Afoot in England

Afoot in England

AFOOT IN ENGLAND W.H. HUDSON Contents I. Guide Books: An Introduction II. On Going Back III. Walking and Cycling IV. Seeking a Shelter V. Wind Wave and Spirit VI. By Swallowfield VII. Roman Calleva VIII. A Cold Day at Silchester IX. Rural Rides X. The Last of his Name XI. Salisbury and its Doves XII. Whitesheet Hill XIII. Bath and Wells Revisited XIV. The Return of the Native XV. Summer Days on the Otter XVI. In Praise of the Cow XVII. An Old Road Leading Nowhere XVIII. Branscombe XIX. A Abbotsbury XX. Salisbury Revisited XXI. Stonehenge XXII. The Tillage and "The Stones" XXIII. Following a River XXIV. Troston XXV. My Friend Jack Chapter One: Guide-Books: An Introduction Guide-books are so many that it seems probable we have more than any other country--possibly more than all the rest of the universe together. Every county has a little library of its own--guides to its towns churches abbeys castles rivers mountains; finally to the county as a whole. They are of all prices and all sizes from the diminutive paper-covered booklet worth a penny to the stout cloth-bound octavo volume which costs eight or ten or twelve shillings or to the gigantic folio county history the huge repository from which the guide-book maker gets his materials. For these great works are also guide-books containing everything we want to learn only made on so huge a scale as to be suited to the coat pockets of Brobdingnagians rather than of little ordinary men. The wonder of it all comes in when we find that these books however old and comparatively worthless they may be are practically never wholly out of date. When a new work is brought out (dozens appear annually) and say five thousand copies sold it does not throw as many or indeed any copies of the old book out of circulation: it supersedes nothing. If any man can indulge in the luxury of a new up-to-date guide to any place and gets rid of his old one (a rare thing to do) this will be snapped up by poorer men who will treasure it and hand it down or on to others. Editions of 1860-50-40 and older are still prized not merely as keepsakes but for study or reference. Any one can prove this by going the round of a dozen second-hand booksellers in his own district in London. There will be tons of literary rubbish and good stuff old and new but few guidebooks--in some cases not one. If you ask your man at a venture for say a guide to Hampshire he will most probably tell you that he has not one in stock; then in his anxiety to do business he will perhaps fish out a guide to Derbyshire dated 1854--a shabby old book--and offer it for four or five shillings the price of a Crabbe in eight volumes or of Gibbon's Decline and Fall in six volumes bound in calf. Talk to this man and to the other eleven and they will tell you that there is always a sale for guide-books --that the supply does not keep pace with the demand. It may be taken as a fact that most of the books of this kind published during the last half-century--many millions of copies in the aggregate--are still in existence and are valued possessions. There is nothing to quarrel with in all this. As a people we run about a great deal; and having curious minds we naturally wish to know all there is to be known or all that is interesting to know about the places we visit. Then again our time as a rule being limited we want the whole matter --history antiquities places of interest in the neighbourhood etc. in a nutshell. The brief book serves its purpose well enough; but it is not thrown away like the newspaper and the magazines; however cheap and badly got up it may be it is taken home to serve another purpose to be a help to memory and nobody can have it until its owner removes himself (but not his possessions) from this planet; or until the broker seizes his belongings and guide-books together with other books are disposed of in packages by the auctioneer. In all this we see that guide-books are very important to us and that there is little or no fault to be found with them since even the worst give some guidance and enable us in after times mentally to revisit distant places. It may then be said that there are really no bad guide-books and that those that are good in the highest sense are beyond praise. A reverential sentiment which is almost religious in character connects itself in our minds with the very name of Murray. It is however possible to make an injudicious use of these books and by so doing to miss the fine point of many a pleasure. The very fact that these books are guides to us and invaluable and that we readily acquire the habit of taking them about with us and consulting them at frequent intervals comes between us and that rarest and most exquisite enjoyment to be experienced amidst novel scenes. He that visits a place new to him for some special object rightly informs himself of all that the book can tell him. The knowledge may be useful; pleasure is with him a secondary object. But if pleasure be the main object it will only be experienced in the highest degree by him who goes without book and discovers what old Fuller called the "observables" for himself. There will be no mental pictures previously formed; consequently what is found will not disappoint. When the mind has been permitted to dwell beforehand on any scene then however beautiful or grand it may be the element of surprise is wanting and admiration is weak. The delight has been discounted. My own plan which may be recommended only to those who go out for pleasure--who value happiness above useless (otherwise useful) knowledge and the pictures that live and glow in memory above albums and collections of photographs--is not to look at a guide-book until the place it treats of has been explored and left behind. The