Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
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THE smooth express to Brighton has scarcely, as it seems, left the metropolis when the banks of the railway become coloured with wild flowers. Seen for a moment in swiftly passing, they border the line like a continuous garden. Driven from the fields by plough and hoe, cast out from the pleasure-grounds of modern houses, pulled up and hurled over the wall to wither as accursed things, they have taken refuge on the embankment and the cutting.
There they can flourish and ripen their seeds, little harassed even by the scythe and never by grazing cattle. So it happens that, extremes meeting, the wild flower, with its old-world associations, often grows most freely within a few feet of the wheels of the locomotive. Purple heath-bells gleam from shrub-like bunches dotted along the slope; purple knapweeds lower down in the grass; blue scabious, yellow hawkweeds where the soil is thinner, and harebells on the very summit; these are but a few upon which the eye lights while gliding by.
Glossy thistledown, heedless whither it goes, comes in at the open window. Between thickets of broom there is a glimpse down into a meadow shadowed by the trees of a wood. It is bordered with the cool green of brake fern, from which a rabbit has come forth to feed, and a pheasant strolls along with a mind, perhaps, to the barley yonder. Or a foxglove lifts its purple spire; or woodbine crowns the bushes. The sickle has gone over, and the poppies which grew so thick a while ago in the corn no longer glow like a scarlet cloak thrown on the ground. But red spots in waste places and by the ways are where they have escaped the steel.
A wood-pigeon keeps pace with the train — his vigorous pinions can race against an engine, but cannot elude the hawk. He stops presently among the trees. How pleasant it is from the height of the embankment to look down upon the tops of the oaks! The stubbles stretch away, crossed with bands of green roots where the partridges are hiding. Among flags and weeds the moorhens feed fearlessly as we roll over the stream: then comes a cutting, and more heath and hawkweed, harebell, and bramble bushes red with unripe berries.
Flowers grow high up the sides of the quarries; flowers cling to the dry, crumbling chalk of the cliff-like cutting; flowers bloom on the verge above, against the line of the sky, and over the dark arch of the tunnel. This, it is true, is summer; but it is the same in spring. Before a dandelion has shown in the meadow, the banks of the railway are yellow with coltsfoot. After a time the gorse flowers everywhere along them; but the golden broom overtops all, perfect thickets of broom glowing in the sunlight.
Presently the copses are azure with bluebells, among which the brake is thrusting itself up; others, again, are red with ragged robins, and the fields adjacent fill the eye with the gaudy glare of yellow charlock. The note of the cuckoo sounds above the rushing of the train, and the larks may be seen, if not heard, rising high over the wheat. Some birds, indeed, find the bushes by the railway the quietest place in which to build their nests.
Butcher-birds or shrikes are frequently found on the telegraph wires; from that elevation they pounce down on their prey, and return again to the wire. There were two pairs of shrikes using the telegraph wires for this purpose one spring only a short distance beyond noisy Clapham Junction. Another pair came back several seasons to a particular part of the wires, near a bridge, and I have seen a hawk perched on the wire equally near London.
The haze hangs over the wide, dark plain, which, soon after passing Redhill, stretches away on the right. It seems to us in the train to extend from the foot of a great bluff there to the first rampart of the still distant South Downs. In the evening that haze will be changed to a flood of purple light veiling the horizon. Fitful glances at the newspaper or the novel pass the time; but now I can read no longer, for I know, without any marks or tangible evidence, that the hills are drawing near. There is always hope in the hills.
The dust of London fills the eyes and blurs the vision; but it penetrates deeper than that. There is a dust that chokes the spirit, and it is this that makes the streets so long, the stones so stony, the desk so wooden; the very rustiness of the iron railings about the offices sets the teeth on edge, the sooty blackened walls (yet without shadow) thrust back the sympathies which are ever trying to cling to the inanimate things around us. A breeze comes in at the carriage window — a wild puff, disturbing the heated stillness of the summer day. It is easy to tell where that came from — silently the Downs have stolen into sight.
