Well, we thought it would be blazing hot but in the end it was raincoats and brollies weather. A welcome respite from the sultry shimmer of the weeks preceding, and not so wet that we couldn’t wander gently, and stop for a poem or two. Proper British Summer Time drizzle. So, where is this special place in the heart of suburban Tolworth?
It is part of an ancient drove road, in the middle of Tolworth Court Farm Fields, hidden behind hedgerow on the A240. A beautiful wild, nature reserve, which until the 1980s had been farmed for a 1000 years at least, and is mentioned in the Domesday book.
Drove roads were the network of roads used over the centuries to move live stock up and down and across the countryside, all over the UK. There are traces of them everywhere, and where the drove has disappeared in its original rural form, it may be identified by names, including ‘Lane’, ‘Drift’, ‘Ox’, ‘Way’ and many other lexical giveaways.
There are certainly lots of them in this area. On my Over the Fields poetry map is ‘Sheephouse Way’ – a road characterised for its large number of blocks of flats these days, but which is shown with the same name on maps which are 500 years old of the local area, and which I was lucky to see at the St John the Baptist Old Malden Heritage Day, when I was doing my research at the time.
Drove roads avoided toll roads, and were a direct and safe route through the countryside for the drovers who could be taking large flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, or even large numbers of geese or turkeys to market. The largest and most famous of these markets being Smithfields Market in London.
They were wide, as much as 20 metres, and usually hedged on both sides, containing the valuable stock, and also helping to keep the animals safe and stopping them from getting infected by other possibly diseased animals living in farms en route.
How sweet I roamed from field to field
And tasted all the summer’s pride.
Lots have been paved over, but there is a part of ancient drove in the fields in Tolworth which is grass underfoot, with its double hedge intact, and it is a magical place. And this is where we ended up reading poems, in the drizzle and the green, surrounded by hedges already heavy with blackberries and elderberries, interrupted only by an occasional enthusiastic dog plus owner, not used to seeing a large gathering of people reading and chatting in this in-between-space-between-places. Perfect.
I had hoped to sing John Barleycorn, as we were walking just after Lammas, but my voice was croaky, so I read the words to the old song instead. Alison read the John Clare poemInsects, and Elizabeth read a poem My Orcha’d in Lindèn Lea written by Dorset writer and poet William Barnes (1801-1886)
I also read some Keats and Blake and, not forgetting, some Richard Jefferies.
I had also brought with me a beautiful corn dolly, made by the Wheatweaver, but was worried about it getting damaged during the walk / weather, so I left it for our after-walk chat and write at Court Farm Cafe afterwards- it is exquisitely beautiful, and so good to know that someone is keeping these ancient skills alive.
With enclosure, modernisation, the rail network and then the roads, the droves fell into disuse, farming methods changed and the old songs, traditions and seasonal customs faded… it is good to remember we still rely on the land for food, and that the sun (especially this year!) and rain are still intrinsic to what we eventually put on our plates.
Although this land is no longer farmed, it is a nature reserve, with bats, rare butterflies, deer and beautiful wild flowers, including pepper saxifrage, as well as some of the oldest trees in the borough.
Alison, who has been walking this way for many years, as part of her job as an ecologist and bat expert, has a deep knowledge and passion for this place. I have learned a lot from her and am so glad we have been able to go on these walks together.
People who joined us for the walk, who didn’t already know and love Tolworth Court Farm Fields, were amazed at how easy it was to enter, and how beautiful and special it is.
“…The walk along the old drove road felt like being in the depths of the country and I’ll try and walk the meadows when they are in flower next year…”
“Jefferies left school at fifteen and at first continued his habits of solitary wanderings about the local countryside. He dressed carelessly and allowed his hair to grow down to his collar. This, with his “bent form and long, rapid stride made him an object of wonder in the town of Swindon. But he was perfectly unconscious of this, or indifferent to it.”
“Later, after becoming ill in the 1867-1868 “My legs are as thin as a grasshopper’s”, he wrote to his aunt. Illness also prompted some reconsideration of his own character: he was going to be “not swell but stylish” in future, since people set so much store by appearance.”
