England - Hindhead To Winchester
( Originally Published 1900 )
Solitude and personality — In the bosom of the hills— The South Downs — The ride to Winchester — The beauty of Winchester — A learned verger — Wykehamist " notions."
I HAD planned to enter the Cotswolds from Evesham, and then to zig-zag my way south again, returning home by way of Salisbury and Winchester; but a rainy morning and a muddy street decided me to give in for a day or two and exactly reverse my plan. So I said good-bye to Evesham, without having given a thought to Simon de Montfort; and within a few hours was once more turning down home-lane, with a sense of having been away for years. So a few miles of space covered by one's own exertions seem to expand time also, and give to hours whose seconds have been like as blades of grass the sense of exciting history.
Probably it is the loneliness, the rare opportunity of living to oneself, which accounts for this quickened sense of existence, during hours actually spent in an idleness extending even to one's tongue. To have journeyed with a friend would have materially plundered that feeling; for the success of a joint journey chiefly lies in the power of either companion courteously to be the other all the way along. One is never oneself, except either alone, or with a slave, or with an enemy. A courteously conducted existence leaves a man little opportunity of being himself. It is impolite, sometimes even cruel, to be oneself in society. That is why personalities cannot long exist there—and the same applies to all human intercourse. That is why men and women fear marriage — they are literally giving up themselves ; for no good husband or father can be really himself. Of course, there is another side to the question : namely, how much of what we call ourselves is not the habit of obligingly being some-one else, and how much self we should have at all were it not for our making such formative habits. Perhaps the soul, like the body, is mainly an affair of clothes — clothes worn to please, and largely provided by others. Three or four days alone in the country will soon test this for you, and, after you have experimented a little in your own society, you will probably be a very great person indeed if you don't welcome a return to being several other more charming people instead — which is what we mean by going home." Ah, yes ! how much of such goodness and sweetness as we may possess does not come of our living with natures better and sweeter than ourselves !
However, I had hardly locked up my "self" in the wardrobe and been three other dear people for as many hours, when the sun came out and declared my flight from Evesham a cowardly business, in fact a thinly veiled piece of homesickness. Fortunately, I can prove, if necessary, that rain really did fall at Evesham, though it seems to have fallen nowhere else, and Persephone denied a single drop in the valley.
There was nothing to do but to unlock the wardrobe again, and meet myself once more at the top of the lane. This I did reluctantly enough about tea-time, and, once more on the Portsmouth-road, once more having alighted to examine maps at Liphook, I took the turn to the left of the Anchor, seeking Winchester by way of Petersfield.
The country is largely Woolmer Forest again, rolling common and pine, the greater part of the way to Petersfield, a place lacking in that persuasiveness to which we cannot refuse a halt ; but, beyond, it begins to swell and soften and dimple into the round grassy bosoms of the South Downs. Soon one sees that one's road is to lie in those pleasant places, literally in the bosom of the hills ; and so strikingly feminine are the contours that one grows almost shy as one approaches them, and, slowly ascending from the plain, is taken in among the soft shadows. " This earth of the beautiful breasts ! "
Once on the uplands, one is soon conscious of a solitude peculiarly exquisite, and deepening with each mile that brings one nearer to Winchester. It is a solitude penetrated, one can hardly tell how, with a sense of antiquity, and that hush of reverence with which very old things seem to fill the air. The land itself seems older than the land in the plains, as the stones in a cathedral seem older than the parent stone in the quarry whence they were hewn. It is that ancient silence which seems to make the grass-grown barrow lonelier than the rest of the meadow, the loneliness of a country of ancient earth-works and Druid stones. Such a country, of course, it is, and when about eight miles beyond Petersfield, close by a scrap of village called Brookwood, the remains of an old stone circle arrest one at the roadside, one feels that the land is beginning to explain itself. For we are now entering on a region where the names of Saxon kings are still on the lips of peasants, where the battlefields have been green for a thousand years, and the Nor-man Conquest is spoken of as elsewhere we speak of the French Revolution, —a comparatively recent convulsion of politics. Not by our small modern clocks is time measured here, but by the sundial of the stars.
I shall not soon forget the impressiveness of the last three or four miles to Winchester, dreamily ridden in a twilight of fine gold. How strangely spiritual this solid earth, of chalk and nibbling sheep, can sometimes seem ; what an expression of diaphanousness it sometimes wears. So a poet's face, long since materialised, will sometimes at evening shine with a boyish starlight, and seem all spirit for a brief elated hour.
The beech-trees and the hedges which had somewhat disguised the lines of the land hitherto, had suddenly disappeared, and there was nothing but the long-limbed down lying vast and still beneath the solemn evening sky. The silence seemed like an exquisite vessel of porcelain. One dared scarcely breathe lest it should break. How lonely it was, and yet how little one asked a companion. And there, crowned with an heraldic sunset, lay Winchester in a fold of the down ; and, after the hush of those intense uplands, it was almost startling to come upon the sudden sound of the little river Itchen, running with noisy freshness beneath the bridge that is the threshold of the town, and to mingle once more in a warm murmur of men and women.
