A Drive About my Neighborhood in 1850

by Mary Russel Mitford

If there be one thing more than another in the nice balance of tastes and prejudices (for I do not speak here of principles) which incline us now to the elegance of Charles, now to the strength of Cromwell,—which disgust us alternately with the license of the Cavaliers and the fanaticism of the Roundheads; it would be the melancholy ruin of cast-down castles and plundered shrines, that meet our eyes all over our fair land, and nowhere in greater profusion than in this district, lying as it does in the very midst of some of the most celebrated battles of the Civil Wars. To say nothing of the siege of Reading, which more even than the vandalism of the Reformation completed the destruction of that noble abbey, the third in rank and size in England, with its magnificent church, its cloisters, and its halls, covering thirty acres of buildings,—and such buildings! within the outer courts;—to say nothing of that most reckless barbarity just at our door—we in our little village of Aberleigh lie between Basting-House to the south, whose desperately defended walls offer little more now than a mere site,—and Donnington to the west, where the ruined Gatehouse upon the hill alone remains of that strong fortress, which overlooked the well-contested field of Newbury,—and Chalgrove to the north, where the reaper, as he binds his sheaf, still pauses to tell you the very place where Hampden fell; every spot has a history! Look at a wooden spire, and your companion shakes his head, and says that it has been so ever since the Cavaliers were blown up in the church tower! Ask the history of a crumbling wall, and the answer is pretty sure to be, Cromwell! That his Highness the Lord Protector did leave what an accomplished friend of mine calls "his peculiar impressions" upon a great many places in our neighborhood is pretty certain; on so many, that there is no actual or authentic catalogue of all; and in some cases there is nothing but general tradition, and the nature of the "impressions" in question, to vouch for the fact of their destruction at that period.

Amongst these, one of the edifices that must have been best worth preserving, and is even now most interesting to see, is the grand old castellated mansion, which in the reign of Elizabeth belonged to one of her favorite courtiers, and was known as Master Comptroller's House, at Grays.

The very road to it is singularly interesting. Passing through the town, which increases in growth every day, until one wonders when and where it will stop, and looking with ever fresh admiration at the beautiful lacework window of the old Friary, which I long to see preserved in the fitliest manner, by forming again the chief ornament of a church, and then driving under the arch of the Great Western Railway, and feeling the strange vibration of some monster train passing over our heads,—a proceeding which never fails to make my pony show off his choicest airs and graces, pricking up his pretty ears, tossing his slender head, dancing upon four feet, and sometimes rearing upon two,—we arrive at the long, low, picturesque old bridge, the oldest of all the bridges that cross the Thames, so narrow that no two vehicles can pass at once, and that over every pier triangular spaces have been devised for the safety of foot passengers. On the centre arch is a fisherman's hut, occupying the place once filled by a friar's cell, and covering a still existing chapel, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, now put to secular uses—a dairy or a cellar.

A little way down the river is one of the beautiful islands of the Thames, now a smooth and verdant meadow, edged round with old willow pollards calmly reflected in the bright, clear waters, but giving back in the twelfth century a far different scene. Here was fought a wager of battle between Robert de Montford, appellant, and Henry de Essex, hereditary Standard-bearer of the kings of England, defendant, by command, and in the presence of Henry the Second. The story is told very minutely and graphically by Stowe. Robert de Montford at length struck down his adversary, "who fell," says the old historian, "after receiving many wounds; and the King, at the request of several noblemen, his relations, gave permission to the monks to inter the body, commanding that no further violence should be offered to it. The monks took up the vanquished knight, and carried him into the abbey, where he revived. When he recovered from his wounds, he was received into the community, and assumed the habit of the order, his lands being forfeited to the King." I have always thought that this story would afford excellent scope to some great novelist, who might give a fair and accurate picture of monastic life, and, indeed, of the monastic orders, as landlords, neighbors, teachers, priests, without any mixture of controversial theology, or inventing any predecessors of Luther or Wicliffe. How we should have liked to have heard all about "The Monastery," about the "Abbot" and Father Eustace, untroubled by Henry Warden or John Knox! From the moment that they appear, our comfort in the book vanishes, just as completely as that of the good easy Abbot Boniface himself. There we are in the middle of vexed questions, with the beautiful pile of Melrose threatening every moment to fall about our ears!

