Fragrance in Nature Literature-Village England by Sir William Beach Thomas

Village England by Sir William Beach Thomas

Sweet scents are not altogether denied to the prema
ture flowers that face the rigours of winter. The common
snowdrop (which grows wild in quantity, especially in
the North- West) is not sweet, and does not seem to
demand the visits of insects. It sets its seed freely, though
unvisited ; and sweet scent would miss its purpose if
lavished on a world where no creature subject to the
lure is at large. The snowflake, which blooms several
weeks later, is sweet, very subtly sweet ; and it is a
wonder that it is not more often grown in humble
gardens. The cheimonanthus, best of winter shrubs, is
sweet, and no bush in the list is sweeter than the early
viburnum fragrans. The Christmas rose, on the other
hand, for all the charm of its white petals, is both poison
ous and, so far as it smells, unpleasant, as the hellebore is
meant to be.


How each of these very different creatures comes to
know that the Cox is the sweetest apple no one perhaps
knows for certain. The mammals probably rely on
scent. If you watch a rat at close quarters the gesture
that fixes your attention is the continually twitching nose.
The animal seems to be trying hard all the time to smell
something, very much like a dog in .a motor-car which
sniffs the rushing air with as obvious pleasure in the
various bouquets as a judge of good wine. They can
quite certainly detect the smell of a seed or bulb that is
well covered with earth. It is a not uncommon experi
ence for research workers in horticulture to find neat
holes scratched above certain special precious varieties of
seed, while all the commoner are untouched. The
experts in savour are both mice and rats. They possess
the quality of nose of the more obviously gifted pigs of
the New Forest, which can detect the scent of that insi
dious fungus, the truffle, though it is hidden among deep-
burrowing roots. How acutely birds can smell we
scarcely know ; but they arrive at their conclusions, I
think, by trial and error, aided by an aesthetic perception
for colour. The red Cox is attacked before the tawny,
as the sourer red currant before the white. After their
artless manner they peck idly at this thing and that till
their taste tells them which is good. As for insects, their
instincts are so peculiar, the message from the ganglionic
centres so different from the dull information supplied
by the single brain that there is no arguing : " the rest
may reason ; and welcome ! " They " know/

It is a rare experience in England to discover that,
after all, the year begins on the first of January, and the
lengthening daylight is exerting its influence. The
almanac is not so wrong as the world supposes. Beyond
question the most highly favoured bush in the cottage
garden is the daphne mezereon which usually flowers and
disperses its spring-like scents in January. It is the only
plant I ever lost by theft. I had left it in a garden I was
deserting, and that I might not lose it by transplanting at
the wrong date, set a great label beside it. Some cottage
dweller could not resist the temptation. Doubtless it now
flourishes (as certain plants such as this and the madonna
lily seem chiefly to flourish) in a cottage garden.

The only flowers open near the hive were primroses ;
and it seemed a pity this most English blossom, most
delicately scented, and rich with large stores of honey,
has no attractions for the hive bee. " Thrum-eyed " and
" pin-eyed " primroses have given most of us our first
lessons in the mechanics of fertilisation ; and yet no
flower is less popular with the tribe of insects. The
whole of the pretty devices, the dark centre, the pointing
lines, the green hollow, the golden dust, the translucent
spike, the sweet scent and savour, prove useful only so
it is alleged to one hover-fly, little known to the general
observer. However this may be, the bees, eager with
spring hunger, pay no regard whatever to the primroses
flowering freely not ten yards from the hive. The bees
fly past and fall with hurried greed on the bank of
aubrietia and single arabis. It is worth while growing
the simple, plain, dull, little original species of the au-
brietia solely for the bees sake. It is the earliest and the
best loved. The workers even anticipate its opening by
tearing the closed petals aside.


Now, it is a pretty habit in Yorkshire, and, indeed, in
many parts of Scotland, to help the bees in their migra
tions. We move them, like the Vicar of Wakefield,
" from the brown bed to the blue." When the heather
blooms the hives are taken to the hillsides it may be to
the far side of a loch and set down where the flower is
thickest. Bees, no doubt, will travel far. In the ordinary
way, when the trail of scent is hot and seductive, they
will make a point (as foxhunters dealing with an animal
of a more fallible sense of smell) of at least a mile and a
half. Yet the eager working bee is too keen on the
scent ; when the journey is so long and the attraction so
great they will wear their wings to shreds and die of the
exertion within a few weeks. That is not a fate we wish
for our benefactors. Hence the Scottish and Yorkshire
custom. Is there any reason why the same habit should
not be observed in apple orchards ? It is not common,
but it has begun ; and promises well. Here and there a
Worcestershire orchard owner, who has, perhaps, drawn
his inspiration from farther north, offers the bee-keepers
the hospitality of his orchards for the season of the
blossoming ; and the offer is welcomed.

