Often when I set out for a walk from Spitalfields, my footsteps lead me to the crossroads outside the Bank of England , at the place where Richard Jefferies – a writer whose work has been an enduring inspiration – once stood. Like me, Jefferies also came to the city from the countryside and his response to London was one of awe and fascination.
Whenever I feel lost in the metropolis, Richard Jefferies’ writing is always a consolation, granting a liberating perspective upon the all-compassing turmoil of urban life and, in spite of the changes in the city, his observations resonate as powerfully today as they did when he wrote them.
This excerpt from The Story of My Heart (1883), the autobiography of his inner life, describes the sight that met Richard Jefferies’ eyes when he stood upon that spot at the crossroads in the City of LondonTo read that extract, you will have to go to Spitalfields Life.
This seems a good place to point out that Jefferies was a more urban figure than his admirers have generally painted him.
He was born at Coate Farm in Wiltshire, but spent time as a boy with relations at Sydenham near London. This was the period when the Crystal Palace was re-erected there (it had stood in Hyde Park during the Great Exhibition), which must have made it a busy and rather fashionable place.
Then, as a teenager, he became a reporter on a Swindon newspaper. By this time it was a railway town and Jefferies would drink with the GWR's great locomotive engineer Daniel Gooch.
And then, as a young writer, he moved to Surbiton to be nearer the editors who might buy his work.
This urban background does not chime with the idea of Jefferies as the quintessential rural mystic, so it tends to be played down.