THOSE who travel about England for their pleasure, or, for that matter, about any part of Western Europe, rightly associate with such travel the pleasure of history; for history adds to a man, giving him, as it were, a great memory of things―like a human memory, but stretched over a far longer space than that of one human life. It makes him, I do not say wise and great, but certainly in communion with wisdom and greatness.
It adds also to the soil he treads, for to this it adds meaning. How good it is when you come out of Tewkesbury by the Cheltenham road to look upon those fields to the left and know that they are not only pleasant meadows, but also the place in which a great battle of the mediaeval monarchy was decided, or as you stand by that ferry, which is not known enough to Englishmen (for it is one of the most beautiful things in England), and look back and see Tewkesbury tower, framed between tall trees over the level of the Severn, to see also the Abbey buildings in your eye of the mind―a great mass of similar stone with solid Norman walls, stretching on hugely to the right of the Minster.
All this historical sense and the desire to marry History with Travel is very fruitful and nourishing, but there is another interest, allied to it, which is very nearly neglected, and which is yet in a way more fascinating and more full of meaning. This interest is the interest in such things as lie behind recorded history, and have survived into our own times. For underneath the general life of Europe, with its splendid epic of great Rome turned Christian, crusading, discovering, furnishing the springs of the Renaissance, and flowering at last materially into this stupendous knowledge of today, the knowledge of all the Arts, the power to construct and to do―underneath all that is the foundation on which Europe is built, the stem from which Europe springs; and that stem is far, far older than any recorded history, and far, far more vital than any of the phenomena which recorded history presents.
Recorded history for this island and for Northern France and for the Rhine Valley is a matter of two thousand years; for the Western Mediterranean of three; but the things of which I speak are to be reckoned in tens of thousands of years. Their interest does not lie only nor even chiefly in things that have disappeared. It is indeed a great pleasure to rummage in the earth and find polished stones wrought by men who came so many centuries before us, and of whose blood we certainly are; and it is a great pleasure to find, or to guess that we find, under Canterbury the piles of a lake or marsh dwelling, proving that Canterbury has been there from all time; and that the apparently defenceless Valley City was once chosen as an impregnable site, when the water-meadows of the Stour were impassable as marsh, or with difficulty passable as a shallow lagoon. And it is delightful to stand on the earthwork a few miles west and to say to oneself (as one can say with a fair certitude), "Here was the British camp defending the south-east; here the tenth legion charged." All these are pleasant, but more pleasant, I think, to follow the thing where it actually survives.
Consider the track-ways, for instance. How rich is England in these! No other part of Europe will afford the traveller so permanent and so fascinating a problem. Elsewhere Rome hardened and straightened every barbaric trail until the original line and level disappeared; but in this distant province of Britain she could only afford just so much energy as made them a foothold for her soldiery; and all over England you can go, if you choose, foot by foot, along the ancient roads that were made by the men of your blood before they had heard of brick or of stone or of iron or of written laws.
I wonder that more men do not set out to follow, let us say, the Fosse-Way. There it runs right across Western England from the south-west to the north-east in a line direct yet sinuous, characters which are the very essence of a savage trail. It is a modern road for many miles, and you are tramping, let us say, along the Cotswold on a hard metalled modern English highway, with milestones and notices from the County Council telling you that the culverts will not bear a steam-engine, if so be you were to travel on one. Then suddenly this road comes up against a cross-road and apparently ceases, making what map draughtsmen call a "T"; but right in the same line you see a gate, and beyond it a farm lane, and so you follow. You come to a spinney where a ride has been cut through by the woodreeve, and it is all in the same line. The Fosse-Way turns into a little path, but you are still on it; it curves over a marshy brook-valley, picking out the firm land, and as you go you see old stones put there heaven knows how many (or how few) generations ago--or perhaps yesterday, for the tradition remains, and the country-folk strengthen their wet lands as they have strengthened them all these thousands of years; you climb up out of that depression, you get you over a stile, and there you are again upon a lane. You follow that lane, and once more it stops dead. This time there is a field before you. No right of way, no trace of a path, nothing but grass rounded into those parallel ridges which mark the modern decay of the corn lands and pasture―alas!―taking the place of ploughing. Now your pleasure comes in casting about for the trail; you look back along the line of the Way; you look forward in the same line till you find some indication, a boundary between two parishes, perhaps upon your map, or two or three quarries set together, or some other sign, and very soon you have picked up the line again.
So you go on mile after mile, and as you tread that line you have in the horizons that you see, in the very nature and feel of the soil beneath your feet, in the skies of England above you, the ancient purpose and soul of this Kingdom. Up this same line went the Clans marching when they were called Northward to the host; and up this went slow, creaking wagons with the lead of the Mendips or the tin of Cornwall or the gold of Wales.
And it is still there; it is still used from place to place as a high road, it still lives in modern England. There are some of its peers, as for instance the Ermine Street, far more continuous, and affording problems more rarely; others like the ridgeway of the Berkshire Downs, which Rome hardly touched, and of which the last two thousand years has, therefore, made hardly anything; you may spend a delightful day piecing out exactly where it crossed the Thames, making your guess at it, and wondering as you sit there by Streatley Vicarage whether those islands did not form a natural weir below which lay the ford.
The roads are the most obvious things. There are many more; for instance, thatch. The same laying of the straw in the same manner, with the same art, has continued, we may be certain, from a time long before the beginning of history. See how in the Fen Land they thatch with reeds, and how upon the Chalk Downs with straw from the Lowlands. I remember once being told of a record in a manor, which held of the Church and which lay upon the southern slope of the Downs, that so much was entered for "straw from the Lowlands": then, years afterwards, when I had to thatch a Bethlehem in an orchard underneath tall elms―a pleasant place to write in, with the noise of bees in the air―the man who came to thatch said to me: "We must have straw from the Lowlands; this upland straw is no good for thatching." Immediately when I heard him say this there was added to me ten thousand years. And I know another place in England, far distant from this, where a man said to me that if I wished to cross in a winter mist, as I had determined to do, Cross-Fell, that great summit of the Pennines, I must watch the drift of the snow, for there was no other guide to one's direction in such weather. And I remember another man in a little boat in the North Sea, as we came towards the Foreland, talking to me of the two tides, and telling me how if one caught the tide all the way up to Long Nose and then went round it on the end of the flood, one caught a new tide up London river, and so made two tides in one day. He spoke with the same pleasure that silly men show when they talk about an accumulation of money. He felt wealthy and proud from the knowledge, for by this knowledge he had two tides in one day. Now knowledge of this sort is older than ten thousand years; and so is the knowledge of how birds fly, and of how they call, and of how the weather changes with the moon.
Very many things a man might add to the list that I am making. Dew-pans are older than the language or the religion; and the finding of water with a stick; and the catching of that smooth animal, the mole; and the building of flints into mortar, which if one does it in the old way (as you may see at Pevensey) the work lasts for ever, but if you do it in any new way it does not last ten years; then there is the knowledge of planting during the crescent part of the month, but not before the new moon shows; and there is the influence of the moon on cider, and to a less extent upon the brewing of ale; and talking of ale, the knowledge of how ale should be drawn from the brewing just when a man can see his face without mist upon the surface of the hot brew. And there is the knowledge of how to bank rivers, which is called "throwing the rives" in the South, but in the Fen Land by some other name; and how to bank them so that they do not silt, but scour themselves. There are these things and a thousand others. All are immemorial.
~Hilaire Belloc: The Old Things (in First and Last)
|Clio, the Muse of History, by Artemisia Gentileschi. |
Oil on canvas, 1632; Cassa di Risparmio di Pisa, Pisa.