Thursday, August 11, 2011

GUEST POST Richard Jefferies and Coate: A centenary celebration

Rebecca Welshman is writing a PhD in English Literature at the University of Exeter and is a representative of the Richard Jefferies Society
The old house stood by the silent country road, secluded by many a long, long mile, and yet again secluded within the great walls of the garden .... Lime-tree branches overhung the corner of the garden-wall, whence a view was easy of the silent and dusty road, till overarching oaks concealed it. The white dust heated by the sunshine, the green hedges, and the heavily massed trees, white clouds rolled together in the sky, a footpath opposite lost in the fields, as you might thrust a stick into the grass, tender lime leaves caressing the cheek, and silence. That is, the silence of the fields.

Richard Jefferies, Meadow Thoughts
In 1911, on a warm day in June, 300 people gathered at the Corn Exchange in Swindon town centre and began a slow walk in the sunshine across the meadows to the nearby hamlet, Coate. Accompanied by the Mayor of Swindon, and conducted by the Unionist and local MP, Colonel Calley, they convened in the grounds of a thatched farmhouse, the birthplace and family home of Richard Jefferies, one of the greatest authors of the Victorian era.

Here, amongst apple orchards and wild rambling gardens, took place the first ever Richard Jefferies Festival. Commemorative addresses were given by notable authors and celebrities, including the critic and author Edward Garnett, friend of Thomas Hardy, and Swindon-born author, Alfred Williams.

Also present was the American artist Kate Tryon, a keen admirer of Jefferies who visited Wiltshire in the early 20th century to paint his landscapes. In her journal Kate wrote that ‘the day was filled to overflowing with happy experiences’, and brought together people who were ‘keenly alive to [its] beauty and significance.’ On the day of the festival her paintings were exhibited in the boat-house on Coate Reservoir - the ‘New Sea’ that features in Jefferies’ children’s novel, Bevis. Fifty years on, during the 1960s, the birthplace became a museum and today displays Kate Tryon’s artwork to the public.

Jefferies spent most of the first 30 years of his life at Coate, with the Wiltshire countryside and its people being the subject and inspiration for much of his work. In 1877 he moved to Surrey with his wife and child, and achieved fame as a journalist and novelist on rural subjects. His work during the 1870s and 1880s established him as an agricultural expert, social commentator, and political thinker. Today he is considered a pioneer in ecological thought, with a profound and unusual sensitivity to the natural and human worlds. Jefferies' death from Tuberculosis, when he was only 38 years old, was recognised as one of the greatest ever losses to English Literature.

The birthplace and environs- know n as "Jefferies' Land" - soon became a place of pilgrimage, attracting devotees from all over the world. When the critic and journalist Graham Anderson wrote an article "Round About Coate" in 1893, describing his visit to the birthplace, the countryside remained unchanged since Jefferies had written about it 15 years before.

Today "Round About Coate" might bring to mind the large multi-lane feature at the end of the A4019, with the once quaint hamlet now reduced to a mere string of houses along its edge. The crooked stile by the dusty roadside, as it appeared in Anderson’s illustration, which Jefferies tells us once led into a field and a cattleyard called the Lower Pen, has been replaced by a petrol station. A new housing development, against which the Jefferies Land Conservation Trust has been campaigning for six years, now further threatens the countryside that Jefferies once loved and enjoyed, and which features in many of his works.

Yet despite the changes wrought upon the landscape, as the feeling of intrusion by the modern world has intensified, there remains something unique and secluded about the Victorian farmhouse and its gardens; something that continues to draw people, despite the lapse of time since Jefferies lived there. Jefferies described the house as ‘shut off from the road by a solid stone wall’. The wall remains, as do the low gothic doors and the row of lime trees, leading to outbuildings, orchards, and Victorian gardens, all once part of a larger farmstead.

The interior of the old house, with its narrow stairwells and secluded attic rooms, draws the wanderer in to explore and experience the little gem of sanctity set amidst the rushing modern world without. Quietly witnessing the passing of the centuries, the old house at Coate protects something – not simply the literary legacy or the exhibits but the spirit of the place itself. Jefferies' writing encourages deep connections between people and the environments he wrote about, and his birthplace attracts those who wish to experience the place as he once did.

Nature in and around the house remains much as it did in Jefferies’ time, with garden birds nesting in the same trees, foxes passing through at night, and a variety of insect life encouraged by a profusion of wild flowers. Jackdaws still nest in the chimney pots, which Jefferies wrote about, lending the place a sense of timelessness and beauty.

Throughout his life Jefferies always sought to identify with the environment in which circumstances found him, and to help others do so too. In his spiritual autobiography, The Story of My Heart (1883), he wrote: "How pleasant it would be each day to think, To-day I have done something that will tend to render future generations more happy. The very thought would make this hour sweeter." 

As our changing landscapes unfold around us, Jefferies’ writing might offer new ways of thinking about how to respond to and preserve our environment for future generations to experience. At Coate a group of devotees are working to open the Jefferies museum more regularly to the public, and to restore the grounds as a place for the local community to enjoy.

This summer will see the revival of the Jefferies Festival in Swindon to celebrate the centenary of 1911, and amongst a full programme of events and activities there will be an exhibition of paintings on Jefferies’ life and work by landscape artist, David Brackston. Through cultural development we might seek to harness the benefits of collaboration and innovation in an effort to help secure our historic past; making our heritage accessible in ways which reflect the needs, hopes and dreams of the present.

The photographs show the Jefferies Museum at Coate and Rebecca's son Rufus in the garden there.

Further reading

Richard Jefferies Festival, August 2011

"Strange New Today" - Victorian Studies Conference in Exeter

New Richard Jefferies Anthology by Hugoe Matthews and Rebecca Welshman

Thomas Hardy and the Jurassic Coast by Patrick Tolfree and Rebecca Welshman (2010) is available online for £5

For more about The Old House at Coate project, the Jefferies Festival, the Jefferies Land Conservation Trust and the Jefferies Society, email RebeccaWelshman.

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