England - To Selborne Through Woolmer Forest
( Originally Published 1900 )
General attitude of the traveller — Some advantages of ignorance — The best way with nature — Cobbett and Hindhead — Country ignorance — Summer-sadness — Selborne chancel — Gilbert White's grave — An apology for Francis Gastrell — A stuffed nightjar — Climbing the Hanger.
THERE is one great advantage in not knowing the world : you attain novelty of impression at so small an expense. In many ways I have found my ignorance of most things a magic safeguard of the wonder of the world. So long as one remains ignorant, there are no discoveries one may not make, it matters not how often they have been made before. The other day in a Surrey lane, a friend, equally ignorant, and myself made the heart-beating discovery of a wild kind of Arum lily growing by the roadside. Its exquisitely pale green cup, shaped like a hollow soaring flame, seemed a shrine for the delicate purple stamen, or it seemed as though the flower put up a frail hand to guard its treasure from the wind. We felt sure that no human eye had ever beheld this wonder before, though it was growing socially in considerable numbers by the public road. We in-vented various wonderful theories to account for it, deciding that it must be a '"garden-escape," — and we swelled with pride as we used so knowing an expression. But, however named or accounted for, the flower gave us a thrill of strangeness, momentarily quickened our sense of the mystery of beauty. The rarest orchid in Brazil could have done us no greater service of novelty. We returned home radiant with discovery, bunches of the strange flowers in our hands.
Why ! " exclaimed Persephone (" herself a fairer flower "), as we hastened eagerly across the lawn to where she was taking tea under the apple-tree, " you 've been gathering Lords and Ladies ; I haven't seen any since I was a girl."
Our discovery was at least as old as Shakespeare, and our mysterious flower had been known to Persephone all her life !
Naturally we were crestfallen as botanists—but, after all, how fortunate our ignorance had been ; what a rare moment it had given us — and were not the evils of knowledge illustrated by the poor exchange Persephone had given us for our mystery ? To know that these were Lords and Ladies — what did the paltry scrap of information matter ! It was so much more important to think them the rare remarkable things we had first thought them. And so I am never envious of the knowing ones of this world. Their knowledge always reminds me of little boys throwing stones into mysterious lakes. They make a great clatter, but the silence was more wonderful.
It is then in this spirit of ready wonder that I mount my wheel, and invite I know not what of new and dangerous in the ten miles between Hindhead and Selborne. Were I a great traveller, I should deem it necessary to seek strangeness and loneliness in some long and arduous journey to distant waste places of the earth. Such is one of the fallacies of the imagination created by quick travelling. We cover the miles so swiftly and in so many directions, that we forget how superficial a thing mere speed is, and, because we know the names of the stations that flash by, we grow to think that we know the world. We are so taken up with the thousands, that we forget that the real value is in the separate unit.
We smile at old topographers such as White of Selborne, to whom a few miles of pine-wood and scattered heath was a mysterious " forest " inhabited by strange beasts and birds, and to whom Frensham Pond was a " great lake at about six miles from hence." Yet they were nearer the truth than we, and perhaps the reason is not that they knew less—for in many respects they knew more — but that they went slower. Nature has nicely adjusted her measures of revelation. She will not confide her secrets to the man in a hurry. Man was born a pedestrian, and it is only at a walking pace, an easy loitering pace too, with many pondering halts, that Nature can really be got to talk. She flies before the scorching cycle like a frightened bird — though, if you are con-tent with an easy rippling speed, you may often, thanks to your pneumatic tires, steal upon her unawares. Yet it is only when you hide your cycle among the bracken, and unconcernedly pretend you are a pedestrian, to whom time and space are no objects, that you can really know even a few acres of this England which every one pretends he knows, as every one pretends he knows Shakespeare. Then, as one by one her silences steal back from their hiding places, and hop, and peck, and sigh, and whisper, and gloom and sparkle about you, you begin to realise how vast a single square mile can be, when it is covered with trees and underbrush, what vast rivers of sunshine it drinks in, for what depths and secrecies of shade it finds room; and particularly you will be surprised to realise how profound and primeval is the solitude in a single square mile. Then perhaps you arrive at some such definition of speed as this : Speed is a method by which we miss as much as possible between our starting point and our destination. Yes, the wells of Time and Space are deeper than we allow our-selves to understand, and as a year is a very long time, and five years, literally, one of our many life-times, so a square mile of space is quite sufficiently vast and significant to justify old White in describing the few square miles of Woolmer Forest much as an explorer nowadays speaks of the Central Asian Desert.
