Fragrance in Travel Literature-In the west country by Francis Knight

In the west country
Knight, Francis A. (Francis Arnold), b. 1852


THE whirr of the iron mower has ceased at
length. Hour after hour the clashing
blades swept in still narrowing circles round and
round the spacious meadow. Now the last swath
has fallen. Now in the centre of the field the
machine stands silent ; the tired horses taking
toll of the sweet grass that is strewn about their
feet.
The men lie motionless, their sunburned faces
buried in the fragrant coolness. A few short
hours ago this broad field was a sea of nodding
grasses, whose tasselled points lent soft and
changing tints of purple to the long waves
that betrayed the light movements of the air.
Sheets of great moon-daisies whitened it. Here
it was golden w r ith dyer's weed and lingering
buttercups ; and there it was crimson with fiery
touches of red sorrel. Under the hot noonday
sun each waft of air that stirred across it was
fragrant with mingled perfumes, of the scent of
hawkweed and lotus and sweet clover blooms.
Its cool depths were stirred by honey- hunting
bees. Wandering butterflies floated over it.
Burnet moths in black and crimson sailed across
it on their silken wings. Now the close shaven
sward is strewn with drying grass and fading
flowers. Bee nor butterfly will visit it more.
To-morrow night not a touch of colour will
remain of all its mingled beauty, ruined now past
all hope ; not a petal of its oxeye daisies, not a
hawkweed unwithered, not a lingering clover
bloom.


The hour is late. Along the low hills that
bound the valley hangs the haze of sunset. There
is a faint flush of rose colour on the soft clouds
that drift slowly overhead. The air is still filled
with fragrance. Instead of the sweet incense
of the clover, there is the scent of new-mown
hay.
For the breath of the lost flowers of the
meadow there are all the perfumes of the one
garden that gives upon the field — of roses all
in bloom on arch and trellis, of clumps of tall
sweet peas, white and red and rich imperial
purple, of the delicate wild pinks, rooted at will
in the old garden wall. And, although the last
blossom has faded from the hawthorns round
the meadow, slowly, and as with reluctance,
delicate dog-roses are scattered broadcast all
along the hedge-rows, and the woodbine sprays
are rich already with pale sweet clusters.


THERE are many symbols on the dial of
Nature to mark the changing of the year.
Such signs are the brightening colours of the
meadows, and the growing hosts of insect life.
Such a sign is the strange, noonday silence of the
woodland ; and such, too, is the change in the
cuckoo's cry — faltering, even before the longest
day. Such signs are the gathering of the swallows,
the purple mist on the plumed reeds by the river,
the blackberry clusters ripening fast along the
hedge-row, the butterflies that flutter in through
the open windows, seeking already some dark
nook in which to hide themselves in good time
before the setting in of winter.
But plainer even than these, for most of us at
any rate, is the altered tone of the hedge-rows —
ever ready to answer to the influence of the
sunshine. It is under the hedge-row that
spring leaves her fairest traces — violets white
and blue, and primroses, with their soft, delicate
perfume. May crowns the thickets with the
foamy fragrance of the hawthorn. June studs
the long briar sprays with sweet wild roses,
fairest of all flowers of summer. And now,
again, these hot summer days are lending new
beauty to the country lanes ; not of flowers or
of fresh young foliage, but of mellow leaves
and gleaming berries.


