A SHEPHERD'S LIFE
IMPRESSIONS OF THE SOUTH WILTSHIRE DOWNS
BY W. H. HUDSON
I an obliged to Messrs. Longmans, Green, & Co. for permission to make use of an article entitled "A Shepherd of the Downs," which appeared in the October and November numbers of Longmans' Magazine in 1902. With the exception of that article, portions of which I have incorporated in different chapters, the whole of the matter contained in this work now appears for the first time.
I. SALISBURY PLAIN
II. SALISBURY AS I SEE IT
III. WINTERBOURNE BISHOP
IV. A SHEPHERD OF THE DOWNS
V. EARLY MEMORIES
VI. SHEPHERD ISAAC BAWCOMBE
VII. THE DEER-STEALERS
VIII. SHEPHERDS AND POACHING
IX. THE SHEPHERD ON FOXES
X. BIRD LIFE ON THE DOWNS
XI. STARLINGS AND SHEEP-BELLS
XII. THE SHEPHERD AND THE BIBLE
XIII. VALE OF THE WYLYE
XIV. A SHEEP-DOG'S LIFE
XV. THE ELLERBYS OF DOVETON
XVI. OLD WILTSHIRE DAYS
XVII. OLD WILTSHIRE DAYS (continued)
XVIII. THE SHEPHERD'S RETURN
XIX. THE DARK PEOPLE OF THE VILLAGE
XX. SOME SHEEP-DOGS
XXI. THE SHEPHERD AS NATURALIST
XXII. THE MASTER OF THE VILLAGE
XXIII. ISAAC'S CHILDREN
XXIV. LIVING IN THE PAST
A SHEPHERD'S LIFE
Introductory remarks—Wiltshire little favoured by tourists—Aspect of the downs—Bad weather—Desolate aspect—The bird-scarer—Fascination of the downs—The larger Salisbury Plain—Effect of the military occupation—A century's changes—Birds—Old Wiltshire sheep—Sheep-horns in a well—Changes wrought by cultivation—Rabbit-warrens on the downs—Barrows obliterated by the plough and by rabbits
Wiltshire looks large on the map of England, a great green county, yet it never appears to be a favourite one to those who go on rambles in the land. At all events I am unable to bring to mind an instance of a lover of Wiltshire who was not a native or a resident, or had not been to Marlborough and loved the country on account of early associations. Nor can I regard myself as an exception, since, owing to a certain kind of adaptiveness in me, a sense of being at home wherever grass grows, I am in a way a native too. Again, listen to any half-dozen of your friends discussing the places they have visited, or intend visiting, comparing notes about the counties, towns, churches, castles, scenery—all that draws them and satisfies their nature, and the chances are that they will not even mention Wiltshire. They all know it "in a way"; they have seen Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge, which everybody must go to look at once in his life; and they have also viewed the country from the windows of a railroad carriage as they passed through on their flight to Bath and to Wales with its mountains, and to the west country, which many of us love best of all—Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall. For there is nothing striking in Wiltshire, at all events to those who love nature first; nor mountains, nor sea, nor anything to compare with the places they are hastening to, west or north. The downs! Yes, the downs are there, full in sight of your window, in their flowing forms resembling vast, pale green waves, wave beyond wave, "in fluctuation fixed"; a fine country to walk on in fine weather for all those who regard the mere exercise of walking as sufficient pleasure. But to those who wish for something more, these downs may be neglected, since, if downs are wanted, there is the higher, nobler Sussex range within an hour of London. There are others on whom the naked aspect of the downs has a repelling effect. Like Gilpin they love not an undecorated earth; and false and ridiculous as Gilpin's taste may seem to me and to all those who love the chalk, which "spoils everything" as Gilpin said, he certainly expresses a feeling common to those who are unaccustomed to the emptiness and silence of these great spaces.
As to walking on the downs, one remembers that the fine days are not so many, even in the season when they are looked for—they have certainly been few during this wet and discomfortable one of 1909. It is indeed only on the chalk hills that I ever feel disposed to quarrel with this English climate, for all weathers are good to those who love the open air, and have their special attractions. What a pleasure it is to be out in rough weather in October when the equinoctial gales are on, "the wind Euroclydon," to listen to its roaring in the bending trees, to watch the dead leaves flying, the pestilence-stricken multitudes, yellow and black and red, whirled away in flight on flight before the volleying blast, and to hear and see and feel the tempests of rain, the big silver-grey drops that smite you like hail! And what pleasure too, in the still grey November weather, the time of suspense and melancholy before winter, a strange quietude, like a sense of apprehension in nature! And so on through the revolving year, in all places in all weathers, there is pleasure in the open air, except on these chalk hills because of their bleak nakedness. There the wind and driving rain are not for but against you, and may overcome you with misery. One feels their loneliness, monotony, and desolation on many days, sometimes even when it is not wet, and I here recall an amusing encounter with a bird-scarer during one of these dreary spells.
It was in March, bitterly cold, with an east wind which had been blowing many days, and overhead the sky was of a hard, steely grey. I was cycling along the valley of the Ebble, and finally leaving it pushed up a long steep slope and set off over the high plain by a dusty road with the wind hard against me. A more desolate scene than the one before me it would be hard to imagine, for the land was all ploughed and stretched away before me, an endless succession of vast grey fields, divided by wire fences. On all that space there was but one living thing in sight, a human form, a boy, far away on the left side, standing in the middle of a big field with something which looked like a gun in his hand. Immediately after I saw him he, too, appeared to have caught sight of me, for turning he set off running as fast as he could over the ploughed ground towards the road, as if intending to speak to me. The distance he would have to run was about a quarter of a mile and I doubted that he would be there in time to catch me, but he ran fast and the wind was against me, and he arrived at the road just as I got to that point. There by the side of the fence he stood, panting from his race, his handsome face glowing with colour, a boy about twelve or thirteen, with a fine strong figure, remarkably well dressed for a bird-scarer. For that was what he was, and he carried a queer, heavy-looking old gun. I got off my wheel and waited for him to speak, but he was silent, and continued regarding me with the smiling countenance of one well pleased with himself. "Well?" I said, but there was no answer; he only kept on smiling.
"What did you want?" I demanded impatiently.
"I didn't want anything."
"But you started running here as fast as you could the moment you caught sight of me."
"Yes, I did."
"Well, what did you do it for—what was your object in running here?"
"Just to see you pass," he answered.
It was a little ridiculous and vexed me at first, but by and by when I left him, after some more conversation, I felt rather pleased; for it was a new and somewhat flattering experience to have any person run a long distance over a ploughed field, burdened with a heavy gun, "just to see me pass."
But it was not strange in the circumstances; his hours in that grey, windy desolation must have seemed like days, and it was a break in the monotony, a little joyful excitement in getting to the road in time to see a passer-by more closely, and for a few moments gave him a sense of human companionship. I began even to feel a little sorry for him, alone there in his high, dreary world, but presently thought he was better off and better employed than most of his fellows poring over miserable books in school, and I wished we had a more rational system of education for the agricultural districts, one which would not keep the children shut up in a room during all the best hours of the day, when to be out of doors, seeing, hearing, and doing, would fit them so much better for the life-work before them. Squeers' method was a wiser one. We think less of it than of the delightful caricature, which makes Squeers "a joy for ever," as Mr. Lang has said of Pecksniff. But Dickens was a Londoner, and incapable of looking at this or any other question from any other than the Londoner's standpoint. Can you have a better system for the children of all England than this one which will turn out the most perfect draper's assistant in Oxford Street, or, to go higher, the most efficient Mr. Guppy in a solicitor's office? It is true that we have Nature's unconscious intelligence against us; that by and by, when at the age of fourteen the boy is finally released, she will set to work to undo the wrong by discharging from his mind its accumulations of useless knowledge as soon as he begins the work of life. But what a waste of time and energy and money! One can only hope that the slow intellect of the country will wake to this question some day, that the countryman will say to the townsman, Go on making your laws and systems of education for your own children, who will live as you do indoors; while I shall devise a different one for mine, one which will give them hard muscles and teach them to raise the mutton and pork and cultivate the potatoes and cabbages on which we all feed.
To return to the downs. Their very emptiness and desolation, which frightens the stranger from them, only serves to make them more fascinating to those who are intimate with and have learned to love them. That dreary aspect brings to mind the other one, when, on waking with the early sunlight in the room, you look out on a blue sky, cloudless or with white clouds. It may be fancy, or the effect of contrast, but it has always seemed to me that just as the air is purer and fresher on these chalk heights than on the earth below, and as the water is of a more crystal purity, and the sky perhaps bluer, so do all colours and all sounds have a purity and vividness and intensity beyond that of other places. I see it in the yellows of hawkweed, rock-rose, and birds'-foot-trefoil, in the innumerable specks of brilliant colour—blue and white and rose—of milk-wort and squinancy-wort, and in the large flowers of the dwarf thistle, glowing purple in its green setting; and I hear it in every bird-sound, in the trivial songs of yellow-hammer and corn-bunting, and of dunnock and wren and whitethroat.
The pleasure of walking on the downs is not, however, a subject which concerns me now; it is one I have written about in a former work, "Nature in Downland," descriptive of the South Downs. The theme of the present work is the life, human and other, of the South Wiltshire Downs, or of Salisbury Plain. It is the part of Wiltshire which has most attracted me. Most persons would say that the Marlborough Downs are greater, more like the great Sussex range as it appears from the Weald: but chance brought me farther south, and the character and life of the village people when I came to know them made this appear the best place to be in.
