Here is Elizabeth Barrett, writing to her fellow poet Robert Browning – the man who would become her husband. He lived at New Cross in South London, then – in 1846 – being developed for housing and industry complete with railways into London itself. Browning lived at the bottom of Telegraph Hill, sufficiently high to have held a signalling tower to semaphore military messages between Whitehall and the naval yards.
“So you really have hills at New Cross, and not hills by courtesy? I was at Hampstead once—and there was something attractive to me in that fragment of heath with its wild smell, thrown down … like a Sicilian rose from Proserpine’s lap when the car drove away, … into all that arid civilization, laurel-clumps and invisible visible fences,’ as you say!—and the grand, eternal smoke rising up in the distance, with its witness against nature! People grew severely in jest about cockney landscape—but is it not true that the trees and grass in the close neighbourhood of great cities must of necessity excite deeper emotion than the woods and valleys will, a hundred miles off?”
This bridge leads to one of Manchester’s green spaces, Fletcher Moss Park. In the Brownings’ time the River Mersey there was all but dead, since it was used as a waste disposal system by mills and factories. The upper photograph shows how the cemetery at Mile End has become a precious haven of nature. Even in Canterbury, the river flowing under the Franciscan chapel in this was once an open sewer. Much has changed for the better, there are trout there now, but the smoke Elizabeth Barrett marvelled at has been replaced by a less visible cloud of pollution from vehicles. A witness against Nature indeed!
This is the first of an occasional series of reflections based on the letters between the Brownings.