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    Ch. 13: Vale of the Wylye

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    Chapter 13
    Previous Chapter
    Warminster--Vale of the Wylye--Counting the villages--A lost
    church--Character of the villages--Tytherington church--Story of the
    dog--Lord Lovell--Monuments in churches--Manor-houses--Knook--The
    cottages--Yellow stonecrop--Cottage gardens--Marigolds--Golden-rod--Wild
    flowers of the water-side--Seeking for the characteristic expression

    The prettily-named Wylye is a little river not above twenty miles in
    length from its rise to Salisbury, where, after mixing with the Nadder
    at Wilton, it joins the Avon. At or near its source stands Warminster, a
    small, unimportant town with a nobler-sounding name than any other in
    Wiltshire. Trowbridge, Devizes, Marlborough, Salisbury, do not stir the
    mind in the same degree; and as for Chippenham, Melksham, Mere, Calne,
    and Corsham, these all are of no more account than so many villages in
    comparison. Yet Warminster has no associations--no place in our mental
    geography; at all events one remembers nothing about it. Its name, which
    after all may mean nothing more than the monastery on the Were--one of
    the three streamlets which flow into the Wylye at its source--is its
    only glory. It is not surprising that Caleb Bawcombe invariably speaks
    of his migration to, and of the time he passed at Warminster, when, as a
    fact, he was not there at all, but at Doveton, a little village on the
    Wylye a few miles below the town with the great name.

    It is a green valley--the greenness strikes one sharply on account of
    the pale colour of the smooth, high downs on either side--half a mile to
    a mile in width, its crystal current showing like a bright serpent for a
    brief space in the green, flat meadows, then vanishing again among the
    trees. So many are the great shade trees, beeches and ashes and elms,
    that from some points the valley has the appearance of a continuous
    wood--a contiguity of shade. And the wood hides the villages, at some
    points so effectually that looking down from the hills you may not catch
    a glimpse of one and imagine it to be a valley where no man dwells. As a
    rule you do see something of human occupancy--the red or yellow roofs of
    two or three cottages, a half-hidden grey church tower, or column of
    blue smoke, but to see the villages you must go down and look closely,
    and even so you will find it difficult to count them all. I have tried,
    going up and down the valley several times, walking or cycling, and have
    never succeeded in getting the same number on two occasions. There are
    certainly more then twenty, without counting the hamlets, and the right
    number is probably something between twenty-five and thirty, but I do
    not want to find out by studying books and maps. I prefer to let the
    matter remain unsettled so as to have the pleasure of counting or trying
    to count them again at some future time. But I doubt that I shall ever
    succeed. On one occasion I caught sight of a quaint, pretty little
    church standing by itself in the middle of a green meadow, where it
    looked very solitary with no houses in sight and not even a cow grazing
    near it. The river was between me and the church, so I went up-stream, a
    mile and a half, to cross by the bridge, then doubled back to look for
    the church, and couldn't find it! Yet it was no illusory church; I have
    seen it again on two occasions, but again from the other side of the
    river, and I must certainly go back some day in search of that lost
    church, where there may be effigies, brasses, sad, eloquent
    inscriptions, and other memorials of ancient tragedies and great
    families now extinct in the land.

    This is perhaps one of the principal charms of the Wylye--the sense of
    beautiful human things hidden from sight among the masses of foliage.
    Yet another lies in the character of the villages. Twenty-five or
    twenty-eight of them in a space of twenty miles; yet the impression,
    left on the mind is that these small centres of population are really
    few and far between. For not only are they small, but of the old, quiet,
    now almost obsolete type of village, so unobtrusive as to affect the
    mind soothingly, like the sight of trees and flowery banks and grazing
    cattle. The churches, too, as is fit, are mostly small and ancient and
    beautiful, half-hidden in their tree-shaded churchyards, rich in
    associations which go back to a time when history fades into myth and
    legend. Not all, however, are of this description; a few are naked,
    dreary little buildings, and of these I will mention one which, albeit
    ancient, has no monuments and no burial-ground. This is the church of
    Tytherington, a small, rustic village, which has for neighbours Codford
    St. Peter one one side and Sutton Veny and Norton Bavant on the other.
    To get into this church, where there was nothing but naked walls to look
    at, I had to procure the key from the clerk, a nearly blind old man of
    eighty. He told me that he was shoemaker but could no longer see to make
    or mend shoes; that as a boy he was a weak, sickly creature, and his
    father, a farm bailiff, made him learn shoemaking because he was unfit
    to work out of doors. "I remember this church," he said, "when there was
    only one service each quarter," but, strange to say, he forgot to tell
    me the story of the dog! "What, didn't he tell you about the dog?"
    exclaimed everybody. There was really nothing else to tell.