Well may the Wykehamist write of Winchester like a lover, and count it a fortune peculiarly fair to have been " a Wykehamist come of Wykehamists." Even to the stranger, sleeping but for one night in the odour of its sanctity, it may well seem that he has found no place so lovely, so beautiful to the eye, and so appealing to the soul, as this mitred, romantic city — this emblazoned initial letter of England's history. Was history ever written as it is written in the stones of Winchester, and what other English city has such a history to write? for there is scarce an event or personality that has been momentous for England that has not at one time touched Winchester — from King Canute to Jane Austen, both Wykehamists in death, for the bones of both rest in the cathedral.
Here, too, rest the bones of Izaak Walton. But you must ask to see his grave. Else the verger will pass it by, for vergers take small account of literary fame ; and what, indeed, can such fame seem to a man in whose sight all day are those carved and gilded chests hoarding the dust of twenty forgotten kings ? In this tomb rests pious King Edred, who nobly governed this land of Britain and died A. D. 955," runs the inscription on one of those strange mortuary chests resting on the side screens of the choir ; and the guide-book writer adds in brackets
Contains many thigh bones and two skulls." Now a verger realises that no literary man ever had many thigh bones and two skulls. That is only given to kings — and vergers throughout England are unanimously royalist. It is instructive to hear how they speak of Cromwell to this day. The vergers of England at least will never forgive him.
But I must not seem to be disrespectful to vergers, particularly to the courteous and learned verger at Winchester, who so generously and graciously gave me the benefit of historical and architectural acquirements which made me realise neglected opportunities of scholarship with a pang particularly keen. Only to hear him talk of apsidal terminations " ! He seemed only more familiar with William Rufus, who was carried in here from the New Forest, an arrow in his brain, and was buried in a tomb of basalt, " many looking on and few grieving." Yes, as he himself said of the reredos, peopled with the statues of Wincastrian saints and heroes, my verger is a veritable " mass of history." You must go and let him tell you the story of Winchester Cathedral. Get him to tell you all I could never tell half so well, and respect with me, not only his learning, but the sentiment of his grateful pride that he has been chosen to be a doorkeeper in this beautiful house of God — and William of Wykeham.
Go, too, and ask to see the porter at Wykeham's noble school. The editor of
The Wykehamist " has not the honour and gracious glory of his school more in his heart. Ask him particularly to show you " the Seventh Chamber," where in an old room lit, so to say, with church windows, each scholar has his little alcoved desk, the books of his choice around him, and photographs of mother and sister and sweetheart to freshen his eyes and to keep pure his heart.
It may interest you, too, to go and see the name of the present editor of the " Times " boldly carved on the wainscotting of the Sir Christopher Wren School-room. But I gathered that no such pleasure as that is being prepared for its successor by the present generation, for great men studying at Winchester no longer cut their names on the old oak. There has arisen, the porter told me, a " notion " that it is " bad form," and all the world knows that, as the porter said, " everything goes by ' notions ' at Winchester School."
Some of these " notions " he told me, and some I learnt in glancing through a rare book kindly given me a glimpse of by a courteous book-seller — for Winchester " notions " are so old and odd as to have deserved collection in a book. From that book I gathered that Winchester boys talk no little Chaucer among themselves, say " swynke," for instance, to convey hard work. When a " man " all males are, of course, "men" in Winchester, as in other public schools — is rather mean, or hard-up, you say he is " brum ; " when he has plenty of money you say he is "bulky," which is a cause for him to " junket " — that is to say, congratulate himself. When he eats dumpling-puddings he refers to them as " fido." A fruit tart is "dean," and rice-pudding, I regret to say, is appropriately referred to as muck." And, beyond this privileged language, the " notions " of the Winchester boy include an etiquette elaborate beyond the procedure of royal drawing-rooms. For example, no one save a " prefect" may wear his hat in crossing "Chamber Court," as only a " prefect" may walk along the central paved path—central "sands," I believe it is technically called — for an image of the Virgin, long since mouldered beyond recognition, is enshrined above the gate-way, and only prefects may wear their hats in presence of the Virgin.
Life must be very arduous for the first few weeks of a Winchester boy's career. What terrible lickings must lie in wait for the uninitiated, and how terribly careful one must be to remember the " stalky" thing. " Stalky and Co." ? Did the porter know that? He smiled. Yes, indeed ! Was there a boy in that school who did n't just worship Rudyard Kipling !
" Have you read 'The White Man's Burden'?" asked a lady with the beautiful white hair worn by Americans.