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Ch. 2: 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.

W. H. Hudson