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CHANGING COURSE OF STREAMS--DEWPONDS--A WET HARVEST--WEATHER PHENOMENA--WILL-O’-THE-WISP--VARIOUS

“There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O Earth, what changes hast thou seen!”
In Memoriam.

“With many a curve my banks I fret
By many a field and fallow,
And many a fairy foreland set
With willow-weed and mallow.

“I chatter, chatter, as I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.”
The Brook.

Living so many years in one place I had unusual opportunities, as my rounds nearly always took me beside my brooks, of watching their slowly changing courses. The roots of the pollard willows helped to keep them to their regular path by holding up the banks, but sometimes when an old tree fell into the water it had an opposite result. A fallen tree, reaching partly across the stream, has the immediate effect of damming the flow of the water on the side of its growth and diverting the current towards the opposite bank in a narrowed but more powerful advance, so that the bank is worn away and the beginning of a bend is formed. As the breach increases, the water, momentarily retarded there by the new concavity, rushes forward again in the direction of the bank from which the tree fell. So that a second concavity is produced on that side some little way below the tree, resulting in the slow formation of an extended S-like figure, or hook with a double bend. The collection of rubbish and sediment retained by the fallen tree helps to form a new bank on that side, extending further into the stream than the bank on which the tree originally stood.

As this process continues it is easy to see that a straight stretch of stream will in time assume a winding course, and the stream will be continually altering its path, so that large areas of flat meadows will be formed, every part of which has at times been the stream’s course. How many ages, then, must it have taken to produce the level meadows we see extending for immense distances on either side of our big rivers, and even those adjoining quite small streams? The level surface thus created by the river or brook’s course perpetually deflected and reflected, is finally completed by the floods bringing down a deposit of soil in solution, which is precipitated and settles into any surface irregularities left by the wanderings of the stream. A faint conception of an absolutely illimitable cycle of years, during which the whole extent of visible flat meadow has been again and again eroded and restored, is thus conveyed.

Confirmation of this alteration of their courses by streams is afforded when we cut a main drain through one of these meadows, to carry the water from the connected furrow drains of adjoining arable land. The alluvial soil can be found as deep as the depth of the present brook, free from the stones found in the arable land, and containing, to the same depth as the brook, fresh water shells similar to those in the brook to-day. There was a bend in course of formation in one of my brooks, where the stump of a tree, whose fall was the starting-point, could be seen standing in the newly-formed ground, a yard or more from the stream when I left, though I can remember when it was so near as almost to touch the water.

If we form an S from a piece of wire, and pinch it together from top to bottom, the loops become so flattened, , that one of them may almost unite with the central curve. The same thing often happens in the loops of a brook, and, in time, the stream will complete the junction, forming a short circuit. Thus an island may be formed; or when the old loop opposite the short circuit gets filled up with deposit or falling banks the water preferring the short circuit a piece of land may be cut off from one of the former sides of the brook and transferred to the other, so that where the brook is a boundary between two owners or parishes one owner or parish may be robbed and the other owner or parish becomes a receiver of stolen goods. There was an instance of this on the farm I owned and occupied adjoining the Aldington Manor property, and the owner and the tenant of the piece transferred to my side could not reach it without walking through the brook. In this case, however, the tenant had wisely planted the ground with withies, which he managed to get at for lopping when its turn came round every seven years. Thus we have an example of the necessity of the ancient practice of beating the bounds, which, at least before the days of ordnance surveys, was not merely an opportunity for a holiday.

Another proof of the creation of new land by the meanderings of a stream is found in the ancient “carrs” of North Lincolnshire, near Brigg, where the hollowed-out logs of black bog oak, which formed the canoes of the ancient inhabitants, are sometimes discovered many feet below the surface, and long distances from the present course of the Ancholme. These having sunk to the bottom of the river in past ages, and gradually become covered with alluvium, were left behind as the river changed its course. In some cases however these canoes may have sunk to the bottom of the water when it formed a lake, and the lake having gradually silted up, the river receded to something like its present width.

The floods in the Vale of Evesham from the Avon and even from my brooks, often converted the adjoining flat meadows into lakes, and they rose so suddenly after heavy rains or the melting of deep snowfalls on the hills, that they were attended with danger to the stock.