“Open your eyes and see those things which are around us at this hour. If any imagine they shall find thoughts in many books, certainly they will be disappointed. Thought dwells by the stream and sea, by the hill and in the woodland, in the sunlight and free wind, where the wild dove haunts.” Richard Jefferies in Looker
“In the mind all things are written in pictures.” Richard Jefferies in Looker
“Though we have been so many thousands of years upon the earth, we do not seem to have done any more as yet than walk along beaten footpaths.” Richard Jefferies
At Tolworth Station, Under the railway bridge
“It is but a strip of sward, but it is as wild as if in the midst of a forest. A pleasure to everyone- therefore destroy it.” Richard Jefferies in Looker
(As it was in Jefferies day, so it is now.Surveyors and roadmen make sure that the delightful green strips that once surrounded many sign-posts at lonely lane ends are well covered with disfiguring gravel or lime heaps.)
Samuel J Looker writing in 1946 – what would they think now?
EWELL ROAD FOOTPRINT
Sun glaring off the pavement, off the bitumen
smell of dust and petrol- the suburbs in the summer
the smell of the spiky checquered upholstery
on the 281 bus, stuck in the traffic backed-up
along the Ewell Road.
Police Station, Red Lion pub
the last wooden bus shelter in London, removed – no longer the haunt
of crafty school-age smokers on the way home from school.
Bryants men’s outfitters opposite the church,
the church on hot days of May, a rosary month
where we would pray the beads at lunchtime
sometimes hide in the confessional.
Father Kirby with his Dot Cotton fag on
Leading the school mascot and pet goat, Olly.
fainting at the front of the church
holding a flag dressed in Guide uniform
that would be the incense.
My Uncle Bern fixing cars in the Blue Star garage
when Tesco was a twinkle in the cash register.
Buying my first single in Woolworths,
watching my Gran with the Greenshield stamps in the co-op,
ice cream floats and squeezy tomatoes in the Wimpy,
Verity’s with its never-changing ladies fashions.
Slippery subway steps under the Broadway.
Bells camping shop for my first sleeping bag,
Lorimers, and Superfish- still the same.
Standing outside Fine Fare on blustery days
on one of the Brutalist fountains,
holding my umbrella, hoping for Mary Poppins action,
spending pocket money in the supermarket on Lucozade and Dairy Milk
Collecting my copy of Jinty from Mouldy’s, opposite Raeburn,
Walking is also known to relieve depression and stress, freeing the mind to explore imaginary worlds. A 2012 study found that participants with clinical depression who took a walk in nature experienced improved memory, while an earlier 2008 study found that healthy adults experienced a mental boost after walking for an hour in the park.
Said Charles Dickens: “The sum of the whole is this: walk and be happy; walk and be healthy.”
The White Cycle Bridge over the confluence of the Hogsmill and The Bonesgate Stream and a peek at Tolworth Court Farm Fields
“The meadow glows with buttercups in spring, the hedges are green, the woods lovely; but these are not to be enjoyed in their full significance unless you have traversed the same places when bare, and have watched the slow fulfilment of the flowers.” Richard Jefferies in Looker
RAIN-SUNKEN roof, grown green and thin
For sparrows’ nests and starlings’ nests;
Dishevelled eaves; unwieldy doors,
Cracked rusty pump, and oaken floors,
And idly-pencilled names and jests
Upon the posts within.
The light pales at the spider’s lust,
The wind tangs through the shattered pane:
An empty hop-poke spreads across
The gaping frame to mend the loss
And keeps out sun as well as rain,
Mildewed with clammy dust.
The smell of apples stored in hay
And homely cattle-cake is there.
Use and disuse have come to terms,
The walls are hollowed out by worms,
But men’s feet keep the mid-floor bare
And free from worse decay.
All merry noise of hens astir
Or sparrows squabbling on the roof
Comes to the barn’s broad open door;
You hear upon the stable floor
Old hungry Dapple strike his hoof,
And the blue fan-tail’s whirr.
The barn is old, and very old,
But not a place of spectral fear.
Cobwebs and dust and speckling sun
Come to old buildings every one.
Long since they made their dwelling here,
And here you may behold
Nothing but simple wane and change;
Your tread will wake no ghost, your voice
Will fall on silence undeterred.