The honey flow is a pretty technical phase ; and is
almost as distinct a thing as the swarming ; and the best
and earliest is the flow that comes with the opening of
the apples, when we hope to see the backs of the Three
Icemen, and the new warmth adds vigour to the young
bees just coming to their prime. A passion for honey
enters the hive with the sweet scent of the blossom,
whose doors are thrown open with a brave invitation to
all such guests. Some flowers are self-fertile, and pollen
may pass from anther to stygma by other agents than the
bees ; but an orchard-keeper cannot, like the fond culti
vator of a peach tree under glass, go round from blossom
to blossom with a camelVhair brush and paint his flowers
into fertility. He has need of the hive and its thousands
of inmates, and the wiser will satisfy the need.

They know the best of England better who have seen
and heard spring break in Shakespeare s country, both in
latitude and in vital spirit the heart of England, as
Michael Drayton knew and said. By a happy coincidence
the arrival of spring coincides often with St. George s
Day, with Shakespeare s day, or thereabouts. Then it
was that the heart of the dragon of winter ceased to beat.
Shakespeare, of course, was too wise to describe the
scene in any set fashion, as Scott described Scotland.
England does not submit to generalities. It is compact
of homes that have no general likeness, except that each
is cheek by jowl with other homes, cottage near cottage,
field next field, spinney sweetly linked to spinney by the
slender spinneys that we call hedgerows. Shakespeare
was not botanist, like Goethe or Lord de Tabley ; or
even as much ornithologist as Tennyson (who lamented
that the stuffed birds of South Kensington were unknown
to his youth). So he was free to speak through the sense
of humble and unlearned humanity. His music falls like
the song of a chaffinch or rises like the scent of bluebells,
or hangs wavering in the air, though always near the
ground like a heath butterfly.

The grass slopes above Woolacombe in North Devon
are very lovely in the time of the master flower of June,
the wild rose ; but by the sea the sweet dwarf Burnet
rose takes the place of the dog and field roses of inland
places- The grass hillside is full of flower. Contrariwise,
some of the gardens are almost empty. There is one
pitched on the steep hillside above the cliffs, much too
narrow and rocky for the making of any sort of bed. In
fact it possesses just one flower-patch which has grown
up by chance among the gorse and out of the rock. It
consists of spikenard, or, in more usual idiom, spurred
valerian, of three colours : red, pink, and white. From
a deck-chair you looked at the Atlantic through the tall
shoots, and the sky was behind the blossoms. It was a
subject of dispute whether the scent of the flowers (very
different from the offensive valerian that is native, but
rarer) was pleasant or unpleasant; but there was no
doubt that to the senses of insects and those the most
gorgeous and strangest in our island list it was the true
spikenard, worth its weight in gold, as Horace, among
other antique authors, acknowledges* Never in my life
have I seen so many splendid butterflies so exultant
in the power of flight or intoxicated with the taste of
nectar.

A haystack is a proper object of admiration ; and one
differs from another more than many houses. You may
know by the scent whether the hay is good, for grasses,
like other flowers, differ much in smell. The sweet vernal
grass is well named ; and the sour grasses carry the aroma
of a sour soil. A stack of trifolium and rye smells alto
gether different from a stack of meadow hay with its
mixture of flowers and weeds, of undergrowth and bents.
Yet the great weight of a stack, sinking lower and lower
into an even solider mass, reduces some of the worst
weeds to a certain common sweetness ; and you may
see dainty animals picking out the dried nettles for
preference if the hay be old and perfectly cured. The
new stack is less fast of its scent, to use Bacon s phrase,
than the old, but it is a question which is the finer attar.


The wife of an agricultural worker in a little Oxford
hamlet spoke to some of us with lyrical regret of the days
when the path, now crossing a grass field, led between
plains of yellow corn. In her mind as in most of our
minds, and in literature, harvest is a thing and a word
belonging to wheat, and therefore to autumn ; yet there
is little in the least autumnal about the cutting of the
first fields of oats. Often enough it begins in Southern
England just before mid- July ; when summer is full of its
proper juices, when the sap is active in the tree and the
rough border by the hedgerow side and the roadside is
still growing in depth and in colour. The song of the
robin keeps its spring merriment, and the note of the
greenfinch has not wholly sunk to the drawling wheeze
that labours to express the dusty desiccations of August.
Summer still " slept in the fire of the odorous gorse-
blossom " if not in " the hot scent of the briar." We
may say, perhaps, that the oat harvest is summery, or
part of it, and the wheat harvest autumnal. For in the
English continuity of the festival shared throughout by
all the grains oats, barley, wheat, and rye we may
usually trace stages when one particular crop is master
of the ceremonies.


