A Cotswold Village
J. Arthur Gibbs
Part 5 out of 7
place when attached to the church and used for secular purposes. This is
now known as the town hall, and contrasts very favourably with the
hideous erections built in modern times in some of our English towns for
The church of Cirencester contains a large amount of beautiful
In the grand old tower are twelve bells of excellent tone. The Early
English stonework in the chancel and chapels is very curious, a fine
arch opening from the nave to the tower. There is, in fact, a great deal
to be seen on all sides which would delight the lover of architecture.
Some ancient brasses of great interest and beautiful design in various
parts of this church claim attention; the earliest of them is as old as
1360; a pulpit cloth of blue velvet, made from the cape of one Ralph
Parsons in 1478 and presented by him, is still preserved.
Cirencester House stands but a stone's throw from the railway station,
but is hidden from sight by a high wall and a gigantic yew hedge. Behind
it and on all sides, save one, the park--one of the largest in
England--stretches away for miles. So beautiful and rural are the
surroundings that the visitor to the house can hardly realise that the
place is not far removed from the busy haunts of men.
The Cirencester estate was purchased by Sir Benjamin Bathurst rather
more than two hundred years ago. This family has done good service to
their king and country for many centuries. We read the other day that no
less than _six_ of Sir Benjamin's brothers died fighting for the king in
the Civil Wars. Nor have they been less conspicuous in serving their
country in times of peace.
The park, which was designed to a great extent by the first earl, with
the assistance of Pope, has been entirely thrown open to the people of
Cirencester; and "the future and as yet visionary beauties of the noble
scenes, openings, and avenues" which that great poet used to delight in
dwelling upon have become accomplished facts. The "ten rides"--lengthy
avenues of fine trees radiating in all directions from a central point
in the middle of the park--are a picturesque feature of the landscape.
The lover of horses and riding finds here a paradise of grassy glades,
where he can gallop for miles on end, and tire the most obstinate of
Picnic parties, horse shows, cricket matches, and the chase of the fox
all find a place in this romantic demesne in their proper seasons. The
enthusiast for woodland hunting, or the man who hates the sight of a
fence of any description, may hunt the fox here day after day and never
leave the recesses of the park.
The antiquary will find much to delight him. Here is the ancient high
cross, erected in the fourteenth century, which once stood in front of
the old Ram Inn. The pedestal is hewn from a single block of stone, and
beautifully wrought with Gothic arcades and panelled quatrefoils; this
and the shaft are the sole relics of the old cross. We may go into
raptures over the ivy-covered ruin known as Alfred's Hall, fitted up as
it is with black oak and rusty armour and all the pompous simplicity of
the old baronial halls of England. Antiquaries of a certain order are
easily deceived; and this delightful old ruin, though but two hundred
years old, has been so skilfully put together as to represent an ancient
British castle. That celebrated, though indelicate divine, Dean Swift,
was, like Alexander Pope, deeply interested in the designing of
As long ago as 1733 Alfred's Hall was a snare and delusion to
antiquaries. In that year Swift received a letter stating that "My Lord
Bathurst has greatly improved the Wood-House, which you may remember was
a cottage, not a bit better than an Irish cabin. It is now a venerable
castle, and has been taken by an antiquary for one of King Arthur's."
The kennels of the V.W.H. hounds are in the park. Here the lover of
hounds can spend hours discussing the merits of "Songster" and
"Rosebud," or the latest and most promising additions to the families of
"Brocklesby Acrobat" or "Cotteswold Flier."
In this house are some very interesting portraits. Full-length pictures
of the members of the Cabal Ministry adorn the dining-room--all fine
examples of Lely's brush; then there is a very large representation of
the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo mounted on his favourite charger
"Copenhagen" by Lawrence; two "Romneys," one "Sir Joshua," and several
Turning to the Abbey, the seat for the last three hundred and thirty
years of the Master family, we find another instance of a large country
house standing practically in a town. The house is situated immediately
behind the church and within a stone's throw of the market-place. But on
the side away from the town the view from this house extends over a
large extent of rural scenery. The site of the mitred Abbey of Saint
Mary is somewhere hereabouts, but in the time of the suppression of the
monasteries every stone of the old abbey was pulled down and carried
away; so that the twelfth-century gateway and some remnants of pillars
are the sole traces that remain. This gateway, which is a very fine one,
is still used as a lodge entrance. Queen Elizabeth granted this estate
to Richard Master in 1564. When King Charles was at Cirencester in the
time of the Rebellion he twice stayed at this house. In 1642 the
townspeople of Cirencester rose in a body, and tried to prevent the lord
lieutenant of the county, Lord Chandos, from carrying out the King's
Commission of Array. For a time they gained their ends, but in the
following year there was a sharp encounter between Prince Rupert's force
and the people of Cirencester, resulting in the total defeat of the
latter. Three hundred of them were killed, and over a thousand taken
prisoners. They were confined in the church, and eventually taken to
Oxford, where, upon their submitting humbly to the king, he pardoned
them, and they were released. This is one account. It is only fair to
state that another account is less complimentary to Charles.
When Charles II. escaped from Worcester he put up at an old hostelry in
Cirencester called the Sun. King James and, still later, Queen Anne paid
visits to this town.
Altogether the town of Cirencester is a very fascinating old place. The
lot of its inhabitants is indeed cast in pleasant places. The grand
bracing air of the Cotswold Hills is a tonic which drives dull care away
from these Gloucestershire people; and when it is remembered that they
enjoy the freedom of Lord Bathurst's beautiful park, that the
neighbourhood is, in spite of agricultural depression, well off in this
world's goods, it is not surprising that the pallid cheeks and drooping
figures to be met with in most of our towns are conspicuous by their
absence here. The Cotswold farmers may be making no profit in these days
of low prices and competition, but against this must be set the fact
that their fathers and grandfathers made considerable fortunes in
farming three decades ago, and for this we must be thankful.
The merry capital of the Cotswolds abounds in good cheer and good
fellowship all the year round; and one has only to pay a visit to the
market-place on a Monday to meet the best of fellows and the most genial
sportsmen anywhere to be found amongst the farming community of England.
One of the old institutions which still remain in the Cotswolds is the
annual "mop," or hiring fair. At Cirencester these take place twice in
October. Every labouring man in the district hurries into the town,
where all sorts of entertainments are held in the market-place,
including "whirly-go-rounds," discordant music, and the usual "shows"
which go to make up a country fair. "Hiring" used to be the great
feature of these fairs. In the days before local newspapers were
invented every sort of servant, from a farm bailiff to a
maid-of-all-work, was hired for the year at the annual mop. The word
"mop" is derived from an old custom which ordained that the
maid-servants who came to find situations should bring their badge of
office with them to the fair. They came with their brooms and mops, just
as a carter would tie a piece of whipcord to his coat, and a shepherd's
hat would be decorated with a tuft of wool. Time was when the labouring
man was never happy unless he changed his abode from year to year. He
would get tired of one master and one village, and be off to Cirencester
mop, where he was pretty sure to get a fresh job. But nowadays the
Cotswold men are beginning to realise that "Two removes are as bad as a
fire." The best of them stay for years in the same village. This is very
much more satisfactory for all concerned. Deeply rooted though the love
of change appears to be in the hearts of nine-tenths of the human race,
the restless spirit seldom enjoys real peace and quiet; and the
discontent and poverty of the labouring class in times gone by may
safely be attributed to their never-ceasing changes and removal of their
belongings to other parts of the country.
Now that these old fairs no longer answer the purpose for which they
existed for hundreds of years, they will doubtless gradually die out.
And they have their drawbacks. An occasion of this kind is always
associated with a good deal of drunkenness; the old market-place of
Cirencester for a few days in each autumn becomes a regular pandemonium.
It is marvellous how quickly all traces of the great show are swept away
and the place once more settles down to the normal condition of an
old-fashioned though well-to-do country town.
There are many old houses in Cirencester of more than average interest,
but there is nothing as far as we know that needs special description.
The Fleece Hotel is one of the largest and most beautiful of the
mediaeval buildings. It should be noted that some of the new buildings
in this town, such as that which contains the post office, have been
erected in the best possible taste. With the exception of some of the
work which Mr. Bodley has done at Oxford in recent years, notably the
new buildings at Magdalen College, we have never seen modern
architecture of greater excellence than these Cirencester houses. They
are as picturesque as houses containing shops possibly can be.
HUNTING FROM CICETER.
But it is as a hunting centre that Ciceter is best known to the world at
large, and in this respect it is almost unique. The "Melton of the
west," it contains a large number of hunting residents who are not mere
"birds of passage," but men who live the best part of the year in or
near the town. The country round about, from a hunting point of view, is
good enough for most people. Five days a week can be enjoyed, over a
variety of hill and vale, all of which is "rideable"; nor can there be
any question but that the sport obtainable compares favourably with that
enjoyed in the more grassy Midlands. Not that there is much plough round
about Cirencester nowadays; agricultural depression has diminished the
amount of arable in recent years. The best grass country round about,
however, with the exception of the Crudwell and Oaksey district, rides
decidedly deep. The enclosures are small and the fences rough and
A clever, bold horse, with plenty of jumping power in his quarters and
hocks, is essential. It may safely be said that a man who can command
hounds in the Braydon and Swindon district will find the "shires"
comparatively plain sailing. The wall country of the Cotswold tableland
is exactly the reverse of the vale. The pace there is often tremendous,
but the obstacles are not formidable enough to those accustomed to
walls to keep the eager field from pressing the pack, save on those rare
occasions when, on a burning scent, the hounds manage to get a start of
horses; and then they will never be caught. Well-bred horses are almost
invariably ridden in this wall country; if in hard condition, and there
are no steep hills to be crossed, they can go as fast and stay almost as
long as hounds, for the going is good, and they are always galloping on
the top of the ground.
At the time of writing, there are over two hundred hunters stabled in
the little town of Cirencester, to say nothing of those kept at the
numerous hunting boxes around. More than this need not be said to show
the undoubted popularity of the place as a hunting centre. And a very
sporting lot the people are. Brought up to the sport from the cradle,
the Gloucestershire natives, squires, farmers, all sorts and conditions
of men, ride as straight as a die.
From what has been said it will be readily gathered that the attraction
of the place as a hunting centre lies in the variety of country it
commands. Not only is a different stamp of country to be met with each
day of the week, but on one and the same day you may be riding over
banks, small flying fences, and sound grass, or deep ploughs and pasture
divided by hairy bullfinches, or, again, over light plough and stone
walls; and to this fact may be attributed the exceptional number of good
performers over a country that this district turns out. Both men and
horses have always appeared to us to reach a very high standard of
To Leicestershire, Northants, Warwick, and the Vale of Aylesbury
belongs by undisputed right the credit of the finest grass country in
hunting England. But for Ireland and the rougher shires I claim the
honour of showing not only the straightest foxes, but also the best
sportsmen and the boldest riders. The reason seems to me to be this: in
Leicestershire you find the field composed largely of smart London men;
and after a certain age a man "goes to hounds" in inverse ratio to the
pace at which he travels as a man about town. The latter (with a few
brilliant exceptions to prove the rule) is not so quick and determined
when he sees a nasty piece of timber or an awkward hairy fence as his
reputation at the clubs would lead you to expect; whilst the rougher
countryman, be he yeoman or squire, farmer or peer, endowed with nerves
of iron, is able to cross a country with a confidence and a dash that
are denied to the average dandy, with his big stud, immaculate
"leathers," and expensive cigars. In Gloucestershire many an honest
yeoman goes out twice a week and endeavours to drown for a while all
thoughts of hard times and low prices, content for the day if the fates
have left him a sound horse and the consolation of a gallop over the
grass. Let it here be said that there are no grooms in the world who
better understand conditioning hunters than those of Leicestershire.
