This month I took a break from fiction and decided to dive into a book I’d heard about but never read. Among English Hedgerows, by Clifton Johnson, is a turn-of-the-century travelogue of the British byways. When I say turn of the century, I mean 1900. This book first saw publication in 1899, but it was republished through 1925 and perhaps beyond.
Clifton Johnson – Photographer, Writer, Artist
Its author, Clifton Johnson, was a photographer, writer, and illustrator. He wrote, edited, or illustrated more than 125 books in his lifetime, covering everything from children’s stories and folk tales to travel. Johnson was interested in people and their stories, and this is what shines through in the travelogue Among English Hedgerows. You meet the people he met along the way, and hear their stories.
To enhance the text, Johnson provides his own photography or illustrations. Among English Hedgerows includes only photographs scattered among his stories, but sometimes he included illustrations as well. Many of the chapters stand alone because they were first published in magazines like The New England Magazine, The Congregationalist, and The Outlook.
Johnson takes us on a tour of England as it was, and he lets the people tell their own stories. How does a small town pensioner spend his days when he has nothing else to do? What does the daily schedule of a farmhand look like? What birds sing in the wood? He speaks of cricket and hotel visits, market days and mansions.
As both a photographer and a writer, Johnson brings to life the small village and the town inn (or pub). In describing traveling show caravans with their steam-powered merry-go-rounds and game booths, you want to see them yourself. He explores castles and manors, Stonehenge and churches.
Explore England with the Author
As we read his book from over 100 years on, a reader might find some of his observations intriguing. He writes of the change from oxen-drawn plows to horse-drawn plows. Then he mentions the noise created by the newfangled steam powered farm machinery. He also talks about the manpower necessary to make it go. “They are formidable affairs, and it takes five men to make a working crew.” (p.76).
Once in a while you may stumble across a passage or even a chapter that you find offensive or strange. For instance, Johnson spends an entire short chapter discussing his observations of “Gypsies.” For part of his description he relates what he has heard, but it seems that this colors his description of what he sees soon after. However, the chapter ends well. He follows a family for a bit and watches the children at play as they ride in the wagon or scamper along beside.
In a later chapter, however, Johnson provides an almost glowing description of a Traveler family who appear at a market day and sell rides to the local children. He even refers to their conveyance as a “travelling caravan.” Earlier he mentions that caravans often transport families who perform at fairs, which would make them Showman Travellers.
It’s worth noting, however, that Johnson repeats what he hears. His goal is to write down an oral history of a place, whether it is correct or not. At one point he talks to hand mowers –– men who cut hay with a scythe –– and they tell him that the day of machine grass cutters is over; more and more the hay will be cut by hand. A quick YouTube search will show you that such did not prove to be true.
Delights of the Village Fair
At one point Johnson finds himself at a festival. He says:
By the time Johnson attended the fair in about 1900, steam-powered merry-go-rounds had been delighting English fair-goers for close to 40 years. However, reading it today, I was taken by this description. Imagine the noise! Between the sound of the steam engines, plus the various tunes played at once, and adding the crowd, this must have presented quite the scene.
Among English Hedgerows is a travelogue that leads you up and down the narrow lanes of English villages. It brings you into country kitchens and alongside farmers. Johnson reveals both the charm of their inhabitants as well as their sometimes narrow views.
Note: I did find mention of a suicide as I read the book. If this bothers you, skip the bottom of page 34 through page 38, and resume reading on page 39.
To read Among English Hedgerows for yourself, click here, which takes you to a Google Books version you can read or download.
If you prefer something quick and easy and fictional, take a look at this post I wrote about The Motor Maids School Days, one of my favorite vintage juvenile fiction reads ever.