Book Review – Copsford, Walter Murray
Reviewed by Henry Rothwell.
When the young Walter Murray first encountered Copsford in the first half of the 1920s, it was a dilapidated if not derelict cottage; the windows lacked much of their glass and let in the wind and rain, the front door wouldn’t shut and let in pretty much everything else, and the only running water was that which streamed down the walls via the many missing roof slates. The brickwork was shabby, and untouched by ivy, lending the impression that even the plant life was far from thrilled about getting too close, other than the grass which grew right up to the door-step.
It was isolated, being a good mile from the nearest lane, and further still from the nearest inhabited building, had no gas or electricity supply, no lavatory or bathroom, and was also already firmly occupied by a sizeable population of rats.
On entering the diminutive red brick cottage, he felt that it radiated an atmosphere of hostility. So pervasive was this sensation that he initially hesitated to explore upstairs, as he wanted as few obstacles between him and the front door as possible, in case a speedy exit was required.
The dismal conditions and oppressive atmosphere almost got the better of him, but his initial reactions were mediated by the determination not to return to his cramped London rooms, and him imagining the effects of a fine summer on the countryside around the hill on which the house perched. Able to see beyond the more unattractive elements of the situation, Murray made a firm decision to stay, and rented the property from the somewhat bemused farmer at three shillings a week.
His plan was to reside here for the summer, harvesting various plants and herbs as they came into flower, before selling them to wholesalers who provided supplies to herbalists. This would, he dearly hoped, provide him with enough of an income to then spend the winter writing. However in order for any of this to happen, he first had to get the rooms of the house in moderately good shape so they could be used for drying his crops, and also provide a secure place for him and his rapidly acquired dog, Floss, to sleep.
The opening chapters of Copsford chart the mighty clean up, the clearing out of debris (one of the rooms appeared to have been used as a seed store) the stripping of wallpaper, the hanging of new wallpaper (restricted to the bedroom – everywhere else was too far gone to bother with), the discovery of a nearby pool deep enough to swim and wash in, and the collection of bacon, eggs and milk from the farm. This phase concluded with an almighty battle with the resident rat hoard, over which he achieves victory by building a plank barricade, the help of his fearless hound, the construction of an improvised fire-arm which fires so unpredictably that it may or may not be entirely on his side, and a lot of poison.
Once the establishing chapters are done, Murray then divides the progression of the seasons (and chapters) into which herb is coming into flower and demand. This is a thoughtful conceit, as it allows the reader to absorb information about the individual habitats and properties of the plants in convenient, dedicated parcels, rather than overwhelming you in a rush of detail. Though in practice of course, almost all of them emerge around June/July before waning in September/October. These are, for the record;
Clivers (Galium aparine), Foxgloves and centaury (Digitalis purpurea and Centaurium erythraea), Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), Meadowsweet and tansy (Filipendula ulmaria and Tanacetum vulgare), Eyebright (Euphrasia), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa). The plants (and occasional animal) are illustrated by photographs Murray took while he was staying at Copsford. These images have an odd, slightly distant quality, lending the impression they have been transmitted from a world far more remote than the Sussex of a mere century ago.
As we follow him around the summer Sussex countryside, we are introduced to various plants, bathing places, blackberrying spots, and stay with him during the trials and errors of the practical side of herb drying and storage. Side adventures include a cycle to the Downs above Wilmington and Alfriston for an afternoon with the Music Mistress (his confidant and occasional carer), and a tense encounter in a blackberrying spot with a pair of mysterious intruders, one of whom he may, or may not, know very well.
Murray writes in an uncomplicated, confiding style which is at odds with the small amount of personal information he includes here. The parents, siblings, place of birth and other particulars which would usually receive at least a cursory nod in such a publication are entirely absent, and the one human he has much contact with (other than the farmer) is referred to only as the ‘Music Mistress’(although that at least is addressed at the end).
That aside, there is still a wealth of detail, delight and a little intrigue. Copsford isn’t a particularly long book, but contains a series of intense experiences, and is therefore, in my opinion at least, best read in as few sittings as possible in order to transfer the intensity from the mind of the writer into the mind of the reader with as little distraction as possible. It certainly stays with the reader. It did well on publication in 1948, and has since maintained a small but understandably devoted following ever since.
Over this time, Murray has acquired a reputation as something of a nature mystic, occasionally being compared with Richard Jeffries, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that his observations read more like scientific enquiry rather than mysticism, and can be all the more striking because of it. For example;
‘I have known a single honeysuckle plant waft its delicious fragrance over an area of at least an acre; a veritable lake of perfume surrounded it. What the depth of the lake was I could not ascertain, much as I wanted to, for it would have been interesting to discover if the scent was radiating evenly in a hemisphere, or whether there were layers or strata of suitable air in which the fragrance freely floated. I incline to the latter, for air does often lie in very sharply defined layers, warm and cool, humid and dry, as is easily observed when shallow mists lie on or near the ground, or one above another, as layers of cloud so obviously do. On very still days I have noticed smoke from bonfires and chimneys rise vertically and then, if there were some invisible ceiling, turn abruptly at right angles and drift slowly away in a gentle, level cloud’
Another pleasant surprise, and one which is mentioned far less frequently than the charge of mysticism, is the humour the book contains. Murray is at his most amusing, funniest even, when pitting his wits against near overwhelming forces. The enthrallingly described rat-battle is the first example, and is later followed by the tale of a naked frontal night assault on a herd of marauding cattle. The funniest incident by far was the account of a close-quarters, knock-down wrestling match with a section of corrugated iron in a high winter wind, which prompted an impulsive out-loud laugh.
The denouement of the story is possibly unique in that it takes the form of a balance sheet which reveals whether his year’s work has actually paid off, or if he will have to return, post haste, to the hated confines of London, and the thankless role of the freelance journalist.
Murray decides to stay in Copsford after Autumn, despite the worsening conditions of both the weather and his domicile. Initially this seems like an unwise choice, until Copsford provides him with a final surprise when the surrounding countryside is transformed by a heavy fall of snow, altering its character entirely.
Though Copsford is available in a number of editions published over the years, I would recommend the Little Toller edition for all the usual reasons I recommend Little Toller editions, which are the beautifully reproduced artwork, French flaps, thoughtful introductions by relevant writers of note, and the fresh clay smell of good paper. I should also point out that they did not sponsor this post, but were kind enough to supply me with a review copy.
Little Toller Books can be found here – https://www.littletoller.co.uk/ and Copsford can be found here – https://www.littletoller.co.uk/shop/books/little-toller/nature-classics/copsford-by-walter-murray/
And the magnificently talented Anna Dillon, who kindly allowed the use of her wonderful image, can be found here – http://www.annadillon.com/
Additionally prints (and originals) of her landscapes can be ordered here – http://www.annadillon.com/prices.html
Paperback: 168 pages
Publisher: Little Toller Books (15 April 2019)
Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.3 x 21 cm