The Days of the Long Nights
My Neighbours and Surroundings
The Charms of Sport
The Turn of the Year
Caste in the Country
A Look Round in the Early Year
Spring Weather and Work
A Spring Day Stroll
My Furred and Feathered Neighbours
Summer Signs and Sounds
On Country Landlords, Estates, and Tenants
The Time of Harvest
Concerning Dogs and Horses
The Days of the Sere and Yellow Leaf
Autumn Moons and Autumn Gales
Of Dogs, Turnpike Roads, and Rustic Crafts
Domestic Arrangements and Home Comforts
Church Accommodation – Quiet Country Sundays – Squatter Homes
Rural Communities – Retrospective Reflections
don't think I am considered a morbid-minded person, yet I must confess to a strange fancy for wandering about country churchyards. I like to contemplate a quiet rural burying-ground, where the "rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep," to picture to my mind the generations of men and women who have trod the path to the old church, been baptised at the font, given in marriage at the altar, and have been at last laid to sleep in the peaceful village churchyard. To look at the picturesque burying grounds of some of our little village churches is almost to feel death deprived of some of its terrors, for it is possible to imagine that "after life's fitful fever" it will not be so bad to lie in peace amid such calm and sweet surroundings. Indeed, my fancy sometimes carries me a step further, and I am given to wish that death were a kind of trance, a dimly-conscious state, such as we often experience before we fairly awake in our beds, when we seem aware of sounds and surroundings, though in a state of dozing semi-insensibility. Then it might be anything but unpleasant to lie in some pretty country churchyard, to listen to the sound of the bells, to hear the rolling tones of the organ, and the voices of the singers. But such dreams and fancies are vain; these sounds are not for the "dull cold ear of death."
Our village churchyard is a good specimen of its kind. In the middle stands a hoary yew tree, getting thin at the top with age, but with a broad, rugged, gnarled trunk. I have heard various reasons given for the appearance of yew trees in old churchyards. I will mention two. One is that the yew is the western representative of the eastern palm, and that its branches used to be required for Palm Sunday services. The other reason ascribed is that, in the old days of the archers, bows were made of yew tree wood, and that to help to ensure a supply of the needful timber it was customary to plant yews in churchyards. I am not in a position to give accepted authorities for these statements, but the fact that yew trees are generally found growing in old churchyards suggests that there were reasons beyond those of mere appearance. Our churchyard, I am happy to say, is not disfigured by too many ugly big vaults. There are one or two abominations in the form of hideous, brick, box-shaped constructions with a stone laid at the top. There are also specimens of those large pretentious erections, covering considerable space, and guarded with railings as though they were prison cells.
Possibly in the old days of body-snatching it was considered meet and right, and in some places even necessary, to protect the remains of relatives and friends from the depredations of ghoulish robbers. In contrast, however, to such lugubrious constructions as those I have described, there is one notable dark marble stone, standing in a quiet corner of our churchyard. It is very simple and unpretentious in character, though it covers the remains of one who was a peer of the realm, and whose line, which comprised famous scholars and lawyers, could, I have read, be traced far back, perhaps to the time of the Conquest. Then, as in most old churchyards, we have some of those moss-grown, weather-beaten tombstones, several of which recline in weary, drooping positions; others that have sunk deep into the ground as if they were anxious to reach the remains of those whose names they record, and on many of which stones the reading has become almost illegible with age.
And this reminds me that I once had a curious experience in connection with one of these hoary gravestones. Close to the path leading to a church that I attended for many years, stood an old tombstone, on which the name was so obliterated by time that I had never read what it was. The owners of that stone, however, for some reason, chose to have it cleaned and refurbished, and its writing made clear. I was rather startled when I looked at it in its restored form. I could then read the name distinctly, and, strange to say, it was my own – surname and Christian name complete! This came upon me as a bit of a surprise, and I felt disposed to feel my pulse and make sure that I was above ground; but, finding I was still in the flesh, the momentary shock subsided, and I soon came to regard the stone with stolid complacency, and even began to think that the name would not make a bad line for my little record when the time came.
