Stonehenge - Warminster - Longleat - Frome
( Originally Published 1900 )
THE afternoon of our departure from Salisbury was one of radiant loveliness. It was a perfect English day, one of those that seem to make fine weather in England different from any other. There is a peculiar quality in the best English weather, something at once rare and fine, from which all the vulgar pomp of over-luxuriance of sunshine and excess of heat and warmth appear to have been miraculously eliminated. If England, as a country, is the most perfectly finished agriculturally, from the point of view of climate it is assuredly the most highly civilized. It knows neither the extremes of heat nor cold ; it is temperate, restrained, and when in fine humor, never loses its repose or its reserve. It is the climate of all others to produce a race of great men, — men who shall be as wise as they are courageous and as tender as they are strong ; for men, like nature, come to their finest flower under temperate skies.
The weather had no reserves for us that after-noon. The fine golden light fell like a shower upon the land. Never had English turf seemed greener, or the hedge-rows more fragrant, or the trees more nobly tall and full, or the meadows richer in tone and color. The cottage windows were ablaze with carnations. The vines were laden with their burden of roses. In the fields the very cattle felt the influences of the fine soft air, of the pure ethereal sky, and of the odors and perfume which the earth sent up as its incense of praise and worship. Under this sky of blue, in this bath of warm air, the oxen moved lazily, luxuriously, treading their deep furrows with an absent, dreamy look, their dull natures insensibly stirred by the loveliness and the fairness of the hour. Men stopped their work to lean on their hoes and rakes. They shouted across a field or two, for in such weather man has the instinct of companionship ; there is a compelling sentiment in such skies as these. Doubtless, if a girl or a woman had appeared, we should have witnessed a bit of rustic love-making ; but only the field- hands and farmers were abroad in the wide grain-fields.
The drive out from Salisbury had been through a series of green fields, parks, and meadows. In an incredibly short time we had gained the open country. These rich, fertile valley-lands made progress swift and easy. Our drive was to include a climb into the hill-country, up into the famous Salisbury Plain that we might see Stonehenge ; thence we should proceed to Warminster, in all comprising a distance of eighteen or twenty miles. As there were complications in the matter of roads, we had armed ourselves with two county maps and a guide-book, and had taken besides the additional precaution to receive minute and particular directions from the innkeeper of the " White Hart." We started forth equipped, in confident certainty ; but behold, not five miles from Salisbury, we were at a stand-still. We were facing an opening of four roads. The county maps, with characteristic impartiality, gave us the choice of all four, as all lead up into the hill country, but did not enlighten us as to which one went directly to Stonehenge. The guide-book treated the subject with the fine scorn of a book whose pages were dedicated to a history of Druidical ruins. The inn-keeper had been wiser than either, and had not even mentioned them. So we sat still and discussed the perplexity, knowing by the interrogatory movement of Ballad's ears that he was quite as much in doubt as we.
Suddenly a foot-passenger appeared walking towards us on the right-hand road, — a gentleman carrying a fine bunch of roses in his hand. As he drew near, to our question as to which was our road he responded with charming courtesy, coming close to the carriage wheel as he answered, —
" Your road is to the left along the river ; but farther on you must turn to the right, and still farther to the left again. If you will allow me I will mark it out."
He laid the roses on the travelling-rugs, drew a pencil and a bit of paper from his pocket, and proceeded to sketch, with remarkable swiftness and skill, a rough draught of the direction of the road. A moment later, barely waiting to receive our thanks, he had lifted his hat and proceeded on his way.
" And there is a tradition extant that English-men are rude ! " I exclaimed, as Boston plied the whip on Ballad's dark coat.
"Englishmen are only rude when they travel. It is their way of carrying war into an enemy's country."
"If they leave their politeness at home, they assuredly forget none of the practices of the art!" I answered, with the soft tones of our helper's London voice and the readiness of his kindly impulse still strong upon me.
His sketch served us better than the maps or the guide-book. In an hour we were toiling up the first long hill of the Salisbury Plain.
