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THE wayside is open to all, and that which it afford. may be enjoyed without fee; therefore it is that I return to it so often. It is a fact that common hedgerows often yield more of general interest than the innermost recesses of carefully guarded preserves, which by day are frequently still, silent, and denuded of everything, even of game; nor can flowers flourish in such thick shade, nor where fir-needles cover the ground.
By the same wayside of which I have already spoken there is a birch copse, through which runs a road open to foot passengers, but not to wheel traffic, and also a second footpath. From these a little observation will show that almost all the life and interest of the copse is at, or near, the edge, and can be readily seen without trespassing a single yard. Sometimes, when it is quiet in the evening and the main highway is comparatively deserted, a hare comes stealing down the track through the copse, and after lingering there awhile crosses the . highway into the stubble on the other side.
In one of these fields, just opposite the copse, a covey of partridges had their rendezvous, and I watched them , from the road, evening after evening, issue one by one, calling as they appeared from a breadth of marigolds. Their sleeping-place seemed to be about a hundred yards ''from the wayside. Another arable field just opposite is it bounded by the road with iron wire or railing, instead of a hedge, and the low mound in which the stakes are fixed swarmed one summer with ant-hills full of eggs, and a slight rustle in the corn as I approached told where the parent bird had just led her chicks from the feast to shelter.
Passing into the copse by the road, which is metalled but weed-grown from lack of use, the grasshoppers sing from the sward at the sides, but the birds are silent as the summer ends. Pink striped bells of convolvulus flower over the flints and gravel, the stones nearly hidden by their runners and leaves; yellow toadflax or eggs and bacon grew here till a weeding took place, since which it has not reappeared, but in its place viper's bugloss sprang up, a plant which was not previously to be found there. Hawkweeds, some wild vetches, white yarrow, thistles, and burdocks conceal the flints yet further, so that the track has the appearance of a green drive.
The slender birch and ash poles are hung with woodbine and wild hops, both growing in profusion. A cream-coloured wall of woodbine in flower extends in one spot, in another festoons of hops hang gracefully, and so thick as to hide everything beyond them. There is scarce a stole without its woodbine or hops; many of 1 the poles, though larger than the arm, are scored with spiral grooves left by the bines. Under these bushes of woodbine the nightingales when they first arrive in spring are fond of searching for food, and dart on a grub with a low satisfied "kurr."
The place is so favourite a resort with these birds that I it might well be called Nightingale Copse. Four or five may be heard singing at once on a warm May morning, and at least two may often be seen as well as heard at the same time. They sometimes sing from the trees, as I well as from the bushes; one was singing one morning, on an elm branch which projected over the road, and under which the van drivers jogged indifferently along. Sometimes they sing from the dark foliage of the Scotch firs.
As the summer wanes they haunt the hawthorn hedge by the roadside, leaving the interior of the copse, and may often be seen on the dry and dusty sward. When chiffchaff and willow-wren first come they remain in the treetops, but in the summer descend into the lower bushes, and, like the nightingales, come out upon the sward by the wayside. Nightingale Copse is also a great favourite with cuckoos. There are a few oaks in it, and in the meadows in the rear many detached hawthorn bushes, and two or three small groups of trees, chestnuts, lime, and elm. From the hawthorns to the elms, and from the elms to the oaks, the cuckoos continually circulate, calling as they fly.
One morning in May, while resting on a rail in the copse, I heard four calling close by, the furthest not a hundred yards distant, and as they continually changed their positions flying round there was always one in sight. They circled round, singing; the instant one ceased another took it up, a perfect madrigal. In the evening, at eight o'clock, I found them there again, still singing. The same detached groups of trees are much frequented by wood-pigeons, especially towards autumn.
Rooks prefer to perch on the highest branches, wood-pigeons more in the body of the tree, and when the boughs are bare of leaves a flock of the latter may be recognised in this way as far as the eye can see, and when the difference of colour is rendered imperceptible by distance. The wood-pigeon when perched has a rounded appearance; the rook a longer and sharper outline.
By one corner of the copse there is an oak, hollow within, but still green and flourishing. The hollow is black and charred; some mischievous boys must have lighted a fire inside it, just as the ploughboys do in the far away country. A little pond in the meadow close by is so overhung by another oak, and so surrounded with bramble and hawthorn, that the water lies in perpetual shade. It is just the spot where, if rabbits were about, one might be found sitting out on the bank under the brambles. This overhanging oak was broken by the famous October snow, 188o, further splintered by the gales of the next year, and its trunk is now split from top to bottom as if with wedges.
