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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The English Countryside

Title:     The English Countryside
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

For the genuine lover of nature, as distinct from the connoisseur of dainty or spectacular "scenery," nature has always and everywhere some charm or satisfaction. He will find it no less--some say more--in winter than in summer, and I have little doubt that the great Alkali Desert is not entirely without its enthusiasts. The nature among which we spent our childhood is apt to have a lasting hold on us, in defiance of showier competition, and I suppose there is no land with soul so dead that it does not boast itself the fairest under heaven.

I am writing this surrounded by a natural scene which I would not exchange for the Swiss lakes, yet I presume it is undeniable that Switzerland has a more universal reputation for natural beauty than Connecticut. It is, as we say, one of the show places of the earth. So Niagara Falls, the Grand Canon, the Rockies, and California generally lord it over America. Italy has such a reputation for beauty that it is almost unfair to expect her to live up to it. I once ventured to say that the Alps must be greasy with being climbed, and it says much for such stock pieces in nature's repertoire, that, in spite of all the wear and tear of sentimental travellers, the mock-admiration of generations, the batteries of amateur cameras, the Riviera, the English lakes, the Welsh mountains, the Highlands of Scotland, and other tourist-trodden classics of the picturesque, still remain haunts of beauty and joys forever. God's masterpieces do not easily wear out.

Every country does something supremely well, and England may be said to have a patent for a certain kind of scenery which Americans are the first to admire. English scenery has no more passionate pilgrim than the traveller from the United States, as the visitors' books of its various show-places voluminously attest. Perhaps it is not difficult, when one has lived in both countries, to understand why.

While America, apart from its impressive natural splendours, is rich also in idyllic and pastoral landscape, it has, as yet, but little "countryside." I say, as yet, because "the countryside," I think I am right in feeling, is not entirely a thing of nature's making, but rather a collaboration resulting from nature and man living so long in partnership together. In England, with which the word is peculiarly, if not exclusively, associated, God is not entirely to be credited with making the country. Man has for generations also done his share.

It is perhaps not without significance that the word "countryside" was not to be found in Webster's dictionary, till a recent edition. Originally, doubtless, it was used with reference to those rural districts in the vicinity of a town; as one might say the country side of the town. Not wild or solitary nature was meant, but nature humanized, made companionable by the presence and occupations of man; a nature which had made the winding highway, the farm, and the pasture, even the hamlet, with its church tower and its ancient inn, one with herself.

The American, speeding up to London from his landing either at Liverpool or Southampton, always exclaims on the gardenlike aspect, the deep, rich greenness of the landscape. It is not so much the specific evidences of cultivation, though those, of course, are plentifully present, but a general air of ripeness and order. Even the land not visible under cultivation suggests immemorial care and fertility. We feel that this land has been fought over and ploughed over, nibbled over by sheep, sown and reaped, planted and drained, walked over, hunted over, and very much beloved, for centuries. It is not fanciful to see in it a land to which its people have been stubbornly and tenderly devoted--still "Shakespeare's England," still his favoured "isle set in the silver sea."

As seen from the railway-carriage window, one is struck, too, by the comparative tidiness of the English landscape. There are few loose ends, and the outskirts of villages are not those distressing dump-heaps which they too often are in America. Yet there is no excessive air of trimness. The order and grooming seem a part of nature's processes. There is, too, a casual charm about the villages themselves, the graceful, accidental grouping of houses and gardens, which suggests growth rather than premeditation. The general harmony does not preclude, but rather comes of, the greatest variety of individual character.

Herein the English village strikingly differs from the typical New England village, where the charm comes of a prim uniformity, and individuality is made to give place to a general parking of lawns and shade-trees in rectangular blocks and avenues. A New England village suggests some large institution disposed in separate uniform buildings, placed on one level carpet of green, each with a definite number of trees, and the very sunlight portioned out into gleaming allotments. The effect gained is for me one of great charm--the charm of a vivid, exquisitely ordered, green silence, with a touch of monastic, or Quakerish, decorum. I would not have it otherwise, and I speak of it only to suggest by contrast the different, desultory charm of an old English village, where beauty has not been so much planned, as has just "occurred."

