England – Winchester To Salisbury

AFTER all, it is not difficult to understand the Winchester verger’s comparative indifference to the quiet fame of a literary fisherman, for in Winchester the greatest names are dwarfed, not merely because of the crowned congregation of them, but because the history of Winchester is on so large a scale, was so broadly significant, that one thinks less of individuals than of races. For Winchester was the most important of those chess-boards on which the games between Briton and Roman, Roman-Briton and Saxon, Saxon and Norman, were played. The Itchen has more stirring memories written in its ripples than trout caught by never so august a fisherman. It is no mere fishing stream, this little fighting river, for no doubt it ran with blood—and certainly with tears — that day in 514, when Cerdic the Saxon swept up it in his antic ships, and landed victoriously in Hamble Creek.

Nor could one blame the first English capital of William the Conqueror had it forgotten that Jane Austen “lived her last days” (as the inscription runs) in a house in College Street, or even that it was here, in Wolvesey Palace, that Alfred wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ; or that even within its walls was preserved the veritable round table of Arthur and his knights. The Norman conquered last, and so is remembered first. For the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle you must ask at the Cathedral library — which treasures a very ancient copy, but is chiefly proud of its great illuminated Vulgate — for the Norman Chronicle you read the strong stones of Winchester.

Yes, although, as the verger. will show you, Winchester Cathedral includes all architectural styles in an evolutionary progression, you leave it — unless, of course, you are an expert on the lookout for mere delicacies of stone — remembering only the Norman, a style of architecture some-thing between Druid stones and castles. You always feel in a Norman Church that it was built by men more accustomed to the sword than the trowel, more used to building castles than churches. Take the fine old church of Romsey, some miles from Winchester, on the way to Salisbury. It looks as if it could stand a— Norman — siege at this day.

Of Romsey, however, more presently, for on the road ‘twixt it and Winchester, there is one halt to be made, somewhat indifferently indeed, at a place striking a very different note than Norman architecture. This is Hursley, in whose church lie two of the meekest men born of woman, — to wit, Richard Cromwell and John Keble. ” The Christian Year ” is among the classics of piety, and there is therefore no need to wonder at its great fame, for, notoriously, piety chooses its classics badly. I am a lover of hymns, yet I confess there has always seemed to me a tameness about Keble’s verses which was spiritless even for High Church Christianity. Therefore, there seemed to me an ironic fitness in that John Keble should lie in the chancel, and Richard Cromwell —the mildest mouse ever born of a mountain—beneath the tower.

Above Richard Cromwell’s vault is a large memorial tablet erected by an aged spinster daughter and crowded with many names. As one reads these names one grows to forget a public incompetency, in the pathos of a succession of domestic sorrows, — the pathos of frustrated father-hood for most of these names belong to tiny children, some barely a year old, some mere breaths that came and went without a name. One can say no more of Richard, Protector, after this—one can only remember the little coffins.

But it is bracing to reach Romsey.

The very name has a robust sound, and the sight of the strong, weather-beaten old church stirs one like a martial tune. For, in spite of two beautiful early English windows, the church, as I have said, is really a Norman castle in the shape of a cross. Yet, for all its stern appearance, Romsey Church had for the greater part of its history been an abbey of nuns, that is from something like 907 to the dissolution of the monasteries — the parent church having been built early in the Twelfth century on the site of a Saxon nunnery. The names of the abbesses are preserved in the church, as also the deed by which the townspeople bought the abbey church from Henry VIII. for 100 pounds to use as a parish church, after that monarch had first dissolved and plundered ” the abbey. The verbs are the present vicar’s. Henry VIII. is only second to Oliver Cromwell in the regard of English vicars and vergers. And yet we owe to him the English Church !

On the general principle, which I hold to be good, of not celebrating details, which I imperfectly understand, I give it as the vicar’s opinion rather than my own that Romsey Abbey is almost a perfect Norman church ; though even an amateur might guess something . of the sort from the fact that there is so obviously little except staunch Norman work in it. It is, I admit, a temptation to dwell upon the perfect preservation of the beautiful Norman clerestory and the stately Norman triforium, about which there are unique architectural characteristics ; but to do so would be to strike a note of insincerity in these simple pages. Old churches pride themselves on many erudite peculiarities which I am apt to overlook, or, looking upon which, even with occasional under-standing, am apt to disregard. I have noticed, for example, that vergers are always particularly proud if their church possesses a ” piscina, —a sort of sacred waste pipe, down which the wine left over from the sacrament was poured. Now I see nothing specially to stir my imagination or charm my fancy in a piscina,” so I propose to leave piscinae alone. Similarly in this church of Romsey I must leave the niceties of its Norman to those stone-scholars who understand and value them, and be satisfied to recall that with what I take to be the sentiment of Norman architecture Romsey Church is rarely charged.