The Plain itself is not a precisely denned area, and may be made to include as much or little as will suit the writer's purpose. If you want a continuous plain, with no dividing valley cutting through it, you must place it between the Avon and Wylye Rivers, a distance about fifteen miles broad and as many long, with the village of Tilshead in its centure; or, if you don't mind the valleys, you can say it extends from Downton and Tollard Royal south of Salisbury to the Pewsey vale in the north, and from the Hampshire border on the east side to Dorset and Somerset on the west, about twenty-five to thirty miles each way. My own range is over this larger Salisbury Plain, which includes the River Ebble, or Ebele, with its numerous interesting villages, from Odstock and Combe Bisset, near Salisbury and "the Chalks," to pretty Alvediston near the Dorset line, and all those in the Nadder valley, and westward to White Sheet Hill above Mere. You can picture this high chalk country as an open hand, the left hand, with Salisbury in the hollow of the palm, placed nearest the wrist, and the five valleys which cut through it as the five spread fingers, from the Bourne (the little finger) succeeded by Avon, Wylye, and Nadder, to the Ebble, which comes in lower down as the thumb and has its junction with the main stream below Salisbury.
A very large portion of this high country is now in a transitional state, that was once a sheep-walk and is now a training ground for the army. Where the sheep are taken away the turf loses the smooth, elastic character which makes it better to walk on than the most perfect lawn. The sheep fed closely, and everything that grew on the down—grasses, clovers, and numerous small creeping herbs—had acquired the habit of growing and flowering close to the ground, every species and each individual plant striving, with the unconscious intelligence that is in all growing things, to hide its leaves and pushing sprays under the others, to escape the nibbling teeth by keeping closer to the surface. There are grasses and some herbs, the plantain among them, which keep down very close but must throw up a tall stem to flower and seed. Look at the plantain when its flowering time comes; each particular plant growing with its leaves so close down on the surface as to be safe from the busy, searching mouths, then all at once throwing up tall, straight stems to flower and ripen its seeds quickly. Watch a flock at this time, and you will see a sheep walking about, rapidly plucking the flowering spikes, cutting them from the stalk with a sharp snap, taking them off at the rate of a dozen or so in twenty seconds. But the sheep cannot be all over the downs at the same time, and the time is short, myriads of plants throwing up their stems at once, so that many escape, and it has besides a deep perennial root so that the plant keeps its own life though it may be unable to sow any seeds for many seasons. So with other species which must send up a tall flower stem; and by and by, the flowering over and the seeds ripened or lost, the dead, scattered stems remain like long hairs growing out of a close fur. The turf remains unchanged; but take the sheep away and it is like the removal of a pressure, or a danger: the plant recovers liberty and confidence and casts off the old habit; it springs and presses up to get the better of its fellows—to get all the dew and rain and sunshine that it can—and the result is a rough surface.
Another effect of the military occupation is the destruction of the wild life of the Plain, but that is a matter I have written about in my last book, "Afoot in England," in a chapter on Stonehenge, and need not dwell on here. To the lover of Salisbury Plain as it was, the sight of military camps, with white tents or zinc houses, and of bodies of men in khaki marching and drilling, and the sound of guns, now informs him that he is in a district which has lost its attraction, where nature has been dispossessed.
Meanwhile, there is a corresponding change going on in the human life of the district. Let anyone describe it as he thinks best, as an improvement or a deterioration, it is a great change nevertheless, which in my case and probably that of many others is as disagreeable to contemplate as that which we are beginning to see in the down, which was once a sheep-walk and is so no longer. On this account I have ceased to frequent that portion of the Plain where the War Office is in possession of the land, and to keep to the southern side in my rambles, out of sight and hearing of the "white-tented camps" and mimic warfare. Here is Salisbury Plain as it has been these thousand years past, or ever since sheep were pastured here more than in any other district in England, and that may well date even more than ten centuries back.
Undoubtedly changes have taken place even here, some very great, chiefly during the last, or from the late eighteenth century. Changes both in the land and the animal life, wild and domestic. Of the losses in wild bird life there will be something to say in another chapter; they relate chiefly to the extermination of the finest species, the big bird, especially the soaring bird, which is now gone out of all this wide Wiltshire sky. As a naturalist I must also lament the loss of the old Wiltshire breed of sheep, although so long gone. Once it was the only breed known in Wilts, and extended over the entire county; it was a big animal, the largest of the fine-woolled sheep in England, but for looks it certainly compared badly with modern downland breeds and possessed, it was said, all the points which the breeder, or improver, was against. Thus, its head was big and clumsy, with a round nose, its legs were long and thick, its belly without wool, and both sexes were horned. Horns, even in a ram, are an abomination to the modern sheep-farmer in Southern England. Finally, it was hard to fatten. On the other hand it was a sheep which had been from of old on the bare open downs and was modified to suit the conditions, the scanty feed, the bleak, bare country, and the long distances it had to travel to and from the pasture ground. It was a strong, healthy, intelligent animal, in appearance and character like the old original breed of sheep on the pampas of South America, which I knew as a boy, a coarse-woolled sheep with naked belly, tall and hardy, a greatly modified variety of the sheep introduced by the Spanish colonist three centuries ago. At all events the old Wiltshire sheep had its merits, and when the Southdown breed was introduced during the late eighteenth century the farmer viewed it with disfavour; they liked their old native animal, and did not want to lose it. But it had to go in time, just as in later times the Southdown had to go when the Hampshire Down took its place—the breed which is now universal, in South Wilts at all events.
A solitary flock of the pure-bred old Wiltshire sheep existed in the county as late as 1840, but the breed has now so entirely disappeared from the country that you find many shepherds who have never even heard of it. Not many days ago I met with a curious instance of this ignorance of the past. I was talking to a shepherd, a fine intelligent fellow, keenly interested in the subjects of sheep and sheep-dogs, on the high down above the village of Broad Chalk on the Ebble, and he told me that his dog was of mixed breed, but on its mother's side came from a Welsh sheep-dog, that his father had always had the Welsh dog, once common in Wiltshire, and he wondered why it had gone out as it was so good an animal. This led me to say something about the old sheep having gone out too, and as he had never heard of the old breed I described the animal to him.
What I told him, he said, explained something which had been a puzzle to him for some years. There was a deep hollow in the down near the spot where we were standing, and at the bottom he said there was an old well which had been used in former times to water the sheep, but masses of earth had fallen down from the sides, and in that condition it had remained for no one knew how long—perhaps fifty, perhaps a hundred years. Some years ago it came into his master's head to have this old well cleaned out, and this was done with a good deal of labour, the sides having first been boarded over to make it safe for the workmen below. At the bottom of the well a vast store of rams' horns was discovered and brought out; and it was a mystery to the fanner and the men how so large a number of sheep's horns had been got together; for rams are few and do not die often, and here there were hundreds of horns. He understood it now, for if all the sheep, ewes as well as rams, were horned in the old breed, a collection like this might easily have been made.
The greatest change of the last hundred years is no doubt that which the plough has wrought in the aspect of the downs. There is a certain pleasure to the eye in the wide fields of golden corn, especially of wheat, in July and August; but a ploughed down is a down made ugly, and it strikes one as a mistake, even from a purely economic point of view, that this old rich turf, the slow product of centuries, should be ruined for ever as sheep-pasture when so great an extent of uncultivated land exists elsewhere, especially the heavy clays of the Midlands, better suited for corn. The effect of breaking up the turf on the high downs is often disastrous; the thin soil which was preserved by the close, hard turf is blown or washed away, and the soil becomes poorer year by year, in spite of dressing, until it is hardly worth cultivating. Clover may be grown on it but it continues to deteriorate; or the tenant or landlord may turn it into a rabbit-warren, the most fatal policy of all. How hideous they are—those great stretches of downland, enclosed in big wire fences and rabbit netting, with little but wiry weeds, moss, and lichen growing on them, the earth dug up everywhere by the disorderly little beasts! For a while there is a profit—"it will serve me my time," the owner says—but the end is utter barrenness.
One must lament, too, the destruction of the ancient earth-works, especially of the barrows, which is going on all over the downs, most rapidly where the land is broken up by the plough. One wonders if the ever-increasing curiosity of our day with regard to the history of the human race in the land continues to grow, what our descendants of the next half of the century, to go no farther, will say of us and our incredible carelessness in the matter! So small a matter to us, but one which will, perhaps, be immensely important to them! It is, perhaps, better for our peace that we do not know; it would not be pleasant to have our children's and children's children's contemptuous expressions sounding in our prophetic ears. Perhaps we have no right to complain of the obliteration of these memorials of antiquity by the plough; the living are more than the dead, and in this case it may be said that we are only following the Artemisian example in consuming (in our daily bread) minute portions of the ashes of our old relations, albeit untearfully, with a cheerful countenance. Still one cannot but experience a shock on seeing the plough driven through an ancient, smooth turf, curiously marked with barrows, lynchetts, and other mysterious mounds and depressions, where sheep have been pastured for a thousand years, without obscuring these chance hieroglyphs scored by men on the surface of the hills.
