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Rural England

( Originally Published 1912 )



SMART trap met us at the little station. Soon we were A bowling along over hard roads, by field and farm, by village inn and moss-grown country house and flowering hedges; for it was the month of May, and our driving-journey through an English countryside was just beginning.

Although we were two architects traveling with sketch book and camera, and in spite of all that art and human life have done in England to interest just such travelers, it was nature and her handiwork that first claimed our notice and our intense enthusiasm. Coming from a land which the summer sun dries and scorches, we were charmed by this humid, changing landscape. The ever-varying skies were now bright with sunshine, now filled with threatening clouds. Again they broke in drenching showers that called forth mackintoshes and rubbers, and then again were serene and fair. The roadside turf was filled with daisies, the hedgerow sweet with hawthorn and later with wild rose and honeysuckle. The fields showed green with crops, blood red with poppies or glowing with clover.

Everywhere, too, were evidences of an open-air life. Our first days were passed in a hunting-country. Each wind vane was a fox, and one side of all the main roads was finished with a soft surface for horsemen. Here and there were the brick kennels for the hunting-packs, and at Taporley the inn has served the hunt dinner for the last one hundred years. We found Chester in the midst of a horse fair. Hundreds of horses paraded the streets with colored tapes and wisps of straw skillfully woven in their tails and manes. The whole scene recalled Rosa Bonheur's familiar picture. At Alcester, where we stopped for lunch, it was market day. The inn was full of farmers, most of whom had come in the saddle on their stout cobs to the sale of sheep and pigs. While their masters stowed away beef and ale in the inn, the nags crunched their corn in the cobble-paved and brick-walled stables. The boys played cricket on the commons, and twice we came on great bowling-greens, where, in the long twilights, the villagers were playing at bowls and making wonderful twisting shots across a perfectly level circle of turf perhaps two hundred feet in diameter. Every cottage seemed to have a cared-for garden in which old-fashioned flowers flourished. The hedges were trimmed and cut into fanciful figures of bird and beast and, at the larger places, the lawn, the garden, and the trees received the same care as the house itself.

But if nature and the Englishman's love of it impressed us beyond anything in our journey, the great contrasts of wealth and poverty, of vast parks and huddled towns, of grand mansions and damp cottages were nearly as noticeable. Rarely in England are people more closely crowded together than in the back and squalid parts of Chester; and then, just across the river, you pass through miles of beautiful park lands, where the pheasants and rabbits of the Duke of Westminster seem better off than many of his fellow citizens in the adjoining town. Near Wrexham we drove by the high walls of Wynstay Park, the home of a well-known Welshman. Here again a beautiful piece of country, shaded by great trees, is inhabited only by deer and wild creatures; but close to this paradise is the crowded and ugly brick-making town of Ruabon. Thus, throughout the country, large tracts of fertile lands where scattered houses are infrequent alternate with crowded and huddled towns. A poor man can have no land on which to keep a cow; an old woman tells us how her discouraged neighbors have emigrated; no laborer is permitted to disfigure the landscape with a new home of his own; and such evidences that England is no place for a poor man are abundant. With the Great West and Australia; Canada and South Africa, holding out great prizes to the energetic poor, one wonders that any such remain in a country where the chance of betterment is so very small.

It is, however, resting and quieting, to us whose lot is cast in a land of progress and change, to find the shopkeeper or the farmer having no apparent wish or ambition to change his lot. Such a condition is natural, no doubt, to a society that has been governed by the few, and in which even the Church has instilled in each man the duty of being contented in that position to which God has called him. To the nervous American it offers a new view of life, and a calm and peaceful one, in spite of the thought that the gain of the few is the loss of the many.

When we forget the poor man and his surroundings, there is little left in England that is not beautiful. "Long and low" are words that best describe the elements of English building design. The long, low walls of the cathedrals offer striking contrasts to the masses of masonry that tower above such towns as Beauvais and Amiens. The minute entrances at Wells have little relationship with the gorgeous portals of the great French churches. Castles like Penshurst, Stokesay, and even Warwick have the same English qualities, and you look in vain among them for the snap and dash and fire of the French châteaux, such as Pierre-fonds or Falaise or Azay-le-Rideau, with their conical towers and many-vaned spirelets. In the same way, also, the cottages which throughout England blend so softly and so picturesquely with the peaceful landscape have widespread homelike roofs, and lie so close to the ground that you step down into most of them.