In my churchyard rambles, I am always on the lookout for original and characteristic epitaphs, but I find few. We know there are some very quaint and curious ones in existence, and I used to be able to recollect a whole string of them. I will only now venture to repeat one, which I like to remember on account of its extreme brevity. It consists of only two words – "Thorpes' corpse." Nothing, I think, could well be shorter than that. In our churchyard the epitaphs are usually of the general stock order, but there are two inscriptions that interest me. One is on the tomb of our late rector, and it runs thus: "I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth Thee." That strikes me as being impressive and appropriate. The other is on a stone put up to the memory of a little child, and it reads: "Here rests until the day dawn," &c, &c. That, I think, is terse, simple, and suggestive.
Ah me! when I look round our churchyard I often think what a sad story it tells of the pathos and tragedy of every-day life and death. There lies one who left us almost as soon as he had reached manhood. An innocent garden game one day, a chill, a short illness, and a death-bed, leaving behind him a young widow and an unborn child, whose face he would never see, and whose baby lips he would never press. How sad, unutterably sad! There lies a little child, a bright little fellow, the hope and joy of his young parents; but ere the bud had unfolded its leaves there came the chilling, nipping frost, and a churchyard stone tells the rest. And there is the grave of a wife and mother, who for years struggled against pain and disease, till, worn out with the strife, she succumbed. Yes, and there stands the tomb of one who bore years of agony with exemplary patience. Always good humoured and cheerful, he endured his sufferings with splendid resignation, and practised that Christian fortitude he so often preached. Then, I fear, that even in our churchyard, as in others, there lie some whose lives were not beyond reproach, and whose deaths were not heroic; but, even over these, loving hands have reared affectionate tributes to their memory. The de mortuis maxim is generally held in great respect, in spite of the fact that it may sometimes restrict comment if we are only to speak good of the dead. Still, there are few lives, even of the most abandoned, in which there are not a few bright pages; or, at any rate, some that are less dark than others.
But I am wandering from our country churchyard, and may as well wander a little further, and glance at some of the country churches and parsons in our neighbourhood. I own I am given to visiting strange churches; indeed, I call myself a "peripatetic Protestant." Hence I am familiar with most of the village churches within reasonable distance of my home. Somehow I like to vary my sermon vintage, consequently I try other brands occasionally, and wander to other parishes. In a near village to us (Clent) is a parson of the strong and lusty type; a robust man, physically and Christianly considered. Sometimes I see him on his tricycle, powering along the road at fire-engine speed; and sometimes I hear of him going out into the highways and by-ways, or rather on to the hills, and preaching to the crowds who assemble there on holiday occasions. Fearless and vigorous, he seems ready, for anything and anybody, and I sometimes think that if it came to a tussle with the Devil the latter might not come off first best.
Then, in a village not far away, is another parson of the downright type. His sermons considerably interest me. He is very much at home in his own church, and he talks to his congregation in a very clear, outspoken fashion. He seems to say in effect: "Look here, you people, you've heard my text. I've explained it, and you must understand it and believe it. There must be no nonsense, you know. It is of no use your coming here and making believe you are Christians without you act as such. My text is as plain as a pikestaff, and you've got to comprehend it and follow it out in your daily life. That's what you have to do, so let us have no sophistry, hesitation, or humbug." This parson is a good, go-along sort of man, pretty much at his ease everywhere; and, as I have hinted, very much at home in his own parish and church. I shall not readily forget the first time I went to one of his Sunday afternoon services. I knew him, and he knew me, but I was not certain he would recognise me at the further end of his church. What, however, was my astonishment when, during the singing of one of the canticles, he stepped out of his reading desk, and, walking down to me, whispered in my ear, "Come over and have some tea at the rectory after the service." Not very far from this church is another (Belbroughton) of a different type, both as regards the edifice and the clergyman. This happens to be a good old college living, and consequently it usually falls into the hands of some good, well-seasoned scholar. When these college livings become vacant they are offered, I believe, to the oldest fellows of the college in turn; and, as this is a living worth having, it is usually taken by some well-matured academic, and the parish gets a learned, book-loving parson. Whether it is altogether owing to this fact that the church is suffered to remain in a deplorably musty condition, I don't know; but certain it is that it is in a lamentable state of dinginess. The present rector, however, is making an effort to do what some of his predecessors should have done; also, I hope, to undo what some of them allowed to be accomplished. When you approach this church, so picturesque externally, you naturally expect to see old-fashioned beauty and excellence in its interior. Old-fashioned vandalism! The church has a side aisle divided from the nave by a series of arches. Will it be believed that two of these arches have been made into one, making a hideous line, and all to allow of an ugly gallery being carried from the west end almost into the middle of the church? Then there are high-backed pews, mouldy walls, and a general neglectfulness not often found in churches in these modern days. We sometimes hear archaeologists rave against modern church restoring. All the same, if restoration means scraping dirty whitewash from walls, removing ugly old pews, and abolishing abominable galleries, and obliterating all traces of vandalism "parsonified" and churchwardened, then I am on the side of the restorers, and I hope they will soon be allowed to try their hands on the edifice I have described.
