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A Surrey Village

Through the scattered village of Churt, in its deepest part, runs a
clear stream, broad in places, where it spreads over the road-way and
is so shallow that the big carthorses are scarce wetted above their
fetlocks in crossing; in other parts narrow enough for a man to jump
over, yet deep enough for the trout to hide in. And which is the
prettiest one finds it hard to say--the wide splashy places where the
cattle come to drink, and the real cow and the illusory inverted cow
beneath it are to be seen touching their lips; or where the oaks and
ashes and elms stretch and mingle their horizontal branches;--where
there is a green leafy canopy above and its green reflection below with
the glassy current midway between. On one side the stream is Surrey, on
the other Hampshire. Where the two counties meet there is a vast extent
of heath-land--brown desolate moors and hills so dark as to look almost
black.

It is wild, and its wildness is of that kind which comes of a barren
soil. It is a country best appreciated by those who, rich or poor, take
life easily, who love all aspects of nature, all weathers, and above
everything the liberty of wide horizons. To others the cry of "Back to
the land" would have a somewhat dreary and mocking sound in such a
place, like that curious cry, half laughter and half wail, which the
peewit utters as he anxiously winnows the air with creaking wings above
the pedestrian's head. But it is not all of this character. From some
black hill-top one looks upon a green expanse, fresh and lively by
contrast as the young leaves of deciduous trees in spring, with black
again or dark brown of pine and heath beyond. It is the oasis where
Churt is. The vivifying spirit of the wind at that height, and that
vision of verdure beneath, produce an exhilarating effect on the mind.
It is common knowledge that the devil once lived in or haunted these
parts: now my hill-top fancy tells me that once upon a time a better
being, a wandering angel, flew over the country, and looking down and
seeing it so dark-hued and desolate, a compassionate impulse took him,
and unclasping his light mantle he threw it down, so that the human
inhabitants should not be without that sacred green colour that
elsewhere beautifies the earth. There to this day it lies where it
fell--a mantle of moist vivid green, powdered with silver and gold,
embroidered with all floral hues; all reds from the faint blush on the
petals of the briar-rose to the deep crimson of the red trifolium; and
all yellows, and blues, and purples.

It was pleasant to return from a ramble over the rough heather to the
shade of the green village lanes, to stand aside in some deep narrow
road to make room for a farmer's waggon to pass, drawn by five or six
ponderous horses; to meet the cows too, smelling of milk and new-mown
hay, attended by the small cow-boy. One notices in most rural districts
how stunted in growth many of the boys of the labourers are; here I was
particularly struck by it on account of the fine physique of many of
the young men. It is possible that the growing time may be later and
more rapid here than in most places. Some of the young men are
exceptionally tall, and there was a larger percentage of tall handsome
women than I have seen in any village in Surrey and Hampshire. But the
children were almost invariably too small for their years. The most
stunted specimen was a little boy I met near Hindhead. He was thin,
with a dry wizened face, and looked at the most about eight years old;
he assured me that he was twelve. I engaged this gnome-like creature to
carry something for me, and we had three or four miles ramble together.
A curious couple we must have seemed--a giant and a pigmy, the pigmy
looking considerably older than the giant. He was a heath-cutter's
child, the eldest of seven children! They were very poor, but he could
earn nothing himself, except by gathering whortleberries in their
season; then he said, all seven of them turned out with their parents,
the youngest in its mother's arms. I questioned him about the birds of
the district; he stoutly maintained that he recognised only four, and
proceeded to name them.

"Here is another," said I, "a fifth you didn't name, singing in the
bushes half a dozen yards from where we stand--the best singer of all."

"I did name it," he returned, "that's a thrush."

It was a nightingale, a bird he did not know. But he knew a thrush--it
was one of the four birds he knew, and he stuck to it that it was a
thrush singing. Afterwards he pointed out the squalid-looking cottage
he lived in. It was on the estate of a great lady.

"Tell me," I said, "is she much liked on the estate?"

He pondered the question for a few moments, then replied, "Some likes
her and some don't," and not a word more would he say on that subject.
A curious amalgam of stupidity and shrewdness; a bad observer of bird-
life, but a cautious little person in answering leading questions; he
was evidently growing up (or not doing so) in the wrong place.

Going out for a stroll in the evening, I came to a spot where two small
cottages stood on one side of the road, and a large pond fringed with
rushes and a coppice on the other. Just by the cottage five boys were
amusing themselves by throwing stones at a mark, talking, laughing and
shouting at their play. Not many yards from the noisy boys some fowls
were picking about on the turf close to the pond; presently out of the
rushes came a moorhen and joined them. It was in fine feather, very
glossy, the brightest nuptial yellow and scarlet on beak and shield. It
moved about, heedless of my presence and of the noisy stone-throwing
boys, with that pretty dignity and unconcern which make it one of the
most attractive birds. What a contrast its appearance and motions
presented to those of the rough-hewn, ponderous fowls, among which it
moved so daintily! I was about to say that he was "just like a modern
gentleman" in the midst of a group of clodhoppers in rough old coats,
hob-nailed boots, and wisps of straw round their corduroys, standing
with clay pipes in their mouths, each with a pot of beer in his hand.
Such a comparison would have been an insult to the moorhen.
Nevertheless some ambitious young gentleman of aesthetic tastes might
do worse than get himself up in this bird's livery. An open coat of
olive-brown silk, with an oblique white band at the side; waistcoat or
cummerbund, and knickerbockers, slaty grey; stockings and shoes of
olive green; and, for a touch of bright colour, an orange and scarlet
tie. It would be pleasant to meet him in Piccadilly. But he would
never, never be able to get that quaint pretty carriage. The "Buzzard
lope" and the crane's stately stride are imitable by man, but not the
moorhen's gait. And what a mess of it our young gentleman would make in
attempting at each step to throw up his coat tails in order to display
conspicuously the white silk underlining!

While I watched the pretty creature, musing sadly the while on the
ugliness of men's garments, a sudden storm of violent rasping screams
burst from some holly bushes a few yards away. It proceeded from three
excited jays, but whether they were girding at me, the shouting boys,
or a skulking cat among the bushes, I could not make out.

When I finally left this curious company--noisy boys, great yellow
feather-footed fowls, dainty moorhen and vociferous jays--it was late,
but another amusing experience was in store for me. Leaving the village
I went up the hill to the Devil's Jumps to see the sun set. The Devil,
as I have said, was much about these parts in former times; his habits
were quite familiar to the people, and his name became associated with
some of the principal landmarks and features of the landscape. It was
his custom to go up into these rocks, where, after drawing his long
tail over his shoulder to have it out of his way, he would take one of
his great flying leaps or jumps. On the opposite side of the village we
have the Poor Devil's Bottom--a deep treacherous hole that cuts like a
ravine through the moor, into which the unfortunate fellow once fell
and broke several of his bones. A little further away, on Hindhead, we
have the Devil's Punch Bowl, that huge basin-shaped hollow on the hill
which has now become almost as famous as Flamborough Head or the Valley
of Rocks.

At the Jumps a shower came on, and to escape a wetting I crept into a
hole or hollow in the rude mass of black basaltic rock which stands
like a fortress or ruined castle on the summit of the hill. When the
shower was nearly over I heard the wing-beats and low guttural voice of
a cuckoo; he did not see my crouching form in the hollow and settled on
a projecting block of stone close to me--not three yards from my head.
Presently he began to call, and it struck me as very curious that his
voice did not sound louder or different in quality than when heard at a
distance of forty or fifty yards. When he had finished calling and
flown away I crept out of my hole and walked back over the wet heath,
thinking now of the cuckoo and now of that half natural, half
supernatural but not very sublime being who, as I have said, was
formerly a haunter of these parts. This was a question that puzzled my
mind. It is easy to say that legends of the Devil are common enough all
over the land, and date back to old monkish times or to the beginning
of Christianity, when the spiritual enemy was very much in man's
thoughts; the curious thing is, that the devil associated in tradition
with certain singular features in the landscape, as it is here in this
Surrey village, and in a thousand other places, has little or no
resemblance to the true and only Satan. He is at his greatest a sort of
demi-god, or a semi-human being or monster of abnormal power and wildly
eccentric habits, but not really bad. Thus, I was told by a native of
Churt that when the Devil met with that serious accident which gave its
name to the Poor Devil's Bottom, his painful cries and groans attracted
the villagers, and they ministered to him, giving him food and drink
and applying such remedies as they knew of to his hurts until he
recovered and got out of the hole. Whether or not this legend has ever
been recorded I cannot say; one is struck with its curious resemblance
to some of the giant legends of the west of England. Near Devizes there
is a deep impression in the earth about which a very different story is
told: it is called the Devil's Jumps and is, I believe, supposed to be
an entrance to his subterranean dwelling-place. He jumps down through
that hole, the earth opens to receive him, and closes behind him. And
it is (or was) believed that if any person will run three times round
the hole the Devil will issue from it and start off in chase of a hare!
Why he comes forth and chases a hare nobody knows.

It was only recently, when in Cornwall, the most legendary of the
counties, that I found out who and what this rural village devil I had
been thinking of really was. In Cornwall one finds many legends of the
Devil, as many in fact as in Flintshire, where the Devil has left so
many memorials on the downs, but they are few to those relating to the
giants. These legends were collected by Robert Hunt, and first
published over half a century ago in his _Popular Romances of the
West of England_, and he points out in this work that "devil" in
most of the legends appears to be but another name for "giant," that in
many cases the character of the being is practically the same. He
believes that traditions of giants, which probably date back to
prehistoric times, were once common all over the country, that they
were always associated with certain impressive features in the
landscape--grotesque hills, chasms and hollows in the downs and huge
masses of rock; that the early teachers of Christianity, anxious to
kill these traditions, or to blot out a false belief or superstition
with the darker and more terrible image of a powerful being at war with
man, taught that "giant" was but another name for Devil. If this is so,
the teaching was not altogether good policy. The giants, it is true,
were an awesome folk and flung immense rocks about in a reckless manner
and did many other mad things; and there were some that were wholly
bad, just as there are rogue elephants and as there are black sheep in
the human flock, but they were not really bad as a rule, and certainly
not too intelligent. Even little men with their cunning little brains
could get the better of them. The result of such teaching could only be
that the Devil would be regarded as not the unmitigated monster they
had been told that he was, nor without human weaknesses and virtues.
When we say now that he is not "as black as he is painted" we may be
merely repeating what was being said by the common people of England in
the days of St. Augustine and St. Colomb, and of the Irish missionaries
in Cornwall.

W. H. Hudson