Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 13 - In Kentish Fields

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MAY in England! It is an idyl of blooming hedge- rows, skylarks and nightingales. Surely nowhere in the world is grass so tenderly green, the elms so drooping and rounded, and the beeches with their moss-grown trunks so venerable and stately.
    After nearly a year's uninterrupted sojourn in London, I turned my back upon the noisy streets and went down to Kent for a breath of fresh air, to see the "green things growing."
    Ightham, near Wrotham, on the London and Dover railway had been selected as an ideal retreat for the holiday, by a friend whose judgment I had ample reason to trust. It had been chosen as one of the few remaining English hamlets, ancient and unchanged, within little more than two hours journey from town. The route lay across the lovely Weald of Kent, and roofs and chimney- pots, terraces and crescents left behind, we were soon in a region of newly-ploughed fields of a rich red-brown tint in the May sunshine, of meadows against whose emerald background were studded myriads of buttercups and daisies-a cloud of snow and gold. Hills sloped to the horizon, crowned with plantations of fir, or hanging woods, and here and there the roofs of stately halls rose above the tree tops of their splendid parks.
    Presently we came into the region of hop-fields, the poles netted together with cords, and the young vines turning yellow from the drought which, in later years [-135-] has prevailed "in misty England," contrary to all traditions.
    I was told that the hop vines require "tying three times;" first, when they begin to climb, again when they attain a larger growth; and last of all, when they reach up for the network of cords which furnishes a support for the ripening hops. All this gives the working people steady employment from April to October, since the fields are cleared ready for the spring planting before the winter sets in. The hop region of England is restricted to a comparatively small area-the chalky soil of Kent being that in which the vine especially thrives. The oast houses attached to every rambling, red-roofed farm-house, in which the hops are cured, are a very picturesque feature in the landscape. They are low turrets with conical, peaked roofs, the peak crowned with a queer, pen-shaped ventilator which leans slightly forward and revolves with the shifting wind, like a weather-vane.
    From Wrotham to Ightham it is only a mile-a pleasant walk by smooth foot paths across the fields, if one rejects the stuffy and rumbling fly that is sent to Wrotham station for Ightham passengers. The name of the village is of Saxon origin-a corruption of "eight hamlets" of which the pretty village itself, Ivy Hatch, Burrough Green and Seven Oaks are the more important.
    If one does not prefer the inn which is much patronized by London cyclists, comfortable lodgings are to be had, with sitting-room, bed-room and fire, and this with good plain meals at a cost of about four shillings a day. My landlady was a most delightful and satisfactory character. She was dressed in decent black and a striking article of her attire was a huge belt-buckle suggestive of a Yeoman of the Guard; she wore, also, a remarkable cap and a bunch of stiff little curls over each ear that trembled constantly like spiral springs. I dubbed her forth-[-136-]with "the Goddess of Loquacity," and soon perceived that my conversation must be discreet and guarded, and confined, so far as was possible, to necessary questions and instructions. With all her admirable qualities, industry, cheerfulness and sincere kindliness, she was one of those excellent English serving people who are at a loss to adapt themselves to Americans, the natives of a country where they have been told all social distinctions have been obliterated. In spite of manifest unwillingness, I was destined to acquire a great deal of undesired information concerning some score of lodgers who had preceded me, their faults and virtues, and their idiosyncrasies, great and small - the majority of whom, I was assured, were gentlefolk.
    As soon as I arrived and had removed my bonnet and the dust of travel from my hands and face I had the inevitable tea, as a matter of course - delicious tea and bread and butter. The table was decorated as if for a banquet, no less than five bouquets of cowslips ornamenting my solitary board. There were, in all, upon the table, mantel and piano, just fourteen! The love of flowers is innate in the English character. Window-sills and gardens are a mass of geraniums, wall flowers, forget-me-nots, pansies and tulips, and the roughest carter wears a nosegay in his hat-band or button hole. The piano in my room deserved what exhibition committees term "honorable mention." It was unique, having seven legs, one on each corner, two in front and one behind; they were very slender and spindling, otherwise there would not have been room for so many. After tea I went out for a walk in the cool, soft air of the May evening. The one winding street through the sleepy village was bordered with enchanting picturesque cottages of brick or stone, with red-tiled, sagging roofs and many lattice-paned windows. One was an admirable example of the half-timbered house of [-137-] the fifteenth century. As I passed, the casement stood ajar and the drawing-room, which was several feet below the level of the road, looked into a fine garden with noble trees, shaven lawn and blooming parterres. The old church upon the hill, with the grave stones clustered under the shadow of its walls, the names and dates of many long obliterated, and with the starlings twittering about their nests in the tower, dated back to the twelfth century. Here, in a sheltered corner, lies buried Algernon Sartoris, and Adelaide Kemble Sartoris, the sister of Frances Kemble and the author of that enchanting book: "A week in a French Country House," a woman of genius and of many gifts of mind and grace's of manner, like others of her family. I gathered a few buttercups and daisies near the head-stone to send to her friend, Harriet Hosmer, in America, from whom I had heard many interesting incidents of her brilliant career.
