The Inevitable End of Every Footpath – an essay by Richard Jefferies

‘The Inevitable End of Every Footpath’
by Richard Jefferies, from Nature Near London, 1883
(taken from Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking)

“Always get over a stile,’ is the one rule that should ever be borne in mind by those who wish to see the land as it really is. That is to say, never omit to explore a footpath, for never was there a footpath yet which did not pass something of interest.

In the meadows, everything comes pressing lovingly up to the path. The small-leaved clover can scarce be driven back by frequent footsteps from endeavouring to cover the bare earth of the centre. Tall buttercups, round whose stalks the cattle have carefully grazed, stand in ranks; strong ox-eye daisies, with broad white disks and torn leaves, form with the grass the tricolour of the pasture white, green, and gold.

When the path enters the mowing-grass, ripe for the scythe, the simplicity of these cardinal hues is lost in the multitude of shades and the addition of other colours. The surface of mowing-grass is in- deed made up of so many tints that at the first glance it is confusing; and hence, perhaps, it is that hardly ever has an artist succeeded in getting the effect upon canvas. Of the million blades of grass no two are of the same shade.

Pluck a handful and spread them out side by side and this is at once evident. Nor is any single blade the same shade all the way up. There may be a faint yellow towards the root, a full green about the middle, at the tip perhaps the hot sun has scorched it, and there is a trace of brown. The older grass, which comes up earliest, is distinctly different in tint from that which has but just reached its greatest height, and in which the sap has not yet stood still.

A clouded sky dulls the herbage, a cloudless heaven brightens it, so that the grass almost reflects the firmament like water. At sunset the rosy rays bring out every tint of red or purple. At noonday, watch as alternate shadow and sunshine come one after the other as the clouds are wafted over. By moonlight perhaps the white ox-eyed daisies show the most.

But never will you find the mowing grass in the same field looking twice alike. Come again the day after tomorrow only, and there is a change; some of the grass is riper, some is thicker, with further blades which have pushed up, some browner. Cold northern winds cause it to wear a dry, withered aspect; under warm showers it visibly opens itself; in a hurricane it tosses itself wildly to and fro; it laughs under the sunshine.

There are thick bunches by the footpath, which hangover and brush the feet. While approaching there seems nothing there except grass, but in the act of passing, and thus looking straight down into them, there are blue eyes at the bottom gazing up. These specks of blue sky hidden in the grass tempt the hand to gather them, but then you cannot gather the whole field…

Then there are drifting specks of colour which cannot be fixed. Butterflies, white, parti-coloured, brown, and spotted, and light blue flutter along be- side the footpath; two white ones wheel about each other, rising higher at every turn till they are lost and no more to be distinguished against a shining white cloud.

Large dark bumble bees roam slowly, and honey bees with more decided flight. Glistening beetles, green and gold, run across the bare earth of the path, coming from one crack in the dry ground and disappearing in the (to them) mighty chasm of another.

Tiny green ‘hoppers’ odd creatures shaped something like the fancy frogs of children’s storybooks alight upon it after a spring, and pausing a second, with another toss themselves as high as the highest bennet (veritable elm-trees by comparison), to fall anywhere out of sight in the grass. Reddish ants hurry over. Time is money; and their business brooks no delay.

Bee-like flies of many stripes and parti-coloured robes face you, suspended in the air with wings vibrating so swiftly as to be unseen; then suddenly jerk themselves a few yards, to recommence hovering.

A greenfinch rises with a yellow gleam and a sweet note from the grass, and is off with something for his brood, or a starling, solitary now, for his mate is in the nest, startled from his questing, goes straight away.

Dark starlings, greenfinch, gilded fly, glistening beetle, blue butterfly, humble bee with scarf about his thick waist, add their moving dots of colour to the surface. There is no design, no balance, nothing like a pattern perfect on the right-hand side, and exactly equal on the left-hand. Even trees which have some semblance of balance in form are not really so, and as you walk round them so their outline changes.

Now the path approaches a stile set deep in thorns and brambles, and hardly to be gained for curved hooks and prickles. But on the briars June roses bloom, arches of flowers over nettles, burdock, and rushes in the ditch beneath. Sweet roses buds yet unrolled, white and conical; roses half open and pink tinted; roses widespread, the petals curling backwards on the hedge, abandoning their beauty to the sun. In the pasture over the stile a roan cow feeds unmoved, calmly content, gathering the grass with rough tongue. It is not only what you actually see along the path, but what you remember to have seen, that gives it its beauty.

From hence the path skirts the hedge enclosing a copse, part of which had been cut in the winter, so that a few weeks since in spring the bluebells could be seen, instead of being concealed by the ash branches and the woodbine. Among them grew one with white bells, like a lily, solitary in the midst of the azure throng. A ‘drive’, or green lane passing between the ash-stoles, went into the copse, with tufts of tussocky grass on either side and rush bunches, till further away the overhanging branches, where the poles were uncut, hid its course.

