of a dome, a dome whitened by layers of fir-needles, which was apparently the most recent part and the centre of this year's operations. The mass of the heap, though closely compacted, was fibrous, and a stick could be easily thrust into it, exposing the eggs. No sooner was such an opening made, and the stick withdrawn from the gap, than the ants swarmed into it, falling headlong over upon each other, and filling the bottom with their struggling bodies. Upon leaving the spot, to follow the footpath, I stamped my feet to shake down any stray insects, and then took off my coat and gave it a thorough shaking.
Immense ant-hills are often depicted in the illustrations to tropical travels, but this great pile, which certainly contained more than a cartload, was within a few miles of Hyde Park Corner. From nests like this large quantities of eggs are obtained for feeding the partridges hatched from the eggs collected by mowers and purchased by keepers. Part of the nest being laid bare with any tool, the eggs are hastily taken out in masses and thrown into a sack. Some think that ant's eggs, although so favourite a food, are not always the most advantageous. Birds which have been fed freely on these eggs become fastidious, and do not care for much else, so that if the supply fails they fall off in condition. If there are sufficient eggs to last the season, then a few every day produce the best effect; if not they had better not have a feast followed by a fast.
The sense of having a roof overhead is felt in walking through a forest of firs like this, because the branches are all at the top of the trunks. The stems rise to the same height, and then the dark foliage spreading forms a roof. As they are not very near together the eye can see some distance between them, and as there is hardly any underwood or bushes — nothing higher than the fern — there is a space open and unfilled between the ground and the roof so far above.
A vast hollow extends on every side, nor is it broken by the flitting of birds or the rush of animals among the fern. The sudden note of a wood-pigeon, hoarse and deep, calling from a fir-top, sounds still louder and ruder in the spacious echoing vault beneath, so loud as at first to resemble the baying of a hound. The call ceases, and another of these watch-dogs of the woods takes it up afar off.
There is an opening in the monotonous firs by some rising ground, and the sunshine falls on young Spanish chestnuts and underwood, through which is a little-used footpath. If firs are planted in wildernesses with the view of ultimately covering the barren soil with fertile earth, formed by the decay of vegetable matter, it is, perhaps, open to discussion as to whether the best tree has been chosen. Under firs the ground is generally dry, too dry for decay; the resinous emanations rather tend to preserve anything that falls there.
No underwood or plants and little grass grows under them; these, therefore, which make soil quickest, are prevented from improving the earth. The needles of firs lie for months without decay; they are, too, very slender, and there are few branches to fall. Beneath any other trees (such as the edible chestnut and birch, which seem to grow here), there are the autumn leaves to decay, the twigs and branches which fall off, while grasses and plants flourish, and brambles and under-wood grow freely. The earth remains moist, and all these soon cause an increase of the fertility; so that, unless fir-tree timber is very valuable, and I never heard that it was, I would rather plant a waste with any other tree or brushwood, provided, of course, it would grow.
It is a pleasure to explore this little dell by the side of the rising ground, creeping under green boughs which brush the shoulders, after the empty space of the firs. Within there is a pond, where lank horsetails grow thickly, rising from the water. Returning to the rising ground I pursue the path, still under the shadow of the firs. There is no end to them — the vast monotony has no visible limit. The brake fern — it is early in July — has not yet reached its full height, but what that will be is shown by these thick stems which rise smooth and straight, fully three feet to the first frond.
A woodpecker calls, and the gleam of his green and gold is visible for a moment as he hastens away — the first bird, except the wood-pigeons, seen for an hour, yet there are miles of firs around. After a time the ground rises again, the tall firs cease, but are succeeded by younger firs. These are more pleasant because they do not exclude the sky. The sunshine lights the path, and the summer blue extends above. The fern, too, ceases, and the white sand is now concealed by heath, with here and there a dash of colour. Furze chats call, and flit to and fro; the hum of bees is heard once more — there was not one under the vacant shadow; and swallows pass overhead.
At last emerging from the firs the open slope is covered with heath only, but heath growing so thickly that even the narrow footpaths are hidden by the overhanging bushes of it. Some small bushes of furze here and there are dead and dry, but every prickly point appears perfect; when struck with the walking-stick the bush crumbles to pieces. Beneath and amid the heath what seems a species of lichen grows so profusely as to give a grey undertone. In places it supplants the heath, the ground is concealed by lichen only, which crunches under the foot like hoar-frost. Each piece is branched not unlike a stag's antlers; gather a handful and it crumbles to pieces in the fingers, dry and brittle.