Our business now, however, is to get over the bridge, which after the excitement of one dispute with a pugnacious carrier, and another with a saucy groom, whose caracoling horse had well nigh leaped over the parapets on either side; after some backing of other carriages, and some danger of being forced back to our own, we at last achieve, and enter unscathed, the pleasant village of Caversham.

To the left, through a highly ornamented lodge, lies the road to the ancient seat of the Blounts, another house made famous by Pope, where the fair ladies of his love, the sisters Martha and Teresa, lived and died. A fine old place it is; and a picturesque road leads to it, winding through a tract called the Warren, between the high chalk-cliffs, clothed with trees of all varieties, that for so many miles fence in the northern side of the Thames, and the lordly river itself, now concealed by tall elms, now open and shining in the full light of the summer sun. There is not such a flower bank in Oxfordshire as Caversham Warren.

Our way, however, leads straight on. A few miles further, and a turn to the right conducts us to one of the grand old village churches, which give so much of character to English landscape. A large and beautiful pile it is. The tower half clothed with ivy, standing with its charming vicarage and its pretty vicarage-garden on a high eminence, overhanging one of the finest bends of the great river. A woody lane leads from the church to the bottom of the chalk-cliff, one side of which stands out from the road below, like a promontory, surmounted by the laurel hedges and flowery arbors of the vicarage-garden, and crested by a noble cedar of Lebanon. This is Shiplake church, famed far and near for its magnificent oak carving, and the rich painted glass of its windows, collected, long before such adornments were fashionable, by the fine taste of the late vicar, and therefore filled with the very choicest specimens of mediæval art, chiefly obtained from the remains of the celebrated Abbey of St. Bertin, near St. Omers, sacked during the first French Revolution. In this church Alfred Tennyson was married. Blessings be upon him! I never saw the great Poet in my life, but thousands who never may have seen him either, but who owe to his poetry the purest and richest intellectual enjoyment, will echo and re-echo the benison.

A little way farther, and a turn to the left leads to another spot consecrated by genius,—Woodcot, where Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton passed the earlier years of his married life, and wrote several of his most powerful novels. I have always thought that the scenery of Paul Clifford caught some of its tone from that wild and beautiful country, for wild and beautiful it is. The terrace in the grounds commands a most extensive prospect; and beneath a clump of trees on the common behind the house, is the only spot where on a clear day Windsor may be seen on one side, and Oxford on the other,—looking almost like the domes, and towers, and pinnacles that sometimes appear in the clouds—a fairy picture that the next breeze may waft away! This beautiful residence stands so high, that one of its former possessors, Admiral Fraser (grandfather to that dear friend of mine who is the present owner), could discover Woodcot Clump from the mast of his own ship at Spithead, a distance of sixty miles.

Wyfold's Court, another pretty place a little farther on, which also belonged once to a most dear friend, possesses the finest Wych-elms in England. Artists come from far and near to paint these stately trees, whose down-dropping branches and magnificent height are at once so graceful and so rich. They are said always to indicate ecclesiastical possession, but no trace of such dependency is to be found in the title-deeds, or in the tenure by which in feudal times the lands were held,—that of presenting a rose to the King, should he pass by a certain road on a May-day.

And now we approach Rotherfield Grays,—its bowery lanes, its wild rugged commons, and its vast beech woods, from the edge of which projects every here and there a huge cherry-tree, looking, in the blossoming springtime, as if carved in ivory, so exquisite is the whiteness, casting upon the ferny-turf underneath showers of snowy petals that blanch the very ground, and diffusing around an almond-like odor, that mingles with the springing thyme and the flowering gorse, and loads the very air with heavy balm.