It is not, however, only on the cultivated ground that the destruction is going on; the rabbit, too, is an active agent in demolishing the barrows and other earth-works. He burrows into the mound and throws out bushels of chalk and clay, which is soon washed down by the rains; he tunnels it through and through and sometimes makes it his village; then one day the farmer or keeper, who is not an archaeologist, comes along and puts his ferrets into the holes, and one of them, after drinking his fill of blood, falls asleep by the side of his victim, and the keeper sets to work with pick and shovel to dig him out, and demolishes half the barrow to recover his vile little beast.
SALISBURY AS I SEE IT
The Salisbury of the villager—The cathedral from the meadows—Walks to Wilton and Old Sarum—The spire and a rainbow—Charm of Old Sarum—The devastation—Salisbury from Old Sarum—Leland's description—Salisbury and the village mind—Market-day—The infirmary—The cathedral—The lesson of a child's desire—In the streets again—An Apollo of the downs
To the dwellers on the Plain, Salisbury itself is an exceedingly important place—the most important in the world. For if they have seen a greater—London, let us say—it has left but a confused, a phantasmagoric image on the mind, an impression of endless thoroughfares and of innumerable people all apparently in a desperate hurry to do something, yet doing nothing; a labyrinth of streets and wilderness of houses, swarming with beings who have no definite object and no more to do with realities than so many lunatics, and are unconfined because they are so numerous that all the asylums in the world could not contain them. But of Salisbury they have a very clear image: inexpressibly rich as it is in sights, in wonders, full of people—hundreds of people in the streets and market-place—they can take it all in and know its meaning. Every man and woman, of all classes, in all that concourse, is there for some definite purpose which they can guess and understand; and the busy street and market, and red houses and soaring spire, are all one, and part and parcel too of their own lives in their own distant little village by the Avon or Wylye, or anywhere on the Plain. And that soaring spire which, rising so high above the red town, first catches the eye, the one object which gives unity and distinction to the whole picture, is not more distinct in the mind than the entire Salisbury with its manifold interests and activities.
There is nothing in the architecture of England more beautiful than that same spire. I have seen it many times, far and near, from all points of view, and am never in or near the place but I go to some spot where I look at and enjoy the sight; but I will speak here of the two best points of view.
The nearest, which is the artist's favourite point, is from the meadows; there, from the waterside, you have the cathedral not too far away nor too near for a picture, whether on canvas or in the mind, standing amidst its great old trees, with nothing but the moist green meadows and the river between. One evening, during the late summer of this wettest season, when the rain was beginning to cease, I went out this way for my stroll, the pleasantest if not the only "walk" there is in Salisbury. It is true, there are two others: one to Wilton by its long, shady avenue; the other to Old Sarum; but these are now motor-roads, and until the loathed hooting and dusting engines are thrust away into roads of their own there is little pleasure in them for the man on foot. The rain ceased, but the sky was still stormy, with a great blackness beyond the cathedral and still other black clouds coming up from the west behind me. Then the sun, near its setting, broke out, sending a flame of orange colour through the dark masses around it, and at the same time flinging a magnificent rainbow on that black cloud against which the immense spire stood wet with rain and flushed with light, so that it looked like a spire built of a stone impregnated with silver. Never had Nature so glorified man's work! It was indeed a marvellous thing to see, an effect so rare that in all the years I had known Salisbury, and the many times I had taken that stroll in all weathers, it was my first experience of such a thing. How lucky, then, was Constable to have seen it, when he set himself to paint his famous picture! And how brave he was and even wise to have attempted such a subject, one which, I am informed by artists with the brush, only a madman would undertake, however great a genius he might be. It was impossible, we know, even to a Constable, but we admire his failure nevertheless, even as we admire Turner's many failures; but when we go back to Nature we are only too glad to forget all about the picture.
The view from the meadows will not, in the future, I fear, seem so interesting to me; I shall miss the rainbow, and shall never see again except in that treasured image the great spire as Constable saw and tried to paint it. In like manner, though for a different reason, my future visits to Old Sarum will no longer give me the same pleasure experienced on former occasions.
Old Sarum stands over the Avon, a mile and a half from Salisbury; a round chalk hill about 300 feet high, in its round shape and isolation resembling a stupendous tumulus in which the giants of antiquity were buried, its steeply sloping, green sides ringed about with vast, concentric earth-works and ditches, the work of the "old people," as they say on the Plain, when referring to the ancient Britons, but how ancient, whether invading Celts or Aborigines—the true Britons, who possessed the land from neolithic times—even the anthropologists, the wise men of to-day, are unable to tell us. Later, it was a Roman station, one of the most important, and in after ages a great Norman castle and cathedral city, until early in the thirteenth century, when the old church was pulled down and a new and better one to last for ever was built in the green plain by many running waters. Church and people gone, the castle fell into ruin, though some believe it existed down to the fifteenth century; but from that time onwards the site has been a place of historical memories and a wilderness. Nature had made it a sweet and beautiful spot; the earth over the old buried ruins was covered with an elastic turf, jewelled with the bright little flowers of the chalk, the ramparts and ditches being all overgrown with a dense thicket of thorn, holly, elder, bramble, and ash, tangled up with ivy, briony, and traveller's-joy. Once only during the last five or six centuries some slight excavations were made when, in 1834, as the result of an excessively dry summer, the lines of the cathedral foundations were discernible on the surface. But it will no longer be the place it was, the Society of Antiquaries having received permission from the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury to work their sweet will on the site. That ancient, beautiful carcass, which had long made their mouths water, on which they have now fallen like a pack of hungry hyenas to tear off the old hide of green turf and burrow down to open to the light or drag out the deep, stony framework. The beautiful surrounding thickets, too, must go, they tell me, since you cannot turn the hill inside out without destroying the trees and bushes that crown it. What person who has known it and has often sought that spot for the sake of its ancient associations, and of the sweet solace they have found in the solitude, or for the noble view of the sacred city from its summit, will not deplore this fatal amiability of the authorities, this weak desire to please every one and inability to say no to such a proposal!
But let me now return to the object which brings me to this spot; it was not to lament the loss of the beautiful, which cannot be preserved in our age—even this best one of all which Salisbury possessed cannot be preserved—but to look at Salisbury from this point of view. It is not as from "the meadows" a view of the cathedral only, but of the whole town, amidst its circle of vast green downs. It has a beautiful aspect from that point: a red-brick and red-tiled town, set low on that circumscribed space, whose soft, brilliant green is in lovely contrast with the paler hue of the downs beyond, the perennial moist green of its water-meadows. For many swift, clear currents flow around and through Salisbury, and doubtless in former days there were many more channels in the town itself. Leland's description is worth quoting: "There be many fair streates in the Cite Saresbyri, and especially the High Streate and Castle Streate.... Al the Streates in a maner, in New Saresbyri, hath little streamlettes and arms derivyd out of Avon that runneth through them. The site of the very town of Saresbyri and much ground thereabout is playne and low, and as a pan or receyvor of most part of the waters of Wiltshire."
On this scene, this red town with the great spire, set down among water-meadows, encircled by paler green chalk hills, I look from the top of the inner and highest rampart or earth-work; or going a little distance down sit at ease on the turf to gaze at it by the hour. Nor could a sweeter resting-place be found, especially at the time of ripe elder-berries, when the thickets are purple with their clusters and the starlings come in flocks to feed on them, and feeding keep up a perpetual, low musical jangle about me.
It is not, however, of "New Saresbyri" as seen by the tourist, with a mind full of history, archaeology, and the aesthetic delight in cathedrals, that I desire to write, but of Salisbury as it appears to the dweller on the Plain. For Salisbury is the capital of the Plain, the head and heart of all those villages, too many to count, scattered far and wide over the surrounding country. It is the villager's own peculiar city, and even as the spot it stands upon is the "pan or receyvor of most part of the waters of Wiltshire," so is it the receyvor of all he accomplishes in his laborious life, and thitherward flow all his thoughts and ambitions. Perhaps it is not so difficult for me as it would be for most persons who are not natives to identify myself with him and see it as he sees it. That greater place we have been in, that mighty, monstrous London, is ever present to the mind and is like a mist before the sight when we look at other places; but for me there is no such mist, no image so immense and persistent as to cover and obscure all others, and no such mental habit as that of regarding people as a mere crowd, a mass, a monstrous organism, in and on which each individual is but a cell, a scale. This feeling troubles and confuses my mind when I am in London, where we live "too thick"; but quitting it I am absolutely free; it has not entered my soul and coloured me with its colour or shut me out from those who have never known it, even of the simplest dwellers on the soil who, to our sophisticated minds, may seem like beings of another species. This is my happiness—to feel, in all places, that I am one with them. To say, for instance, that I am going to Salisbury to-morrow, and catch the gleam in the children's eye and watch them, furtively watching me, whisper to one another that there will be something for them, too, on the morrow. To set out betimes and overtake the early carriers' carts on the road, each with its little cargo of packages and women with baskets and an old man or two, to recognize acquaintances among those who sit in front, and as I go on overtaking and passing carriers and the half-gipsy, little "general dealer" in his dirty, ramshackle, little cart drawn by a rough, fast-trotting pony, all of us intent on business and pleasure, bound for Salisbury—the great market and emporium and place of all delights for all the great Plain. I remember that on my very last expedition, when I had come twelve miles in the rain and was standing at a street corner, wet to the skin, waiting for my carrier, a man in a hurry said to me, "I say, just keep an eye on my cart for a minute or two while I run round to see somebody. I've got some fowls in it, and if you see anyone come poking round just ask them what they want—you can't trust every one. I'll be back in a minute." And he was gone, and I was very pleased to watch his cart and fowls till he came back.
