COUNTY YARNS - From grassy Pampas to green South Downs

Author and naturalist William Henry Hudson
Author and naturalist William Henry Hudson

Last week I related the story of prolific nature writer Richard Jefferies, who is buried in Broadwater Cemetery, Worthing. It so happens that a friend of Jefferies and a contemporary author of nature books, William Henry Hudson, is also interred there.

William Hudson’s parents were from New England but emigrated to Argentina to become sheep farmers early in the 19th century, a move that strikes me as quite extraordinary especially given that Argentina was not even a fully fledged country at the time. William was born there in 1841. He spent his younger years roaming the vast, flat grasslands known as the Pampas and he soon found himself in awe of nature in all its manifestations.

Like Jefferies, his life was dogged by ill-health. William’s was a consequence of a mysterious malady that afflicted him when he was just 15. It caused him to become introspective and very studious. After the death of his parents, William led a wandering life but eventually moved to England where he arrived in 1869. It wasn’t until 1900 that he was naturalized as a British citizen.

Much of his early works were romances with a South American setting; he is still revered as a creative writer in Argentine literary circles. But we are much more concerned with his books and essays about English wildlife and our own countryside. One of these books was Nature in Downland of which a reviewer wrote: ‘This is the finest and most finished nature book in literary art. The spirit, the character, the natural features of the South Downs, of its soil, plant and bird life, human story and changing atmosphere, are caught by him with exquisite freshness and ease.’

Hudson was keenly interested in our feathered friends and became a founding member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. As an aside, in the course of my research I was intrigued to discover that the RSPB began life as an all-women movement - the Plumage League – who were against the mass slaughter of birds simply so their feathers could be used as hat decorations. Clearly a case of birds looking after the birds?

William Hudson wrote some decidedly unusual avian essays. For example, we tend to think that seagulls choosing to live inland is a recent phenomenon but that obviously isn’t the case; in 1922 Hudson penned an article ‘Seagulls in London. Why They Took To Coming To Town.’

Hudson was a frequent visitor to Sussex and a familiar figure in Worthing where he lived out his final years. He claimed to have seen the ghost of Richard Jefferies one day while walking near Goring Church (Jefferies had died in the town in 1887). When William Hudson himself passed away in 1922 he was buried in the same cemetery. Apparently Hudson had wished to be laid to rest beside his friend Jefferies but this was not possible because by the time of his own death that part of the cemetery was full.

At the entrance near the Garden of Remembrance, the Sussex Wildlife Trust and the RSPB have put up a plaque commemorating the two writers.