A quarry for sand has been dug down some eight or ten feet, so that standing in it nothing else is visible. This steep scarp shows the strata, yellow sand streaked with thin brown layers; at the top it is fringed with heath in full flower, bunches of purple bloom overhanging the edge, and behind this the azure of the sky.
Here, where the ground slopes gradually, it is entirely covered with the purple bells; a sheen and gleam of purple light plays upon it. A fragrance of sweet honey floats up from the flowers where grey hive-bees are busy. Ascending still higher and crossing the summit, the ground almost suddenly falls away in a steep descent, and the entire hillside, seen at a glance, is covered with heath, and heath alone. A bunch at the very edge offers a purple cushion fit for a king; resting here a delicious summer breeze, passing over miles and miles of fields and woods yonder, comes straight from the distant hills. Along those hills the lines of darker green are woods; there are woods to the south, and west, and east, heath around, and in the rear the gaze travels over the tops of the endless firs. But southwards is sweetest; below, beyond the verge of the heath, the corn begins, and waves in the wind. It is the breeze that makes the summer day so lovely.
The eggs of the nighthawk are sometimes found at this season near by. They are laid on the ground, on the barest spots, where there is no herbage. At dusk, the nighthawk wheels with a soft yet quick flight over the ferns and about the trees. Along the hedges bounding the heath butcher-birds watch for their prey — sometimes on the furze, sometimes on a branch of ash. Wood-sage grows plentifully on the banks by the roads; it is a plant somewhat resembling a lowly nettle; the leaves have a hop-like scent, and so bitter and strong is the odour that immediately after smelling them the mouth for a moment feels dry with a sense of thirst.
The angle of a field by the woods on the eastern side of the heath, the entire corner, is blue in July with viper's bugloss. The stalks rise some two feet, and are covered with minute brown dots; they are rough, and the lower part prickly. Blue flowers in pairs, with pink stamens and pink buds, bloom thickly round the top, and as each plant has several stalks, it is very conspicuous where the grass is short.
There are hundreds of these flowers in this corner, and along the edge of the wood; a quarter of an acre is blue with them. So indifferent are people to such things that men working in the same field, and who had pulled up the plant and described its [root as like that of a dock, did not know its name. Yet they admired it. "It is an innocent-looking flower," they said, that is, pleasant to look at.
By the roadside I thought I saw something red under the long grass of the mound, and, parting the blades, found half-a-dozen wild strawberries. They were larger than usual, and just ripe. The wild strawberry is a little more acid than the cultivated, and has more flavour than would be supposed from its small size.
Descending to the lower ground again, the brake fills every space between the trees; it is so thick and tall that the cows which wander about, grazing at their will, each wear a bell slung round the neck, that their position may be discovered by sound. Otherwise it would be difficult to find them in the fern or among the firs. There are many swampy places here, which should be avoided by those who dislike snakes. The common harmless snakes are numerous in this part, and they always keep near water. They often glide into a mole's "angle," or hole, if found in the open.
Adders are known to exist in the woods round about, but are never, or very seldom, seen upon the heath itself. In the woods of the neighbourhood they are not uncommon, and are sometimes killed for the sake of the oil. The belief in the virtue of adder's fat, or oil, is still firm; among other uses it is considered the best thing for deafness, not, of course, resulting from organic defect. For deafness, the oil should be applied by pouring a small quantity into the ear, exactly in the same manner as in the play the poison is poured into the ear of the sleeping king. Cures are declared to be effected by this oil at the present day.
It is procured by skinning the adder, taking the fat, and boiling it; the result is a clear oil, which never thickens in the coldest weather. One of these reptiles on being killed and cut open was found to contain the body of a full-grown toad. The old belief that the young of the viper enters its mouth for refuge still lingers. The existence of adders in the woods here seems so undoubted that strangers should be a little careful if they eave the track. Viper's bugloss, which grows so freely by the heath, was so called because anciently it was thought to yield an antidote to the adder's venom.