England – The Cotswolds

I FIRST heard of the Cotswolds through my friend Norman Gale, a perfunctory school-geography acquaintance with them, of course, not counting. He has talked to me of Long Compton as Adam might have talked of Paradise. And it was of him and his poetry I thought as I prepared to enter the Cotswolds by the Cirencester gate.

When time is weary of my company,” I found myself saying, —

” Here let me rest. If I should end within four walls With bricks around, Buy me no smoky patch of city ground, But bring me to these acres of repose Whose natural consecration is most sure, That I may sleep beneath a country rose And where the dew is pure; For in this valley God appeared to me, And where my soul is, let my body be. What time the Father walked His earth He trod, I know, these Cotswold slopes; With silence and with sound He clothed each mound ; The shadow of His robe goes over them, The bounties of His wisdom cover them And who so cometh here To tread this sod — He sees the neighbour neighbourly, And learning all Long Compton’s loveliness The better learns his God.”

But, all the same, I will frankly confess that at first the Cotswolds disappointed me. Indeed, I am of opinion that to begin at Cirencester is to begin at the wrong end, though had I begun at Evesham as originally intended I should perhaps have encountered disappointment by having all the good things of the Cotswolds more or less at the beginning, with comparatively little left for the conclusion of my journey. For the rise of the land from Cirencester, uninteresting stretches of rather dreary fields, is so gradual that it is quite a long while before one realises that we are on the hills at all. Not till one comes to the steep, and genuinely “dangerous” drop of the road down to ” Foss Bridge ” (on the great Roman Foss Way) does one begin to feel that the Cotswolds are really hills, after all. The corresponding climb on the other side still further convinces one.

Instead, however, of climbing that then and there, we may take it later on (for no such hill can really be escaped) by turning sharp to the left at Foss Bridge, and visiting the Roman villa at Chedworth ; a relic genuinely stirring to the imagination, and highly in request for bucolic picnic parties. I found one of these in possession at a long trestle-table under the trees. It was a hot afternoon, and the sight of them suggested the goodness of tea. This picnic party had been supplied, I should explain, by the keepers of the villa, who live in a house built among the ruins by the present lord of the manor. To my astonishment, however, I found that there was no tea for me, or any casual visitor. My tea was four or five miles off, no nearer than Northleach.

” You should have let us know before-hand. We cannot undertake to supply tea without notice.”

I naturally asked how many weeks’ notice they required for a cup of tea, but the remark did not help me, and I found a delightful old Congregational minister with a young ministerial disciple of his, in a like case. We commiserated with each other on the foolish injustice of the circumstance. We were the only people in the place who had the smallest interest in its significance. The no doubt excellent country-folk feasting in the cool shade would have been just as happy in any tea-garden, with its booths and swinging-boats. What recked they of the beautiful old tesselated floor as bright and as level as when laid down ? They were sped with tea-pots, and huge slices of cake. It was only we who really cared about the place that were denied refreshment, and denied it with some insolence. Yet we had to pay a fee to an attendant. Lord Eldon may perhaps be interested to hear of the matter. Perhaps this is his servants’ idea of Ancient Roman hospitality.

With Northleach, lying in “a wrinkle” of the still dreary hills, one first en-counters a typical Cotswold village, grim and even forbidding with sad stone. Four roads cross each other by a fortress like old prison. To the right is North-leach, with a fine old church tower. There is little more to be said of it, and, to pursue my plan of making a sort of zig-zag route through the Cotswolds, I had to return to the cross roads and leave the prison on my right, making for Winchcombe. Then began the real Cotswolds, the great sweeps of friendly loneliness, the wide upland air, smelling of vast spaces : another of the great solitudes of England. As you move up and down roads becoming more and more mere tracks along the side of fields, a tiny human being, with not another human being in sight, only an enormous sky, and enormous treeless billows of field on field, you grow as lonely as a crow, a mere speck as lost in the surrounding infinite as your voice is when you call out, to cheer yourself up.

As you wind more and more into the hidden heart of the hills, you are surprised to find that in this England, which we all talk of as if there was a railway station every quarter-of-a-mile, you have come upon a country where there is not even the usual candid turnpike; but where the Queen’s highway has quietened down into a series of grassy bridle-ways twixt field and field, divided every few yards with gates, for which, if you are bicycling, you will do well to keep a careful eye. You begin to fear that you must be off your course. This cannot be a highway in daily use for the imperial business. Surely one is trespassing in the byeways of some nobleman’s estate, actually riding as sometimes one does through dreaming farmyards.

As for Winchcombe, you are simply precipitated into it down a narrow dark tunnel of road which not even the fool hath said in his heart that he dare ride. You can hardly imagine a real living market-town, literally so low down into the world. It gives one the impression of having been deliberately hidden in the heart of England, and I think there should be a silken cord along the devious byeways which connect it with the rest of the world, as with Rosamund’s bower. I cannot believe that it is a real town yet, or that people with such serious interests in life as bacon and butter and wool would deliberately choose to live in so beautiful a hiding-place. The railway is six miles off, but — oh, horrible !— they are thinking of running a motor car into Cheltenham, where the railway I speak of connects Winchcombe with the great world. In the old days of communication one wonders that Winchcombe ever got any news at all, though, of course, apart from the telegraph, its methods of communication with the adjacent posting towns are precisely the same as they were in the days of Monmouth’s rebellion.