I will only refer to one more church (Broom), and that because it is of a different order from any other church with which I am acquainted in our locality. The village in which it is situated is very small, and the church matches it in its diminutive proportions. The edifice is not lovely in design, but its deformities are so concealed by ivy that it really looks quite picturesque. The service is of almost primitive simplicity. There is no pulpit in the church, nor is there an organ or even an apology for one in the form of a harmonium. The leading resident – I might say the squire of the place – starts the tunes from a pitch pipe, and sings, bass, while the rector "puts in" the tenor. This clergyman is of the old-fashioned school. He dons no cassock, and, if my memory serves me, no white dog-collar encircles his reverend neck, as is the manner with most Anglican "priests." He is content to be a country clergyman. When it comes to sermon time he quietly takes his position at the lectern, and gives his congregation a simple, homely preachment. He does not, so far as I have heard, deal with doctrinal questions which are apt to puzzle people, and set them thinking too much. He gives out his text, explains it in an easy, intelligible manner, puts in a few descriptive notes and historical touches, draws a moral, and then seems to finish up with a sort of "Bless you, my children; go home and be good." The whole service is very primitive and unaffected, almost Arcadian in its simplicity, and seems to carry one back to the old days of happy, rural England.
Many stories are told of the extremely unconventional ways that obtain in this little village. I have heard that at one time, when the parson was unwell, or called away from home, he sent word to his principal parishioners that there would be no service, and the church be closed. I can hardly credit such a story, and possibly it is as apocryphal as the tale we have heard of the old village clerk who gave out: "There won't be no service in this church this afternoon, parson's goin' out a fishing." "No," said the churchwarden, correcting him, "officiating."
Of Dogs, Turnpike Roads, and Rustic Crafts
few pages back, in one of these epistles, I ventured to speak somewhat disrespectfully of dogs – that is, of some dogs. I did this with fear and trembling, because I know that most people are dog fanciers, or, at least, fancy some kinds of the canine species. Moreover, I felt that although I do not dislike dogs generally, I have not that touching affection for them and their peculiar ways that some people cherish. I thought it was perhaps a little peculiarity of my perverse nature that I do not like, on going to a house, to be yelped and snarled at by a snappish cur as though I were a cadger or a thief. I fancied that it was a little oddity on my part that I do not care to be aroused suddenly from my book or my thoughts by an unexpected barking and growling, and all because some person has presumed to pass along the public road. I also imagined that it might be a little idiosyncrasy of mine to feel embarrassed in carrying on a conversation with a friend who, unless his dog is asleep – usually on the most comfortable chair in the room – is only giving half an ear to my edifying remarks. Further, I was under the impression that it was my misfortune not to appreciate the services of those faithful watch-dogs that think nothing of arousing a whole household because they hear some tom-cat serenading on the adjoining tiles. As I have said, I thought that these were my little personal peculiarities, of which I ought to be more or less ashamed. I am, therefore, not a little gratified to find that there is, at all events, one other man who seems to share my singular views.
This other man, too, has been writing an article in one of the London newspapers; which article has consoled me not a little, and comforted me by the assurance that, if I have a slightly deranged mind in respect to the dog kind, another man is similarly afflicted. He begins his little essay by saying that "Man is, no doubt, the proudest conquest of the dog." This is a good start. He then goes on to denounce as fulsome the talk about the dog being our noblest animal, protector, and friend. He maintains that the least the dog can do for us in reward for our feeding him, washing him, housing him, making sport for him, and generally acting as his unpaid companions and serfs, is to protect us. But the dog's only idea of protecting us is to bark all night and murder sleep. They call the dog intelligent. His cleverness mainly shows itself in the well-grounded opinion that if he asks for a thing long enough he will get it. If he is inside a room, he whimpers and scratches at the door till he is let out. No sooner is he out than there he is again whimpering at the window and scratching for admittance. The shrillness of his yelps is ruinous to a finely-strung constitution. The dog is always "showing off." When he takes his man for a walk, he rends the air with clamour; he rushes away; then he returns more volcanic than ever. As soon as another dog appears, your dog forgets your existence. His back bristles; he holds his head erect. So does the other dog. Then there is a chorus of growls, a snap, and soon, perhaps, a hurricane of hair rolling over on the ground. In that case, in you go, you and the other dog's man, and you each try to belabour the strange dog. Strong language and demonstrations on the part of the dogs' men follow. It is thus that dogs arrange a man fight.