    It happened about a hundred years ago that once, after the quarterly
    service had been held, a dog was missed, a small terrier owned by the
    young wife of a farmer of Tytherington named Case. She was fond of her
    dog, and lamented its loss for a little while, then forgot all about it.
    But after three months, when the key was once more put into the rusty
    lock and the door thrown open, there was the dog, a living "skelington"
    it was said, dazed by the light of day, but still able to walk! It was
    supposed that he had kept himself alive by "licking the moisture from
    the walls." The walls, they said, were dripping with wet and covered
    with a thick growth of mould. I went back to interrogate the ancient
    clerk, and he said that the dog died shortly after its deliverance; Mrs.
    Case herself told him all about it. She was an old woman then, but was
    always willing to relate the sad story of her pet.

    That picture of the starving dog coming out, a living skeleton, from the
    wet, mouldy church, reminds us sharply of the changed times we live in
    and of the days when the Church was still sleeping very peacefully, not
    yet turning uneasily in its bed before opening its eyes; and when a
    comfortable rector of Codford thought it quite enough that the people of
    Tytherington, a mile away, should have one service every three months.

    As a fact, the Tytherington dog interested me as much as the story of
    the last Lord Lovell's self-incarceration in his own house in the
    neighbouring little village of Upton Lovell. He took refuge there from
    his enemies who were seeking his life, and concealed himself so
    effectually that he was never seen again. Centuries later, when
    excavations were made on the site of the ruined mansion, a secret
    chamber was discovered, containing a human skeleton seated in a chair at
    a table, on which were books and papers crumbling into dust.

    A volume might be filled with such strange and romantic happenings in
    the little villages of the Wylye, and for the natural man they have a
    lasting fascination; but they invariably relate to great people of their
    day--warriors and statesmen and landowners of old and noble lineage,
    the smallest and meanest you will find being clothiers, or merchants,
    who amassed large fortunes and built mansions for themselves and
    almshouses for the aged poor, and, when dead, had memorials placed to
    them in the churches. But of the humble cottagers, the true people of
    the vale who were rooted in the soil, and nourished and died like trees
    in the same place--of these no memory exists. We only know that they
    lived and laboured; that when they died, three or four a year, three or
    four hundred in a century, they were buried in the little shady
    churchyard, each with a green mound over him to mark the spot. But in
    time these "mouldering heaps" subsided, the bodies turned to dust, and
    another and yet other generations were laid in the same place among the
    forgotten dead, to be themselves in turn forgotten. Yet I would rather
    know the histories of these humble, unremembered lives than of the great
    ones of the vale who have left us a memory.

    It may be for this reason that I was little interested in the
    manor-houses of the vale. They are plentiful enough, some gone to decay
    or put to various uses; others still the homes of luxury, beauty,
    culture: stately rooms, rich fabrics; pictures, books, and manuscripts,
    gold and silver ware, china and glass, expensive curios, suits of
    armour, ivory and antlers, tiger-skins, stuffed goshawks and peacocks'
    feathers. Houses, in some cases built centuries ago, standing
    half-hidden in beautiful wooded grounds, isolated from the village; and
    even as they thus stand apart, sacred from intrusion, so the life that
    is in them does not mix with or form part of the true native life. They
    are to the cottagers of to-day what the Roman villas were to the native
    population of some eighteen centuries ago. This will seem incredible to
    some: to me, an untrammelled person, familiar in both hall and cottage,
    the distance between them appears immense.

    A reader well acquainted with the valley will probably laugh to be told
    that the manor-house which most interested me was that of Knook, a poor
    little village between Heytesbury and Upton Lovell. Its ancient and
    towerless little church with rough, grey walls is, if possible, even
    more desolate-looking than that of Tytherington. In my hunt for the
    key to open it I disturbed a quaint old man, another octogenarian,
    picturesque in a vast white beard, who told me he was a thatcher, or had
    been one before the evil days came when he could work no more and was
    compelled to seek parish relief. "You must go to the manor-house for the
    key," he told me. A strange place in which to look for the key, and it
    was stranger still to see the house, close to the church, and so like it
    that but for the small cross on the roof of the latter one could not
    have known which was the sacred building. First a monks' house, it fell
    at the Reformation to some greedy gentleman who made it his dwelling,
    and doubtless in later times it was used as a farm-house. Now a house
    most desolate, dirty, and neglected, with cracks in the walls which
    threaten ruin, standing in a wilderness of weeds, tenanted by a poor
    working-man whose wages are twelve shillings a week, and his wife and
    eight small children. The rent is eighteen-pence a week--probably the
    lowest-rented manor-house in England, though it is not very rare to
    find such places tenanted by labourers.

