I first borrowed Copsford from the library when I was a teenager. Typically, I soon forgot the names of both the book and the author, but the memoir of the man who fled to an isolated cottage in the Sussex Weald haunted me ever after. When, in my fifties, I finally found the book again I re-read it with some trepidation, fearing that it would be a disappointment. It wasn’t. Copsford proved to be everything that I had remembered, and much more.
If you have not yet read Walter Murray’s magical book, I hope you will do soon. You may then find yourself among a dedicated band of fans – Copsford has a devoted following.
On the surface, the story is simple: the romance between a young would-be journalist, Walter Murray, and a village music teacher. Failing to make a career in London, young Murray flees to an abandoned and isolated cottage deep in the Sussex Weald, (near the home of his beloved) where he plans to write and to support a frugal lifestyle by harvesting and selling herbs. The book describes his experiences over the following nine months.
In truth, the romance is the least interesting element of the book. When Murray first submitted the manuscript to his publisher in 1946, they quickly moved to excise as much of it as he would agree to, which he did with some reluctance. What emerged as a result was a deeply charming and haunting tale. A sort of English Walden written with the sensitivity of a Richard Jefferies, a book which, when read carefully, contains a strong vein of nature mysticism.
For most of his life, Walter J. C. Murray, was a quiet and popular school master, running a small private school in the south country village of Horam in East Sussex. Born the son of a teacher-cum-Anglican Clergyman in 1900, Murray developed an early interest in nature and spent much of his spare time wandering the Sussex countryside exploring its flora and fauna. Unfortunately, his age made him eligible for conscription in 1918 and, possibly in an attempt to avoid the horrors of the Western Front, he pre-empted the call-up by enlisting in the merchant navy. His career at sea was short-lived and he transferred to the newly formed RAF about six months later. Demobbed, he made his way to London in an attempt to forge a career as writer and journalist. He hated the city and loathed his dismal lodgings in the poorer part of Pimlico, which he referred to in Copsford as ‘that third-floor-back with its tiny gas fire, its naked electric light and its distressing view…of roofs and chimneys and slum yards.’
He also hated the newspaper assignments he was given. Nothing in or about the city inspired him, as he confessed, ‘…my heart was not in it. I was of the country…I needed the very song of the shadow-dappled brook to write, with the sound of wild wings in my ears and the scent of wild flowers in my nostrils.’ When he could, he sought solace by stealing off from his work to spend time gazing at the geese and the wide skies in Hyde Park, while yearning for the Weald. Finally, unable to bear it any longer he abandoned London and fled back to Sussex.
Although he had no obvious career prospects, he was still determined to write. This time, however, he decided to immerse himself in the countryside which inspired him and support himself by harvesting and selling the herbs which grew wild in the surrounding area.
With the help of Winnifred Ferneyhough, the ‘music mistress’, the impoverished Murray found an abandoned cottage called Copsford on an isolated area of farmland, and negotiated its rental. For nine months he lived there alone, gradually becoming more and more absorbed into nature and the landscape around him – at one point he even identified himself as a form of ‘Green man’. During his sojourn in the cottage Murray kept a journal (now lost) of his experiences, and it was this that he was able to use later when writing Copsford itself. His notes enabled him to recall in detail what he saw and felt, both the good and bad, practical and transcendental. In delicate and perceptive depth he recorded his encounters with the flora and fauna around him and the changing of the seasons:
Before the leaves of autumn fell I gathered sweet chestnut. The woods beckoned and I was not disobedient to their gentle summons…There was a quiet magic about the hush before the fall. Seed was ripened, fruit was full, new life was born. Rest and sleep were coming to the woods; and pervading the rides and brambly clearings there was a serenity and peace that beggared all telling. Work was done, nothing that was done could be undone. Life had expressed itself unstintingly, in energy and growth and sound and colour, life had made manifest in a thousand forms, and now it was all over, work was done, rest and sleep were coming.
Living as he did, simply and close to nature, Murray also makes us more aware of the changing weather and its impact on everything exposed to it. In the end it was something itself elemental that forced him to abandon the project. Nevertheless, as he later explained, those nine months in the cottage profoundly affected him and haunted him for the rest of his life.
Murray married the music mistress a few years later and together they set up Murray’s School in Horam. This ran successfully until 1965 when he retired, and the school closed. By this time he had also become a respected nature photographer and lecturer, with frequent appearances on radio and television. He also produced several books, including three with the broadcaster and entomologist L. Hugh Newman.