So easy is the outline of the ridge, so broad and flowing are the slopes, that those who have not mounted them cannot grasp the idea of their real height and steepness. The copse upon the summit yonder looks but a short stroll distant; how much you would be deceived did you attempt to walk thither! The ascent here in front seems nothing, but you must rest before you have reached a third of the way up. Ditchling Beacon there, on the left, is the very highest above the sea of the whole mighty range, but so great is the mass of the hill that the glance does not realise it.
Hope dwells there, somewhere, mayhap, in the breeze, in the sward, or the pale cups of the harebells. Now, having gazed at these, we can lean back on the cushions and wait patiently for the sea. There is nothing else, except the noble sycamores on the left hand just before the train draws into the station.
The clean dry brick pavements are scarcely less crowded than those of London, but as you drive through the town, now and then there is a glimpse of a greenish mist afar off between the houses. The green mist thickens in one spot almost at the horizon; or is it the dark nebulous sails of a vessel? Then the foam suddenly appears close at hand — a white streak seems to run from house to house, reflecting the sunlight: and this is Brighton.
" How different the sea looks away from the pier!" It is a new pleasure to those who have been full of gaiety to see, for once, the sea itself. Westwards, a mile beyond Hove, beyond the coastguard cottages, turn aside from the road, and go up on the rough path along the ridge of shingle. The hills are away on the right, the sea on the left; the yards of the ships in the basin slant across the sky in front.
With a quick, sudden heave the summer sea, calm and gleaming, runs a little way up the side of the groyne, and again retires. There is scarce a gurgle or a bubble, but the solid timbers are polished and smooth where the storms have worn them with pebbles. From a grassy spot ahead a bird rises, marked with white, and another follows it; they are wheatears; they frequent the land by the low beach in the autumn.
A shrill but feeble pipe is the cry of the sandpiper, disturbed on his moist feeding-ground. Among the stones by the waste places there are pale-green wrinkled leaves, and the large yellow petals of the sea-poppy. The bright colour is pleasant, but it is a flower best left ungathered, for its odour is not sweet. On the wiry sward the light pink of the sea-daisies (or thrift) is dotted here and there: of these gather as you will. The presence even of such simple flowers, of such well-known birds, distinguishes the solitary from the trodden beach. The pier is in view, but the sea is different here.
Drive eastwards along the cliffs to the rough steps cut down to the beach, descend to the shingle, and stroll along the shore to Rottingdean. The buttresses of chalk shut out the town if you go to them, and rest near the large pebbles heaped at the foot. There is nothing but the white cliff, the green sea, the sky, and the slow ships that scarcely stir.
In the spring, a starling comes to his nest in a cleft of the cliff above; he shoots over from the dizzy edge, spreads his wings, borne up by the ascending air, and in an instant is landed in his cave. On the sward above, in the autumn, the yellow lip of the toad-flax, spotted with orange, peers from the grass as you rest and gaze — how far? — out upon the glorious plain.
Or go up on the hill by the race-course, the highest part near the sea, and sit down there on the turf. If the west or south wind blow ever so slightly the low roar of the surge floats up, mingling with the rustle of the corn stacked in shocks on the slope. There inhale unrestrained the breeze, the sunlight, and the subtle essence which emanates from the ocean. For the loneliest of places are on the borders of a gay crowd, and thus in Brighton — the by-name for all that is crowded and London-like — it is possible to dream on the sward and on the shore.
In the midst, too, of this most modern of cities, with its swift, luxurious service of Pullman cars, its piers, and social pleasures, there exists a collection which, in a few strokes, as it were, sketches the ways and habits and thoughts of old rural England. It is not easy to realise in these days of quick transit and still quicker communication that old England was mostly rural.
There were towns, of course, seventy years ago, but even the towns were penetrated with what, for want of a better word, may be called country sentiment. Just the reverse is now the case; the most distant hamlet which the wanderer in his autumn ramblings may visit, is now more or less permeated with the feelings and sentiment of the city. No written history has preserved the daily life of the men who ploughed the Weald behind the hills there, or tended the sheep on the Downs, before our beautiful land was crossed with iron roads; while news, even from the field of Waterloo, had to travel slowly. And, after all,. written history is but words, and words are not tangible.
