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Ch. 13: Vale of the Wylye

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
quality.

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.


W. H. Hudson