    Within the church itself is a portrait bust of Dame Dorothy Selby, the wife of Sir William Selby who occupied the famous Ightham Mote in 1591, and who, as is stated in a description by Major-General C. E. Luard, was "Mayor of Berwick" and Knighted by King James at Berwick in 1603. Dame Dorothy is credited with having revealed the Gunpowder Plot to Lord Monteagle. If the work of the sculptor is true to life, Dame Selby was a thin-featured lady of much spirit and determination, and in cap and ruff seemed to look down upon the present generation with a certain disapproving and censorious air. 
    Beyond the church was a grey old hall, with a clock in the tower whose measured chime sounded clear and distinct across the fields where the shadows were lengthening toward the east. The ivy mantled house was hemmed in with dense woods, and rooks were wheeling and fluttering in the tree-tops, feeding their voracious young. The [-138-] fledgelings were as big and as black as the old birds and the poor parents seemed quite exhausted in their efforts to satisfy the lusty appetite of their brood. The young perched on the edge of the nest, spread their wings and opened their gaping mouths, their helplessness being very absurd contrasted with their size. The noise made by both parents and fledgdlings was an odd mixture of notes resembling the plaintive bleating of young lambs and the cawing of crows. They were not quiet until it became quite dark, which, at that season, was not until half past nine o'clock.
    Some distance beyond the manor-house was a meadow filled with cowslips, and here I sat on the stile listening to all the country sounds to be heard at night-fall-the lowing of cows, the bleating of flocks, the faint barking of dogs from distant farms, the echo of voices, the whistling plough-boy, the singing milk-maid, laborers talking as they walked homeward along the quiet lanes, and with the troubled clamor of the rooks, thrushes and linnets were singing in the darkening copse. The west was filled with fleecy clouds which stretched to the zenith and glowed with the fading radiance of the setting sun. As I strolled back to the village by the deserted road the pale stars came forth one by one. When I returned supper was ready. I asked Mrs. E- who owned the grey house with the chock tower and she replied, delighted to furnish information:
    "Oh; our Lord of the Manor lives there-Col. J-. He is a very old man, now, and rarely comes down from London. He is here only a few days at a time; he does not stop long and the place is left in charge of the servants."
    I had been given a letter of introduction to Mr. Benjamin Harrison, a very interesting man, a tradesman, whose house adjoined my lodgings. He lived in the rear of his shop, a beautiful and interesting old house, with [-139-] oaken beams almost as black as ebony. He possessed a fund of knowledge, not only of science, but of English literature, which made him a very valuable and delightful acquaintance. As soon as I presented my letter I was kindly invited to make use of his garden and he shortly afterwards sent me several works on natural history and botany which he thought might be of service. While he was an accomplished naturalist, Mr. Harrison was especially interested in geology and his discoveries relating to paleolithic man, in the chalk plateaus of Kent had made him well known to British ethnologists. His attention had been called to the discoveries in the valley of the Somme in France, and from similar peculiarities of the soil in Kent he argued the existence, at some remote period, of an unbroken continent of which both regions were a part. He believed that valuable discoveries might be made in Kent as well as in the Somme valley and after much laborious research in the adjacent gravel-beds he found what he believed were chips or splinters made by primeval man in the preparation of crude stone implements. These implements were discovered later - the rudest possible specimen of the "draw-shave." Mr. Harrison's collection, three years ago, numbered over 5,000 specimens and the uniformity of shape, their adaptation to human use precluded any possibility of mere accidental resemblance to the work of prehistoric man. Mr. Harrison, at that time, was endeavoring to prove his theory beyond question and, while his claims were rejected by many, they were respected by such authority as the late Sir Joseph Prestwich, General Pitt Rivers and Mr. Balfour.
