Celebrating the life and work of WH Hudson

by Jasper Humphreys
18th August 2022

Thursday 18 August 2022 marks the centenary of the death of WH Hudson.

The author of the ‘sacred text’ of the south Wiltshire downlands, ‘A Shepherd’s Life’, which quietly but indelibly stamped ‘Hudson Country’ over the area, is celebrated here by Jasper Humphreys.


Book cover
A Shepherd’s Life by WH Hudson
Given the recent death of James Lovelock who devised the Gaia ‘whole Earth’ philosophy from long chats with his then Bowerchalke neighbour, Nobel Literature Prize winner, William Golding, it shows just how much the area of Cranborne Chase and its surroundings, has a pull for creative thinking and writing including to some extent, Thomas Hardy.

Hudson talked about the ‘wide earth and sky’ here, how the air always seemed purer and fresher, the chalk-waters clearer and the sky more blue, altogether creating a palette of colours vivid and intense.

And the same sense of vivid contrasts applies to Hudson’s life; mythologically he was The Man From Nowhere with his penniless but free-running childhood on the pampas of Argentina, then moving to London where he endured periods of dire poverty while staying true to his writer’s muse, only to end his days as a revered literary figure and financial stability, with several of books later given the Hollywood treatment in various forms and a mention in a Hemingway novel (‘The Sun Also Rises’). There is even a famous bas-relief sculpture by Jacob Epstein named after an important Hudson fictional character, ‘Rima’, located in Kensington Gardens near the Serpentine: even if he had become The Man for All Seasons, Hudson’s inner vision of nature, life on Earth and human nature never changed.

Hudson was industrious with a low-key but determined charm that impressed new acquaintances and created a circle of admiring friends and fans such as Joseph Conrad, Walter de la Mare and Edward Thomas who was the closest of all, drawn by Hudson’s authenticity and insights into nature told with passion and literary skills that were completely self-taught in the ‘School of Life’: ‘there is strength, character, determination, written on that gaunt and somewhat grim face’ wrote a friend.

View of fields
Views near Martin Down in Cranborne Chase AONB

Underlining this commitment to nature, Hudson was a founder-member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in 1889, begun by women pledging not to wear feathers and for which Hudson not only became the first chair-person but wrote a dozen pamphlets based on his profound ornithological knowledge with titles like ‘Save The Herons’, ‘Feathered Women’ as well as a book ‘Rare, Vanishing and Lost British Birds’, edited by his friend, Linda Gardiner, then secretary of RSPB which by 1898 had 20,000 members (large majority being women), with 152 branches, including one in Washington, USA and another in Germany.

Today in Britain, Hudson’s stock is not forgotten but niche, with just one biography by Ruth Tomalin and another one shortly to appear by Conor Mark Jameson; in Argentina there is a town named after him near Buenos Aires, a shopping-mall as well as a section of a nearby toll-road and his old family house has become the centre of an ecological park and a modest Hudson museum.

After he left for London aged 32, Hudson never returned to Argentina, the country that was so formative in shaping his imagination, wider interests and first books; incredibly, the detail and evocative moods, weather, nature and people of the pampas were all recalled in Hudson’s mind as he struggled away in the proverbial garret in Bayswater.

Hudson’s mother, Caroline, from New England, and his father, Daniel, an Irish-American, emigrated to Argentina to raise a family on the farm near Buenos Aires called ‘The Twenty-five Ombus’, named after a native tree species: the venture struggled but this was never apparent to the young Hudson who roamed about mostly by himself, drawn to observing nature and making friends with the local gauchos/cowboys and peons/farm-hands.

Through a contact the young Hudson started sending bird specimens and notes to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington who passed them to the Zoological Society in London for verification: both institutions were impressed by Hudson’s contributions and with this encouragement Hudson seemed to inwardly sense his destiny as a writer connected to the natural world. After his father died and the farm-land sold, Hudson set sail on April 1, 1874 for London with very little money.

Tough as the early London years were, Hudson industriously honed his writing, sometimes writing a learned ornithological article sometimes dreaming up plots for fiction while at the same time avidly reading; in his third year in London Hudson married Emily Wingrave, an opera-singer whose work had dried up and ran a boarding-house in Bayswater where Hudson had lodged. The boarding-house venture failed, as did another and the couple ended up in a single room in Ravenscourt Park for a period, so poor that for a week they lived on one tin of cocoa and milk while Hudson’s first novel, ‘The Purple Land’, met a luke-warm reception from the critics.

