Friday, 4 March 2011
(In Jefferies’ time, Burderop Park was owned by the Calley family. The house is now owned by Halcrow)
Extract from Round about a Great Estate
Richard Jefferies, 1880
The great house at Okebourne Chace stands in the midst of the park, and from the southern windows no dwellings are visible. Near at hand the trees appear isolated, but further away insensibly gather together, and above them rises the distant Down crowned with four tumuli. ..
In the enclosed portion of the park at Okebourne the boughs of the trees descended and swept the sward. Nothing but sheep being permitted to graze there, the trees grew in their natural form, the lower limbs drooping downwards to the ground. Hedgerow timber is usually ‘stripped’ up at intervals, and the bushes, too, interfere with the expansion of the branches; while the boughs of trees standing in the open fields are nibbled off by cattle. But in that part of the park no cattle had fed in the memory of man; so that the lower limbs, drooping by their own weight, came arching to the turf. Each tree thus made a perfect bower.
The old woodmen who worked in the Chace told me it used to be said that elm ought only to be thrown on two days of the year.—i.e. the 31st of December and the 1st of January. The meaning was that it should be cut in the ‘very dead of the year,’ when the sap had retired, so that the timber might last longer. The old folk took the greatest trouble to get their timber well seasoned, which is the reason why the woodwork in old houses has endured so well. Passing under some elms one June evening, I heard a humming overhead, and found it was caused by a number of bees and humble-bees busy in the upper branches at a great height from the ground. They were probably after the honey-dew. Buttercups do not flourish under trees ; in early summer, where elms or oaks stand in the mowing-grass, there is often a circle around almost bare of them and merely green, while the rest of the meadow glistens with the burnished gold of that beautiful flower.
In the open glades of the Chace there were noble clumps of beeches, and if you walked quietly under them in the still October days you might hear a slight but clear and distinct sound above you. This was caused by the teeth of a squirrel nibbling the beech-nuts, and every now and then down came pieces of husk rustling through the coloured leaves. Sometimes a nut would fall which he had dropped; and yet, with the nibbling sound to guide the eye, it was not always easy to distinguish the little creature. But his tail presently betrayed him among the foliage, far out on a bough where the nuts grew. The husks, if undisturbed, remain on all the winter and till the tree is in full green leaf again; the young nuts are formed about midsummer.
Trees may be said to change their garments thrice in the season. In the spring the woods at Okebourne were of the tenderest green, which, as the summer drew on, lost its delicacy of hue. Then came the second or ‘midsummer shoot,’ brightening them with fresh leaves and fresh green. The second shoot of the oak is reddish: there was one oak in the Chace which after midsummer thus became ruddy from the highest to the lowest branch; others did not show the change nearly so much. Lastly came the brown and yellow autumn tints.
Lower down a large pond almost filled the hollow. It was surrounded on three sides by trees and thickets; on the fourth an irregular margin of marshy grass extended. Floating leaves of weeds covered the surface of the water; these weeds had not been disturbed for years, and there was no check to their growth except their own profusion, for they choked each other. The pond had long ceased to supply fish for the table. Before railways brought the sea so near, such ponds were very useful. At that time almost everything consumed came from the estate itself: the bread, the beef, the mutton, the venison, game, fish, all was supplied by the adjacent woods, the fields, or the water. The lord in old days hunted the deer on his own domain, brought down game with a crossbow or captured it with nets, and fished or netted his own streams and ponds. These great parks and chaces enclosed everything, so that it was within easy reach of his own door. Sometimes the lord and his visitors strolled out to see the fishponds netted.
This pond had originally been one of a series, but the others had been drained and added to the meadows. It was said to be staked at the bottom to prevent illicit netting; but if so, the stakes by this time were probably rotten or buried in mud formed from the decaying weeds, the fallen leaves, and branches which were gradually closing it up. A few yards from the edge there was a mass of ivy through which a little brown thatch could be distinguished, and on approaching nearer this low roof was found to cover the entrance to a cave. It was an icehouse excavated in the sloping ground or bank, in which, ‘when George the Third was King,’ the ice of the ponds had been preserved to cool the owner’s wine in summer. Ice was then a luxury for the rich only; but when so large a supply arrived from America, a supply increased by freezing machines, the icehouse lost its importance. The door, once so jealously closed, was gone, and the dead leaves of last year had gathered in corners where the winds had whirled them.
In those days the farmer in his isolated homestead was more cut off from the world than the settler at the present time in the backwoods or on the prairies. The telegraph wires span the continent of America, and are carried across the dry deserts of Australia. Wherever the settler may be, he is never very far from the wires or the railway; the railway meets the ocean steamer; and we can form no conception of the utter lack of communication in the old world of our immediate forefathers. The farmer, being away from the main road and the track of the mail coaches, knew no one but his neighbours, saw no one, and heard but little. Amusements there were none, other than could be had at the alehouse or by riding into the market town to the inn there. So that when this great flush of prosperity came upon them, old Jonathan and his friends had nothing to do but drink.
At that date folk had no banking accounts, but kept their coin in a strong chest under the bed, sometimes hiding it in strange places. Jonathan was once visiting a friend, and after they had hobnobbed a while the old fellow took him, with many precautions that they should not be observed, into the pig-sty and showed him fifty guineas hid in the thatch. That was by no means all his property, but the old fellow said, with a wink, that he liked to have a little hoard of his own that his wife knew nothing about.
Posted by The Richard Jefferies Society at 08:45