Already the grass has hidden the ruts left by the timber carriages – the last came by on May Day with ribbons of orange, red, and blue on the horses’ heads for honour of the day. Another, which went past in the wintry weeks of the early year, was drawn by a team wearing the ancient harness with bells under high hoods, or belfries, bells well attuned, too, and not far inferior to those rung by handbell men. The beat of the three horses’ hoofs sounds like the drum that marks time to the chime upon their backs. Seldom even in the far away country, can that pleasant chime be heard…

It was near this copse that in early spring I stayed to gather some white sweet violets, for the true wild violet is very nearly white. I stood close to a hedger and ditcher, who, standing on a board, was cleaning out the mud that the water might run freely. He went on with his work, taking not the least notice of an idler, but intent upon his labour, as a good and true man should be. But when I spoke to him he answered me in clear, well-chosen language, well pronounced, ‘in good set terms’.

No slurring of consonants and broadening of vowels, no involved and backward construction depending on the listener’s previous knowledge for comprehension, no half sentences indicating rather than explaining, but correct sentences. With his shoes almost covered by the muddy water, his hands black and grimy, his brown face splashed with mud, leaning on his shovel he stood and talked from the deep ditch, not much more than head and shoulders visible above it. It seemed a voice from the very earth, speaking of education, change, and possibilities.

The copse is now filling up with undergrowth; the brambles are spreading, the briars extending, masses of nettles, and thistles like saplings in size and height, crowding the spaces between the ash- stoles. By the banks great cow-parsnips or ‘gix’ have opened their broad heads of white flowers; teazles have lifted themselves into view, every opening is occupied. There is a scent of elder flowers, the meadowsweet is pushing up, and will soon be out, and an odour of new-mown hay floats on the breeze. From hence the footpath, leaving the copse, descends into a hollow, with a streamlet flowing through a little meadow, barely an acre, with a pollard oak in the centre, the rising ground on two sides shutting out all but the sky, and on the third another wood. Such a dreamy hollow might be painted for a glade in the Forest of Arden, and there on the sward and leaning against the ancient oak one might read the play through without being disturbed by a single passer by. A few steps further and the stile opens on a road.

There the teams travel with rows of brazen spangles down their necks, some with a wheatsheaf for design, some with a swan. The road itself, if you follow it, dips into a valley where the horses must splash through the water of a brook spread out some fifteen or twenty yards wide; for, after the primitive Surrey fashion, there is no bridge for wagons. A narrow wooden structure bears foot-passengers; you cannot but linger half across and look down into its clear stream. Up the current where it issues from the fields and falls over a slight obstacle, the sunlight plays and glances.

A great hawthorn bush grows on the bank; in spring, white with May; in autumn, red with haws or peggles. To the shallow shore of the brook, where it washes the flints and moistens the dust, the house-martins come for mortar. A constant succession of birds arrive all day long to drink at the clear stream, often alighting on the fragments of chalk and flint which stand in the water, and are to them as rocks.

Another footpath leads from the road across the meadows to where the brook is spanned by the strangest bridge, built of brick, with one arch, but only just wide enough for a single person to walk, and with parapets only four or five inches high. It is thrown aslant the stream, and not straight across it, and has a long brick approach. It is not unlike on a small scale the bridges seen in views of Eastern travel. Another path leads to a hamlet, consisting of a church, a farmhouse, and three or four cottages – a veritable hamlet in every sense of the word.

In a village a few miles distant, as you walk between cherry and pear orchards, you pass a little shop the sweets, and twine, and trifles are such as may be seen in similar windows a hundred miles distant. There is the very wooden measure for nuts, which has been used time out of mind, in the distant country. Out again into the road as the sun sinks, and westwards the wind lifts a cloud of dust, which is lit up and made rosy by the rays passing through it. For such is the beauty of the sunlight that it can impart a glory even to dust.

Once more, never go by a stile (that does not look private) without getting over it and following the path. But they all end in one place. After rambling across furze and heath, or through dark fir woods; after lingering in the meadows among the buttercups, or by the copses where the pheasants crow; after gathering June roses, or, in later days, staining the lips with blackberries or cracking nuts, by-and-by the path brings you in sight of a railway station. And the railway station, through some process of mind, presently compels you to go up on the platform, and after a little puffing and revolution of wheels you emerge at Charing Cross, or London Bridge, or Waterloo, or Ludgate Hill, and, with the freshness of the meadows still clinging to your coat, mingle with the crowd.

The inevitable end of every footpath round about London is London.

All paths go thither.

If it were far away in the distant country you might sit down in the shadow upon the hay and fall asleep, or dream awake hour after hour. There would be no inclination to move. But if you sat down on the sward under the ancient pollard oak in the little mead with the brook, and the wood of which I spoke just now as like a glade in the enchanted Forest of Arden, this would not be possible.

It is the proximity of the immense City which induces a mental, a nerve restlessness. As you sit and would dream a something plucks at the mind with constant reminder; you cannot dream for long, you must up and away, and, turn in which direction you please, ultimately it will lead you to London.

 

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Immensely readable essays… As riveting as short stories, with arresting openings, sculptured scenes worthy of fiction… and haunting conclusions that resonate… Delightful.

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