Business is business and must be attended to, in fair or foul weather, but for business with pleasure we prefer it fine on market-day. The one great and chief pleasure, in which all participate, is just to be there, to be in the crowd—a joyful occasion which gives a festive look to every face. The mere sight of it exhilarates like wine. The numbers—the people and the animals! The carriers' carts drawn up in rows on rows—carriers from a hundred little villages on the Bourne, the Avon, the Wylye, the Nadder, the Ebble, and from all over the Plain, each bringing its little contingent. Hundreds and hundreds more coming by train; you see them pouring down Fisherton Street in a continuous procession, all hurrying market-wards. And what a lively scene the market presents now, full of cattle and sheep and pigs and crowds of people standing round the shouting auctioneers! And horses, too, the beribboned hacks, and ponderous draught horses with manes and tails decorated with golden straw, thundering over the stone pavement as they are trotted up and down! And what a profusion of fruit and vegetables, fish and meat, and all kinds of provisions on the stalls, where women with baskets on their arms are jostling and bargaining! The Corn Exchange is like a huge beehive, humming with the noise of talk, full of brown-faced farmers in their riding and driving clothes and leggings, standing in knots or thrusting their hands into sacks of oats and barley. You would think that all the farmers from all the Plain were congregated there. There is a joyful contagion in it all. Even the depressed young lover, the forlornest of beings, repairs his wasted spirits and takes heart again. Why, if I've seen a girl with a pretty face to-day I've seen a hundred—and more. And she thinks they be so few she can treat me like that and barely give me a pleasant word in a month! Let her come to Salisbury and see how many there be!
And so with every one in that vast assemblage—vast to the dweller in the Plain. Each one is present as it were in two places, since each has in his or her heart the constant image of home—the little, peaceful village in the remote valley; of father and mother and neighbours and children, in school just now, or at play, or home to dinner—home cares and concerns and the business in Salisbury. The selling and buying; friends and relations to visit or to meet in the market-place, and—how often!—the sick one to be seen at the Infirmary. This home of the injured and ailing, which is in the mind of so many of the people gathered together, is indeed the cord that draws and binds the city and the village closest together and makes the two like one.
That great, comely building of warm, red brick in Fisherton Street, set well back so that you can see it as a whole, behind its cedar and beech-trees—how familiar it is to the villagers! In numberless humble homes, in hundreds of villages of the Plain, and all over the surrounding country, the "Infirmary" is a name of the deepest meaning, and a place of many gad and tender and beautiful associations. I heard it spoken of in a manner which surprised me at first, for I know some of the London poor and am accustomed to their attitude towards the metropolitan hospitals. The Londoner uses them very freely; they have come to be as necessary to him as the grocer's shop and the public-house, but for all the benefits he receives from them he has no faintest sense of gratitude, and it is my experience that if you speak to him of this he is roused to anger and demands, "What are they for?" So far is he from having any thankful thoughts for all that has been given him for nothing and done for him and for his, if he has anything to say at all on the matter it is to find fault with the hospitals and cast blame on them for not having healed him more quickly or thoroughly.
This country town hospital and infirmary is differently regarded by the villagers of the Plain. It is curious to find how many among them are personally acquainted with it; perhaps it is not easy for anyone, even in this most healthy district, to get through life without sickness, and all are liable to accidents. The injured or afflicted youth, taken straight from his rough, hard life and poor cottage, wonders at the place he finds himself in—the wide, clean, airy room and white, easy bed, the care and skill of the doctors, the tender nursing by women, and comforts and luxuries, all without payment, but given as it seems to him out of pure divine love and compassion—all this comes to him as something strange, almost incredible. He suffers much perhaps, but can bear pain stoically and forget it when it is past, but the loving kindness he has experienced is remembered.
That is one of the very great things Salisbury has for the villagers, and there are many more which may not be spoken of, since we do not want to lose sight of the wood on account of the trees; only one must be mentioned for a special reason, and that is the cathedral. The villager is extremely familiar with it as he sees it from the market and the street and from a distance, from all the roads which lead him to Salisbury. Seeing it he sees everything beneath it—all the familiar places and objects, all the streets—High and Castle and Crane Streets, and many others, including Endless Street, which reminds one of Sydney Smith's last flicker of fun before that candle went out; and the "White Hart" and the "Angel" and "Old George," and the humbler "Goat" and "Green Man" and "Shoulder of Mutton," with many besides; and the great, red building with its cedar-tree, and the knot of men and boys standing on the bridge gazing down on the trout in the swift river below; and the market-place and its busy crowds—all the familiar sights and scenes that come under the spire like a flock of sheep on a burning day in summer, grouped about a great tree growing in the pasture-land. But he is not familiar with the interior of the great fane; it fails to draw him, doubtless because he has no time in his busy, practical life for the cultivation of the aesthetic faculties. There is a crust over that part of his mind; but it need not always and ever be so; the crust is not on the mind of the child.
Before a stall in the market-place a child is standing with her mother—a commonplace-looking, little girl of about twelve, blue-eyed, light-haired, with thin arms and legs, dressed, poorly enough, for her holiday. The mother, stoutish, in her best but much-worn black gown and a brown straw, out-of-shape hat, decorated with bits of ribbon and a few soiled and frayed artificial flowers. Probably she is the wife of a labourer who works hard to keep himself and family on fourteen shillings a week; and she, too, shows, in her hard hands and sunburnt face, with little wrinkles appearing, that she is a hard worker; but she is very jolly, for she is in Salisbury on market-day, in fine weather, with several shillings in her purse—a shilling for the fares, and perhaps eightpence for refreshments, and the rest to be expended in necessaries for the house. And now to increase the pleasure of the day she has unexpectedly run against a friend! There they stand, the two friends, basket on arm, right in the midst of the jostling crowd, talking in their loud, tinny voices at a tremendous rate; while the girl, with a half-eager, half-listless expression, stands by with her hand on her mother's dress, and every time there is a second's pause in the eager talk she gives a little tug at the gown and ejaculates "Mother!" The woman impatiently shakes off the hand and says sharply, "What now, Marty! Can't 'ee let me say just a word without bothering!" and on the talk runs again; then another tug and "Mother!" and then, "You promised, mother," and by and by, "Mother, you said you'd take me to the cathedral next time."
Having heard so much I wanted to hear more, and addressing the woman I asked her why her child wanted to go. She answered me with a good-humoured laugh, "'Tis all because she heard 'em talking about it last winter, and she'd never been, and I says to her, 'Never you mind, Marty, I'll take you there the next time I go to Salisbury.'"
"And she's never forgot it," said the other woman.
"Not she—Marty ain't one to forget."
"And you been four times, mother," put in the girl.
"Have I now! Well, 'tis too late now—half-past two, and we must be't' Goat' at four."
"Oh, mother, you promised!"
"Well, then, come along, you worriting child, and let's have it over or you'll give me no peace"; and away they went. And I would have followed to know the result if it had been in my power to look into that young brain and see the thoughts and feelings there as the crystal-gazer sees things in a crystal. In a vague way, with some very early memories to help me, I can imagine it—the shock of pleased wonder at the sight of that immense interior, that far-extending nave with pillars that stand like the tall trunks of pines and beeches, and at the end the light screen which allows the eye to travel on through the rich choir, to see, with fresh wonder and delight, high up and far off, that glory of coloured glass as of a window half-open to an unimaginable place beyond—a heavenly cathedral to which all this is but a dim porch or passage!
We do not properly appreciate the educational value of such early experiences; and I use that dismal word not because it is perfectly right or for want of a better one, but because it is in everybody's mouth and understood by all. For all I know to the contrary, village schools may be bundled in and out of the cathedral from time to time, but that is not the right way, seeing that the child's mind is not the crowd-of-children's mind. But I can imagine that when we have a wiser, better system of education in the villages, in which books will not be everything, and to be shut up six or seven hours every day to prevent the children from learning the things that matter most—I can imagine at such a time that the schoolmaster or mistress will say to the village woman, "I hear you are going to Salisbury to-morrow, or next Tuesday, and I want you to take Janie or little Dan or Peter, and leave him for an hour to play about on the cathedral green and watch the daws flying round the spire, and take a peep inside while you are doing your marketing."
Back from the cathedral once more, from the infirmary, and from shops and refreshment-houses, out in the sun among the busy people, let us delay a little longer for the sake of our last scene.
It was past noon on a hot, brilliant day in August, and that splendid weather had brought in more people than I had ever before seen congregated in Salisbury, and never had the people seemed so talkative and merry and full of life as on that day. I was standing at a busy spot by a row of carriers' carts drawn up at the side of the pavement, just where there are three public-houses close together, when I caught sight of a young man of about twenty-two or twenty-three, a shepherd in a grey suit and thick, iron-shod, old boots and brown leggings, with a soft felt hat thrust jauntily on the back of his head, coming along towards me with that half-slouching, half-swinging gait peculiar to the men of the downs, especially when they are in the town on pleasure bent. Decidedly he was there on pleasure and had been indulging in a glass or two of beer (perhaps three) and was very happy, trolling out a song in a pleasant, musical voice as he swung along, taking no notice of the people stopping and turning round to stare after him, or of those of his own party who were following and trying to keep up with him, calling to him all the time to stop, to wait, to go slow, and give them a chance. There were seven following him: a stout, middle-aged woman, then a grey-haired old woman and two girls, and last a youngish, married woman with a small boy by the hand; and the stout woman, with a red, laughing face, cried out, "Oh, Dave, do stop, can't 'ee! Where be going so fast, man—don't 'ee see we can't keep up with 'ee?" But he would not stop nor listen. It was his day out, his great day in Salisbury, a very rare occasion, and he was very happy. Then she would turn back to the others and cry, "'Tisn't no use, he won't bide for us—did 'ee ever see such a boy!" and laughing and perspiring she would start on after him again.