    The Kentish ethnologist is a member of many geological societies of consequence in England, and was consulted frequently by the authorities of various museums. One of his collections, which is labeled and packed in numer-[-140-]ous boxes, is visited and examined almost every week in the year by scientific men from all parts of Great Britain. It has been the subject of discussion in the British scientific journals, carried on, pro and con, for some time with much vigor. There is very little doubt, in this age of easy research, but that Mr. Harrison will be able to present, finally, still more numerous and valuable proofs of the validity of an opinion for which he has been contending with great perseverance for more than twenty years.
    The next morning after my arrival in Ightham I explored the country in another direction and was delighted to find many of the familiar English flowers in the fields and under the hedgerows. There were stretches of blue- bells, a wild hyacinth which is as blue and fragrant as the cultivated variety, though the flower is much smaller; "the little speedwell's darling blue," beloved of Tennyson; the cuckoo flower of Shakespeare, a species of cardamine concerning which there is a difference of opinion, but which was pointed out to me - a species of the cruciferae resembling the blossom of the radish; there were beds of anemones on their long slender stems tossing and bending in the wind, quite like the American varieties; clusters of primroses making the ground bright like patches of sunshine in shady thickets; "Herb Robert," a crimson flower with a disagreeable odor, and the lovely, delicate stitchwort growing in a white-flecked tangle under the hedges. The broom ~was also in its glory, one of the most splendid of all the English wild flowers, its winged clusters the most vivid and intense yellow, with an etherial, faint perfume. I gathered quantities of all these, and Mrs. E- was to arrange them. When they were placed upon the mantel and the breakfast table I missed the broom and made inquiries concerning it; Mrs. E-replied: "O Miss! I didn't bring it into the house; it's such bad luck." And there it lay, as I soon discovered, [-141-] beside the door, quite withered, all because of its undeserved bad character.
    The black-thorn was past its bloom, and the hawthorn, white and rose colored, was only beginning to bud. Along the hillsides were heavy growths of young chestnuts which are cut down once in seven years to furnish the poles for the hop fields. In these leafy coverts the cuckoos were calling each other-the jocund voice of spring itself. The skylarks of Shelly and of the Ettrick Shepherd were soaring heavenward, singing as they soared, or lost in the misty blue were sending down showers of silvery notes, a delight to the ear and to the heart. Blackbirds, small creatures entirely unlike our own which resemble the English rook-were whistling on the bough; the purple black swift was darting across the millpond uttering its keen, musical cry, while finches and linnets were busy at their nests. All this stir and animation in the bird world recalled the story of the boy philanthropist in my old school reader, the lad distressed that the fleeces of the sheep should be so cruelly torn on the thorns by the wayside, and who was afterwards taken to the spot by his father at sunrise and there beheld the bird house-builders carefully gleaning the bushes of every shred.
    In the evening we took a walk across the pine woods to see the remains of a Roman fortification - part of it artificial, and a part the escarpment of natural rock - the hillside, as Nature had shaped it, and which must have rendered it almost impregnable. It was overgrown with trees, among which were a group of magnificent beeches, their trunks thickly grown with moss, their long boughs sweeping almost to the ground. Another object of the walk was to hear the nightingale which was then nesting. In this we were fortunately and richly rewarded. I had read John Burrough's "Quest of the Nightingale" and had deeply sympathized with him in his inability to [-142-] find it after protracted search "in the next parish," willing and waiting to celebrate its fame, with all the genius of the poet and naturalist who knew and loved birds.
    It prefers low, thickly wooded land near a body of water, and its sojourn in England does not extend much beyond the time when the brood is fledged. It is gone by the middle of June, and by this time, too, the cuckoo is silent, and the voices that filled the copse and hedge-rows in May are faint and subdued. We walked for some time just after sunset and then, when the dusk began to gather, the nightingales began the indescribable "glug, glug, glug," answering and calling one another from the thickets. To hear the nightingale for the first time is a sensation never to be forgotten. It is a note so rich and thrilling that the heart is stirred with emotion, and a thousand memories interwoven with myth and poetry come thronging to the mind.
