Hursley And Romsey Abbey
( Originally Published 1900 )
IT was on the afternoon of the following day that Ballad trotted up the steep hill of High Street at a brisk speed, passed under the great gateway, and hurried us away from the beautiful old city. Of the three, Ballad was the only one who carried a light heart and a merry spirit out of the city. Evidently the Winchester oats bad been of an excellent quality. Both Boston and I were under the influence of so poignant a regret that only the importance of a mail which had been telegraphed to meet us at Salisbury on the following morning could have had the power to force this decision of leaving on us. Soon, however, the fresh sweet air, the stretch of wide horizons, and the sense of that quickened, more vivid life which the excitement of going forth to meet new scenes awakens, stirred our pulses into more responsive pleasure.
If one is forced to leave a city which one has grown to love, to he able to view it again and again from some commanding height tempers at least the poignancy of the parting. It is like the sweetened grief of holding a dear face between one's palms and scanning each feature anew before the wrench comes. Winchester, as we rose along the crest of the hill behind the city, appeared to us this last half-hour in a series of dissolving views. As the hills grew steeper, the proportions of the wonderful old city seemed to shrink away, leaving only its nobler and more stupendous features to rise into a worthy rivalship with the encompassing hills. The huge, uplifted mass of the cathedral, as we looked down upon it through a green valley of curving fields; seemed not unlike some mountain in stone carved by those master architects, the storm and the tempest. The houses near it were dwarfed to the proportion of huts. It was a prospect that led us to reflect that such indeed had been, in the disproportionate medieval days, the true relation existing between the Church and the world, when the former looked down upon mortals only in the light of so much material for the furnishing of the necessary pence with which to rear its temple of holy scorn.
Ballad, not being given to philosophic reflections, took a much less sentimental view of the hills. They were, in truth, seemingly unending. It had been one long continuous climb from the courtyard of the "White Swan" up to this breezy eminence, at least two miles distant from the city gateway. Among the admirable qualities which we had grown to admire in Ballad was his talent for remembering a promise. They were, it is true, always promises which, in moments of weakness, we had made to him. But his tenacious memory of the same pleased us, as proving the extent and variety of his capacities. It was in virtue of a covenant we had entered into along some of the longer Fareham hills, to the effect that we should walk up the longest and the steepest ascents, that now, with the most confiding faith in our honor, he appealed to us to redeem those pledges. He stopped again and again, turning his deep brown glance backward upon us, speaking, as only dumb brutes can, with mute but eloquent entreaty. I, for one, could resist no longer.
Boston soon joined me along the roadside, swinging himself out of the low box-seat. But Ballad's demands did not cease with having merely forced us to lighten his load. He possessed those refinements of taste which characterize every true walker. First of all, he loved companionship. He loved best to have one of us on either side, so close that the tip of his forehead or his long nose touched our elbow as he plodded along. Neither was he adverse to more caressive advances, when either one of us, with an arm about his glossy neck, would the better keep pace with his long swinging gait. If we stopped to examine the landscape, he improved the moment to test the quality of the roadside grass. But he was rather a gourmet than a gourmand ; one succulent taste of the good roadside fare appeared to satisfy his delicate but fastidious palate. The length of such a meal was the most flattering proof we needed to assure us of the richness of the soil.
It was in such amity of friendly companionship that we all three toiled up the steep Winchester hills. Once at the top, however, of the steepest, and the splendid prospect made us stay our steps. Far as the eye could reach the country stretched itself ont like an unrolled carpet at our feet. Hills dipped into valleys only to rise again into hills, till they and the far edges of the horizon were merged into one indistinguishable blue. There were several miles of driving with this great prospect be-fore us, changing in some of the nearer details, but the vast panoramic aspect remaining the same. The county of Hampshire appeared to lie beneath and out beyond us, as if, like some conscious beauty, she were bent on displaying her charms on this last day of our drive among her hills.
Hampshire is hilly, as Sussex is rolling. She is a wild beauty, with a touch of unkempt disordered loveliness about her, strange enough to find among these Southern counties. Our journey through the heart of her forest and in among her rude hillside-villages was a revelation of the store of surprises reserved for those who seek them out in this compact and wonderful little island. Here was a bit of country almost as wild as some parts of our own transatlantic continent. Instead of the park-like meadows of the Surrey downs, their trim garden finish, their sleek parterre perfections, these hills and fields had a touch of nature's more abandoned freedom. The trees were true mountaineers, growing on perilous heights or where best it pleased them, that they might prove their hardihood in facing the elements.
