Tolworth Treasure and Hogsmill Hum: Walking in the Footsteps of Richard Jefferies

Yesterday, Richard Jefferies exited his blue-plaqued villa at Woodside, 296 Ewell Road, opposite the former St. Marks school(built on Tolworth Common during his 5 year  residence). Here he wrote, 'The copse adjoining the back gardens of Woodside was visited by pheasants, which sometimes strayed into the neighbours’ gardens. Early in the March mornings he woke to the ‘three clear, trumpet-like notes’ of a missel thrush ringing out from the copse. From his window in the evenings he could hear partridges calling. Stone-chats perched on the furze bushes of Tolworth Common.

He strolled towards Tolworth Broadway and Greenway, followed by 30+ participants keen to locate RJ's observations from 'Nature Near London'; first published as a series of articles in the Pall Mall Gazette for the commuting public. In 1920 the very same paper celebrated his work by reprinting excerpts from his regular column - along with joining instructions for his walks - by tram and motorbus-bus No. 105 from Ealing Broadway (kindly provided by Robin Gill).

Our first stop was at the railway where we discussed local industry  1880 style and how the needs of the growing local community was achieved through the provision of brickyards at the Fishponds and the Richard Jefferies bird sanctuary - now both nature reserves - adversley affected the local air quality, according to the District Commissioners. Today the twice weekly Tolworth freight-line brings building materials from the quarries in Westbury undertaking a similar function.

He was considered to be the first to observe how successfully wild flowers had adapted to rail side land and embankments, where they could flourish undisturbed, bordering the line ‘like a continuous garden’: 'Driven from the fields by plough and hoe, cast out from the pleasure-grounds of modern houses, pulled up and hurled over the wail to wither as accursed things, they have taker, refuge on the embankment and the cutting.There they can flower and ripen their seeds, little harassed even by the scythe and never by  cattle. 

So it happens that, extremes meeting, the wild flower, with its old-world associations, often grows most freely within a few feet of the wheels of the locomotive. Purple heath bells gleam from shrub-like bunches dotted along the slope; purple knapweeds lower down in the grass; blue scabious, yellow hawkweeds where the soil is thinner, and harebells on the very summit; these are but a few upon which the eye lights while gliding by.'‘Before a dandelion has shown in the meadow,’ he remarks, ‘the banks of the railway are yellow with coltsfoot.’ 

At this point with hedgerow on the east side of the carriageway and hoardings on the west side of the carriageway, we considered how the the enclosures affected Tolworth. Coming  to the district  relatively late - not until 1820- suckering elm and a profusion of hybrid damsons in the hedgerows along the A240 may have their  provenance from  these times. Enclosures affect the area today with  hoardings around publicly owned land - removing local enterprise - catering to outside business interests and unwanted, polluting multi-storey car parking.

From 'Britain from Above'
He led us to the Hogsmill river where a kingfisher flew over our head and back again; both ‘A Brook’ and ‘A London Trout’ describe the Hogsmill river and the bridge is that by Tolworth Court Farm. This photograph is indicative of the landscape without the mature vegetation cover we see today. The moat at the manor can be seen running parallel to the Hogsmill and perpendicular to the road. In 'Nature Near London', there is much evidence of an increasing tenderness in Jefferies’ attitude to nature. He is no longer the sportsman naturalist out with his rod or gun but the observer, more concerned to preserve life than to take it. It was typical of the new attitude that he would watch a trout for days.... four seasons in all, and go to such lengths to prevent its presence being detected by the anglers who came to fish the pond near the bridge.

We filed along the Hogsmill towards the Bonesgate stream. He had his favourite ‘thinking places', as he called them, havens from the stress of modern life. An aspen by the Hogsmill brook became one such site of almost daily pilgrimage. He saw nature not only as a medicine for the body but as a balm for the restless, unquiet mind.We listened to a blackcap singing it's territory as Lucy read a poem to us.