In the summer of 1879 one of these sudden floods occurred, and people standing on Evesham bridge, saw fallen trees and hay-cocks floating down the stream. A pollard willow was noticed with a crew of about twenty land rats, which had found refuge there until the tree itself was lifted by the rising water and carried down the stream; and a floating hay-cock supported a man’s jacket, his jar of cider, and his “shuppick.” The local word “shuppick,” a corruption of “sheaf-pike,” means a pike used for loading the sheaves of wheat in the harvest field on to the waggon, and is the “fork” in general use at hay-making. During another summer flood the whole of the pleasure ground at Evesham, beside the Avon, was under water several feet deep; the water poured in at the lower windows of the adjoining hotel, and the proprietor’s casks of beer and cider in the cellars, ready for the regatta, were lifted from their stands and bumped against walls and ceilings.

Every parish has its Council in these days, and in country places almost every other person one meets is a councillor of some sort, and inclined to be proud of the distinction. These Councils are excellent safety-valves for parochial malcontents who thus harmlessly let off superfluous steam which might otherwise ruffle the abiding calm of peaceful inhabitants, but their powers are really very limited. In a village in Worcestershire where an approach road crossed a brook by a ford, during floods the current was sometimes so strong as to constitute a danger to horses and carts. The village pundits therefore, in council duly assembled, considered the matter, and after an extended debate the following resolution was carried unanimously, “That a notice board be erected on the spot bearing the inscription: When this board is covered with water it is dangerous to attempt to cross the ford.”

The numerous brooks in the Vale of Evesham supply ample water for the stock, but in more elevated parts, especially on the chalk Downs of Sussex, Hants, Wilts, and Dorset, provision is made for an artificial water supply by what are called “dewponds.” A shallow saucer-shaped depression is dug out on the open Down, the bottom being made water-tight by puddling with a well-rammed layer of impervious clay. The first heavy rainfall fills the pond, and, the water being colder than the air, the dew or mist condenses on its surface sufficiently, in ordinary weather, to maintain the supply. In a dry time the sheep can always reach the water, the pond having no banks, by the shelving formation of the bottom. Sometimes a few trees are allowed to grow round it; they also act as condensers, and their drip helps to fill the pond. It is only in an abnormal drought that these dewponds really fail, and a thunderstorm, followed by ordinary weather, will soon refill them. Gilbert White, in The Natural History of Selborne, refers to these ponds in a very interesting letter on the subject, including details of condensation by trees, in which he gives an instance of a particular pond, high up on the Down, 300 feet above his house, and situated in such a position that it was impossible for it to receive any water from springs or drainage, which “though never above three feet deep in the middle, and not more than thirty feet in diameter, and containing, perhaps, not more than two or three hundred hogsheads of water, yet never is known to fail, though it affords drink for three hundred or four hundred sheep, and for at least twenty head of large cattle besides.”

The natural well-water in the Vale of Evesham is exceedingly hard, and in the town and some villages was formerly much contaminated. After great opposition from obstructive ratepayers, a splendid supply was obtained from the Cotswolds above Broadway, about six miles away, of much softer and really pure spring water. It comes in pipes by gravitation, so there is no expense of pumping; but it was difficult to get recalcitrant ratepayers to lay the water on from the mains to their houses, as that part of the cost had to be borne by them individually; and, before compulsion could be resorted to, the Council had to prove contamination of the wells and close them. To get the evidence samples were submitted to a London analyst, and they were invariably condemned. One of the Councillors suggested sending, with a number of well samples, a sample of the new supply “for a fad.” The samples were numbered, but had no other distinguishing mark, and in due course the usual condemnations were received, including that of the new town supply!

During the wet harvest of 1879, when what was called by townspeople the agricultural depression, was becoming acute, it was impossible to get a whole day on which wheat could be carried. The position was serious, because the grain was sprouting in the sheaves in the field, and time after time a fairly dry Saturday would have allowed carrying the following day, though Monday was always as wet as ever. At last at Aldington we faced the situation and decided to proceed with the work whenever possible, Sunday or no Sunday. A fine drying Saturday occurred, and my bailiff told the men what we proposed, adding that we did not wish anyone to help who had scruples as to the day. They all appeared on Sunday morning, a brilliant day, except one “conscientious objector,” who, as I heard later, spent most of the day at the public-house. We got up two ricks from about ten acres, which eventually proved to be some of the driest wheat we had that year, and which I was able to sell for seed at a good price, to go into districts where no dry seed wheat could be found.