No phantom wailing will be heard,
Only the farm’s blithe cheerful noise;
The barn is old, not strange.
“The forest is gone; but the spirit of nature stays,
Did you know that one of our most cherished and important nature writers lived in Tolworth? Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) was born in Coate in Wiltshire, but moved to live in Tolworth, at 296 Ewell Road, from 1877 – 1882.
During this time he wrote what is acknowledged to be his finest writing, some of which was collected in a book of essays called Nature Near London. Every day Jefferies would walk along the Ewell Road in various directions, but often he would stroll down towards Tolworth Court Farm Fields and to the Hogsmill. Sometimes he would walk towards Worcester Park, at other times he would wander along the river in the other direction, towards Ewell or Chessington.
We can walk in his footsteps, and still see and experience some of what he saw and wrote about back then. Come with us on a journey through the eyes and feet of this prolific and important writer (and walker!) who put Tolworth on the map in a way that no one else has. His work is hugely important and influential, and people still make pilgrimages to see where he lived, walked and worked.
On Bank Holiday Monday, May 7th, we will meet outside Richard Jefferies’ old home, now a Stack and Bonner Estate Agents, at 11am. Then we will walk down the Ewell Road, just as he did (but with cars and a lot more concrete), out to the edgelands between Greater London and Surrey, where the spirit of Jefferies still haunts the landscape.
We will stop briefly at 11.45am, at the railway bridge at Tolworth railway station, and then continue on, down the A240, to the bridge over the Hogsmill and on to the white bridge at the confluence of the Bonesgate Stream and Hogsmill.
We will then cross over the A240 and go to Tolworth Court Farm Moated Manor, and see if we can spot the kestrels currently nesting there; then head down Old Kingston Road and finish at the Court Farm Garden Centre Cafe between 12.30-1pm.
The walk will end with tea, chat and some optional writing activities, plus a chance to look at old photos of the area we will be walking in, including the barn Jefferies described in his essay in Nature Near London, and the old bridge at Tolworth Hall.
It was about as wet a day as it is possible to have in January, without it snowing. Persistent, doggedly determined precipitation meant that, understandably, many people who had been in touch to say they would be joining the walk, cancelled when they saw the weather that morning.
But twelve intrepid adventurers gathered at the white cycle bridge, the confluence of the Hogsmill and Bonesgate Stream! A wonderful turn out for the first walk in our Tolworth Treasure and the Hogsmill Hum series.
Meeting at the White Bridge
Walking the Hogsmill
The walk began with Alison talking about the sediment that comes into the Hogsmill from the Bonesgate Stream, and how this affects the wildlife, depending on the amount, for good and bad. As with all waterways there are many complex issues with keeping them healthy, including sewage spills, industrial pollution, the level of water, making sure fish can travel and they have places to spawn; how this affects the surrounding and connected flora and fauna- including kingfishers who are regularly spotted on the Hogsmill.
I read a light-hearted John Clare poem, A Ramble by The Riverside, and spoke about how Richard Jefferies, one of our most famous nature writers, wrote about standing on ‘Tolworth Court Bridge’, which was somewhere very close to the spot we were standing on, describing the river, and the brown trout, which he watched in the same spot for three consecutive summers. It became a place of pilgrimage for him.
“It was at the tail end of one of the arches of the bridge over the brook that my favourite trout used to lie. Sometimes the shadow of the beech came as far as his haunts, that was early in the morning, and for the rest of the day the bridge itself cast a shadow…For three seasons this continued. For three summers I had the pleasure to see the trout day after day, whenever I walked that way, and all that time, with fishermen close at hand, he escaped notice, though the place was not preserved.”
We walked along the rainy river to Riverhill Copse, where Alison talked about the efforts Epsom and Ewell Borough Council has made to create places where people can walk and enjoy nature. Riverhill Copse is beautiful: a lovely little walk through trees, which, if you didn’t know, might assume had just grown there, rather than being purposefully planted in a designed space.
At the other end of our mini-woodland ramble Alison talked about the importance of the yellow meadow ant mounds for birds and small mammals, and some of us were amused by the knowledge that woodpecker droppings, one of the birds which benefit from the ant mounds, look like the crumpled ends of cigarettes!