Queen Elizabeth lived during much of her young womanhood at the neighbouring castle of Sudeley. Certainly, in her day, it must have been at the very back of beyond. One congratulates nature — a mere matter of difficult hills — in thus keeping civilisation at bay within three hours of London. For all its remoteness, various dead and living people have thought it worth while to make Winch-combe an exceptionally picturesque village, exceptionally rich in old houses, and fortunate in its church.

It has two good inns. I stayed at the White Hart and as evening fell—with that alien and rather silly murmur and movement of a country High Street, which comes with twilight and makes one feel so lonely — I made myself happy with some sporting pictures on the wall. This is a happiness I propose to share with the reader. I always feel that the true deco-rations for inn walls are pictures which symbolise the brutal zest of country sports. Long may it be before the Pre-Raphaelites find their way to Winch-combe. Give me instead Heenan and ‘ Sayers stripped for their great fight at Faringdon.

But the pictures I am thinking of represent nothing so dangerous. They represent the various seasons of the sportsman with charming spirit : symbolising the various forms of murder which it is proper for a country gentleman to engage in during the several months of the year. Of the long series calculated to whet any natural appetite for blood, I will describe only two.

In December it is the proper thing to murder ducks. You do it in a punt. In the picture I am thinking of two gentle-,men in top hats, blue frockcoats, duck trousers, and Wellington boots are engaged in this pleasing sport. One is kneeling in the act of discharging his piece, while the consequent dying duck squawks in mid air, and the duck evidently shot a moment before by the other gentleman, whose piece is being reloaded by a ” gillie,” is being carried to the shore by an eager dog. This picture bears for motto these spirited lines :

” Quick on the floating spoil, my spaniel, Rush and drag them to the shore.”

The other picture portrays a January scene. Its subject is snipe-shooting. Snow is on the ground in the neighbour-hood of a lonely mill. A solitary gentle-man in a green coat and top hat, attended once more by a re-loading gillie, has just shot a snipe, which is falling graphically against the sky. This picture has for its motto, —

” Today we spring the snipe, and with an eye as keen as does the bird himself.”

This is the whole poem. What the bird “does” in this grammatical construction, I won’t pretend to say ; and no such pedantic criticism interfered with my joy in the naïve ferocity of these spirited old coloured prints, the innocent gusto of killing which pervades them. Seriously, there is something quite touching in the primitive point of view of these illustrations of the life of a country gentleman fifty years ago, — the pictures are dated 1846, — and I suppose the life has only changed in the costumes of those who still live it with a seriousness unimpaired by the “modern spirit.”

There was one more visitor staying in the inn besides myself, an elderly gentle-man rather important in manner. I felt a little like trying him with Lamb’s question : Excuse me, sir, but are you anybody of importance ? ” However, he presently told me that he was.

“I daresay you will know my name,” he said (how happy I should have been to have felt so sure of his knowing mine !). I am Mr.___the naturalist.”

Now he really was a well-known man, and it was, therefore, with absolute sincerity that I said,

” Mr.__ ! Why, I have known you and your wonderful menagerie since I was a boy. It is indeed a pleasure to meet you ! One never knows ! How full of romance life is ! ”

Then it occurred to me that here was a rare opportunity for seeking knowledge.

“Now,” I said, “Mr.__, would you mind telling me the cost of a lion ? ”

A lion,” answered the great naturalist, “would cost you something like three hundred and fifty pounds.”

And a lioness ? ”

“Well, of course, females always cost less ; and a lioness, being much inferior in appearance, having none of the nobility of the male, costs hardly more than, say, a hundred and fifty pounds, or even less.”

I see,” I said. ” Then would you mind satisfying my curiosity on one more point: What would you ask me for a nightjar ? ”

“A nightjar? Well, the bird is not often asked for, but I think I could sell you an excellent nightjar for — seven-and-six !”

(Bird of the broken-heart — do you hear that ! )

Then we talked of giraffes till bed-time, and that night I dreamed that the “Académie Française had elected me as one of its immortals, and signalised the occasion by presenting me with a nightjar stuffed with gold !

Having lowered myself down into Winchcombe, my next morning’s work was to pull myself out of it, in the direction of Stow-on-the-Wold, again due east, with a touch of south. Having the night before crossed the Cotswolds from east to west, I was now a little further north to cross them from west to east, then to tack due north to Moreton-in- the-Marsh and finally northwest to Campden and Broadway and Evesham. Thus I thought, in a necessarily hasty survey, to take in most of the Cotswolds, and certainly my route proved excellently chosen for including the greatest number of hills. Then too I had chosen these various destinations for no better reason else than their beautiful names. That is as good manner of choice as any in the Cotswolds, where one old village has much the same general characteristics as another old village. The word ” wold ” has always stirred my imagination since I first met it at school in mad ravings :

” Saint Withold footed thrice the wold, He met the nightmare and her nine fold, Bid her alight and her troth plight, And aroint thee, witch ! aroint thee ! ”

And’ what a word is ” aroint.” It is a word, as a witty music-hall per-former recently said, that ought to be stuffed.

