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Ch. 3: Winterbourne Bishop

A favourite village--Isolated situation--Appearance of the
village--Hedge-fruit--The winterbourne--Human interest--The home
feeling--Man in harmony with nature--Human bones thrown out by a
rabbit--A spot unspoiled and unchanged

Of the few widely separated villages, hidden away among the lonely downs
in the large, blank spaces between the rivers, the one I love best is
Winterbourne Bishop. Yet of the entire number--I know them all
intimately--I daresay it would be pronounced by most persons the least
attractive. It has less shade from trees in summer and is more exposed
in winter to the bleak winds of this high country, from whichever
quarter they may blow. Placed high itself on a wide, unwooded valley or
depression, with the low, sloping downs at some distance away, the
village is about as cold a place to pass a winter in as one could find
in this district. And, it may be added, the most inconvenient to live in
at any time, the nearest town, or the easiest to get to, being
Salisbury, twelve miles distant by a hilly road. The only means of
getting to that great centre of life which the inhabitants possess is by
the carrier's cart, which makes the weary four-hours' journey once a
week, on market-day. Naturally, not many of them see that place of
delights oftener than once a year, and some but once in five or more

Then, as to the village itself, when you have got down into its one
long, rather winding street, or road. This has a green bank, five or
six feet high, on either side, on which stand the cottages, mostly
facing the road. Real houses there are none--buildings worthy of
being called houses in these great days--unless the three small
farm-houses are considered better than cottages, and the rather
mean-looking rectory--the rector, poor man, is very poor. Just in
the middle part, where the church stands in its green churchyard,
the shadiest spot in the village, a few of the cottages are close
together, almost touching, then farther apart, twenty yards or so,
then farther still, forty or fifty yards. They are small, old cottages;
a few have seventeenth-century dates cut on stone tablets on their
fronts, but the undated ones look equally old; some thatched,
others tiled, but none particularly attractive. Certainly they are
without the added charm of a green drapery--creeper or ivy rose,
clematis, and honeysuckle; and they are also mostly without the
cottage-garden flowers, unprofitably gay like the blossoming furze,
but dear to the soul: the flowers we find in so many of the villages
along the rivers, especially in those of the Wylye valley to be
described in a later chapter.

The trees, I have said, are few, though the churchyard is shady, where
you can refresh yourself beneath its ancient beeches and its one
wide-branching yew, or sit on a tomb in the sun when you wish for warmth
and brightness. The trees growing by or near the street are mostly ash
or beech, with a pine or two, old but not large; and there are small or
dwarf yew-, holly-, and thorn-trees. Very little fruit is grown; two or
three to half a dozen apple- and damson-trees are called an orchard, and
one is sorry for the children. But in late summer and autumn they get
their fruit from the hedges. These run up towards the downs on either
side of the village, at right angles with its street; long, unkept
hedges, beautiful with scarlet haws and traveller's-joy, rich in bramble
and elder berries and purple sloes and nuts--a thousand times more nuts
than the little dormice require for their own modest wants.

Finally, to go back to its disadvantages, the village is waterless; at
all events in summer, when water is most wanted. Water is such a
blessing and joy in a village--a joy for ever when it flows throughout
the year, as at Nether Stowey and Winsford and Bourton-on-the-Water, to
mention but three of all those happy villages in the land which are
known to most of us! What man on coming to such places and watching the
rushing, sparkling, foaming torrent by day and listening to its
splashing, gurgling sounds by night, does not resolve that he will live
in no village that has not a perennial stream in it! This unblessed,
high and dry village has nothing but the winter bourne which gives it
its name; a sort of surname common to a score or two of villages in
Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, and Hants. Here the bed of the stream lies
by the bank on one side of the village street, and when the autumn and
early winter rains have fallen abundantly, the hidden reservoirs within
the chalk hills are filled to overflowing; then the water finds its way
out and fills the dry old channel and sometimes turns the whole street
into a rushing river, to the immense joy of the village children. They
are like ducks, hatched and reared at some upland farm where there was
not even a muddy pool to dibble in. For a season (the wet one) the
village women have water at their own doors and can go out and dip pails
in it as often as they want. When spring comes it is still flowing
merrily, trying to make you believe that it is going to flow for ever;
beautiful, green water-loving plants and grasses spring up and flourish
along the roadside, and you may see comfrey and water forget-me-not in
flower. Pools, too, have been formed in some deep, hollow places; they
are fringed with tall grasses, whitened over with bloom of
water-crowfoot, and poa grass grows up from the bottom to spread its
green tresses over the surface. Better still, by and by a couple of
stray moorhens make their appearance in the pool--strange birds,
coloured glossy olive-brown, slashed with white, with splendid scarlet
and yellow beaks! If by some strange chance a shining blue kingfisher
were to appear it could not create a greater excitement. So much
attention do they receive that the poor strangers have no peace of their
lives. It is a happy time for the children, and a good time for the busy
housewife, who has all the water she wants for cooking and washing and
cleaning--she may now dash as many pailfuls over her brick floors as she
likes. Then the clear, swift current begins to diminish, and scarcely
have you had time to notice the change than it is altogether gone! The
women must go back to the well and let the bucket down, and laboriously
turn and turn the handle of the windlass till it mounts to the top
again. The pretty moist, green herbage, the graceful grasses, quickly
wither away; dust and straws and rubbish from the road lie in the dry
channel, and by and by it is filled with a summer growth of dock and
loveless nettles which no child may touch with impunity.