Such are the sentiments of my scribe friend, and they find an echo in my breast. As I have said, there are some dogs, out-door dogs especially, whose wonderful sagacity and instinctive intelligence compel admiration. There are other dogs whose nobility of manner and picturesqueness of appearance entitle them to appreciative respect. Then there are gentle, quiet, docile, playful, affectionate animals that inspire confidence and regard. But there are some spoiled house dogs and home pets – I do not mean your nice, well-behaved dog, my reader – that are often little better than noisy, over-fed, flea-blown pests! At least, such is my opinion, and I am glad to know that it is shared at any rate by one other man.
In the course of my rambles about the country I often like to take a trudge along what used to be a good old turnpike road. Some of these roads are often picturesque in their way, and what memories they revive of the old days when the "Lightning," the "Dart," and the "Express" mail coaches careered along them daily to the sound of the guard's gay bugle-horn. Occasionally I come across an old posting-house in a small village, and what a ghost it now is of departed life and importance! Capacious rooms, where weary travellers used to refresh, are now forlorn, musty, empty-looking places. Long rows of stables are there all but tenantless, and falling, or rather fallen, into decay. A sleepy quiet pervades all the surroundings, tempting me to recall how different it must have been years ago when the coaches came rattling through the hamlet, bringing the villagers out into the street, and making a scene of life and bustle.
Yes, and it must have been a scene of interest and animation in those days. Why, I know of old posting inns on important roads where I have been told scores of coaches would pass in a day, and where there is, or was, stabling accommodation for half a hundred horses. But although the glory has departed, or at least the coaching glory has departed, from these old roads, they still have features of interest for me in my rambles.
For instance, I like to see an old rural smithy standing by the roadside. I like to contemplate the sturdy smith having it out, hammer and tongs, with a glowing horse-shoe, and to watch the burning sparks that fly like – but no, I will not quote the "Village Blacksmith." We all know how the village smithy stands under the spreading chestnut tree (sometimes), and how the village blacksmith goes on Sunday to the church (perhaps), and sits among the boys (strange taste, especially if there are any of the opposite sex present). We know all that, and we also know that the country smith has broad and sinewy hands, and is a mighty man in his way.
When I now pass a country smithy how often do I think of past times and the stories I have read in which the village blacksmith bears a part. I can picture to my mind a gallant in old times riding up to the smithy door, dismounting, and calling to the smith, "What ho there! my horse has cast a shoe. Vulcan, thou churl, see thee to it while I hie me to mine host of the Crown and quaff a flagon of his best." Yes, I find it easy to conjure up old scenes when I pass a smithy that has perhaps stood in its present position for ages, so to speak. The village blacksmith of to-day finds pretty well to do in many parts of the country, even in these times when coaches are disestablished. There are horses still to be shod, there are ploughs and other agricultural implements to be mended, and I know several country smithies where the proprietors find sufficient work for their hammer and anvil all the year round.
Then, in my old coach-road rambles, I am often interested in looking at a rural wheel-wright's shop. I like old crafts, and doubt if any of Tubal Cain's descendants can claim greater antiquity for their trade than can the wheelwright. How often do we read of chariots in the Old Testament, and I presume they had wheels. We can call to mind the chariots of Pharaoh that were overthrown in the Red Sea. We can picture to ourselves the mother of Sisera looking out of her window and crying through the lattice, "Why is his chariot so long in coming? why tarry the wheels of his chariots?" Ah, unhappy woman, she little recked that her son's chariot tarried because he had fallen a victim to the treachery of a woman, the wife of Heber the Kenite. These and other thoughts come into my mind when I see a rural wheel-wrights place, and think of the hoary antiquity of the worker's craft.