Now this incident would have been too trivial to relate had it not been for the appearance of the man himself—his powerful and perfect physique and marvellously handsome face—such a face as the old Greek sculptors have left to the world to be universally regarded and admired for all time as the most perfect. I do not think that this was my feeling only; I imagine that the others in that street who were standing still and staring after him had something of the same sense of surprise and admiration he excited in me. Just then it happened that there was a great commotion outside one of the public-houses, where a considerable party of gipsies in their little carts had drawn up, and were all engaged in a violent, confused altercation. Probably they, or one of them, had just disposed of a couple of stolen ducks, or a sheepskin, or a few rabbits, and they were quarrelling over the division of the spoil. At all events they were violently excited, scowling at each other and one or two in a dancing rage, and had collected a crowd of amused lookers-on; but when the young man came singing by they all turned to stare at him.
As he came on I placed myself directly in his path and stared straight into his eyes—grey eyes and very beautiful; but he refused to see me; he stared through me like an animal when you try to catch its eyes, and went by still trolling out his song, with all the others streaming after him.
A favourite village—Isolated situation—Appearance of the village—Hedge-fruit—The winterbourne—Human interest—The home feeling—Man in harmony with nature—Human bones thrown out by a rabbit—A spot unspoiled and unchanged
Of the few widely separated villages, hidden away among the lonely downs in the large, blank spaces between the rivers, the one I love best is Winterbourne Bishop. Yet of the entire number—I know them all intimately—I daresay it would be pronounced by most persons the least attractive. It has less shade from trees in summer and is more exposed in winter to the bleak winds of this high country, from whichever quarter they may blow. Placed high itself on a wide, unwooded valley or depression, with the low, sloping downs at some distance away, the village is about as cold a place to pass a winter in as one could find in this district. And, it may be added, the most inconvenient to live in at any time, the nearest town, or the easiest to get to, being Salisbury, twelve miles distant by a hilly road. The only means of getting to that great centre of life which the inhabitants possess is by the carrier's cart, which makes the weary four-hours' journey once a week, on market-day. Naturally, not many of them see that place of delights oftener than once a year, and some but once in five or more years.
Then, as to the village itself, when you have got down into its one long, rather winding street, or road. This has a green bank, five or six feet high, on either side, on which stand the cottages, mostly facing the road. Real houses there are none—buildings worthy of being called houses in these great days—unless the three small farm-houses are considered better than cottages, and the rather mean-looking rectory—the rector, poor man, is very poor. Just in the middle part, where the church stands in its green churchyard, the shadiest spot in the village, a few of the cottages are close together, almost touching, then farther apart, twenty yards or so, then farther still, forty or fifty yards. They are small, old cottages; a few have seventeenth-century dates cut on stone tablets on their fronts, but the undated ones look equally old; some thatched, others tiled, but none particularly attractive. Certainly they are without the added charm of a green drapery—creeper or ivy rose, clematis, and honeysuckle; and they are also mostly without the cottage-garden flowers, unprofitably gay like the blossoming furze, but dear to the soul: the flowers we find in so many of the villages along the rivers, especially in those of the Wylye valley to be described in a later chapter.
The trees, I have said, are few, though the churchyard is shady, where you can refresh yourself beneath its ancient beeches and its one wide-branching yew, or sit on a tomb in the sun when you wish for warmth and brightness. The trees growing by or near the street are mostly ash or beech, with a pine or two, old but not large; and there are small or dwarf yew-, holly-, and thorn-trees. Very little fruit is grown; two or three to half a dozen apple- and damson-trees are called an orchard, and one is sorry for the children. But in late summer and autumn they get their fruit from the hedges. These run up towards the downs on either side of the village, at right angles with its street; long, unkept hedges, beautiful with scarlet haws and traveller's-joy, rich in bramble and elder berries and purple sloes and nuts—a thousand times more nuts than the little dormice require for their own modest wants.
Finally, to go back to its disadvantages, the village is waterless; at all events in summer, when water is most wanted. Water is such a blessing and joy in a village—a joy for ever when it flows throughout the year, as at Nether Stowey and Winsford and Bourton-on-the-Water, to mention but three of all those happy villages in the land which are known to most of us! What man on coming to such places and watching the rushing, sparkling, foaming torrent by day and listening to its splashing, gurgling sounds by night, does not resolve that he will live in no village that has not a perennial stream in it! This unblessed, high and dry village has nothing but the winter bourne which gives it its name; a sort of surname common to a score or two of villages in Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, and Hants. Here the bed of the stream lies by the bank on one side of the village street, and when the autumn and early winter rains have fallen abundantly, the hidden reservoirs within the chalk hills are filled to overflowing; then the water finds its way out and fills the dry old channel and sometimes turns the whole street into a rushing river, to the immense joy of the village children. They are like ducks, hatched and reared at some upland farm where there was not even a muddy pool to dibble in. For a season (the wet one) the village women have water at their own doors and can go out and dip pails in it as often as they want. When spring comes it is still flowing merrily, trying to make you believe that it is going to flow for ever; beautiful, green water-loving plants and grasses spring up and flourish along the roadside, and you may see comfrey and water forget-me-not in flower. Pools, too, have been formed in some deep, hollow places; they are fringed with tall grasses, whitened over with bloom of water-crowfoot, and poa grass grows up from the bottom to spread its green tresses over the surface. Better still, by and by a couple of stray moorhens make their appearance in the pool—strange birds, coloured glossy olive-brown, slashed with white, with splendid scarlet and yellow beaks! If by some strange chance a shining blue kingfisher were to appear it could not create a greater excitement. So much attention do they receive that the poor strangers have no peace of their lives. It is a happy time for the children, and a good time for the busy housewife, who has all the water she wants for cooking and washing and cleaning—she may now dash as many pailfuls over her brick floors as she likes. Then the clear, swift current begins to diminish, and scarcely have you had time to notice the change than it is altogether gone! The women must go back to the well and let the bucket down, and laboriously turn and turn the handle of the windlass till it mounts to the top again. The pretty moist, green herbage, the graceful grasses, quickly wither away; dust and straws and rubbish from the road lie in the dry channel, and by and by it is filled with a summer growth of dock and loveless nettles which no child may touch with impunity.
No, I cannot think that any person for whom it had no association, no secret interest, would, after looking at this village with its dried-up winterbourne, care to make his home in it. And no person, I imagine, wants to see it; for it has no special attraction and is away from any road, at a distance from everywhere. I knew a great many villages in Salisbury Plain, and was always adding to their number, but there was no intention of visiting this one. Perhaps there is not a village on the Plain, or anywhere in Wiltshire for that matter, which sees fewer strangers. Then I fell in with the old shepherd whose life will be related in the succeeding chapters, and who, away from his native place, had no story about his past life and the lives of those he had known—no thought in his mind, I might almost say, which was not connected with the village of Winterbourne Bishop. And many of his anecdotes and reflections proved so interesting that I fell into the habit of putting them down in my notebook; until in the end the place itself, where he had followed his "homely trade" so long, seeing and feeling so much, drew me to it. I knew there was "nothing to see" in it, that it was without the usual attractions; that there was, in fact, nothing but the human interest, but that was enough. So I came to it to satisfy an idle curiosity—just to see how it would accord with the mental picture produced by his description of it. I came, I may say, prepared to like the place for the sole but sufficient reason that it had been his home. Had it not been for this feeling he had produced in me I should not, I imagine, have cared to stay long in it. As it was, I did stay, then came again and found that it was growing on me. I wondered why; for the mere interest in the old shepherd's life memories did not seem enough to account for this deepening attachment. It began to seem to me that I liked it more and more because of its very barrenness—the entire absence of all the features which make a place attractive, noble scenery, woods, and waters; deer parks and old houses, Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean, stately and beautiful, full of art treasures; ancient monuments and historical associations. There were none of these things; there was nothing here but that wide, vacant expanse, very thinly populated with humble, rural folk—farmers, shepherds, labourers—living in very humble houses. England is so full of riches in ancient monuments and grand and interesting and lovely buildings and objects and scenes, that it is perhaps too rich. For we may get into the habit of looking for such things, expecting them at every turn, every mile of the way.
I found it a relief, at Winterbourne Bishop, to be in a country which had nothing to draw a man out of a town. A wide, empty land, with nothing on it to look at but a furze-bush; or when I had gained the summit of the down, and to get a little higher still stood on the top of one of its many barrows, a sight of the distant village, its low, grey or reddish-brown cottages half hidden among its few trees, the square, stone tower of its little church looking at a distance no taller than a milestone. That emptiness seemed good for both mind and body: I could spend long hours idly sauntering or sitting or lying on the turf, thinking of nothing, or only of one thing—that it was a relief to have no thought about anything.
