List Of Contents | Contents of Winter Sunshine, by John Burroughs
< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

the ship, like the chambers of the original mine in the mountains, and
saw the men and firemen at work in a sort of purgatory of heat and
dust. When it is remembered that one of these ocean steamers consumes
about one hundred tons of coal per day, it is easy to imagine what a
burden the coal for a voyage alone must be, and one is not at all
disposed to laugh at Dr. Lardner, who proved so convincingly that no
steamship could ever cross the ocean, because it could not carry coal
enough to enable it to make the passage.

On the morrow, a calm, lustrous day, we steamed at our leisure up the
Channel and across the Irish Sea, the coast of Wales, and her groups of
lofty mountains, in full view nearly all day. The mountains were in
profile like the Catskills viewed from the Hudson below, only it was
evident there were no trees or shrubbery upon them, and their summits,
on this last day of September, were white with snow.


The first day or half day ashore is, of course, the most novel and
exciting; but who, as Mr. Higginson says, can describe his sensations
and emotions this first half day? It is a page of travel that has not
yet been written. Paradoxical as it may seem, one generally comes out
of pickle much fresher than he went in. The sea has given him an
enormous appetite for the land. Every one of his senses is like a
hungry wolf clamorous to be fed. For my part, I had suddenly emerged
from a condition bordering on that of the hibernating animals--a
condition in which I had neither eaten, nor slept, nor thought, nor
moved, when I could help it--into not only a full, but a keen and
joyous, possession of my health and faculties. It was almost a
metamorphosis. I was no longer the clod I had been, but a bird exulting
in the earth and air, and in the liberty of motion. Then to remember it
was a new earth and a new sky that I was beholding,--that it was
England, the old mother at last, no longer a faith or a fable, but an
actual fact there before my eyes and under my feet,--why should I not
exult? Go to! I will be indulged. Those trees, those fields, that bird
darting along the hedge-rows, those men and boys picking blackberries
in October, those English flowers by the roadside (stop the carriage
while I leap out and pluck them), the homely, domestic looks of things,
those houses, those queer vehicles, those thick-coated horses, those
big-footed, coarsely clad, clear-skinned men and women, this massive,
homely, compact architecture,--let me have a good look, for this is my
first hour in England, and I am drunk with the joy of seeing! This
house-fly even, let me inspect it [Footnote: The English house-fly
actually seemed coarser and more hairy than ours.]; and that swallow
skimming along so familiarly,--is he the same I saw trying to cling to
the sails of the vessel the third day out? or is the swallow the
swallow the world over? This grass I certainly have seen before, and
this red and white clover, but this daisy and dandelion are not the
same; and I have come three thousand miles to see the mullein
cultivated in a garden, and christened the velvet plant.

As we sped through the land, the heart of England, toward London, I
thought my eyes would never get their fill of the landscape, and that I
would lose them out of my head by their eagerness to catch every object
as we rushed along! How they reveled, how they followed the birds and
the game, how they glanced ahead on the track--that marvelous
track!--or shot off over the fields and downs, finding their delight in
the streams, the roads, the bridges, the splendid breeds of cattle and
sheep in the fields, the superb husbandry, the rich mellow soil, the
drainage, the hedges,--in the inconspicuousness of any given feature,
and the mellow tone and homely sincerity of all; now dwelling fondly
upon the groups of neatly modeled stacks, then upon the field
occupations, the gathering of turnips and cabbages, or the digging of
potatoes,--how I longed to turn up the historic soil, into which had
passed the sweat and virtue of so many generations, with my own
spade,--then upon the quaint, old, thatched houses, or the cluster of
tiled roofs, then catching at a church spire across a meadow (and it is
all meadow), or at the remains of tower or wall overrun with ivy.

Here, something almost human looks out at you from the landscape;
Nature here has been so long under the dominion of man, has been taken
up and laid down by him so many times, worked over and over with his
hands, fed and fattened by his toil and industry, and, on the whole,
has proved herself so willing and tractable, that she has taken on
something of his image, and seems to radiate his presence. She is
completely domesticated, and no doubt loves the titillation of the
harrow and plow. The fields look half conscious; and if ever the cattle
have "great and tranquil thoughts," as Emerson suggests they do, it
must be when lying upon these lawns and meadows. I noticed that the
trees, the oaks and elms, looked like fruit trees, or as if they had
felt the humanizing influences of so many generations of men, and were
betaking themselves from the woods to the orchard. The game is more
than half tame, and one could easily understand that it had a keeper.