Of course, this is the natural result of the long occupation of the land. Each century in succession has had a hand in shaping the countryside to its present aspect, and English history is literally a living visible part of English scenery. Here the thirteenth century has left a church, here the fourteenth a castle, here the sixteenth, with its suppression of the monasteries, a ruined abbey. Here is an inn where Chaucer's pilgrims stopped on the way to Canterbury. Here, in a field covered over by a cow-shed, is a piece of tessellated pavement which was once the floor of an old country house occupied by one of Caesar's generals.

Those strange grassy mounds breaking the soft sky-line of the rolling South Downs are the tombs of Saxon chieftains, that rubble of stones at the top of yonder hill was once a British camp, and those curious ridges terracing yonder green slope mark the trenches of some prehistoric battlefield. All these in the process of time have become part and parcel of the English countryside, as necessary to its "English" character as its trees and its wild flowers.

How much, too, the English countryside owes for its beauty to the many old manor-houses, gabled and moated, with their quaint, mossy-walled gardens and great forestlike parks. Whatever we may think of the English territorial system as economics, its service to English scenery has been incalculable. Without English traditionalism we should hardly have had the English countryside.

The conservation of great estates, entailing a certain conservatism in the treatment of farm lands from generation to generation, and the upholding, too, of game-preserves, however obnoxious to the land reformer, have been all to the good of the nature-lover. We owe no little of the beauty of the English woodland to the English pheasant; and with the coming of land nationalization we may expect to see considerable changes in the English countryside. Meanwhile, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the feudalistic character of English landlordism, the Englishman enjoys a right of walking over his native land of which no capitalist can rob him. Hence results another charming feature of the English countryside--the footpaths you see everywhere winding over hill and dale, through field and coppice. The ancient rights of these are safeguarded to the people forever by statute no wealth can defy; and, let any _nouveau riche_ of a landlord try to close one of them, and he has to reckon with one of the pluckiest and most persistent organizations of English John Hampdens, the society that makes the protection of these traditional pathways its particular care. So the rich man cannot lock up his trees and his woodland glades all for himself, but is compelled to share them to the extent of allowing the poorest pedestrian to walk through them--which is about all the rich man can do with them himself.

These footpaths, in conjunction with English lanes, have made the charm of walking tours in England proverbial. Certain counties particularly pride themselves on their lands. Surrey and Devonshire are the great rivals in this respect. We say "Surrey lanes" or "Devonshire lanes," as we speak of "Italian skies" or "Southern hospitality." Other counties--Warwickshire, for example--doubtless have lanes no less lovely, but Surrey and Devonshire have, so to say, got the decision; and, if an American traveller wants to see a typical English lane, he goes to Surrey or Devonshire, just as, if he wants a typical English pork-pie, he sends to Melton Mowbray.

And the English lane has come honestly by its reputation. You may be disappointed in Venice, but you will be hard to please if you are not caught by the spell of an English lane. Of course, you must not expect to feel that spell if you tear through it in a motor-car. It was made for the loiterer, as its whimsical twists and turns plainly show. If you are in a hurry, you had better keep to the king's highway, stretching swift and white on the king's business. The English lane was made for the leisurely meandering of cows to and from pasture, for the dreamy snail-pace of time-forgetting lovers, for children gathering primroses or wild strawberries, or for the knap-sacked wayfarer to whom time and space are no objects, whose destination is anywhere and nowhere, whose only clocks are the rising sun and the evening star, and to whom the way means more than the goal.

I should not have spoken of it as "made," for, when it is most characteristic, an English lane has no suggestion of ever having been man-made like other roads. It seems as much a natural feature as the woods or meadows through which it passes; and sometimes, as in Surrey, when it runs between high banks, tunnelling its way under green boughs, it seems more like an old river-bed than a road, whose sides nature has tapestried with ferns and flowers. Of all roads in the world it is the dreamer's road, luring on the wayfarer with perpetual romantic promise and surprise, winding on and on, one can well believe, into the very heart of fairy-land. Everything beautiful seems to be waiting for us somewhere in the turnings of an English lane.