Chris Packham waxes typically lyrically about woodpecker poo: “Perhaps my favourite bird poo (and I’m sure many other people’s too) is produced by the green woodpecker. Again cylindrical, it can be found on short grassy areas where the birds have been foraging. It is about 6-8mm in diameter and somewhere between 25-35mm in length. Its outer skin is white and the interior, visible at either end, is tan brown and roughly textured, so it can look a bit like a crumpled length of a cigarette.”
Continuing our walk along the path by the river, towards Ewell, we stopped just before the road bisects the path, to listen to the exquisite sound of a song thrush singing.
hedge at Ruxley Lane
We crossed over Ruxley Lane and stopped again to admire the hedgelaying along the side of the road. This is a traditional country craft and it is good to see it used as a green boundary along this busy suburban road.
Slightly further on, there is a section of willow spiling along the river bank. The river looks noticeably different here because of it; spiling is used to help the banks and vegetation to naturally re-generate and helps to prevent erosion. It also creates good habitat for various wildlife.
William Holman Hunt in his Eastern Dress by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864
Pamela watches white-letter hairstreak butterflies, whose favourite habitat is the tops of elm trees. She showed us her favourite elm tree, and told us how she watches them: lying on her back, looking up through binoculars! A good conversation starter for passing walkers if ever there was one!
White-letter hairstreak on bramble (note the W) photo by Pamela Harwood
Lucy Sustrans ‘in the river’ at the Stepping Stones
Looking at brown hairstreak butterfly eggs on blackthorn- tiny!
Alison pointed out the Ewell storm tanks, which, if there is heavy rain, sometimes empty excess sewage directly into the Hogsmill. It happens more frequently now and there have been big sewage spills recently. It is a facet of life on and around the river which cannot be ignored, and vital to understand the different pressures, due to population growth and urbanisation, which are placed on this unique river, when we are walking and enjoying this space. It is good to know that the river is monitored by volunteers.
We walked on past the stepping stones, halting briefly so that Lucy Sustrans could hop across and Alison could show us the chalk – the Hogsmill is a globally rare chalk river. Pamela searched the blackthorn growing at the side of the path and we looked at the eggs of the brown hairstreak butterly- they are beautiful- like tiny sea anenomes!
At Green Lane stream we stood on the recycled bridge and were treated to an extended visit from a kingfisher- who stopped to perch on a branch over the water, showing the full spectrum of its plumage- the best view I have ever had of the red and orange hues, rather than that flash of iridescent blue as it zooms downriver, over the water. It then flew around us, around the bridge, to avoid us, bestowing us with another glimpse of its halcyon feathers.
And then, finally, we processed along a muddy path, through an avenue of young trees, which gave way to the oldest tree in the borough. A commanding 500 year-old oak. It was a joyful moment – we delighted in discovering a tree that has endured and witnessed all that has taken place in the last 500 years, since Shakespeare died. I read a poem and we all held hands around the tree. It was magical- our friend the tree!
We continued on again to the source of the Hogsmill, which comes bubbling up in ponds at Ewell Village, by Bourne Hall, which always looks to me as if a 1970s space ship has landed in a pleasant Surrey garden. There we were glad to stop, dry off and get warm in the cafe, talk about what we had seen, and do some writing.
I was shocked to hear Tolworth referred to as a ‘ghetto’ by staff and students at Kingston University while I was studying there. It is one of the oldest parts of the Borough- with ancient and deep historical roots. There are the remains of a medieval moated manor at Tolworth Court, where Kingston Biodiversity Network holds open days. Tolworth Court Farm Fieldsis a wonderful wild treasure, which should stay that way.
On the borders of Tolworth is the Hogsmill Valley, where Millais painted the backdrop to his painting Ophelia, something I have written about in my poetry map, Over the Fields, an exploration of four generations of my family’s relationship with the greenbelt, which is at the end of the Sunray Estate, towards Malden Manor.
Tolworth is remarkable for its open green spaces, and we have a choice now- do we value them, and protect them, recognising them as our lungs and our unique heritage, or do we lose them and become more urban, more polluted and a lot less interesting?