Of course, wild as was the aspect of the country, there were still hedge-rows, or it would not have been England. A roadway without hedge-rows, from an Englishman's point of view, is only conceivable in a country whose government is either unconstitutional or in sad want of political repair.
These upland Hampshire hedges were quite unobjectionable. They were charming in their reckless disorder. They strewed the grassy road-side, in their gay abandonment, with the loose petals of the wild white rose and the honeysuckle. Their dense shade was the home of the robin. We startled one of these crimson-liveried gentlemen as we leaned over the top of a particularly odorous hedge to catch a glimpse of a little old farmhouse perched on the edge of a tiny precipice. We startled the robin, but we had very little effect on the musician. He had begun his song amid the honey-suckle. Finding himself in good voice, he continued his roulades, when we came to disturb his serenade to their perfume. A shower of thrilling notes descended as he whirled himself into the upper skies. It was the revenge of the musician in showing us how easily he could wing himself into aerial spheres.
His song accentuated the stillness, the absolute quiet, and the forest-like remoteness. There was not a sound except the nibbling of Ballad in among the grasses, those now sky-distant robin-notes, and the crackling amid the trees made by unseen insects or squirrels. It was such a moment as lingers afterward in the memory with the resonance of a full rich chord.
In the midst of the hills was an ideal little rustic. We had been driving for several miles without having seen even so remote a sign of civilization as a distant church-spire. But at the bottom of a series of hills we drove straight into a little village which might have posed as the nymph of the woodlands. It was Hursley, a village with as wild a grace as the roses which covered its gabled and thatched old houses. Almost at the entrance of its wide straggling little street was set a beautiful ivy-grown church. Its round Saxon-headed windows told its age and history. Our guide-book had already furnished us with the secret which explained its admirable and perfect state of preservation. The pious John Keble was vicar here for many years, and generously gave the money derived from the " Christian Year " for its restoration. There were some admirable brass tablets to be seen in the church, erected to the memory of his wife and himself, as well as an interesting monument to Richard Cromwell. But we did not stop to enter, as the congregation were just about dispersing ; for it was Sunday, the first of our drives on that day.
No time could have been chosen to see this bit of English rustic life to better advantage. The little congregation, as it came slowly forth in groups of twos and threes from beneath the low church portal, stood about on the green, or wandered quietly up the village street into the open doors of the thatched vine-covered houses. It was strange to see the attempts at London fashions in the women's dressing as they walked along the little rural street ; they were the London fashions of several seasons ago, so that their modernness was not too startling. The men had the look of discomfort and awkwardness common to the sex when wearing their Sunday broadcloth ; some of the older farmers, however, wore their corduroys and faded pink and yellow vests and great neckties, in defiance of the modern modes. In spite of the freshness and fairness of the younger women, it was these latter—these fine, vigorous, sunburnt, last-century faces among the old farmers — who bore off the palm of beauty. Some among them were superb types of English strength of build and sturdy mould of feature. There was hardly a weak face among them. But strong and robust as was their general aspect, these farmers had a look peculiar, I think, to an English farmer. It was the look of mingled simplicity, honesty, and peacefulness, which no French, German, or American agriculturist ever successfully combines. It is such an expression as can only come from long descent and heredity, — from men who for generations have lived on the same soil, have thought the same thoughts, have had the same simple ambitions, and yet whose intelligence has been of an order which enabled them to take an active personal interest in their contemporaneous political surroundings. The French farmer, if he be intelligent, is too shrewd to be simple ; the German is too stolid to be intelligent ; it is only the English yeomanry who are at once industrious, intelligent, and still rurally simple.
The younger men, we noticed, accompanied their wives to the cottage or the farmhouse doors. They picked up a child or two who had run out to meet them to joy in the unwonted Sunday delight of indulging in the happiness of a father and the sport of being trundled by strong arms. But the older men passed on farther down the street, with a group of younger lads, embryonic young men, at their heels. These turned with simultaneous accord into a little tavern at the farthest extremity of the village, — as far as possible from the church at the other end, and the omniscience of the vicar's eye, we said to each other. They took their seats about the long narrow tables in the little inn. The orders for the evening toddy were given audibly enough for us to hear as we stood without in the courtyard ; for Ballad had not been proof against this example of profane Sabbath-breaking. He had walked deliberately up to the village trough, and had drained its contents. It was presumably, also, purely in the interests of his character as a student of rustic habits and customs, that Boston was suddenly inspired to swing himself off the box-seat, and to declare that he was consumed with the prevailing thirst. The noise within the little tavern stopped for a brief moment as he stepped into the low room ; but the strong rough voices broke out again a moment later. Only seven of the tapsters followed Boston to the door to look inquisitively at our trap. Ballad was evidently an unknown acquaintance, although each farmer did his best to identify him.