I hope no one will think from the particularity with which I have headed this chapter, that I propose being laboriously conscientious in choosing or in treating the various ostensible objects of these travels and explorations in our little-known country. To prevent misconception, I may as well state that, however many names of pilgrim-sought destinations I may give it, my chief object is to be out in green places, and moving through summer-scented air, for as many hours of sunshine as the next two or three weeks may be able to provide. I have not the smallest intention of competing with the excellent guide-books on which—like any other " explorer " — I shall rely. I go forth neither in an antiquarian capacity, nor in the capacity of a naturalist — though I may catch a butterfly or two on the way, and I shall often listen to birds singing. For information as to the nature of the soils over which I pass, it will be necessary to seek elsewhere, though I may sometimes be able to . state that in certain districts my tires grew ochre-coloured, and in others grew white with chalk. On details of population and industries I shall be dumb — though if I come across anyone making rainbows for a living, the reader shall be duly informed. You see what a useful book I propose to write !
At the same time, it is well to pretend that one has an object. Deliberate, self-conscious idling is apt to seem a little like work. Idleness should be without plan or forecast, and should come accidentally when we quite intended to be busy. A quarter of an hour before starting I had seriously consulted a map, merely looking out for some of those names that bring a perfume in the mention." North, south, east, or west—it mattered nothing in what direction that place should lie. So it was that I came upon Selborne. Then Selborne had another advantage. It was near home. If I grew sick at heart, or if the doubtful weather suddenly made up its mind to deluge, I could scorch back with the dripping evening star to the little lonely house in an oubliette of pine-trees, with Persephone knitting and the babes asleep.
Then there was Gilbert White too. I will make no pretence at being steeped in " The Natural History of Selborne." I confess that it has never taken hold of me like " The Compleat Angler," for the good reason, I fancy, that Walton, with all his innocence, possessed a much greater literary gift than White, and I cannot rid myself of the old idea that the literary gift has something to do with the writing of lasting books. The charm of White's book is analogous to the charm of watching a child acquire information which has long been common knowledge — quaint ignorance changing into quaint knowledge. A similar quaintness is, of course, a part of Walton's charm. But it is only a part, and it is as a cunningly devised pastoral, written with a pen made of honeysuckle, that " The Compleat Angler " continues to hold us. Walton belongs to art, White to science — but it is that same half mythoIogical science which made Walton's pages romantic with the names of Ash-mole and Aldrovandus. When you come to think of it, White was the one and only patron saint for such a voyaging as mine. Have I not already illustrated my own mode of travel by a reference to his ? To visit his tomb was a pious preliminary of setting-out most natural, and would, moreover, give an appearance of orderliness to my travels.
I will pass over the parting that was likely enough to be exchanged for a meeting again before nightfall. At last I stood on the Portsmouth road
The world before me — The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose."
I must not begin with too many particulars, or they may be expected of me throughout. Every cyclist knows the Portsmouth road between the Hutts, Hindhead, and the Anchor, Liphook. It is one of the kindest, heavenliest bits of road in England. Flying must be some-thing like the ecstasy in which you sweep past the Seven Thorns Inn, out into the arms of the morning on Bramshott Common. It cannot be more than three or four square miles of rolling heather, bounded to right and left by woodland, but as your lungs drink in the air, and your eyes drink in the boundless horizons away yonder over the downs, it seems limitless space ; and if you are not singing by the time you reach the danger post at the foot of the common, you cannot have a song in you. By singing I mean any form of voice-production indicating joy—the kind of private inarticulate grown-up baby sounds of happiness one makes only when we are quite sure no one is by, and which we blush to have over-heard : the absurd improvisations of a glad heart.
At Liphook I always think of two writers, both masters of English prose : Pater and Cobbett. Of Pater, because I fancy I am not mistaken in believing that the present incumbent was his tutor ; and of Cobbett, because Liphook and Hindhead gave him occasion for one of the most characteristic passages in the Rural Rides." Cobbett, travelling from Hambledon to Thursley, had a rooted objection to going over Hindhead, then a lonely and lawless spot. His design was to make his way round the base of that terrific hill-top, through Headley, a village situated, as one might say, among the foothills. But, whenever he inquired his way, he was invariably answered : "You must go to Liphook, sir." " But," shouted Cobbett, in a fine outburst, "I will not go to Liphook." Nor did he, though as it proved it would have been better to have done so.