These meadows in spring are full of cowslips, and in one part the meadow-orchis flourishes. The method of making cowslip balls is universally known to children, from the most remote hamlet to the very verge of London, and the little children who dance along the green sward by the road here, if they chance to touch a nettle, at once search for a dock leaf to lay on it and assuage the smart. Country children, and indeed older folk, call the foliage of the knotted figwort cutfinger leaves, as they are believed to assist the cure of a cut or sore.
Raspberry suckers shoot up in one part of the copse; the fruit is doubtless eaten by the birds. Troops of them come here, travelling along the great hedge by the wayside, and all seem to prefer the outside trees and bushes! to the interior of the copse. This great hedge is as wide as a country double mound, though it has but one ditch; the thick hawthorn, blackthorn, elder, and bramble the oaks, elms, ashes, and firs form, in fact, almost a cover of themselves.
In the early spring, when the east wind rushes with bitter energy across the plains, this immense hedge, as far as it extends, shelters the wayfarer, the road being on the southern side, so that he can enjoy such gleams of sunshine as appear. In summer the place is, of course for the same reason, extremely warm, unless the breeze chances to come up strong from the west, when it sweeps over the open cornfields fresh and sweet. Stoats and weasels are common on the mound, or crossing the road to the corn; they seem more numerous in autumn, and I fear leveret and partridge are thinned by them.
Mice abound; in spring they are sometimes up in the blackthorn bushes, perhaps for the young buds. In summer they may often be heard rushing along the furrows across the wayside sward, scarce concealed by the wiry grass. Flowers are very local in habit; the spurge, for instance, which is common in a road parallel to this, is not to be seen, and not very much cow-parsnip, or "gix," one of the most freely-growing hedge plants, which almost chokes the mounds near by. Willowherbs, however, fill every place in the ditch here where they can find room between the bushes, and the arum is equally common, but the lesser celandine absent.
Towards evening, as the clover and vetches closed their leaves under the dew, giving the fields a different aspect and another green, I used occasionally to watch from here a pair of herons, sailing over in their calm serene way. Their flight was in the direction of the Thames, and they then passed evening after evening, but the following summer they did not come. One evening, later on in autumn, two birds appeared descending across the cornfields towards a secluded hollow where there was water, and, although at a considerable distance, from their manner of flight I could have no doubt they were [ teal.
The spotted leaves of the arum appeared in the ditches in this locality very nearly simultaneously with the first whistling of the blackbirds in February; last spring the chiffchaff sang soon after the flowering of the lesser celandine (not in this hedge, but near by), and the first swift was noticed within a day or two of the opening of the May bloom. Although not exactly, yet in a measure, the movements of plant and bird life correspond.
In a closely cropped hedge opposite this great mound (cropped because enclosing a cornfield) there grows a solitary shrub of the wayfaring tree. Though well known elsewhere, there is not, so far as I am aware, another bush of it for miles, and I should not have noticed this . had not this part of the highway been so pleasant a place to stroll to and fro in almost all the year. The twigs of the wayfaring tree are covered with a mealy substance which comes off on the fingers when touched. A stray shrub or plant like this sometimes seems of more interest than a whole group.
For instance, most of the cottage gardens have foxgloves in them, but I had not observed any wild, till one afternoon near some woods I found a tall and beautiful foxglove, richer in colour than the garden specimens, and with bells more thickly crowded, lifting its spike of purple above the low cropped hawthorn. In districts where the soil is favourable to the foxglove it would not have been noticed, but here, alone and unexpected, it was welcomed. The bees in spring come to the broad wayside sward by the great mound to the bright dandelions; presently to the white clover, and later to the heaths.
There are about sixty wild flowers which grow freely along this road, namely, yellow agrimony, amphibious persicaria, arum, avens, bindweed, bird's foot lotus, bittersweet, blackberry, black and white bryony, brook-lime, burdock, buttercups, wild camomile, wild carrot, celandine (the great and lesser), cinquefoil, cleavers, corn buttercup, corn mint, corn sowthistle, and spurrey, cowslip, cow-parsnip, wild parsley, daisy, dandelion, dead nettle, and white dog rose, and trailing rose, violets (the sweet and the scentless), figwort, veronica, ground ivy, willowherb (two sorts), herb Robert, honeysuckle, lady's smock, purple loosestrife, mallow, meadow-orchis, meadow-sweet, yarrow, moon daisy, St. John's wort, pimpernel, water plantain, poppy, rattles, scabious, self-heal, silverweed, sowthistle, stitchwort, teazles, tormentil, vetches, and yellow vetch.