Nowhere can you see horses better bred or fitter to go; and he who rides
a-hunting on _fat_ horses must himself be _fat_.
The V.W.H. hounds, on Mr. Hoare's retirement in 1886, were divided into
two packs. Mr. T. Butt Miller hunts three days a week on the eastern
side, with Cricklade as his centre; whilst Lord Bathurst has sufficient
ground for two days on the west, where the country flanks with the Duke
of Beaufort's domain on the south and the Cotswold hounds on the north.
Mr. Miller retains the original pack, and a very fine one it is. Lord
Bathurst likewise, by dint of sparing no pains, and by bringing in the
best blood obtainable from Belvoir, Brocklesby, and other kennels, has
gradually brought his pack to a high state of excellence.
Turning to the week's programme for a man hunting five or six days a
week from Cirencester, Monday is the day for the duke's hounds. Here you
may be riding over some of the best of the grass, where light flying
fences grow on the top of low banks, or else it will be a stone-wall
country of mixed grass and light plough. In either case the country is
very rideable, and sport usually excellent. The Badminton hounds and
Lord Worcester's skill as a huntsman are too well known to require any
On Tuesday Lord Bathurst's hounds are always within seven miles of the
town, and the country is a very open one, but one that requires plenty
of wet to carry scent. Though on certain days there is but little scent,
in favourable seasons during recent years wonderful sport has been shown
in this country. In the season of 1895-6 especially, a fine gallop came
off regularly every Tuesday from October to the end of February. In '97,
on the other hand, little was done. There is far more grass than there
used to be, owing to so much of the land having gone out of cultivation.
The plough rides lighter than grass does in nine counties out of ten,
the coverts are small, and the pace often tremendous. Every country has
its drawback, and in this case it lies partly in bad scent and partly in
the fences being too easy. Men who know the walls with which the
Cotswold tableland is almost entirely enclosed, ride far too close to
hounds: thus, the pack and the huntsman not being allowed a chance,
sport is often spoiled. Occasionally, when a real scent is forthcoming,
the hounds can run right away from the field; but as a rule they are
shamefully over-ridden. The fact is that in the hunting field, as
elsewhere, John Wolcot's epigram, written a hundred years ago, exactly
hits the nail on the head:
"What rage for fame attends both great and small!
Better be d--d than mentioned not at all."
We all want to ride in the front rank, and are, or ought to be, d--d
accordingly by the long-suffering M.F.H.
On Wednesdays the Cotswold hounds are always within easy reach of
Cirencester. There are few better packs than the Cotswold. Started forty
years ago with part of the V.W.H. pack which Lord Gifford was giving up,
the Cotswold hounds have received strains of the best blood of the
Brocklesby, Badminton, Belvoir, and Berkeley kennels. They have
therefore both speed and stamina as well as good noses. Their huntsman,
Charles Travess, has no superior as far as we know; the result is that
for dash and drive these hounds are unequalled. Notwithstanding the
severe pace at which they are able to run, owing to the absence of high
hedges and other impediments--for most of the country is enclosed with
stone walls--they hunt marvellously well together and do not tail; they
are wonderfully musical, too,--more so than any other pack.
Here it is worth our while to analyse briefly the qualities which
combine to make this huntsman so deservedly popular with all who follow
the Cotswold hounds. We venture to say that he pleases all and sundry,
"thrusters," hound-men, and _liver-men_ alike, because he invariably has
a double object in view--he hunts his fox and he humours his field. And
firstly he hunts his fox in the best possible method, having regard to
the scenting capabilities of the Cotswold Hills.
He is quick as lightning, yet he is never in a hurry--that is to say, in
a "_bad_ hurry." When the hounds "throw up" or "check," like all other
good huntsmen he gives them plenty of time. He stands still and he
_makes his field stand still_; then may be seen that magnificent proof
of canine brain-power, the fan-shaped forward movement of a
well-drafted, old-established pack of foxhounds, making good by two
distinct casts--right-and left-handed--the ground that lies in front of
them and on each side. Should they fail to hit off the line, the
advantage of a brilliant huntsman immediately asserts itself. Partly by
certain set rules and partly by a knowledge of the country and the run
of foxes, but more than all by that _daring_ genius which was the
making of Shakespeare and the great men of all time, he takes his hounds
admirably in hand, aided by two quiet, unassuming whippers-in, and in
four cases out of five brings them either at the first or second cast to
the very hedgerow where five minutes before Reynard took his sneaking,
solitary way. It may be "forward," or it may be down wind, right or
left-handed, but it is at all events the _right_ way; thus, owing to
this happy knack of making the proper cast at a large percentage of
checks this man establishes his reputation as a first-class huntsman.
Should the day be propitious, a run is now assured, unless some
unforeseen occurrence, such as the fox going to ground, necessitates a
draw for a fresh one; but in any case, owing to this marvellous knack of
hitting off the line at the first check, our huntsman generally
contrives to show a run some time during the day.
So much for the methods by which this William Shakespeare of the hunting
field is wont to pursue his fox. But we have not done with him yet. What
does he do on those bad scenting days which on the dry and stony
Cotswold Hills are the rule rather than the exception? On such days, as
well as hunting his fox, he humours his field. In the first place,
unless he has distinct proof to the contrary, he invariably gives his
fox credit for being a straight-necked one. He keeps moving on at a
steady pace in the direction in which his instinct and knowledge lead
him, even though there may be no scent, either on the ground or in the
air, to guide the hounds. Every piece of good scenting ground--and he
knows the capabilities of every field in this respect--is made the most
of; "carrying" or dusty ploughs are scrupulously avoided. If he "lifts,"
it is done so quietly and cunningly that the majority of the riders are
unaware of the fact; and the hounds never become wild and untractable.
It is this free and generous method of hunting the fox that pleases his
followers. Travess's casts are not made in cramped and stingy fashion,
but a wide extent of country is covered even on a bad day; there is no
rat-hunting. After a time all save a dozen sportsmen are left several
fields behind. "They won't run to-day," is the general cry; "there is no
hurry." But meantime some large grass fields are met with, or the
huntsman brings the pack on to better terms with the fox, or maybe a
fresh one jumps up, and away go the hounds for seven or eight minutes as
hard as they can pelt. Only a dozen men know exactly what has happened.
Most of the thrusters and all the _liver-men_ have to gallop in earnest
for half an hour to come up with the hunt; indeed, on many days they
never see either huntsman or hounds again, and go tearing about the
country cursing their luck in missing so fine a run! It is the old story
of the hare and the tortoise. But herein lies the "humour" of it: the
hare is pleased and the tortoise is pleased. The former, as represented
by the field, has enjoyed a fine scamper, and lots of air (bother the
currant jelly!) and exercise; the tortoise, on the other hand, has had a
fine hunting run, and possibly by creeping slowly on for some hours it
has killed its fox; whilst several good sportsmen have enjoyed an
old-fashioned hunt in a wild country with a kill in the open.
_Verbum sap:_ If you want to humour your field, you must leave them
behind. It must not be done intentionally, however; the riders must be
allowed, so to speak, to work out their own salvation in this respect.
Major de Freville's country as a whole is more suited to the "houndman"
than for him who hunts to ride. The hills, save in one district, are so
severe that hounds often beat horses; the result is, many are tempted to
station themselves on the top of a hill, whence a wide view is
obtainable, and trust to the hounds coming back after running a ring.
Given the right sort of horse, however--short-backed, thoroughbred if
possible, and with good enough manners to descend a steep place without
boring and tearing his rider's arms almost out of their sockets--many a
fine run may be seen in this wild district. Much of the arable land has
gone back to grass, so that it is quite a fair scenting country; and the
foxes are stronger and more straight-necked than in more civilised
parts. One of the best days the writer ever had in his life was with
these hounds. Meeting at Puesdown, they ran for an hour in the morning
at a great pace, with an eight-mile point; whilst in the afternoon came
a run of one-and-a-half hours, with a point of somewhere about
With the exception of a small vale between Cheltenham and Tewkesbury,
which is very good indeed, the Puesdown country is about the best, the
undulations being less severe than in other parts.
On Thursdays Cirencester commands Mr. Miller's Braydon country. This
country is a very great contrast to that which is ridden over on
Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and requires a very stout horse. It rides
tremendously deep at times; and the fences, which come very frequently
in a run, owing to the small size of the enclosures, are both big and
blind. It is practically all grass. But there are several large
woodlands, with deep clay rides, in which one is not unlikely to spend a
part of Thursday; and these woods, owing in part to the shooting being
let to Londoners, are none too plentifully provided with foxes. Wire,
too, has sprung up in some parts of Mr. Miller's Braydon country. Few
people have large enough studs to stand the wear and tear of this fine,
wild country; consequently the fields are generally small. Sport, though
not so good as it used to be, is still very fair, and to run down to
Great Wood in the duke's country is sufficient to tax the powers of the
finest weight-carrying hunter, whilst only the man with a quick eye to a
country can live with hounds. It is often stated that blood horses are
the best for galloping through deep ground. This is true in one way,
though not on the whole. Thoroughbred horses are practically useless in
this sort of country; their feet are often so small that they stick in
the deep clay. A horse with small feet is no good at all in Braydon. A
short-legged Irish hunter, about three parts bred, with tremendous
strength in hocks and quarters, and biggish feet, is the sort the writer
would choose. If up to quite two stone more than his rider's weight,
and a safe and temperate fencer, he will carry you well up with hounds
over any country. A fast horse is not required; for a racer that can do
the mile on the flat at Newmarket in something under two minutes is
reduced in really deep ground to an eight-mile-an-hour canter, and your
short-legged horse from the Emerald Isle will leave him standing still
in the Braydon Vale.
Some countries never ride really deep. The shires, for instance, though
often said to be deep, will seldom let a horse in to any great
extent--the ridge and furrow drains the field so well; and in that sort
of deep ground which is met with in Leicestershire a thoroughbred one
will gallop and "stay" all day. But a ride in Braydon or in the Bicester
"Claydons" will convince us that a stouter stamp of horse is necessary
to combat a deep, undrained clay country.
We must now leave the sporting Thursday country of the V.W.H. and turn
Eastcourt, Crudwell, Oaksey, Brinkworth, Lea Schools--such are some of
Lord Bathurst's Friday meets; and the pen can hardly write fast enough
in singing the praises of this country. Strong, well-preserved coverts,
sound grass fields, flying fences, sometimes set on a low bank,
sometimes without a bank, varied by an occasional brook, with now and
then a fence big enough to choke off all but the "customers"--such is
the bill of fare for Fridays. To run from Stonehill Wood, _via_ Charlton
and Garsdon, to Redborn in the duke's country, as the hounds did on the
first day of 1897, is, as "Brooksby" would say, "a line fit for a king,
be that king but well minded and well mounted."
Stand on Garsdon Hill, and look down on the grassy vale mapped out
below, and tell me, if you dare, that you ever saw a pleasanter stretch
of country. How dear to the hunting man are green fields and
sweet-scenting pastures, where the fences are fair and clean and the
ditches broad and deep, where there is room to gallop and room to jump,
and where, as he sails along on a well-bred horse or reclines perchance
in a muddy ditch (Professor Raleigh! what a watery bathos!), he may
often say to himself, "It is good for me to be here!" For when the
hounds cross this country there are always "wigs on the green" in
abundance; and in spite of barbed wire we may still sing with Horace,
"Nec fortuitum spernere caespitem
which, at the risk of offending all classical scholars, I must here
translate: "Nor do the laws allow us to despise a chance tumble on
Round Oaksey, too, is a rare galloping ground. Should you be lucky
enough to get a start from "Flistridge" and come down to the brook at a
jumpable place, in less than ten minutes you will be, if not _in_
Paradise, at all events as near as you are ever likely to be on this
earth. This is literally true, for half way between "Flistridge" and
Kemble Wood, and in the midst of Elysian grass fields, is a narrow strip
of covert happily christened "Paradise."
