Afoot in England by W. H. Hudson
Guide-Books: An Introduction

Guide-books are so many that it seems probable we have more
than any other country--possibly more than all the rest of the
universe together. Every county has a little library of its
own--guides to its towns, churches, abbeys, castles, rivers,
mountains; finally, to the county as a whole. They are of all
prices and all sizes, from the diminutive paper-covered
booklet, worth a penny, to the stout cloth-bound octavo volume
which costs eight or ten or twelve shillings, or to the
gigantic folio county history, the huge repository from which
the guide-book maker gets his materials. For these great
works are also guide-books, containing everything we want to
learn, only made on so huge a scale as to be suited to the
coat pockets of Brobdingnagians rather than of little ordinary
men. The wonder of it all comes in when we find that these
books, however old and comparatively worthless they may be,
are practically never wholly out of date. When a new work is
brought out (dozens appear annually) and, say, five thousand
copies sold, it does not throw as many, or indeed any, copies
of the old book out of circulation: it supersedes nothing. If
any man can indulge in the luxury of a new up-to-date guide to
any place, and gets rid of his old one (a rare thing to do),
this will be snapped up by poorer men, who will treasure it
and hand it down or on to others. Editions of 1860-50-40, and
older, are still prized, not merely as keepsakes but for study
or reference. Any one can prove this by going the round of a
dozen second-hand booksellers in his own district in London.
There will be tons of literary rubbish, and good stuff old and
new, but few guidebooks--in some cases not one. If you ask
your man at a venture for, say, a guide to Hampshire, he will
most probably tell you that he has not one in stock; then, in
his anxiety to do business, he will, perhaps, fish out a guide
to Derbyshire, dated 1854--a shabby old book--and offer it
for four or five shillings, the price of a Crabbe in eight
volumes, or of Gibbon's Decline and Fall in six volumes, bound
in calf. Talk to this man, and to the other eleven, and they
will tell you that there is always a sale for guide-books
--that the supply does not keep pace with the demand. It may be
taken as a fact that most of the books of this kind published
during the last half-century--many millions of copies in the
aggregate--are still in existence and are valued possessions.

There is nothing to quarrel with in all this. As a people we
run about a great deal; and having curious minds we naturally
wish to know all there is to be known, or all that is
interesting to know, about the places we visit. Then, again,
our time as a rule being limited, we want the whole matter
--history, antiquities, places of interest in the neighbourhood,
etc. in a nutshell. The brief book serves its purpose well
enough; but it is not thrown away like the newspaper and the
magazines; however cheap and badly got up it may be, it is
taken home to serve another purpose, to be a help to memory,
and nobody can have it until its owner removes himself (but
not his possessions) from this planet; or until the broker
seizes his belongings, and guide-books, together with other
books, are disposed of in packages by the auctioneer.

In all this we see that guide-books are very important to us,
and that there is little or no fault to be found with them,
since even the worst give some guidance and enable us in
after times mentally to revisit distant places. It may then
be said that there are really no bad guide-books, and that
those that are good in the highest sense are beyond praise. A
reverential sentiment, which is almost religious in character,
connects itself in our minds with the very name of Murray. It
is, however, possible to make an injudicious use of these
books, and by so doing to miss the fine point of many a
pleasure. The very fact that these books are guides to us and
invaluable, and that we readily acquire the habit of taking
them about with us and consulting them at frequent intervals,
comes between us and that rarest and most exquisite enjoyment
to be experienced amidst novel scenes. He that visits a place
new to him for some special object rightly informs himself of
all that the book can tell him. The knowledge may be useful;
pleasure is with him a secondary object. But if pleasure be
the main object, it will only be experienced in the highest
degree by him who goes without book and discovers what old
Fuller called the "observables" for himself. There will
be no mental pictures previously formed; consequently what is
found will not disappoint. When the mind has been permitted
to dwell beforehand on any scene, then, however beautiful or
grand it may be, the element of surprise is wanting and
admiration is weak. The delight has been discounted.

My own plan, which may be recommended only to those who go out
for pleasure--who value happiness above useless (otherwise
useful) knowledge, and the pictures that live and glow in
memory above albums and collections of photographs--is not to
look at a guide-book until the place it treats of has been
explored and left behind.

The practical person, to whom this may come as a new idea
and who wishes not to waste any time in experiments, would
doubtless like to hear how the plan works. He will say that
he certainly wants all the happiness to be got out of his
rambles, but it is clear that without the book in his pocket
he would miss many interesting things: Would the greater
degree of pleasure experienced in the others be a sufficient
compensation? I should say that he would gain more than he
would lose; that vivid interest and pleasure in a few things
is preferable to that fainter, more diffused feeling
experienced in the other case. Again, we have to take into
account the value to us of the mental pictures gathered in our
wanderings. For we know that only when a scene is viewed
emotionally, when it produces in us a shock of pleasure, does
it become a permanent possession of the mind; in other words,
it registers an image which, when called up before the inner
eye, is capable of reproducing a measure of the original
delight.