But no, something was secretly saying to me all the time, that it was more than what I have said which continued to draw me to this vacant place—more than the mere relief experienced on coming back to nature and solitude, and the freedom of a wide earth and sky. I was not fully conscious of what the something more was until after repeated visits. On each occasion it was a pleasure to leave Salisbury behind and set out on that long, hilly road, and the feeling would keep with me all the journey, even in bad weather, sultry or cold, or with the wind hard against me, blowing the white chalk dust into my eyes. From the time I left the turnpike to go the last two and a half to three miles by the side-road I would gaze eagerly ahead for a sight of my destination long before it could possibly be seen; until, on gaining the summit of a low, intervening down, the wished scene would be disclosed—the vale-like, wide depression, with its line of trees, blue-green in the distance, flecks of red and grey colour of the houses among them—and at that sight there would come a sense of elation, like that of coming home.
This in fact was the secret! This empty place was, in its aspect, despite the difference in configuration between down and undulating plain, more like the home of my early years than any other place known to me in the country. I can note many differences, but they do not deprive me of this home feeling; it is the likenesses that hold me, the spirit of the place, one which is not a desert with the desert's melancholy or sense of desolation, but inhabited, although thinly and by humble-minded men whose work and dwellings are unobtrusive. The final effect of this wide, green space with signs of human life and labour on it, and sight of animals—sheep and cattle—at various distances, is that we are not aliens here, intruders or invaders on the earth, living in it but apart, perhaps hating and spoiling it, but with the other animals are children of Nature, like them living and seeking our subsistence under her sky, familiar with her sun and wind and rain.
If some ostentatious person had come to this strangely quiet spot and raised a staring, big house, the sight of it in the landscape would have made it impossible to have such a feeling as I have described—this sense of man's harmony and oneness with nature. From how much of England has this expression which nature has for the spirit, which is so much more to us than beauty of scenery, been blotted out! This quiet spot in Wiltshire has been inhabited from of old, how far back in time the barrows raised by an ancient, barbarous people are there to tell us, and to show us how long it is possible for the race of men, in all stages of culture, to exist on the earth without spoiling it.
One afternoon when walking on Bishop Down I noticed at a distance of a hundred yards or more that a rabbit had started making a burrow in a new place and had thrown out a vast quantity of earth. Going to the spot to see what kind of chalk or soil he was digging so deeply in, I found that he had thrown out a human thigh-bone and a rib or two. They were of a reddish-white colour and had been embedded in a hard mixture of chalk and red earth. The following day I went again, and there were more bones, and every day after that the number increased until it seemed to me that he had brought out the entire skeleton, minus the skull, which I had been curious to see. Then the bones disappeared. The man who looked after the game had seen them, and recognizing that they were human remains had judiciously taken them away to destroy or stow them away in some safe place. For if the village constable had discovered them, or heard of their presence, he would perhaps have made a fuss and even thought it necessary to communicate with the coroner of the district. Such things occasionally happen, even in Wiltshire where the chalk hills are full of the bones of dead men, and a solemn Crowner's quest is held on the remains of a Saxon or Dane or an ancient Briton. When some important person—a Sir Richard Colt Hoare, for example, who dug up 379 barrows in Wiltshire, or a General Pitt Rivers throws out human remains nobody minds, but if an unauthorized rabbit kicks out a lot of bones the matter should be inquired into.
But the man whose bones had been thus thrown out into the sunlight after lying so long at that spot, which commanded a view of the distant, little village looking so small in that immense, green space—who and what was he, and how long ago did he live on the earth—at Winterbourne Bishop, let us say? There were two barrows in that part of the down, but quite a stone's-throw away from the spot where the rabbit was working, so that he may not have been one of the people of that period. Still, it is probable that he was buried a very long time ago, centuries back, perhaps a thousand years, perhaps longer, and by chance there was a slope there which prevented the water from percolating, and the soil in which he had been deposited, under that close-knit turf which looked as if it had never been disturbed, was one in which bones might keep uncrumbled for ever.
The thought that occurred to me at the time was that if the man himself had come back to life after so long a period, to stand once more on that down surveying the scene, he would have noticed little change in it, certainly nothing of a startling description. The village itself, looking so small at that distance, in the centre of the vast depression, would probably not be strange to him. It was doubtless there as far back as history goes and probably still farther back in time. For at that point, just where the winterbourne gushes out from the low hills, is the spot man would naturally select to make his home. And he would see no mansion or big building, no puff of white steam and sight of a long, black train creeping over the earth, nor any other strange thing. It would appear to him even as he knew it before he fell asleep—the same familiar scene, with furze and bramble and bracken on the slope, the wide expanse with sheep and cattle grazing in the distance, and the dark green of trees in the hollows, and fold on fold of the low down beyond, stretching away to the dim, farthest horizon.
A SHEPHERD OF THE DOWNS
Caleb Bawcombe—An old shepherd's love of his home—Fifty years' shepherding—Bawcombe's singular appearance—A tale of a titlark—Caleb Bawcombe's father—Father and son—A grateful sportsman and Isaac Bawcombe's pension—Death following death in old married couples—In a village churchyard—A farm-labourer's gravestone and his story
It is now several years since I first met Caleb Bawcombe, a shepherd of the South Wiltshire Downs, but already old and infirm and past work. I met him at a distance from his native village, and it was only after I had known him a long time and had spent many afternoons and evenings in his company, listening to his anecdotes of his shepherding days, that I went to see his own old home for myself—the village of Winterbourne Bishop already described, to find it a place after my own heart. But as I have said, if I had never known Caleb and heard so much from him about his own life and the lives of many of his fellow-villagers, I should probably never have seen this village.
One of his memories was of an old shepherd named John, whose acquaintance he made when a very young man—John being at that time seventy-eight years old—on the Winterbourne Bishop farm, where he had served for an unbroken period of close on sixty years. Though so aged he was still head shepherd, and he continued to hold that place seven years longer—until his master, who had taken over old John with the place, finally gave up the farm and farming at the same time. He, too, was getting past work and wished to spend his declining years in his native village in an adjoining parish, where he owned some house and cottage property. And now what was to become of the old shepherd, since the new tenant had brought his own men with him?—and he, moreover, considered that John, at eighty-five, was too old to tend a flock on the hills, even of tegs. His old master, anxious to help him, tried to get him some employment in the village where he wished to stay; and failing in this, he at last offered him a cottage rent free in the village where he was going to live himself, and, in addition, twelve shillings a week for the rest of his life. It was in those days an exceedingly generous offer, but John refused it. "Master," he said, "I be going to stay in my own native village, and if I can't make a living the parish'll have to keep I; but keep or not keep, here I be and here I be going to stay, where I were borned."
From this position the stubborn old man refused to be moved, and there at Winterbourne Bishop his master had to leave him, although not without having first made him a sufficient provision.
The way in which my old friend, Caleb Bawcombe, told the story plainly revealed his own feeling in the matter. He understood and had the keenest sympathy with old John, dead now over half a century; or rather, let us say, resting very peacefully in that green spot under the old grey tower of Winterbourne Bishop church where as a small boy he had played among the old gravestones as far back in time as the middle of the eighteenth century. But old John had long survived wife and children, and having no one but himself to think of was at liberty to end his days where he pleased. Not so with Caleb, for, although his undying passion for home and his love of the shepherd's calling were as great as John's, he was not so free, and he was compelled at last to leave his native downs, which he may never see again, to settle for the remainder of his days in another part of the country.
Early in life he "caught a chill" through long exposure to wet and cold in winter; this brought on rheumatic fever and a malady of the thigh, which finally affected the whole limb and made him lame for life. Thus handicapped he had continued as shepherd for close on fifty years, during which time his sons and daughters had grown up, married, and gone away, mostly to a considerable distance, leaving their aged parents alone once more. Then the wife, who was a strong woman and of an enterprising temper, found an opening for herself at a distance from home where she could start a little business. Caleb indignantly refused to give up shepherding in his place to take part in so unheard-of an adventure; but after a year or more of life in his lonely hut among the hills and cold, empty cottage in the village, he at length tore himself away from that beloved spot and set forth on the longest journey of his life—about forty-five miles—to join her and help in the work of her new home. Here a few years later I found him, aged seventy-two, but owing to his increasing infirmities looking considerably more. When he considered that his father, a shepherd before him on those same Wiltshire Downs, lived to eighty-six, and his mother to eighty-four, and that both were vigorous and led active lives almost to the end, he thought it strange that his own work should be so soon done. For in heart and mind he was still young; he did not want to rest yet.
Since that first meeting nine years have passed, and as he is actually better in health to-day than he was then, there is good reason to hope that his staying power will equal that of his father.