Not long since I passed a wheelwright's shop in a quiet part of the country where I was wandering. As I approached it my nose experienced the fragrant odour of fresh shavings; and in front of the workshop door was a small space of ground that was a hospital for carts and waggons in various stages of infirmity. There were some that had had their wheels amputated. There were others turned over, top side down, looking as helpless and motionless as capsized turtles. There were some there that were bereft of their shafts, and others that appeared past all doctors' aid, and were in the last stage of decline. Then there were some that were nearly, if not quite, convalescent; fresh coloured, with shafts and wheels all glorious in red paint. It was, indeed, a motley collection of wheeled and unwheeled tumbrils, &c, that had been doctored or were waiting the attentions of the wheelwright and carpenter.
When, however, in rambling along an old highway road, I pass old "pike" houses, I do so with a twinge of regret. For many reasons I have often lamented the abolition of the old turnpikes. I grant that it was sometimes a bit of a nuisance to be kept waiting for the gate-keeper to come and take his toll and open his gate. But, on the other hand, there were some advantages in the system. Certainly the roads were better kept then than they have been since. Moreover, those who used the roads paid for their proper repair, which was right and fair. Now, when the mending of the highways is thrown upon the rates, there is a natural tendency to economise the cost, and the result is often seen in the comparatively slovenly condition of the highways.
I think that the disestablishment of the turnpikes, in spite of any little disadvantages in the system, was a silly piece of legislation. But these are days when the schemes of faddists too often become law. Apart, too, from the sometimes humorous incidents that the old "pikes" gave rise to, they had some use. In driving about in a strange country it was often a convenience and an advantage to exchange a few words with the toll-house man. He knew all about the locality, probably, and could tell all about distances, and where the by-roads went to, and give some information about the nearest way to this place or that. Then there was sometimes a little fun to be had out of the "pike" keeper, and there were often some comic little incidents to note.
I remember once going up to a gate and calling out impatiently for the toll-man. When he appeared, it was with his face half shaved; one side being covered with lather and the other swept clean by the razor. He looked a droll object. Then I remember a little experience I once had which, though it tells against myself, is worth recording. Some years ago I often used to drive to a church several miles away from my home. Up to a certain time I always paid the gate money without hesitation. But one day a kind friend told me that I was not obliged to pay toll if I was driving to church. Consequently, on the next Sunday, I drove through the gate – for it was open – shouting to the man as I passed that I was going to church. When I returned, at my usual time, I found the gate closed against me. The pike-keeper came out and reminded me that I had not paid the toll when passing through the gate earlier in the day. I at once said to him that as I was going to church I was not called upon to pay the toll. His reply was, "Go to your parish church, and give me four-pence." I paid him, muttering a protest, but I found, on making further enquiry, that he was in the right. You were only free to go through the gate if going to your own parish church. So I had the worst of that little incident. I dare say, if I raked my memory, I could tell other stories and experiences of the bygone turnpike days, but perhaps I have said enough upon the subject.
Sometimes, when I am trudging along the old coach-roads, dreaming pictures of past times, I am tempted to wish I had lived half a century or so earlier. I fancy I should have been happier in those comparatively placid, quiet, if dull, times, than in these days of turmoil, stir, and strife. I am not unmindful of the advantages of our latter day progress and advanced civilisation. It is something to be shot across the country at sixty miles an hour and a penny a mile, and also to be propelled across the Atlantic and landed in New York almost before you have time to be sea sick. It is, of course, an inestimable boon to have daily papers, with political and other opinions ready-made for use. Owing to our splendid postal and telegraph systems, we can have a pound of sausages delivered with our morning letters, and we can never get out of reach of those ominously red-coloured envelopes which are still apt to give country people slight qualms. We can buy things very cheap and very common also; we can have the electric light in houses, where oil lamps do quite as well; we can cook our dinners by gas, instead of the good old open fire.
Yet, in spite of all these blessings and advantages, I think I should prefer to have lived in the old days, when we were not so thick on the ground, than in these times when we feel that there are scores, perhaps hundreds, of people who envy us the food we put into our mouths; and who would, if they could, by fair means or foul, despoil us of every sovereign we put into our pockets. Indeed, I often go further, and think I should have liked to live in the old feudal days, only, of course, in that case, I should have desired to be a baron, or at least a villein, not a serf or a hind. These may be idle fancies and silly delusions, but they come into my mind when I walk through some pretty little, quaint, quiet, picturesque village on an old highway road.