Would that there was a larger extent of this sort of country, for it is
not every Friday that hounds cross it! The duke's hounds have a happy
knack of crossing it occasionally on a Monday, however, and on Thursdays
Mr. Miller's hounds may drive a fox that way.
This district is not so easy for a stranger to ride his own line over as
the Midlands; it is not half so stiff, but it is often cramped and
trappy. But then you must "look before you leap" in most countries
nowadays. In this Friday country wire is comparatively scarce. The
fields run very large on this day,--quite two hundred horsemen are to be
seen at favourite fixtures. About half this number would belong to the
country, and the other half come from the duke's country and elsewhere.
These Friday fields are as well mounted and well appointed as any in
England. And to see a run one must have a good horse,--not necessarily
an expensive one, for "good" and "expensive" are by no means synonymous
terms with regard to horseflesh. It is with regret that we must add that
foxes were decidedly scarce here last season (1897-8).
On Saturdays the Cirencester brigade will hunt with Mr. Miller.
Fairford, Lechlade, Kempsford, and Water-Eaton are some of the meets.
Here we have a totally different country from any yet considered. It is
a wonderfully sporting one; and last season these hounds never had a bad
Saturday, and often a 'clinker' resulted. Here again one can never
anticipate what sort of ground will be traversed; but the best of it
consists of a fine open country of grass and plough intermingled, the
fields being intersected by small flying fences and exceptionally wide
and deep ditches. "Snowstorm"--a small gorse half way between Fairford
and Lechlade stations on the Great Western Railway--is a favourite draw.
If a fox goes away you see men sitting down in their saddles and
cramming at the fences as hard as their horses can gallop. There appears
to be nothing to jump until you are close up to the fence; but
nevertheless pace is required to clear them, for there is hardly a ditch
anywhere round "Snowstorm" that is not ten feet wide and eight feet or
more deep, and if you are unlucky your horse may have to clear fourteen
feet. On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing that a horse going
fast cannot clear almost without an effort if he jumps at all. So you
may ride in confidence at every fence, and take it where you please. The
depth of the ditch is what frightens a timid horse and, I may add, a
timid rider; and if your horse stops dead, and then tries to jump it
standing, you are very apt to tumble in.
A rare sporting country is this district; and as the horses and their
riders know it, there are comparatively few falls. Round Kempsford and
Lechlade the Thames and the canal are apt to get in the way, but once
clear of these impediments a very open country is entered, either of
grass and flying fences or light plough and stone walls. Another style
of country is that round Hannington and Crouch. In old days, before wire
was known, this used to be the best grass country in the V.W.H., but
nowadays you must "look before you leap." With a good fox, however,
hounds may take you into the best of the old Berkshire vale, and
perhaps right up to the Swindon Hills. Round Water-Eaton is a fine grass
country, good enough for anybody; but the increase of wire is becoming
more and more difficult to combat in this as in other grazing districts
The very varied bill of fare we have briefly sketched for a man hunting
from Cirencester may include an occasional Wednesday with the Heythrop
at "Bradwell Grove." It is not possible to reach the choicest part of
this pleasant country by road from Cirencester, but some of the best of
the stone-wall country of the Cotswold tableland is included in the
Heythrop domain. Everybody who has been brought up to hunting has heard
of "Jem Hills and Bradwell Grove": rare gallops this celebrated huntsman
used to show over the wolds in days gone by; and on a good scenting day
it requires a quick horse to live with these hounds. A fast and
well-bred pack, established more than sixty years ago, they have been
admirably presided over by Mr. Albert Brassey for close on a quarter of
a century. Several pleasant vales intersect this country, notably the
Bourton and the Gawcombe Vale; and there is excellent grass round
Moreton-in-the-Marsh. As, however, the grass country of the Heythrop is
too far from Cirencester to be reached by road, it hardly comes within
If hunting is doomed to extinction in the Midlands, owing to the growth
of barbed wire, it is exceedingly unlikely ever to die out in the
neighbourhood of Cirencester; for there is so much poor, unprofitable
land on the Cotswold tableland and in the Braydon district that barbed
wire and other evils of civilisation are not likely to interfere to
deprive us of our national sport; Hunting men have but to be true to
themselves, and avoid doing unnecessary damage, to see the sport carried
on in the twentieth century as it has been in the past. If we conform to
the unwritten laws of the chase, and pay for the damage we do, there
will be no fear of fox-hunting dying out. England will be "Merrie
England" still, even in the twentieth century; the glorious pastime,
sole relic of the days of chivalry, will continue among us, cheering the
life in our quiet country villages through the gloomy winter months;--if
only we be true to ourselves, and do our uttermost to further the
interests of the grandest sport on earth.
As I have given an account of a run over the walls, and as the Ciceter
people set most store on a gallop over the stiff fences and grass
enclosures of their vale, here follows a brief description in verse of
the glories of fifty minutes on the grass. I have called it "The
Thruster's Song," because on the whole I thoroughly agree with
"Valour is the chietest virtue, and
Most dignifies the haver."
Hard riding and all sports which involve an element of danger are the
best antidotes to that luxury and effeminacy which long periods of peace
are apt to foster. What would become of the young men of the present
day--those, I mean, who are in the habit of following the hounds--if
hard riding were to become unfashionable? I cannot conceive anything
more ridiculous than the sight of a couple of hundred well-mounted men
riding day after day in a slow procession through gates, "craning" at
the smallest obstacles, or dismounting and "leading over." No; hard
riding is the best antidote in the world for the luxurious tendency of
these days. A hundred years ago, when the sport of fox-hunting was in
its infancy and modern conditions of pace were unknown, there was less
need for this kind of recreation, "the image of war without its guilt,
and only twenty-five per cent of its danger." For there was real
fighting enough to be done in olden times; and amongst hunting folk,
though there was much drinking, there was little luxury. Therefore our
fox-hunting ancestors were content to enjoy slow hunting runs, and small
blame to them! But those who are fond of lamenting the modern spirit of
the age, which prefers the forty minutes' burst over a severe country to
a three hours' hunting run, are apt to lose sight of the fact that in
these piping times of peace, without the risks of sport mankind is
liable to degenerate towards effeminacy. For this reason in the
following poem I have purposely taken up the cudgels for that somewhat
unpopular class of sportsmen, the "thrusters" of the hunting field. They
are unpopular with masters of hounds because they ride too close to the
pack; but as a general rule they are the only people who ever see a
really fast run. In Shakespeare's time hounds that went too fast for the
rest of the pack were "trashed for over-topping," that is to say, they
were handicapped by a strap attached to their necks. In the same way in
every hunt nowadays there are half a dozen individuals who have reduced
riding to hounds to such an art that no pack can get away from them in a
moderately easy country. These "bruisers" of the hunting field ought to
be made to carry three stone dead weight; they should be "trashed for
overtopping." However, as Brooksby has tersely put it, "Some men hunt to
ride and some ride to hunt; others, thank Heaven! double their fun by
doing both." There are many, many fine riders in England who will not be
denied in crossing a stiff country, and who at the same time are
interested in the hounds and in the poetry of sport: men to whom the
mysteries of scent and of woodcraft, as well as the breeding and
management of hounds, are something more than a mere name: men who in
after days recall with pleasure "how in glancing over the pack they have
been gratified by the shining coat, the sparkling eye--sure symptoms of
fitness for the fight;--how when thrown in to covert every hound has
been hidden; how every sprig of gorse has bristled with motion; how when
viewed away by the sharp-eyed whipper-in, the fox stole under the hedge;
how the huntsman clapped round, and with a few toots of his horn brought
them out in a body; how, without tying on the line, they 'flew to head';
how, when they got hold of it, they drove it, and with their heads up
felt the scent on both sides of the fence; how with hardly a whimper
they turned with him, till at the end of fifty minutes they threw up;
how the patient huntsman stood still; how they made their own cast: and
how when they came back on his line, their tongues doubled and they
marked him for their own." To such good men and true I dedicate the
A DAY IN THE VALE; OR, THE THRUSTER'S SONG.
You who've known the sweet enjoyment of a gallop in the vale,
Comrades of the chase, I know you will not deem my subject stale.
Stand with me once more beside the blackthorn or the golden gorse,--
Don't forget to thank your stars you're mounted on a favourite horse;
For the hounds dashed into covert with a zest that bodes a scent,
And the glass is high and rising, clouded is the firmament.
When the ground is soaked with moisture, when the wind is in the east
Scent lies best,--the south wind doesn't suit the "thruster" in the least.
Some there are who love to watch them with their noses on the ground;
We prefer to see them flitting o'er the grass without a sound.
We prefer the keen north-easter; ten to one the scent's "breast high";
With a south wind hounds can sometimes hunt a fox, but seldom fly.
Hark! the whip has viewed him yonder; he's away, upon my word!
If you want to steal a start, then fly the bullfinch like a bird;
Gallop now your very hardest; turn him sharp, and jump the stile,
Trot him at it--never mind the bough,--it's only smashed your tile!
Now we're with them. See, they're tailing, from the fierceness of the pace,
Up the hedgerow, o'er the meadow, 'cross the stubble see them race:
Governor--by Belvoir Gambler,--he's the hound to "run to head,"
Tracing back to Rallywood, that fifty years ago was bred;
Close behind comes Arrogant, by Acrobat; and Artful too;
Rosy, bred by Pytchley Rockwood; Crusty, likewise staunch and true.
Down a muddy lane, in mad excitement, but, alas! too late,
Thunders half the field towards the portals of a friendly gate;
Sees a dozen red-coats bobbing in the vale a mile ahead;
Hears the huntsman's horn, and longs to catch those distant bits of red;--
But in vain, for blind the fences, here a fall and there a "peck."
Some one cries, "An awful place, sir; don't go there, you'll break
Not the stiff, unbroken fences, but the treacherous gaps we fear;
"Though in front the post of honour, that of danger's in the rear."
Forrard on, then forrard onwards, o'er the pasture, o'er the lea,
Tossed about by ridge and furrow, rolling like a ship at sea;
Stake and binder, timber, oxers, all are taken in our stride,--
Better fifty minutes' racing than a dawdling five hours' ride.
I am not ashamed to own, with him who loves a steeplechase,
That to me the charm in hunting is the ecstasy of _pace_,--
This is what best schools the soldier, teaches us that we are men
Born to bear the rough and tumble, wield the sword and not the pen.
Some there are who dub hard riders worthless and a draghunt crew--
Tailors who do all the damage, mounted on a spavined screw.
Well, I grant you, hunting men are sometimes narrow-minded fools;
Ignorant of all worth knowing, save what's learnt in riding-schools;
Careless of the rights of others, scampering over growing crops,
Smashing gates and making gaps and scattering wide the turnip tops;--
But I hold that out of all the hunting fields throughout the land
I could choose for active service a large-hearted, gallant band;
I could choose six hundred red-coats, trained by riding in the van,
Fit to go to Balaclava under brave Lord Cardigan.
'Tis the finest school, the chase, to teach contempt of cannon balls,
If a man ride bravely onward, spite of endless rattling falls.
And to be a first-rate sportsman, not a man who merely "rides,"
Is to be a perfect gentleman, and something more besides;
Fearing neither man nor devil, kind, unselfish he must be,
Born to lead when danger threatens--type of ancient chivalry.
When you hear a "houndman" jeering at the "customers" in front,
Saying they come out to ride a steeplechase and not to hunt,
You may bet the "grapes are sour," the fellow's smoked his nerve away;
Once he went as well as they do: "every dog will have his day."
Though to ride about the roads in state may do your liver good,
You see precious little "houndwork" either there or in the wood.
He who loves to mark the work of hounds must ride beside the pack,
Choosing his own line, or following others, if he's lost the knack.