My old vicar was somewhat scandalized at this Sunday work, and some of my neighbours fancied themselves shocked, but a day or two later I happened to meet another clergyman friend, who farmed a little himself. “I was so pleased,” he said, “to hear that you were carrying wheat last Sunday; when I was preaching I was strongly disposed to conclude by telling my people ’Now you have been to church, go home to your dinners, and then off with your jackets and carry wheat for the rest of the day.’” Next Sunday all my neighbours were busy with their wheat, but I had managed to complete my harvest during the previous week, on the 8th of October, quite a month or six weeks later than usual, and an extraordinary contrast to the very dry year 1868, when all the corn on the farm, I was told, was carried before the last day of July.

I attended a neighbour’s sale that autumn; the wet seasons and the low prices had been too much for him, and he was leaving for the United States; his rick-yard was empty, all the corn sold, and nothing but straw left. I heard him remark, “Folks are saying that I’m very backward with my payments, but I’m very forward with my thrashing, anyway!” Before the following spring nearly all the rick-yards were empty, and wheat-ricks, it was said, were as scarce as churches one in each parish. The situation was summed up later in a phrase which passed into a proverb: “In 1879 farmers lived on faith, in 1880 they are living on hope, and in 1881 they will have to live on charity.”

The attitude of the towns was one of apathy and indifference, like that of the General in Bracebridge Hall, which, published in 1822, proves how history repeats itself in agricultural as in other matters:

“He is amazingly well-contented with the present state of things, and apt to get a little impatient at any talk about national ruin and agricultural distress. ‘They talk of public distress,’ said the General this day to me at dinner, as he smacked a glass of rich burgundy and cast his eyes about the ample board: ’They talk of public distress, but where do we find it, sir? I see none; I see no reason anyone has to complain. Take my word for it, sir, this talk about public distress is all humbug!’”

At Evesham, long before the depression grew into a debacle, the shadows of coming events could easily be detected. There was the disappearance of the long rows of farmers’ conveyances at the inns in the town on market-days; there was the eclipse of shops for other than necessities such as a little fish shop, opposite the corner at the cross roads; a corner where much business was formerly transacted in the open street, and where I myself have sold by sample some thousands of sacks of wheat. A tempting little shop it used to be, displaying shining Severn salmon; and it was here that the farmers, after the market, obtained the supplies commanded by the missus at home.

And there was the abandonment of the Corn Market proper, for the class of farmers who survived hated to transact their business indoors. The attendance of millers and dealers, except of those who had cargoes of foreign corn at Gloucester or Bristol to dispose of, became irregular. Sales of farm stock and implements took place in every village on farms which had passed from father to son for generations, coupled with the sacrifice of valuable implements and machinery for want of buyers. There followed the stage when landowners who could find no tenants, and had heavily mortgaged estates, essayed to make the best of them by laying away the arable land to pasture, undertaking the management themselves with, perhaps, an old broken-down tenant as bailiff. The politicians and the general public did not apprehend the danger of the situation, in spite of innumerable warnings, until the German submarines were sending our foreign food supplies to the bottom of the sea; and now that the immediate danger of starvation has passed, they appear already to have lapsed again into an attitude of apathy.

We hear the blessed word “reconstruction” on every side, but the only official propositions for the permanent establishment of agricultural prosperity that I have heard are utterly inadequate. It is ridiculous to suppose that a few thousand acres of special crops, like tobacco, for instance, only possible in favoured spots, can in any way compensate for the loss of millions of acres of arable land under rotations of corn and green crops. Under present conditions nothing is more certain than the abandonment of arable land as such; and it is folly to talk of novel systems of transport for a dwindling output, or of building labourers’ cottages at an unjustifiable cost, which are never likely to be wanted by a dying industry.

Among my experiences of abnormal weather, I have a note of a remarkable summer flood on July 21, 1875, when my hay was lying in the meadows beside the brooks, and had to be removed to higher ground in pouring rain to prevent its disappearance with the current. On the following day, July 22, the highest flood since 1845 occurred at Evesham.

October 14, 1877, was memorable for the most terrific south-west gale that happened in all the years I passed at Aldington; thirteen trees, mostly old apple trees and elms, were blown down, including the splendid veteran “Chate boy” pear tree at Blackminster, an exceedingly sad and irreparable loss. The gale blew hardest in special tracks, the course of which could be followed by the destruction of trees and branches in distinct lanes, cut through woods and plantations.