    But let us look at the true cottages. There are, I imagine,
    few places in England where the humble homes of the people
    have so great a charm. Undoubtedly they are darker inside, and not so
    convenient to live in as the modern box-shaped, red-brick, slate-roofed
    cottages, which have spread a wave of ugliness over the country;
    but they do not offend--they please the eye. They are smaller than
    the modern-built habitations; they are weathered and coloured by
    sun and wind and rain and many lowly vegetable forms to a harmony
    with nature. They appear related to the trees amid which they
    stand, to the river and meadows, to the sloping downs at the side,
    and to the sky and clouds over all. And, most delightful feature,
    they stand among, and are wrapped in, flowers as in a garment--rose
    and vine and creeper and clematis. They are mostly thatched, but some
    have tiled roofs, their deep, dark red clouded and stained with lichen
    and moss; and these roofs, too, have their flowers in summer. They are
    grown over with yellow stonecrop, that bright cheerful flower that
    smiles down at you from the lowly roof above the door, with such an
    inviting expression, so delighted to see you no matter how poor and
    worthless a person you may be or what mischief you may have been at,
    that you begin to understand the significance of a strange vernacular
    name of this plant--Welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk.

    But its garden flowers, clustering and nestling round it, amid which its
    feet are set--they are to me the best of all flowers. These are the
    flowers we know and remember for ever. The old, homely, cottage-garden
    blooms, so old that they have entered the soul. The big house garden, or
    gardener's garden, with everything growing in it I hate, but these I
    love--fragrant gillyflower and pink and clove-smelling carnation;
    wallflower, abundant periwinkle, sweet-william, larkspur,
    love-in-a-mist, and love-lies-bleeding, old-woman's-nightcap, and
    kiss-me-John-at-the-garden-gate, some times called pansy. And best of
    all and in greatest profusion, that flower of flowers, the marigold.

    How the townsman, town born and bred, regards this flower, I do not
    know. He is, in spite of all the time I have spent in his company, a
    comparative stranger to me--the one living creature on the earth who
    does not greatly interest me. Some over-populated planet in our system
    discovered a way to relieve itself by discharging its superfluous
    millions on our globe--a pale people with hurrying feet and eager,
    restless minds, who live apart in monstrous, crowded camps, like wood
    ants that go not out to forage for themselves--six millions of them
    crowded together in one camp alone! I have lived in these colonies,
    years and years, never losing the sense of captivity, of exile, ever
    conscious of my burden, taking no interest in the doings of that
    innumerable multitude, its manifold interests, its ideals and
    philosophy, its arts and pleasures. What, then, does it matter how they
    regard this common orange-coloured flower with a strong smell? For me it
    has an atmosphere, a sense or suggestion of something immeasurably
    remote and very beautiful--an event, a place, a dream perhaps, which has
    left no distinct image, but only this feeling unlike all others,
    imperishable, and not to be described except by the one word Marigold.

    But when my sight wanders away from the flower to others blooming with
    it--to all those which I have named and to the taller ones, so tall that
    they reach half-way up, and some even quite up, to the eaves of the
    lowly houses they stand against--hollyhocks and peonies and crystalline
    white lilies with powdery gold inside, and the common sunflower--I begin
    to perceive that they all possess something of that same magical

    These taller blooms remind me that the evening primrose, long
    naturalized in our hearts, is another common and very delightful
    cottage-garden flower; also that here, on the Wylye, there is yet
    another stranger from the same western world which is fast winning our
    affections. This is the golden-rod, grandly beautiful in its great,
    yellow, plume-like tufts. But it is not quite right to call the tufts
    yellow: they are green, thickly powdered with the minute golden florets.
    There is no flower in England like it, and it is a happiness to know
    that it promises to establish itself with us as a wild flower.