Had I sat down to write of the English countryside two years ago, I should have done so with a certain amount of cautious skepticism. I should have said to myself: "You have not visited England for over ten years. Are you quite sure that your impressions of its natural beauties are not the rose-coloured exaggerations of memory? Are not time and distance lending their proverbial enchantment?" In fact, as I set sail to revisit England, the spring before last, it was in some such mood of anticipatory disillusion.

After all, I had said to myself, is not the English countryside the work of the English poets--the English spring, the English wild flowers, the English lark, the English nightingale, and so forth? That longing of Browning expressed in the lines,

O to be in England
Now that April's there!

was, after all, the cry of a homesick versifier, thinking "Home Thoughts, from Abroad"; and are Herrick and Wordsworth quite to be trusted on the subject of daffodils?

Well, I am glad to have to own that my revisiting my native land resulted in an agreeable disappointment. With a critical American eye, jealously on my guard against sentimental superstition, I surveyed the English landscape and examined its various vaunted beauties and fascinations, as though making their acquaintance for the first time. No, my youthful raptures had not been at fault, and the poets were once more justified. The poets are seldom far wrong. If they see anything, it is usually there. If we cannot see it, too, it is the fault of our eyes.

Take the English hawthorn, for instance. As its fragrance is wafted to you from the bushes where it hangs like the fairest of white linen, you will hardly, I think, quarrel with its praises. Yet, though it is, if I am not mistaken, of rare occurrence in America, it is not absolutely necessary to go to England for the hawthorn. Any one who cares to go a-Maying along the banks of the Hudson, in the neighbourhood of Peekskill, will find it there. But for the primrose and the cowslip you must cross the sea; and, if you come upon such a wood as I strayed into, my last visit, you will count it worth the trip. It was literally carpeted with clumps of primroses and violets (violets that smell, too) so thickly massed together in the mossy turf that there was scarcely room to tread. There are no words rich or abundant enough to suggest the sense of innocent luxury brought one by such a natural Persian carpet of soft gold and dewy purple, at once so gorgeous and yet so gentle. In all this lavish loveliness of English wild flowers there is, indeed, a peculiar tenderness. The innocence of children seems to be in them, and the tenderness of lovers.

A lover would not tread
A cowslip on the head--

How appropriately such lines come to mind as one carefully picks one's way down a green hillside yellow with cowslips, and breathing perhaps the most delicate of all flowery fragrances. Yet again, as we pass into another stretch of woodland, another profusion and another fragrance await us, the winey perfume and the spectral blue sheen of the wild hyacinth. As one comes upon stretches of these hyacinths in the woods, they seem at first glance like pools of blue water or fallen pieces of the sky. Here, for once, the poets are left behind, and, of them all, Shakespeare and Milton alone have come near to suggesting the loveliness, at once so spiritual and so warmly and sweetly of the earth, that belongs to English wild flowers. I know not if Sheffield steel still keeps its position among the eternal verities, but in an age when so many of one's cherished beliefs are threatened with the scrap-heap, I count it of no small importance to be able to retain one's faith in the English lark and English wild flowers.

But the English countryside is not all greenness and softness, blossomy lanes, moated granges, and idyllic villages. It by no means always suggests the gardener, the farmer, or the gamekeeper. It is rich, too, in wildness and solitude, in melancholy fens and lonely moorlands. To the American accustomed to the vast areas of his own enormous continent, it would come as a surprise to realize that a land far smaller than many of his States can in certain places give one so profound a sense of the wilderness. Yet I doubt if a man could feel lonelier anywhere in the world than on a Yorkshire moor or on Salisbury Plain.