We had passed, in an hour's space, into a world as changed as if an enchanter's wand had whirled us from a fairy-land of verdure into the abode of some aerial sprite dwelling in a desert. Salisbury Plain is an endless succession of hills, sans verdure, sans trees, sans water, sans anything that grows save grass, and a short stumpy inferior quality of that. Far as the eye can reach it rests on a ripple of these low, barren, naked hills. To make the descent of one is to begin the ascent of the next. This unending succession of undulatory lines ends by producing the impression of an arrested sea. It seems as if earth at some time in her changeful history must have been possessed of the fluctuant instability of the ocean's turbulent element. Nothing but the sea, when possessed by the demon of unrest, could be imagined as the fitting comparison to a bit of earth so full of strange contortions, of restless undulations, and of unstable outline.
The land is as barren and as uninhabited as the sea. There was no sign of hamlet or hut in all the wide expanse. The only proofs of man's existence we saw were those of his labor. A few hay-mounds here and there reared their pyramidal tops against the sky. A curse seems to have been laid on this strange fantastic tract of country,
the curse of desolation. Man, like nature, appears to have abandoned these bald hills to their fate. Desolation and sterility of foliage are so infrequent in verdant England as to make this striking note of contrast the more impressive. On our own wide continent earth has a hundred different faces, as she has many climates and temperatures ; but the wonder grows that here, in this compact little island, there should be room for so many varied aspects and such sharp transitions. It appears, however, as if it were meant that England should be an epitome of earth, as man is himself Nature in miniature ; and thus the Salisbury Plain is to be taken as a kind of sample specimen of the barren and the desolate.
History and tradition come to accentuate the emphasis of romance and weird unreality which nature has outlined. These hills have been as enriched by the vicissitudes of human experience as they are barren of any reliable records which shall reveal them.
The only rival of the hay-ricks are the barrows, — ancient burying-mounds, so ancient, indeed, that their history is lost in conjecture. The multiplicity of their number appears to prove at least that only an army could have yielded dead enough to people so vast a burying -ground. Here many a tall Roman and fair-haired Saxon found their long home. The plain, for centuries before the Conquest, was the natural battleground of the rude disputants for Britain's sovereignty. Celt and Roman alike had early seen the military value of these heights. Camps and rude fortifications held the more advantageous positions long before, with vast labor and at huge outlay and cost, the great fortress of old Sarum was built. If ever a battle-ground was in keeping with the horrors of war, this gaunt skeleton of earth's beauty must have seemed, to even the least imaginative Saxon, a fitting arena for the clash of arms and for the dark work of killing and dying. Earth itself looks as if it had been stripped and then left for dead.
Suddenly, as we rose on the top of one of the hills, a mass of strange ruins stood out against the sky. Over the brow of the next hill they were facing us. Rude in outline, and of giant height, the huge gray stones, black against the pale sky, were as bare and naked as the land on which they rested. Here were no flowing draperies of ivy or the velvet of green moss to soften the rough out-lines and to make a bit of poetry out of decay. The " hanging stones" of Stonehenge stand as pitilessly exposed to the winds of the bleak desert on which they rest as did the bleaching bones of the rude warriors who found their graves here. Like bones that have been whitened in the sun, washed to polished smoothness by the storm and rain, these cyclopean stones bear evidences of the slow but inevitable yielding to the elements. That king of architects, the Tempest, has carved this barbaric heap into shapes to suit his own fancy ; he appears to have tossed the huge fragments about in riotous glee, till their present fantastic attitudes and positions have become the despair of the archa ologist.
On a nearer inspection, when we alighted and walked around the strange monument, we saw that such intention as could be read in the position of the stones clearly showed some attempt at the formation of a circle or a horse-shoe. But whether we believe with Inigo Jones that Stonehenge was once a Roman temple, or with the learned Dr. Charlton that it is a Danish ruin, or with other archæologists that the Druids here erected one of their puzzling shrines, the ultimate result remains the same. Conjecture finds no solid ground on which to build the certainty of fact. For once, at least, the tourist need not bow his head in ignorance and humility ; his guesses are as good as those of his superiors in that line. Whatever mystic rites in pagan temple of gods or heroes Stonehenge may have been built to celebrate, whether the temple of a religion which is dead or of a god as forgotten as the believers, Stonehenge and the Salisbury Plain appeal to the beholder as does the Nile with its mysterious company of the Sphinxes, as solemn reminders of that great workman, the voiceless Past. Both belong to a time and to an era of whose life and history we have lost the key. That deep organ chord, modern sympathy, would doubtless, if furnished with the clew to these remote, shadowy lives and alien beliefs, bridge the gulf and vibrate still to those distant echoes; but earth, rather than man, appears to have retained the dread secret of their fate, and to have been cursed, in virtue of this knowledge, with eternal sterility. Nature, whenever she has a secret to guard, is stricken mute ; time having found, doubtless, that she is possessed of the common failing of her sex.