I was at first struck with the singularity of Caleb's appearance, and later by the expression of his eyes. A very tall, big-boned, lean, round-shouldered man, he was uncouth almost to the verge of grotesqueness, and walked painfully with the aid of a stick, dragging his shrunken and shortened bad leg. His head was long and narrow, and his high forehead, long nose, long chin, and long, coarse, grey whiskers, worn like a beard on his throat, produced a goat-like effect. This was heightened by the ears and eyes. The big ears stood out from his head, and owing to a peculiar bend or curl in the membrane at the top they looked at certain angles almost pointed. The hazel eyes were wonderfully clear, but that quality was less remarkable than the unhuman intelligence in them—fawn-like eyes that gazed steadily at you as one may gaze through the window, open back and front, of a house at the landscape beyond. This peculiarity was a little disconcerting at first, when, after making his acquaintance out of doors, I went in uninvited and sat down with him at his own fireside. The busy old wife talked of this and that, and hinted as politely as she knew how that I was in her way. To her practical, peasant mind there was no sense in my being there. "He be a stranger to we, and we be strangers to he." Caleb was silent, and his clear eyes showed neither annoyance nor pleasure but only their native, wild alertness, but the caste feeling is always less strong in the hill shepherd than in other men who are on the land; in some cases it will vanish at a touch, and it was so in this one. A canary in a cage hanging in the kitchen served to introduce the subject of birds captive and birds free. I said that I liked the little yellow bird, and was not vexed to see him in a cage, since he was cage-born; but I considered that those who caught wild birds and kept them prisoners did not properly understand things. This happened to be Caleb's view. He had a curiously tender feeling about the little wild birds, and one amusing incident of his boyhood which he remembered came out during our talk. He was out on the down one summer day in charge of his father's flock, when two boys of the village on a ramble in the hills came and sat down on the turf by his side. One of them had a titlark, or meadow pipit, which he had just caught, in his hand, and there was a hot argument as to which of the two was the lawful owner of the poor little captive. The facts were as follows. One of the boys having found the nest became possessed with the desire to get the bird. His companion at once offered to catch it for him, and together they withdrew to a distance and sat down and waited until the bird returned to sit on the eggs. Then the young birdcatcher returned to the spot, and creeping quietly up to within five or six feet of the nest threw his hat so that it fell over the sitting titlark; but after having thus secured it he refused to give it up. The dispute waxed hotter as they sat there, and at last when it got to the point of threats of cuffs on the ear and slaps on the face they agreed to fight it out, the victor to have the titlark. The bird was then put under a hat for safety on the smooth turf a few feet away, and the boys proceeded to take off their jackets and roll up their shirt-sleeves, after which they faced one another, and were just about to begin when Caleb, thrusting out his crook, turned the hat over and away flew the titlark.
The boys, deprived of their bird and of an excuse for a fight, would gladly have discharged their fury on Caleb, but they durst not, seeing that his dog was lying at his side; they could only threaten and abuse him, call him bad names, and finally put on their coats and walk off.
That pretty little tale of a titlark was but the first of a long succession of memories of his early years, with half a century of shepherding life on the downs, which came out during our talks on many autumn and winter evenings as we sat by his kitchen fire. The earlier of these memories were always the best to me, because they took one back sixty years or more, to a time when there was more wildness in the earth than now, and a nobler wild animal life. Even more interesting were some of the memories of his father, Isaac Bawcombe, whose time went back to the early years of the nineteenth century. Caleb cherished an admiration and reverence for his father's memory which were almost a worship, and he loved to describe him as he appeared in his old age, when upwards of eighty. He was erect and tall, standing six feet two in height, well proportioned, with a clean-shaved, florid face, clear, dark eyes, and silver-white hair; and at this later period of his life he always wore the dress of an old order of pensioners to which he had been admitted—a soft, broad, white felt hat, thick boots and brown leather leggings, and a long, grey cloth overcoat with red collar and brass buttons.
According to Caleb, he must have been an exceedingly fine specimen of a man, both physically and morally. Born in 1800, he began following a flock as a boy, and continued as shepherd on the same farm until he was sixty, never rising to more than seven shillings a week and nothing found, since he lived in the cottage where he was born and which he inherited from his father. That a man of his fine powers, a head-shepherd on a large hill-farm, should have had no better pay than that down to the year 1860, after nearly half a century of work in one place, seems almost incredible. Even his sons, as they grew up to man's estate, advised him to ask for an increase, but he would not. Seven shillings a week he had always had; and that small sum, with something his wife earned by making highly finished smock-frocks, had been sufficient to keep them all in a decent way; and his sons were now all earning their own living. But Caleb got married, and resolved to leave the old farm at Bishop to take a better place at a distance from home, at Warminster, which had been offered him. He would there have a cottage to live in, nine shillings a week, and a sack of barley for his dog. At that time the shepherd had to keep his own dog—no small expense to him when his wages were no more than six to eight shillings a week. But Caleb was his father's favourite son, and the old man could not endure the thought of losing sight of him; and at last, finding that he could not persuade him not to leave the old home, he became angry, and told him that if he went away to Warminster for the sake of the higher wages and barley for the dog he would disown him! This was a serious matter to Caleb, in spite of the fact that a shepherd has no money to leave to his children when he passes away. He went nevertheless, for, though he loved and reverenced his father, he had a young wife who pulled the other way; and he was absent for years, and when he returned the old man's heart had softened, so that he was glad to welcome him back to the old home.
Meanwhile at that humble cottage at Winterbourne Bishop great things had happened; old Isaac was no longer shepherding on the downs, but living very comfortably in his own cottage in the village. The change came about in this way.
The downland shepherds, Caleb said, were as a rule clever poachers; and it is really not surprising, when one considers the temptation to a man with a wife and several hungry children, besides himself and a dog, to feed out of about seven shillings a week. But old Bawcombe was an exception: he would take no game, furred or feathered, nor, if he could prevent it, allow another to take anything from the land fed by his flock. Caleb and his brothers, when as boys and youths they began their shepherding, sometimes caught a rabbit, or their dog caught and killed one without their encouragement; but, however the thing came into their hands, they could not take it home on account of their father. Now it happened that an elderly gentleman who had the shooting was a keen sportsman, and that in several successive years he found a wonderful difference in the amount of game at one spot among the hills and in all the rest of his hill property. The only explanation the keeper could give was that Isaac Bawcombe tended his flock on that down where rabbits, hares, and partridges were so plentiful. One autumn day the gentleman was shooting over that down, and seeing a big man in a smock-frock standing motionless, crook in hand, regarding him, he called out to his keeper, who was with him, "Who is that big man?" and was told that it was Shepherd Bawcombe. The old gentleman pulled some money out of his pocket and said, "Give him this half-crown, and thank him for the good sport I've had to-day." But after the coin had been given the giver still remained standing there, thinking, perhaps, that he had not yet sufficiently rewarded the man; and at last, before turning away, he shouted, "Bawcombe, that's not all. You'll get something more by and by."
Isaac had not long to wait for the something more, and it turned out not to be the hare or brace of birds he had half expected. It happened that the sportsman was one of the trustees of an ancient charity which provided for six of the most deserving old men of the parish of Bishop; now, one of the six had recently died, and on this gentleman's recommendation Bawcombe had been elected to fill the vacant place. The letter from Salisbury informing him of his election and commanding his presence in that city filled him with astonishment; for, though he was sixty years old and the father of three sons now out in the world, he could not yet regard himself as an old man, for he had never known a day's illness, nor an ache, and was famed in all that neighbourhood for his great physical strength and endurance. And now, with his own cottage to live in, eight shillings a week, and his pensioners' garments, with certain other benefits, and a shilling a day besides which his old master paid him for some services at the farm-house in the village, Isaac found himself very well off indeed, and he enjoyed his prosperous state for twenty-six years. Then, in 1886, his old wife fell ill and died, and no sooner was she in her grave than he, too, began to droop; and soon, before the year was out, he followed her, because, as the neighbours said, they had always been a loving pair and one could not 'bide without the other.
This chapter has already had its proper ending and there was no intention of adding to it, but now for a special reason, which I trust the reader will pardon when he hears it, I must go on to say something about that strange phenomenon of death succeeding death in old married couples, one dying for no other reason than that the other has died. For it is our instinct to hold fast to life, and the older a man gets if he be sane the more he becomes like a newborn child in the impulse to grip tightly. A strange and a rare thing among people generally (the people we know), it is nevertheless quite common among persons of the labouring class in the rural districts. I have sometimes marvelled at the number of such cases to be met with in the villages; but when one comes to think about it one ceases to wonder that it should be so. For the labourer on the land goes on from boyhood to the end of life in the same everlasting round, the changes from task to task, according to the seasons, being no greater than in the case of the animals that alter their actions and habits to suit the varying conditions of the year. March and August and December, and every month, will bring about the changes in the atmosphere and earth and vegetation and in the animals, which have been from of old, which he knows how to meet, and the old, familiar task, lambing-time, shearing-time, root and seed crops hoeing, haymaking, harvesting. It is a life of the extremest simplicity, without all those interests outside the home and the daily task, the innumerable distractions, common to all persons in other classes and to the workmen in towns as well. Incidentally it may be said that it is also the healthiest, that, speaking generally, the agricultural labourer is the healthiest and sanest man in the land, if not also the happiest, as some believe.
It is this life of simple, unchanging actions and of habits that are like instincts, of hard labour in sun and wind and rain from day to day, with its weekly break and rest, and of but few comforts and no luxuries, which serves to bind man and wife so closely. And the longer their life goes on together the closer and more unbreakable the union grows. They are growing old: old friends and companions have died or left them; their children have married and gone away and have their own families and affairs, so that the old folks at home are little remembered, and to all others they have become of little consequence in the world. But they do not know it, for they are together, cherishing the same memories, speaking of the same old, familiar things, and their lost friends and companions, their absent, perhaps estranged, children, are with them still in mind as in the old days. The past is with them more than the present, to give an undying interest to life; for they share it, and it is only when one goes, when the old wife gets the tea ready and goes mechanically to the door to gaze out, knowing that her tired man will come in no more to take his customary place and listen to all the things she has stored up in her mind during the day to tell him; and when the tired labourer comes in at dusk to find no old wife waiting to give him his tea and talk to him while he refreshes himself, he all at once realizes his position; he finds himself cut off from the entire world, from all of his kind. Where are they all? The enduring sympathy of that one soul that was with him till now had kept him in touch with life, had made it seem unchanged and unchangeable, and with that soul has vanished the old, sweet illusion as well as all ties, all common, human affection. He is desolate, indeed, alone in a desert world, and it is not strange that in many and many a case, even in that of a man still strong, untouched by disease and good for another decade or two, the loss, the awful solitude, has proved too much for him.
