Reading Books on PopNovel APP

After London; Or, Wild England

After London; Or, Wild England

Author:Richard Jefferies


The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike...
Show All▼

  The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields wereleft to themselves a change began to be visible. It became greeneverywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all thecountry looked alike.

  The meadows were green, and so was the rising wheat which had been sown,but which neither had nor would receive any further care. Such arablefields as had not been sown, but where the last stubble had beenploughed up, were overrun with couch-grass, and where the short stubblehad not been ploughed, the weeds hid it. So that there was no placewhich was not more or less green; the footpaths were the greenest ofall, for such is the nature of grass where it has once been trodden on,and by-and-by, as the summer came on, the former roads were thinlycovered with the grass that had spread out from the margin.

  In the autumn, as the meadows were not mown, the grass withered as itstood, falling this way and that, as the wind had blown it; the seedsdropped, and the bennets became a greyish-white, or, where the docks andsorrel were thick, a brownish-red. The wheat, after it had ripened,there being no one to reap it, also remained standing, and was eaten byclouds of sparrows, rooks, and pigeons, which flocked to it and wereundisturbed, feasting at their pleasure. As the winter came on, thecrops were beaten down by the storms, soaked with rain, and trodden uponby herds of animals.

  Next summer the prostrate straw of the preceding year was concealed bythe young green wheat and barley that sprang up from the grain sown bydropping from the ears, and by quantities of docks, thistles, oxeyedaisies, and similar plants. This matted mass grew up through thebleached straw. Charlock, too, hid the rotting roots in the fields undera blaze of yellow flower. The young spring meadow-grass could scarcelypush its way up through the long dead grass and bennets of the yearprevious, but docks and thistles, sorrel, wild carrots, and nettles,found no such difficulty.

  Footpaths were concealed by the second year, but roads could be traced,though as green as the sward, and were still the best for walking,because the tangled wheat and weeds, and, in the meadows, the longgrass, caught the feet of those who tried to pass through. Year by yearthe original crops of wheat, barley, oats, and beans asserted theirpresence by shooting up, but in gradually diminished force, as nettlesand coarser plants, such as the wild parsnips, spread out into thefields from the ditches and choked them.

  Aquatic grasses from the furrows and water-carriers extended in themeadows, and, with the rushes, helped to destroy or take the place ofthe former sweet herbage. Meanwhile, the brambles, which grew very fast,had pushed forward their prickly runners farther and farther from thehedges till they had now reached ten or fifteen yards. The briars hadfollowed, and the hedges had widened to three or four times their firstbreadth, the fields being equally contracted. Starting from all sides atonce, these brambles and briars in the course of about twenty years metin the centre of the largest fields.

  Hawthorn bushes sprang up among them, and, protected by the briars andthorns from grazing animals, the suckers of elm-trees rose andflourished. Sapling ashes, oaks, sycamores, and horse-chestnuts, liftedtheir heads. Of old time the cattle would have eaten off the seed leaveswith the grass so soon as they were out of the ground, but now most ofthe acorns that were dropped by birds, and the keys that were wafted bythe wind, twirling as they floated, took root and grew into trees. Bythis time the brambles and briars had choked up and blocked the formerroads, which were as impassable as the fields.

  No fields, indeed, remained, for where the ground was dry, the thorns,briars, brambles, and saplings already mentioned filled the space, andthese thickets and the young trees had converted most part of thecountry into an immense forest. Where the ground was naturally moist,and the drains had become choked with willow roots, which, when confinedin tubes, grow into a mass like the brush of a fox, sedges and flags andrushes covered it. Thorn bushes were there, too, but not so tall; theywere hung with lichen. Besides the flags and reeds, vast quantities ofthe tallest cow-parsnips or "gicks" rose five or six feet high, and thewillow herb with its stout stem, almost as woody as a shrub, filledevery approach.

  By the thirtieth year there was not one single open place, the hillsonly excepted, where a man could walk, unless he followed the tracks ofwild creatures or cut himself a path. The ditches, of course, had longsince become full of leaves and dead branches, so that the water whichshould have run off down them stagnated, and presently spread out intothe hollow places and by the corner of what had once been fields,forming marshes where the horsetails, flags, and sedges hid the water.

  As no care was taken with the brooks, the hatches upon them graduallyrotted, and the force of the winter rains carried away the weak timbers,flooding the lower grounds, which became swamps of larger size. Thedams, too, were drilled by water-rats, and the streams percolatingthrough, slowly increased the size of these tunnels till the structureburst, and the current swept on and added to the floods below. Mill-damsstood longer, but, as the ponds silted up, the current flowed round andeven through the mill-houses, which, going by degrees to ruin, were insome cases undermined till they fell.