Equally interesting though was his work, from late 1949, as editor of the Nature Notes section for the Sussex County Magazine. Until the magazine ceased publication in 1956, Murray frequently used his pages to raise issues of environmental concern, whether it was the need for nature reserves, the ‘rape’ of the South Downs and the intensification of agriculture, or cruelty to animals. Indeed his response to the introduction and spread of myxomatosis was furious and unequivocal; his concern for the environment marks him out as a pioneer.
For the rest of his life, Murray longed to return to Copsford, to relive the experience he had been given but, sadly, it was not to be. His death in 1985 seems, equally sadly, to have gone virtually unremarked. I have been able to find no obituaries, and even his final resting place – whatever form it took – is unknown. Equally tragically from a biographer’s point of view, his papers, books and manuscripts, and photographic collection were dispersed or destroyed by Winnifred before her own death ten years later.
As a consequence, Walter Murray remains something of an enigma. His three most important books, Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom (1946), Copsford (1948), and A Sanctuary Planted (1953) all contain suggestions of a nature mysticism that echo the writings of Richard Jefferies and Henry Thoreau, among others. But these are hints in the texts, rather than outright statements, and many of the people who knew Murray were, and continue to be, a little puzzled by Copsford. Around Horam, where he lived and died, he was primarily known as the school teacher, though some were aware vaguely that he had once lived ‘wild in the woods’. But few of the people that I encountered when researching his life, had actually read his books, and some were even shocked at the suggestion of a mystical interest.
But nonetheless, Nature Mysticism is inescapable in the book. Murray’s expression of these mystical moments gives Copsford a singular quality and contributes to giving the book such a haunting quality. Which leads me to the question: what it is that makes Copsford such a special book and why it has such a devoted following? There are, I believe, three fundamental reasons.
Firstly, Murray’s often beautiful prose does a wonderful job in conveying his increasingly deep connection with the natural world around him. He achieves a transcendence that gives him a conscious communion with something deeply essential in Nature.
In those golden minutes I understood every word on a single page of the magic book of life inscribed in a language neither written nor spoken. There was sublime tranquillity in the level white mists of the valley, a symphony like the ascending melodies of Grieg in the sun rays that climbed aslant the hill, a quiet strength in the stillness of the trees, a brotherhood of life in all living things. I was no longer a single life pushing a difficult way amidst material things, I was part of all creation…It was a baptism into a saner way of living and thinking. The soreness of the slave-collar was salved. It was an outward and visible sign of my inward awareness of at-one-ment.
This sense of connection is something that many of us also yearn for and Copsford takes us back into that experience – especially with repeated reading.
Secondly, Murray achieved his transcendence by adopting an almost ascetic existence. Like Thoreau before him – or perhaps a follower of one of the stricter medieval monastic orders – he eschews the modern world, and lives a life of simplicity and frugality. This sharpens his consciousness, though admittedly this wasn’t always beneficial to his state of mind. However, the point is that Murray experienced something else which many of us quietly long for – a world in which our lives are not driven by the clock or digitisation; a world where the pace of life slows and where there is space for serenity.
Finally, and in a sense as a result of the two previous elements, Murray’s book evokes a past which appears more desirable than our present. Many readers were, and are still, misled by the 1948 publication date of the book, thinking that Murray’s year in Copsford occurred after the Second World War. But the English countryside evoked so charmingly by Murray, is that of the years immediately after the previous world war. It is a world now only captured in sepia photographs. A world of quiet villages and horse powered machinery. A world before the explosion of the motor car or the intensification of agriculture. Murray’s Copsford evokes a nostalgia for a quintessential southern English countryside, full of hedgerows, wildlife and undisturbed woodland. Murray not only makes us want to go back to this vanished world ourselves – he also makes us want it back.
TOM WAREHAM is a historian and former museum curator. He is the author of several books including The Green Man of Horam: The Life and Work of Walter J. C. Murray.
The Little Toller edition of Copsford, with a new introduction by Raynor Winn (author of The Salt Path), is published later this week. The book is available from bookshops or you can buy it online from Little Toller here.
The photograph at the head of this essay is of the site of the cottage of Copsford, now reduced to a base of stone in a field. (Photograph by the author).