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Subject: ‘British Countryside’

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Robert Smith Surtees wrote the funniest novel about hunting

Posted in Animals, British Countryside, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Sport on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Robert Surtees first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Illustration for Mr Facey Romford's Hounds,  picture, image, illustration
A humorous llustration for Mr Facey Romford's Hounds by Surtees, picture by John Leech

It was a dark winter’s afternoon in 1832, as the 27-year-old Robert Smith Surtees sat writing in his London room. He was working on the next episode of his novel Jorrocks’s Jaunts and Jollities which was being serialised in the New Sporting Magazine, when something reminded him of his childhood. He leaned back in his chair in the flickering candlelight and relived the adventure of his first fox hunt.

He had been a boy of 12, the son of a well-to-do country gentleman. His family home was Hamsterley Hall, in Durham, where he had lived since a few years after he was born in 1805. He had been standing in his father’s stableyard when the local hunt passed by. The harsh note of the huntsman’s horn split the morning calm. The hounds were hot on the scent of a fox, and, close behind the dogs, came the huntsmen. The thundering hooves filled Robert’s ears, and, without hesitating, he leapt on to the nearest horse – which was unsaddled and still wearing only a stable blanket – and galloped off in pursuit of the fox.

His father’s reaction to Robert’s bareback cross-country chase had been very mixed. As Master of the Hunt the older man had been amused and pleased by the boy’s enthusiasm, but as owner of a valuable horse which might have been seriously harmed by such thoughtless treatment, he was furious. Robert was lucky, however, for the sportsman was stronger than the disciplinarian in his father and his anger soon faded.

Robert Surtees came out of his day-dream and started busily writing again. He had to finish the episode he was writing, that evening, but he did not mind the work for the serial was about his favourite subject, hunting. By writing of the adventures of his hero, Jorrocks, Surtees could escape from the equally pressing and more serious work of his profession, the law. He hated all things legal, however, finding them dry and dull. So he escaped from London whenever possible and could often be found galloping through the Surry countryside with one of the many local hunts.

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Manchester Men were 18th century travelling salesmen

Posted in British Countryside, Historical articles, History, Trade on Monday, 17 March 2014

This edited article about 18th century rural life first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 591 published on 12 May 1973.

A Manchester Man,  picture, image, illustration
A Manchester Man selling his wares by Peter Jackson

There was a sudden loud whistle outside the parlour window and Parson Woodforde started with fright. He was very relieved to find it was only Andrews, the local smuggler, bringing him a consignment of 6 lbs of tea. His niece Nancy let the smuggler in and gave him a glass of wine for his pains, while the good parson handed over what he owed for the tea, which was 10/6d a pound.

The point of this true country shopping story is that Parson Woodforde was as respectable as any man in Norfolk and, like everyone else, he saw nothing wrong in purchasing tea from the smuggler because the tax on it in 1777 was so very high.

Not all country shopping in the 18th century involved whistles in the dark outside pantry windows, however. Many villages then had enough craftsmen to let villagers do all the shopping they needed to without ever going to the nearest town. They could visit their friend the tailor, or a saddler, a glazier, a shoemaker and so on, while they grew their own food, milked their cows and fed their pigs. Even the poorest labourers lived quite well until many common lands were enclosed, and cottage industries, with wives working at the looms, began to decay because of competition from the new factories in the towns. But for much of the century, a farm labourer, however humble, could hope to eat meat every day.

Many villages had a single general store where everything from buttons to bacon was sold, everything, lamented some customers, except the one thing that one happened to want at that moment! But prosperous customers could always send away to the nearest town, or pay a visit to it themselves.

For those who did not, or could not, leave the village, there was always the travelling pedlar, his shop on his back or his horse, to bring the little extra luxuries or necessities. He had been going strong for hundreds of years, a legendary trader about whom little is known, except that he got goods mocing about the country as no-one else did.