Lookers-on, I grant you, often see the best part of the game,--
Still, to ride the roads and live with hounds are things not quite
Now a word to all those gallant chaps who love a hunting day:
In bad times you know that farming is a trade that doesn't pay,
Barbed wire's the cheapest kind of fence; the farmer can't afford
Tempting post-and-rails and timber--for he's getting rather bored.
Therefore, if we want to ride with our old devilry and dash,
We must put our hands in pockets deep and shovel out the cash.
When you want to hire a shooting you will gladly pay a "pony,"
Yet when asked to give it to the hounds you're apt to say you're "stony."
Pay the piper, and the sport you love so well will flourish yet,
Flourish in the dim hereafter; and its sun will never set.
Help the noble cause of freedom; rich and poor together blend
Hands and hearts for ever working for a great and glorious end.
[Illustration: An old barn 329.png]
SPRING IN THE COTSWOLDS.
Whilst walking by the river one day in May I noticed a brood of wild
ducks about a week old. The old ones are wonderfully tame at this time
of year. The mother evidently disliked my intrusion, for she started off
up stream, followed by her offspring, making towards a withybed a
hundred yards or so higher up, where a secluded spring gives capital
shelter for duck and other shy birds. What was my surprise a couple of
hours later to see the same lot emerge from some rushes three-quarters
of a mile up stream! They had circumvented a small waterfall, and the
current is very strong in places. Part of the journey must have been
done on dry land.
At the same moment that I startled this brood out of the rushes a
moorhen swam slowly out, accompanied by her mate. It was evident, from
her cries and her anxious behaviour, that she too had some young ones in
the rushes; and soon two tiny little black balls of fur crawled out from
the bank and made for the opposite shore. Either from blindness or
fright they did not join their parents in mid stream, but hurried across
to the opposite bank and scrambled on to the mud, followed by the old
couple remonstrating with them on their foolishness. The mother then
succeeded in persuading one of them to follow her to a place of safety
underneath some overhanging boughs, but the other was left clinging to
the bank, crying piteously. I went round by a bridge in the hope of
being able to place the helpless little thing on the water; but, alas!
by the time I got to the spot it was dead. The exertion of crossing the
stream had been too much for it, for it was probably not twelve
When there are young ones about, moorhens will not dive to get out of
your sight unless their children dive too. It is pretty to see them
swimming on the down-stream side of their progeny, buoying them up in
case the current should prove too strong and carry them down. If there
are eggs still unhatched, the father, when disturbed, takes the little
ones away to a safer spot, whilst the mother sticks to the nest. But
they are rather stupid, for even the day after the eggs are hatched, on
being disturbed by a casual passer-by, the old cock swims out into mid
stream. He then calls to his tiny progeny to follow him, though they are
utterly incapable of doing so, and generally come to hopeless grief in
the attempt. Then the old ones are not very clever at finding children
that have been frightened away from the nest. I marked one down on the
opposite bank, and could see it crawling beneath some sticks; but the
old bird kept swimming past the spot, and appeared to neither hear nor
see the little ball of fur. Perhaps he was playing cunning; he may have
imagined that the bird was invisible to me, and was trying to divert my
attention from the spot.
Moorhens are always interesting to watch. With a pair of field-glasses
an amusing and instructive half hour may often be spent by the stream in
the breeding season.
I was much amused, while feeding some swans and a couple of wild ducks
the other day, to notice that the mallard would attack the swans if they
took any food that he fancied. One would have thought that such powerful
birds as swans--one stroke of whose wings is supposed to be capable of
breaking a man's leg--would not have stood any nonsense from an
unusually diminutive mallard. But not a bit of it: the mallard ruled the
roost; all the other birds, even the great swans, ran away from him when
he attacked them from behind with his beak. This state of things
continued for some days. But after a time the male swan got tired of the
game; his patience was exhausted. Watching his opportunity he seized the
pugnacious little mallard by the neck and gave him a thundering good
shaking! It was most laughable to watch them. It is characteristic of
swans that they are unable to look you in the face; and beautiful beyond
all description as they appear to be in their proper element, meet them
on dry land and they become hideous and uninteresting, scowling at you
with an evil eye.
Sometimes as you are walking under the trees on the banks of the Coln
you come across a little heap of chipped wood lying on the ground. Then
you hear "tap, tap," in the branches above. It is the little nuthatch
hard at work scooping out his home in the bark. He sways his body with
every stroke of his beak, and is so busy he takes no notice of you. The
nuthatch is very fond of filberts, as his name implies. You may see him
in the autumn with a nut firmly fixed in a crevice in the bark of a
hazel branch, and he taps away until he pierces the shell and gets at
the kernel. Nuthatches, which are very plentiful hereabouts, are
sometimes to be found in the forsaken homes of woodpeckers, which they
plaster round with mud. The entrance to the hole in the tree is thus
made small enough to suit them. Sometimes when I have disturbed a
nuthatch at work at a hole in a tree, the little fellow would pop into
the hole and peep out at me, never moving until I had departed.
Woodpeckers are somewhat uncommon here: I have not heard one in our
garden by the river for a very long time, though a foolish farmer told
me the other day that he had recently shot one. A mile or so away, at
Barnsley Park, where the oaks thrive on a vein of clay soil, green
woodpeckers may often be seen and heard. What more beautiful bird is
there, even in the tropics, than the merry yaffel, with his emerald back
and the red tuft on his head? The other two varieties of woodpeckers,
the greater and lesser spotted, are occasionally met with on the
Cotswolds. I do not know why we have so few green woodpeckers by the
river, as there are plenty of old trees there; but these birds, which
feed chiefly on the ground among the anthills, have a marked preference
for such woods in the neighbourhood as contain an abundance of oak
trees. The local name for these birds is "hic-wall," which Tom Peregrine
pronounces "heckle." There is no more pleasing sound than the long,
chattering note of the green woodpecker; it breaks so suddenly on the
general silence of the woods, contrasting as it does in its loud,
bell-like tones with the soft cooing of the doves and the songs of the
In various places along its course the river has long poles set across
it; on these poles Tom Peregrine has placed traps for stoats, weasels,
and other vermin. Recently, when we were fishing, he pointed out a great
stoat caught in one of these traps with a water-rat in its mouth--a very
strange occurrence, for the trap was only a small one, of the usual
rabbit size, and the rat was almost as big as the stoat. There is so
little room for the bodies of a stoat and a rat in one of these small
iron traps that the betting must be at least a thousand to one against
such an event happening. Unless we had seen it with our eyes we could
not have believed it possible. The stoat, in chasing the rat along the
pole, must have seized his prey at the very instant that the jaws of the
trap snapped upon them both. They were quite dead when we found them.
Every one acquainted with gamekeepers' duties is well aware that the
iron traps armed with teeth which are in general use throughout the
country are a disgrace to nineteenth-century civilisation. It is a
terrible experience to take a rabbit or any other animal out of one of
these relics of barbarism. Sir Herbert Maxwell recently called the
attention of game preservers and keepers to a patent trap which Colonel
Coulson, of Newburgh, has just invented. Instead of teeth, the jaws of
the new trap have pads of corrugated rubber, which grip as tightly and
effectively as the old contrivance without breaking the bones or
piercing the skin. I trust these traps will shortly supersede the old
ones, so that a portion of the inevitable suffering of the furred
denizens of our woods may be dispensed with.
In a hunting country where foxes occasionally find their way into vermin
traps, Colonel Coulson's invention should be invaluable. Instead of
having to be destroyed, or being killed by the hounds in covert, owing
to a broken leg, it is ten to one that Master Reynard would be released
very little the worse for his temporary confinement. Moreover, as Sir
Herbert Maxwell points out, dog owners will be grateful to the inventor
when their favourites accidentally find their way into one of these
traps and are released without smashed bones and bleeding feet. Any kind
of trap is but a diabolical contrivance at best, but these "humane
patents" are a vast improvement, and do the work better than the old, as
I can testify, having used them from the time Sir Herbert Maxwell first
called attention to them, and being quite satisfied with them.
Badgers are almost as mysterious in their ways and habits as the otter.
Nobody believes there are badgers about except those who look for their
characteristic tracks about the fox-earths. Every now and then, however,
a badger is dug out or discovered in some way in places where they were
unheard of before. We have one here now.
A few years ago I saw a pack of foxhounds find a badger in Chearsley
Spinneys in Oxfordshire. They hunted him round and round for about ten
minutes. I saw him just in front of the hounds; a great, fine specimen
he was too. As far as I remember, the hounds killed him in covert, and
then went away on the line of a fox.
A year or two ago three fine young badgers were captured near
Bourton-on-the-Water, on the Cotswolds. When I was shown them I was told
they would not feed in confinement. Finding a large lobworm, I picked it
up and gave it to one of them. He ate it with the utmost relish. His
brown and grey little body shook with emotion when I spoke to him
kindly--just as a dog trembles when you pet him. I am not certain,
however, whether the badger trembled out of gratitude for the lobworm or
out of rage and disgust at being confined in a cage.
Badgers would make delightful pets if they had a little less _scent_:
nature, as everybody knows, has endowed them with this quality to a
remarkable degree; they have the power of emitting or retaining it at
their own discretion.
Badger-baiting with terriers is not an amusement which commends itself
to humane sportsmen. It is hard luck on the terriers, even more than on
the badger. The dogs have a very bad time if they go anywhere near him.
Talking of terriers, how endless are the instances of superhuman
sagacity in dogs of all kinds! I once drove twenty-five miles from a
place near Guildford in Surrey to Windsor. In the cart I took with me a
little liver-coloured spaniel. When I had completed about half the
journey I put the spaniel down for a run of a few miles: this was all
she saw of the country. In Windsor, through some cause or other, I lost
her; but when I arrived home a day or two afterwards, she had arrived
there before me. It should be mentioned that the journey was not along a
high-road, but by cross-country lanes. How on earth she got home first,
unless she came back on my scent, then, finding herself near home, took
a short cut across country, so as to be there before me, it is
impossible to imagine.
How curious it is that all animals seem to know when Sunday comes round!
Fish and fowl are certainly much tamer on the seventh day of the week
than on any other. We had a terrier that would never attempt to follow
you when you were going to church so long as you had your Sunday clothes
on; whilst even when he was following you on a week day, if you turned
round and said "Church" in a decisive tone, he would trot straight back
to the house. As far as we know he had no special training in this
respect. This terrier, who was a rare one to tackle a fox, has on
several occasions spent the best part of a week down a rabbit burrow.
When dug out he seemed very little the worse for his escapade, though
decidedly emaciated in appearance. Poor little fellow! he died a
painless death not long ago from sheer old age. I was with him at the
time, and did not even know he was ill until five minutes before he
expired. The most obedient and faithful, as well as the bravest, little
dog in the world, he could do anything but speak. How much we can learn
from these little emblems of simplicity, gladness, and love. Implicit
obedience and boundless faith in those set over us, to forgive and
forget unto seventy times seven, to give gold for silver, nay, to
sacrifice all and receive back nothing in return,--these are some of the
lessons we may learn from creatures we call dumb. Perhaps they will have
their reward. There is room in eternity for the souls of animals as well
as of men; there is room for the London cab-horse after his life of
hardship and cruel sacrifice; there is room for the innocent lamb that
goes to the slaughter; there is room in those realms of infinity for
every bird of the air and every beast of the field that either the
necessity (that tyrant's plea) or the ignorance of man has condemned to
torture, injustice, or neglect!
The most delightful of all dogs are those rough-haired Scotch deerhounds
the author of "Waverley" loved so well. How timid and subdued are these
trusty hounds on ordinary occasions! yet how fierce and relentless to
pursue and slay their natural quarry, the antlered monarch of the glen!
Once, in Savernake Forest, where the yaffels laugh all day amid the
great oak trees, and the beech avenues, with their Gothic foliations and
lichened trunks, are the finest in the world, a young, untried deerhound
of ours slipped away unobserved and killed a hind "off his own bat."
Though he had probably never seen a deer before, hereditary instinct was
too strong, and he succumbed to temptation. Yet he would not harm a fox,
for on another occasion, when I was out walking, accompanied by this
hound and a fox-terrier, the latter bolted a large dog fox out of a
drain. When the fox appeared the deerhound made after him, and, in his
attempt to dodge, reynard was bowled over on to his back. But directly
he was called, the deerhound came back to our heels, apparently not
considering the vulpine race fair game. I will not vouch for the
accuracy of the story, but our coachman asserts that he saw this
deerhound at play with a fox in our kitchen garden,--not a tame fox, but
a wild one. I believe, myself, that this actually did happen, as the man
who witnessed the occurrence is thoroughly reliable.
There is no dog more knowing and sagacious in his own particular way
than a well-trained retriever. What an immense addition to the pleasure
of a day's partridge-shooting in September is the working of one of
these delightful dogs! Only the other day, when I was sitting on the
lawn, a retriever puppy came running up with something in his mouth,
with which he seemed very pleased. He laid it at my feet with great care
and tenderness, and I saw that it was a young pheasant about a
fortnight old. It ran into the house, and was rescued unharmed a few
hours afterwards by the keeper, who restored it to the hencoop from
whence it came. One could not be angry with a dog that was unable to
resist the temptation to retrieve, but yet would not harm the bird in
the smallest degree.
One does not often see teams of oxen ploughing in the fields nowadays.
Within a radius of a hundred miles of London town this is becoming a
rare spectacle. They are still used sometimes in the Cotswolds, however,
though the practice of using them must soon die out. Great, slow,
lumbering animals they are, but very handsome and delightful beasts to
look upon. A team of brown oxen adds a pleasing feature to the
As we come down the steep ascent which leads to our little hamlet, we
often wonder why some of the cottage front doors are painted bright red
and some a lovely deep blue. These different colours add a great deal of
picturesqueness to the cottages; but is it possible that the owners have
painted their doors red and blue for the sake of the charming distant
effect it gives? These people have wonderfully good taste as a rule. The
other day we noticed that some of the dreadful iron sheeting which is
creeping into use in country places had been painted by a farmer a
beautiful rich brown. It gave quite a pretty effect to the barn it
adjoined. Every bit of colour is an improvement in the rather
cold-looking upland scenery of the Cotswolds.
Cray-fishing is a very popular amusement among the villagers. These
fresh-water lobsters abound in the gravelly reaches of the Coln. They
are caught at night in small round nets, which are baited and let down
to the bottom of the pools. The crayfish crawl into the nets to feed,
and are hauled up by the dozen. Two men can take a couple of bucketfuls
of them on any evening in September. Though much esteemed in Paris,
where they fetch a high price as _ecrevisse_, we must confess they are
rather disappointing when served up. The village people, however, are
very fond of them; and Tom Peregrine, the keeper, in his quaint way
describes them as "very good pickings for dessert." As they eat a large
number of very small trout, as well as ova, on the gravel spawning-beds,
crayfish should not be allowed to become too numerous in a trout stream.
It is difficult to understand in what the great attraction of
rook-shooting consists. Up to yesterday I had never shot a rook in my
life. The accuracy with which some people can kill rooks with a rifle is
very remarkable. I have seen my brother knock down five or six dozen
without missing more than one or two birds the whole time. One would be
thankful to die such an instantaneous death as these young rooks. They
seem to drop to the shot without a flutter; down they come, as straight
as a big stone dropped from a high wall. Like a lump of lead they fall
into the nettles. They hardly ever move again. It is difficult work
finding them in the thick undergrowth.
About eleven o'clock the evening after shooting the young rooks I was
returning home from a neighbouring farmhouse when I heard the most
lamentable sounds coming from the rookery. There seemed to be a funeral
service going on in the big ash trees. Muffled cawings and piteous cries
told me that the poor old rooks were mourning for their children. I
cannot remember ever hearing rooks cawing at that time of night before.
Saving the lark, "that scorner of the ground," which rises and sings in
the skies an hour before sunrise, the rooks are the first birds to
strike up at early dawn. One often notices this fact on sleepless
nights. About 2.30 o'clock on a May morning a rook begins the grand
concert with a solo in G flat; then a cock pheasant crows, or an owl
hoots; moorhens begin to stir, and gradually the woodland orchestra
works up to a tremendous burst of song, such as is never heard at any
hour but that of sunrise.
"Now the rich stream of music winds along,
Deep, majestic, smooth, and strong,
Through verdant vales."
How often one has heard this grand thanksgiving chorus of the birds at
I wonder if the poor rooks caw all night long after the "slaughter of
the innocents?" They were still at it when I went to bed at 12.30, and
this was within two hours of their time of getting up.
"Some say that e'en against that season cornea
In which our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long."
Thus wrote Shakespeare of bold chanticleer; and perhaps the rooks when
they are grieving for their lost ones, hold solemn requiem until the
morning light and the cheering rays of the sun make them forget
It is difficult to understand what pleasure the farmers find in shooting
young rooks with twelve-bore guns. Ours are always allowed a grand
_battue_ in the garden every year. They ask their friends out from
Cirencester to assist. For an hour or so the shots have been rattling
all round the house and on the sheds in the stable-yard. The horses are
frightened out of their wits. Grown-up men ought to know better than to
keep firing continually towards a house not two hundred yards away. A
stray pellet might easily blind a man or a horse.
Farmers are sometimes very careless with their guns. Out
partridge-shooting one is in mortal terror of the man on one's right,
who invariably carries his gun at such a level that if it went off it
would "rake" the whole line. If you tell one of these gentry that he is
holding his gun in a dangerous way, he will only laugh, remarking
possibly that you are getting very nervous. The best plan is not to ask
these well-meaning, but highly dangerous fellows to shoot with you.
Unfortunately it is probably the eldest son of the principal tenant on
the manor who is the culprit. The best plan in such cases is to speak to
the old man firmly, but courteously, asking him to try to dissuade his
son from his dangerous practices.
It is amusing to watch the jackdaws when they come from the ivy-mantled
fir trees to steal the food we throw every morning on to the lawn in
front of the house for the pheasants, the pigeons, and other birds.
They are the funniest rascals and the biggest thieves in Christendom.
Alighting suddenly behind a cock pheasant, they snatch the food from him
just as he imagines he has got it safely; and terribly astonished he
always looks. Then these greedy daws will chase the smaller birds as
they fly away with any dainty morsel, and compel them to give it up. A
curiously mixed group assembles on the lawn each morning at eight
o'clock in the winter. First of all there are the pheasants crowing
loudly for their breakfast, then come the stately swans, several
pinioned wild ducks, tame pigeons and wild and timid stock doves, four
or five moorhens, any number of daws, as well as thrushes, blackbirds,
starlings, house-sparrows, and finches. One day, having forgotten to
feed them, I was astonished at hearing loud quacks proceeding from the
dining-room, and was horrified to find that the ducks had come into the
house to look for me and demand their grub.
Foxes give one a good deal of anxiety in May and June, when the cubs are
about half grown. On arriving home to-day the first news I hear is that
two dead cubs have been picked up: "one looks as if his head had been
battered in, and the other appears to have been worried by a dog." This
is the only information I can get from the keeper. It is really a
serious blow; for if two have been found dead, how many others may not
have died in their earth or in the woods?
Two seasons ago six dead cubs were picked up here; they had died from
eating rooks which had been poisoned by some farmers. It took us a long
time to get to the bottom of this affair, for no information is to be
got out of Gloucestershire folk; you must ferret such matters
There are still live cubs in the breeding-earth, for I heard them there
this afternoon; so there is yet hope. But twenty acres of covert will
not stand this sort of thing, considering that the hounds are "through"
them once in three weeks, on an average, throughout the winter. Only one
vixen survived at the end of last season, though another one has turned
up since. We have two litters, fortunately. Where you have coverts handy
to a stream of any kind, there will foxes congregate. They love
water-rats and moorhens more than any other food.
A strange prejudice exists among hunting men against cleaning out
artificial earths. There was never a greater fallacy. Fox-earths want
looking to from time to time, say every ten years, for rabbits will
render them practically useless by burrowing out in different places. A
block is often formed in the drain by this burrowing, and the earth will
have to be opened and the channel freed.
The best possible preventive measure against mange is to clear out your
artificial earths every ten years. As for driving the foxes away by this
practice, we cannot believe it. You cannot keep foxes from using a good
artificial drain so long as it lies dry and secluded and the entrance is
not too large. They prefer a small entrance, as they imagine dogs cannot
follow them into a small hole.
A farmer made an earth in a hedgerow last year right away from any
coverts, and, one would have thought, out of the beaten track of
reynard's nightly prowls; yet the foxes took to this earth at the
beginning of the hunting season, and they were soon quite
There is no mystery about building a fox-drain. Reynard will take to any
dry underground place that lies in a secluded spot. If it faces
south--that is to say, if your earth runs in a half circle, with both
entrances facing towards the south or south-west--so much the better.
The entrance should not be more than about six inches square. Such a
hole looks uncommonly small, no doubt, but a fox prefers it to a larger
one. About half way through the passage a little chamber should be made,
to tempt a vixen to lay up her cubs there. When there are lots of foxes
and not too many earths, they will very soon begin to work a new drain,
so long as it lies in a secluded spot and within easy distance of Master
Reynard's skirmishing grounds.
We have lately made such an earth in a small covert, because the
original earth is the wrong side of the River Coln. All the good country
is on the opposite side of the river to that on which the old earth is
situated. Foxes will seldom cross the stream when they are first found.
It is hoped, therefore, that when they take to the new earth they will
lie in the wood on the right side of the stream. We shall then close the
old earth, and thus endeavour to get the foxes to run the good country.
Much may be done to show sport by using a little strategy of this kind.
Many a good stretch of grass country is lost to the hunt because the
earths are badly distributed. It must be remembered that a fox when
first found will usually go straight to his earth; finding that closed,
he will make for the next earths he is in the habit of using.
The other day, while ferreting in the coverts previous to
rabbit-shooting, the keeper bolted a huge fox out of one burrow and a
cat out of the other. He also tells me that he once found a hare and a
fox lying in their forms, within three yards of one another, in a small
disused quarry. There is no doubt that, like jack among fish, the fox is
friendly enough on some days, when his belly is full. He then "makes up
to" rabbits and other animals, with the intent of "turning on them" when
they least expect it. Without this treacherous sort of cunning, reynard
would often have to go supperless to bed.
In those drains and earths where foxes are known to lie you will often
see traces of rabbits. These little conies are wonderfully confiding in
the way they use a fox-earth. It is difficult to believe that they live
in the drain with the foxes, but they are exceedingly fond of making
burrows with an entrance to an earth. They are a great nuisance in
spoiling earths by this practice. Rabbits invariably establish
themselves in fox-drains which have been temporarily deserted.
Foxes become very "cute" towards the end of the hunting season. They can
hear hounds running at a distance of four or five miles on windy days.
Knowing that the earths are stopped, they leave the bigger woods and
hide themselves in out-of-the-way fields and hedgerows. Last season a
fox was seen to leave our coverts, trot along the high-road, and
ensconce himself among some laurels near the manor house. He was so
easily seen where he lay in the shrubbery that a crowd of villagers
stood watching him from the road. He knew the hounds would not draw this
place, as it is quite small and bare, so here he stayed until dusk;
then, having assured himself that the hounds had gone home, he jumped up
and trotted back to the woods again.
A flock of sheep are not always frightened at a fox. The other day an
old dog fox, the hero of many a good run in recent years from these
coverts (an "old customer," in fact), was observed by the keeper and two
other men trying to cross the river by means of a footbridge. A flock of
sheep, doubtless taking him for a dog, were frustrating his endeavours
to get across; directly he set foot on dry land they would bowl him over
on to his back in the most unceremonious way. This game of romps went on
for about ten minutes. Finally the fox, getting tired of trying to pass
the sheep, trotted back over the footbridge. Fifty yards up stream a
narrow fir pole is set across the water. The cunning old rascal made for
this, and attempted to get to the other side; but the fates were against
him. There was a strong wind blowing at the time, so that when he was
half way across the pool, he was actually blown off sideways into the
water. And a rare ducking he got! He gave the job up after this, and
trotted back into the wood. This is a very curious occurrence, because
the fox was perfectly healthy and strong. He is well known throughout
the country, not only for his tremendous cheek, but also for the
wonderful runs he has given from time to time. He will climb over a
six-foot wire fence to gain entrance to a fowl-run belonging to an
excellent sportsman, who, though not a hunting man, would never allow a
fox to be killed. He is reported to have had fifty, fowls out of this
place during the last few months. When caught in the act in broad
daylight, the fox had to be hunted round and round the enclosure before
he would leave, finally climbing up the wire fencing like a cat, instead
of departing by the open door.
It is very rare that a mischievous fox, given to the destruction of
poultry, is also a straight-necked one. Too often these gentry know no
extent of country; they take refuge in the nearest farmyard when pressed
by the hounds. At the end of a run we have seen them on the roof of
houses and outbuildings time after time. On one occasion last season a
hunted fox was discovered among the rafters in the roof of a very high
barn. The "whipper-in" was sent up by means of a long ladder, eventually
pulling him out of his hiding-place by his brush. Poor brute! perhaps he
might have been spared after showing such marvellous strategy.
It speaks wonders for the good-nature and unselfishness of the farmer
who owns the fowl-run above alluded to that he never would send in the
vestige of a claim to the hunt secretary for the poultry he has lost
from time to time. But he is one of the old-fashioned yeomen of
Gloucestershire--a gentleman, if ever there was one--a type of the best
sort of Englishman. Alas! that hard times have thinned the ranks of the
old yeoman farmers of the Cotswolds! They are the very backbone of the
country; we can ill afford to lose them, with their cheery, bluff
manners and good-hearted natures.
Some of the people round about are not so scrupulous in the way of
poultry claims. We have had to investigate a large number in, recent
years. It is a difficult matter to distinguish _bona-fide_ from "bogus"
claims; they vary in amount from one to twenty pounds. Once only have we
been foolish enough to rear a litter of cubs by hand, having obtained
them from the big woods at Cirencester. Before the hunting season had
commenced we had received claims of nineteen and fourteen pounds from
neighbouring farmers for poultry and turkeys destroyed. One bailiff
declared that the foxes were so bold they had fetched a young heifer
that had died from the "bowssen" into the fox-covert. Whether the
bailiff put it there or the foxes "fetched" it I know not, but the
white, bleached skull may be seen hard by the earth to this day.
One of the claimants above named farms three hundred acres on strictly
economical principles. He has allowed the land to go back to grass, and
the only labour he employs on it is a one-legged boy, whom he pays "in
kind." This boy arrived the other day with another poultry claim, when
the following dialogue occurred:--
"I see you have got down sixteen young ducklings on the list?"
"Yaas, the jackdars fetched they."
"How do you know the jackdaws took them?" "'Cos maister said so."
"Do you shut up your fowls at night?"
"Yaas, we shuts the daar, but the farxes gets in. It be all weared out.
There be great holes in the bowssen where they gets through and
How can one pay poultry claims of this kind? It being absolutely
impossible to verify these accounts properly, the only way is to take
the general character of the claimant, paying according as you think him
straightforward or the reverse. It is an insult to an honest man to
offer him anything less than the amount he asks for; therefore claims
which have every appearance of being _bona fide_ should be settled in
full. But the hunt can't afford it, one is told. In that case people
ought to subscribe more. If men paid ten pounds for every hunter they
owned, the income of most establishments would be more than doubled.
The farmers are wonderfully long-suffering on the whole, but they cannot
be expected to welcome a whole multitude of strangers; nor can they
allow large fields to ride over their land in these bad times without
compensation of some sort. Slowly, but surely, a change is coming over
our ideas of hunting rights and hunting courtesy; and the sooner we
realise that we ought to pay for our hunting on the same scale as we do
for shooting and fishing, the better will it be for all concerned.
Talking of hunting and foxes reminds me that a short time ago I went to
investigate an earth to see if a vixen was laid down there. Finding no
signs of any cubs, I was just going away when I saw a feather sticking
out of the ground a few yards from the fox-earth. I pulled four young
thrushes, a tiny rabbit, and two young water-rats out of this hole, and
re-buried them. The cubs, it afterwards appeared, were laid up in a
rabbit burrow some distance away. But the old vixen kept her larder near
her old quarters, instead of burying her supplies for a rainy day close
to the hole where she had her cubs. Perhaps she was meditating moving
the litter to this earth on some future occasion.
I shall never forget discovering this litter. When looking down a
rabbit-hole I heard a scuffle. A young cub came up to the mouth of the
hole, saw me, and dashed back again into the earth. This was the
smallest place I ever saw cubs laid up in. The vixen happened to be a
very little one.
It is amusing to watch the cubs playing in the corn on a summer's
evening. If you go up wind you can approach within ten yards of them.
Round and round they gambol, tumbling each other over for all the world
like young puppies. They take little notice of you at first; but after a
time they suddenly stop playing, stare hard at you for half a minute,
then bolt off helter-skelter into the forest of waving green wheat.
One word more about the scent of foxes. Not long ago a man wrote to the
_Field_ saying that he had proved by experiment that on the saturation
or relative humidity of the air the hunter's hopes depend: in fact, he
announced that he had solved the riddle of scent. It so happened that
for some years the present writer had also been amusing himself with
experiments of the same nature, and at one time entertained the hope
that by means of the hygrometer he would arrive at a solution of the
mystery. But alas! it was not to be. On several occasions when the air
was well-nigh saturated, scent proved abominable. That the relative
humidity of the air is not the all-important factor was often proved by
the bad scent experienced just before rain and storms, when the
hygrometer showed a saturation of considerably over ninety per cent. But
there are undoubtedly other complications besides the evaporations from
the soil and the relative humidity of the air to be considered in making
an enquiry into the causes of good and bad scent. The amount of moisture
in the ground, the state of the soil in reference to the all-important
question of whether it carries or not, the temperature of the air, and
last, but not by any means least, the condition of the quarry, be it
fox, stag, or hare, are all questions of vital importance, complicating
matters and preventing a solution of the mysteries of scent.
As the atmosphere is variable, so also must scent be variable. The two
things are inseparably bound up with one another. For this reason, if
after a period of rainy weather we have an anti-cyclone in the winter
without severe frost, and an absence of bright sunny days, we can
usually depend on a scent. Instead of the air rising, there is during an
anti-cyclone, as we all know, a tendency towards a gentle down-flow of
air or at all events a steady pressure, and this causes smoke, whether
from a railway engine or a tobacco pipe, to hang in the air and scent to
lie breast high.
Unfortunately the normal state of the atmospheric fluid is a rushing in
of cold air and a rushing out or upwards of warmer air, causing
unsettled variable equilibrium and unsettled variable scent. The
barometer would be an absolutely reliable guide for the hunting man were
it not for the complications already named above, complications which
prevent either barometer or hygrometer from offering infallible
indications of good or bad scenting days. However, scent often improves
at night when the dew begins to form; and it may also suddenly improve
at any time of day should the dew point be reached, owing to the
temperature cooling to the point of saturation. This is always liable to
occur at some time, on days on which the hygrometer shows us that there
is over ninety per cent of moisture in the air. But here again radiation
comes in to complicate matters; for clouds may check the formation of
dew. It may safely be said, however, that other conditions being
favourable, a fast run is likely to occur at any time of day should the
dew point be reached. Thus the hygrometer is worthy to be studied on a
In May there is a good deal of weed-cutting to be done on a trout
stream. Our plan is to have a couple of big field days about May 12th.
The weeds on over two miles of water are all cut during that time. As
they are not allowed to be sent down the stream, we get them out in
several different places; they are then piled in heaps, and left to rot.
The operation is repeated at the end of the fishing season. About a
dozen scythes tied together are used. Two men hold the ends and walk up
the stream, one on each side of the river, mowing as they go.
There is a certain amount of management required in weed-cutting. If
much weed is left uncut, the millers grumble; if you cut them bare,
there are no homes left for the fish. The last is the worse evil of the
two. The millers are usually kind-hearted men, whilst poachers can
commit fearful depredations in a small stream that has been cut
The way these limestone streams are netted is as follows: About two in
the morning, when there is enough light to commence operations, a net is
laid across the stream and pegged down at each end; the water is then
beaten with long sticks both above and below the net. Nor is it
difficult to drive the trout into the trap; they rush down
helter-skelter, and, failing to see any net, they soon become hopelessly
entangled in its meshes. The bobbing corks intimate to the poachers that
there are some good trout in the net; one end is then unpegged, and the
haul is made.
About ten trout would be a good catch. The operation is repeated four or
five times, until some fifty fish have been bagged. The poachers then
depart, taking care to remove all signs of their night's work, such as
scales of fish, stray weeds, and bits of stick.
In weed-cutting by hand, instead of with the long knives, it is
wonderful how many trout get cut by the scythes. There used to be
several good fish killed this way at each annual cutting, when the men
used to walk up the stream mowing as they went. One would have thought
trout would have been able to avoid the scythes, being such quick,
Until the present season otters have seldom visited our parts of the
Coln. Unfortunately, however, they have turned up, and are committing
sad havoc among the fish. It is such a terribly easy stream for them to
work. The water is very shallow, and the current is a slow one.
We are not well up in otter-hunting in these parts, there being no
hounds within fifty miles. I have never seen an otter on the Coln. But
one day, at a spot near which we have noticed the billet of an otter and
some fishes' heads, I heard a noise in the water, and a huge wave seemed
to indicate that something bigger than a Coln trout was proceeding up
stream close to the bank all the way. On running up, of course I saw
nothing. But half an hour afterwards I saw another big wave of the same
kind. It was so close to me that if it had been a fish or a rat I must
have seen him. I had a terrier with me, but of course he was unable to
find an otter. A dog unbroken to the scent is worse than useless.
On another occasion I saw a water-vole running away from some larger
animal under the opposite bank of the river. Some bushes prevented my
seeing very well, but I am almost certain it was an otter. "A Son of the
Marshes" mentions in one of his charming books that otters do kill
water-rats. I was not aware of this fact until I read it in the book
called "From Spring to Fall."
The broad shallow reach of the Coln in front of the manor house seems
to be a favourite hunting-ground of the otter during his nocturnal
rambles; for sometimes one is awakened at night by a tremendous tumult
among the wild duck and moorhens that haunt the pool. They rush up and
down, screaming and flapping their wings as if they were "daft."
A few weeks after writing the above we caught a beautiful female otter
in a trap, weighing some seventeen pounds. I have regretted its capture
ever since. Great as the number of trout they eat undoubtedly is, I do
not intend to allow another otter to be trapped, unless they become too
numerous. Such lovely, mysterious creatures are becoming far too scarce
nowadays, and ought to be rigidly preserved. Last October we were
shooting a withybed of two acres on the river bank, when the beaters
suddenly began shouting, "An otter! An otter!" And sure enough a large
dog otter ran straight down the line. This small withybed also contained
three fine foxes and a good sprinkling of pheasants.