After all, we are apt to forget that, even on the largest continent, we can see only a limited portion of the earth at once. When one is in the middle of Lake Erie we are as much out of sight of land, as impressed by the illusion of boundless water, as if we were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So, on Salisbury Plain, with nothing but rolling billows of close-cropped turf, springy and noiseless to the tread, as far as the eye can see, one feels as alone with the universe as in the middle of some Asian desert. In addition to the actual loneliness of the scene, and a silence broken only by the occasional tinkle of sheep-bells, as a flock moves like a fleecy cloud across the grass, is an imaginative loneliness induced by the overwhelming sense of boundless unrecorded time, the "dim-grey-grown ages," of which the mysterious boulders of Stonehenge are the voiceless witnesses. To experience this feeling to the full one should come upon an old Roman road in the twilight, grass-grown, choked with underbrush, but still running straight and clearly defined as when it shook to the tread of Roman legions. It is eery to follow one of these haunted roads, filled with the far-off thoughts and fancies it naturally evokes, and then suddenly to come out again into the world of today, as it joins the highway once more, and the lights of a wayside inn welcome us back to humanity, with perhaps a touring car standing at the door.

One need hardly say that the English wayside inn is as much a feature of the English countryside as the English hawthorn. Its praises have been the theme of essayists and poets for generations, and at its best there is a cosiness and cheer about it which warm the heart, as its quaintness and savour of past days keep alive the sense of romantic travel. There the spirit of ancient hospitality still survives, and, though the motor-car has replaced the stage-coach, that is, after all, but a detail, and the old, low-ceilinged rooms, the bay windows with their leaded panes, the tap-room with its shining vessels, the great kitchen, the solid English fare, the brass candlesticks at bedtime, and the lavendered sheets, still preserve the atmosphere of a novel by Fielding or an essay by Addison.

There still, as in Shakespeare's day, one can take one's ease at one's inn, as perhaps in the hostelries of no other land. It is the frequency and excellence of these English inns that make it charmingly possible to see England, as it is best seen, on foot or on a bicycle. It is not a country of isolated wonders, with long stretches of mere road between. Every mile counts for something. But, if the luxury of walking it with stick and knapsack is denied us, and we must needs see it by motor-car, we cannot fail to make one observation, that of the surprising variety of natural scenery packed in so small a space. Between Land's End and the Tweed the eye and the imagination have encountered every form of the picturesque. In an area some three hundred and fifty miles long by three hundred broad are contained the ruggedness of Cornwall, the idyllic softness of Devon, the dreamy solitudes of the South Downs, with their billowy, chalky contours, the agricultural fertility of Kent and Middlesex, the romantic woodlands and hilly pastures of Surrey, the melancholy fens of Lincolnshire, the broad, bosky levels of the midlands, the sudden wildness of Wales, with her mountains and glens, Yorkshire, with its grim, heather-clad moors, Westmoreland, with its fells and Wordsworthian "Lakes"; every note in the gamut of natural beauty has been struck, from honeysuckle prettiness to savage grandeur.

Yet, although all these contrasts are included in the English scene, it is not of solitude or grandeur that we think when we speak of the English countryside. They are the exceptions to the rule of a gentler, more humanized natural beauty, in which the village church and the ivy-clad ruin play their part. Perhaps some such formula as this would represent the typical scene that springs to the mind's eye with the phrase "the English countryside": a village green, with some geese stringing out across it. A straggle of quaint thatched cottages, roses climbing about the windows, and in front little, carefully kept gardens, with hollyhocks standing in rows, stocks and sweet-williams and such old-fashioned flowers. At one end of the village, rising out of a clump of yews, the mouldering church-tower, with mossy gravestones on one side and a trim rectory on the other. At the other end of the village a gabled inn, with a great stable-yard, busy with horses and waggons. Above the village, the slopes of gently rising pastures, intersected with footpaths and shadowed with woodlands. A little way out of the village, an old mill with a lilied mill-pond, a great, dripping water-wheel, and the murmur of the escaping stream. And winding on into the green, sun-steeped distance, the blossom-hung English lanes.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: English Countryside