However, the wilful Cobbett had his way, and though it was late in the evening, with rain coming on, when he reached Headley, he determined to prosecute his journey, refreshed with some cold bacon, bread, and milk, and furnished with a countryman to act — too soon it proved — as a blind guide to Thursley. After much wandering about over wild heaths in a rainy moonlight, the guide came to a standstill. He had lost his way, and one can pity him, even after this lapse of time, exposed as he immediately was to Cobbett's fine flow of stern Saxon prose. Apart from the inconvenience, there was this galling circumstance, that they had made a halt within a few hundred yards of " the buildings called The Hut' " — so poor Cobbett was obliged to cross " that miserable hill " of Hindhead after all.
The " Anchor " at Liphook is a fine specimen of the old English inn both inside and out. Externally it is quite a picture-book hostelry, with its quaint gables and windows, and its enormous chestnut standing guard before the door. I always find it a difficult inn to pass, and, as there are some excellent maps of the district in the smoke-room, I dismounted for a quarter of an hour to consult them. They proved to be very learned maps, and told me far more than I felt I could use — down to the exact situation of every "military well " in Woolmer Forest, a region infested with soldiery and overrun with sham warfare at. certain times of the year.
In some respects maps are a mistake. They dishearten you with previous information, and rob you of the stimulus of personal discovery. To read of military wells" in Woolmer Forest despoiled the imagination, or sent it off on undesirable flights; and, however lonely and untrodden the forest might seem, I should feel that in a sense it was a spurious loneliness — a loneliness duly supplied with an admirable water supply on modern principles. Still, I confess that I forgot this fear as I suddenly swept out of a green lane, across a little bridge, which explicitly denied any responsibility for the passage of persons weighing more than five tons, and out on to a ragged expanse of heather and pine. It was like coming upon an eagle in a field of buttercups, for up to the forest's very door the country is all pastoral, — milk and honey and cheese, — then suddenly, with a turn of the lane, an irreclaimable wild is in front of you, a swarthy land of savage browns and blacks and greys, in exchange for the gentle greens and blues just behind you. To the left, some yards from the road, a little yellow inn and some nondescript outhouses, like a hen and chickens, have gone to sleep on a straggling edge of common. I make a little detour to read the sign : The Deer's Hut. That makes one forget the military wells, striking a note of ancient forestry. Away above the Deer's Hut, and parallel with the road for two or three miles, glooms a straight wall of dark hill, with here and there a pine clump standing out against the sky. This is Weaver's Down — another name of a fitting suggestiveness. Is it because the Fates are weavers that the word " weaver " seems charged with a certain uncanny significance ; or is my feeling—if indeed, it exists at all, for others — an inheritance from the slight awe with which weavers, lonely skilled men as their craft made them, were no doubt regarded of old by country-folk ? Then the spider is a dark and secret weaver, and it is well known that evil spells are always woven.
Whatever the reason, there seemed to me something appropriate to the dark solitariness of the scene in the sound of Weaver's Down ; and, lest I should appear too fanciful, let the reader compare the effect of that name upon his imagination with the effect of such a name as, say, Miller's Dale. Miller's Dale suggests jolly, open-hearted greenery, buttercups and daisies and sentiment. There is not such a difference between the two trades of weaver and miller, as to account for the undeniable darkening and brightening of the mind, produced respectively by the two names.. You would expect to hear of murder on Weaver's Down. In Miller's Dale one would fear nothing more dangerous than a picnic.
The road runs straight on, between scattered pines and pleasant green ditches filled with tiny water plants, sometimes lit with the splendid gold of the king-cup. Nothing is to be seen except solitude ; a crow noisily breaking the silence, and an old man unobtrusively breaking stones, being parts of it.
I ask the old man why yonder ridge is called Weaver's Down — but, of course, the old man has no idea. No one knows anything of the country in the country, nor does any one want to know. If you are at a loss for the name of a bird or a flower, it is of no use to ask a countryman. The people who know about birds and flowers are to be found on the Under-ground Railway, wistfully dreaming of their yearly fortnight by
" Shallow rivers to whose falls Melodious birds sing madrigals."
