One sweltering day in August, 1899, a middle-aged man lies on the top of Kingston Hill, near Lewes.
One sweltering day in August, 1899, a middle-aged man lies on the top of Kingston Hill, near Lewes. The wind is fierce, the view hazed. For two or three hours, he lies motionless, gazing in rapture at the silvery thistle down, as it leaps up in its thousands to fill the sky. Using binoculars, he can make out higher and higher layers of it drifting upwards. He recalls how, as a boy, he once galloped on the Argentine pampas through a valley filled like a lake with thistle down, how his horse shied in terror as it plunged into this drifting phantasmagoric stuff.
The opening pages of WH Hudson’s Nature in Downland (1900) are at once arresting and typical of his highly-personal take on nature. This is no dull inventory of flora and fauna. While his eye for detail is prodigious - down to the tiniest insect or plant, the tiniest nuance of colour, sound or mood - there is always a human interaction between observer and observed. It is a book all lovers of Sussex and the Downs should read.
The springy turf, so delightful to walk on, Hudson notes, “is composed of small grasses and clovers mixed with a great variety of creeping herbs, some exceedingly small. In a space of one square foot of ground, 20 or more species of plants may be counted, and on turning up a piece of turf the innumerable interwoven roots have the appearence of coconut matting.” He notices how, after he has lain on it, his clothing carries its aroma; when he wakes next morning, the air in his bedroom is “charged with it”.
He studies the behaviour of flies. “One big yellow fly like a honey-bee comes directly at you with a loud hostile hum or buzz, hovers for a few moments, dashes away in a straight line, turns off at a tangent, and, rushing back again, proceeds with extraordinary velocity to describe curves and circles, parallel lines, angles, and other geometric figures, in the air; and finally drops down within a few inches of you, to remain motionless."
He grabs moles, dandles adders, converses with shepherds, chats on Goring beach with a man feeding his horses with seaweed - “they ate it greedily, as if it had been the most fragrant new-mown hay” - he admires the long-horned red Sussex oxen ploughing at Stanmer, he listens to a hundred invisible skylarks.
He is robust in opinion. He detests bird-trappers and shooters, keepers of caged owls. He stalks out of a church (it is at Singleton) containing a monument to a huntsman. He ridicules a man from Ringmer who has never heard of Gilbert White, one from the Isle of Wight who has never heard of Tennyson. He wants gibbets brought back “to suspend our universally abhorred scorchers by the neck until they were dead, dead, dead, and food for crows and pies” (I am not sure who these “scorchers” were).
Brighton he calls “Islington-by-the-Sea”, over-populous, full of “ragamuffins”, with “trumpet-blasts” of fried-fish smells. As for Chichester, Hudson devotes a chapter to excoriating its stink of “old forgotten cesspools”, its excessive pubs and inebriety, the miserable sights and sounds of its cattle market, its depressive atmosphere - always getting there “the malady commonly known as ‘the chichesters’, from which many persons who visit this town are said to suffer” - and even the colour of its mud. “Before departing never to return, I stepped aside from the road, and very carefully wiped the ash-coloured mud from my boots on the wet grass, for I wished not to take any of it away.”