Gradually the Hudson’s fortunes changed; Emily was left a property, Tower House, in Westbourne Park by her sister, and word was spreading about Hudson’s unique writing ‘voice’; a steady stream of novels appeared that followed Hudson’s writing ‘brand’ of fantasy, quest, adventure and romance set in a mysterious land, the best-known being ‘Green Mansions’ that had a mysterious girl, ‘Rima’, living in a South American jungle, played by Audrey Hepburn in the film version.

Hudson was also writing nature guides as well as observations ‘afoot’ in England and memoir-tales from the pampas such as ‘Idle Days in Patagonia’, a possible source of inspiration for the later highly acclaimed literary excursions of Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux into that part of the world.

There was no such doubt about sources, however, when Cumbrian farmer, James Rebanks, came to write about sheep: ‘One day I pulled A Shepherd’s Life out from a book-case. I was going to hate it like the books they’d pushed at us in school. But I was wrong; I didn’t hate it, I loved it’.

The book has attracted a number of publishers over the years including an excellent version from locally-based Little Toller Press which has an excellent Introduction by Adam Thorpe. Hudson said the south Wiltshire downlands and his beloved villages around the Chalke Valley reminded him of the pampas and its little homesteads, especially the space and ‘big skies’.

sheep on martin downFor the book Hudson strategically starts by fixing the time and place in the here and now: it was written and published in 1910 and the opening chapter is set in Salisbury which provides the reader with the familiar cues of the cathedral, spire and Constable. Then he spins away and draws in the reader with descriptions about the mystery and solitariness of the downland here in comparison to the over-familiar downland of Sussex. Soon Hudson pulls out two master-strokes; firstly, he introduces the powerful central character of Caleb Bawcombe, the shepherd, whose tales and adventures are drawn from real-life interviews by Hudson with this shepherd and form the book’s substance; and secondly, Hudson reveals that both Caleb and the village, Winterbourne Bishop, are fictional names for a real person and place, creating a heightened sense of ‘magic realism’ but free of any eco-mysticism as the harsh realities of contemporary country life are not spared; from quiet outrage at conditions of rural housing and the spread of pheasants to shooting old or disobedient sheep-dogs, there is no cloying sentimentality or false nostalgia; this was a land where the ‘Captain Swing’ rural protest riots were still a distant memory. In real-life ‘Caleb’ was James Lawes and ‘Winterbourne Bishop’ was Martin.

Returning time and again to ‘Winterbourne Bishop’ and listening to ‘Caleb’ was like a religious experience for Hudson, escaping from London to use Harris Farm in Martin as a base. Not only are the episodes and stories gleaned from ‘Caleb’ woven into a broad cloth but also down-to-earth asides about country life pop up as well as his own prejudices (game-keepers get a hard time) and observations about the increasing mechanisation of farming as symbolised by the disappearance of the Wiltshire sheep breed, so hefted to the downland like ‘Caleb’.

Though ‘Caleb’ very much speaks for himself in the book, it’s obvious that he is for Hudson a soul-mate, not least as fellow social ‘outsiders’; for Hudson ‘Caleb’ speaks for Everyman in that as a shepherd he might be low on the social-scale but ‘Caleb’ is more than blessed with experiences and thoughts that not only puts him into Hudson’s pantheon but recalls Jesus being The Good Shepherd.

Martin Down image of a path
Track through Martin Down National Nature Reserve

In the last paragraph, ‘Caleb’ replies to the question about whether he would have wanted a different life: ‘But if ‘twas offered to me and I was told to choose my work, I’d say, Give me my Wiltsheer Downs again and let me be a shepherd there all my life long’ – the true spirit of ‘Hudson Country’, though the man himself was buried next to his wife in Worthing.

PS: The unmasking of ‘Winterbourne Bishop’ as Martin was fairly swift after publication of the book but the real Caleb Bawcombe remained a mystery until a letter appeared in The Times; dated, June 23, 1945, it was written by Mr EHL Poole, then the owner of Harris Farm where Hudson had lodged; Lane Poole had cross-referenced details about ‘Caleb’ with James Lawes and also fleshed out the Lawes family history to prove his point.

By Jasper Humphreys: he lives in Cranborne Chase and grew up within Druid-spotting distance from Stonehenge after which he became a newspaper reporter and briefly edited Wiltshire Life magazine. He has walked Martin Down many times and hitch-hiked around Patagonia and the pampas in his younger days.

The Martin Village Archive website has a great selection of photographs and more information – visit it here: W.H.Hudson – Martin Village Archive