It is the Cockney who is your true nature-lover. I remember once imparting to a countryman the abstruse natural fact that tadpoles turned into frogs — but he would n't believe me. Nay, he brought all his household together to laugh me to scorn. They had evidently never heard anything quite so amusing as that. What notions these towns-folk do have of the the country, to be sure !
I left the old stone-breaker to an occupation which, compared with the practice of literature, has much to recommend it ; and I was once more alone with the silent forest and the fairy tick-tack of my cyclometer. The mention of that little machine leads me to ask a question of interest to cyclists : Do cyclometers flatter ? I am inclined to think that, just the least bit in the world, they do. I have not yet verified my suspicions, so will venture upon no definite statement at present. There are no milestones through Woolmer Forest, and, if the cyclometer really does overrate our exploits, maps, I have found, are a little inclined to underrate them. Still, I do certainly seem to cover the ground nowadays as I never did before I had a cyclometer.
After about two miles of level the road breasts a brief, sharp hill, from the top of which the forest opens out wide to the view. The pines have ceased, and it is all. up and down stretches of heath, seamed here and there by footpaths, one of them running round the flank of Weaver's Down, in, I suppose, the direction of Liss, a busy little place, which, for all this loneliness, is not so far away. Directly facing one on the horizon rises a broad white cliff, one of a series of those sudden hills which are locally called Hangers. This is Hawkley Hanger, and once more one thinks of Cobbett — his enthusiasm at the prospect to be gained from the summit, and his vividly-described difficulties in getting himself and his horse down to the level country. It is beneath such a hanger that Selborne lies, but as yet Selborne Hanger is hidden in the windings of the land. A brief spin brings one to the crest of a hill overhanging a little village, through which one is to reach pastoral country once more. Before I drop down again among the cattle and the bee-hives, I take a last look at the dark forest stretching as far as the eye can see to the right. It has only been the eastern end of the forest that I have gone through. Really to penetrate its depths one would need to leave one's bicycle and go on foot. Did I not say that Nature is for the pedestrian ? By the roadside stand two spick and span military tents, but no red-coats are to be seen. Presently I pass one of them walking with the proudest girl in the village. The summer manoeuvres are beginning. How much will those tents mean to that little village before the summer ends !
Greatham presently flies by, a prosperous-looking little village of no special individuality. A few yards beyond it a sign-post warns you to turn sharp to the right if you would find Selborne. The main business of the road is with Liss and Petersfield. This, I suppose, was the very corner where Cobbett reined up a moment on being told by his guide : "That road goes to Selborne."
" This put me in mind of a book," he writes, " which was once recommended to me, but which I never saw, entitled `The History and Antiquities of Selborne' (or something of that sort), written, I think, by a parson of the name of White, brother of Mr. White, so long a Bookseller in Fleet Street. This parson had, I think, the living of the parish of Selborne. The book was mentioned to me as a work of great curiosity and interest. But, at that time, the THING was biting so very sharply that one had no attention to bestow on antiquarian researches. Wheat at 39S. a quarter, and Southdown ewes at 12s. 6d., have so weakened the THING'S jaws and so filed down its teeth, that I shall now certainly read this book if I can get it."
The " Thing" was the pressing social question ever hot in Cobbett's heart. What would he think, one wonders, if he could come back and see so much that he fought for gone on the wind, the oppressor as firm in the saddle as ever ? What would he think could he read some of the ingenious prophecies of the terrible future of the world being made by a certain young novelist born some thirty years ago in yonder town of Liss ? Let us not sadden his well-earned sleep with these whispers of a darkening world.