Naturally these houses, large and small, were a subject of great interest to us, and we soon noticed with surprise how natural barriers, like a great hill, had once caused local diversity in building, — a diversity largely continued after railroads had made it unnecessary. Through Cheshire, timber-and-plaster farmhouses alternated with brick buildings. On leaving Shrews-bury you cross a lofty hill and come down into the rough stone village of Much Wenlock. Then the crossing of another ridge brings you, at Chipping Norton and Woodstock, into towns with house fronts of cut stone like those in France. That such an obstacle as a large hill should make this serious variation in such a small region astonished us.

All along our route lay castles, once the defenders of the Welsh Marches, —from the big castles at Ludlow and Shrewsbury to the little one at Stokesay. The latter lay in a fertile valley and an ancient timber-and-plaster gatehouse gave access to it through a wall inclosing church and castle. The church had the ordinary square tower with mast and vane. Within was an old Jacobean gallery and pulpit, and a squire's pew where the high wainscoted walls were open only at an arcade surrounding the top. A wooden ceiling covered in the whole pew. In such a structure the squire could sleep soundly through the sermon and not even the parson would know it. The castle itself had a fine keep, or tower, and a roof of large mossgrown stone slabs. Its great guest hall was warmed by a central hearth, from which the smoke curled up to the open timber roof. A staircase of solid oak blocks led above, and in some of the rooms were remains of richly carved mantels. Ightham Mote, in Kent, another mansion nearly as old and also possessing a grand central hall, is surrounded by a moat filled with water and is entered by a bridge. The courtyard within is hemmed in by gray stone walls and plaster gables.

When the need had passed of such moats and towers and of halls for retainers there came into vogue the great mansions which we see illustrated in Richardson's and Nash's books, some of brick and some of "post and pan," as the black oak and white plaster work is called. Grim wall surfaces gave way to long ranges of mullioned windows, but the widespread and scattered group of buildings without striking "motifs" still kept the national long-and-low look. We saw many such mansions, and noticed the cheery sparkle that the white plaster work gave to a green landscape, and the mellowness of an old brick wall set in great trees. Again, the tile roofs, or the yet more beautiful roofs of great stone slabs, assume in the wet atmosphere such varied hues, such blotted-in and run-together tones, as nature never lends to art in this bright clear land of ours. Our roofs never gain the mossy covering that lends the great charm to an English tile roof. It is so valued in England that we heard of one zealous housebuilder who had given his new walls and roofs a coat of flour paste and the next day he had a many-colored growth of mould on his tiles.

In the Elizabethan and Jacobean interiors there is much high oak wainscoting on the walls, often continuing even to the ceiling itself. The ceilings are covered with elaborate plaster work in strap or rib patterns or in modeled subjects. Even in its early days the oak was probably very dark, and the plaster work, as now, either white or washed in some creamy tint. Though such a contrast of black and white sounds raw, yet, with surroundings in harmony, — the great stone fireplace, the hangings of tapestry or other coarse fabrics, and the lattice-paned sashes, — these rooms are the most homelike and delightful in the world. They are the rooms that we all love as Nash illustrated them. They possess a quiet charm to which modern decorative art seldom attains.

It is not alone the grand mansions that are suggestive. The small country and village houses are full of interest for the passer-by. But in entering them there is nearly always a step down to a brick or tile floor laid on the earth. For picturesque attraction little can surpass the great buttressed chimney that serves both the ingle-nook and the brick boiler in which ale is brewed and the clothes are boiled. Lattice-panes fill the windows, and odd-shaped dressers are decked with bright tins and crockery. Whether because the climate favors flowers or because the people are fond of them, every cottage has its neat garden. We should do well to catch and imitate all this homelike air if we can, but not live in these damp and stuffy houses. For dryness and cleanliness and as healthy homes they certainly cannot stand comparison with our ugly Yankee cheap wooden cottages.

The towns and villages are full of alehouses; cozy little places, with swinging signs of the Blue Bell, the Ship, the Mitre. Each has a snug bar and an inner kitchen, where sides of bacon hang on the ceiling beams; where the walls are lined with high-back settles, and where bootjacks and tankards and pewter dishes suggest possible comfort and cheer. As we sat hastily sketching such a room, one of the two or three old gaffers watching us asked if we were detectives; because, as he said, we seemed to be "taking it all down." Another day brought us better luck, and our well-appointed trap surprised a zealous village shopgirl, who was supplying us with photographs, into saying, with a blush, "Is not this Sir Charles ?" — a noble being, as we learned at the next village, who was then expected at his home near by.