An hour after leaving Stonehenge, it became a question whether or not we also might not end by finding on the Salisbury Plain a fate similar to other warriors who have wrestled with its difficulties and dangers. Ballad, quite suddenly and with-out warning, became very queer in his hind legs. He began his vagaries by slipping, on all fours, down one of the longer hills. This practice not being to his liking, he gave every evidence of its being his secret wish to roll down. Only an embarrassment of harness and Boston's obstinate grip on the bit prevented his accomplishing this unexpected freak.
" It's the hills, Boston, and no wonder ; there has been nothing but miles of them since leaving Salisbury," I cried, as we both alighted.
An examination proved that it was worse than rebelliousness. It was not the hills ; it was a question of ankles. Both hind ankles bent completely beneath his weight.
And we were fifteen miles from Warminster, our destination ! Fifteen miles, and not a hut or even a hovel to be seen!
We looked at each other as the full meaning of the disaster burst upon us. We then sat down by the roadside, and held a consultation, as Romans and Britons had done before us. Either the horse was dead lame, or he was dead tired. To settle the question, it would be best to experiment while he was still comparatively alive. The result of our efforts proved that he could walk perfectly well on a level without giving any symptoms of fatigue ; also that he could ascend a hill without more than his habitual protest against being hurried. But at the first beginning of an incline came the terrifying droop of the hind quarters, a look in his eyes as if the world were going from beneath him, and that dread bending of the hindermost ankles. The ankles on examination seemed to be neither bruised, nor inflamed, nor sore to the touch ; but when going down-hill, a pair of india-rubber adjustments would have served him quite as well.
However, we must push on or prepare to spend the night on this desolate road. Push on we did, literally. Boston pushed the carriage up the steeper hills, making an improved brake of himself going down, as I tugged vigorously at the bit.
This mode of procedure brought us, at the end of an hour, to a rude little hamlet lying in a valley. The hamlet consisted of a dozen or more huts and thatched houses and a small tavern. The landlord of the latter was at our bridle before we had fairly reached the first house. The village grouped itself in various attitudes of curiosity and interest. Every man present felt of Ballad's ankles, while every woman freely gave her opinion ; but none could tell us more than we ourselves had discovered.
" He's not a-gone lame, sur, and he ain't been stung, nather. It's a bit of weakness, sur, — he ain't used to the hills," was the innkeeper's reassuring verdict. " He 'll go along safe now if you ease him a bit."
"All the same, I 'd rather stop here over night," I whispered to Boston.
"In this wretched tavern? Why, it's impossible," he answered, in what I feared was an almost audible tone.
" Oh, I don't in the least mind. Can you give us a room?" I asked of the innkeeper.
The man's face fell..
"We'er full, ma'am, thank ye, ma'am," pulling his forelock ; "we haven't a bed left."
At his answer a woman's face emerged from a side door, flourishing two arms up to the elbows in flour paste.
"Perhaps the Pierces' would take 'em, John," she cried out ; then she as suddenly withdrew.
" They 're quite respectable folk half a mile up the road, and takes travellers in now and again," explained the innkeeper.
" But can't you take us in yourself ? " I almost pleaded ; for the twilight was falling fast, and Ballad in his present condition, and the prospect of fifteen miles more of this desolate country to pass through, did not appeal to my imagination.
" I'm sorry enough, ma'am, but we can't ; " and his face fell again.
The crowd, instead of thinning, had been growing larger. Some farm hands, evidently fresh from the fields, and bearing equally strong evidence of having come fresh from something less harmless, pressed emphatically about the carriage. One or two were unmistakably drunk. One whom Bacchus had rendered bolder than the rest pushed his way towards me, and began to sing a coarse song in my honor. The innkeeper gave him a blow that sent him and the song in the dirt. The women snickered, and the men laughed.