"'Ee's frame Winchester, I tell 'ee."
" Naw, 'ee's naw frame Winchester ; 'ee 's frame deown yander, frame Salisbury."
"Naw, mon, 'ee's cum naw so fur; 'ee's frame Winchester."
" You 're all wrong, — all of you ; he 's from Chi-chester," I called back at them, as we drove off with a dash. It was sport to see them scatter like affrighted geese, and fun to hear the mocking laugh-ter of the men within, which greeted the astonished questioners as they ran back into the inner tap-room.
The discovery of two or three lawn gowns and smart bonnets, each attended by a village swain, in among the adjacent fields and woods, was proof that not all the Hursley males were left behind in the tap-room. These more sentimental villagers were employing this classical courting-hour in the useful purpose of inducing their lady-loves, doubt-less, to be the presiding rustic divinities of their hearts and homes. These, once safely insured, could then comfortably be left for the tavern. It is a law of sequence not wholly unpractised among what we are pleased to call the upper classes.
The road to Romsey, the little town where we were to sup and rest ere we pressed on to Salisbury, was almost as picturesquely wild as that part of it which had led us to Hursley. The prospect was, however, not nearly so large and open. The dense shade of the woodlands made the views of the outlying country less frequent. The breaks in the thick foliage only served to make such glimpses the more interesting and admirable.
There were five miles more of delightful driving through the woods, past the hedges and the quiet grassy slopes, and we were rattling over the cobble-paved streets of Romsey.
We count Romsey as among the discoveries of our trip. We had only been told so much of the charms of the little town as that it contained an excellent inn where we could break our fast, and that near it was Lord Palmerston's beautiful seat of Broadlands. But it is due to neither of these attractions that Romsey remains to us among the most perfect and complete of the little towns we encountered on this charming tour.
The pearl of our discovery lay in the fact that Romsey boasts of an abbey, which from its beauty and its unique architectural features should be counted as among the chief architectural Meccas of all lovers of fine and rare old Norman work. We classed ourselves amongst such lovers ; yet it was only by a happy accident that we made the discovery of Romsey Abbey's surpassing beauties.
We owe our seeing it at all to the landlady of the " Deer Hound." She had stepped out to greet us as we drove in under her cosey little brick courtyard. After greeting us with a courtesy which was almost formidable in its ceremoniousness, owing to the emphasis of her large and somewhat obese per-son, she ordered the hostler to unstrap the luggage. We protested, explaining that we had stopped only for supper and to water our horse. Had I foreseen how keen her disappointment would be, I fear I should have weakly yielded and have stopped over night ; but she rallied almost instantly.
"Ho, very well, sir, we'll try to make you has comfortable has possible, halthough most hevery one stops, has they hall goes to see the habbey. You'll go to see hit, sir; hit's the finest church in Hingland, han' hl '11 make the lady a nice cup hof tea while the gentleman steps hover and rings for the vherger; he's hopposite, han"ll show you heverythink."
Her garrulousness was too good-natured to be resented, although a trifle overpowering. Boston broke the torrent of her talk by retreating under cover of an excuse for looking after Ballad ; but he did not escape without binding himself to look up the verger. She then preceded me up a creaking winding flight of worn steps, leading me into a large upper room evidently used as the inn coffee-room. She lost not a moment in placing me in a chair, in pouring the water into the kettle, in giving a multitude of orders to a sweet, fresh-looking country-girl who obeyed them in silence, all the while continuing one of the longest, most endless, wandering, and inconsequent monologues it has ever been my punishment as a listener to endure. Yet she was well versed in the history of her native town, and she gave me a not uninteresting though somewhat discursive synopsis of its existence.