Except in primrose time, when Surrey railway cuttings
are as sweet as a Shakespearean bouquet, the banks and
cuttings of the east are poor things beside the western
gardens. There are Welsh banks to-day heavy enough
with the scent of meadow-sweet to penetrate into the
train ; and both cutting and embankment are as spinneys
or hedgerows or gardens, very green with the male fern
and pink with rose and blackberry. A tree that seems to
have some affinity with the railway as seen both in
Radnor and Herts is the white poplar ; and not once
or twice I have heard passengers ask what the lovely
flowers were. The lovely flowers are, of course, the
palimpsest of the leaves, so white that before a puff of
wind the tree shifts and rocks the light like a flock of
snow buntings. Presently this covering, white as privet
blossom, will fall off almost like the petals of a true
blossom.


No heat or drought is ever fierce enough to hamper
the freedom of growth in this place. A narrow path has
been trodden by bathers ; and it might be a forest path.
On either side the great hairy willow herb, which, at
its smallest, has the appearance rather of perennial bush
than a herbaceous plant, grows in a dense mass, with
stems like trunks, to a height of seven or eight feet.
Hereabouts, too, it flowers only less profusely than the
annual rosebay willow herb (the American fire-weed)
which loves the dry as exclusively as this species loves
the wet. The sun and wet bring out the quaint domestic
scent. The place smells like a kitchen when some fruit
is being stewed is this why the folk call it " Codlins and
Cream," or is that a reference to the very white centre (in
the form of a cross) and the pink surroundings ? Any
way, it is a dish fit for a king, sweet and splendid. Only
the immense reeds tower over the willow herb as it
towers over the purple loosestrife. Here these two
grow almost cheek by jowl, both in masses, and it is, in
my experience, rare to find loosestrife closely massed or
in association with the Codlins and Cream. The butter
flies prefer the loosestrife, especially at mating hours, and
this patch is the surest find for some of the rarer sorts,
including a clouded yellow. The loosestrife has other
neighbours, and is set in a circle of meadow-sweet.


Our great bee expert is the village schoolmaster ; and
he has had experiences lately that are quite new in his
records. His hive-bees, which are very kittle cattle at
the best of times, prove against all expectation to be
among the animals that have not enjoyed a dry summer.
Such lovers of sun and warmth should have flourished
beyond the normal. Everything seemed to be in their
favour. Was there ever more abundant blossom ? The
apple, pear, and plum orchards were an object of pil
grimage. The lime flower, which often supplies the
second great honey flow, scented the countryside. Even
to-day, though the " crowded hour of glorious life " is
over, the commons up to the very edge of London are in
the purple, and about the ling, which flowers even where
it has been close cut, are innumerable harebells, and the
yellow tormentil still survives after the vanishing of the
bedstraw and thyme. What more could a busy hive-bee
desire ? This " murmur of innumerable bees " has ex
pressed in our ears the reality of a desirable summer, as
palpably as a shimmering air announces vibrant heat to
our eyes.


News came that players were to act on an old stage the
latest scene in the progressive pageant of English land-
scape. To find it we drove first through some of the
fairest scenery of Norfolk, a county as famous for its
grain crops as its wild sanctuaries, for its game and its
barley stubbles as its migrant birds and its Broads.
Almost all the way we were enveloped in the scent of
bracken, more powerful and pungent even than the scent
of pines drawn out by a midday sun. Inland and beyond
the woods and commons opened out immense stretches
of grain, as we measure immensity in this little country :
the aisles of stook as long for an English field as the aisles
of Ely for a cathedral. For an old-fashioned harvest
field always suggests some great and holy building ; the
regular pillars of fluted stooks lead the thought to some
eastern altar and the sky seems a patterned roof of lofty
but finite elevation.

And what are these qualities ? All animals, from man
to the ant, appreciate sweetness in an apple. The holes
in our Cox s orange, made by ants or birds on the trees,
or by rats in the store cupboard, are tributes to the deli
cate scented sweetness that comes over the apple when
it ripens and matures. The fruit is like the juice of the
grape which at a certain age and in right conditions con
verts its cruder oils into volatile ethers of the subtlest
savour. What was acid becomes sweetness. This bene
ficent change, you might think, never comes to the cider
apple or the perry pear. If you are brave enough to bite
into the perry pear your mouth is " drawn/ as they say,
almost as when you eat a sloe. Some forbidding astrin-
gency is imparted. If you look at the wound in the fruit
of a MedaiUe d Or after your brave bite the white flesh
will turn brown within a few seconds as the juices are
oxidised by contact with the air. The interpretation is
perhaps unexpected to those who are strange to the fruit
and have, like most of us, rather vague ideas of the exact
distinction between the meanings of acid and sour. The
cider apple surprisingly is peculiarly full of sugar. It
has no tart sourness, such as belongs to the eating apple
(strange phrase !) before it is ripe. But the abundance of
sugar is, or may be, associated with an equal abundance
of tannin, a forbidding astringent, until the apple is
squeezed and crushed, when it becomes a prime necessity
in our " English wine/ You can no more make good
cider out of " cookers " and " eaters " than champagne
out of coarse grapes.


