IT IS so old a theme that I really hesitate to touch it; and yet it is so true and so useful that I will. It is true all the time, and it is particularly useful at this season of the year to men in cities: to all repetitive men: to the men that read these words. What is more, true as it is and useful as it is, no amount of hammering at people seems to get this theme into their practice; though it has long ago entered into their convictions they will not act upon it in their summers. And this true and useful theme is the theme of little freedoms and discoveries, the value of getting loose and away by a small trick when you want to get your glimpse of Fairyland.
Now how does one get loose and away?
When a man says to himself that he must have a holiday he means that he must see quite new things that are also old: he desires to open that door which stood wide like a window in childhood and is now shut fast. But where are the new things that are also the old? Paradoxical fellows who deserve drowning tell one that they are at our very doors. Well, that is true of the eager mind, but the mind is no longer eager when it is in need of a holiday. And you can get at the new things that are also the old by way of drugs, but drugs are a poor sort of holiday fabric. If you have stored up your memory well with much experience you can get these things from your memory–but only in a pale sort of way.
I think the best avenue to recreation by the magical impressions of the world upon the mind is this: To go to some place to which the common road leads you and then to get just off the common road. You will be astonished to find how strange the world becomes in the first mile–and how strange it remains till the common road is reached again.
It always sounds like a mockery for a man who has travelled to a great many places, as I have, to advise his fellows to travel abroad; they are most of them hard tied. Yet it is really a much easier thing than men bound to the desk and the workshop understand. Britain is but one great port, and its inward seas are narrow–and the fares are ridiculously low. If you are a young man you can go almost anywhere for almost anything, sitting up by night on deck, and not expecting too much courtesy. But, of course, if you shirk the sea you are a prisoner.
Well, then, supposing you abroad, or even in some other part of this highly varied kingdom in which you live, and supposing you to have reached some chosen place by some common road–what I desire to dilate upon here is the truth which every little excursion of business or of leisure (and precious few of leisure) makes me more certain of every day: That just a little way off the road is fairyland.
It was exactly three days ago that I had occasion to go down the railway line that is the most frequented in Europe: I was on business, not leisure, but in the business I had two days' leisure, and I did what I would advise all other men to do in such a circumstance.
I took a train to nowhere, fixing my starting-point thus:–
I first looked at the map and saw where nearest to me was a quadrilateral bare of railways. This formula, to look for a quadrilateral bare of railways, is a very useful formula for the man who is seeking another world. Then I fixed at random upon one little roadside station upon the main line; I determined to get out there and to walk aimlessly and westward until I should strike the other side of the quadrilateral. I made no plan, not even of the hours of the day.
I came into my roadside station at half-past eight of the long summer night, broad daylight that is, but with night advancing. I got out and began my westward march. At once there crowded upon me any number of unexpected and entertaining things!
The first thing I found was a street which was used by horses as well as by men, and yet was made up of broad steps. It was a sort of stair-case going up a hill. At the top of it I found a woman leading a child by the hand. I asked her the name of the steps. She told me they were called "The Steps of St. John."
A quarter of a mile further down the narrow lane I saw to my astonishment an enormous castle, ruined and open to the sky. There are many such ruins famous in Europe, but of this one I had never even heard. I went lonely under the evening and looked at its main gate and saw on it a moulded escutcheon, carved, and the motto in French, "Henceforward," which word made me think a great deal, but resolved no problem in my mind.
I went on again westward as the darkness fell and saw what I had not seen before, though my reading had told me of its existence, a long line of trees marking a ridge on the horizon, which line was the border of that ancient road the Roman soldiers built leading from the west into Amiens. "Along that road," thought I, "St. Martin rode before he became a monk, and while he was yet a soldier and was serving under Julian the Apostate. Along that road he came to the west gate of Amiens and there cut his cloak in two and gave the half of it to a beggar."
The memory of St. Martin's deed entertained me for some miles of my way, and I remembered how, when I was a child, it had seemed to me ridiculous to cut your coat in two whether for a beggar or for anybody else. Not that I thought charity ridiculous–God forbid!–but that a coat seemed to me a thing you could not cut in two with any profit to the user of either half. You might cut it in latitude and turn it into an Eton jacket and a kilt, neither of much use to a Gallo-Roman beggar. Or you might cut it in meridian and leave but one sleeve: mere folly.
Considering these things, I went on over the rolling plateau. I saw a great owl flying before me against the sky, different from the owls of home. I saw Jupiter shining above a cloud and Venus shining below one. The long light lingered in the north above the English sea. At last I came quite unexpectedly upon that delight and plaything of the French: a light railway, or steam tram such as that people build in great profusion to link up their villages and their streams. The road where I came upon it made a level crossing, and there was a hut there, and a woman living in it who kept the level crossing and warned the passers-by. She told me no more trains, or rather little trams, would pass that night, but that three miles further on I should come to a place called "The Mills of the Vidame."
Now the name "Vidame" reminded me that a "Vidame" was the lay protector of a Cathedral Chapter in feudal times, so the name gave me a renewed pleasure.
But it was now near midnight, and when I came to this village I remembered how in similar night walks I had sometimes been refused lodging. When I got among the few houses all was dark. I found, however, in the darkness two young men, each bearing an enormous curled trumpet of the kind which the French call cors de chasse, that is, hunting horns, so I asked them where the inn was. They took me to it and woke up the hostess, who received us with oaths. This she did lest the young men with hunting horns should demand a commission. Her heart, however, was better than her mouth, and she put me up, but she charged me ten pence for my room, counting coffee in the morning, which was, I am sure, more than her usual rate.
Next day I took the little steam tram away from the place and went on vaguely whither it should please God to take me, until the plateau changed and the light railway fell into a charming valley, and, seeing a town rooted therein, I got out and paid my fare and visited the town. In this town I went to church, as it was early morning (you must excuse the foible), and, coming out of church, I had an argument with a working man upon the matter of religion, in which argument, as I believe, I was the victor. I then went on north out of this town and came into a wood of enormous size. It was miles and miles across, and the trees were higher than anything I have seen outside of California. It was an enchanted wood. The sun shone down through a hundred feet of silence by little rounds between the leaves, and there was silence everywhere. In this wood I sojourned all day long, making slowly westward, till, in the very midst of it, I found a troubled man. He was a man of middle age, short, intelligent, fat, and weary. He said to me:
"Have you noticed any special mark upon the trees? A white mark of the number 90?"
"No," said I. "Are there any wild boars in this forest?"
"Yes," he answered, "a few, but not of use. I am looking for trees marked in white with the number 90. I have paid a price for them, and I cannot find them."
I saluted him and went on my way. At last I came to an open clearing, where there was a town, and in the town I found a very delightful inn, where they would cook anything one felt inclined for, within reason, and charged one very moderately indeed. I have retained its name.
By this time I was completely lost, and in the heart of Fairyland, when suddenly I remembered that everyone that strikes root in Fairyland loses something, at the least his love and at the worst his soul, and that it is a perilous business to linger there, so I asked them in that hotel how they worked it when they wanted to go west into the great towns. They put me into an omnibus, which charged me fourpence for a journey of some two miles. It took me, as Heaven ordained, to a common great railway, and that common great railway took me through the night to the town of Dieppe, which I have known since I could speak and before, and which was about as much of Fairyland to me as Piccadilly or Monday morning.
Thus ended those two days, in which I had touched again the unknown places–and all that heaven was but two days, and cost me not fifty shillings.
Excuse the folly of this.
~Hilaire Belloc: First & Last