  Everywhere the lower lands adjacent to the streams had become marshes,some of them extending for miles in a winding line, and occasionallyspreading out to a mile in breadth. This was particularly the case wherebrooks and streams of some volume joined the rivers, which were alsoblocked and obstructed in their turn, and the two, overflowing, coveredthe country around; for the rivers brought down trees and branches,timbers floated from the shore, and all kinds of similar materials,which grounded in the shallows or caught against snags, and formed hugepiles where there had been weirs.

  Sometimes, after great rains, these piles swept away the timbers of theweir, driven by the irresistible power of the water, and then in itscourse the flood, carrying the balks before it like battering rams,cracked and split the bridges of solid stone which the ancients hadbuilt. These and the iron bridges likewise were overthrown, andpresently quite disappeared, for the very foundations were covered withthe sand and gravel silted up.

  Thus, too, the sites of many villages and towns that anciently existedalong the rivers, or on the lower lands adjoining, were concealed by thewater and the mud it brought with it. The sedges and reeds that arosecompleted the work and left nothing visible, so that the mightybuildings of olden days were by these means utterly buried. And, as hasbeen proved by those who have dug for treasures, in our time the veryfoundations are deep beneath the earth, and not to be got at for thewater that oozes into the shafts that they have tried to sink throughthe sand and mud banks.

  From an elevation, therefore, there was nothing visible but endlessforest and marsh. On the level ground and plains the view was limited toa short distance, because of the thickets and the saplings which had nowbecome young trees. The downs only were still partially open, yet it wasnot convenient to walk upon them except in the tracks of animals,because of the long grass which, being no more regularly grazed upon bysheep, as was once the case, grew thick and tangled. Furze, too, andheath covered the slopes, and in places vast quantities of fern. Therehad always been copses of fir and beech and nut-tree covers, and theseincreased and spread, while bramble, briar, and hawthorn extended aroundthem.

  By degrees the trees of the vale seemed as it were to invade and marchup the hills, and, as we see in our time, in many places the downs arehidden altogether with a stunted kind of forest. But all the abovehappened in the time of the first generation. Besides these things agreat physical change took place; but before I speak of that, it will bebest to relate what effects were produced upon animals and men.

  In the first years after the fields were left to themselves, the fallenand over-ripe corn crops became the resort of innumerable mice. Theyswarmed to an incredible degree, not only devouring the grain upon thestraw that had never been cut, but clearing out every single ear in thewheat-ricks that were standing about the country. Nothing remained inthese ricks but straw, pierced with tunnels and runs, the home andbreeding-place of mice, which thence poured forth into the fields. Suchgrain as had been left in barns and granaries, in mills, and inwarehouses of the deserted towns, disappeared in the same manner.

  When men tried to raise crops in small gardens and enclosures for theirsustenance, these legions of mice rushed in and destroyed the produce oftheir labour. Nothing could keep them out, and if a score were killed, ahundred more supplied their place. These mice were preyed upon bykestrel hawks, owls, and weasels; but at first they made little or noappreciable difference. In a few years, however, the weasels, havingsuch a superabundance of food, trebled in numbers, and in the same waythe hawks, owls, and foxes increased. There was then some relief, buteven now at intervals districts are invaded, and the granaries and thestanding corn suffer from these depredations.

  This does not happen every year, but only at intervals, for it isnoticed that mice abound very much more in some seasons than others. Theextraordinary multiplication of these creatures was the means ofproviding food for the cats that had been abandoned in the towns, andcame forth into the country in droves. Feeding on the mice, they became,in a very short time, quite wild, and their descendants now roam theforest.

  In our houses we still have several varieties of the domestic cat, suchas the tortoise-shell, which is the most prized, but when theabove-mentioned cats became wild, after a while the several varietiesdisappeared, and left but one wild kind. Those which are now so oftenseen in the forest, and which do so much mischief about houses andenclosures, are almost all greyish, some being striped, and they arealso much longer in the body than the tame. A few are jet black; theirskins are then preferred by hunters.

  Though the forest cat retires from the sight of man as much as possible,yet it is extremely fierce in defence of its young, and instances havebeen known where travellers in the woods have been attacked uponunwittingly approaching their dens. Dropping from the boughs of a treeupon the shoulders, the creature flies at the face, inflicting deepscratches and bites, exceedingly painful, and sometimes dangerous, fromthe tendency to fester. But such cases are rare, and the reason theforest cat is so detested is because it preys upon fowls and poultry,mounting with ease the trees or places where they roost.

  Almost worse than the mice were the rats, which came out of the oldcities in such vast numbers that the people who survived and saw themare related to have fled in fear. This terror, however, did not last solong as the evil of the mice, for the rats, probably not findingsufficient food when together, scattered abroad, and were destroyedsingly by the cats and dogs, who slew them by thousands, far more thanthey could afterwards eat, so that the carcases were left to decay. Itis said that, overcome with hunger, these armies of rats in some casesfell upon each other, and fed on their own kindred. They are stillnumerous, but do not appear to do the same amount of damage as isoccasionally caused by the mice, when the latter invade the cultivatedlands.

