Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Nature Near London
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo


THERE were ten magpies together on the 9th of September 1881, in a field of clover beside a road but twelve miles from Charing Cross. Ten magpies would be a large number to see at once anywhere in the south, and not a little remarkable so near town. The magpies were doubtless young birds which had packed, and were bred in the nests in the numerous elms of the hedgerows about there. At one time they were scattered over the field, their white and black colours dotted everywhere, so that they seemed to hold entire possession of it.

Then a knot of them gathered together, more came up, and there they were all ten fluttering and restlessly moving. After a while they passed on into the next field, which was stubble, and, collected in a bunch, were even more conspicuous there, as the stubble did not conceal them so much as the clover. That was on the 9th of September; by the end of the month weeds had grown so high that the stubble itself in that field had disappeared, and from a distance it looked like pasture. In the stubble the magpies remained till I could watch them no longer.

A short time afterwards, on the 17th of September, looking over the gateway of an adjacent field which had been wheat, then only recently carried, a pheasant suddenly appeared rising up out of the stubble; and then a second, and a third and fourth. So tall were the weeds that, in a crouching posture, at the first glance they were not visible; then as they fed, stretching their necks out, only the top of their backs could be seen. Presently some more raised their heads in another part of the field, then two more on the left side, and one under an oak by the hedge, till seventeen were counted.

These seventeen pheasants were evidently all young birds, which had wandered from covers, some distance, too, for there is no preserve within a mile at least. Seven or eight came near each other, forming a flock, but just out of gunshot from the road. They were all extremely busy feeding in the stubble. Next day half-a-dozen or so still remained, but the rest had scattered; some had gone across to an acre of barley yet standing in a corner; some had followed the dropping acorns along the hedge into another piece of stubble; others went into a breadth of turnips.

Day by day their numbers diminished as they parted, till only three or four could be seen. Such a sortie from cover is the standing risk of the game-preserver. Towards the end of September, on passing a barley-field, still partly uncut, and with some spread, there was a loud, confused, murmuring sound up in the trees, like that caused by the immense flocks of starlings which collect in winter. The sound, however, did not seem quite the same, and upon investigation it turned out to be an incredible number of sparrows, whose voices were audible across the field.

They presently flew out from the hedge, and alighted on one of the rows of cut barley, making it suddenly brown from one end to the other. There must have been thousands; they continually flew up, swept round with a whirring of wings, and settled, again darkening the spot they chose. Now, as the sparrow eats from morning to night without ceasing, say for about twelve hours, and picks up a grain of corn in the twinkling of an eye, it would be a moderate calculation to allow this vast flock two sacks a week. Among them there was one white sparrow his white wings showed distinctly among the brown flock. In the most remote country I never observed so great a number of these birds at once; the loss to the farmers must be considerable.

There were a few fine days at the end of the month. One afternoon there rose up a flock of rooks out of a large oak tree standing separate in the midst of an arable field which was then at last being ploughed. This oak is a favourite with the rooks of the neighbourhood, and they have been noticed to visit it more frequently than others. Up they went, perhaps a hundred of them, rooks and jackdaws together cawing and soaring round and round till they reached a great height. At that level, as if they had attained their ballroom, they swept round and round on outstretched wings, describing circles and ovals in the air. Caw-caw jack-juck-juck! Thus dancing in slow measure, they enjoyed the sunshine, full from their feast of acorns.

Often as one was sailing on another approached and interfered with his course when they wheeled about each other. Soon one dived. Holding his wings at full stretch and rigid, he dived headlong, rotating as he fell, till his beak appeared as if it would be driven into the ground by the violence of the descent. But within twenty feet of the earth he recovered himself and rose again. Most of these dives, for they all seemed to dive in turn, were made over the favourite oak, and they did not rise till they had gone down to its branches. Many appeared about to throw themselves against the boughs.

Whether they wheeled round in circles, or whether they dived, or simply sailed onward in the air, they did it in pairs. As one was sweeping round another came to him. As one sailed straight on a second closely followed. After one had dived the other soon followed, or waited till he had come up and rejoined him. They danced and played in couples as if they were paired already. Some left the main body and steered right away from their friends, but turned and came back, and in about half-an-hour they all descended and settled in the oak from which they had risen. A loud cawing and jack-juck-jucking accompanied this sally.

