As the River Thames leaves London it passes near our house and, with a magnificent sweep, it then heads west for Oxford and and its source beyond. The bend is best seen from the top of Richmond Hill, a vista that has beguiled locals for hundreds of years and when, at the turn of the twentieth century, it was threatened by developers, a law was passed to protect it in perpetuity. Thanks to the ‘Richmond, Petersham and Ham Open Spaces Act’ of 1902, the view remains a delight; no buildings, no roads, just trees, fields and the Thames with its occasional boat. And there is another feature – in the centre of the landscape is Petersham Meadow which is the subject of this blog.
Since my mid-forties I have been ‘designing’ a dream house in which, one day, I would retire. No matter the design of the interior, one constant feature has been the view when looking out. The house would sit near the top of a gentle hill with its garden facing down a valley with meadows dotted with grazing cows. As in a children’s book, the cows would be black and white Friesians.
Twice now we have got close to the dream. In one of our early houses we could see cows when they entered the milking parlour. However, as we were surrounded by trees and sat at the bottom of a valley seeing gentle grazing was impossible. In our house in France we do look down onto fields but these are used for crops rather than cattle. In London we do not have a view from our house but the next best thing; after a ten-minute walk I can look down on Petersham Meadow which, in the summer, is home to a herd of cows – perfection! And there is more; not only is seeing these cows a delight, their presence has legal bearing at least in local mythology.
The 1902 Act makes several references to a need to meet conditions relating to ‘lammas’ and ‘lammas rights’, terms used to describe ‘grazing’. So while the act concentrated on preserving the view from Richmond Hill, out of its wording arose a belief amongst the locals that as long as cows graze in the Meadow, preservation of the vista, and so of the Meadow – would be safe from threat. Those cows have leverage.
Setting aside the Act and its protected vista, when walking through the Meadow with its grazing cows it is easy to believe that one is in the countryside rather than in our London suburb and, on our walks during the recent viral lockdown, this was a pleasure we enjoyed three or four times each week.
The Meadow is now managed by the National Trust which maintains the grazing tradition by renting cows for the summer. Sadly, although the cows are black and white (see illustration), rather than being my dream Friesians they are the rather inelegant, long haired Saddle-back Galloways. Moreover, they are bullocks and without a twice-daily milking and the inevitable wash-down, their coats are covered with splotches of mud or worse. Nevertheless, their presence is enough for me and, for the sake of my dream, I see them as cows.
And observing them has been fun. Endless munching is their business but why on some days the herd munch near the river edge and on others under the trees opposite or on a little hillock, is a mystery. They have also blown a childhood myth which tells how when it is about to rain cows lay down and face the direction of the oncoming weather. Both assertions are untrue, at least for this herd; sometimes the cows lie down when there is no prospect of rain and when lying down they, as individuals, are orientated every which way.
We have also learned that they have feelings. When they arrived in May we counted eighteen. A week later it was down to seventeen – the missing cow had not been the victim of rustling but removed because it felt ‘under the weather’. Soon there were sixteen, the second had developed an eye infection. There was nothing to show that the remaining cows missed their mates but when the first one returned and was unloaded from a trailer all hell broke loose. The normally lugubrious beasts ran across the field to greet it. Clearly, the return of a friend was worth celebrating!
While wandering close to the cows on the Meadow is fun, seeing them grazing from up on the hill gives me the greater pleasure. Interestingly, my wife’s dream house would look out at the sea; the continual movement of the waves delights her. For me it is the movement of the cattle. And cows were also important to Sir Joshua Reynolds and J.M.W. Turner, local artists who, years ago, included cows in their paintings of this very vista. These are cows with influence.
The illustration shows a photo of two of the herd of Belted Galloways currently resident in Petersham Meadow in Richmond.
For help with this blog I would like to thank Jennie, Richard, John, Rohan and Vivien