Exquisite is the pleasantness of these beech woods, where the light is green from the silky verdure of the young leaves, and where the mossy wood-paths are embroidered with thousands of flowers, from the earliest violet and primrose, the wood-anemone, the wood-sorrel, the daffodil, and the wild hyacinth of spring, to the wood-vetch, the woodroof, the campanulas, and the orchises of summer;—for all the English orchises are here: that which so curiously imitates the dead oak leaf, that again which imitates the human figure; the commonest but most pretty bee orchis, and the parallel ones which are called after the spider, the frog, and the fly. Strange freak of nature this, in a lower order of creation, to mimic her own handyworks in a higher!—to mimic even our human mimicry!—for that which is called the man orchis is most like the imitation of a human figure that a child might cut from colored paper. Strange, strange mimicry! but full of variety, full of beauty, full of odor. Of all the fragrant blossoms that haunt the woods, I know none so exquisite as that night-scented orchis which is called indifferently, the butterfly or the lily of the valley. Another glory of these woods, an autumnal glory, is the whole fungus tribe, various and innumerable as the mosses; from the sober drab-colored fungi, spotted with white, which so much resemble a sea-egg, to those whose deep and gorgeous hues would shame the tinting of an Indian shell. Truffles, too, are found beneath the earth; and above it are deposited huge masses of the strange compound called in modern geological phrase Agglomerate. Flint and coral, and gravel, and attrited pebbles enter into the combination of this extraordinary natural conglomeration, which no steel, however hardened, can separate, and which seems to have been imitated very successfully by the old builders in their cements and the substances used in the filling up of their grandest structures, as may be seen in the layers which unite the enormous slabs of granite in the Roman walls at Silchester, as well as in the works of the old monkish architects at Reading Abbey. Another beauty of this country is to be found in the fields,—now of the deep-red clover, with its shining crimson tops, now of the gay and brilliant saintfoin (the holy hay), the bright pink of whose flowery spikes gives to the ground the look of a bed of roses.

And now we reach the gate that admits us down a steep descent to the Rectory-house, a large substantial mansion, covered with Banksia roses, and finely placed upon a natural terrace,—a fertile valley below, and its own woods and orchard-trees above.

My friend the rector, raciest of men, is an Oxford divine of the old school; a ripe scholar; one who has travelled wide and far, and is learned in the tongues, the manners, and the literature of many nations; but who is himself English to the backbone in person, thought, and feeling. Orthodox is he, no doubt. Nowhere are church and schools, and parish visitings, better cared for; but he has a knack of attending also to the creature comforts of all about him, of calling beef and blankets in aid of his precepts, which has a wonderful effect in promoting their efficacy. Mansion and man are large alike, and alike overflowing with hospitality and kindliness. His original and poignant conversation is so joyous and good-humored, the making every body happy is so evidently his predominant taste, that the pungency only adds to the flavor of his talk, and never casts a moment's shade over its sunny heartiness.

Right opposite the Rectory terrace, framed like a picture by the rarest and stateliest trees, stands the object of my pilgrimage, Grays' Court, a comparatively modern house, erected amongst the remains of a vast old castellated mansion, belonging first to the noble family of Gray, who gave their name not merely to the manor, but to the district; then to the house of Knollys; and latterly to the Stapletons, two venerable ladies of that name being its present possessors.

All my life I had heard of Grays' Court; of the rich yet wild country in which it is placed; of the park so finely undulated, and so profusely covered by magnificent timber; of the huge old towers which seem to guard and sentinel the present house; of the far extended walls, whose foundations may yet be traced, in dry seasons, among the turf of the lawn; of the traditions which assign the demolition of those ancient walls to the wars of the Commonwealth; and of the strange absence of all documentary evidence upon the subject.