The same day it could be noticed how the shadows of the elms cast by the bright sunshine on the grass, which is singularly fresh and green this autumn, had a velvety appearance. The dark shadow on the fresh green looked soft as velvet. The waters of the brook had become darker now; they flowed smooth, and at the brink reflected a yellow spray of horse-chestnut. The sunshine made the greenfinches call, the chaffinches utter their notes, and a few thrushes sing; but the latter were soon silenced by frosts in the early morning, which turned the fern to so deep a reddish brown as to approach copper.

At the beginning of October a herd of cows and a small flock of sheep were turned into the clover field to eat off the last crop, the preceding crops having been mown. There were two or more magpies among the sheep every day: magpies, starlings, rooks, crows, and wagtails follow sheep about. The clover this year seems to have been the best crop, though in the district alluded to it has not been without an enemy. Early in July, after the first crop had been mown a short time, there came up a few dull yellowish-looking stalks among it. These increased so much that one field became yellowish all over, the stalks overtopped the clover, and overcame its green.

It was the lesser broom rape, and hardly a clover plant escaped this parasitic growth. By carefully removing the earth with a pocket-knife the two could be dug up together. From the roots of the clover a slender filament passes underground to the somewhat bulbous root of the broom rape, so that although they stand apart and appear separate plants, they are connected under the surface. The stalk of the broom rape is clammy to touch, and is an unwholesome greenish yellow, a dull undecided colour; if cut, it is nearly the same texture throughout. There are numerous dull purplish flowers at the top, but it has no leaves. It is not a pleasant-looking plant a strange and unusual growth.

One particular field was completely covered with it, and scarcely a clover field in the neighbourhood was perfectly free. But though drawing the sap from the clover plants the latter grew so vigorously that little damage was apparent. After a while the broom rape disappeared, but the clover shot up and afforded good forage. So late as the beginning of October a few poppies flowered in it, their bright scarlet contrasting vividly with the green around, and the foliage above fast turning brown.

The flight of the jay much resembles that of the magpie, the same jaunty, uncertain style, so that at a distance from the flight alone it would be difficult to distinguish them, though in fact the magpie's longer tail and white and black colours always mark him. One morning in July, standing for a moment in the shade beside a birch copse which borders the same road, a jay flew up into the tree immediately overhead, so near that the peculiar shape of the head and bill and all the plumage was visible. He looked down twice, and then new. Another morning there was a jay on the ground, searching about, not five yards from the road, nor twenty from a row of houses. It was at the corner of a copse which adjoins them. If not so constantly shot at the jay would be anything but wild.

Notwithstanding all these magpies and jays, the partridges are numerous this year in the fields bordering the highway, and which are not watched by keepers. Thinking of the partridges makes me notice the anthills. There were comparatively few this season, but on the 4th of August, which was a sunny day, I saw the inhabitants of a hill beside the road bringing out the eggs into the sunshine. They could not do it fast enough; some ran out with eggs, and placed them on the top of the little mound, and others seized eggs that had been exposed sufficiently and hurried with them into the interior.

Woody nightshade grows in quantities along this road and, apparently, all about the outskirts of the town. There is not a hedge without it, and it creeps over the mounds of earth at the sides of the highways. Some fumitory appeared this summer in a field of barley; till then I had not observed any for some time in that district. This plant, once so common, but now nearly eradicated by culture, has a soft pleasant green. A cornflower, too, flowered in another field, quite a treasure to find where these beautiful blue flowers are so scarce. The last day of August there was a fierce combat on the footpath between a wasp and a brown moth. They rolled over and struggled, now one, now the other uppermost, and the wasp appeared to sting the moth repeatedly. The moth, however, got away.

There are so many jackdaws about the suburbs that, when a flock of rooks passes over, the caw-cawing is quite equalled by the jack-jucking. The daws are easily known by their lesser size and by their flight, for they use their wings three times to the rook's once. Numbers of daws build in the knot-holes and hollows of the horse-chestnut trees in Bushey Park, and in the elms of the grounds of Hampton Court.