Evidently this was no place for us, whether Ballad had ankles or not ; so we whipped the latter's unoffending back, and with a curt good-evening were off.
The country was again as desolate and hilly as before. The moon, on which we had relied as our lantern after the night should set in, with the usual obstinacy of her nature when counted on for a particular exhibition of her powers for shining, had sulkily retired behind a cloud. Again neither house nor building was visible. Never was there such stillness. The sound of Ballad's heavy foot-falls and our own voices made the loneliness and our remoteness seem the more oppressive. The dumb companionship of sheep and cows or the twitter of a bird's note would have been of infinite comfort, to reassure us that some link of life was near to connect us with the living, breathing, active world ; but nothing save the echoes of our voices came back to us, as if even they had failed to find a home.
Reach Warminster we did, when the night and we were nearly spent. At last came the cheering light of the distant town. Earth took on more civilized forms, and the world looked very much as usual, set in the mould of a small provincial town, as we drove through the Warminster streets to our inn.
An experienced hostler the next morning explained the mystery of Ballad's ankles. Again the trouble lay not in the ankle, but in something else. It was in the carriage that the true difficulty was found. The latter had no brake. It had been built for the level country about Chichester. But for these obstinate hills a brake was not only essential, but it must be made of extra grappling-power. The hostler advised our waiting until we should reach Bath, as there were no good carriage-builders in Warminster. The hills between this town and Bath, which we hoped to reach in our next day's drive, were, he assured us, comparatively trifling.
We gave Ballad a day and a half in which to forget his late experience. When he appeared early on the following morning, he started off with such merriment and light-heartedness as proved that only our own lack of forethought had been to blame for the recent unpleasantness.
Our road to Bath was to include a drive through Longleat, the famous and splendid seat of the Marquis of Bath, and was to pass through Frome, one of the most ancient towns in Southern England.
Longleat is an easy distance from Warminster ; but the heat and dust on the highway made the hours seem trebly long. Once within the gates of the great estate, however, and we experienced anew that peculiar sensation which we had noticed as belonging to all such parks. Beneath the airy avenues of the great trees we were in another climate. These vast, perfectly finished, and carefully arranged estates have a climate as distinct from the high-way or plebeian fields and meadows as a great cathedral has from a glaring little wayside chapel. Beneath these plumed trees the noonday appears never fully to penetrate ; the glare of hot spaces of ground is unknown, so artfully are the laws of landscape-gardening administered ; the stretches of turf and meadows are cooled by the well-placed groups of trees; they are broken by a fountain there, a gleaming pool beyond, by the rise and fall of hills with their trailing robes of shadows, or by the heart of gloom that dwells in the dense woods.
At Longleat the art of man is surpassed by the glories of nature. Somersetshire is perhaps the loveliest of the English counties. The romantic character of its scenery certainly places it among the most highly picturesque ; and Longleat is set in the very heart of the county, where the blended loveliness of its hill and valley scenery, its super-abounding richness and fertility, appeared to have focussed into highest beauty. From the celebrated Prospect Hill, the chief glory of Longleat Park, the eye sweeps over a glorious landscape ; the country, dipping into the valleys beneath one, rises on banks of hills beyond to the very heavens ; the noble trees on the hill have been spared and their foliage trimmed to form a natural frame to the enchanting outlook ; thus the scene is broken into a series of pictures, a gallery whose master-pieces can be the better grasped and enjoyed.