The number of water-voles in the banks of this stream seems to increase
year by year. The damage they do is not great; but the millers and the
farmers do not like them, because with their numerous holes they
undermine the banks of the millpound, and the water finds its way
through them on to the meadows. Country folk are very fond of an
occasional rat hunt: they do lay themselves out to be hunted so
tremendously. A rat will bolt out of his hole, dive half way across the
stream, then, taking advantage of the tiniest bit of weed, he will come
up to the surface, poke his nose out of the water and watch you
intently. An inexperienced eye would never detect him. But if a stone is
thrown at him, finding his subterfuge detected, he is apt to lose his
head--either coming back towards you, and being obliged to come up for
air before he reaches his hole, or else swimming boldly across to the
opposite bank. In the latter case he is safe.
Tom Peregrine is a great hand at catching water-voles in a landing-net.
He holds the net over the hole which leads to the water, and pokes his
stick into the bank above. The rat bolts out into the net and is
immediately landed. House-rats--great black brutes--live in the banks of
the stream as well as water-voles. They are very much larger and less
fascinating than the voles. To see one of the latter species crossing
the stream with a long piece of grass in his mouth is a very pretty
sight They are rodents, and somewhat resemble squirrels.
[Illustration: In Bibury Village 358.png]
THE PROMISE OF MAY.
"Quis desiderio sit pudor aut modus
Tam cari capitis?"
About the middle of May the lovely, sweet-scenting lilac comes into
bloom. It brightens up the old, time-worn barns, and relieves the
monotony of grey stone walls and mossy roofs in the Cotswold village.
The prevailing colour of the Cotswold landscape may be said to be that
of gold. The richest gold is that of the flaming marsh-marigolds in the
water meadows during May; goldilocks and buttercups of all kinds are
golden too, but of a slightly different and paler hue. Yellow charlock,
beautiful to look upon, but hated by the farmers, takes possession of
the wheat "grounds" in May, and holds the fields against all comers
throughout the summer. In some parts it clothes the whole landscape like
a sheet of saffron. Primroses and cowslips are of course paler still.
The ubiquitous dandelion is likewise golden; then we have birdsfoot
trefoil, ragwort, agrimony, silver-weed, celandine, tormentil, yellow
iris, St. John's wort, and a host of other flowers of the same hue. In
autumn comes the golden corn; and later on in mid winter we have pale
jessamine and lichen thriving on the cottage walls. So throughout the
year the Cotswolds are never without this colour of saffron or gold.
Only the pockets of the natives lack it, I regret to say.
Every cottager takes a pride in his garden, for the flower shows which
are held every year result in keen competition. A prize is always given
for the prettiest garden among all the cottagers. This is an excellent
plan; it brightens and beautifies the village street for eight months in
the year. In May the rich brown and gold of the gillyflower is seen on
every side, and their fragrance is wafted far and wide by every breeze
Then there is a very pretty plant that covers some of the cottage walls
at this time of year. It is the wistaria; in the distance you might take
it for lilac, for the colours are almost identical.
Then come the roses--the beautiful June roses--the _nimium breves
flores_ of Horace. But the roses of the Cotswolds are not so short lived
for all that Horace has sung: you may see them in the cottage gardens
from the end of May until Christmas.
How cool an old house is in summer! The thick walls and the stone floors
give them an almost icy feeling in the early morning. Even as I write my
thermometer stands at 58 deg. within, whilst the one out of doors registers
65 deg. in the shade. This is the ideal temperature, neither too hot nor too
cold. But it is not summer yet, only the fickle month of May.
Tom Peregrine is getting very anxious. He meets me every evening with
the same story of trout rising all the way up the stream and nobody
trying to catch them. I can see by his manner that he disapproves of my
"muddling" over books and papers instead of trying to catch trout. He
cannot understand it all. Meanwhile one sometimes asks oneself the
question which Peregrine would also like to propound, only he dare not,
Why and wherefore do we tread the perilous paths of literature instead
of those pleasant paths by the river and through the wood? The only
answer is this: The _daemon_ prompts us to do these things, even as it
prompted the men of old time.
"There is a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough hew them how we will."
If there is such a thing as a "call" to any profession, there is a call
to that of letters. So with an enthusiasm born of inexperience and
delusive hope we embark as in a leaky and untrustworthy sailing ship,
built, for ought we know, "in the eclipse, and rigged with curses dark,"
and at the mercy of every chance breeze are wafted by the winds of
heaven through chaos and darkness into the boundless ocean of words and
of books. When the waves run high they resemble nothing so much as lions
with arched crests and flowing manes going to and fro seeking whom they
may devour, or savage dogs rushing hither and thither foaming at the
mouth; and when old Father Neptune lets loose his hungry sea-dogs of
criticism, then look out for squalls!
But again the _daemon_, that still small voice echoing from the far-off
shores of the ocean of time, whispers in our ear, "In the morning sow
thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand; for thou knowest
not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both
shall be alike good."
So we sow in weakness and in fear and trembling, "line upon line, line
upon line; here a little and there a little," sometimes in mirth and
laughter, sometimes in tears. Let us not ask to be raised in power. Let
us resign all glory and honour and power to the Ancient of Days, prime
source of the strength of wavering, weak mankind. Rather let us be
thankful that by turning aside from "the clamour of the passing day" to
tread the narrow paths of literature, however humble, however obscure
our lot may have been, we gained an insight into the nobler destinies of
the human soul, and learnt a lesson which might otherwise have been
postponed until we were hovering on the threshold of Eternity.
In spite of complaints of east winds and night frosts, May is the nicest
month in the year take it all in all. In London this is the case even
more than in the country. The trees in the parks have then the real
vivid green foliage of the country. There is a freshness about
everything in London which only lasts through May. By June the smoke and
dirt are beginning to spoil the tender, fresh greenery of the young
leaves. In the early morning of May 12th, 1897, more than an inch of
snow fell in the Cotswolds, but it was all gone by eight o'clock. In
spite of the weather, May is "the brightest, merriest month of all the
glad New Year." Everything is at its best. Man cannot be morose and
ill-tempered in May. The "happy hills and pleasing shade" must needs "a
momentary bliss bestow" on the saddest of us all. Look at yonder
thoroughbred colt grazing peacefully in the paddock: if you had turned
him out a month ago he would have galloped and fretted himself to death;
but now that the grass is sweet and health-giving, he is content to
nibble the young shoots all day long. What a lovely, satin-like coat he
has, now that his winter garments are put off! There is a picture of
health and symmetry! He has just reached the interesting age of four
years, is dark chestnut in colour, and sixteen hands two and a half
inches in height; grazing out there, he does not look anything like that
size. Well-bred horses always look so much smaller than they really are,
especially if they are of good shape and well proportioned. Alas! how
few of them, even thoroughbreds, have the real make and shape necessary
to carry weight across country, or to win races! You do not see many
horses in a lifetime in whose shape the critical eye cannot detect a
fault. We know the good points as well as the bad of this colt, for we
have had him two years. Deep, sloping shoulders are his speciality; and
they cover a multitude of sins. Legs of iron, with large, broad knees;
plenty of flat bone below the knee, and pasterns neither too long nor
too upright. Well ribbed up, he is at the same time rather
"ragged-hipped," indicative of strength and weight-carrying power. How
broad are his gaskins! how "well let down" he is! What great hocks he
has! But, alas I as you view him from behind, you cannot help noticing
that his hindlegs incline a little outwards, even as a cow's do--they
are not absolutely straight, as they should be. Then as to his golden,
un-docked tail: he carries it well--a fact which adds twenty pounds to
his value; but, strange to say, it is not "well set on," as a
thoroughbred's ought to be. He does not show the quality he ought in his
hindquarters. Still his head, neck and crest are good, though his eye is
not a large one. How much is he worth--twenty, fifty, a hundred, or two
hundred pounds? Who can tell? Will he be a charger, a fourteen-stone
hunter, or a London carriage horse? All depends how he takes to jumping.
His height is against him,--sixteen hands two and a half inches is at
least two inches too big for a hunter. Nevertheless, there are always
the brilliant exceptions. Let us hope he will be the trump card in
Talking of horses, how admirable was that answer of Dr. Johnson's, when
a lady asked him how on earth he allowed himself to describe the word
_pastern_ in his dictionary as the _knee_ of a horse. "Ignorance,
madam, pure ignorance," was his laconic reply. So great a man could well
afford to confess utter ignorance of matters outside his own sphere. But
how few of mankind are ever willing to own themselves mistaken about any
subject under the sun, unless it be bimetallism or some equally
unfashionable and abstruse (though not unimportant) problem of the day!
What beautiful shades of colour are noticeable in the trees in the early
part of May! The ash, being so much later than the other trees, remains
a pale light green, and shows up against the dark green chestnuts and
the still darker firs. But what shall I say of the great spreading
walnut whose branches hang right across the stream in our garden in the
About the middle of May the walnut leaves resemble nothing so much as a
mass of Virginia creeper when it is at its best in September. Beautiful,
transparent leaves of gold, intermingled with red, glisten in the warm
May sunshine,--the russet beauties of autumn combined with the fresh,
bright loveliness of early spring!
Not till the very end of May will this walnut tree be in full leaf. He
is the latest of all the trees. The young, tender leaves scent almost as
sweetly as the verbena in the greenhouse. It is curious that ash trees,
when they are close to a river, hang their branches down towards the
water like the "weeping willows." Is this connected, I wonder, with the
strange attraction water has for certain kinds of wood, by which the
water-finder, armed with a hazel wand, is able to divine the presence
of _aqua pura_ hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth? What
this strange art of rhabdomancy is I know not, but the "weeping" ash in
our garden by the Coln is one of the most beautiful and shapely trees I
ever saw. It will be an evil day when some cruel hurricane hurls it to
the ground. We have lost many a fine tree in recent years, some through
gales, but others, alas I by the hand of man.
A few years ago I discovered a spot about a quarter of a mile from my
home which reminded me of the beautiful Eton playing-fields,
"Where once my careless childhood stray'd,
A stranger yet to pain."
It consisted of a few grass fields shut off by high hedges, and
completely encircled by a number of fine elm trees of great age and
lovely foliage. At one end a broad and shallow reach of the Coln
completed the scene.
Having obtained a long lease of the place, I grubbed up the hedges,
turned three small fields into one, and made a cricket ground in the
midst. My object was to imitate as far as possible the "Upper Club" of
the Eton playing-fields.
I had barely accomplished the work, the cricket ground had just been
levelled, when the landlord's agent--or more probably his
"mortgagee"--arrived on the scene, accompanied by a hard-headed,
blustering timber merchant from Cheltenham. To my horror and dismay I
was informed that, money being very scarce, they contemplated making a
clean sweep of these grand old elms. On my expostulating, they merely
suggested that cutting down the trees would be a great improvement, as
the place would be opened up thereby and made healthier.
In the hope of warding off the evil day we offered to pay the price of
some of the finest trees, although they could only legally be bought for
the present proprietor's lifetime.
The contractor, however, rather than leave his work of destruction
incomplete, put a ridiculous price on them. He refused to accept a
larger sum than he could ever have cleared by cutting them down. This is
what Cowper would have stigmatised as
"disclaiming all regard
For mercy and the common rights of man,"
and "conducting trade at the sword's point."
We then resolved to buy the farm. But the stars in their courses fought
against us; we were unsuccessful in our attempt to purchase
And so the contractor's men came with axes and saws and horses and
carts. For days and weeks I was haunted by that hideous nightmare, the
crash of groaning trees as they fell all around, soon to be stripped of
all their glorious beauty. The cruel, blasphemous shouts of the men, as
they made their long-suffering horses drag the huge, dismembered trunks
across the beautifully levelled greensward of the cricket ground, were
positively heart-rending. Ninety great elms did they strike down. A few
were left, but of these the two finest came down in the great gale of
"Sic transit gloria mundi."