To the left of the Diana Fountain there are a number of hawthorn trees, which stand apart, and are aged like those often found on village greens and commons. Upon some of these hawthorns mistletoe grows, not in such quantities as on the apples in Gloucester and Hereford, but in small pieces.

As late in the spring as May-day I have seen some berries, then very large, on the mistletoe here. Earlier in the year, when the adjoining fountain was frozen and crowded with skaters, there were a number of missel-thrushes in these hawthorns, but they appeared to be eating the haws. At all events, they left some of the mistletoe berries, which were on the plant months later.

Just above Molesey Lock, in the meadows beside the towing-path, the blue meadow geranium, or crane's-bill, flowers in large bunches in the summer. It is one of the most beautiful flowers of the field, and after having lost sight of it for some time, to see it again seemed to bring the old familiar far-away fields close to London. Between Hampton Court and Kingston the towing-path of the Thames is bordered by a broad green sward, sufficiently wide to be worth mowing. One July I found a man at work here in advance of the mowers, pulling up yarrow plants with might and main.

The herb grew in such quantities that it was necessary to remove it first, or the hay would be too coarse. On conversing with him, he said that a person came sometimes and took away a trap-load of yarrow; the flowers were to be boiled and mixed with cayenne pepper, as a remedy for cold in the chest. In spring the dandelions here are pulled in sackfuls, to be eaten as salad. These things have fallen so much into disuse in the country that country people are surprised to find the herbalists flourishing round the great city of progress.

The continued dry weather in the early summer of the present year, which was so favourable to partridges and game, was equally favourable to the increase of several other kinds of birds, and among these the jays. Their screeching is often heard in this district, quite as often as it is in country woodlands. One day in the spring I saw six all screeching and yelling together up and I down a hedge near the road. Now in October they are plentiful. One flew across overhead with an acorn in its beak, and perched in an elm beside the highway. He pecked at the acorn on the bough, then glanced down, saw me, and fled, dropping the acorn, which fell tap-tap from branch to branch till it reached the mound.

Another jay actually flew up into a fir in the green, or lawn, before a farm-house window, crossing the road to do so. Four together were screeching in an elm close to the road, and since then I have seen others with acorns, while walking there. Indeed, this autumn it is not possible to go far without hearing their discordant and unmistakable cry. They were never scarce here, but are unusually numerous this season, and in the scattered trees of hedgerows their ways can be better observed than in the close covert of copses and plantations, where you hear them, but cannot see for the thick fir boughs.

It is curious to note the number of creatures to whom the oak furnishes food. The jays, for instance, are now visiting them for acorns; in the summer they fluttered round the then green branches for the chafers, and in the evenings the fern owls or goat-suckers wheeled about the verge for these and for moths. Rooks come to the oaks in crowds for the acorns; wood-pigeons are even more fond of them, and from their crops quite a handful may sometimes be taken when shot in the trees.

They will carry off at once as many acorns as old-fashioned economical farmers used to walk about with in their pockets, "chucking" them one, two, or three at a time to the pigs in the stye as a bonne bouche and an encouragement to fatten well. Never was there such a bird to eat as the wood-pigeon. Pheasants roam out from the preserves after the same fruit, and no arts can retain them at acorn time. Swine are let run out about the hedgerows to help themselves. Mice pick up the acorns that fall, and hide them for winter use, and squirrels select the best.

If there is a decaying bough, or, more particularly, one that has been sawn off, it slowly decays into a hollow, and will remain in that state for years, the resort of endless woodlice, snapped up by insect-eating birds. Down from the branches in spring there descend long, slender threads, like gossamer, with a caterpillar at the end of each the insect-eating birds decimate these. So that in various ways the oaks give more food to the birds than any other tree. Where there are oaks there are sure to be plenty of birds. Beeches come next. Is it possible that the severe frosts we sometimes have split oak trees? Some may be found split up the trunk, and yet not apparently otherwise injured, as they probably would be if it had been done by lightning. Trees are said to burst in America under frost, so that it is not impossible in this country.

There is a young oak beside the highway which in autumn was wreathed as artistically as could have been done by hand. A black bryony plant grew up round it, rising in a spiral. The heart-shaped leaves have dropped from the bine, leaving thick bunches of red and green berries clustering about the greyish stem of the oak.