But the look of those fields and parks went straight to my heart.  It
is not merely that they were so smooth and cultivated, but that they
were so benign and maternal, so redolent of cattle and sheep and of
patient, homely farm labor. One gets only here and there a glimpse of
such in this country. I see occasionally about our farms a patch of an
acre or half acre upon which has settled this atmosphere of ripe and
loving husbandry; a choice bit of meadow about the barn or orchard, or
near the house, which has had some special fattening, perhaps been the
site of some former garden, or barn, or homestead, or which has had the
wash of some building, where the feet of children have played for
generations, and the flocks and herds have been fed in winter, and
where they love to lie and ruminate at night,--a piece of sward thick
and smooth, and full of warmth and nutriment, where the grass is
greenest and freshest in spring, and the hay finest and thickest in

This is the character of the whole of England that I saw.  I had been
told I should see a garden, but I did not know before to what an extent
the earth could become a living repository of the virtues of so many
generations of gardeners. The tendency to run to weeds and wild growths
seems to have been utterly eradicated from the soil; and if anything
were to spring upspontaneously, I think it would be cabbage and
turnips, or grass and grain.

And yet, to American eyes, the country seems quite uninhabited, there
are so few dwellings and so, few people. Such a landscape at home would
be dotted all over with thrifty farmhouses, each with its group of
painted outbuildings, and along every road and highway would be seen
the well-to-do turnouts of the independent freeholders. But in England
the dwellings of the people, the farmers, are so humble and
inconspicuous and are really so far apart, and the halls and the
country-seats of the aristocracy are so hidden in the midst of vast
estates, that the landscape seems almost deserted, and it is not till
you see the towns and great cities that you can understand where so
vast a population keeps itself.

Another thing that would be quite sure to strike my eye on this my
first ride across British soil, and on all subsequent rides, was the
enormous number of birds and fowls of various kinds that swarmed in the
air or covered the ground. It was truly amazing It seemed as if the
feathered life of a whole continent must have been concentrated on this
island. Indeed, I doubt if a sweeping together of all the birds of the
United States into any two of the largest States would people the earth
and air more fully. There appeared to be a plover, a crow, a rook, a
blackbird, and a sparrow to every square yard of ground. They know the
value of birds in Britain,--that they are the friends, not the enemies,
of the farmer. It must be the paradise of crows and rooks. It did me
good to see them so much at home about the fields and even in the
towns. I was glad also to see that the British crow was not a stranger
to me, and that he differed from his brother on the American side of
the Atlantic only in being less alert and cautious, having less use for
these qualities.

Now and then the train would start up some more tempting game.  A brace
or two of partridges or a covey of quails would settle down in the
stubble, or a cock pheasant drop head and tail and slide into the
copse. Rabbits also would scamper back from the borders of the fields
into the thickets or peep slyly out, making my sportsman's fingers

I have no doubt I should be a notorious poacher in England.  How could
an American see so much game and not wish to exterminate it entirely as
he does at home? But sporting is an expensive luxury here. In the first
place a man pays a heavy tax on his gun, nearly or quite half its
value; then he has to have a license to hunt, for which he pays
smartly; then permission from the owner of the land upon which he
wishes to hunt; so that the game is hedged about by a triple safeguard.

An American, also, will be at once struck with the look of greater
substantiality and completeness in everything he sees here. No
temporizing, no makeshifts, no evidence of hurry, or failure, or
contract work; no wood and little paint, but plenty of iron and brick
and stone. This people have taken plenty of time, and have built broad
and deep, and placed the cap-stone on. All this I had been told, but it
pleased me so in the seeing that I must tell it again. It is worth a
voyage across the Atlantic to see the bridges alone. I believe I had
seen little other than wooden bridges before, and in England I saw not
one such, but everywhere solid arches of masonry, that were refreshing
and reassuring to behold. Even the lanes and byways about the farm, I
noticed, crossed the little creeks with a span upon which an elephant
would not hesitate to tread, or artillery trains to pass. There is no
form so pleasing to look upon as the arch, or that affords so much food
and suggestion to the mind. It seems to stimulate the volition, the
will-power, and for my part I cannot look upon a noble span without a
feeling of envy, for I know the hearts of heroes are thus keyed and
fortified. The arch is the symbol of strength and activity, and of

