Nature Near London Part 15

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The shepherd came down the hill carrying his greatcoat slung at his back upon his crook, and balanced by the long handle projecting in front. He was very ready and pleased to show his crook, which, however, was not so symmetrical in shape as those which are represented upon canvas. Nor was the handle straight; it was a rough stick--the first, evidently, that had come to hand.

As there were no hedges or copses near his walks, he had to be content with this bent wand till he could get a better. The iron crook itself he said was made by a blacksmith in a village below. A good crook was often made from the barrel of an old single-barrel gun, such as in their decadence are turned over to the bird-keepers.

About a foot of the barrel being sawn off at the muzzle end, there was a tube at once to fit the staff into, while the crook was formed by hammering the tough metal into a curve upon the anvil. So the gun--the very symbol of destruction--was beaten into the pastoral crook, the emblem and implement of peace. These crooks of village workmanship are now subject to compet.i.tion from the numbers offered for sale at the shops at the market towns, where scores of them are hung up on show, all exactly alike, made to pattern, as if stamped out by machinery.

Each village-made crook had an individuality, that of the blacksmith--somewhat rude, perhaps, but distinctive--the hand shown in the iron. While talking, a wheatear flew past, and alighted near the path--a place they frequent. The opinion seems general that wheatears are not so numerous as they used to be. You can always see two or three on the Downs in autumn, but the shepherd said years ago he had heard of one man catching seventy dozen in a day.

Perhaps such wholesale catches were the cause of the comparative deficiency at the present day, not only by actual diminution of numbers, but in partially diverting the stream of migration. Tradition is very strong in birds (and all animated creatures); they return annually in the face of terrible destruction, and the individuals do not seem to comprehend the danger. But by degrees the race at large becomes aware of and acknowledges the mistake, and slowly the original tracks are deserted. This is the case with water-fowl, and even, some think, with sea-fish.

There was not so much game on the part of the hills he frequented as he had known when he was young, and with the decrease of the game the foxes had become less numerous. There was less cover as the furze was ploughed up. It paid, of course, better to plough it up, and as much as an additional two hundred acres on a single farm had been brought under the plough in his time. Partridges had much decreased, but there were still plenty of hares: he had known the harriers sometimes kill two dozen a day.

Plenty of rabbits still remained in places. The foxes' earths were in their burrows or sometimes under a hollow tree, and when the word was sent round the shepherds stopped them for the hunt very early in the morning. Foxes used to be almost thick. He had seen as many as six (doubtless the vixen and cubs) sunning themselves on the cliffs at Beachy Head, lying on ledges before their inaccessible breeding-places, in the face of the chalk.

At present he did not think there were more than two there. They ascended and descended the cliff with ease, though not, of course, the straight wall or precipice. He had known them fall over and be dashed to pieces, as when fighting on the edge, or in winter by the snow giving way under them. As the snow came drifting along the summit of the Down it gradually formed a projecting eave or cornice, projecting the length of the arm, and frozen.

Something like this may occasionally be seen on houses when the partially melted snow has frozen again before it could quite slide off.

Walking on this at night, when the whole ground was white with snow, and no part could be distinguished, the weight of the fox as he pa.s.sed a weak place caused it to give way, and he could not save himself. Last winter he had had two lambs, each a month old, killed by a fox which ate the heads and left the bodies; the fox always eating the head first, severing it, whether of a hare, rabbit, duck, or the tender lamb, and "covering"--digging a hole and burying--that which he cannot finish. To the buried carcase the fox returns the next night before he kills again.

His dog was a cross with a collie: the old sheep-dogs were s.h.a.ggier and darker. Most of the sheep-dogs now used were crossed with the collie, either with Scotch or French, and were very fast--too fast in some respects. He was careful not to send them much after the flock, especially after feeding, when, in his own words, the sheep had "best walk slow then, like folk"--like human beings, who are not to be hastened after a meal. If he wished his dog to fetch the flock, he pointed his arm in the direction he wished the dog to go, and said, "Put her back." Often it was to keep the sheep out of turnips or wheat, there being no fences. But he made it a practice to walk himself on the side where care was needed, so as not to employ the dog unless necessary.

There is something almost Australian in the wide expanse of South Down sheepwalks, and in the number of the flocks, to those who have been accustomed to the small sheltered meadows of the vales, where forty or fifty sheep are about the extent of the stock on many farms. The land, too, is rented at colonial prices, but a few shillings per acre, so different from the heavy meadow rents. But, then, the sheep-farmer has to occupy a certain proportion of arable land as well as pasture, and here his heavy losses mainly occur.

There is nothing, in fact, in this country so carefully provided against as the possibility of an English farmer becoming wealthy. Much downland is covered with furze; some seems to produce a gra.s.s too coa.r.s.e, so that the rent is really proportional. A sheep to an acre is roughly the allowance.

From all directions along the roads the bleating flocks concentrate at the right time upon the hillside where the sheep-fair is held. You can go nowhere in the adjacent town except uphill, and it needs no hand-post to the fair to those who know a farmer when they see him, the stream of folk tender thither so plainly. It rains, as the shepherd said it would; the houses keep off the drift somewhat in the town, but when this shelter is left behind, the sward of the hilltop seems among the clouds.

The descending vapours close in the view on every side. The actual field underfoot, the actual site of the fair, is visible, but the surrounding valleys and the Downs beyond them are hidden with vast ma.s.ses of grey mist. For a moment, perhaps, a portion may lift as the breeze drives it along, and the bold, sweeping curves of a distant hill appear, but immediately the rain falls again and the outline vanishes. The glance can only penetrate a few hundred yards; all beyond that becomes indistinct, and some cattle standing higher up the hill are vague and shadowy.

Like a dew, the thin rain deposits a layer of tiny globules on the coat; the gra.s.s is white with them hurdles, flakes, everything is as it were the eighth of an inch deep in water. Thus on the hillside, surrounded by the clouds, the fair seems isolated and afar off. A great cart-horse is being trotted out before the little street of booths to make him show his paces; they flourish the first thing at hand--a pole with a red flag at the end--and the huge frightened animal plunges. .h.i.ther and thither in clumsy terror. You must look out for yourself and keep an eye over your shoulder, except among the sheep-pens.

There are thousands of sheep, all standing with their heads uphill. At the corner of each pen the shepherd plants his crook upright: some of them have long brown handles, and these are of hazel with the bark on; others are ash, and one of willow. At the corners, too, just outside, the dogs are chained, and, in addition, there is a whole row of dogs fastened to the tent pegs. The majority of the dogs thus collected together from many miles of the Downs are either collies, or show a very decided trace of the collie.

One old shepherd, an ancient of the ancients, grey and bent, has spent so many years among his sheep that he has lost all notice and observation--there is no "speculation in his eye" for anything but his sheep. In his blue smock frock, with his brown umbrella, which he has had no time or thought to open, he stands listening, all intent, to the conversation of the gentlemen who are examining his pens. He leads a young restless collie by a chain; the links are polished to a silvery brightness by continual motion; the collie cannot keep still; now he runs one side, now the other, b.u.mping the old man, who is unconscious of everything but the sheep.

At the verge of the pens there stand four oxen with their yokes, and the long slender guiding-rod of hazel placed lightly across the necks of the two foremost. They are quite motionless, except their eyes, and the slender rod, so lightly laid across, will remain without falling. After traversing the whole field, if you return you will find them exactly in the same position. Some black cattle are scattered about on the high ground in the mist, which thickens beyond them, and fills up the immense hollow of the valley.

In the street of booths there are the roundabouts, the swings, the rifle galleries--like shooting into the mouth of a great trumpet--the shows, the cakes and brown nuts and gingerbread, the ale-barrels in a row, the rude forms and trestle tables; just the same, the very same, we saw at our first fair five-and-twenty years ago, and a hundred miles away. It is just the same this year as last, like the ploughs and hurdles, and the sheep themselves. There is nothing new to tempt the ploughboy's pennies--nothing fresh to stare at.

The same thing year after year, and the same sounds--the dismal barrel organs, and brazen instruments, and pipes, wailing, droning, booming.

How melancholy the inexpressible noise when the fair is left behind, and the wet vapours are settling and thickening around it! But the melancholy is not in the fair--the ploughboy likes it; it is in ourselves, in the thought that thus, though the years go by, so much of human life remains the same--the same blatant discord, the same monotonous roundabout, the same poor gingerbread.

The ploughs are at work, travelling slowly at the ox's pace up and down the hillside. The South Down plough could scarcely have been invented; it must have been put together bit by bit in the slow years--slower than the ox; it is the completed structure of long experience. It is made of many pieces, chiefly wood, fitted and shaped and worked, as it were, together, well seasoned first, built up, like a ship, by cunning of hand.

None of these were struck out--a hundred a minute--by irresistible machinery ponderously impressing its will on iron as a seal on wax--a hundred a minute, and all exactly alike. These separate pieces which compose the plough were cut, chosen, and shaped in the wheelwright's workshop, chosen by the eye, guided in its turn by long knowledge of wood, and shaped by the living though hardened hand of man. So complicated a structure could no more have been struck out on paper in a deliberate and single plan than those separate pieces could have been produced by a single blow.

There are no machine lines--no lines filed out in iron or cut by the lathe to the draughtsman's design, drawn with straight-edge and ruler on paper. The thing has been put together bit by bit: how many thousand, thousand clods must have been turned in the furrows before the idea arose, and the curve to be given to this or that part grew upon the mind as the branch grows on the tree! There is not a sharp edge or sharp corner in it; it is all bevelled and smoothed and fluted as if it had been patiently carved with a knife, so that, touch it where you will, it handles pleasantly.