The winter of 1880-1881 was very severe, the mean temperature of January, 1881, being 27.8 degrees F., the coldest January since 1820. Ten years later, 1890-1891, another very prolonged winter occurred: the frost began on the 6th of December, and, with scarcely a break, continued till well into February. The feature of this frost was the fine settled weather, and the warmth of the midday sun in the brilliant air, when skaters could sit on the river banks and enjoy their rest and lunch in its rays. I took my elder daughter back to school at Richmond at the end of January, and in London we saw the Thames choked by huge hummocks of ice, on which people were crossing the river. An ox was roasted whole on the Avon at Evesham, and, when the frost broke up, the ice on our millpond was 17 inches thick.

Another great frost happened in 1894-1895, beginning late in December, and lasting till the end of February, with a single intervening week of thaw; and in March the ground, in places, was too hard to plough. It was the only time that I was completely at a loss to find work for my men; all the carting was finished in the early days of the frost, and all the thrashing possible followed; ploughing and all working of the land, or draining, were impracticable. The men, seeing that there would be no employment for them until the frost broke up, told me that if they might get what wood they could from fallen trees in the brook, and if I would lend them horses and carts to get it home, they would be glad to work in that way for themselves for a time. Just as they had cleared both brooks from end to end of the farm which occupied them about ten days, the thaw came and I was able to find them plenty to do.

We suffered very little from droughts at Aldington, the land was naturally so retentive of moisture, but 1893 was a dry year, not easily forgotten; no rain fell from early in March to July 13; the hay crop was the lightest in remembrance, and straw was so short and scarce that the hay-ricks of the following year, 1894, had to go unthatched until the harvest of that year provided the necessary straw.

The spring of 1895 was remarkable for a plague of the caterpillars of the winter-moth, due to the destruction of insect-eating birds by the great frost; the caterpillars devoured the young leaves of the plum-trees, so that whole orchards were completely stripped. The balance between insectivorous birds and caterpillar life was destroyed for a time, and the caterpillars conquered the plum-trees. In 1917, during the persistent north-east blasts of February, March, and part of April, the destruction of birds was terrible; all the tit tribe suffered greatly, and the charming little golden-crested wren, which here in the Forest was quite common, has scarcely been seen since. Caterpillars again were a plague in my apple trees that spring, but were not really destructive, and in the autumn the apples escaped their usual punishment from the birds and wasps. Tits are often very troublesome; they peck holes in the fruit, apparently in search of the larvae of the codlin moth, leaving an opening for wasps and flies. I find the berries of the laurel, which is a species of cherry, very attractive to blackbirds, and as long as there are any left they seem to prefer them to the apples. In 1895 cuckoos came to the rescue of my young plum orchard; there were dozens of them at work on the nine acres at once, and they must have cleared away an immense number of the grubs.

The most remarkable season we have had since I left Aldington was the great drought of 1911. There was no rain here worth mention from June 22, the Coronation of King George V., until August 30, and the pastures on this thin land were burnt up. On August 30 we had some friends for tennis, and we had not been playing long before a mighty cloud-burst occurred; the rain fell in torrents. “It didn’t stop to rain, it tumbled down,” as my men used to say, and in about half an hour the lawn was a sheet of water, the ground being so hard, that it could not soak away. It was all over in an hour, and a neighbour with a rain-gauge registered 0.66 of an inch of rain, equal to 66 tons on an acre, or 330 tons on my five acres.

One of my ambitions has always been to see a Will-o’-the-wisp, and I am still hoping; but that hot summer, had I known it at the time, they were quite common within an easy walk of my house in the New Forest. There was some correspondence on the subject in The Observer, and the following is extracted from one of the letters:

“As none of your correspondents seem to be aware of a comparatively recent instance, I write to say that there were enough indubitable Will-o’-the-wisps to convince the most incredulous during the extremely hot weather of July, 1911.