The tea equalled her promise of its excellence. I sat and sipped it as the stream of her talk poured on. The room was fine and large, with rich old mahogany cupboards and buffets, high straight-backed chairs, and a mantelpiece with some lovely old Tudor carvings. Its ample proportions and air of prosperous antiquity matched well with the appearance of its owner, whose generous outlines, dimpled rosy cheeks, and glittering gold chain bore evidence to the successful business done at the " Deer Hound." Her father had kept it before her, she said. And did I know how old the old house was ? Almost as old as Romsey itself, and the town dated back to Alfred the Great. For the " habbey " was built by Edward his son, as a convent, and the Nuns' Garden was still shown, and the Nuns' Door. The convent had been a rich one in its day, but all that had gone with popery, and now it was only the parish church. And we must look in the choir for the tombs and monuments of the Saint Barbes, the original owners of Broadlands, and for the splendid windows put up iu honor of the great Prime Minister, and also for the tomb of Sir William Petty, who had been the son of a Romsey clothier, but who was also the ancestor of the great Lansdowne family.
" Han' you must see the cloisters, — hor rather where they was, for there hain't no trace hof them left, — han' you must see the nun's 'air ; hit 's the beautifullest han' the loveliest color Han' now there 's your good gentleman hand the vherger, ban' mind you bask him for to show you the nun's 'air."
I joined the " good gentleman" and the verger at the bottom of the creaking flight of steps. We proceeded at once, without further delay, to thread our way through the streets of the silent little town to the abbey. The silence had a drowsy, brooding quiet in its stillness, as if centuries ago there had been a lively stirring time among these quaint sad-faced streets, and ever since the little town had lived on the memory of it all. Not a soul was astir ; not a footfall save our own re-sounded on the clean cobble pavements, and no voices save ours broke the silence, which might have been under the spell of a charm, so complete and so profound was its slumber.
This drowsy quiet may perhaps have served to enhance the effect which the striking unmodernness of the abbey produced. It needed this emphasis of unreality, this suggestion of a shadowy, dim, and hazy remoteness, to touch us with its wand of illusion, and prepare us for the surprise which the strange and yet lovely structure was to produce. The surprise lay in the abbey being at once so venerable and yet in such a perfect condition of preservation. The discolorations on its façades, the mosses, the leaflets, and the few wild-flowers which had intrusted their delicate existence to the few inches of earth along the cornices and in among the window-ledges, were trustworthy proofs that there had been no modern renovations. Yet with the exception of some traces of crumbling and decay in the toothwork over the beautiful arched doorways, the fissures and the rain-stains, the grand old church must have presented the same appearance to its Norman builders that it did to us on that still, sunny August Sunday. The interior we found no less exquisitely beautiful. I use the word exquisite with deliberation of purpose, because no other word would so well describe the delicacy, the high degree of finish, and the supreme elegance of this wonderful interior. The style is Norman, but it is the Norman of that later, more refined period when the natural elegance and taste of the Norman builders had come to demand something more than strength from their rounded arches and a more ideal massiveness from their structural solidity. Here each archway, each string-course, and each cornice had been made to bloom under the inspired chisel into rhythmic waves of ornament,—that wise linear restraint which preceded the moment when the poetry of tracery was to break forth into the efflorescence of the Gothic.
Grace had been the guiding divinity of the architect's inspiration, until the grandeur of the Norman had been transformed into something of that soaring quality of lightness we are wont to associate with the later Gothic. The eye wanders in enraptured ecstasy over these towering arches, up into the rare and original two-arched triforium, and down the shadowy length of the noble little nave. It is the most triumphant union conceivable of grace and strength.
The verger was at infinite pains to explain to us at just what precise points in the transept, the choir, or the nave the Norman became transition, or the latter changed into early English. But it was the admirable harmony and beauty of the interior as a whole which chiefly charmed and interested us. There was a richly ornamented door opening from the southern transept, called the Nuns' Door, formerly used by the sisters as they passed to and fro into the cloisters and into the old gardens. Both these latter are now part of that shadowy time when the old interior was full of the white-capped, black-gowned nuns. It was the memory which the thought of these silent saintly-browed women brought up to our minds, that served to remind us of the covenant we had made with our kindly and garrulous landlady. We proceeded at once in search of the remark-able hair, which the verger assured us was as genuine as it was ancient.
" It's a thousand years old if it's a day, mum," he said, with the severe accent which is wont to accompany conviction; " and it 's as perfect as any lady's in the land."
