Battle for Jefferies' land: How a 19th-century naturalist became a cause célèbre in Wiltshire

A A A

They didn't do bestseller lists in Richard Jefferies' day, but even if they had, it's hard to imagine him submitting to the publicity interviews and book signings faced by the modern commercial author.

In fact, Jefferies, a reclusive, unworldly man – "long, languid and loitering", according to his biographer, Edward Thomas – was a journalist and nature writer of remarkable purity and intensity of vision. Even before his death, from tuberculosis aged 38 in 1887, cult rather than mainstream status was always his most likely destiny.

However, after a period when they seemed to fade from view, Jefferies' books are being read once more. They carry heightened value at a time when a backsliding David Cameron has gone from vowing to make his government "the greenest ever" to preparing a loosening of the planning rules that could unleash a bonfire of the countryside.

In his introduction to a new edition of Wild Life in a Southern County, first published in 1879, Richard Mabey refers to Jefferies' "electric attentiveness, a noticing that is hard to aspire to", and says that he was "sending a message in a bottle from a fast-disappearing country". However, that message seems not to have registered with those entrusted with guarding the integrity of the immediate landscape which charged his creative output.

Jefferies grew up and, until he married aged 25, lived on a tiny farm at Coate, near Swindon. Here his father kept a small dairy herd, but while Jefferies showed little interest in helping out on the farm, he inherited his father's love of nature, and spent his days exploring the surrounding meadows and hills, studying flora and fauna and seeking out archaeological sites, while honing the distinctive earth philosophy that elevated his work beyond mere observation.

Today Coate farmhouse, its outbuildings and orchard, all so vividly described in his novel Amaryllis at the Fair, survive as the Richard Jefferies Museum. Beyond the ha-ha, dug by Jefferies Snr to prevent the cattle straying into the orchard, is the ancient hedgerow recognised by Jefferies in Wild Life in a Southern County as "the highway of the birds". Over the ridge beyond is the reservoir of Coate Water, the scene for the mock battles of his children's novel Bevis. On the skyline is Liddington Hill, crowned by an iron-age hillfort, one of the numerous tumuli of the North Wiltshire hills which the writer memorably wrote of as being "alive with the dead". It was while lying on the slopes of Liddington Hill that Jefferies experienced the first of what he termed the "soul experiences" leading to his extraordinary autobiography, The Story of My Heart.

Developers have been eyeing the area around Coate Water for years, however, encouraged by a general refusal of the council's planning department to recognise Jefferies as "a major writer". A current proposal to build 900 homes and a business park was recently rejected by councillors – stunned by the strength of an opposition campaign which has seen protest letters written in the Times Literary Supplement and a petition signed by over 52,000 people. While that rejection was the first time, says Jean Saunders, secretary of the Richard Jefferies Society, that there had been any recognition of the cultural landscape value of Coate, the developers have appealed and a public inquiry is to be held.

That it should have got this far is testimony enough to Swindon Council's failure to appreciate its local heritage, but in refusing to accept Jefferies as a major writer, they turned the issue into a matter of national concern.

The list of artistic figures inspired by Jefferies is long and distinguished. Among literary names alone they have included Thomas, Henry Williamson (a past president of the Jefferies Society) and John Fowles. Andrew Motion has described Jefferies as "a prose-poet of the English landscape and a pioneer environmentalist". Like Thomas Hardy, Jefferies was alarmed by the pace of social change in late 19th-century England. Yet he was not some parochial figure, tiptoeing "feather-footed through the plashy fen", like William Boot in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop.

Nature Near London (1883) was written to alert Londoners to the countryside which lay on their doorstep, but Jefferies was not anti-progress, admitting he dreamt in London quite as much as in woodland: "I like the solitude of the hills and the hum of the most crowded city; I dislike little towns and villages." What he found intolerable was the suburban conformity and neatness – "artful niceness" – that was spreading like a suffocating blanket from the city's outskirts.