With the inconstancy of true lovers of the beautiful, we decided that the charms of Longleat far exceed the glories of either Arundel or Good-wood. While it lacks the character of feudal splendor peculiar to Arundel, and the vast outlook to be had from the Goodwood heights, which command both the sea and the land, Longleat has a more highly finished air of magnificence than either. This effect is due not alone to the rich Somersetshire setting ; the character of Longleat House is in itself singularly impressive. It is both a palace and a home. To the stateliness of the former it adds that air of domestic usage which the Englishman alone, of all the inhabitants of great mansions, has been able to impress on a huge pile of masonry. The house is nobly set on a vast carpet of turf, in the midst of glowing parterres. Its original builder, Sir John Thynne, the founder of the house of Bath, went to Padua for his architect, and the present building stands externally as John of Padua originally left it. It was built according to the style then in vogue in Italy, the Tuscan. But in spite of this most composite of the renaissance styles, the architect has made the great house more English than Italian. He borrowed his Doric columns and his Corinthian capitals from Greece, and the plan of his elevation from Italy ; but the whole as a whole is pre-eminently English. It has a massive elegance and a soberness of dignity which have nothing in common with Italian architecture. The architect brought with him his love for immensity. The delight in the vast is inherent in the Italian, whose buildings and churches must be his refuge from the torrid skies and the burning suns of his tropical summer, and beneath whose roofs he seeks to find the breadth and largeness of his open-air spaces. Longleat House is a replica of the vast Italian palaces, whose walls seem to enclose acres of space. Its glorious dimensions make the historic visit of George III. and his queen with their suite numbering forty, over a hundred and twenty-five persons sleeping within the same house during the royal occupancy, no very wonderful feat of hospitality. In view of such a multiplicity of windows, doubtless each visitor found himself in undisputed right of both pillows.
Longleat, in the proud regalia of her history, boasts not only the glory of entertaining royalty ; her fame is further enriched with the shadow of romance, and darkened by the stain of crime. One of her earlier owners, Mr. Thomas Thynne, not having come into the world late enough to benefit by the wisdom of a recent philosopher, committed the indiscretion of marrying a widow. That she was beautiful goes without saying. That she was young—her previous lord, the Earl of Ogle, leaving her to learn all the wiles of widowhood at the tender age of twelve — relieves us of the necessity of pressing indignation to the point of abhorrence. In three years the lovely if youthful Lady Ogle had learned all the arts which belonged to her condition. She had succeeded in ensnaring the affections of the owner of Longleat, whom she married, reserving, however, all the joys of her favor for a rival, a noble Swedish count. Longleat never saw its new-made mistress. The bride, after the marriage ceremony, in spite of the magnificent preparations made at Longleat for her reception, suddenly developed a taste for a wedding journey. There could have been nothing very singular in so innocent a preference in a young beauty, who presumably wished to parade her happiness and her new gowns before the world. But when she went abroad with her trousseau, leaving the groom behind to enjoy the bridal arches and the Longleat festivities alone, her conduct, by her own sex at least, was adjudged as savoring of eccentricity. When, a short time after, the poor abandoned gentleman was shot and killed by four Polish bullets instigated by Swedish hatred and Swedish gold, the clew to the lady's erratic impulses appeared to have been found. But crime, it was dis-covered, was no better passport to the affections of this singular, twice-widowed beauty than had been her murdered husband's ardor. The Swedish Count was dismissed, while she turned for solace to the Duke of Somerset, drowning remorse, if so deep a passion ever stirred the lady's becalmed soul, in the intoxications of the political intrigues which made Queen Anne's Court so admirable an arena for restless spirits.
No shadow of crime or trace of tragedy rested on the great house on that brilliant morning, as we turned to take our last look at its splendor and beauty. As if to dissipate even the memory of that dark occurrence, the sun had cleared the skies of the wind-clouds, and was pouring a flood of golden-dusted light over the huge gray pile.
There was fully an hour's driving before we were out of the Longleat Park, thickly peopled with its herds of deer and cattle scattered through its great lawns and woods ; but an hour was none too long to linger over those seven miles of garden loveliness.
The remainder of the forenoon's drive to Frome was a continuation of the verdant valleys and the richly wooded uplands which we found made the charm and the picturesqueness of this beautiful Somersetshire County.
At Frome there was to be a long midday halt and rest. We had prepared ourselves for a vast outlay of admiration, since all early English history teems with recitals of Frome's importance and activity in early Celt and Norman days. We had counted on finding the Frome streets lined with picturesque houses and rich in an antique architectural setting. But the Frome of the dark ages must have disappeared with its ancient importance and dignity. Modern Frome we found chiefly a little town full of little shops, with only a series of hilly streets to give it even a moderately unique appearance. The centre of interest was no farther away than our inn. On our arrival we found an unwonted bustle and activity. There was a flying about of white-capped chambermaids and an agitation in the demeanor of the solitary waiter which announced at once that the extraordinary was about to take place. It was with difficulty that we succeeded in awaking even a response to our appeal for luncheon. Oh yes, they might be able to give us a luncheon if we could wait ; in an hour maybe, or perhaps even later. Meanwhile we could sit in the smaller coffee-room. At high noon, with an English sun heated to summer heat, with a drooping horse before one and a hungry gnawing within, one is not disposed to be as actively belligerent against fate as when confronted with such trying circumstances under less helpless conditions. We meekly gave signs of accepting our destiny. Our humility, however, met with its reward. The landlady suddenly appeared in the large hall, resplendent in pink ribbons and a rustling black silk, and was immediately touched with the spectacle of our dejectedness.