He thereupon proceeded to uncover a semicircular box with a glass top. Through the glass we looked down upon a bit of a wooden log, on which lay evidently a woman's scalp, depending from which was a mass of golden brownish hair, care-fully braided. The log, the verger explained, was the cushion used in those ancient times as the rude head-rest of the dead. The "relic" had been found years ago by some workmen while digging up a grave. It was an interesting, but on the whole not a cheering or inspiriting sight, although there was a certain glimmer of ghoulish fascination in watching the threads of gold, which the stray sunshine lit up these hundreds of years after the owner of those fair locks had crumbled into nothingness. It was a relief to turn away to the beautiful lancet windows put up in memory of Palmerston, and even the tomb of the Romsey clothier seemed to make death and decay more decently remote and unreal.
The landlady, however, was troubled by no such dismal sentimentalities. Her first question, as she stood awaiting us on the doorstep, was whether or not we had seen " hit." On assuring her that we had, she added with cheery blitheness : " Beautiful specimen his 4% hit, han' such a lovely color has hit was ; there was no dye about that, was there, han' so neat as she was," — in full confidence, apparently, that it had been the custom of the dead of old to do their own hair-dressing.
Half an hour later, after supper, we clattered out of her hospitable courtyard. Her farewell speeches pursued us down the street. But the town was evidently familiar with the sound of her strong voice ;. for although it started a number of slumbering echoes under the old doorways, it appeared to arouse no fellow-townsman's interest.
Our glimpse of Broadlands came just after we had crossed the clear little river Test, over which sprang a pretty two-arched bridge. A rise on the hill just outside the little town gave us a commanding prospect of the great premier's former seat and of the adjoining lands of the estate. The house stood in the midst of emerald lawns which swept, by a series of gentle declivities, down to the river-banks. There was a dim vast perspective beyond, of meadows, trees, and bushy banks. In the immediate foreground some fine cows were standing in the clear stream up to their middle, making, with the noble colonnaded façade of the dignified and somewhat severe-looking stone mansion, with the turf and the great trees, an immemorial picture of tranquil and yet stately beauty. It was a prospect which fulfilled one's ideal of the perfect blending of the pastoral and-the majestic. Such a grouping as Broadlands made, with the rustic charms of the old town, the mediaeval sanctity of association clustering in the tightly-knit Norman abbey structure, and that note of rural loveliness struck by the meadows and the river, was such as completes one's ideal vision of a fine old English seat. No spot could be imagined more conducive to repose, from a weary statesman's point of view; and no surroundings would be more certain to awaken and to stir anew the fire of an ambitious devotion to one's country, to its interests and its welfare. It is ever the homely sights and sounds of nature which tend to nourish best the clinging tendrils of affection, and stir the profoundest chords of a vibrating patriotism.
It appeared as if it was destined, on this particular afternoon, that we should have vouchsafed for us a very complete series of revelations, — of the sources, for instance, whence spring English love of, and English delight in, her rural landscape. From Romsey to Salisbury our woad led us into what must have been the very heart of England's richest and most vernal loveliness. The wildness of the Hampshire hills had become tamed into the gentleness of pretty, approachable undulations. The verdure was greener with the thickness of sweet grasses ; the trees were fuller and taller, like all beings who have plenty of space and light in which to grow. The roads and lanes were such as the poets have sung since Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims took their pleasure along them.
Imagine a road lined as with velvet, with broad grassy strips growing into a maze of flowering hedge-rows ; overhead an unbroken arch of elm, under whose cool green aisles we drove and continued to drive for miles. As the road dipped and rose, we caught glimpses of hills distant as the horizon, with gleams below of ponds and pools, the liquid eyes of this fair-featured landscape. The houses, thatched and vine-covered, and the larger farmhouses made brilliant flowery little groups in the vernal picture. Children whose cheeks were redder than the pinks ran out to peer at us from the rustic gateways ; women and girls with bright kerchiefs were busy milking in the barnyards ; and men, with serious Sunday aspect, in their shirt-sleeves were solemnly leaning over the fence-rails surveying them, their pigs, and their sheep, true to the farmer's habit, the world over, whose rest is always consecrated to doing sums in arithmetic over his cattle and his lands.
This was the England we all know and have learned to love since we were old enough to love any land or nation ; whose greatness has always been allied to a certain grave simplicity, whose best poets have sung the natural joys of rural life, and whose heroes' passion and fire have ever been tempered by the taste for temperance and justice. It is from English soil that have sprung the true sources of English strength and greatness, — from that healthful fountain of her rural life and her rural loveliness, which, like the eternal springs that flow around Hymettus, are immortally fresh and life-giving.