practical person to whom this may come as a new idea and who wishes not to waste any time in experiments would doubtless like to hear how the plan works. He will say that he certainly wants all the happiness to be got out of his rambles but it is clear that without the book in his pocket he would miss many interesting things: Would the greater degree of pleasure experienced in the others be a sufficient compensation? I should say that he would gain more than he would lose; that vivid interest and pleasure in a few things is preferable to that fainter more diffused feeling experienced in the other case. Again we have to take into account the value to us of the mental pictures gathered in our wanderings. For we know that only when a scene is viewed emotionally when it produces in us a shock of pleasure does it become a permanent possession of the mind; in other words it registers an image which when called up before the inner eye is capable of reproducing a measure of the original delight. In recalling those scenes which have given me the greatest happiness the images of which are most vivid and lasting I find that most of them are of scenes or objects which were discovered as it were by chance which I had not heard of or else had heard of and forgotten or which I had not expected to see. They came as a surprise and in the following instance one may see that it makes a vast difference whether we do or do not experience such a sensation. In the course of a ramble on foot in a remote district I came to a small ancient town set in a cuplike depression amidst high wood-grown hills. The woods were of oak in spring foliage and against that vivid green I saw the many-gabled tiled roofs and tall chimneys of the old timbered houses glowing red and warm brown in the brilliant sunshine--a scene of rare beauty and yet it produced no shock of pleasure; never in fact had I looked on a lovely scene for the first time so unemotionally. It seemed to be no new scene but an old familiar one; and that it had certain degrading associations which took away all delight. The reason of this was that a great railway company had long been "booming" this romantic spot and large photographs plain and coloured of the town and its quaint buildings had for years been staring at me in every station and every railway carriage which I had entered on that line. Photography degrades most things especially open-air things; and in this case not only had its poor presentments made the scene too familiar but something of the degradation in the advertising pictures seemed to attach itself to the very scene. Yet even here after some pleasureless days spent in vain endeavours to shake off these vulgar associations I was to experience one of the sweetest surprises and delights of my life. The church of this village-like town is one of its chief attractions; it is a very old and stately building and its perpendicular tower nearly a hundred feet high is one of the noblest in England. It has a magnificent peal of bells and on a Sunday afternoon they were ringing filling and flooding that hollow in the hills seeming to make the houses and trees and the very earth to tremble with the glorious storm of sound. Walking past the church I followed the streamlet that runs through the town and out by a cleft between the hills to a narrow marshy valley on the other side of which are precipitous hills clothed from base to summit in oak woods. As I walked through the cleft the musical roar of the bells followed and was like a mighty current flowing through and over me; but as I came out the sound from behind ceased suddenly and was now in front coming back from the hills before me. A sound but not the same--not a mere echo; and yet an echo it was the most wonderful I had ever heard. For now that great tempest of musical noise composed of a multitude of clanging notes with long vibrations overlapping and mingling and clashing together seemed at the same time one and many--that tempest from the tower which had mysteriously ceased to be audible came back in strokes or notes distinct and separate and multiplied many times. The sound the echo was distributed over the whole face of the steep hill before me and was changed in character and it was as if every one of those thousands of oak trees had a peal of bells in it and that they were raining that far-up bright spiritual tree music down into the valley below. As I stood listening it seemed to me that I had never heard anything so beautiful nor had any man--not the monk of Eynsham in that vision when he heard the Easter bells on the holy Saturday evening and described the sound as "a ringing of a marvellous sweetness as if all the bells in the world or whatsoever is of sounding had been rung together at once." Here then I had found and had become the possessor of something priceless since in that moment of surprise and delight the mysterious beautiful sound with the whole scene had registered an impression which would outlast all others received at that place where I had viewed all things with but languid interest. Had it not come as a complete surprise the emotion experienced and the resultant mental image would not have been so vivid; as it is I can mentally stand in that valley when I will seeing that green-wooded hill in front of me and listen to that unearthly music. Naturally after quitting the spot I looked at the first opportunity into a guide-book of the district only to find that it contained not one word about those wonderful illusive sounds! The book-makers had not done their work well since it is a pleasure after having discovered something delightful for ourselves to know how others have been affected by it and how they describe it. Of many other incidents of the kind I will in this chapter relate one