THE man who knows Exmoor only in the
pride of its summer beauty, who has, it
may be, followed the staghounds over its far-
reaching slopes through a splendour of heath and
ling and blossomed furze, who has never seen the
broad shoulders of Dunkerv save when they were
wrapped about with royal purple, would find the
moorland now in very different mood, would think
it even now, far on towards the summer, desolate
and sad-coloured and forlorn. The gorse, indeed,
is in its prime. Its fragrant gold is as full of
beauty as when the mingled mob of horse and foot
and carriages gathers, for the first Meet of the
season, on the smooth crown of Cloutsham Ball.
The gorse is a flower of the year. It is in bloom
even in January. There is an old saw that
declares it to be, like kissing, never out of season.
But the heather that covers so much of the slopes
of Dunkery wears at this moment its very
somberest of hues. Standing on the fringe of the
moorland, on the brink of one of the deep glens
that run into the heart of the hills, and looking up
the slope towards the dark summit, one might
think that winter was not over even yet. There
is a touch of vivid green here and there, round the
birthplace of some mountain stream. There is
colour on the young birches that one by one are
feeling their way up out of the hollow. But in the
sober brown of the heather, in the pearl grey of
the peat moss, in the dark hue of the gaunt and
twisted pines scattered at far intervals in front of
the advancing forest, there is no sign of the sweet
influences of the spring.

Beyond the white cart-track, that just shows for
a moment before it sinks behind a rising in the
heath, runs a deep valley — a great hollow filled
almost to the brim with oaks and beeches and tall
larch trees ; — they, at least, are in the full pride
of their magnificent young beauty, with long
branches thickly hung with tufts of fragrant green.
It is a valley of streams, that, drawn in silver
threads from every hill-slope near, set all along
with alder and willow, with ferns and rushes, and
cool water plants, go plunging through at last out
of the narrow gateway of the glen, to widen
farther down into a broad, smooth flood, that
sweeps in silence among the worn stepping-stones
of a village way.

The valley is full of life ; full as the moorland
here is bare of it. In the great bank that skirts
the wood badgers have their holt. Hard by it is
a famous "earth," to which every hunted fox
for miles round flees for sanctuary. The wood-
men have been busy here. The ground is strewn
with red larch chips, whose sweet, resinous
fragrance hangs heavy on the air. And from the
welcome rest of some new-felled tree, whose shorn
plumes lie heaped about it in well-ordered faggots,
you may listen to the pleasant voices of the doves,
and the blithe notes of warblers in the boughs
above you. You may watch the pheasants stalking
solemnly among the underwood, may see the
brown squirrels romping on the grass, or playing
follow the leader up and down the smooth-stemmed
beech trees. A charmed spot.

Dream-like, too, is the quiet that broods over
this peaceful valley — a quiet even deepened by
those Voices Three, of the wind, and the birds, and
the river. No sound of toil or traffic rises from
the village, save the clink of iron in the smithy,
the thud of a woodman's axe among the young
alders by the water, or, still more rarely, the
lumbering of a cart along one of the deep lanes
that slope upward to the moor, or that wander
with the winding streams. The wind that sways
the oak boughs overhead has a stormy sound.
But this sheltered corner under the hill, with its
screen of thick-growing fir and holly, is full of the
warm south, of soft and gentle airs, scented with
the sweet resinous fragrance of the pines.

To the lover of the sights and sounds of Nature,
life has few better things to offer than a quiet
hour, some bright spring morning, under the
shadow of a green arch of blossomed boughs, in
company with gentle, beautiful, sweet-voiced
poets of the air, glad, like him, in the sunshine
and the fragrance. Is it a mere flight of fancy
that the feathered architects, no less than the
ballad singers, of this out-of-the-way corner of
the world are masters of their art above the
birds of less favoured regions ? Look at this
chaffinch's nest, cradled in the end of an
apple-bough, so dexterously woven in among
the twigs in which it rests, so daintily touched
with silvery points of lichen, so perfect a harmony
with its surroundings that one might well fancy
it had grown there, some strange product of
the tree. While just above it, an apple bough
in bloom, the rich gold of clustered stamens
just showing through the white and pink of
still half-open flowers, lends the crowning touch
of beauty.

A cool and quiet spot. Like the poet who found
it pleasant, through the loopholes of retreat,
" To see the tumult and not feel the stir," we
too, from the kindly shadow of these great chest-
nut trees, can look out on the woodland in its
pride of summer glory, with its flowers and its
fragrance and its greenness, nor feel the heat and
glare and the pitiless weight of the sunshine.
Day after day, week after week, there has been
" . . that nameless splendour everywhere
That makes the passers in the city street
Congratulate each other as they meet."