But of all buildings that the English countryside offers for our admiration nothing can equal the village church. We certainly never realized how generally it is to be found in the English villages; rich and stately, and with history built into it; with ancient monuments on its walls, and old glass and stone tracery in its windows. The houses 6f the living closely nestle around it and the dead sleep in its shadow. In the hill country sturdy towers rise from the gray walls of these ancient temples, and lofty spires soar high from those on the fens and the plains. At Wrexham we climbed up into the richly decorated tower, and found the great chime of bells arranged for striking by means of hand levers, or for ringing peals by long stirrups, a man to each bell. On the walls were painted and gilded tablets, recording how, on such a date, such a party of ringers had rung so many changes in such a time, duly attested by the clerk. Most of these churches are reached by a path among the graves in the church-yard, and that in turn is often surrounded by a wall and entered through a picturesque lych gate. Nearly always the ground level is well above the church floor, suggestive of the ages through which it has received the village dead. Generally the church-yard is neatly cared for, and children play among the old stones and call to one another with the voices that in both women and children we so often notice as musical and sweet.

We shall long remember our Sunday in Ludlow. The closely peopled hill on which the town stands is flanked by a great Edwardian castle and crowned by the high tower of the church. Early in the morning we were wakened by the chimes that, ringing merrily at that lofty height, made a rippling melody audible far up the river valley. We breakfasted in the Jacobean coffee-room, and then the town seemed with one accord to go to service. The mayor and council met at the market-house in their robes of office, and, with the mace carried before them by the clerk, walked to church and sat together in the state seats. The pretty maid who had served our breakfast hastened away after them, and so did the landlord. So also did the dissenting anglers with whom we had breakfasted; and so in turn we wanderers from remote shores followed them and the rest of the town. The little surpliced choir-boys threw their youthful spirits into the chants, and their voices rang most cheerily in the stone vaults of the tower. The large congregation took up their part of the service as if they had as much to do with it as the clergyman. It seemed as if such surroundings would arouse the dullest preacher, but ours was probably more inured to the influences of the old church than we were. In spite, however, of his dogmatic platitudes, it was most certainly divine worship that we joined in on that Sunday morning. We were glad we had not discovered dissenting chapels or meeting-houses. As far as we knew, we worshipped with all the town folk and at the only church.

Though we had often heard that Chumley as a family name was spelt "Cholmondeley," we never expected to be bearers of a letter with that odd address. We hated to part with it at the great gate of a country-seat which may stand as the type of . the remembrances which our journey left with us. From the lodge a sweeping avenue drove up to the fore court of a grand symmetrical stone house of the Elizabethan period, with great ranges of mullioned windows, and terraced walls and balustrades of a semi-Italian character. Towards this entrance side of the house all the halls and corridors opened; and on the other or lawn side were ranges of rooms opening by mullioned windows to stone terraces and to a view over a widespread lawn. The lofty rooms had stone fireplaces, and paneled wainscots, and modeled ceilings, some-what too much "done up" in modern times, perhaps, but still in good historical character. In the upper stories, besides the family apartments, were long ranges of visitors' bedrooms, with a little holder on each door for the occupant's card. After we had studied the interior of the mansion, and had disposed of the grand lady who, as housekeeper, did us the honors, but who was not above receiving the Queen's money, we found our way through the intervening hedge, and were in the adjoining church-yard, with the old graves and the crosses and the sundial. This church, like most of those we saw, was of a late Gothic period. Within it were many family monuments; here a statue of a British officer on his knees holding aloft the hilt of his sword as a cross; there a recumbent alabaster statue of a lovely young wife. The church is backed by heavy dark trees; beyond the church-yard gate are the sparkling white gables of an old oak-and-plaster house, and over the moss-grown cottage roof proudly stalked a peacock with tail wide spread.

An ancestral mansion with stately rooms and lawns and ter-races and gardens; a cozy farmhouse embowered in trees, with the peacock sunning himself, on the roof ; an ancient village church; a peaceful yew-shaded churchyard; the tombs of rich and poor for generations; the sundial that had cast its shadow so many quiet centuries; the rich, pleasant voices of the few passing villagers, — such are the peaceful memories of our holiday in England.



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