But in this collection of old English jugs, and mugs, and bowls, and cups, and so forth, exhibited in the Museum, there is the real presentment of old rural England. Feeble pottery has ever borne the impress of man more vividly than marble. From these they quenched their thirst, over these they laughed and joked, and gossiped, and sang old hunting songs till the rafters rang, and the dogs under the table got up and barked. Cannot you see them? The stubbles are ready now once more for the sportsmen.
With long-barrelled flint-lock guns they ranged over that wonderful map of the land which lies spread out at your feet as you look down from the Dyke. There are already yellowing leaves; they will be brown after a while, and the covers will be ready once more for the visit of the hounds. The toast upon this mug would be very gladly drunk by the agriculturist of to-day in his silk hat and black coat. It is just what he has been wishing these many seasons.
"Here's to thee, mine honest friend,
Wishing these hard times to mend."
Hard times, then, are nothing new.
"It is good ale," is the inscription on another jug; that jug would be very welcome if so filled in many a field this very day. "Better luck still" is a jug motto which every one who reads it will secretly respond to. Cock-fighting has gone by, but we are even more than ever on the side of fair play, and in that sense can endorse the motto, "May the best cock win." A cup desires that fate should give
" Money to him who has spirit to use it,
And life to him who has courage to lose it."
A mug is moderate of wishes and somewhat cynical:—
"A little health, a little wealth,
A little house, and freedom;
And at the end a little friend,
And little cause to need him."
The toper, if he drank too deep, sometimes found a frog or newt at the bottom (in china) — a hint not to be too greedy. There seem to have been sad dogs about in those days from the picture on this piece — one sniffing regretfully at the bunghole of an empty barrel: —
"This cask when stored with gin I loved to taste,
But now a smell, alas I must break my fast."
Upon a cup a somewhat Chinese arrangement of
words is found : —
More beer score Clarke
for my the his
do trust pay sent
I I must has
shall if you maltster
what for and the
These parallel columns can be deciphered by beginning at the last word, "the," on the right hand, and reading up. With rude and sometimes grim humour our forefathers seem to have been delighted. The teapots of our great grandmothers are even more amusingly inscribed and illustrated. At Gretna Green the blacksmith is performing a "Red-Hot Marriage," using his anvil for the altar.
"Oh! Mr. Blacksmith, ease our pains,
And tie us fast in wedlock's chains."
The china decorated with vessels and alluding to naval matters shows how popular was the navy, and how deeply everything concerning Nelson's men had sunk into the minds of the people. Some of the line of battleships here represented are most cleverly executed — every sail and rope and gun brought out with a clearness which the best draughtsman could hardly excel. It is a little hard, however, to preserve the time-honoured imputation upon Jack's constancy in this way on a jug : —
"A sailor's life's a pleasant life,
He freely roams from shore to shore;
In every port he finds a wife
What can a sailor wish for more!"
Some enamoured potter having produced a masterpiece as a present to his lady destroyed the design, so that the service he gave her might be unique. After gazing at these curious old pieces, with dates of 1754, 1728, and so forth, the mind becomes attuned to such times, and the jug with the inscription, "Claret, 1652," seems quite an easy and natural transition.
From the Brighton of to-day it is centuries back to 1/54; but from 1754 to 1652 is but a year or two. And after studying these shelves, and getting, as it were, so deep down in the past, it is with a kind of Rip Van Winkle feeling that you enter again into the sunshine of the day. The fair upon the beach does not seem quite real for a few minutes.
Before the autumn is too far advanced and the skies are uncertain, a few hours should be given to that massive Down which fronts the traveller from London, Ditchling Beacon, the highest above the sea-level. It is easy of access, the train carries you to Hassock's Gate — the station is almost in a copse — and an omnibus runs from it to a comfortable inn in the centre of Ditchling village. Thence to the Down itself the road is straight and the walk no longer than is always welcome after riding.
After leaving the cottages and gardens, the road soon becomes enclosed with hedges and trees, a mere country lane; and how pleasant are the trees after the bare shore and barren sea! The hand of autumn has browned the oaks, and has passed over the hedge, reddening the haws. The north wind rustles the dry hollow stalks of plants upon the mound, and there is a sense of hardihood in the touch of its breath.