Such cases, I have said, are common, but they are not recorded, though it is possible with labour to pick them out in the church registers; but in the churchyards you do not find them, since the farm-labourer has only a green mound to mark the spot where he lies. Nevertheless, he is sometimes honoured with a gravestone, and last August I came by chance on one on which was recorded a case like that of Isaac Bawcombe and his life-mate.
The churchyard is in one of the prettiest and most secluded villages in the downland country described in this book. The church is ancient and beautiful and interesting in many ways, and the churchyard, too, is one of the most interesting I know, a beautiful, green, tree-shaded spot, with an extraordinary number of tombs and gravestones, many of them dated in the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries, inscribed with names of families which have long died out.
I went on that afternoon to pass an hour in the churchyard, and finding an old man in labourer's clothes resting on a tomb, I sat down and entered into conversation with him. He was seventy-nine, he told me, and past work, and he had three shillings a week from the parish; but he was very deaf and it fatigued me to talk to him, and seeing the church open I went in. On previous visits I had had a good deal of trouble to get the key, and to find it open now was a pleasant surprise. An old woman was there dusting the seats, and by and by, while I was talking with her, the old labourer came stumping in with his ponderous, iron-shod boots and without taking off his old, rusty hat, and began shouting at the church-cleaner about a pair of trousers he had given her to mend, which he wanted badly. Leaving them to their arguing I went out and began studying the inscriptions on the stones, so hard to make out in some instances; the old man followed and went his way; then the church-cleaner came out to where I was standing. "A tiresome old man!" she said. "He's that deaf he has to shout to hear himself speak, then you've got to shout back—and all about his old trousers!"
"I suppose he wants them," I returned, "and you promised to do them, so he has some reason for going at you about it."
"Oh no, he hasn't," she replied. "The girl brought them for me to mend, and I said, 'Leave them and I'll do them when I've time'—how did I know he wanted them in a hurry? A troublesome old man!"
By and by, taking a pair of spectacles out of her pocket, she put them on, and going down on her knees she began industriously picking the old, brown, dead moss out of the lettering on one side of the tomb. "I'd like to know what it says on this stone," she said.
"Well, you can read it for yourself, now you've got your glasses on."
"I can't read. You see, I'm old—seventy-six years, and when I were little we were very poor and I couldn't get no schooling. I've got these glasses to do my sewing, and only put them on to get this stuff out so's you could read it. I'd like to hear you read it."
I began to get interested in the old dame who talked to me so freely. She was small and weak-looking, and appeared very thin in her limp, old, faded gown; she had a meek, patient expression on her face, and her voice, too, like her face, expressed weariness and resignation.
"But if you have always lived here you must know what is said on this stone?"
"No, I don't; nobody never read it to me, and I couldn't read it because I wasn't taught to read. But I'd like to hear you read it."
It was a long inscription to a person named Ash, gentleman, of this parish, who departed this life over a century ago, and was a man of a noble and generous disposition, good as a husband, a father, a friend, and charitable to the poor. Under all were some lines of verse, scarcely legible in spite of the trouble she had taken to remove the old moss from the letters.
She listened with profound interest, then said, "I never heard all that before; I didn't know the name, though I've known this stone since I was a child. I used to climb on to it then. Can you read me another?"
I read her another and several more, then came to one which she said she knew—every word of it, for this was the grave of the sweetest, kindest woman that ever lived. Oh, how good this dear woman had been to her in her young married life more'n fifty years ago! If that dear lady had only lived it would not have been so hard for her when her trouble come!
"And what was your trouble?"
"It was the loss of my poor man. He was such a good man, a thatcher; and he fell from a rick and injured his spine, and he died, poor fellow, and left me with our five little children." Then, having told me her own tragedy, to my surprise she brightened up and begged me to read other inscriptions to her.
I went on reading, and presently she said, "No, that's wrong. There wasn't ever a Lampard in this parish. That I know."
"You don't know! There certainly was a Lampard or it would not be stated here, cut in deep letters on this stone."
"No, there wasn't a Lampard. I've never known such a name and I've lived here all my life."
"But there were people living here before you came on the scene. He died a long time ago, this Lampard—in 1714, it says. And you are only seventy-six, you tell me; that is to say, you were born in 1835, and that would be one hundred and twenty-one years after he died."
"That's a long time! It must be very old, this stone. And the church too. I've heard say it was once a Roman Catholic church. Is that true?"
"Why, of course it's true—all the old churches were, and we were all of that faith until a King of England had a quarrel with the Pope and determined he would be Pope himself as well as king in his own country. So he turned all the priests and monks out, and took their property and churches and had his own men put in. That was Henry VIII."
"I've heard something about that king and his wives. But about Lampard, it do seem strange I've never heard that name before."
"Not strange at all; it was a common name in this part of Wiltshire in former days; you find it in dozens of churchyards, but you'll find very few Lampards living in the villages. Why, I could tell you a dozen or twenty surnames, some queer, funny names, that were common in these parts not more than a century ago which seem to have quite died out."
"I should like to hear some of them if you'll tell me."
"Let me think a moment: there was Thorr, Pizzie, Gee, Every, Pottle, Kiddle, Toomer, Shergold, and—"
Here she interrupted to say that she knew three of the names I had mentioned. Then, pointing to a small, upright gravestone about twenty feet away, she added, "And there's one."
"Very well," I said, "but don't keep putting me out—I've got more names in my mind to tell you. Maidment, Marchmont, Velvin, Burpitt, Winzur, Rideout, Cullurne."
Of these she only knew one—Rideout.
Then I went over to the stone she had pointed to and read the inscription to John Toomer and his wife Rebecca. She died first, in March 1877, aged 72; he in July the same year, aged 75.
"You knew them, I suppose?"
"Yes, they belonged here, both of them."
"Tell me about them."
"There's nothing to tell; he was only a labourer and worked on the same farm all his life."
"Who put a stone over them—their children?"
"No, they're all poor and live away. I think it was a lady who lived here; she'd been good to them, and she came and stood here when they put old John in the ground."
"But I want to hear more."
"There's no more, I've said; he was a labourer, and after she died he died."
"Yes? go on."
"How can I go on? There's no more. I knew them so well; they lived in the little thatched cottage over there, where the Millards live now."
"Did they fall ill at the same time?"
"Oh no, he was as well as could be, still at work, till she died, then he went on in a strange way. He would come in of an evening and call his wife. 'Mother! Mother, where are you?' you'd hear him call, 'Mother, be you upstairs? Mother, ain't you coming down for a bit of bread and cheese before you go to bed?' And then in a little while he just died."
"And you said there was nothing to tell!"
"No, there wasn't anything. He was just one of us, a labourer on the farm."
I then gave her something, and to my surprise after taking it she made me an elaborate curtsy. It rather upset me, for I had thought we had got on very well together and were quite free and easy in our talk, very much on a level. But she was not done with me yet. She followed to the gate, and holding out her open hand with that small gift in it, she said in a pathetic voice, "Did you think, sir, I was expecting this? I had no such thought and didn't want it."
And I had no thought of saying or writing a word about her. But since that day she has haunted me—she and her old John Toomer, and it has just now occurred to me that by putting her in my book I may be able to get her out of my mind.
A child shepherd—Isaac and his children—Shepherding in boyhood—Two notable sheep-dogs—Jack, the adder-killer—Sitting on an adder—Rough and the drovers—The Salisbury coach—A sheep-dog suckling a lamb
Caleb's shepherding began in childhood; at all events he had his first experience of it at that time. Many an old shepherd, whose father was shepherd before him, has told me that he began to go with the flock very early in life, when he was no more than ten to twelve years of age. Caleb remembered being put in charge of his father's flock at the tender age of six. It was a new and wonderful experience, and made so vivid and lasting an impression on his mind that now, when he is past eighty, he speaks of it very feelingly as of something which happened yesterday.
It was harvesting time, and Isaac, who was a good reaper, was wanted in the field, but he could find no one, not even a boy, to take charge of his flock in the meantime, and so to be able to reap and keep an eye on the flock at the same time he brought his sheep down to the part of the down adjoining the field. It was on his "liberty," or that part of the down where he was entitled to have his flock. He then took his very small boy, Caleb, and placing him with the sheep told him they were now in his charge; that he was not to lose sight of them, and at the same time not to run about among the furze-bushes for fear of treading on an adder. By and by the sheep began straying off among the furze-bushes, and no sooner would they disappear from sight than he imagined they were lost for ever, or would be unless he quickly found them, and to find them he had to run about among the bushes with the terror of adders in his mind, and the two troubles together kept him crying with misery all the time. Then, at intervals, Isaac would leave his reaping and come to see how he was getting on, and the tears would vanish from his eyes, and he would feel very brave again, and to his father's question he would reply that he was getting on very well.