From here took the view across Tolworth Court Farm and contemplated his route to Chessington and Princes Covers (now Coverts- and still dead of bird life in places) or towards the springs at Ewell. Jefferies estimated that there were 2000 lapwings that took up residence on a ploughed field on Tolworth Court Farm in the winter of 1881/2: ‘It is the habit of green plovers to all move at once, to rise from the ground simultaneously, to turn in the air, or to descend — and all so regular that their very wings seem to flap together. 
The effect of such a vast body of white-breasted birds uprising as one from the dark ploughed earth was very remarkable. When they passed overhead the air sang like the midsummer hum with the shrill noise of beating wings. When they wheeled a light shot down reflected from their white breasts, so that people involuntarily looked up to see what it could be. The sun shone on them, so that at a distance the flock resembled a cloud brilliantly illuminated. In an instant they turned and the cloud was darkened’ (pg.157-8).

Finally to the Moated Manor where we discussed The Old Barn, which Lucy's dad remembered from the photos in Looker's biography and Lucy read  E. Blunden's poem 'The Barn'. We passed around photo's of Italian prisoners of war  piling hay ricks on Tolworth Court Farm Fields and read June Sampson's writings of the children who lived and played in the barn while their families were labouring in the fields. We looked at a plan of the configuration of the dairy on the site and mentioned that the council want to repurpose the site as Tolworth Park at odds with its historic use as a farm since the Doomsday book. Elliot showed video footage from his camera trap of badgers and roe deer that visit the site and we discussed the archaeological interest- and how little the site has to protect it.

Convening at Court Farm Garden Centre cafe for a rest we found the tables were laid out for us by Gill and Naomi and we were joined by others who could not manage the walk. You can still contribute towards 'Tolworth Treasures' as the mulberry tree is waiting for your memories tags. Thank you to all who already have contributed and many thanks to the assistance from Kingston History Room, Ian at Richard Jefferies Museum in Coate, the proceedings from Presidential adresses by the Richard Jefferies Society and a big thanks to Lucy. We will be continuing our programe of walks with the next one across Tolworth Court Farm Fields in the summer and some of the content of todays walk will be broadcast in November. 

I will be speaking to the Surbiton and District Birdwatching Society on the wildlife of Tolworth Court Farm  8pm at Surbiton Library 17.7.18. It is worth adding that the Richard Jefferies Society will be speaking at 2pm 26.9.18 at the same library and we will be planting an elm tree in RJ's memory afterwards, next to the fence of the Richard Jefferies Bird Sanctuary.

There would be no Richard Jefferies bird sanctuary, no blue plaque on the 296 Ewell Road and no plaque in Surbiton Library if it wasn't for Hockley (Harry) Clark. He was also the founder of Surbiton and District Birdwatching Society and if you buy  a recent edition of Nature Near London you will find he wrote the foreword. Insights from our own June Sampson are numerous, they are unique, you will not find mention of them elsewhere.

Lucy's blog details some of the prose and poetry read on the day and has some additional photos of our own Richard Jefferies taken by Paul Atkinson
Old Kingston Road


Hot streets,
Hot feet,
Marching from Woodside along the Ewell Road,
Towards the Tolworth Broadway.

Noisy traffic,
Smelly vehicles,
Following in the footsteps of  Richard Jefferies',
who led us to the Greenway.

From brick yards,
to cement and goods yards,
Echoeing hedgerow enclosures from the 1820's,
the hoardings around  common land, Jubilee Way.

From Hogsmill hum,
To Midsummer Hum,
Navigating street furniture, to Tolworth Court Farm;
we saw a a kingfisher along the way.

To the new barn,
Blunden's poem to the old barn,
archaeological tales, films of badger's and
sepia photos of POW making hay.

Above Old Kingston Road,
a kestrel rose.
Meandering slowly along our unchanged route,
towards the Garden Centre Cafe.

Our homage,
A Pilgrimage,
A celebration of  a Tolworth Treasure; the 'local' writer,
who walked ten miles each day.

Tolworth Court Farm Moated Manor pic Paul Atkinson


  1. Thank you for the report and for taking the initiative to organise the walk in the first place. Richard Jefferies deserves to be better known. By the way, most of the essays that appeared in 'Nature Near London' were first published in the 'Standard'.


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