To these may be added an occasional bacon and eggs, a few harebells (plenty on higher ground, the yellow iris, by the adjoining brook, and flowering shrubs and trees, as dogwood, gorse, privet, blackthorn, hawthorn, horse chestnut, besides wild hops, the horsetails on the mounds, and such plants as grow everywhere, as chickweed, groundsel, and so forth. A solitary shrub of mug-wort grows at some distance, but in the same district, and in one hedgerow the wild guelder rose flourishes. Anemones and primroses are not found along or near this road, nor woodruff. At the first glance a list like this reads as if flowers abounded, but the reverse is the impression to those who frequent the place.
It is really a very short list, and as of course all of these do not appear at once there really is rather a scarcity of wild flowers, so far at least as variety goes. Just in the spring there is a burst of colour, and again in the autumn; but for the rest, if we set aside the roses in June, there seems quite an absence of flowers during the summer. The wayside is green, the ditches are green, the mounds green; if you enter and stroll round the meadows, they are green too, or white in places with umbelliferous plants, principally parsley and cow-parsnip.
But these become monotonous. Therefore, I am constrained to describe it as a district somewhat lacking flowers, meaning, of course, in point of variety.
Compared with the hedges and fields of Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Berkshire, and similar south-western localities, it seems flowerless. On the other hand, southern London can boast stretches of heath, which, when in full bloom, rival Scotch hillsides. These remarks are written entirely from a non-scientific point of view. Professional botanists may produce lists of thrice the length, and prove that all the flowers of England are to be found near London. But it will not alter the fact that to the ordinary eye the roads and lanes just south of London are in the middle of the summer comparatively bare of colour. They should be visited in spring and autumn.
Nor do the meadows seem to produce so many varieties of grass as farther to the south-west. But beetles of every kind and size, from the great stag beetle, helplessly floundering through the evening air and clinging to your coat, down to the green, bronze, and gilded species that hasten across the path, appear extremely numerous. Warm, dry sands, light soils, and furze and heath are probably favourable to them.
From this roadside I have seldom heard the corn-crake, and never once the grasshopper lark. These two birds are so characteristic of the meadows in southwestern counties that a summer evening seems silent to me without the "crake, crake!" of the one and the singular sibilous rattle of the other. But they come to other places not far distant from the road, and one summer a grasshopper-lark could be heard in some meadows where I had not heard it the two preceding seasons. On the mounds field crickets cry persistently.
At the end of the hedge which is near a brook, a sedge-reedling takes up his residence in the spring. The sedge-reedlings here begin to call very early; the first date I have down is the 16th of April, which is, I think, some weeks before they begin in other localities. In one ditch beside the road (not in this particular hedge) there grows a fine bunch of reeds. Though watery, on account of the artificial drains from the arable fields, the spot is on much higher ground than the brook, and it is a little singular that while reeds flourish in this place they are not to be found by the brook.
The elms of the neighbourhood, wherever they can be utilised as posts, are unmercifully wired, wires twisted round, holes bored and the ends of wire driven in or staples inserted, and the same with the young oaks. Many trees are much disfigured from this cause, the bark is worn off on many; and others, which have recovered, have bulging rings, where it swelled up over the iron. The heads of large nails and staples are easily discovered where the wire has disappeared, sometimes three or four, one above the other, in the same tree. A fine avenue of elms which shades part of a suburb appears to be dying by degrees the too common fate of elms in such places.
How many beautiful trees have thus perished near London? witness the large elms that once stood in Jews' Walk, at Sydenham. Barking the trunks for sheer wanton mischief is undoubtedly the cause in some cases, and it has been suggested that quicksilver has occasionally been inserted in gimlet holes. The mercury is supposed to work up the channels of the sap, and to prevent its flow.
But may not the ordinary conditions of suburban improvement often account for the decay of such trees without occult causes? Sewers carry away the water that used to moisten the roots, and being at some depth, they not only take the surface water of a storm before it has had time to penetrate, but drain the lower stratum completely. Then, gas-pipes frequently leak, so much so that the soil for yards is saturated and emits a smell of gas. Roots passing through such a soil can scarcely be healthy, and very probably, in making excavations for laying pipes the roots are cut through. The young trees that have been planted in some places are, I notice, often bored by grubs to an extraordinary extent, and will never make sound timber.
One July day, while walking on this road, I happened to look over a gateway and saw that a large and prominent mansion on the summit of some elevated ground had apparently disappeared. The day was very clear and bright, sunny and hot, and there was no natural vapour. But on the light north-east wind there came slowly towards me a bluish-yellow mist, the edge of 1 which was clearly defined, and which blotted out distant objects and blurred those nearer at hand. The appearance of the open arable field over which I was looking changed as it approached.
In front of the wall of mist the sunshine lit the field up brightly, behind the ground was dull, and yet not in shadow. It came so slowly that its movement could be easily watched. When it went over me there was a perceptible coolness and a faint smell of damp smoke, and immediately the road, which had been white under the sunshine, took a dim, yellowish hue. The sun was not shut out nor even obscured, but the rays had to pass through a thicker medium. This haze was not thick enough to be called fog, nor was it the summer haze that in the country adds to the beauty of distant hills and woods.
It was clearly the atmosphere not the fog but simply the atmosphere of London brought out over the fields by a change in the wind, and prevented from diffusing itself by conditions of which nothing seems known. For at ordinary times the atmosphere of London diffuses itself in aerial space and is lost, but on this hot July day it came bodily and undiluted out into the cornfields. From its appearance I should say it would travel many miles in the same condition. In November fog seems seasonable: in hot and dry July this phenomenon was striking.
Along the road flocks of sheep continue to travel, some weary enough, and these, gravitating to the rear of the flock by reason of infirmity, lie down in the dust to rest, while their companions feed on the wayside sward. But the shepherds are careful of them, and do not hasten.
Shepherds here often carry the pastoral crook. In districts far from the metropolis you may wander about for days, and with sheep all round you, never see a shepherd with a crook; but near town the pastoral staff . is common. These flocks appear to be on their way to the southern down farms, and, as I said before, the shepherds are tender over their sheep and careful not to press them.
I regret that I cannot say the same about the bullocks, droves of which continually go by, often black cattle, and occasionally even the little Highland animals. The appearance of some of these droves is quite sufficient to indicate the treatment they have undergone. Staring eyes, heads continually turned from side to side, starting at everything, sometimes bare places on the shoulders, all tell the same tale of blows and brutal treatment.
Suburban streets which a minute before were crowded with ladies and children (most gentlemen are in town at midday) are suddenly vacated when the word passes that cattle are coming. People rush everywhere, into gardens, shops, back lanes, anywhere, as if the ringing scabbards of charging cavalry were heard, or the peculiar thumping rattle of rifles as they come to the "present" before a storm of bullets. It is no wonder that townsfolk exhibit a fear of cattle which makes their friends laugh when they visit the country after such experiences as these. This should be put down with a firm hand.
By the roadside here the hay tyers, who cut up the hayricks into trusses, use balances a trifling matter, but sufficient to mark a difference, for in the west such men use a steelyard slung on a prong, the handle of the prong on the shoulder and the points stuck in the rick, with which to weigh the trusses. Wooden cottages, wooden barns, wooden mills are also characteristic.
Mouchers come along the road at all times and seasons, gathering sacksful of dandelions in spring, digging up fern roots and cowslip mars for sale, cutting briars for standard roses, gathering water-cresses and mushrooms, and in the winter cutting rushes.
There is a rook with white feathers in the wing which belongs to an adjacent rookery, and I have observed a blackbird also streaked with white. One January day, when the snow was on the ground and the frost was sharp, when the pale sun seemed to shine brightest round the rim of the disk, as if there were a band of stronger light there, I saw a white animal under a heap of poles by the wayside, near the great hedge I have mentioned. It immediately concealed itself, but, thinking that it was a ferret gone astray, I waited, and presently the head and neck were cautiously protruded.
I made the usual call with the lips, but the creature instantly returned to cover. I waited again, hiding this time, and after an interval the creature moved and hastened away from the poles, where it was, in a measure, exposed, to the more secure shelter of some bushes. Then I saw that it was of a clear white, while so-called white ferrets are usually a dingy yellow, and the white tail was tipped with black. From these circumstances, and from the timidity and anxious desire to escape observation, I could only conclude that it was a white stoat.
Stoats, as remarked previously, are numerous in these hedges, and it was quite possible for a white one to be among them. The white stoat may be said to exactly resemble the ermine. The interest of the circumstance arises not from its rarity, but from its occurring so near the metropolis.