That lane led not only to Selborne, but to very' summer. Summer in a pine-country is little more than a slight change of mourning. Like an inconsolable widow, it will only consent to mark the season by such austere renewal of costume as may pass all but unnoticed. And yet, for all its gloom, a pine-wood is nothing like so sad as the green and flowery summer at its greenest and floweriest height. Who has not known that poignant summer-sadness, which comes with the thickening of the grass and the rich crowding of the leaves, with the sound of steam-scythes and the scent of the wild rose? With the opening of the wild rose summer is made perfect. Then is its one brief moment of crowned completeness — and the moment is mysteriously sad, as all moments of supreme attainment are: the moment of a flame in its splendour, the moment of a bird's song in mid-rapture, the one perfect moment of a girl's beauty ; for truly all these things, in the ecstasy of their fulfilment, endure but for a moment. Perhaps some of the sadness lies in the assured look they wear of enduring thus in their abundance and bloom for ever. Yet to how few suns may a wild rose open and shut its eager flower-face, before its petals are making sweet the dust, its beauty already hardening to an autumn berry !
How terribly sad is the waving of the already seeded grass yonder ! Is it be-cause one has seen it waving thus over graves?
" O magic overture of Spring,
The pathos of the wild rose, and the solemnity of summer foliage. The remainder of the way to Selborne, I did little but ponder upon these matters, walking the while one or two considerable hills. For, round Selborne long ago there was evidently a great commotion of the land. It seems to have risen up in great billows, like Atlantic rollers, and been suddenly struck stationary as at the stopping of a tune. And now along the crest of the huge land waves great trees flourish, and the steep troughs of the waves are covered with green meadow grass. It is a country of green hill and green hollow sharply alternating, full of fascinating nooks and turns and swift sweeps of steep lawn. Selborne rides on one of the broadest of these green crests, over-shadowed by the Hanger, as by an updrawn wave enchanted into immobility in the very act to break. No doubt it is more White nowadays than Selborne, as Stratford is more Shakespeare than Stratford, and yet when you have made your sacrifice of sentiment at White's grave, you are sure to linger in the place for its own sake, and if you climb the Hanger you will feel that White was a secondary object of pilgrimage after all.
But let us first make that sacrifice of sentiment. The village that straggles, one longish street, parallel with the wooded Hanger, is much like any other English village, till you come almost to its end, and there it opens into a little quiet cobbled square, at the top corner of which stands the church. By the porch still flourishes the famous yew of monstrous proportions, and making that impression of indestructibility which no other bulk or strength in the world is able to make on the mind so powerfully as an old and mighty tree. Outside, the church is not notable, but inside it has preserved in rare measure that combined charm of antiquity, simplicity, and peace, which restorers have banished from too many of our old churches. It gives one less the sense of having been built than of having been carved out of the cool ancient rocks centuries ago. How still it is ! What a sanctuary of silence ! How luxurious a bed of death is here for the few favoured ones that one almost expects to hear gently breathing in their sleep — so deep is the silence. The living lie down in no such pomp of quietness.
White's, you would think, is this bed of state, right in the centre of the chancel, which you must walk over if you would reach the altar-rail, and take the blessing of the place upon your knees.
A tablet on the wall adjoining will tell you much more in funeral Latin, florid with issimus and issime, yet not without grace. However, this is not our Gilbert White but his grandfather. Our Gilbert lies out in the church-yard, with the shyness of genius ; characteristically it is his relations who ruffle it in the chancel. Several other Whites assist at their kinsman's honoured sleep. The bookseller of whom Cobbett spoke is here. He has given up his London business to share his brother Gilbert's immortality. Benjamin was his name, and to the left of the altar is a pathetic tablet to his seventh son, James White, Captain-Lieutenant in the First Battalion of the 82nd Regiment of Infantry, who cannot be present in this family pantheon, for " he fell a victim to the Climate of Saint Domingo, in the 29th year of his age, and was buried in the Charbonničre at Port au Prince," of which place, let not after-times forget, he died Town Adjutant.
Near him is the tablet of another absentee, of a fate sadly similar, and the only stranger in this family party of congratulatory death. This is one Charles Burton Etty, son of two Ettys whose piety is set forth with much particularity. He " fell in an engagement with the Maroons in the Island of Jamaica. Aged 35 years." That was in the days when the word " maroon " became for a while something more than a half-forgotten verb occasionally used in sea stories.
So does one little chancel keep the names of two of those builders of our empire, who have been so many and so brave that their memories must be a private care ; and so is this remotest of English villages directly joined with the ends of the earth, and directly concerned in a curious footnote of English colonial history.