Not all shopkeepers were very keen on pedlars, who were too successful by half. Some of them traded in smuggled goods, including fine silks for the ladies. These useful citizens, their stocks obtained in the towns, were travelling mini-supermarkets.

Along the roads in the late 18th century came a new brand of salesmen, complete with pack horses, on which they carried wholesale goods direct from the new factories and manufacturers of the Midlands and North. They took the goods not to customers but direct to the shopkeepers, and they were the first of that immortal breed, the travelling salesmen, no doubt complete with 18th century funny stories! They were nicknamed Manchester Men, a sure sign of that city’s growing importance.

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The Cuckoo is a familiar summer resident in Britain’s countryside

Posted in Animals, Birds, British Countryside, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 14 March 2014

This edited article about the Cuckoo first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 590 published on 5 May 1973.

Cuckoo,  picture, image, illustration
Cuckoo

One of Britain’s best-known summer visitors is the Cuckoo. This bird arrives from its winter quarters in tropical and south Africa sometime in April.

It has a bad reputation which is certainly well-deserved. Too lazy to build a nest and to bring up its young, the cuckoo victimises small birds such as reed warblers, hedge sparrows and robins, by removing an egg from their nests and replacing it with one of her own. When it hatches the young cuckoo is very sensitive to touch and will kick and jerk if the rightful occupants of the nest touch it. One by one, the young nestlings are kicked out of their home until only the cuckoo is left. In this way the gluttonous baby receives all the food that would have been given to the other birds. This makes it grow at an alarming rate, but it still clamours for food from its unfortunate foster parents, even after it has left the nest.

The cuckoo is unique among British birds in another way because the adults start the migration journey back to their winter quarters in Africa in late July or early August, some weeks before their youngsters are ready to fly.

It remains a mystery how these young birds, completely neglected by their real parents and therefore, having no contact with them at all, are able to make the long and difficult journey to Africa over sea and land entirely unaided.

The Orange Tip Butterfly heralds the arrival of Spring

Posted in British Countryside, Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 14 March 2014

This edited article about butterflies first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 590 published on 5 May 1973.

Nature in April,  picture, image, illustration
The Orange Tip butterfly with orange-tipped wings is male, but the female Orange Tip butterfly is quite plain as the illustration, top right, shows; picture by R B Davis

On a warm day in April the Orange Tip Butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis in which it has spent the winter months and flutter along country lanes and through gardens as a welcome sign that Spring has arrived.

It is an exceptionally widespread butterfly and can be seen almost everywhere in Britain except in the north of Scotland. It is only the male which has the bright orange patches on the forewings which gives the creature its name. The female, by contrast, is very plain with mottled grey and white patches on her hindwings. When she is at rest on a flower, this mottling is such an effective camouflage that she is almost invisible. The female Orange Tip lays her eggs on the Cuckoo Flower, or Lady’s Smock.

The selfless heroism of Eyam’s 300 villagers saved thousands of lives

Posted in British Countryside, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 4 March 2014

This edited article about the village of Eyam first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 577 published on 3 February 1973.

Eyam,  picture, image, illustration
Eyam during the Plague Year

There was one day in the life of Samuel Pepys that the famous diarist was unlikely to forget as he made up his journal each night. It was June 7, 1665 – “the hottest day I ever felt in my life.” Walking up Drury Lane in London, Pepys saw several houses marked with a red cross and the words, “Lord have mercy on us.”

Pepys hurried on, disturbed. He had never seen such signs before, but he had heard about them. They meant that the dreaded bubonic plague was within.

As the plague killed thousands in London that summer, those families who discovered it among them were obliged to shut themselves up in their homes either to die or, if they were lucky, to survive with the infestation. It was a rough kind of social justice that neighbours, in dread of the sudden fatal disease, generally made sure was enforced.

As everyone knows, 1665 was London’s year of terror. But the plague touched many places outside the city, wreaking fearful havoc. And it touched one village whose heroism passed all human belief.