In Europe I took a new lease of this feeling, this partiality for the
span, and had daily opportunities to indulge and confirm it. In London
I had immense satisfaction in observing the bridges there, and in
walking over them, firm as the geological strata and as enduring.
London Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Blackfriars, clearing the river in a
few gigantic leaps, like things of life and motion,--to pass over one
of these bridges, or to sail under it, awakens the emotion of the
sublime. I think the moral value of such a bridge as the Waterloo must
be inestimable. It seems to me the British Empire itself is stronger
for such a bridge, and that all public and private virtues are
stronger. In Paris, too, those superb monuments over the Seine,--I
think they alone ought to inspire the citizens with a love of
permanence, and help hold them to stricter notions of law and
dependence. No doubt kings and tyrants know the value of these things,
and as yet they certainly have the monopoly of them.


I am too good a countryman to feel much at home in cities, and usually
value them only as conveniences, but for London I conceived quite an
affection; perhaps because it is so much like a natural formation
itself, and strikes less loudly, or perhaps sharply, upon the senses
than our great cities do. It is a forest of brick and stone of the most
stupendous dimensions, and one traverses it in the same adventurous
kind of way that he does woods and mountains. The maze and tangle of
streets is something fearful, and any generalization of them a step not
to be hastily taken. My experience heretofore had been that cities
generally were fractions that could be greatly reduced, but London I
found I could not simplify, and every morning for weeks, when I came
out of my hotel, it was a question whether my course lay in this, or in
exactly the opposite direction. It has no unit of structure, but is a
vast aggregation of streets and houses, or in fact of towns and cities,
which have to be mastered in detail. I tried the third or fourth day to
get a bird's-eye view from the top of St. Paul's, but saw through the
rifts in the smoke only a waste,--literally a waste of red tiles and
chimney pots. The confusion and desolation were complete.

But I finally mastered the city, in a measure, by the aid of a shilling
map, which I carried with me wherever I went, and upon which, when I
was lost, I would hunt myself up, thus making in the end a very
suggestive and entertaining map. Indeed, every inch of this piece of
colored paper is alive to me. If I did not make the map itself, I at
least verified it, which is nearly as good, and the verification, on
street corner by day and under lamp or by shop window at night, was
often a matter of so much concern that I doubt if the original surveyor
himself put more heart into certain parts of his work than I did in the
proof of them.

London has less metropolitan splendor than New York, and less of the
full-blown pride of the shopman. Its stores are not nearly so big, and
it has no signboards that contain over one thousand feet of lumber;
neither did I see any names painted on the gable ends of the buildings
that the man in the moon could read without his opera-glass. I went out
one day to look up one of the great, publishing houses, and passed it
and repassed it several times trying to find the sign. Finally, having
made sure of the building, I found the name of the firm cut into the
door jamb.

London seems to have been built and peopled by countrymen, who have
preserved all the rural reminiscences possible. All its great streets
or avenues are called roads, as King's Road, City Road, Edgware Road,
Tottenham Court Road, with innumerable lesser roads. Then there are
lanes and walks, and such rural names among the streets as Long Acre,
Snowhill, Poultry, Bush-lane, Hill-road, Houndsditch, and not one grand
street or imperial avenue.

My visit fell at a most favorable juncture as to weather, there being
but few rainy days and but little fog. I had imagined that they had
barely enough fair weather in London, at any season, to keep alive the
tradition of sunshine and of blue sky, but the October days I spent
there were not so very far behind what we have at home at this season.
London often puts on a nightcap of smoke and fog, which it pulls down
over its ears pretty close at times; and the sun has a habit of lying
abed very late in the morning, which all the people imitate; but I
remember some very pleasant weather there, and some bright moonlight

I saw but one full-blown characteristic London fog.  I was in the

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: