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A ROADSIDE ENIGMA
he Danish this point, host of their
fairy-tale renown. A little occasional romancing may be allowed on a driving tour; he is a dull and unpoetic soul, indeed, who never indulges in a moment's harmless day-dreaming now and again!
Soon the slumberous, unprogressive little town of Stevenage came in view, and just before it, on a green space to the right of the road, we espied six curious-looking, grass-grown mounds all in a row, like so many pigmy green pyramids. We afterwards learnt that these are supposed to be Danish Barrows; but learned antiquaries, like most of their kind, are not all agreed upon this point, though the majority hold to the Danish theory. Still, Danish or not, there they stand to challenge the curiosity of the observant wayfarer. A roadside enigma that doubtless puzzled our forefathers, and afforded food for discussion when journeying in these parts, the railway traveller misses them and much else besides as he is whirled through the land at a speed that only permits of a blurred impression of fields and woods, of rivers and hills, of church towers, towns, hamlets, and farmsteads—that is, when the train is not rushing through a cutting, or plunging into a darksome tunnel. In a scenic sense between the Great North Road and the Great Northern Railway is a vast gulf!
At the present day, at any rate at the time we were there, these prehistoric relics were serving the undistinguished purpose of a ready-made and somewhat original recreation-ground for the town's children; for as we passed by we observed quite a number of them climbing up and down the barrows, playing “King of the Castle” thereon, and generally romping over and round about them with much noisy merriment. I really think that these ancient mounds deserve to be better cared for; those things that are worthy of being preserved should be preserved, for antiquity once destroyed can never be replaced ; it is too late when a monument of the past has disappeared to discover how interesting it was.
At Stevenage we put up for the night at the “White Lion,” a homely little hostelry, where we found clean and comfortable, if not luxurious, quarters for ourselves, and good accommodation for our horses, and not being of an exacting nature, were well content. So ended our first long day's wanderings.
We had seen so much since we left London in the early morning, that we felt it difficult to realise, on the authority of our copy of Paterson's Roads (last edition of 1829), we had only travelled some thirty-one miles; the precise distance we could not arrive at, since Paterson takes his measurement from “Hick's Hall,” and we did not start from the site thereof; indeed, exactly where “Hick's Hall” stood I am not very clear-somewhere in Smithfield, I believe.
Next morning, following the excellent example of the chatty Mr. Pepys, and to borrow his favourite expression, we “awoke betimes,” to find the sunshine streaming in through our windows, whilst a glance outside revealed to us a glorious bright blue sky, flecked with fleecy fine-weather clouds.
This cheery morning greeting could not be resisted, so, early though it was, we got up and dressed without any needless delay, and, sketch-book in hand, set forth to explore the place before breakfast, which, however, we took the precaution of ordering to be ready for us on our return, for it is trying for a hungry man to have to wait for his meal! Before going out, however, we paid our usual visit of inspection to the horses, who, we discovered, were having their toilet performed for them, luxurious creatures ! though not without much “sishing,” and subdued exclamations of “Whoa! my beauty,” “Steady there now," "Hold up, can't yer"—sounds and utterances dear to the hearts of grooms and ostlers. We were glad to note that the horses looked fit and fresh, and not a whit the worse for their previous hard day's work.
On the road we have always found that it is the pace rather than the distance that “knocks up cattle”; but haste formed no part of our programme, as we travelled to see and enjoy the scenery, not merely to pass through it, to sketch, to photograph, to inspect a ruin, or to do whatever took our fancy at the time; also to chat at our leisure with any one who appeared to be interesting and willing to chat-prepared under those conditions to converse with anybody from a ploughboy to a peer that chance might bring across our path, so that we might learn “how the world wags” according to the different parties' views.
As Montaigne remarked, “Every man knows some one thing better than I do, and when I meet
a stranger therefore I engage him in conversation to find that one thing out.” So we have discovered that even a lightly-esteemed ploughboy, familiar all his life with Nature in her many moods, at home in the fields and hedgerows, could tell us many things we did not know, which are common knowledge to him. A chat with an intelligent ploughboy, for such boys exist, may prove a profitable and interesting experience, for perchance it may be racy of the soil, full of the ways of wild birds and winged things, of the doings of hares, rabbits, weasels, foxes, and other animals belonging to the countryside, and of countless idle-growing things besides ; above all, it is genuinely rural, and conveys an unmistakable flavour of the open air.
An intelligent rustic is unconsciously a close Nature-observer, and by listening to what he has got to say, if you can only get him to talk and keep him to his subject, you may make valuable use of the eyes of others who can see, but give small thought to what they see.
The works of White of Selborne and of Richard Jefferies have proved how attractive and refreshing to the town-tired brain are the faithful and simple record of the natural history of the English fields and woodlands, and the descriptions of the charms and beauties of the English country in all its varied aspects. One great value of such writings is that they induce people to search for, and teach them how to seek out, similar beauties for themselves in their everyday surroundings, that they never before so much as imagined to exist. So that truly a new,
A “ THOROUGHFARE” TOWN
a costless, and a lasting pleasure in life is opened out to them.
We found Stevenage to be a quiet, neat little town of the "thoroughfare" type, to employ a term much in vogue in the coaching days when describing places consisting chiefly of one long street. Wandering about, we noticed an old building that had manifestly been a hostelry of some importance in the pre-railway period, the archway giving entrance to the stable-yard still remaining. Now the building is converted into a pleasant residence, though, owing to the necessities of its former uses, it stands too close to the roadway to afford that privacy which the home-loving Briton so dearly delights in ; which, on the other hand, the average American citizen so heartily dislikes, considering such comparative seclusion to make for dulness, and to savour of unsociability. Such old buildings, converted, wholly or in part, from inns to houses, are to be found frequently along the Great North Road. A stranger, not aware of the fact, might well wonder why those great houses were built with their ample arches in the little village street, and so close upon the roadside.
At one end of the town we found a rather pretty gabled cottage with a high-pitched roof, from which rose a good group of chimneys. This cottage, with its tiny garden railed off from the footpath by a wooden paling, made quite a charming subject for the pencil, and was the first to adorn our sketchbook. Whilst putting a few finishing touches to our drawing, a native came up. An artist at work always