Every one must have noticed that some trees have a much finer autumn tint than others. This, it will often be found, is an annual occurrence, and the same elm, or beech, or oak that has delighted the eye with its hues this autumn, will do the same next year, and excel its neighbours in colour. Oaks and beeches, perhaps, are , the best examples of this, as they are also the trees that present the most beautiful appearance in autumn.

There are oaks on villa lawns near London whose glory of russet foliage in October or November is not to be surpassed in the parks of the country. There are two or three such oaks in Long Ditton. All oaks do not become russet, or buff; some never take those tints. An oak, for instance, not far from those just mentioned never quite loses its green; it cannot be said, indeed, to remain green, but there is a trace of it somewhere; the leaves must, I suppose, be partly buff and partly green; and the mixture of these colours in bright sunshine produces a tint for which I know no accurate term.

In the tops of the poplars, where most exposed, the leaves stay till the last, those growing on the trunk below disappearing long before those on the spire, which bends to every blast. The keys of the hornbeam come twirling down: the hornbeam and the birch are characteristic trees of the London landscape the latter reaches a great height and never loses its beauty, for when devoid of leaves the feathery spray-like branches only come into view the more.

The abundant bird life is again demonstrated as the evening approaches. Along the hedgerows, at the corners of the copses, wherever there is the least cover, so soon as the sun sinks, the blackbirds announce their presence by their calls. Their "thing-chinging" sounds everywhere; they come out on the projecting branches and cry, then fly fifty yards farther down the hedge, and cry again. During the day they may not have been noticed, scattered as they were under the bushes, but the dusky shadows darkening the fields send them to roost, and before finally retiring, they "thing-ching" to each other.

Then, almost immediately after the sun has gone down, looking to the south-west the sky seen above the trees (which hide the yellow sunset) becomes a delicate violet. Soon a speck of light gleams faintly through it the merest speck. The first appearance of a star is very beautiful; the actual moment of first contact as it were of the ray with the eye is always a surprise, however often you may have enjoyed it, and notwithstanding that you are aware it will happen. Where there was only the indefinite violet before, the most intense gaze into which could discover nothing, suddenly, as if at that moment born, the point of light arrives.

So glorious is the night that not all London, with its glare and smoke, can smother the sky; in the midst of the gas, and the roar and the driving crowd, look up from the pavement, and there, straight above, are the calm stars. I never forget them, not even in the restless Strand; they face one coming down the hill of the Haymarket; in Trafalgar Square, looking towards the high dark structure of the House at Westminster, the clear bright steel silver of the planet Jupiter shines unwearied, without sparkle or flicker.

Apart from the grand atmospheric changes caused by a storm wave from the Atlantic, or an anti-cyclone, London produces its own sky. Put a shepherd on St. Paul's, allow him three months to get accustomed to the local appearances and the deceptive smoke clouds, and he would then tell what the weather of the day was going to be far more efficiently than the very best instrument ever yet invented. He would not always be right; but he would predict the local London weather with far more accuracy than any one reading the returns from the barometers at Valentia, Stornoway, Brest, or Christiansand.

The reason is this the barometer foretells the cloud in the sky, but cannot tell where it will burst. The practised eye can judge with very considerable accuracy where the discharge will take place. Some idea of what the local weather of London will be for the next few hours may often be obtained by observation on either of the bridges Westminster, Waterloo, or London Bridge: there is on the bridges something like a horizon, the best to be got in the City itself, and the changes announce themselves very clearly there. The difference in the definition is really wonderful.

From Waterloo Bridge the golden cross on St. Paul's and the dome at one time stand out as if engraved upon the sky, clear and with a white aspect. At the same time, the brick of the old buildings at the back of the Strand is red and bright. The structures of the bridges appear light, and do not press upon their arches. The yellow straw stacked on the barges is bright, the copper-tinted sails bright, the white wall of the Embankment clear, and the lions' heads distinct. Every trace of colour, in short, is visible.