    Where the village lies low in the valley and the cottage is near the
    water, there are wild blooms, too, which almost rival those of the
    garden in beauty--water agrimony and comfrey with ivory-white and dim
    purple blossoms, purple and yellow loosestrife and gem-like, water
    forget-me-not; all these mixed with reeds and sedges and water-grasses,
    forming a fringe or border to the potato or cabbage patch, dividing it
    from the stream.

    But now I have exhausted the subject of the flowers, and enumerated and
    dwelt upon the various other components of the scene, it comes to me
    that I have not yet said the right thing and given the Wylye its
    characteristic expression. In considering the flowers we lose sight of
    the downs, and so in occupying ourselves with the details we miss the
    general effect. Let me then, once more, before concluding this chapter,
    try to capture the secret of this little river.

    There are other chalk streams in Wiltshire and Hampshire and
    Dorset--swift crystal currents that play all summer long with the
    floating poa grass fast held in their pebbly beds, flowing through
    smooth downs, with small ancient churches in their green villages, and
    pretty thatched cottages smothered in flowers--which yet do not produce
    the same effect as the Wylye. Not Avon for all its beauty, nor Itchen,
    nor Test. Wherein, then, does the "Wylye bourne" differ from these
    others, and what is its special attraction? It was only when I set
    myself to think about it, to analyse the feeling in my own mind, that I
    discovered the secret--that is, in my own case, for of its effect on
    others I cannot say anything. What I discovered was that the various
    elements of interest, all of which may be found in other chalk-stream
    valleys, are here concentrated, or comprised in a limited space, and
    seen together produce a combined effect on the mind. It is the
    narrowness of the valley and the nearness of the high downs standing
    over it on either side, with, at some points, the memorials of antiquity
    carved on their smooth surfaces, the barrows and lynchetts or terraces,
    and the vast green earth-works crowning their summit. Up here on the
    turf, even with the lark singing his shrill music in the blue heavens,
    you are with the prehistoric dead, yourself for the time one of that
    innumerable, unsubstantial multitude, invisible in the sun, so that the
    sheep travelling as they graze, and the shepherd following them, pass
    through their ranks without suspecting their presence. And from that
    elevation you look down upon the life of to-day--the visible life, so
    brief in the individual, which, like the swift silver stream beneath,
    yet flows on continuously from age to age and for ever. And even as you
    look down you hear, at that distance, the bell of the little hidden
    church tower telling the hour of noon, and quickly following, a shout of
    freedom and joy from many shrill voices of children just released from
    school. Woke to life by those sounds, and drawn down by them, you may
    sit to rest or sun yourself on the stone table of a tomb overgrown on
    its sides with moss, the two-century-old inscription well-nigh
    obliterated, in the little grass-grown, flowery churchyard which serves
    as village green and playground in that small centre of life, where the
    living and the dead exist in a neighbourly way together. For it is not
    here as in towns, where the dead are away and out of mind and the past
    cut off. And if after basking too long in the sun in that tree-sheltered
    spot you go into the little church to cool yourself, you will probably
    find in a dim corner not far from the altar a stone effigy of one of an
    older time; a knight in armour, perhaps a crusader with legs crossed,
    lying on his back, dimly seen in the dim light, with perhaps a coloured
    sunbeam on his upturned face. For this little church where the villagers
    worship is very old; Norman on Saxon foundations; and before they were
    ever laid there may have been a temple to some ancient god at that spot,
    or a Roman villa perhaps. For older than Saxon foundations are found in
    the vale, and mosaic floors, still beautiful after lying buried so long.

    All this--the far-removed events and periods in time--are not in the
    conscious mind when we are in the vale or when we are looking down on it
    from above: the mind is occupied with nothing but visible nature. Thus,
    when I am sitting on the tomb, listening to the various sounds of life
    about me, attentive to the flowers and bees and butterflies, to man or
    woman or child taking a short cut through the churchyard, exchanging a
    few words with them; or when I am by the water close by, watching a
    little company of graylings, their delicately-shaded, silver-grey scales
    distinctly seen as they lie in the crystal current watching for flies;
    or when I listen to the perpetual musical talk and song combined of a
    family of green-finches in the alders or willows, my mind is engaged
    with these things. But if one is familiar with the vale; if one has
    looked with interest and been deeply impressed with the signs and
    memorials of past life and of antiquity everywhere present and forming
    part of the scene, something of it and of all that it represents remains
    in the subconscious mind to give a significance and feeling to the
    scene, which affects us here more than in most places; and that, I take
    it, is the special charm of this little valley.
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