In these curved lines and smoothness, in this perfect adaptability of means to end, there is the spirit of art showing itself, not with colour or crayon, but working in tangible material substance. The makers of this plough--not the designer--the various makers, who gradually put it together, had many things to consider. The fields where it had to work were, for the most part, on a slope, often thickly strewn with stones which jar and fracture iron.

The soil was thin, scarce enough on the upper part to turn a furrow, deepening to nine inches or so at the bottom. So quickly does the rain sink in, and so quickly does it dry, that the teams work in almost every weather, while those in the vale are enforced to idleness. Drain furrows were not needed, nor was it desirable that the ground should be thrown up in "lands," rising in the centre. Oxen were the draught animals, patient enough, but certainly not nimble. The share had to be set for various depths of soil.

All these are met by the wheel plough, and in addition it fulfils the indefinite and indefinable condition of handiness. A machine may be apparently perfect, a boat may seem on paper, and examined on principles, the precise build, and yet when the one is set to work and the other floated they may fail. But the wheel plough, having grown up, as it were, out of the soil, fulfils the condition of handiness.

This handiness, in fact, embraces a number of minor conditions which can scarcely be reduced to writing, but which constantly occur in practice, and by which the component parts of the plough were doubtless unconsciously suggested to the makers. Each has its proper name. The framework, on wheels in front--the distinctive characteristic of the plough--is called collectively "tacks," and the shafts of the plough rest on it loosely, so that they swing or work almost independently, not unlike a field-gun limbered up.

The pillars of the framework have numerous holes, so that the plough can be raised or lowered, that the share may dig deep or shallow. Then there is the "c.o.c.k-pin," the "road-bat" (a crooked piece of wood), the "sherve-wright" (so p.r.o.nounced)--shelvewright (?)--the "rist," and spindle, besides, of course, the usual coulter and share. When the oxen arrive at the top of the field, and the first furrow is completed, they stop, well knowing their duty, while the ploughman moves the iron rist, and the spindle which keeps it in position, to the other side, and moves the road-bat so as to push the coulter aside. These operations are done in a minute, and correspond in some degree to turning the rudder of a ship. The object is that the plough, which has been turning the earth one way, shall now (as it is reversed to go downhill) continue to turn it that way. If the change were not effected when the plough was swung round, the furrow would be made opposite. Next he leans heavily on the handles, still standing on the same spot; this lifts the plough, so that it turns easily as if on a pivot.

Then the oxen "jack round"--that is, walk round--so as to face downhill, the framework in front turning like the fore-wheels of a carriage. So soon as they face downhill and the plough is turned, they commence work and make the second furrow side by side with the first. The same operation is repeated at the bottom, and thus the plough travels straight up and down, always turning the furrow the same way, instead of, as in the valleys, making a short circuit at each end, and throwing the earth in opposite directions. The result is a perfectly level field, which, though not designed for it, must suit the reaping-machine better than the drain furrows and raised "lands" of the valley system.

It is somewhat curious that the steam plough, the most remarkable application of machinery to agriculture, in this respect resembles the village-made wheel plough. The plough drawn by steam power in like manner turns the second furrow side by side into the first, always throwing the earth the same way, and leaving the ground level. This is one of its defects on heavy, wet land, as it does not drain the surface.

But upon the slopes of the Downs no drains or raised "lands" are needed, and the wheel plough answers perfectly.

So perfectly, indeed, does it answer that no iron plough has yet been invented that can beat it, and while the valleys and plains are now almost wholly worked with factory-made ploughs, the South Downs are cultivated with the ploughs made in the villages by the wheelwrights. A wheelwright is generally regularly employed by two or three farms, which keep him in constant work. There is not, perhaps, another home-made implement of old English agriculture left in use; certainly, none at once so curious and interesting, and, when drawn by oxen, so thoroughly characteristic.

Under the September sun, flowers may still be found in sheltered places, as at the side of furze, on the highest of the Downs. Wild thyme continues to bloom--the shepherd's thyme--wild mignonette, blue scabious, white dropwort, yellow bedstraw, and the large purple blooms of greater knapweed. Here and there a blue field gentian is still in flower; "eggs and bacon" grow beside the waggon tracks. Gra.s.shoppers hop among the short dry gra.s.s; bees and humble-bees are buzzing about, and there are places quite bright with yellow hawkweeds.

The furze is everywhere full of finches, troops of them; and there are many more swallows than were flying here a month since. No doubt they are on their way southwards, and stay, as it were, on the edge of the sea while yet the sun shines. As the evening falls the sheep come slowly home to the fold. When the flock is penned some stand panting, and the whole body at each pant moves to and fro lengthways; some press against the flakes till the wood creaks; some paw the dry and crumbling ground (arable), making a hollow in which to lie down.