Another cause for my strong desire to see this interesting place, is to be found in its association with one of those historical personages in whom I have always taken the warmest interest. Lord Essex (whose mother was the famous Lettice Knollys, who had had for her second husband another of Queen Elizabeth's favorites, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester), when confined in London, a prey to the tyranny of Elizabeth, petitioned, in one of those eloquent letters to the Virgin Queen which will always remain amongst the earliest and finest specimens of English prose, to be allowed to repair, for the benefit of his health, "to Master Comptroller's house at Grays." Ah! we can fancy, when looking over this lovely valley, with its woods, its verdure, its sweep of hills, its feeling of the near river, we can well fancy how the poet-heart of the great Earl must have longed to leave the trial, the turmoil, the jangling, the treachery, the weary fears, the bitter humiliations of his London captivity, and to taste once more the sweet air, the pleasant sights, the calmness and the quiet of the country. Hope and comfort must have come with the thought. One of the prettiest pictures that I know, is an extract from a contemporary letter, in the first volume of Mr. Craik's most interesting book, the "Romance of the Peerage," telling of the Earl and Countess, during one of the daily visits that she was at one time permitted to pay him when he was a prisoner in Essex House, walking together in the garden, "now he, now she, reading one to the other." The whole taste and feeling of the man, the daily habit of his life, is shown in this little circumstance. And this is the brave soldier who, when examined before the Privy Council, a council composed of open enemies and treacherous friends, had been kept nearly all the day kneeling at the bottom of the table. Tyranny drove him into madness, and then exacted the full penalty of the wild acts which that madness prompted. But Essex was a man in advance of his age; the companion as well as the patron of poets; the protector of papist and puritan; the fearless asserter of liberty of conscience! He deserved a truer friend than Bacon, a more merciful judge than Elizabeth.

To the house of Knollys belongs another interesting association, that strangest of genealogical romances, the great case of the Banbury peerage. The cause was decided (if decided it can be called even now) by evidence found in the parish register of Rotherfield Grays.

The place has yet another attraction in its difficulty of access; the excellent ladies of the Court admitting few beyond their own immediate connections and nearest friends. One class, to be sure, finds its way there as if by instinct—the poor, who, as the birds of the air detect the grain under the surface in the newly sown ground, are sure to find out the soil where charity lies germinating. Few excepting these constant visitors are admitted. But, besides the powerful introduction of our mutual friend the rector, a nephew of theirs, and his most sweet and interesting wife, had for some time inhabited the house which had been the home of my own youth, so that my name was not strange to them; and they had the kindness to allow me to walk over their beautiful grounds and gardens, to see their charming Swiss dairy, with its marbles and its china, and, above all, to satisfy my curiosity by looking over the towers which still remain of the old castle,—piles whose prodigious thickness of wall and distance from each other give token of the immense extent and importance of the place. It is said to have been built round two courts. Alnwick and Windsor rose to my thoughts as I contemplated these gigantic remains, and calculated the space that the original edifice must have covered. One of these towers is still occupied by the well of the castle, a well three hundred feet deep, which supplies the family with water. It will give some idea of the scale of the old mansion, to say that the wheel by which the water is raised, is twenty-five feet in diameter. Two donkeys are employed in the operation. One donkey suffices for the parallel but much smaller well at Carisbrook, where the animal is so accustomed to be put in for the mere purpose of exhibiting the way in which the water is raised to the visitors who go to look at the poor king's last prison, that he just makes the one turn necessary to show the working of the machine, and then stops of his own accord. The donkeys at Grays, kept for use and not for show, have not had a similar opportunity of displaying their sagacity.

One cannot look at the place without a feeling of adaptedness. It is the very spot for a stronghold of the Cavaliers: a spot where Lovelace and Montrose might each have fought and each have sung, defending it to the last loaf of bread and the last charge of powder, and yielding at last to the irresistible force of Cromwell's cannonade.