Trees are like old familiar friends, we cannot bear to lose them; every
one that falls reminds us of "the days that are no more." Struck down in
all the pride and beauty of their days, they remind us that
"Those who once gave promise
Of fruit for manhood's prime
Have passed from us for ever,
Gone home before their time."
They remind me that four of my greatest friends at school, ten short
years ago, are long since dead. Like the trees felled by the woodman's
axe, they were struck down by the sickle of the silent Reaper, even as
the golden sheaves that are gathered into the beautiful barns. Other
trees will spring up and shade the naked earth in the woods with their
mantle of green: so, also,
"Others will fill our places
Dressed in the old light blue."
And just as in the woods fresh young saplings are daily springing up, so
also the merry voices of happy, generous boys are ringing, as I write,
in the old, old courts and cloisters by the silvery Thames; their merry
laughter is echoed by the bare grey walls, whereon the names of those
who have long been dust are chiselled in rude handwriting on the
Hundreds we knew have gone down. The fatal bullet, the ravaging fever,
the roaring torrent, and the sad sea waves; the slow, sure grip of
consumption, the fall at polo, and the iron hoofs of the favourite
hunter;--all claimed their victims.
Perhaps this is why we love to linger in the woods watching the rays of
golden light reflected upon the warm, red earth, listening to the
heavenly voices of the birds and the hopeful babbling of the brook.
Those purple hills and distant bars of gold in the western sky at the
soft twilight hour are rendered ever so much more beautiful when we
dimly view them through a mist of tears.
And now your thoughts are taken back five short years; you are once more
staying with your old Eton friend and Oxford comrade in his beautiful
home in far-off Wales. All is joy and happiness in that lovely, romantic
home, for in six weeks' time the young squire, the best and most popular
fellow in the world, is to be married to the fair daughter of a
neighbouring house. Is it possible that aught can happen in that short
time to mar the heavenly happiness of those two twin souls? Alas for the
gallant, chivalrous nature I Well might he have cried with his knightly
ancestor of the "Round Table," "Me forethinketh this shall betide, but
God may well foredoe destiny." He had gone down to the lake in the most
beautiful and romantic part of his lovely home, taking with him, as was
his wont, his fishing-rod and his gun. One shot was heard, and one only,
on that ill-fated afternoon, and then all, save for the songs of the
birds and the rippling of the deep waters of the lake, was wrapped in
silence. Then followed the report--whispered through the party assembled
to do honour to the future bride and bridegroom--that "Bill" was
missing. Then came the agonising suspense and the eight hours' search
throughout the long summer evening.
Late that night the father found the fair young form of his boy in a
thick and tangled copse,--there it lay under the silent stars, the face
upturned in its last appeal to heaven; and close by lay the deadly
twelve-bore which had been the cause of all the misery and grief
"Solemn before us
Veiled the dark portal--
Goal of all mortal.
Stars silent rest o'er us;
Graves under us silent."
He had evidently pursued game or vermin of some sort into the dense
undergrowth of the wood, and in his haste had slipped and fallen over
his gun, for the shot had just grazed his heart
Who that knew him will ever forget Bill Llewelyn, prince of good
fellows, "truest of men in everything"? In all relations of life, as in
the hunting field, he went as straight as a die.
The accidental discharge of a gun shortly after he came of age, and
within a few weeks of his wedding day, has made the England of to-day
the poorer by one of her most promising sons. Infinite charity! Infinite
courage! Infinite truth! Infinite humility! Who could do justice in
prose to those rare and godlike qualities? No: miserable, weak, and
ineffectual though my gift of poesy may be, yet I will not let those
qualities pass away from the minds of all, save the few that knew him
well, without following in the footsteps (though at an immeasurable
distance) of the divine author of "Lycidas," by endeavouring to render
to his cherished memory "the meed of some melodious tear." For as time
goes on, and the future unfolds to our view things we would have given
worlds to have known long before, when the events that influenced our
past actions and shaped our future destinies are seen through the dim
vista of the shadowy, half-forgotten past, we must all learn the hard
lesson which experience alone can teach, exclaiming with the "Preacher"
the old, old words, "I returned, and saw under the sun that the race is
not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.... but time and chance
happeneth to them all"
LINES IN MEMORY OF
WILLIAM DILLWYN LLEWELYN.
It may be chance,--I hold it truth,--
That of the friends I loved on earth
The ones who died in early youth
Were those of best and truest worth.
The swift, alas! the race must lose;
The battle goes against the strong,--
God wills it 'Tis for us to choose,
Whilst life is given, 'twixt right and wrong
'Tis not for us to count the cost
Of losing those we most do love;
He grudgeth not life's battle lost
Who wins a golden crown above.
And oft beneath the shades of night,
When tempests howl around these walls,
A vision steals upon my sight,
A footstep on the threshold falls.
I see once more that graceful form,
Once more that honest hand grasps mine.
Once more I hear above the storm
The voice I know so well is thine.
I see again an Eton boy,
A gentle boy, divinely taught,
And call to mind bow full of joy
In friendly rivalry we sought
The "playing-fields." Then, as I yield
To fancy's dreams, I see once more
The hero of the cricket field,
The oft-tried, trusty friend of yore.
What tender yearnings, fond regret,
These thoughts of early friendship bring!
None but the heartless can forget
'Mid summer days the friends of spring.
Now thoughts of Oxford fill my mind:
My Eton friend is with me still,
But changed--from boy to man; yet kind
And large of heart, and strong of will,
And blythe and gay. I recognise
The athletic form, the comely face,
The mild expression of the eyes,
The high-bred courtesy and grace.
Once more with patient skill we lure
The mighty salmon from the deep;
Once more we tread the boundless moor,
And wander up the mountain steep.
With gun in hand we scour the plain,
Together climb the rocky ways;
Regardless he of wind and rain
Who loved to "live laborious days."
* * * * *
I see again fair Penllergare,
Those woods and lakes you loved so well;
It seems but yesterday that there
I parted from you! Who can tell
The reason thou art gone before?
It is not given to us to know,
But doubtless thou wert needed more
Than we who mourn thee here below.
Life's noblest lesson day by day
Thy fair example nobly taught--
Self-sacrifice--to point the way
By which the hearts of men are brought
Nearer to God. This was thy task,
Humbly, unknowingly fulfilled;
And it were vain for us to ask
Why now thy voice is hushed and stilled.
O gallant spirit, generous heart!
If thou had'st lived in days gone by,
Thou would'st have loved to bear thy part
In glorious deeds of chivalry.
I make no apology for this digression, nor for unearthing from the
bottom of my drawer lines that, written years ago, were never penned
with any idea of publication. For was not the subject of those verses
himself half a Cotswold man?
But now to return once more to the trees, the loss of which caused me
to digress some pages back; there are compensations in all things. Not
every one who becomes a sojourner among the Cotswold Hills is fated to
undergo such a trial as the loss of these ninety elms. And,
notwithstanding this severe lesson, I am still glad that I alighted on
the spot from which I am now writing.
I have learnt to find pleasure in other directions now that my "Eton
playing-fields" have passed away for ever. I have become infected by the
spirit of the downs. I love the pure, bracing air and the boundless
sense of space in the open hills as much as I ever loved the more
concentrated charms of the valley. And even in the valley I have
possessions of which no living man is able to deprive me. From my window
I can see the silvery trout stream, which, after thousands of years of
restless activity, is still slowly gliding down towards the sea; I can
listen on summer nights to the murmuring waterfall at the bottom of the
garden, the hooting of the owls, and the other sounds which break the
awful silence of the night.
Nor can the hand of man disturb the glorious timber round the house; for
it is "ornamental," and therefore safe from the hands of the despoiler.
Storms are gradually levelling the ancient beech and ash trees in the
woods, but it will be many a long day before the hand of nature has
marred the beauty of what has always seemed to me to be one of the
fairest spots on earth.
[Illustration: Bilbury Mill 374.png]
SUMMER DAYS ON THE COTSWOLDS
"What more felicitie can fall to creature
Than to enjoy delight with libertie,
And to be lord of all the workes of Nature?"
The finest days, when the trees are greenest, the sky bluest, and the
clouds most snowy white are the days that come in the midst of bad
weather. And just as there is no rest without toil, no peace without
war, no true joy in life without grief, no enjoyment for the _blase_, so
there can be no lovely summer days without previous storms and rain, no
sunshine till the tearful mists have passed away.
There had been a week's incessant rain; every wild flower and every
blade of green grass was soaked with moisture, until it could no longer
bear its load, and drooped to earth in sheer dismay. But last night
there came a change: the sun went down beyond the purple hills like a
ball of fire; eastwards the woods were painted with a reddish glow, and
life and colour returned to everything that grows on the face of this
"It seems a day
(I speak of one from many singled out),
One of those heavenly days which cannot die."
So it is pleasant to-day to wander over the fields; across the crisp
stubbles, where the thistledown is crowding in the "stooks" of black
oats; past stretches of uncut corn looking red and ripe under a burning
sun. White oxeye daisies in masses and groups, lilac-tinted thistles,
and bright scarlet poppies grow in profusion among the tall wheat
stalks. A covey of partridges, about three parts grown, rise almost at
our feet; for it is early August, and the deadly twelve-bore has not yet
wrought havoc among the birds. On the right is a field of green turnips,
well grown after the recent rains, and promising plenty of "cover" for
sportsmen in September. In the hedgerow the lovely harebells have
recovered from the soaking they endured, and their bell-shaped flowers
of perfect blue peep out everywhere. The sweetest flower that grows up
the hedgeside is the blue geranium, or meadow crane's-bill. The humble
yarrow, purple knapweed, field scabious, thistles with bright purple
heads, and St. John's wort with its clean-cut stars of burnished gold
and its pellucid veins, form a natural border along the hedge, where
wild clematis or traveller's joy entwines its rough leaf stalks round
the young hazel branches and among the pink roses of the bramble.
By the roadside, where the dust blew before the rain and covered every
green leaf with a coating of rich lime, there grow small shrubs of
mallow with large flowers of pale purple or mauve; here, too, yellow
bedstraw and bird's-foot lotus add their tinge of gold to the lush green
grass, and the smaller bindweed, the lovely convolvulus, springs up on
the barrenest spots, even creeping over the stone heaps that were left
over from last winter's road mending.
Many another species of wild flower which, "born to blush unseen and
waste its sweetness on the desert air," grows in the quiet Cotswold
lanes might here be named; but even though at times one may feel, with
"To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."
I will leave the humble wayside plants and descend into the vale. For it
is along the back brook that the tallest and stateliest wild flowers may
best be seen. The scythes mowed them all down in May, and again in July,
in the broad "millpound," so that they do not grow so tall by the main
stream; but the back brook, the natural course of the river before the
mills were made, was left unmolested by the mowers, and is a mass of
life and colour.
Here grows the graceful meadow-sweet, fair and tall, and white and
fragrant; here the willow-herb, glorious with pink blossoms, rears its
head high above your shoulders among the sword-flags and the green
rushes and "segs"; the whole bank is a medley of white meadow-sweet,
scorpion-grasses, forget-me-nots, pink willow-herbs, and lilac heads of
mint all jumbled up together. Never was such a delightful confusion of
colour! Great dock leaves two feet wide clothe the path by the
water-side with all the splendour of malachite.
The breeze blows up stream, and the trout are rising incessantly, taking
something small. They will not look at any artificial fly, even in the
rippling breeze; there is nothing small enough in any fly-book to catch
them this afternoon. But when the sun gets low, and the great brown
moths come out and flutter over the water, the red palmer will catch a
dish of fish. Willow trees--"withies" they call them hereabouts--grow
along the brook-side. So white are the backs of their oval leaves that
when the breeze turns them back, the woods by the river look bright and
silvery. To-morrow, when the breeze has almost died away, only the tops
of the willows will be silvered; the next day, if all be calm and still,
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