At another time the dome is murky, the cross tarnished, the outline dim, the red brick dull, the whiteness gone. In summer there is occasionally a bluish haze about the distant buildings. These are the same changes presented by the Downs in the country, and betoken the state of the atmosphere as clearly. The London atmosphere is, I should fancy, quite as well adapted to the artist's uses as the changeless glare of the Continent. The smoke itself is not without its interest.

Sometimes upon Westminster Bridge at night the scene is very striking. Vast rugged columns of vapour rise up behind and over the towers of the House, hanging with threatening aspect; westward the sky is nearly clear, with some relic of the sunset glow: the river itself, black or illuminated with the electric light, imparting a silvery blue tint, crossed again with the red lamps of the steamers. The aurora of dark vapour, streamers extending from the thicker masses, slowly moves and yet does not go away; it is just such a sky as a painter might give to some tremendous historical event, a sky big with presage, gloom, tragedy. How bright and clear, again, are the mornings in summer! I once watched the sun rise on London Bridge, and never forgot it.

In frosty weather, again, when the houses take hard, stern tints, when the sky is clear over great part of its extent, but with heavy thunderous-looking clouds in places clouds full of snow the sun becomes of a red or orange hue, and reminds one of the lines of Longfellow when there reached the North Cape

" Round in a fiery ring

Went the great sun, oh King With red and lurid light."

The redness of the winter sun in London is, indeed, characteristic.

A sunset in winter or early spring floods the streets with fiery glow. It comes, for instance, down Piccadilly; it is reflected from the smooth varnished roofs of the endless carriages that roll to and fro like the flicker of a mighty fire; it streaks the side of the street with rosiness. The faces of those who are passing are lit up by it, all unconscious as they are. The sky above London, indeed, is as full of interest as above the hills. Lunar rainbows occasionally occur; two to my knowledge were seen in the direction and apparently over the metropolis recently.

When a few minutes on the rail has carried you outside the hub as it were of London, among the quiet tree-skirted villas, the night reigns as completely as in the solitudes of the country. Perhaps even more so, for the solitude is somehow more apparent. The last theatre-goer has disappeared inside his hall door, the last dull roll of the brougham, with its happy laughing load, has died away there is not so much as a single footfall. The cropped holly hedges, the leafless birches, the limes and acacias are still and distinct in the moonlight. A few steps farther out on the highway the copse or plantation sleeps in utter silence.

But the tall elms are the most striking; the length of the branches and their height above brings them across the light, so that they stand out even more shapely than when in leaf. The blue sky (not, of course, the blue of day), the white moonlight, the bright stars larger at midnight and brilliant, in despite of the moon, which cannot overpower them in winter as she does in summer evenings all are as beautiful as on the distant hills of old. By night, at least, even here, in the still silence, Heaven has her own way.

When the oak leaves first begin to turn buff, and the first acorns drop, the redwings arrive, and their "kuk-kuk" sound in the hedges and the shrubberies in the gardens of suburban villas. They seem to come very early to the neighbourhood of London, and before the time of their appearance in other districts. The note is heard before they are seen; the foliage of the shrubberies, still thick, though changing colour, concealing them. Presently, when the trees are bare, with the exception of a few oaks, they have disappeared, passing on towards the west. The fieldfares, too, as I have previously observed, do not stay. But missel-thrushes seem more numerous near town than in the country.

Every mild day in November the thrushes sing; there are meadows where one may be certain to hear the song-thrush. In the dip or valley at Long Ditton there are several meadows well timbered with elm, which are the favourite resorts of thrushes, and their song may be heard just there in the depth of winter, when it would be possible to go a long distance on the higher ground without hearing one. If you hear the note of the song-thrush during frost it is sure to rain within a few hours; it is the first sign of the weather breaking up.

Another autumn sign is the packing (in a sense) of the moorhens. During the summer the numerous brooks and ponds about town are apparently partially deserted by these birds; at least they are not to be seen by casual wayfarers. But directly the winter gets colder they gather together in the old familiar places, and five or six, or even more, come out at once to feed in the meadows or on the lawns by the water.

Green plovers, or peewits, come in small flocks to the fields recently ploughed; sometimes scarcely a gunshot from the walls of the villas. The tiny golden-crested wrens are comparatively numerous near town the heaths with their bramble thickets doubtless suit them; so soon as the leaves fall they may often be seen.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.