more which has a historical or legendary interest. I was staying with the companion of my walks at a village in Southern England in a district new to us. We arrived on a Saturday and next morning after breakfast went out for a long walk. Turning into the first path across the fields on leaving the village we came eventually to an oak wood which was like an open forest very wild and solitary. In half an hour's walk among the old oaks and underwood we saw no sign of human occupancy and heard nothing but the woodland birds. We heard and then saw the cuckoo for the first time that season though it was but April the fourth. But the cuckoo was early that spring and had been heard by some from the middle of March. At length about half-past ten o'clock we caught sight of a number of people walking in a kind of straggling procession by a path which crossed ours at right angles headed by a stout old man in a black smock frock and brown leggings who carried a big book in one hand. One of the processionists we spoke to told us they came from a hamlet a mile away on the borders of the wood and were on their way to church. We elected to follow them thinking that the church was at some neighbouring village; to our surprise we found it was in the wood with no other building in sight --a small ancient-looking church built on a raised mound surrounded by a wide shallow grass-grown trench on the border of a marshy stream. The people went in and took their seats while we remained standing just by the door. Then the priest came from the vestry and seizing the rope vigorously pulled at it for five minutes after which he showed us where to sit and the service began. It was very pleasant there with the door open to the sunlit forest and the little green churchyard without with a willow wren the first I had heard singing his delicate little strain at intervals. The service over we rambled an hour longer in the wood then returned to our village which had a church of its own and our landlady hearing where we had been told us the story or tradition of the little church in the wood. Its origin goes very far back to early Norman times when all the land in this part was owned by one of William's followers on whom it had been bestowed. He built himself a house or castle on the edge of the forest where he lived with his wife and two little daughters who were his chief delight. It happened that one day when he was absent the two little girls with their female attendant went into the wood in search of flowers and that meeting a wild boar they turned and fled screaming for help. The savage beast pursued and quickly overtaking them attacked the hindermost the youngest of the two little girls anal killed her the others escaping in the meantime. On the following day the father returned and was mad with grief and rage on hearing of the tragedy and in his madness resolved to go alone on foot to the forest and search for the beast and taste no food or drink until he had slain it. Accordingly to the forest he went and roamed through it by day and night and towards the end of the following day he actually found and roused the dreadful animal and although weakened by his long fast and fatigue his fury gave him force to fight and conquer it or else the powers above came to his aid; for when he stood spear in hand to wait the charge of the furious beast he vowed that if he overcame it on that spot he would build a chapel where God would be worshipped for ever. And there it was raised and has stood to this day its doors open every Sunday to worshippers with but one break some time in the sixteenth century to the third year of Elizabeth since when there has been no suspension of the weekly service. That the tradition is not true no one can say. We know that the memory of an action or tragedy of a character to stir the feelings and impress the imagination may live unrecorded in any locality for long centuries. And more we know or suppose from at least one quite familiar instance from Flintshire that a tradition may even take us back to prehistoric times and find corroboration in our own day. But of this story what corroboration is there and what do the books say? I have consulted the county history and no mention is made of such a tradition and can only assume that the author had never heard it--that he had not the curious Aubrey mind. He only says that it is a very early church --how early he does not know--and adds that it was built "for the convenience of the inhabitants of the place." An odd statement seeing that the place has every appearance of having always been what it is a forest and that the inhabitants thereof are weasels foxes jays and such-like and doubtless in former days included wolves boars roe-deer and stags beings which as Walt Whitman truly remarks do not worry themselves about their souls. With this question however we need not concern ourselves. To me after stumbling by chance on the little church in that solitary woodland place the story of its origin was accepted as true; no doubt it had come down unaltered from generation to generation through all those centuries and it moved my pity yet was a delight to hear as great perhaps as it had been to listen to the beautiful chimes many times multiplied from the wooded hill. And if I have a purpose in this book which is without a purpose a message to deliver and a lesson to teach it is only this--the charm of the unknown and the infinitely greater pleasure in discovering the interesting things for ourselves than in informing ourselves of them by reading. It is like the difference in flavour in wild fruits and all wild meats found and gathered by our own hands in wild places and that of the same prepared and put on the table for us. The ever-varying aspects of nature of earth and