Two months after the plague signs were first seen by Pepys in London, it was still far from the thoughts of the 300 villagers of Eyam in Derbyshire. At the August harvest festival the young were courting, the wives were chattering and the men were quaffing pints of ale oblivious of the invisible terror torturing the city that none of them had ever seen.

Over this truly English pastoral scene the Rev. William Mompesson presided with aloof solemnity. He was the Conformist, Oxford-educated rector of Eyam, and after only a year in the parish, not yet wholly familiar with simple rustic ways.

Never far from Mompesson’s elbow, acting as a kind of conscience, was another minister. Thomas Stanley was the dissenting nonconforming clergyman who had been dispossessed of the living after refusing to take Charles the Second’s Oath of Conformity. Both these ministers were to play vital roles in the events of the next few months.

Both now watched the harvest festival merry-making on the green with urbane indulgence, unaware of the drama that was about to unfold in their parish – unaware that in less than a year six out of every seven of the revelling flock would be dead.

A few days after the harvest festival in Eyam, George Vicars, the local tailor, opened a parcel of cloth newly arrived from London. Because the material was damp, he told a servant to dry it before the fire. Steam rose from the cloth and permeated the room. A few hours afterwards the servant, his body horribly marked, his limbs contorted, was dead of bubonic plague.

George Vicars’ cloth had brought the disease from London to shatter the rural happiness of Eyam. Before the month was out, five other parishioners were similarly dead – agonising confirmation that the virus had come to stay. Those who could afford to – there were probably about 50 of them – shut up their homes and speedily disappeared to other places.

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The bleak Yorkshire moors inspired the unique Bronte sisters

Posted in British Countryside, English Literature, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 27 February 2014

This edited article about the Bronte sisters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 572 published on 30 December 1972.

The Bronte family,  picture, image, illustration
The Bronte family grew up well educated by their father, Patrick Bronte

The journey from Keighley in Yorkshire to the village of Haworth is four tough, steep scrambling miles with the road winding along between wave-like hills with bleak and desolate moorlands on either side. On a fresh, blustery morning in April 1820 a little convoy of seven heavily laden carts moved slowly towards Haworth village. The new parson was arriving, with all his household goods, his books and bedding and his six children, five of whom could now and then be seen peeping round the canvas covers as they stole a quick glance at their new home. The sixth child, Anne, was a babe-in-arms.

Haworth was a long and straggling community, with one narrow street which was so steep that the cobblestones were placed on end so that the horses’ feet did not slip. But the carts drew into the grounds of the Parsonage at last and the children tumbled out to look over the solid grey stone house that was to be their home. The Bronte children had arrived at the scene of the tragedies and triumphs which so marked their short lives. Their extra-ordinary range of talents had yet to be discovered but the effect of the bleak and barren moors which surrounded Haworth was already starting to take place and would soon find expression in their books.

They were certainly no ordinary family. Their father, Patrick, was born in a large and poverty-stricken Irish family. Though his own parents were illiterate they did own three or four books and from these Patrick taught himself to read. Eventually he found the key to a wider world and by effort and determination he got to Cambridge University and was ordained. He held several curacies and then moved on to Haworth at the age of forty three.

Unfortunately, the first of many tragedies occurred only just over a year after the Brontes moved into the Parsonage at Haworth, Mrs Bronte died and although her sister came to look after the children they began to find themselves increasingly on their own. To pass the time they made up plays, wrote poems and books and imagined little kingdoms which they would plan for hours. In the gloom of the late winter afternoons, with the light fading and the mist rising from the moors, the children would gather round a blazing kitchen fire, light a solitary candle and talk of revolutions, feuds, battles and the exploits and loves of their heroes in the imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal.

Many of these stirring tales were written in minute writing on the tiny pages (sometimes only one and a half or two inches long) of books which they stitched together and covered themselves. Over a hundred of these little volumes still exist, many in the Parsonage Museum at Haworth.