In recalling those scenes which have given me the greatest
happiness, the images of which are most vivid and lasting, I
find that most of them are of scenes or objects which were
discovered, as it were, by chance, which I had not heard
of, or else had heard of and forgotten, or which I had not
expected to see. They came as a surprise, and in the following
instance one may see that it makes a vast difference whether
we do or do not experience such a sensation.

In the course of a ramble on foot in a remote district I came
to a small ancient town, set in a cuplike depression amidst
high wood-grown hills. The woods were of oak in spring
foliage, and against that vivid green I saw the many-gabled
tiled roofs and tall chimneys of the old timbered houses,
glowing red and warm brown in the brilliant sunshine--a scene
of rare beauty, and yet it produced no shock of pleasure;
never, in fact, had I looked on a lovely scene for the first
time so unemotionally. It seemed to be no new scene, but
an old familiar one; and that it had certain degrading
associations which took away all delight.

The reason of this was that a great railway company had
long been "booming" this romantic spot, and large photographs,
plain and coloured, of the town and its quaint buildings had
for years been staring at me in every station and every
railway carriage which I had entered on that line. Photography
degrades most things, especially open-air things; and in this
case, not only had its poor presentments made the scene too
familiar, but something of the degradation in the advertising
pictures seemed to attach itself to the very scene. Yet even
here, after some pleasureless days spent in vain endeavours to
shake off these vulgar associations, I was to experience one
of the sweetest surprises and delights of my life.

The church of this village-like town is one of its chief
attractions; it is a very old and stately building, and its
perpendicular tower, nearly a hundred feet high, is one of the
noblest in England. It has a magnificent peal of bells, and
on a Sunday afternoon they were ringing, filling and flooding
that hollow in the hills, seeming to make the houses and trees
and the very earth to tremble with the glorious storm of
sound. Walking past the church, I followed the streamlet that
runs through the town and out by a cleft between the hills to
a narrow marshy valley, on the other side of which are
precipitous hills, clothed from base to summit in oak woods.
As I walked through the cleft the musical roar of the bells
followed, and was like a mighty current flowing through and
over me; but as I came out the sound from behind ceased
suddenly and was now in front, coming back from the hills
before me. A sound, but not the same--not a mere echo; and
yet an echo it was, the most wonderful I had ever heard.
For now that great tempest of musical noise, composed of a
multitude of clanging notes with long vibrations, overlapping
and mingling and clashing together, seemed at the same time
one and many--that tempest from the tower which had
mysteriously ceased to be audible came back in strokes or
notes distinct and separate and multiplied many times. The
sound, the echo, was distributed over the whole face of the
steep hill before me, and was changed in character, and it was
as if every one of those thousands of oak trees had a peal of
bells in it, and that they were raining that far-up bright
spiritual tree music down into the valley below. As I stood
listening it seemed to me that I had never heard anything so
beautiful, nor had any man--not the monk of Eynsham in that
vision when he heard the Easter bells on the holy Saturday
evening, and described the sound as "a ringing of a marvellous
sweetness, as if all the bells in the world, or whatsoever is
of sounding, had been rung together at once."

Here, then, I had found and had become the possessor of
something priceless, since in that moment of surprise and
delight the mysterious beautiful sound, with the whole scene,
had registered an impression which would outlast all others
received at that place, where I had viewed all things with but
languid interest. Had it not come as a complete surprise, the
emotion experienced and the resultant mental image would not
have been so vivid; as it is, I can mentally stand in that
valley when I will, seeing that green-wooded hill in front of
me and listen to that unearthly music.

Naturally, after quitting the spot, I looked at the first
opportunity into a guide-book of the district, only to find
that it contained not one word about those wonderful illusive
sounds! The book-makers had not done their work well, since
it is a pleasure after having discovered something delightful
for ourselves to know how others have been affected by it and
how they describe it.