sea and cloud are a perpetual joy to the artist who waits and watches for their appearance who knows that sun and atmosphere have for him revelations without end. They come and go and mock his best efforts; he knows that his striving is in vain--that his weak hands and earthy pigments cannot reproduce these effects or express his feeling--that as Leighton said "every picture is a subject thrown away." But he has his joy none the less; it is in the pursuit and in the dream of capturing something illusive mysterious and inexpressibly beautiful. Chapter Two: On Going Back In looking over the preceding chapter it occurred to me that I had omitted something or rather that it would have been well to drop a word of warning to those who have the desire to revisit a place where they have experienced a delightful surprise. Alas! they cannot have that sensation a second time and on this account alone the mental image must always be better than its reality. Let the image--the first sharp impression--content us. Many a beautiful picture is spoilt by the artist who cannot be satisfied that he has made the best of his subject and retouching his canvas to bring out some subtle charm which made the work a success loses it altogether. So in going back the result of the inevitable disillusionment is that the early mental picture loses something of its original freshness. The very fact that the delightful place or scene was discovered by us made it the shining place it is in memory. And again the charm we found in it may have been in a measure due to the mood we were in or to the peculiar aspect in which it came before us at the first due to the season to atmospheric and sunlight effects to some human interest or to a conjunction of several favourable circumstances; we know we can never see it again in that aspect and with that precise feeling. On this account I am shy of revisiting the places where I have experienced the keenest delight. For example I have no desire to revisit that small ancient town among the hills described in the last chapter; to go on a Sunday evening through that narrow gorge filled with the musical roar of the church bells; to leave that great sound behind and stand again listening to the marvellous echo from the wooded hill on the other side of the valley. Nor would I care to go again in search of that small ancient lost church in the forest. It would not be early April with the clear sunbeams shining through the old leafless oaks on the floor of fallen yellow leaves with the cuckoo fluting before his time; nor would that straggling procession of villagers appear headed by an old man in a smock frock with a big book in his hand; nor would I hear for the first time the strange history of the church which so enchanted me. I will here give an account of yet another of the many well-remembered delightful spots which I would not revisit nor even look upon again if I could avoid doing so by going several miles out of my way. It was green open country in the west of England--very far west although on the east side of the Tamar--in a beautiful spot remote from railroads and large towns and the road by which I was travelling (on this occasion on a bicycle) ran or serpentined along the foot of a range of low round hills on my right hand while on my left I had a green valley with other low round green hills beyond it. The valley had a marshy stream with sedgy margins and occasional clumps of alder and willow trees. It was the end of a hot midsummer day; the sun went down a vast globe of crimson fire in a crystal clear sky; and as I was going east I was obliged to dismount and stand still to watch its setting. When the great red disc had gone down behind the green world I resumed my way but went slowly then slower still the better to enjoy the delicious coolness which came from the moist valley and the beauty of the evening in that solitary place which I had never looked on before. Nor was there any need to hurry; I had but three or four miles to go to the small old town where I intended passing the night. By and by the winding road led me down close to the stream at a point where it broadened to a large still pool. This was the ford and on the other side was a small rustic village consisting of a church two or three farm-houses with their barns and outbuildings and a few ancient-looking stone cottages with thatched roofs. But the church was the main thing; it was a noble building with a very fine tower and from its size and beauty I concluded that it was an ancient church dating back to the time when there was a passion in the West Country and in many parts of England of building these great fanes even in the remotest and most thinly populated parishes. In this I was mistaken through having seen it at a distance from the other side of the ford after the sun had set. Never I thought had I seen a lovelier village with its old picturesque cottages shaded by ancient oaks and elms and the great church with its stately tower looking dark against the luminous western sky. Dismounting again I stood for some time admiring the scene wishing that I could make that village my home for the rest of my life conscious at the same time that is was the mood the season the magical hour which made it seem so enchanting. Presently a young man the first human figure that presented itself to my sight appeared mounted on a big carthorse and leading a second horse by a halter and rode down into the pool to bathe the animals' legs and give them a drink. He was a sturdy-looking young fellow with a sun-browned face in earth-coloured working clothes with a small cap stuck on the back of his round curly head; he probably imagined himself not a bad-looking young man for while his horses were drinking he laid over on the broad bare ...