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 

25 thoughts on “Cows With Influence

  1. Seeing the water preferably the sea would be my dream, maybe because much of my life I have lived close to the sound and smell of the waves. As a child our whole house vibrated and shook when the large ships left Lyttelton. At certain directions the shock waves seemed directed at us. Our house was probably less than 100 m from the water as rohan will remember. We now see the river only; the bonus is the beautiful mountains that I never stop loving. In fact more often than not I take a photo from our bedroom as I love this ever-changing view.

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    1. Dear Heather,
      Thank you for your comment. It is interesting how views, or vistas, are so important. I often wonder whether the view one has as a child influences ones attitudes. Are the intellectual standpoints different in a child growing up facing the brick wall of a house built far too close compared to child who opened the window to see a magnificent rocky escarpment far in the distance. I have asked this question but have never had an answer. Love, Joe

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      1. I agree what you grow up with sets you for most of your life. I believe I am a pretty visual person so what I see is important. It is also how I learn. Conversely I am not good a remembering sounds. Eg a foreign language

        I do remember conversations obviously using another part of my brain.

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  2. I too would dearly love to live beside the sea!
    I really enjoyed your blog Joe because to me light and a view is so important. During this lockdown we too have been walking and walking and often see your cows on our way to Ham House from Richmond along the river. We love to see them.
    Recently we were walking in Kew Gardens, which during lockdown blossomed,
    and came across a muntjac deer. No one knows where he came from! We think he may
    have come across the Thames at low water from Syon Park.
    Hope we meet again sometime!
    Caroline J

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    1. Dear Caroline, Thank you for your comment. If I was walking along that stretch of the Thames I think I might be more tempted to look at the River than at the meadow. That sweep of the river is so beautiful. Love, Joe

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    2. Dear Caroline, Thank you for your comments. I think that if I were walking along that particular part of the Thames I would prefer to look at the river than at the meadow. Its sweep is so seductive. Love, Joe

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  3. Another enjoyable (and informative, didn’t know about that 1902 Act) blog Joe, thank you for sharing your vision of Arcadia with us. I love the cows as its essential component, but speaking as a hopeless country bumpkin and inhabitant of an actual Arcadia, I am wondering whether you might consider tweaking your breed of cow in the light of both history and aesthetics? Historically the black and white Friesians have no part in our landscape, being a modern introduction to maximise milk production – whereas the cattle of the Richmond peasantry were mixed-use animals, good for milk and meat. Likewise their colours were mixed, as you will see from the beasts painted by the artists you mention, Turner and Reynolds… brownish and whitish, blackish, greyish and beige-ish… still surviving in the rare ‘dairy shorthorn’, which, as a painter, is my own preferred breed for enhancing the subtlety of the English landscape. Our oldest breeds are very often brindled, an ancient colouration you see today in greyhounds, bull terriers and the prehistoric longhorn cattle, and celebrated by Gerard Manly Hopkins in his poem about dappled things. May I also commend to your attention the Gloucester cow (the originator of Double Gloucester cheese) which is so rare that there is even a stuffed example in Gloucester Museum. But there is a herd of them, chocolate with white tails, roaming wild in the New Forest, and it’s strangely thrilling to glimpse them, native animals on their native heath, like seeing antelope in Africa…
    However I know none of this will weigh with you, Joe, with your predilection for things being strictly black and white haha….

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  4. Dear Merrily, Thank you for your comment. I feel humbled. As you suggest, my knowledgable of cows probably comes more from the nursery than from the countryside. However, through you I have had an enlightening lesson. I will be checking out the references you make, particularly the notion of cows being brindled. Learning never stops. Love, Joe

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  5. Moooo to you Joe… I enjoyed reading your blog and I wondered if your dream home could overlook the sea one way and out to a meadow of grazing cows, maybe not possible but that what dreams are made of!

    Our local aquadrome has re-introduced Dexter cows a few years ago, they are a stunning rich brown colour and very friendly. They seemed to ‘disappear’ for a few months but yesterday they were back… we were very cow like, as we couldn’t contain our excitement to see them again and greeted them with lots of hellos and chatter about how good it was to see them looking so well and happy.

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    1. Dear Carolyn
      Thank you for your letter. How very observant of you. I think would have greeted your now returned herd of Dexter cows like you. Aren’t we humans odd. Love, Joe

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  6. Enjoyed your blog, Joe. I walked along the tow path this morning and the cows were just by the gate – looking very content.
    I hope your journey over to France went well and you are both settled in your ‘different’ life.
    Missing you both in the avenue.
    Kaye

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    1. Hello
      I enjoyed reading this- in Beverely near where I live the cows are allowed to roam freely on the Westwood pastures, and have apparently done so for 100s of years. There’s now a road, a golf course and Beverely racecourse there. It’s not uncommon to drive through the Westwood and have to stop to allow the cows to cross the road as they have a free reign there. Apparently the farmers pay a rent to graze their animals there from April to November. They generally seem to be brown- I’m not sure what breed but I’ll think about ‘ your cows’ next time in there!!

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  7. Dear Joe,

    What a beautiful blog! I loved your description of cows grazing on the meadow. I too love landscapes, but here our landscapes are mostly gum trees of various wonderful shapes with leaves colored a delicate silvery green. No cows in Sydney but my friend Darani reported yesterday that she had seen a wallaby in her garden.

    Love

    Robin

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    1. Dear Robin, Thank you for your comment. In Sydney you may not have landscapes with cows but the views over the harbour and those ever-moving ferry boats are very special. Love, Joe

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  8. I’m so glad you wrote this Joe. You told me the story of the Act when we passed on our walk up to the Park last time I was there, and I had tried to recall the story to Marc but got it all muddled up. We have a small block of land about two hours south of Sydney overlooking riverland, and what we’ve realised is if you’re looking for the rural idyll, you don’t need to own sheep or cattle if your neighbour does. All the enjoyment, none of the responsibility.

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  9. Dear Rohan P, Many thanks for your kind comment. I am glad that you can now explain Richmond law to Marc! Yes, you are right, one can see these landscapes as borrowed pleasures. We can also borrow, or might it be better to say ‘share’, across generations. I refer to beautiful buildings or landscapes created by our forebears. Love to you both, Joe

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  10. The view of the river and meadows, from Richmond Terrace was also painted by Oskar Kokoschka in 1926. No cows or bullocks visible, I’m afraid, though there is a horse with rider in the foreground.
    Stephen

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    1. Dear Stephen, thank you for your comment. You say ‘no cows or bullocks visible’. However, since Kokoschka only paints a tiny part of the Meadow, his picture is hardly representative of the goings on in the Meadow as a whole – it could be teeming with animals. Yours, Love, Joe

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  11. Dear Joe
    I enjoyed your blog. I was particularly interested in the word Lammas, because I had come across this before as a Street name (Lammas Street) in Carmarthen. I don’t know the reason for the street’s name, but it is conceivable that it is linked to grazing, because livestock farming is the main activity in Carmathenshire. (There is also an ecovillage in Pembrokeshire called Lammas).
    Thank you for entertaining and educating!
    love
    Andrea

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    1. Dear Andrea, Thank you for your comment. Lammas is complicated. It originally related to grazing only because from Lammas Day (August 1) people were allowed to graze their cows on certain fields. Loaf Mass day, as it was once, is the day when people celebrated making the first bread of the year with new, as opposed to stored, flour. Well this is how I see it. Love, Joe

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