No, I cannot think that any person for whom it had no association, no
secret interest, would, after looking at this village with its dried-up
winterbourne, care to make his home in it. And no person, I imagine,
wants to see it; for it has no special attraction and is away from any
road, at a distance from everywhere. I knew a great many villages in
Salisbury Plain, and was always adding to their number, but there was no
intention of visiting this one. Perhaps there is not a village on the
Plain, or anywhere in Wiltshire for that matter, which sees fewer
strangers. Then I fell in with the old shepherd whose life will be
related in the succeeding chapters, and who, away from his native place,
had no story about his past life and the lives of those he had known--no
thought in his mind, I might almost say, which was not connected with
the village of Winterbourne Bishop. And many of his anecdotes and
reflections proved so interesting that I fell into the habit of putting
them down in my notebook; until in the end the place itself, where he
had followed his "homely trade" so long, seeing and feeling so much,
drew me to it. I knew there was "nothing to see" in it, that it was
without the usual attractions; that there was, in fact, nothing but the
human interest, but that was enough. So I came to it to satisfy an idle
curiosity--just to see how it would accord with the mental picture
produced by his description of it. I came, I may say, prepared to like
the place for the sole but sufficient reason that it had been his home.
Had it not been for this feeling he had produced in me I should not, I
imagine, have cared to stay long in it. As it was, I did stay, then came
again and found that it was growing on me. I wondered why; for the mere
interest in the old shepherd's life memories did not seem enough to
account for this deepening attachment. It began to seem to me that I
liked it more and more because of its very barrenness--the entire
absence of all the features which make a place attractive, noble
scenery, woods, and waters; deer parks and old houses, Tudor,
Elizabethan, Jacobean, stately and beautiful, full of art treasures;
ancient monuments and historical associations. There were none of these
things; there was nothing here but that wide, vacant expanse, very
thinly populated with humble, rural folk--farmers, shepherds,
labourers--living in very humble houses. England is so full of riches in
ancient monuments and grand and interesting and lovely buildings and
objects and scenes, that it is perhaps too rich. For we may get into the
habit of looking for such things, expecting them at every turn, every
mile of the way.

I found it a relief, at Winterbourne Bishop, to be in a country which
had nothing to draw a man out of a town. A wide, empty land, with
nothing on it to look at but a furze-bush; or when I had gained the
summit of the down, and to get a little higher still stood on the top of
one of its many barrows, a sight of the distant village, its low, grey
or reddish-brown cottages half hidden among its few trees, the square,
stone tower of its little church looking at a distance no taller than a
milestone. That emptiness seemed good for both mind and body: I could
spend long hours idly sauntering or sitting or lying on the turf,
thinking of nothing, or only of one thing--that it was a relief to have
no thought about anything.

But no, something was secretly saying to me all the time, that it was
more than what I have said which continued to draw me to this vacant
place--more than the mere relief experienced on coming back to nature
and solitude, and the freedom of a wide earth and sky. I was not fully
conscious of what the something more was until after repeated visits. On
each occasion it was a pleasure to leave Salisbury behind and set out on
that long, hilly road, and the feeling would keep with me all the
journey, even in bad weather, sultry or cold, or with the wind hard
against me, blowing the white chalk dust into my eyes. From the time I
left the turnpike to go the last two and a half to three miles by the
side-road I would gaze eagerly ahead for a sight of my destination long
before it could possibly be seen; until, on gaining the summit of a low,
intervening down, the wished scene would be disclosed--the vale-like,
wide depression, with its line of trees, blue-green in the distance,
flecks of red and grey colour of the houses among them--and at that
sight there would come a sense of elation, like that of coming home.