Of many other incidents of the kind I will, in this chapter,
relate one more, which has a historical or legendary interest.
I was staying with the companion of my walks at a village in
Southern England in a district new to us. We arrived on a
Saturday, and next morning after breakfast went out for a long
walk. Turning into the first path across the fields on
leaving the village, we came eventually to an oak wood, which
was like an open forest, very wild and solitary. In half an
hour's walk among the old oaks and underwood we saw no sign of
human occupancy, and heard nothing but the woodland birds. We
heard, and then saw, the cuckoo for the first time that
season, though it was but April the fourth. But the cuckoo
was early that spring and had been heard by some from the
middle of March. At length, about half-past ten o'clock, we
caught sight of a number of people walking in a kind of
straggling procession by a path which crossed ours at right
angles, headed by a stout old man in a black smock frock and
brown leggings, who carried a big book in one hand. One of
the processionists we spoke to told us they came from a hamlet
a mile away on the borders of the wood and were on their way
to church. We elected to follow them, thinking that the
church was at some neighbouring village; to our surprise we
found it was in the wood, with no other building in sight
--a small ancient-looking church built on a raised mound,
surrounded by a wide shallow grass-grown trench, on the border
of a marshy stream. The people went in and took their seats,
while we remained standing just by the door. Then the priest
came from the vestry, and seizing the rope vigorously, pulled
at it for five minutes, after which he showed us where to sit
and the service began. It was very pleasant there, with the
door open to the sunlit forest and the little green churchyard
without, with a willow wren, the first I had heard, singing
his delicate little strain at intervals.

The service over, we rambled an hour longer in the wood, then
returned to our village, which had a church of its own, and
our landlady, hearing where we had been, told us the story, or
tradition, of the little church in the wood. Its origin goes
very far back to early Norman times, when all the land in this
part was owned by one of William's followers on whom it had
been bestowed. He built himself a house or castle on the edge
of the forest, where he lived with his wife and two little
daughters who were his chief delight. It happened that one
day when he was absent the two little girls with their female
attendant went into the wood in search of flowers, and that
meeting a wild boar they turned and fled, screaming for help.
The savage beast pursued, and, quickly overtaking them,
attacked the hindermost, the youngest of the two little girls,
anal killed her, the others escaping in the meantime. On the
following day the father returned, and was mad with grief and
rage on hearing of the tragedy, and in his madness resolved to
go alone on foot to the forest and search for the beast and
taste no food or drink until he had slain it. Accordingly to
the forest he went, and roamed through it by day and night,
and towards the end of the following day he actually found and
roused the dreadful animal, and although weakened by his long
fast and fatigue, his fury gave him force to fight and conquer
it, or else the powers above came to his aid; for when he
stood spear in hand to wait the charge of the furious beast he
vowed that if he overcame it on that spot he would build a
chapel, where God would be worshipped for ever. And there it
was raised and has stood to this day, its doors open every
Sunday to worshippers, with but one break, some time in the
sixteenth century to the third year of Elizabeth, since when
there has been no suspension of the weekly service.

That the tradition is not true no one can say. We know that
the memory of an action or tragedy of a character to stir the
feelings and impress the imagination may live unrecorded in
any locality for long centuries. And more, we know or
suppose, from at least one quite familiar instance from
Flintshire, that a tradition may even take us back to
prehistoric times and find corroboration in our own day.

But of this story what corroboration is there, and what do
the books say? I have consulted the county history, and no
mention is made of such a tradition, and can only assume that
the author had never heard it--that he had not the curious
Aubrey mind. He only says that it is a very early church
--how early he does not know--and adds that it was built "for
the convenience of the inhabitants of the place." An odd
statement, seeing that the place has every appearance of
having always been what it is, a forest, and that the
inhabitants thereof are weasels, foxes, jays and such-like,
and doubtless in former days included wolves, boars, roe-deer
and stags, beings which, as Walt Whitman truly remarks, do not
worry themselves about their souls.

With this question, however, we need not concern ourselves.
To me, after stumbling by chance on the little church in that
solitary woodland place, the story of its origin was accepted
as true; no doubt it had come down unaltered from generation
to generation through all those centuries, and it moved my
pity yet was a delight to hear, as great perhaps as it had
been to listen to the beautiful chimes many times multiplied
from the wooded hill. And if I have a purpose in this book,
which is without a purpose, a message to deliver and a lesson
to teach, it is only this--the charm of the unknown, and the
infinitely greater pleasure in discovering the interesting
things for ourselves than in informing ourselves of them by
reading. It is like the difference in flavour in wild fruits
and all wild meats found and gathered by our own hands in wild
places and that of the same prepared and put on the table for
us. The ever-varying aspects of nature, of earth and sea and
cloud, are a perpetual joy to the artist, who waits and watches
for their appearance, who knows that sun and atmosphere have
for him revelations without end. They come and go and mock
his best efforts; he knows that his striving is in vain--that
his weak hands and earthy pigments cannot reproduce these
effects or express his feeling--that, as Leighton said, "every
picture is a subject thrown away." But he has his joy none
the less; it is in the pursuit and in the dream of capturing
something illusive, mysterious, and inexpressibly beautiful.
 
 
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