Eugene Suggett: Meadowsweet, and haycocks dry
Not for the best reasons, National Trails are in the spotlight. There’s one near me: the North Downs Way. Indeed, the house ‘commands a view’, as estate-agents sometimes grandiloquently put it, of the North Downs: provided, that is, you stand on a box in the attic, and gaze through the skylight at chimneys and aerials first. But yet, chimneys and aerials apart, there you have Box Hill to the right; left of it, the Mole Gap, called ‘our valley’ by George Meredith (who I should think had a better view of it) in his poem about The Lark Ascending; and, out in front, the downs themselves, and the North Downs Way on top. Convenient is the Way for an evening stroll, or a morning’s walk to Guildford; popular, and well-signed, too, like all national trails. (It is to be hoped that Natural England’s plans for future management of national trails, inwrought with potential problems as they look to be, can be modified as the Ramblers would wish.)
I planned a walk out there the other week. Not a bad evening’s stroll from the town, I thought, I will have thus: head out west on the North Downs Way, out through the woods called The Spains; leave the Way at Picketts Hole, dropping southwards into the Pippbrook valley, and walk by Abinger Roughs. Here is to be seen an unexpected monument, the Wilberforce Cross. (Samuel Wilberforce, when bishop of Winchester, met his end here when in 1873 he fell from his horse.) Double back past Deerleap Wood, and one finds a path to Wotton, in whose church can be seen the tomb of John Evelyn, diarist, and in whose pub, the Wotton Hatch, can the bus back to town be awaited, and a pint or two had in the mean-space. A good plan, I considered this.
In case any who see this should be curious about the Wilberforce Cross, I digress to note that Wilberforce was sometime bishop of Oxford and later of Winchester. He was the one they called ‘Soapy Sam’ (perhaps because Disraeli once described him as ‘unctuous’, ‘oleaginous’, and ‘saponaceous’). He vehemently opposed Darwinism, and its champion Thomas Huxley. At a meeting of the British Association in Oxford in 1860, Wilberforce is supposed to have ridiculed Huxley by asking him if his descent from the apes was on his mother’s side, or his father’s, with Huxley retorting that he would sooner have an ape than a bishop for an ancestor. What brought Wilberforce to rural Surrey on the morning of Saturday 19 July 1873 was – I learn from The Times archive – an invitation to visit to the house of the Hon Edward Leveson Gower, of Holmbury, where Gladstone was staying at the time.
Coming from London, the bishop, accompanied by Lord Granville, took the train to Leatherhead; a groom with horses met them there; they headed towards Dorking on the high-road, and turned westwards on to the bridleway – now part of the North Downs Way – which left and still leaves the road just past the Burford Bridge hotel. Over Ranmore Common they went, and down into the valley; and there, just as they were remarking on the weather and spectacular scenery by Abinger Rough, the bishop’s horse, though specially selected for him on account of its steadiness, stumbled in a dip, throwing its rider on his head. Lord Granville sent the groom for help; doctors were summoned from Dorking and Shere; but the bishop was beyond assistance of any earthly sort. They carried him to nearby Abinger Hall, where lived Thomas Farrer, permanent Secretary of the Board of Trade, and where later in the drawing-room a hastily-empanelled coroner’s jury viewed the body, by now prelatially vested in rochet, chimere and other episcopal glad-rags. Professor Huxley later said something to the physicist John Tyndall about Wilberforce’s brains having come into contact with reality at last, with fatal results.
It was a grand evening for my projected walk. The sun’s declining rays kept the butterflies about; marjoram scented the breeze; the ox-eye daisies and the bee-orchids were just finishing; agrimony, meadow vetchling, pyramid-orchids, white bedstraw, and rock rose and yarrow were out in force. The hedges were abuzz with insects; swallows flitted, and swifts screeched, above the garden of the Wotton Hatch. As I sat there at a rustic table, Wotton’s little church-tower resembling a dove-cote, Ranmore’s spire above the woods looking like a landscaper’s folly, the rattle of distant trains conjured up Edward Thomas’s Adlestrop:
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
It is wonderful what three pints can do to fire the imagination, and heighten the senses, and colour the emotions. So I asked at the bar if I had time for another. I had better not miss the last bus, I explained.
It would have taken a flock of flatulent walruses faithfully to reproduce the snort of derisive hilarity discharged by the bar-staff in involuntary retort to this innocent enquiry. Customers, supposing that I had delivered some prize item of wit, turned round in wonderment, keen to learn what it was. Meanwhile, gradually recovering their capacity for speech, the staff by degrees half-chokingly imparted information the burden of which was that owing to cuts deemed necessary by Surrey County Council, I had missed the last bus to town by about six and a half years. And so, like Bishop Wilberforce’s when, en route to hobnob with Gladstone at Holmbury he was summoned to his eternal reward instead, this blogger’s brains came into contact with reality, and off he set on the three-mile dark and dull road-walk back to town. They need to do something about public transport.
Eugene Suggett is the Senior Policy Officer for The Ramblers.