Rooks are fond of the places where sheep have been folded, and perhaps that is one of the causes why they so continually visit certain spots in particular fields to the neglect of the rest.


The waves coming round the promontory before the west wind still give the idea of a flowing stream, as they did in Homer's days. Here beneath the cliff, standing where beach and sand meet, it is still; the wind pa.s.ses six hundred feet overhead. But yonder, every larger wave rolling before the breeze breaks over the rocks; a white line of spray rushes along them, gleaming in the sunshine; for a moment the dark rock-wall disappears, till the spray sinks.

The sea seems higher than the spot where I stand, its surface on a higher level--raised like a green mound--as if it could burst in and occupy the s.p.a.ce up to the foot of the cliff in a moment. It will not do so, I know; but there is an infinite possibility about the sea; it may do what it is not recorded to have done. It is not to be ordered, it may overleap the bounds human observation has fixed for it. It has a potency unfathomable. There is still something in it not quite grasped and understood--something still to be discovered--a mystery.

So the white spray rushes along the low broken wall of rocks, the sun gleams on the flying fragments of the wave, again it sinks and the rhythmic motion holds the mind, as an invisible force holds back the tide. A faith of expectancy, a sense that something may drift up from the unknown, a large belief in the unseen resources of the endless s.p.a.ce out yonder, soothes the mind with dreamy hope.

The little rules and little experiences, all the petty ways of narrow life, are shut off behind by the ponderous and impa.s.sable cliff; as if we had dwelt in the dim light of a cave, but coming out at last to look at the sun, a great stone had fallen and closed the entrance, so that there was no return to the shadow. The impa.s.sable precipice shuts off our former selves of yesterday, forcing us to look out over the sea only, or up to the deeper heaven.

These breadths draw out the soul; we feel that we have wider thoughts than we knew; the soul has been living, as it were, in a nutsh.e.l.l, all unaware of its own power, and now suddenly finds freedom in the sun and the sky. Straight, as if sawn down from turf to beach, the cliff shuts off the human world, for the sea knows no time and no era; you cannot tell what century it is from the face of the sea. A Roman trireme suddenly rounding the white edge-line of chalk, borne on wind and oar from the Isle of Wight towards the gray castle at Pevensey (already old in olden days), would not seem strange. What wonder could surprise us coming from the wonderful sea?

The little rills winding through the sand have made an islet of a detached rock by the beach; limpets cover it, adhering like rivet-heads.

In the stillness here, under the roof of the wind so high above, the sound of the sand draining itself is audible. From the cliff blocks of chalk have fallen, leaving hollows as when a knot drops from a beam.

They lie crushed together at the base, and on the point of this jagged ridge a wheatear perches.

There are ledges three hundred feet above, and from these now and then a jackdaw glides out and returns again to his place, where, when still and with folded wings, he is but a speck of black. A spire of chalk still higher stands out from the wall, but the rains have got behind it and will cut the crevice deeper and deeper into its foundation. Water, too, has carried the soil from under the turf at the summit over the verge, forming brown streaks.

Upon the beach lies a piece of timber, part of a wreck; the wood is torn and the fibres rent where it was battered against the dull edge of the rocks. The heat of the sun burns, thrown back by the dazzling chalk; the river of ocean flows ceaselessly, casting the spray over the stones; the unchanged sky is blue.

Let us go back and mount the steps at the Gap, and rest on the sward there. I feel that I want the presence of gra.s.s. The sky is a softer blue, and the sun genial now the eye and the mind alike are relieved--the one of the strain of too great solitude (not the solitude of the woods), the other of too brilliant and hard a contrast of colours. Touch but the gra.s.s and the harmony returns; it is repose after exaltation.

A vessel comes round the promontory; it is not a trireme of old Rome, nor the "fair and stately galley" Count Arnaldus hailed with its seamen singing the mystery of the sea. It is but a brig in ballast, high out of the water, black of hull and dingy of sail: still it is a ship, and there is always an interest about a ship. She is so near, running along but just outside the reef, that the deck is visible. Up rises her stern as the billows come fast and roll under; then her bow lifts, and immediately she rolls, and, loosely swaying with the sea, drives along.

The slope of the billow now behind her is white with the bubbles of her pa.s.sage, rising, too, from her rudder. Steering athwart with a widening angle from the land, she is laid to clear the distant point of Dungeness. Next, a steamer glides forth, unseen till she pa.s.sed the cliff; and thus each vessel that comes from the westward has the charm of the unexpected. Eastward there is many a sail working slowly into the wind, and as they approach, talking in the language of flags with the watch on the summit of the Head.

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Nature Near London Part 15 summary

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