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The Romance of the Road

Among the many places of magic visited by Pantagruel and his company
during the progress of their famous voyage, few surpass that island
whose roads did literally ``go'' to places -- ``ou les chemins
cheminent, comme animaulx'': and would-be travellers, having inquired
of the road as to its destination, and received satisfactory reply,
``se guindans'' (as the old book hath it -- hoisting themselves up on)
``au chemin opportun, sans aultrement se poiner ou fatiguer, se
trouvoyent au lieu destiné.''

The best example I know of an approach to this excellent sort of
vitality in roads is the Ridgeway of the North Berkshire Downs. Join
it at Streatley, the point where it crosses the Thames; at once it
strikes you out and away from the habitable world in a splendid,
purposeful manner, running along the highest ridge of the Downs a
broad green ribbon of turf, with but a shade of difference from the
neighbouring grass, yet distinct for all that. No villages nor
homesteads tempt it aside or modify its course for a yard; should you
lose the track where it is blent with the bordering turf or merged in
and obliterated by criss-cross paths, you have only to walk straight
on, taking heed of no alternative to right or left; and in a minute
'tis with you again -- arisen out of the earth as it were. Or, if
still not quite assured, lift you your eyes, and there it runs over
the brow of the fronting hill. Where a railway crosses it, it
disappears indeed -- hiding Alpheus-like, from the ignominy of rubble
and brick-work; but a little way on it takes up the running again with
the same quiet persistence. Out on that almost trackless expanse of
billowy Downs such a track is in some sort humanly companionable: it
really seems to lead you by the hand.

The ``Rudge'' is of course an exceptional instance; but indeed this
pleasant personality in roads is not entirely fanciful. It exists as a
characteristic of the old country road, evolved out of the primitive
prehistoric track, developing according to the needs of the land it
passes through and serves: with a language, accordingly, and a meaning
of its own. Its special services are often told clearly enough; but
much else too of the quiet story of the country-side: something of the
old tale whereof you learn so little from the printed page. Each is
instinct, perhaps, with a separate suggestion. Some are martial and
historic, and by your side the hurrying feet of the dead raise a
ghostly dust. The name of yon town -- with its Roman or Saxon suffix
to British root -- hints at much. Many a strong man, wanting his vates
sacer, passed silently to Hades for that suffix to obtain. The little
rise up yonder on the Downs that breaks their straight green line
against the sky showed another sight when the sea of battle surged and
beat on its trampled sides; and the Roman, sore beset, may have gazed
down this very road for relief, praying for night or the succouring
legion. This child that swings on a gate and peeps at you from under
her sun-bonnet -- so may some girl-ancestress of hers have watched
with beating heart the Wessex levies hurry along to clash with the
heathen and break them on the down where the ash trees grew. And
yonder, where the road swings round under gloomy overgrowth of
drooping boughs -- is that gleam of water or glitter of lurking
spears?

Some sing you pastorals, fluting low in the hot sun between dusty
hedges overlooked by contented cows; past farmsteads where man and
beast, living in frank fellowship, learn pleasant and serviceable
lessons each of the other; over the full-fed river, lipping the
meadow-sweet, and thence on either side through leagues of hay. Or
through bending corn they chant the mystical wonderful song of the
reaper when the harvest is white to the sickle. But most of them,
avoiding classification, keep each his several tender significance; as
with one I know, not so far from town, which woos you from the valley
by gentle ascent between nut-laden hedges, and ever by some touch of
keen fragrance in the air, by some mystery of added softness under
foot -- ever a promise of something to come, unguessed, delighting.
Till suddenly you are among the pines, their keen scent strikes you
through and through, their needles carpet the ground, and in their
swaying tops moans the unappeasable wind -- sad, ceaseless, as the cry
of a warped humanity. Some paces more, and the promise is fulfilled,
the hints and whisperings become fruition: the ground breaks steeply
away, and you look over a great inland sea of fields, homesteads,
rolling woodland, and -- bounding all, blent with the horizon, a
greyness, a gleam -- the English Channel. A road of promises, of
hinted surprises, following each other with the inevitable sequence in
a melody.

But we are now in another and stricter sense an island of chemins qui
cheminent: dominated, indeed, by them. By these the traveller,
veritably se guindans, may reach his destination ``sans se poiner ou
se fatiguer'' (with large qualifications); but sans very much else
whereof he were none the worse. The gain seems so obvious that you
forget to miss all that lay between the springing stride of the early
start and the pleasant weariness of the end approached, when the limbs
lag a little as the lights of your destination begin to glimmer
through the dusk. All that lay between! ``A Day's Ride a Life's
Romance'' was the excellent title of an unsuccessful book; and indeed
the journey should march with the day, beginning and ending with its
sun, to be the complete thing, the golden round, required of it. This
makes that mind and body fare together, hand in hand, sharing the
hope, the action, the fruition; finding equal sweetness in the languor
of aching limbs at eve and in the first god-like intoxication of
motion with braced muscle in the sun. For walk or ride take the mind
over greater distances than a throbbing whirl with stiffening joints
and cramped limbs through a dozen counties. Surely you seem to cover
vaster spaces with Lavengro, footing it with gipsies or driving his
tinker's cart across lonely commons, than with many a globe-trotter or
steam-yachtsman with diary or log? And even that dividing line --
strictly marked and rarely overstepped -- between the man who bicycles
and the man who walks, is less due to a prudent regard for personal
safety of the one part than to an essential difference in minds.

There is a certain supernal, a deific, state of mind which may indeed
be experienced in a minor degree, by any one, in the siesta part of a
Turkish bath. But this particular golden glow of the faculties is only
felt at its fulness after severe and prolonged exertion in the open
air. ``A man ought to be seen by the gods,'' says Marcus Aurelius,
``neither dissatisfied with anything, nor complaining.'' Though this
does not sound at first hearing an excessive demand to make of
humanity, yet the gods, I fancy, look long and often for such a sight
in these unblest days of hurry. If ever seen at all, 'tis when after
many a mile in sun and wind -- maybe rain -- you reach at last, with
the folding star, your destined rustic inn. There, in its homely,
comfortable strangeness, after unnumbered chops with country ale, the
hard facts of life begin to swim in a golden mist. You are isled from
accustomed cares and worries -- you are set in a peculiar nook of
rest. Then old failures seem partial successes, then old loves come
back in their fairest form, but this time with never a shadow of
regret, then old jokes renew their youth and flavour. You ask nothing
of the gods above, nothing of men below -- not even their company.
To-morrow you shall begin life again: shall write your book, make your
fortune, do anything; meanwhile you sit, and the jolly world swings
round, and you seem to hear it circle to the music of the spheres.
What pipe was ever thus beatifying in effect? You are aching all over,
and enjoying it; and the scent of the limes drifts in through the
window. This is undoubtedly the best and greatest country in the
world; and none but good fellows abide in it.

Laud we the Gods,
And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils
From our blest altars.

Kenneth Grahame