This in fact was the secret! This empty place was, in its aspect,
despite the difference in configuration between down and undulating
plain, more like the home of my early years than any other place known
to me in the country. I can note many differences, but they do not
deprive me of this home feeling; it is the likenesses that hold me, the
spirit of the place, one which is not a desert with the desert's
melancholy or sense of desolation, but inhabited, although thinly and by
humble-minded men whose work and dwellings are unobtrusive. The final
effect of this wide, green space with signs of human life and labour on
it, and sight of animals--sheep and cattle--at various distances, is
that we are not aliens here, intruders or invaders on the earth, living
in it but apart, perhaps hating and spoiling it, but with the other
animals are children of Nature, like them living and seeking our
subsistence under her sky, familiar with her sun and wind and rain.

If some ostentatious person had come to this strangely quiet spot and
raised a staring, big house, the sight of it in the landscape would have
made it impossible to have such a feeling as I have described--this
sense of man's harmony and oneness with nature. From how much of England
has this expression which nature has for the spirit, which is so much
more to us than beauty of scenery, been blotted out! This quiet spot in
Wiltshire has been inhabited from of old, how far back in time the
barrows raised by an ancient, barbarous people are there to tell us, and
to show us how long it is possible for the race of men, in all stages of
culture, to exist on the earth without spoiling it.

One afternoon when walking on Bishop Down I noticed at a distance of a
hundred yards or more that a rabbit had started making a burrow in a new
place and had thrown out a vast quantity of earth. Going to the spot to
see what kind of chalk or soil he was digging so deeply in, I found that
he had thrown out a human thigh-bone and a rib or two. They were of a
reddish-white colour and had been embedded in a hard mixture of chalk
and red earth. The following day I went again, and there were more
bones, and every day after that the number increased until it seemed to
me that he had brought out the entire skeleton, minus the skull, which I
had been curious to see. Then the bones disappeared. The man who looked
after the game had seen them, and recognizing that they were human
remains had judiciously taken them away to destroy or stow them away in
some safe place. For if the village constable had discovered them, or
heard of their presence, he would perhaps have made a fuss and even
thought it necessary to communicate with the coroner of the district.
Such things occasionally happen, even in Wiltshire where the chalk hills
are full of the bones of dead men, and a solemn Crowner's quest is held
on the remains of a Saxon or Dane or an ancient Briton. When some
important person--a Sir Richard Colt Hoare, for example, who dug up 379
barrows in Wiltshire, or a General Pitt Rivers throws out human remains
nobody minds, but if an unauthorized rabbit kicks out a lot of bones the
matter should be inquired into.

But the man whose bones had been thus thrown out into the sunlight after
lying so long at that spot, which commanded a view of the distant,
little village looking so small in that immense, green space--who and
what was he, and how long ago did he live on the earth--at Winterbourne
Bishop, let us say? There were two barrows in that part of the down, but
quite a stone's-throw away from the spot where the rabbit was working,
so that he may not have been one of the people of that period. Still, it
is probable that he was buried a very long time ago, centuries back,
perhaps a thousand years, perhaps longer, and by chance there was a
slope there which prevented the water from percolating, and the soil in
which he had been deposited, under that close-knit turf which looked as
if it had never been disturbed, was one in which bones might keep
uncrumbled for ever.

The thought that occurred to me at the time was that if the man himself
had come back to life after so long a period, to stand once more on that
down surveying the scene, he would have noticed little change in it,
certainly nothing of a startling description. The village itself,
looking so small at that distance, in the centre of the vast depression,
would probably not be strange to him. It was doubtless there as far back
as history goes and probably still farther back in time. For at that
point, just where the winterbourne gushes out from the low hills, is the
spot man would naturally select to make his home. And he would see no
mansion or big building, no puff of white steam and sight of a long,
black train creeping over the earth, nor any other strange thing. It
would appear to him even as he knew it before he fell asleep--the same
familiar scene, with furze and bramble and bracken on the slope, the
wide expanse with sheep and cattle grazing in the distance, and the dark
green of trees in the hollows, and fold on fold of the low down beyond,
stretching away to the dim, farthest horizon.

W. H. Hudson