“From July 18 to 22 I was at Thorney Hill in the New Forest, some seven miles behind Christchurch. Owing to the abnormal drought the bogs and bog-streams at the foot of the hill westward were all but dry; a dense mist, however, sometimes rose from them at night. On July 19, and the three following nights, the Will-o’-the-wisps were in great form over the bog. They were like small balls of bluish fire, which projected themselves with hops and jerks across the most inaccessible parts of the bog, starting always, so far as could be told, from where a little stagnant moisture still remained. They moved with an erratic velocity, so to speak, appearing and reappearing at distances of several hundred yards. There wasn’t the slightest doubt of their authenticity.

“The inhabitants of Thorney Hill, I believe, regarded these appearances with alarm, as being, though not exactly novelties, harbingers of much misfortune. But the drought was quite bad enough, without having the Jack-o’-lanterns to accentuate it!”

This instance was the more remarkable as I have never succeeded in finding anyone, even among people who are constantly on duty in the Forest, who could testify to having seen a Will-o’-the-wisp.

Waterspouts are, I believe, more frequently seen at sea than on land, but I have an account from my brother, Mr. F.E. Savory, of one he saw many years ago in Wiltshire. He writes:

“When I was at Manningford Bruce in 1873 or 1874, I saw a dense black cloud travelling towards the southeast, the lower part of which became pointed like a funnel in shape, waving about as it descended until, I suppose, the attraction of the earth overcame the cohesion of the cloud’s vapour, and it discharged itself. I could see it looking lighter and lighter, from the middle outwards, until it was entirely dispersed. I heard that the water fell on the side of the Down near Collingbourne, about five miles off, and washed some of the soil away, but I did not see that. The weather was stormy, but I do not remember the time of year or any other particulars.”

It would seem that a waterspout is caused by a whirlwind entering a cloud and gathering vapour together by its rotary action into such a heavy mass that it descends in the funnel shape described. We are all familiar with the small whirlwinds that travel across a road in summer, carrying the dust round and round with them; these are called “whirly-curlies” in Worcestershire, and are regarded as a sign of fine weather. I have sometimes seen quite a strong one crossing rows of hay just ready to carry, cutting a clean track through each row, and leaving the ground bare where it passed. The hay is often carried to a great height, and sometimes dropped in an adjoining field.

On a bright morning in summer one often sees, a little distance away, a tremulous or flickering movement in the air, not far from the ground, which Tennyson refers to in In Memoriam, as, “The landscape winking thro’ the heat”; and again in The Princess:

“All the rich to come
Reels, as the golden Autumn woodland reels
Athwart the smoke of burning weeds.”

I am told that this appearance is “due to layers of air of different degrees of refracting power, in motion, relative to one another. Air at different temperatures will refract light differently.” In Hampshire this phenomenon is known by the pretty name of “the summer dance.”

Since I came to the Forest I have seen two very curious and, I think, unusual natural appearances. As I was cycling one rather dull afternoon from Wimborne to Ringwood, I noticed a colourless rainbow, or perhaps I should say, “mist-bow,” for there was no rain, and the sun was partially obscured. The sun was about south-west, and the bow was north-east; it was merely a series of well-defined but colourless segments of circles, close to each other but shaded so as to make them distinguishable, arranged exactly like a rainbow but without a trace of colour beyond a grey uniformity. It was on my left for several miles, perhaps half of the total distance of nine miles between the two towns.

Cycling another day between Lyndhurst and Burley, I reached the east entrance of Burley Lodge, which is on higher ground than the farm spread out to the right in the valley. The whole valley was filled with thick white mist, as level as a lake, so that nothing could be seen of the fields. The setting sun was low down at the further extremity of the valley, and the surface of the mist-lake reflected its rays in a rosy sheen, with a track of brighter light in the middle, stretching from the far end of the lake in a broad path almost to where I was standing; just as we see the track of sunlight or moonlight, sometimes, on the sea, from the shore. This phenomenon is not uncommon when one is looking down from the top of a hill in the sunshine, upon a valley full of mist, but I have never seen it before from comparatively low ground, as on this occasion.

My summers at Aldington were nearly always too busy to allow me to take a holiday, except for a very few days, but when the urgent work of the year was over, the harvest completed, and the hops and the fruit picked, we always had a clear month away from home, about the middle of October to the middle of November; and, as we found the autumn much less advanced in the south than in the midlands, we often spent the time on the south coast or in the Isle of Wight, and we were nearly always favoured by fine weather. On one of these occasions, when we were exploring the whole island on bicycles, I never once found it necessary to carry a waterproof cape, though in the course of this visit we rode over 600 miles.