The Ordnance Survey app on my phone tells me where I am, but I’m finding the question of when I am trickier. In travelling 250 miles south to a south-western suburb of London, I’ve hopped almost two weeks forward in the schedule of blossom, bulb and birdsong, and 170 years back in the company I’m keeping. The first morning, I heard my first song thrush, mistle thrush and blackbirds of the year, saw blackthorn, primrose and alkanet in flower. But at Worcester Park there’s no sign now of the farm where members of the young pre-Raphaelite brotherhood spend an idyllic summer in 1851, capturing rural settings en plein air with tiny brushes and obsessive attention to nature’s detail – rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.
Back then, the route I’m walking now – part unadopted road, part footpath – was an avenue of elms that led downhill to Malden. The trees are gone. The farmhouse is gone, the ivy-covered door William Holman Hunt used as a setting for The Light of the World and the wall where John Everett Millais set A Huguenot have also gone.
Having read of these locations in their lively diaries, I’m almost as disorientated by the urbanisation that has have engulfed their idyll as they might be. At the crest of the hill, though, there’s a swatch of open amenity land with a view just expansive enough to let me imagine the rolling Surrey landscape this used to be. The wind remembers – it romps around this precious acre like a rambunctious puppy.
Near the bottom of the hill, close to the spot on the Hogsmill river where Millais painted the background for his drowning Ophelia, is a brick and flint church both artists would recognise. I pause under a huge holm oak by the lychgate that looks easily old enough to span the intervening decades. Straggly catkins in luminous yellow shimmying at the tips of the branches acknowledge spring, but the canopy of evergreen leaves evokes high summer. Courtesy of a break in the clouds, I’m granted a sudden sun-dappled moment of light and warmth that is both February 2020 and July 1851.