I heard that two of the rooms of White's old house still survive as part of the handsome modern house which completes the side of the village street facing the church. But I made no attempt to see them. My curiosity was not great enough to overcome what is no doubt my singular aversion from invading the startled modern domesticities which usually make a hurried flight from the sacred rooms on these occasions. With an entirely unknown family at lunch, it is difficult not to hasten over one's sentiment, and ever afterwards to recall that family rather than the shrine you came to visit. I own to a considerable sympathy with the Rev. Francis Gastrell, of New Place, Stratfordon-Avon, in this particular, monstrous though his remedy was. When the first thrill of living in some haunted house of genius is past, that other haunting of the sentimental pilgrim must at times wear heavily upon the nerves. Perhaps your son has just come home from the wars, or your wife that very instant presented you with another girl, when in comes the housemaid with a " Please, sir, there 's a gentleman wishes to see the bed in which Queen Elizabeth slept ! " You are hardly human if you don't exclaim : Queen Elizabeth be ! "
Therefore, if there was anything so interesting as I have mentioned going on in Gilbert White's house the day of my visit to Selborne, it proceeded to a conclusion uninterrupted by me. The inn, however, I did visit, for it was then past noon, and some bread and cheese and beer seemed a fitting preparation for climbing the Hanger. In the inn par-lour I saw two things that interested me : a newspaper and a stuffed bird. Of the newspaper I will speak again. For the moment I solicit your kind interest in the bird. From memories of prints of him I had seen, I judged him to be a particular favourite of mine, to get a good look at whom I have often crawled stealthily through the heather at twilight, and lain as still as a stone near some blasted pine such as he loves to choose for his perch. So have I been rewarded by clear-cut silhouettes of him against the sky. I have seen the flies disappear into his curious hairy beak, and I have caught him in other characteristic moments. Best of all, my ears have been within a yard or two of the very source of that strange bass voice, welling out into the listening moorland silence at evening with a hoarse passionate churring rattle which seems the very soul of the pinewoods rudely articulate. " Dumb woods, have ye uttered a bird ? "
Yes, I surmised that at last I saw my old friend the nightjar face to face. But to make quite sure I asked the innkeeper. Now the innkeeper was a countryman.
So, you see, he did n't know. As the bird is the typical bird of the heather and pine country in which the innkeeper has been born and bred— as typical as the sparrow is typical of London — was it to be expected of him that he should know ? The bird had been there along with the beer-pumps and the rest of the fixtures when he took over the place. So began and ended his information on the subject. However, I had n't any real doubt as to the identity of the bird. He was as surely a nightjar as the beer-pump was a beer-pump ; and I studied him long and reverently, as one studies the features of a poet whose voice we have so often heard, but whose face one sees for the first time.
And the image is no image, but the precise fact of the matter. For the night-jar is a very great poet, and when a man gets the mysterious, yearning melancholy of the evening earth, the ache of it, the brackeny smell of it, the moths flitting, the dew rising, the shadows massing, the stars tinkling out, the moon somewhere —when a man gets these things into words as the nightjar gets them into his one note, a note which, though one, is saved from monotony by a masterly modulation and a subtle expansion and retraction of its volume ; when a man does that, and further charges the whole with the sense of a hopeless eternally patient passion, then we may call him a poet indeed.
Elsewhere I have compared the night-jar to Browning and the nightingale to Tennyson, and the comparison is so far true that we may allow it to illustrate the relative unpopularity of the nightjar. He is seldom mentioned in poetry. Indeed, almost all the important references to him are to be found in the writings of Mr. George Meredith. It was the nightjar, not the nightingale, I like to think, that was in the wood that holy night with Lucy and Richard; and the nightjar is the chosen bird of Love in the Valley." By these tokens he is a bird with a growing reputation. He is what we mean when we say " modern." He is the bird of a generation that demands the sincere, voice, the cri de coeur, however rugged that voice may be ; a generation weary of the roulades of the professional nightingale.
But, Heavens ! how ugly he is! No bird for courts is this. He is the hump-backed musician. Heaven help the lady who falls in love with him for his music before she has seen his face. All that is at once uncouth and strong seems to have come together to make this stubborn, broad-backed lump of a creature. He suggests some horrible composite rather than an honest species with respectable ancestors. The uncarved block of him, so to speak, is an owl, for he belongs to the owl family and has " fern-owl" for one of his names ; but he suggests greater strength than an owl, and a more sinister predacity. There is something of the bull-dog about his thick-set brown back. He needs chest breadth to house that deep music.