For the full enjoyment of this energising sentiment you must needs be energetic too, and mount the spiral of strangling stone which leads to the tower. On the way up you will meet with long narrow doors, opening on to the arcaded galleries which run round the triforium and clerestory like open secret passages, and give you giddy views of the length and depth of the church. If you would enter into the spirit of this strong Norman stone, you must edge your way along these galleries, feeling the stone everywhere pressing close about you as though it longs to wall you in like some of those old nuns, or throw you down, a broken scream, to the hungry stone beneath. Then, coming out again on to the comparative escape of the stone stairs, you mount further, and suddenly, at the pushing of a door, you take a sort of upward dive into a playground of fresh air, and there you are at the blue top of the world.

The world is never so beautiful as seen from a church tower. How the rivers glitter, and how green is the grass, and into what picturesque groups the old houses arrange themselves ! I can see all else there is to see in Romsey from the church tower : Palmerston’s statue in the square, and the river Test flashing like a scythe in and out among the green meadows, with a stately white mansion, once Palmerston’s, proud as two swans upon its bank.

These things and nought besides —but the whole, pleasant world. What a good place to have been born in, to be sure. How ungrateful of man even to have conceived of another. A better he has never even conceived, for all his trying, though no doubt there are dead men down there in the churchyard who would enviously persuade us otherwise. One need not pity them for their illusions, for we may be sure that in their day they held fast to this good world none the less because of their somewhat greedy hopes of a better. Still we are more fortunate than they, by the attainment of an honester philosophy. We take this world with both arms, love it with undivided hearts, and, if we too must speak with a sigh of its “transitory” joys, the adjective is not one of depreciation, but rather one of aggrandisement ; for, whereas we were once taught that earthly joys should be held with a light grasp because they pass away, it seems to us wiser to hold them the tighter for that very reason.

Take it, love — Twill soon be over, With the thickening of the clover, With the calling of the plover, Take it, take it, lover. Take it, boy — The blossom’s falling, And the farewell cuckoo’s calling; While the sun and showers are one, Take your love out in the sun.

Take it, girl And fear no after, Take your fill of all this laughter, Laugh or not, the tears will fall, Take the laughter first of all.

So the summer-wind sang round the church tower, as I lay and loved the world and thanked God for life. It was scarcely a song for a church tower, but the wind proverbially bloweth as it listeth, and it was a week day too, it should be remembered.

The country between Winchester and Romsey is not very striking. Between Romsey and Salisbury it grows more interesting. The downs begin again, and the land swells and dimples once more, and loses boundary marks. About six miles from Salisbury, as the road softly ascends a shoulder of down, a circular grassy hill rises on the right, and on the top of it stands a solitary conical tower which provokes curiosity, though as one dismounts and strolls up to it; it does little to satisfy it, beyond (and no doubt that is its object) pointing out the magnificent prospect of grassy down after down on the edge of which it stands, Salisbury spire shouldering the blue like a nursery giant miles away in the centre of the vast circle.

The tower is six-sided, with three blind windows on each side, and no door whatsoever. Just a dummy of brick. Is it a beacon ? If so, to what end ? No doubt it was built by forgotten men for some forgotten purpose ; and, whether or not, the present usefulness of it suffices ; in that it tempts the lazy cyclist (for the mental laziness of keeping on your machine is one of the dangers of the exploring cyclist) to walk the close sweet grass, gemmed thick with ladies’ purses, and take in the blessed air. The wind has many songs — it sings round church towers as we have just heard — but none sweeter than its clean crisp song over the downs ; the sound of the foot that no one sees on the grass that no one sows. To me it seemed to be singing an overture to the ancient solitude upon which I was now entering, for this was one of the gates of Salisbury Plain, and the soft grassy mouldings of the land, smothered lines, maybe, of old entrenchments, mysterious mounds and markings, told me that my preoccupations for the next few days were to be ancient British and Roman in character, and that an irrational passion for Druid stones, tumuli, and Roman re-mains entirely unscientific in its expression, was about to be mightily indulged.

This love for nameless old stones, begun in childhood, and continuing until age, with no more sustenance of reason than the original wonder — how shall we account for it ? Is it because we were once told that it was the fairies’ chapel, or that on moonlit nights white-bearded Druids plunged their moon-shaped knives into the white breasts of beautiful victims —within this circle that now stands so strangely on the moor ? No, I think no visions so definite could have such power. It is by their possession of a suggestiveness that suggests everything and suggests nothing, that hints at awful stretches of time, and drops no word of their history, hints at terrible rituals, at ancient agonies of martyrdom unspeakable, at mysterious knowledge, at mysterious powers ; such is the magic of these old stones.

And it is the same with the grassy tombs of chieftains whom no inscription names. No tombs in the world, however magnificent, are so impressive to the imagination. For always to know nothing is to imagine all.