" Mary, send up some cold 'am and beer and the muffins immediately; they won't be 'ere yet. — Hit's a party, ma'am," she continued, addressing me in an undertone of subdued excitement, " as his comin' ; hit 's the choir from the town, over heighty; and perhaps you'd like to see the tables, ma'am, while your luncheon 's being spread." She led the way with smiling, triumphant complacency.
The tables were, in truth, a fine sight. There were four long dazzlingly white cloths spread on tables forming a quadrangle. Fine old shapes of antique glass and silver gleamed among the dressed hams, the tongues, the turkeys, the jellies and sal-ads, each dish brave in its pretty toilet of curled papers.
" There 's heighty covers laid, has you see," smiled the landlady, as she surveyed the spectacle with the eye of a general who had massed her forces and to whom the victory was already a fore-gone conclusion ; " they 're hall from one church, — the choir, and the wardens an' their wives; and the vicar himself and his lady, — and there they come now."
We stepped out on the balcony leading from our own modest coffee-room to look at the " heighty." The vicar and his lady were very easily picked out, and their identity established. The rest of the company were most unmistakably middle-class; farmers, smaller gentry, and provincial tradesmen composed the orderly mass that clambered out of the high drags and the long open wagons. The company embraced all ages, from the very youthful maidens who turned crimson with bashful self-consciousness as the equally crimson youths helped them to alight, to the venerable grandame and grandsire whose tottering steps were steadied by strong arms and filial care. Singularly enough, most of these people had a strangely familiar look. We were almost certain we had met most of their faces before, as, in truth, we had. The faces, or rather their prototypes, belonged to the owners of the quiet homesteads and the larger richer farms we had passed so often in our driving. Here were the stout motherly faces, a trifle redder and over-heated now, and not so attractive in their over-trimmed bonnets as in the snowy caps, beneath which their calm eyes were lifted from the stocking-darning as Ballad's crisp footfall startled their ear. Here also were the old people, very smart in apparel, but quite as tottering and infirm as when they hobbled to the door-sill to see us pass. The younger girls and women were less recognizable 1 their prim Sunday attire, and assuredly not half so pretty as in their everyday costume of broad garden hat and apron.
Nothing could have been more orderly and soberly decorous than the behavior of the little congregation. Whether it was that the presence of the wardens and the vicar had a depressing effect, or whether this melancholy little band were merely suffering from the constitutional national malady,— that habitual dreary dulness which pervades all English holidays,—it is certain that if the success of the present occasion were to be gauged by its festival aspect, even its projector must have been haunted by the dark suspicion that it was resulting in failure. Since, however, the English-man has not been brought up to associate the act of taking a holiday with the idea of pleasure, these loyal sons of the Church were doubtless munching tarts and genteelly disposing of ham without a suspicion that silence was not the most ideal compliment to their excellence. Even the many tankards of ale and beer which we saw going the rounds of the table appeared to have little appreciable effect on the flow of talk. Towards the last there did come from behind the swinging doors a subdued murmur of chit-chat, enlivened with a barrel of short low laughter. But to the end the awful presence of the vicar appeared to have its restraining effect ; the talk was pitched to a church whisper.
I am disposed to believe that to our own soil have flown that wholesome heartiness, vivacious exuberance, and louder-tongued jollity in which older, gayer England was wont to indulge in those days when it seasoned its cake with that heartiness of enjoyment which won it its name of a merrie England." Our American way of taking pleasure may have a touch of plebeian plainness about it, considered from the standard of English reticence and self-restraint ; but laughter — broad, strong, deep laughter — is one of the best national habits for a growing nation to cultivate. A people that laugh are a people who have little to fear from tyrants or despots, in whatever form they may come. An American joke keeps the political sky clear.