But it is in his head and eyes that his strangeness centres. His head, with the broad pointed beak open, horrid hairs sticking out at each side, like the tentacles of a barbel, rather suggests a fish than a bird, and there is something in it too, coming perhaps of the large, disproportionate, and somewhat wild, eyes, which suggests the lolling head of an idiot. The bird was meant for one of nature's monsters — but some accident has made him a genius. And with all this goes the pathos of very ugly things.
There are three recognised ways of climbing the Hanger. Of course, at any point you can take the brief Roman way with hills and go perpendicularly on — perhaps always the best way with hills — for at no point, so far as I could see, is Selborne Hanger unscaleable. However, you will probably find any one of the three ways I have referred to sufficiently Roman for your taste. The first one catches sight of on entering the village, not immediately taking its meaning maybe; for up through the thick beech-wood that hangs (hence the name) on the steep wall of hill, an avenue has been cut, and up this zig-zags a gravel path, looking at the distance like a gigantic herring-bone. It has evidently been made with an eye to a rude decorative effect, and ends at the top with a full-stop in the shape of a wishing-stone. You lay one hand on the stone, one on your heart, and look the way your love lies. Having no compass with me, I was unable to " wish," and to turn North, South, East, and West would smack of levity.
The two other paths lead up through the singularly beautiful beech-wood, one diagonally and coming out at the far end of the Hanger overlooking the church and White's house, and the other striking the summit about midway. This middle course was my own choice, and I found it sufficiently ambitious.
What is the secret of that romantic fairy-tale effect which beeches, and I think no other trees, make upon the imagination — particularly young beeches slim and very tall? Such woods are seen in their perfection of romantic suggestiveness in Denmark, and this wood at Selborne reminded me rather of Hans Andersen than Gilbert White. Perhaps the effect arises partly from the fact that the trunks are entirely devoid of foliage and branches, and sweep up, like the columns of a hall, to support the thick roof of green leaves. Thus you can see from end to end of the wood, but in a perpetual enchanted twilight. Then there is usually a fascinating but absolutely uniform lean in the columns, and this repetition of exactly the same lines, as in a decorative pattern, has no doubt its share in impressing the imagination.
In almost startling contrast to the haunted gloom of the beech-wood, is the plateau of sun and grass and oaks and breeze on to which you step from your climb. You stand in the centre of a vast circle of hilly horizons, the wealds and fields of Sussex and Surrey and I know not what other counties, stretched almost too map-like at your feet. Perhaps the chief surprise of the place is in the character of the green wilderness which flourishes on this broad back of hill. One does not expect to be so high in the air, and yet so hidden in greenery. It is a stretch of oak-openings lifted bodily into the air, with green dingles, and bramble coverts, and bright little chapels of the wild-rose:
" Beautiful glooms, soft dusks in the noonday fire, —
And the oaks are old and strong and mossy, and full of green darkness. Cows go tinkling about hidden among the bushes, and two little boys carrying sticks on their backs suddenly appear like gnomes out of the depths of the green twilight. It is Broceliande, and yet you are high on a hilltop, where, scripturally speaking, you cannot be hid, all the time.
Presently, with something of a start you come upon a cottage at the edge of the hill. A loutish young countryman stood near as I came upon it. I asked him if he could tell me which of yonder hills was Hindhead. No, he could n't. Could he tell me the names of any of the hills lying about us ? No, not one — not even the name of the next hanger. I could barely conceal my contempt for this third exhibition of country ignorance. But presently his dull face brightened with a certain intelligence, and he asked a question : Had I seen a pig thereabouts ?
I hadn't — so we parted, mutually disgusted with each other. He had never heard of Hindhead, and I had n't seen his pig. Of what use were we to each other? So we parted without salutation or regret, and I wandered along the Hanger, to make my way down again by the descent at the village end. In the park-like stretch which runs between the village street and the foot of the Hanger, a number of young people were making themselves happily hot a-hay-making — of all romantic occupations perhaps the most laborious. But who grudges any labour that brings him close to the good earth ? — except perhaps sexton's work. Any excuse to be near the warm heart of the mighty Mother: hay-making, playing at soldiers in Woolmer forest, writing books about nothing -- anything at all, anything at all.