The Stilly Night in Rural Britain

The well-kept British inn is probably the best-looking establishment of its kind in the world. Brilliant with flowers and bounded by billiard-cloth turf, without so much as a burnt match by way of litter, brass freshly polished, white paint speckless, windows glisteningly clean, the country inn is more inviting in reality than even the most sanguine postcard version of it. Oh, to stay at this one or the last one or the next, the traveler sighs, and never to leave! Bed and breakfast for a mere 42 shillings? Can such things be?

Inside, the promise of good lodgings is even headier. Fresh breezes drift through the timbered old rooms; there is much copper, old silver, against the black oak paneling; we see coaching and hunting horns and many quaint utensils whose antique use one can only conjecture. The taffeta puffs on the beds and the glimpse of crisp damask in the dining room are the clinchers: if the Jumping Ploughman was a three-star stop in the days of Columbus, it is still handsomely on the job for today’s wayfarer.

Being intended for him, the Jumping Ploughman is, reasonably enough, on the wayfarer’s way-in other words, on the road itself. It may be at a crossroad in open country, but more likely in the village, where it not only serves the traveler but also is a favorite local for the neighborhood. In any case, it must be emphasized that the country inn does not, ordinarily, stand aloof from the world in parklike grounds of its own, but directly on a thoroughfare, or two thoroughfares, sometimes more.

A few facts are necessary at this point about the small British motorcycle or self-propelled bicycle. Of these it would be correct to say the smaller the engine, the less expensive the vehicle, and the less expensive they are, the more numerous they are; also, the smaller the engine, the greater the number of rpm necessary to make it go. When first started from cold, these engines give off stuttering pops, bangs, and crackles, switching into a rising scream as they begin to fire in earnest, only to blank off suddenly into gurgles and dead silence. In the same connection, it should be noted that all farm and commercial trucks of local ownership in the area served by the Jumping Ploughman are very old, underpowered, and consequently groaning in their lower gears, while the engines, long since unmuffled, sound about to burst.

And so to bed in the inn’s upper reaches, and very attractive too: pajamas laid out, bed turned down, cool night air — nothing like being sealed up in one of those air-conditioned motel rooms. What more could one want after a long day of purposive motoring?

Well, for one thing, sleep. The village and its surrounding farming country are an all-night affair. At fixed intervals — every fifteen minutes, say — one of the groaning trucks goes by. It sounds like the same one each time, heading right through the bedroom, but paying off at the last minute, gears and exhaust echoing in the narrow streets. Around the corner, on the half hour, the cycle engine comes angrily to life; it rips and pops for a while, with a firecracker or two and perhaps a bit of dynamite to help it along, but it splutters into silence. After the prescribed five-minute period of starting and stopping, the cycle, now turning some 15,000 rpm, screeches past the bed and off to its circuit, from which it will be heard again in exactly twenty-five minutes. The villagers, meanwhile — and they must be paid substantial overtime for night work of this sort — have begun a series of spirited discussions just below the bedroom window. Presumably they are debating whether the truck and cycle noises are up to snuff; their occasional guffaws no doubt have to do with the possibility that someone, obviously a foreigner, proposes to sleep in the room above. The truck returns, the cycle shortly afterward .

At 2 A.M. the organized noise, save for the through traffic moving independently, ends for a four-hour period. At 6 A.M. a truckload of broken glass, sheet metal scraps, and bricks is poured from one container to another outside the bedroom; jingling deliveries of milk and beer bottles begin; and exhaust and engine noises in general are resumed for the day.

In the light of all this, a bit of advice to those who would enjoy the British inns and see rural England is in order: the traveler must be sure to have a helicopter waiting after dinner each night so that he can be back at his London hotel room by bedtime — a room which, if at the back of the house, admits no night noises whatever, save for the distant striking of Big Ben.