  The dogs, of course, like the cats, were forced by starvation into thefields, where they perished in incredible numbers. Of many species ofdogs which are stated to have been plentiful among the ancients, we havenow nothing but the name. The poodle is extinct, the Maltese terrier,the Pomeranian, the Italian greyhound, and, it is believed, greatnumbers of crosses and mongrels have utterly disappeared. There was noneto feed them, and they could not find food for themselves, nor couldthey stand the rigour of the winter when exposed to the frost in theopen air.

  Some kinds, more hardy and fitted by nature for the chase, became wild,and their descendants are now found in the woods. Of these, there arethree sorts which keep apart from each other, and are thought not tointerbreed. The most numerous are the black. The black wood-dog is shortand stoutly made, with shaggy hair, sometimes marked with white patches.

  There can be no doubt that it is the descendant of the ancientsheep-dog, for it is known that the sheep-dog was of that character, andit is said that those who used to keep sheep soon found their dogsabandon the fold, and join the wild troops that fell upon the sheep. Theblack wood-dogs hunt in packs of ten or more

as many as forty have beencounted

, and are the pest of the farmer, for, unless his flocks areprotected at night within stockades or enclosures, they are certain tobe attacked. Not satisfied with killing enough to satisfy hunger, thesedogs tear and mangle for sheer delight of blood, and will destroy twentytimes as many as they can eat, leaving the miserably torn carcases onthe field. Nor are the sheep always safe by day if the wood-dogs happento be hungry. The shepherd is, therefore, usually accompanied by two orthree mastiffs, of whose great size and strength the others stand inawe. At night, and when in large packs, starving in the snow, not eventhe mastiffs can check them.

  No wood-dog, of any kind, has ever been known to attack man, and thehunter in the forest hears their bark in every direction without fear.It is, nevertheless, best to retire out of their way when charging sheepin packs, for they then seem seized with a blind fury, and some who haveendeavoured to fight them have been thrown down and seriously mauled.But this has been in the blindness of their rush; no instance has everbeen known of their purposely attacking man.

  These black wood-dogs will also chase and finally pull down cattle, ifthey can get within the enclosures, and even horses have fallen victimsto their untiring thirst for blood. Not even the wild cattle can alwaysescape, despite their strength, and they have been known to run downstags, though not their usual quarry.

  The next kind of wild wood-dog is the yellow, a smaller animal, withsmooth hair inclining to a yellow colour, which lives principally upongame, chasing all, from the hare to the stag. It is as swift, or nearlyas swift, as the greyhound, and possesses greater endurance. In coursingthe hare, it not uncommonly happens that these dogs start from the brakeand take the hare, when nearly exhausted, from the hunter's hounds. Theywill in the same way follow a stag, which has been almost run down bythe hunters, and bring him to bay, though in this case they lose theirbooty, dispersing through fear of man, when the hunters come up in abody.

  But such is their love of the chase, that they are known to assemblefrom their lairs at the distant sound of the horn, and, as the huntersride through the woods, they often see the yellow dogs flitting alongside by side with them through bush and fern. These animals sometimeshunt singly, sometimes in couples, and as the season advances, andwinter approaches, in packs of eight or twelve. They never attack sheepor cattle, and avoid man, except when they perceive he is engaged in thechase. There is little doubt that they are the descendants of the dogswhich the ancients called lurchers, crossed, perhaps, with thegreyhound, and possibly other breeds. When the various species of dogswere thrown on their own resources, those only withstood the exposureand hardships which were naturally hardy, and possessed natural aptitudefor the chase.

  The third species of wood-dog is the white. They are low on the legs, ofa dingy white colour, and much smaller than the other two. They neitherattack cattle nor game, though fond of hunting rabbits. This dog is, infact, a scavenger, living upon the carcases of dead sheep and animals,which are found picked clean in the night. For this purpose it hauntsthe neighbourhood of habitations, and prowls in the evening over heapsof refuse, scampering away at the least alarm, for it is extremelytimid.

  It is perfectly harmless, for even the poultry do not dread it, and itwill not face a tame cat, if by chance the two meet. It is rarely metwith far from habitations, though it will accompany an army on themarch. It may be said to remain in one district. The black and yellowdogs, on the contrary, roam about the forest without apparent home. Oneday the hunter sees signs of their presence, and perhaps may, for amonth afterwards, not so much as hear a bark.

  This uncertainty in the case of the black dog is the bane of theshepherds; for, not seeing or hearing anything of the enemy for monthsaltogether, in spite of former experience their vigilance relaxes, andsuddenly, while they sleep, their flocks are scattered. We still have,among tame dogs, the mastiff, terrier, spaniel, deerhound, andgreyhound, all of which are as faithful to man as ever.