There are few points of brighter colour among
the world of green. Not many brilliant flowers
grow well in the very heart of the woods. Along
the paths there is a fringe of hawkweed and crow-
foot and yellow cistus. And where the sunlight is
less broken by the trees there are patches of red
lychnis and tall crowns of white cow parsley. In
the clearings strawberries run riot, in flower still,
but with scantier harvest than usual of the small
sweet fruit, in whose pleasant flavour is a dash of
woodland wildness. There is honeysuckle every-
where, trailing on the ground, creeping among the
bushes, and climbing up out of the green tangle,
laying hold of trees and saplings to help it to
the light. And as it climbs it twines with fatal
clasp about the friendly stems, slowly tightening its
embrace, sometimes cutting deep into the wood,
sometimes even killing- the branch outright, and
going up until at times a green canopy of it crowns
boughs thirty feet above the ground, while its
flowery clusters scent the woodland. And as
evening darkens, "What time the blackbird pipes
"to vespers from his perch," when the heat of the
long summer day gives place to the cooler, sweeter
air of night, the fragrance grows until the whole
glade is conscious of its subtle charm. Briar
bushes there are in plenty, and some of them
are lightly set with delicate blossoms. But
the dog'-roses are at their best, not here, but
on the skirts of the wood, where the long,
swaying sprays are crowded with those sweetest
flowers of June.

The mist of bluebells, that lingered here so late,
has vanished. The fiery spikes of early orchis
are all spent and faded. The ' lords and ladies '
have given place to little clusters of green berries,
that these sunny days will swiftly ripen to red
beads of coral. Yet there are other flowers, with
even more of beauty, that love the greater heat of
summer. Few are more lovely than the white
butterfly orchis ; fewer still more fragrant. It
has allies that mimic with marvellous faithfulness
the forms of bees and flies and spiders. They are
plants of the heath, of the sunny meadow, and the
open hill. But here is one, perhaps the least
striking of the clan, that will flourish in the
shadow, and that grows well even here in the half
twilight of the trees. The quiet-coloured petals
of the tway-blade are not like fly or bee or any
insect. Each floweret on its plain, unscented
spike is the little green figure of a man, a
man with outstretched arms. One might almost
fancy that the plant was copying shapes long
lost to our dulled vision ; that this quiet nook
was not alone
" . . . . for pretty cares
With mate and nest,
A lurking-place of tender airs
From south and west ; "
but that it was peopled still by the green-clad
gnomes of old belief; that these woodland aisles
were even now a place
" Where elves hold midnight revel,
And fairies linger still."

Pleasant it is to watch from this sheltered
corner the evolutions of the skaters. The wind
that blows so keen over the miles of frozen
marshland, and that lends a heightened colour
to their glowing faces, cannot reach you here.
Pleasant, too, is the scent of the hay and the
breath of cattle from the byres. But pleasanter
still is the ingle nook within the cottage, in a
tiny room, so low that the beam across its
ceiling is a trap for even the shortest of the group
on the old settle, by the fragrant fire of peat.
By such a fire it was that Alfred sat. Yet there
is a long gap between the half-shaped bow of the
old story and the gun, ancient as it is, hanging
yonder on the wall ; and if there are cakes about
this hearth, you will not hear the tall, blue-eyed,
winsome damsel who dispenses them
" . . . scold with kindling eye,
In good broad Somerset,"
as the neatherd's wife, a thousand years since,
scolded the Royal fugitive in these very marshes.

For the breath of the lost flowers of the
meadow there are all the perfumes of the one
garden that gives upon the field — of roses all
in bloom on arch and trellis, of clumps of tall
sweet peas, white and red and rich imperial
purple, of the delicate wild pinks, rooted at will
in the old garden wall. And, although the last
blossom has faded from the hawthorns round
the meadow, slowly, and as with reluctance,
delicate dog-roses are scattered broadcast all
along the hedge-rows, and the woodbine sprays
are rich already with pale sweet clusters.

The old hedge-rows round the orchard are
but wintry still for the most part, save for a
few buds of hawthorn just breaking into leaf,
or an elder bush already tinged with green.
But on the banks of the tiny stream that wanders
leisurely along the lane below, celandine and
sweet violet are in bloom ; and primroses, no
longer pale and stunted, as in the rougher days of
March, lend their rare perfume to the air.
Meadowsweet and brooklime are springing by the
oozy shore, and on the dark boughs of the alders
that lean over it the catkins cluster thick.

There is nothing
for it but to sit down a few yards away, hidden by
a dwarf blackthorn bush, and wait patiently for
his re-appearing. How quiet it all is. The
hamlet on the hill-slope yonder —

" One of those little places that have run
Half up the hill beneath a burning sun.
And then sat down to rest, as if to say.
'I climb no further upward, come what may'" —
looms faintly through the haze. The white
houses scattered through the valley melt away
into the mist. But the sun is still warm. The
cones of the old firs crackle in the sunshine.
Still sweeter grows the faint perfume of the gorse,
still more beautiful its radiant gold. A bullfinch
settles in a tree hard by. There is no colour in
Nature more beautiful than the exquisite flush of
crimson on his breast. Quite in keeping with
his beauty is the soft sweetness of the tender love
note that now and then he whispers to his mate,
who, in colours far less bright than his, sits just
below him on a lichened apple bough.

Through the open windows the warm air brings
all pleasant scents and sounds. The low of cattle,
on distant farms, the mellow chiming of the old
church bells, the rich strains of thrush and black-
bird, the sweet song" of the swallow, clink of oxeye,
call of cuckoo, jay's harsh cry, and wood-pecker's
light-hearted laughter, mingle with the perfume
of the roses and the woodruff. The swallows that
sing on the brown gable of the barn beyond
the precincts may have their nests plundered by
prowling schoolboys. The hollow trees in the
orchard, the chinks in the old wall of the lane,
are not wholly safe from the village birds' -nester.
But here is sanctuary inviolate, from which no
bird was ever driven.

You may watch the shrike yonder, perched
motionless on his favourite hawthorn, in whose
shadow his mate is doubtless already brooding
on her eggs. You may listen to the goldfinch
singing in the green mist of meeting branches
overhead ; see the grey cuckoo alight on the
topmost crest of the great elm that towers
above the meadow ; watch the busy starlings as
they pass and repass with hurried flight. And,
as through the great masses of lilac, now
beginning to abate their rare perfume, you catch
glimpses of hills and meadows, of the white
houses of the village, with its orchards and its
elms, and, crowning these, the grey tower of the
church, looking down like a watchful sentinel on
the hamlet lying at its feet, you feel it was to no
fairer spot than this that the poet called his friend,
when he sang :
" Or if thou tarry, come with the summer
That welcome comer
Welcome as he.
When noontide sunshine beats on the meadow
A seat in shadow,
We'll keep for thee.'

The sun low down in the west, showing for
a brief space through the trees his face of
fiery gold barred with the dark branches, throws
far across the grass the shadows of a group
of tall elms out in the meadow, whose green
heads tower a hundred feet into the clear, pale
blue. Motionless they stand, or seem to stand.
The light wafts of scented air may flutter the
leaves upon their lofty crests, but have no
power to sway their giant branches. From far up
among their green crown of foliage floats a gold-
finch's song — a pleasant sound, a note of summer
and green fields and open country. Pleasant, too,
is the slow clink of a whetted scythe, sounding
faintly from a distant meadow, where some tired
haymaker, perhaps for the last time in the long
summer day, is putting a better edge upon his
worn old blade.


Round the old farm yonder, whose weather-
stained roofs and walls half ruinous just show
among its clustering trees, there is a picture of
quiet autumn life. In the spacious stack-yard a
party of labourers, whose sunburnt faces glow
against the green background of the trees like so
many round red autumn suns, are standing about
a great waggon, tossing hay to men at work on
the fast-growing ricks of new, sweet-smelling
aftermath. It is an ancient homestead. A
thousand summers, it may be, has hay been
cleared from these broad meadows.' A thousand
times, at the season of mists and mellow fruitful-
ness have the sheaves been piled in this old
stack-yard. The hamlet of three houses is little
changed, either in name or character, since the
days of Edward the Confessor, when Brictric
held it, paying - geld for one hide of land ; when
two villeins, with as many boors and serfs, made
up all its scanty population. A pleasant place,
this warm autumn afternoon, is the hollow at
the back of the farm ; a broad space of level
grass land, once an orchard, and with a few
forlorn old apple trees still standing in it ;
bordered on one side by a green lane, and
on the other by a broken line of hedge-row,
through whose wide gaps the thistles and brake-
fern are marching down like caterans from the
hills, bent on reconquering the pasture-land and
turning it once more into a wilderness.

It is almost more strange that here a pair of
chaffinches have made a sanctuary of this porch,
and have built their nest just over the door,
within arm's reach of every passer-by. It is an
exquisite work of art, whose moss and lichen,
felted with cobwebs and fine strands of wool fitted
deftly on the curve of a level larch pole, and
woven among the young shoots of the climbing
rose tree, whose leaves hang down as if to hide
it, might have escaped notice altogether were it
not that the little builders are busy all day upon
the grass before the windows, now taking short
flights among the laurels or the branches of the
old arbutus, or the great bay tree that overhangs
the lawn, scenting all the air with its abundant
bloom, and that now and then they fly up to their
nest over the doorway.

Beyond the bridge, through a purple mist of
branches, show silver glimpses of the river, then a
broad stretch of meadow with dark pine woods
above it, among which the young larch foliage
floats in feathery clouds of green, and above these
again, the brown and desolate moorland. Near
the bridge a little party of wanderers have made
their camp. The blue smoke of their fire drifts
slowly this way, with the pleasant scent of burning
pine wood, the pleasanter voices of girls and the
shouts of children. It is a perfect day for camping
in the open ; with warm air, and blue sky, and
soft white clouds sailing slowly over, — a day of
clear shining after rain.

Yet perhaps the full beauty of such weather, its
wealth of flowers and foliage, its abundance of
bird and insect life, above all its half-tropic heat,
is for the country rather than the town. Among
stone walls and pavements summer days are too
often weariness, and summer nights but stifling.
In the country the glare of noon is tempered by
cool winds, softened by grass and foliage. There,
too, the hot air of night is sweetened with the
breath of honeysuckle and jasmine ; and through
wide open windows the scent of the roses floats
up to us
"Like sweet thoughts in a dream."

Though the flowers of May have passed into a
proverb, it is June after all that gives to the fields
and by ways their crowning grace and beauty.
May draped all the trees with fresh young foliage,
deepened April's mist of bluebells, and whitened
the hedge-rows with blossoming hawthorn. May
was a month of broad effects and lavish colouring.
Here she silvered a whole field with daisies, as
with a light fall of snow. And here, like a cunning-
alchemist, she changed with her buttercups the
green of a rich pasture-land to a blaze of living
gold. But there is yet more of beauty in the fields
of June. Even in the Tropics, travellers tell us,
there is nothing so superbly beautiful as an
English midsummer meadow — whether an upland
pasture, with its hawkweed and lotus, its scented
grasses and sweet clover blooms ; or a low- lying
field along some loitering stream, where, in the
swampy soil, among the tasselled sedges, spring
fiery spikes of orchis, foamy meadow-sweet, and
tall flower-de-luce.