The light is brown, for a vapour conceals the sun — it is not like a cloud, for it has no end or outline, and it is high above where the summer blue was lately. Or is it the buff leaves, the grey stalks, the dun grasses, the ripe fruit, the mist which hides the distance that makes the day so brown? But the ditches below are yet green with brooklime and rushes. By a gateway stands a tall campanula or bell-flower, two feet high or nearly, with great bells of blue.
A passing shepherd, without his sheep, but walking with his crook as a staff, stays and turns a brown face towards me when I ask him the way. He points with his iron crook at a narrow line which winds up the Down by some chalk-pits; it is a footpath from the corner of the road. Just by the corner the hedge is grey with silky flocks of clematis; the hawthorn is hidden by it. Near by there is a bush, made up of branches from five different shrubs and plants.
First hazel, from which the yellow leaves are fast dropping; among this dogwood, with leaves darkening; between these a bramble bearing berries, some red and some ripe, and yet a pink flower or two left. Thrusting itself into the tangle, long woody bines of bittersweet hang their clusters of red berries, and above and over all the hoary clematis spreads its beard, whitening to meet the winter. These five are all intermixed and bound up together, flourishing in a mass; nuts and edible berries, semi-poisonous fruit, flowers, creepers; and hazel, with markings under its outer bark like a gun-barrel.
This is the last of the plain. Now every step exposes the climber to the force of the unchecked wind. The harebells swing before it, the bennets whistle, but the sward springs to the foot, and the heart grows lighter as the height increases. The ancient hill is alone with the wind. The broad summit is left to scattered furze and fern cowering under its shelter. A sunken fosse and earthwork have slipped together. So lowly are they now after these fourteen hundred years that in places the long rough grass covers and conceals them altogether.
Down in the hollow the breeze does not come, and the bennets do not whistle, yet gazing upwards at the vapour in the sky I fancy I can hear the mass, as it were, of the wind going over. Standing presently at the edge of the steep descent looking into the Weald, it seems as if the mighty blast rising from that vast plain and glancing up the slope like an arrow from a tree could lift me up and bear me as it bears a hawk with outspread wings.
A mist which does not roll along or move is drawn across the immense stage below like a curtain. There is, indeed, a brown wood beneath; but nothing more is visible. The plain is the vaster for its vague uncertainty. From the north comes down the wind, out of the brown autumn light, from the woods below and twenty miles of stubble. Its stratum and current is eight hundred feet deep.
Against my chest, coming up from the plough down there (the old plough, with the shaft moving on a framework with wheels), it hurls itself against the green ramparts, and bounds up savagely at delay. The ears are filled with a continuous sense of something rushing past; the shoulders go back square; an iron-like feeling enters into the sinews. The air goes through my coat as if it were gauze, and strokes the skin like a brush.
The tide of the wind, like the tide of the sea, swirls about, and its cold push at the first causes a lifting feeling in the chest — a gulp and pant — as if it were too keen and strong to be borne. Then the blood meets it, and every fibre and nerve is filled with new vigour. I cannot drink enough of it. This is the north wind.
High as is the hill, there are larks yonder singing higher still, suspended in the brown light. Turning away at last and tracing the fosse, there is at the point where it is deepest and where there is some trifling shelter, a flat hawthorn bush. It has grown as flat as a hurdle, as if trained espalier-wise or against a wall — the effect, no doubt, of the winds. Into and between its gnarled branches, dry and leafless, furze boughs have been woven in and out, so as to form a shield against the breeze, On the lee of this natural hurdle there are black charcoal fragments and ashes, where a fire has burnt itself out; the stick still leans over on which was hung the vessel used at this wild bivouac.
Descending again by the footpath, the spur of the hill yonder looks larger and steeper and more ponderous in the mist; it seems higher than this, a not unusual appearance when the difference in altitude is not very great. The level we are on seems to us beneath the level in the distance, as the future is higher than the present. In the hedge or scattered bushes, half-way down by the chalk-pit, there grows a spreading shrub — the wayfaring tree — bearing large, broad, downy leaves and clusters of berries, some red and some black, flattened at their sides. There are nuts, too, here, and large sloes or wild bullace. This Ditchling Beacon is, I think, the nearest F and the most accessible of the southern Alps from London; it is so near it may almost be said to be in the environs of the capital. But it is alone with the wind.