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Thomas Gainsborough preferred landscape to portraiture

Posted in Art, Artist, British Countryside, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 February 2014

This edited article about Thomas Gainsborough first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 558 published on 23 September 1972.

Gainsborough as a boy,  picture, image, illustration
Thomas Gainsborough sketching an apple thief by Ron Embleton

When he was still a lad in Sudbury, Suffolk, Thomas Gainsborough sketched the face of a man peering over a hedge. The man ran away with the pears he had stolen. But young Tom’s sketch was a good enough likeness to identify the thief.

Later, Tom made a painting on wood from the pencil sketch and cut round the outline of the head. He would prop this up over the top of a hedge, and laugh at the people who bowed or raised their hats as they passed by.

It was this ability to capture the likeness of a human face and form, and paint it with photographic realism, that made Thomas Gainsborough in later life the most popular portrait painter of his day. Remember this was the eighteenth century, long before the colour camera.

A painter has to make a living, and to do this he has to sell his paintings. Gainsborough had his early struggles. He studied the engraving of pictures on metal plates. Prints from such plates could be made in some numbers. And even if each print fetched only a small sum, the total from each plate could make the effort worthwhile.

But Gainsborough had only small success. He tried painting landscapes, which failed to sell. And he gained few commissions for portraits, even at the low price of between three guineas and five guineas apiece.

His marriage in 1745, to Margaret Burr, a young lady with an income of £200 a year, enabled him to establish himself in a studio in London. Slowly, he built up a reputation as a portrait painter, both in London and later at Bath. He was soon demanding and getting a hundred guineas a portrait.

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Britain is a living museum of fine domestic architecture

Posted in Architecture, British Cities, British Countryside, British Towns, Country House, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 5 February 2014

This edited article about architecture first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 543 published on 10 June 1972.

Tudor house,  picture, image, illustration
The construction of a Tudor house by Peter Jackson

Pharaoh Cheops’s pyramid was built around 3733 BC. Five thousand years have gone by, but no one in Medieval Europe, or indeed in the whole of the known world, has come within shouting distance of rivalling that fabulous edifice in sheer size or in technical brilliance of construction. And when we think of Roman plumbing, with all the luxury of running hot and cold water, and compare it with the plumbing facilities in 13th century London, we well may pause to wonder what progress is all about.

However, most of the architecture we have examined so far has concerned buildings that were put up for purposes of religious worship, to flatter the ego of some tyrannical ruler, or as an expression of national pride in craftsmanship.

There was hardly any choice, for not much else remains for us to examine. The mud hovels of the labourers who built the pyramids have long since crumbled to sand, along with the superior mud mansions of their masters. There are the much-cobbled fragments of a few Roman villas dotted about Europe and the Middle East, there are the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but not much else to tell of the humble millions who made up the mighty empire that once owned the known world.

If human progress can be measured by the increasing tendency for quite ordinary people to build houses for themselves and their descendants that rivalled, in soundness and structure, the temples and churches of religion and the palaces of their rulers, then there was some forward progress by the Middle Ages. Plumbing or no plumbing.

And of all Europe we are particularly lucky, in these islands, to have so many of the smaller domestic medieval buildings surviving; most of them still lived in, and most of them regarded (as the estate agents say) as very desirable residences.

The Romans made little or no impact on the native domestic architecture of these islands. Their villas, with inner courts open to all weathers, did not commend themselves to the natives; nor were the natives beguiled by all that insistence on baths and plumbing.

The largest domestic unit in Medieval England was the manor house. Every small community had one. It was the home of the local landowner, and the centre of community life.

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A day in the life of a young Highland drover

Posted in Animals, British Countryside, Farming, Historical articles, History, Scotland on Wednesday, 29 January 2014

This edited article about Scotland first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 531 published on 18 March 1972.

Highland drovers,  picture, image, illustration
Highland drovers mending the roof and dealing with poachers by Peter Jackson

John Stuart stirred uneasily on his earthen couch, turned over and snuggled down into the warm rug that covered it. It was September now and the mornings were getting colder. The annual migration to the upland pastures, where the grazing was richer for the cattle, would soon be at an end.