A leaf-strewn surface is a melancholy site, especially
beneath an ash, whose leaves fall green, a loss that would
damage the vitality of other more economical trees.
A musty charnel scent hangs in the mist, of the earth
earthy. Earthworms, never so active as now, pull into
their subterranean holes more leaves than all the voles
and hedgehogs, and block the openings with the stalks.
We think of decay : " The woods decay, the woods
decay and fall/ but if you wish to see the full brightness
of fallen leaves go to a wood where great clean-stemmed
beech trees build circular temples round the central pillar
and beneath the fretted roof. The floor is as red almost
as a seaside pool where the anemones and the coral sea
weeds flourish. The leaves, more resistant to weather
and time than any other, are almost metallic : they tinkle
before your feet ; like Virgil s golden bough,
Et similis frondescit virga metallo*
I have seen a cock pheasant, brilliant in plumage as a
peacock, crouch into such leaves and vanish : the leaves
gleamed with a responsive and protective colour. These
glowing leaves are a counterpane beneath which all sorts
of life find snug sleeping. Mice have nests and snug
runs. There are little stores of nutty food. Blackbirds
and tits in mid-winter save their starved lives by ferreting
in the storehouse and will scatter the leaves with as much
fury as an eddy of wind and make such a clatter that you
may stand over them almost and discover what booty
they seek. They will throw up old leaves, completely
perished except for the ribs ; and you may admire the
vertebrate pattern as you admire the filigree mullions of
the boughs above you. Winter is as rich with form as
summer with colour.

I once heard a countrywoman, very learned in country
lore, confess with a sort of awe, or was it boast ? that
she herself was a Boletus eater. She sought the ugly
things in Devon woods and had them cooked ; but was
forced to eat alone ; no one else had the courage in spite
of the seductive odour. So there are fairy-ring eaters
and puff-ball eaters and beef-steak mushroom eaters who
wonder at the abstinence of an unbelieving world. In
almost every country place within Britain the mushroom
harvest is the most highly appreciated ; but the zeal is
narrow. Nothing is picked but the field agaric. Even
the morel is passed by doubtless because it is rare and
curiously fickle in its appearance. It will suddenly sprout
from a gravel path or the shade of a gooseberry bush or in
a damp hollow by the wood ; but be seen no more for
years. The field agaric is much more regular. I know a
cricket-ground where it appears about this date every
year ; and one may return to a place after the absence of
a generation and find these mushrooms growing exactly
where they grew in our youth. They even taste as good
or nearly as good.

The English village sweetens England and English
life as the salt mill, in the fairy story, salts the sea. Town
people feel this and country people know it as well. A
townsman long since turned countryman, who has the
zeal of the convert and a knowledge of both worlds
asked a number of people to say in The Countryman a
green quarterly full of green thoughts why they chose
to live in the country. It was like asking a man why he
ate and drank : and the question proved difficult to
answer because you cannot go behind an axiom and argue
about its reasonableness. My answer was something like
this : I lived as a boy in the deep country, nine miles
from a town or railway and five miles (as Sydney Smith
used to lament) from a lemon. Our thoughts and ways
were country thoughts and ways ; and I do not think
any of us ever came near to feeling that any moment was
dull. There was always a choice of many things to do.
When a man is so bred, life loses half its meaning if he is
long in a town, however much he may enjoy the town
and desire to visit it. The daily touch with the year,
with the longer days and shorter days, with the seasons
and their weather, with the calendar marked by plant,
insect, bird, man, farm rotation and what not becomes
almost a spiritual or at least a sensuous necessity. In the
town the between-times always touch boredom. You
must try to achieve happiness by a succession of pleasure
or duties, and the method is as mistaken as attempting to
maintain a continuous light by striking matches. In the
country the between-times are the really satisfying times,
the glow of the fires when the flames are over or to come.
You dislike to go indoors even in winter. You want to
hear the blackbirds hilarious cackle before he goes to
roost. You want to move, as well as hear and see and
smell.