Edward Thomas thought that, whereas the writing of Gilbert White, the "godfather" of nature writers, was weighed down by the dead-weight of "matter of fact", Jefferies was the first nature writer whose essays led us to his own personality.

However, the major relevance of Jefferies today is surely that he found nature everywhere, pushing up through the cracks on the busiest pavement. In The Life of the Fields (1884) he describes watching the pigeons in the forecourt of the British Museum, for whom Robert Smirke's great neo-Grecian portico was no entrance to a temple of learning but "merely a rock pierced with convenient openings".

Officialdom, if it had its way, would like to parcel up the best parts of the countryside into "approved" areas, facilitating a developers' profitable free-for-all over the remainder, having thought it sold us the dummy that anything undesignated must therefore be without value.

But Jefferies, reared on the homely terrain at Coate, urged us to seek uncommon species in common places. A commonplace flower held as much delight for him as a rare one. No wonder the planners of Swindon would have us believe he wasn't a major writer. He was their spiritual enemy, and his prose still hounds them from his grave, 120 years after his death.

For information on Richard Jefferies and the campaign to save "Jefferies land", visit www.jefferiesland.blogspot.com

The other late, great nature writers

REV GILBERT WHITE (1720-93)

His The Natural History of Selborne, never out of print since first publication in 1788, is a work of science that is also a literary classic. By basing it on first-hand observation, not generalised philosophising, as was prevalent at the time, White pioneered the genre of natural history writing.

He was a Hampshire vicar who spent most of his life in the tiny village of Selborne. His home, the Wakes (now a museum), together with the Great Mead, Church Meadow and the beech hanger where he carried out many studies, are still evocative of his time.

JOHN CLARE (1793-1864)

The so-called peasant poet was the self-taught son of an illiterate labourer. After a brief period of fame, disillusionment at the failure of his poems to sell precipitated a mental collapse, and he had two spells in an asylum. Like Jefferies, another outsider hero, he detested the landowners he felt were exploiting the countryside for their own profit. The cottage in which he lived for much of his life, at Helpston, near Peterborough, recently opened as a heritage centre.

WH HUDSON (1841-1922)

The most exotic of "English" nature writers, Hudson grew up in Argentina, roaming the pampas plains and keeping the company of gaucho herdsmen. A keen ornithologist, he discovered a new species of tyrant bird in a Patagonian river valley, subsequently named Knipolegus Hudsoni.

Arriving in England, aged 32, in 1874, he struggled for years to get work published. However, Nature in Downland (1900) – vividly describing the South Downs – arguably wears better than the widely acclaimed A Shepherd's Life (1910) in which his affinity with the solitary shepherds of the Wiltshire Downs – soul brothers of the Argentine herdsmen – is clear.

HILAIRE BELLOC (1870-1953)

A belligerent Roman Catholic apologist and satirist of the political classes, his country writing, showing a gentler side, has been almost overlooked.

French-born, from the age of eight Belloc's childhood was spent playing in the chalky lanes beneath the Sussex Downs at Slindon, whose swaying beechwoods he'd describe "noisy in the loud October". He returned to live there in adulthood, then at nearby Shipley, with its windmill at the bottom of the garden. More celebrant of the outdoors than naturalist, his poems – "lift up your hearts in Gumber, laugh the Weald" – celebrate the West Sussex Downs with the heady exultation of the keen walker he was.

EDWARD THOMAS (1878-1917)

Like Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas was alert to nature even while passing through the busy throng of London's West End. A walker and cyclist, he wrote books such as The South Country (1906) and In Pursuit of Spring (1914) before turning to poetry on the eve of the First World War. His biography of Jefferies is still probably the best, not least because it was written at a time when many of those who remembered him were still alive.

Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Sport
Rio Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker during Hansen's final broadcast
Sport
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Developer (ASP.NET, F#, SQL, MVC, Bootstrap, JavaScript)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?