The smell of porridge and hot bannocks woke him finally and he joined his father at the table, supping the thick oatmeal from a horn spoon. They ate well: they had a long day ahead of them with nothing but cheese and bannocks to fill their stomachs until nightfall. As his mother cleared away, he set off with his father to the herd.

For most of the eighteenth century, the principal occupation in the Highlands of Scotland was the breeding of cattle; indeed there was little else for which the harsh terrain was suited. The crofters had few other sources of income. If it was a bad year for the cattle-trade, they went hungry and their rent fell into arrears; in a good year they could buy meal and barley and keep themselves out of debt – but only just.

The best part of the grim, monotonous crofting life was the summer visit to the Highlands. In May, crofters and cattle migrated to the upland pastures which were too far away for the cattle to go to and from each day. There they stayed, while the cattle fattened on the rich grazing-land, until September when the drovers came north ready to haggle over prices.

The same thing happened along all the mountain ranges of Europe. The Swiss climbed to their high Alpine pastures. The Norwegians went to their “saeters.”

In 1762, as in the past fifteen years of his life, John Stuart, his parents and the rest of the folk from Kirkmichael in Banffshire, went up to the summer grazings in the Duke of Huntly’s forest of Glenavon. While his father acted as under-forester to the Duke, John tended the herds.

Sometimes, like today, his father could spare a little time to inspect the beasts, so John took him to the fold near the sheal (cottage) where he had “hefted” – fenced in – their cattle for the night. Beasts which strayed from the pastures were impounded and their owners fined, so no one could afford to be careless.

They counted the herd, then John turned out the cattle while his father plunged deep into the forest. Now John was free to lie back and sun himself: to admire the black, horned beasts; and to drift into sleep as the bees hummed over the wild flowers among the hill grasses.

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Arlington Mill is an architectural treasure house in historic Bibury

Posted in Architecture, British Countryside, Historical articles, History, Industry on Monday, 9 December 2013

This edited article about historic buildings first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 481 published on 3 April 1971.

Remains of Osney Abbey, picture, image, illustration
Remains of Osney Abbey, which assumed ownership of mill and village in the C12

The best place, usually, for delving into Early English history, is an ancient church. Bishops, abbots, and monks were learned men with penchants for making records. Men laboured to make their church a beautiful place, thus leaving a record of contemporary craftsmanship. Even the tombstones reveal a pattern of the lives of the time.

Unlike churches, old houses and buildings belonged to private individuals with little or no thought of attaching great importance to events which would later be historically interesting. So, to reconstruct an accurate account of any one house – or in this case, Arlington Mill – one must deal with the life of the area surrounding it.

It seems strange to think that a beautiful village, which had been in existence when the Domesday Book was prepared for William the Conqueror, should have to be “discovered.” Yet William Morris, in the 1870s, did this. The village, which he called “the most beautiful in England,” was Bibury in Gloucestersbire. When Arthur Gibbs wrote A Cotswold Village in 1914, Bibury joined the ranks of places one just had to visit.

The history of the village dates back to pre-Norman times. Cirencester was a major Roman town and many wealthy, important citizens of the Empire built villas for themselves in the rolling Cotswolds around Bibury. When the Saxons overran the Roman encampments they erected churches as they settled down. Bibury is one of the few places in England where considerable remains of a large Saxon church are still to be seen. From here the British Museum obtained two fine gravestones in the Saxon Ringerike style of the early 11th century.

William’s taxation survey, for which purpose the Domesday Book was compiled, recorded two mills where today’s Arlington Mill stands. Somewhile after 1130, when Osney Abbey assumed ownership of both mill and village, a long, horizontal channel was constructed so that the waters of the River Coln could be carried several feet above stream level. As the wheel at Arlington was extremely large the necessity of this raised “fall” is apparent.

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