Swindon’s Great Western heart is as stalwart as it ever was and the local character of some of its town centre has stayed intact. For the last few decades however, its anonymous suburbs have sprawled so far outwards , that you need to be a qualified orienteer to find your way around the relentless, could-be-anywhere-housing- developments, industrial estates and clutches of titanic superstores. Vast tracts of farmland as well as woods and copses I knew as a child are all under concrete now : whole villages such as Shaw, Haydon Wick and Lydiard Tregoze have been swallowed up.
But there is one corner left untrammelled – the gentle, pastoral landscape which was the inspiration of Swindon’s famous son ,Richard Jeffries. Afterall, he was one of our greatest country writers and visionaries. “One day the area will be glorified, “ Edward Thomas wrote in his biography of Jeffries, “- it will be known as Jeffries Landscape and it will be as Selbourne was to Gilbert White”.
If you take the very smallest road off the Coate roundabout you can park under trees beside Coate Water, the setting for Jeffries’ classic childrens’ book Bevis:The Story of a Boy. “So we will,” said Bevis, “we will find a new sea where no one has ever been before. Look! There it is, is it not wonderful?. “And it is. This expansive and gracefully sinuous reservoir was created in the 1820s by the Wilts and Berks Canal Company as a means of topping up the canal. When I went , there were dozens of fishermen around its edges, an abandoned 1930s concrete diving board hovering over it and children flying kites nearby. A new cinder path leads along the familiar hedgeline to Coate Farmhouse where Jeffries was born in 1848 and which is now looked after by a handful of the Richard Jeffries Society volunteers. Although the adjacent road has now become a dual carriageway, once you are through the front door you feel calm and alright. It is one the nicest museums you could wish for – well loved, cosy and intimate. From the living room there is the view of the mulberry tree mentioned in a poem and the deep shade of the evergreen oak planted by Richard’s father. From his study cum teenage bedroom on the attic floor, his simple drop leaved writing table stands just where it always did , by the window which looks onto the orchard and the Sun Inn beyond .
There are letters written by the seven year old Richard to his beloved aunt Ellen; photographs of local farm workers squinting against the sun together with the gangly gamekeeper of Burperop Park, from whom Jeffries learnt so much; beautiful sketches by his uncle and lots of small oils and water colours of nearby scenes painted by an early Jeffries groupie. Kate Tryon lived in Massachusetts and was a keen Thoreau enthusiast, but as soon as she read Jeffries she became obsessed. She visited Coate for twelve consecutive years in the early 1900s following in her hero’s footsteps and depicting his every literary description. Today the landscape is still magical, even though the M4 slices invisibly through it a mile or so away. The trees and woods around Dayhouse Farm, just along the lane from the Jeffries’ smallholding, are just as they were when Tryon painted them and Jeffries described them. (The farm house itself was the home of Jessie Baden who became Richard’s wife: he wrote of their courtship in Greene Ferne Farm ). It seems unbelievable that despite the large number of brownfield sites in Swindon, Persimmon and Redrow are appealing to build 900 houses here. It will kill Richard Jefferies’ landscape stone dead.
Join the Richard Jeffries Society now www.richardjefferiessociety.co.uk