Stow-in-the-Wold is almost as high up in the world as Winchcombe is low down, a fine stone village up against the sky on a windy plateau of the hills. As for its history, I believe my visit there was as important as anything else that has befallen it. Still, it evidently considers itself something of a ‘metropolis, for the innkeeper, at whose hands I enjoyed an excellent lunch and a long read in Kelly’s Directory, remarked, on hearing that I had come from Winchcombe : “That is an out-of-the-world place if you like ! ” Strange that such difference should be etc. !

Yet, in a sense Stow-in-the-Wold has come very near to the sound of mighty ” drums and tramplings,” for scarcely more than a mile away, Warren Hastings lies in, I imagine, a little visited green corner of earth called Daylesford. Daylesford church is very tiny and quite trim and new, having been rebuilt as late as 1860. Almost as soon as you catch sight of it from the road, you see too a great urn standing over a tomb beneath the east window. Something tells you that that is the tomb you seek, and, when you reach it, you find engraven upon it the words

Warren Hastings,” simply as they are engraved across the Indian empire, though perhaps hardly so everlastingly. As one turned and looked round at the peaceful green hills on every side, it seemed strange to think what thundering avenues of fame converged at this point of quiet grass.

The original Daylesford church was as old as King Ethelwald (716-757). Warren Hastings, growing pious in his old age, as many men of blood have done, rebuilt it. A later lord of the manor, finding it too small, had it taken down, and again rebuilt in 1860. So that, really, Warren Hastings’ urn is older than the present church near which it stands. On a tablet within the church one reads with mingled feelings, not untinged with irony, this inscription:

In a Vault Just beneath the Eastern Extremity of this Church Lies the body of the Right Honourable WARREN HASTINGS, of Daylesford House in this Parish The First Governor General of the British Territories in India A Member of his Majesty’s most Honble Privy Council, L. L. D., and F. R. S. The Last Public Effort of Whose Eminently Virtuous, And Lengthened Life ; Was the Re-Erection of this Sacred Edifice, Which he Superintended With Singular Energy and Interest To its completion ; And in which alas ! The Holy Rites of Sepulture were very shortly afterwards performed over his mortal remains. He died on the 22 of August, 1818, aged 85 years and 8 months.

Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.

How as one reads this inscription one can see the great old man, probably a little doating, endeavouring to make his peace with heaven for —the Rohillas !

My next beautiful name was Moretonin-the-Marsh, another typical Cotswold village, more big and prosperous looking perhaps than others. There, I under-stood, by application at the hospital, one might sit in the chair used by Charles I at his trial. Not for me to flout that most majestic, stupid, and ill-starred shade.

A little to the east lies Norman Gale’s Long Compton, but I was growing impatient for letters at Evesham, so I left it for another year, consoling myself that, probably, I already possessed the essence of it in the lines I have already quoted, and that, like every beautiful country-place under heaven, its main charm was doubt-less composed of green grass and blue sky and an inn. The many combinations in which I had already found these made me conclude that I already knew Long Compton too.

My next halt was Chipping-Campden, a more than usually romantic looking village, preserving at its upper end some beautiful ruins with a still more beautiful story ; the ruins of an old Cavalier’s house deliberately burnt by its owner to save it from the Roundheads. It must have been an unusually noble house, for its remains have still great beauty. What treasures of human skill and human feeling were swallowed up in that madness of a king.

I suppose that, spectacularly, the finest prospect in the Cotswolds is that which you get from the heights which suddenly drop you down into Broadway. My personal preference is for less conventional arrangements of earth and sky, but there is no doubt that the view is very fine. Broadway too is the very pattern of the old English village ,one sees on the stage, and so to me lost something of its reality. Still you must go a long way before you come upon a more romantic old inn than the Lygon Arms. Five more miles of splendid road, and I was once more in Evesham, Evesham the rainy no longer, but Evesham full of genial sunset, and trustee on my behalf of quite a budget of pleasant letters — which, when one has hardly spoken to a soul for a week, are as good as a table-full of friends.

That night too I sat drinking my coffee in a quiet garden and opposite the veritable face of a friend. While our cigarette-ends glowed intermittently through the twilight, we sat and talked of the beauty of England, a loveliness ” which my friend has the power in his drawings to make still more lovely. It seemed strange to think that the garden where we sat thus tranquilly at the day’s end was a part of the famous battlefield of Eves-ham. My friend’s drawings are famous for their sense of ” ancient peace,” and he is the gentlest of men. Strange irony of time that he should come to live upon a battlefield, though perhaps — another irony — there is no spot on earth so peaceful as an old battlefield. How still it was ! but once I thought I heard the river running blood in the silence.