    The birds could not be seen, hiding themselves securely from sight, yet having no fear as we approached, continuing to sing unhindered as we peered through the boughs in a vain endeavor to discover where they were concealed. The song of the nightingale is a medley of many notes - of our robin, cat-bird and thrush, the plaintive warble with which the robin is thought to prophecy the coming of rain, the fuller notes of the thrush and the liquid and musical song of the cat-bird. I was told that, later in the season, when the young must be provided for, its notes become more melancholy, the inevitable consequence of family cares, in bird and man alike. The air was filled with the fragrance of apple orchards which covered the slopes, pink with blossoms, among the farms. We came down a steep, stony path out of the woods, the nightingales still singing entrancingly, into the "Seven Vents -a point from which seven roads diverge in as many directions, and then proceeded across the [-143-] fields to a farm house to pay an evening visit. A company of neighbors were playing whist in the farm-house parlor, but we were cordially invited to come in and were told that the mistress of the house was in the kitchen with the maids superintending the weekly bread-making. It was thought that this, a familiar operation in all American households, might be interesting, and, as we were unwilling to interrupt the game, we were conducted to the kitchen and th'ere met the house-wife in her black silk gown and lace cap watching the sifting of flour and the "setting of sponge." The visit was not considered in the least inopportune, and our cheerful hostess was neither embarrassed nor disturbed, and with one watchful eye upon red-armed Phyllis, asked many questions as to the respective merits of English and American bread-making, upon which, so far as the latter was concerned, I was able to speak with the authority of practical knowledge. Then we said good night, promising to come again, and so turned homeward, retracing our way across the fields in the dim starlight, through the garden, where wallflowers and mignonette, steeped in dew were scattering their fragrance in the fresh night wind. I had been invited to come back to supper with my friends and we made our way into the dining-room through the stone- flagged kitchen hung with shining utensils arranged in rows above the wainscoting - such a kitchen as any right- minded American would covet with a keen un-Christian envy. The supper was set forth upon the board when we arrived-a substantial and essentially English repast of cold mutton, brawn, salad, ale, bread and cheese. The fresh air had given us sharp appetites, and it was a feast for a king.
    The last day of this Kentish outing was devoted to seeing Ightham Mote, one of few old moated manor-houses remaining in England. It lay beyond the hills, a [-144-] mile and a half from the village, in a vale deeply embowered in trees. Part of the picturesque old structure dated back to the year i i8o, the chapel, its ceiling decorated with faded coats of arms and which contained one of the oldest pipe organs in England, had been built during the reign of Henry VIII. Ightham Mote, is entered through a gateway by the court; this is enclosed by the walls of the stables where no horses were once kept, by the offices, and by one wall of the old house itself. The visitor crosses the drawbridge and rings a bell whose clamor sounds harsh and loud in the stillness. The moat, which is deep and clear, surrounds the house, and is fed by a stream which skirts the bowling green along a yew hedge, then disappears, re-appearing and falling, a foaming cascade into the moat below. Fat lazy carp "bearded like a pard," of ancient lineage and high degree, swain lazily to and fro; their ancestors had been conveniently caught by gentlemen anglers through the casements of the Mote. We were first shown into the dining hall, the lofty ceiling crossed with beams of oak, the wainscoting hung with fine tapestry. A fire was burning in the huge chimney-place, for the house was occupied by a Scotch family who admitted the public one day in the week. A few years before, in restoring the dining hall, a cell was discovered behind the wainscoting in which was found the perfectly preserved skeleton of a woman. The maid threw back a hinged panel which formed the door and showed us the narrow space, now a closet for brooms and brushes, evidences of a prosaic and utilitarian age whose energies are largely directed against the suppression of moth and rust, and in which rivalry and intrigue and family feuds are discreetly hushed up or referred to the divorce court.
    In the drawing-room there was an example of what we were told was the first wall paper imported into England from China-a pattern of tropical vines and birds [-145-] which had been so cunningly restored that the original could not be distinguished from the copy.
    A child was practicing five-finger exercises on the grand piano as we left the chapel, but when we entered the drawing-room it was empty, child and governess having disappeared. The custom of exhibiting private houses at six pence or a shilling for each visitor, while it is one by which the public profit richly, seems extremely odd and much at variance with the English love of privacy. The fees usually go to the servants or the hospitals, and, aside from this benevolent aspect of the practice, it is certainly a privilege to be able to see these historic houses upon any terms; one has a feeling of gratitude to those who, for so small a consideration, which probably is demanded only to keep out the idle and the lawless, are willing to throw open their doors at frequent intervals to the ubiquitous "tripper."