The Back Roads of England

pleasures and places


An American boy I met one year m Copenhagen told me that all the English moved about their country on bicycles. He had never been to England, but he had been bequeathed this piece of folklore by his father. It had doubtless been helped along, too, by the fictions of the British Travel and Holiday Association, which delights to show us abroad as a nation of morris dancers and beefeaters. Anyhow, he had this wholly delightful picture of us moving slowly between the green fields, pedaling away, perhaps with the Symphony sounding gently in our ears. No doubt we climbed down from our saddles from time to time to carry in the harvest, or make love among the cornstalks, but cool, phlegmatic people that we were, we were content to spend most of our lives gliding placidly between the hedgerows, sniffing the honeysuckle and the dog roses.

Dear God, I wish it were true. I wish that on such a small island, with (I am, of course, partial) the greenest, most lovelv landscape in the world, we could have kept our bicycles and the motorcar could have been disciplined to a few great highways. That way the villages and cathedral towns might have preserved a little peace. I met a man last year who told me of a vivid memory he had of Oxford one Sunday morning before the 1914 1918 war, when the only sign of movement in the High was an old woman driving her pig down the road with a stick. Now the thunder of wheels throbs perpetually in the High, and the ancient yellow stone crumbles with the vibrations. The motorcar is a disease with us — that is the truth of it.

But we are, as it happens, at a halfway house. We are full of plans about how and where to build highways winch will take the burden of traffic from old and inadequate roads; and if in your travels in this country you come across a large tract of laud looking as messy and sordid as an unmade bed, you will know that it is because a motorway is under construction. The motorways, recognizable because they are all prefixed with the letter M (Ml, M2, M3, and so on), are the most up-to-date British effort at road building; they are almost the only roads in Britain on which it is safe to drive fast. They are infinitely safer than the old main highwavs, with A prefixes. The older roads tend to be endlessly punctuated with traffic lights, and the effects upon a driver’s nerves and temper are alarming.

I suspect that the British have a curiously romantic and swashbuckling view of the motorcar, or at least the men have. With women, motorcars are a simple matter of convenience, a way of collecting the groceries and taking the children to school. With men, fast driving is a form of dueling, a way of proving their virility and dicing with the death wish at the same time. On the kind of narrow, winding lanes with which this country abounds, fast driving and reckless overtaking amount to challenging a crack shot to meet you with pistols at dawn.

I seem to have got into a somber vein, what with my lament over barbarianism and bad drivers, but let me go on to say at once that in spite of the above, I do a great deal of pastoral motoring myself and get enormous pleasure from it. I am not good at enjoying traditional tourist joys. This may be snobbery, I suppose, or it may be the kind of paralysis that comes over you when someone announces that he is going to tell you a terribly funny joke; being expected to produce favorable reactions is a handicap. But I am often bowled over by churches, or views, or buildings for which no one thought to prepare me.

I remember one cold, rather depressing afternoon last November in the Fen District which flowered unexpectedly. Wc had spent the weekend in Cambridge. On Sunday morning we heard a friend preach in Great St. Mary’s, and then lunched with him at the Blue Boar, a hotel whose lounge sports a very funny photograph of King Edward VII in his prime being entertained at Cambridge and is always full of undergraduates drinking beer. Then, glowing with lunch and coffee, we announced our intention of going on to Ely. Good God, said our friend, how could we go to that cursed damp spot? Lovely architecture, of course, but depressing. People went there to commit suicide.

We drove on empty roads across the achingly flat fields of the Fens. The sun set coldly, and there was a sense of desolation as we stopped beside the cathedral in the half darkness. The stark Norman architecture wavered above us. Inside the west door there was a smell of damp and cold, and the long nave was empty of chairs or pews unusual for an English cathedral so that the round pillars had nothing to spoil their proportion. All was dark except for the chancel, where the choir was singing evensong. The sounds flouted flown the nave toward us, elongated exquisitely by the echo as we groped through the blackness. We went out later and walked around the town, and there was no one to be seen anywhere. No doubt if we went to My on a busy market day, we would see it as a lively, bustling center of agricultural commerce. But the desolate Sunday evening gave me far more pleasure.

In England one must always take prophylactic measures against being forced to eat bad food. It seems to me intolerable that while we feast our eyes on landscape or seascape, on churches and cathedrals built by people with an eye for perfection, our stomachs should have to battle with poor food and worse drink. But there are several reasonably good guides to restaurants in this country which help us to avoid the sort of establishment where everything is ready-made and where the owners serve it with an acid loathing for the human race. Our favorite is Raymond Postgate’s Good Food Guide since this has turned out to be more reliable (though we have had one or two painful failures) than most. It has both a generous section on London restaurants and a much bigger section on hotels and restaurants listed under the towns where they are to be found. It provided us with some memorable meals one weekend last summer when we went to Dorset, to my mind one of the loveliest of all English counties. It has steep green hills, some quiet, forgotten villages, some preposterous lanes where a good-sized car just fits between the hedges (many English lanes, of course, have convenient backing places to provide a solution to the terrible moment when yon meet a car coming the other way and there is no room to pass), some clean, pleasant little towns both on the coast and inland, and some beautiful buildings. We zoomed over the long, straight roads of Salisbury Plain Wiltshire is unchanged in many places since E. M. horsier wrote The Longest Journey, and Salisbury is still one of the best of cathedral towns) and spent a night at Blandford forum in one of those large sedate hotels where there is lots of brown varnish inside and the guests all seem to talk in “county” accents reminiscent of the British raj in India. You will find at least one of these hotels in every old British town they are usually coaching inns, much adapted and rebuilt, and are called the Crown or the Red Lion or the Such-andSuch Arms or something that makes them sound like grand pubs, which is really what they are. The motoring organizations tend to recommend them, the beds are often good and the rooms warm, the guests are quiet and the staff reasonably nice, and the food can be anything from very good to awful (hence our careful study of the guide). The Blandford one was good, though too close to the road for perfection. I woke in a sweat of fright at 2 A.M. with the noise of a lorry rushing through the bedroom, and then realized that the corner of our room projected directly into the main street, and that we were, in fact, only within a few feet of the murderous wheels. I have a particular love for some of the country places within an afternoon’s drive from the muck of tincity. Hertfordshire is the part I know best (snobs don’t pronounce the t), and it has changed very little since I used to camp there as a small girl. Chenies and Latimer arc like a couple of twin villages, each nearly perfect. At Chenies there was, until last year, a Georgian pub to which we used to take the children for lunch on a Sunday, and the food was nice unpretentious English cooking — roast beef, local ducklings and fish, homemade apple pie. Then, alas, it was tarted up by a new proprietor who thought customers would rather have mock Tudor; the food was tarted up too, and children seemed less welcome. But the village is still lovely. In the spring we go down the walk between the church and the manor house into a big airy beech wood and pick violets there. The wood slopes down into a valley, where there is a small stream called the River Chess. The Chess also runs through fields down behind San aa, a village nearby, and children paddle in it as I once used to.

Next day we drove on and picked a small restaurant in a remote village to have lunch. It was run by a husband with a passion for cooking and a pretty wife who served it very gracefully, and to our delight they both liked talking about cooking, and passing on advice to the greedy amateur. I began with a delicious soup, fragrant with fresh stock, and my husband with rainbow trout, and we discussed with the proprietor the dishes they had done and hoped to do. Sunday lunch was their masterpiece, they informed us. The husband had spent many years in the East and apprenticed himself to the art of curry-making. And now every Sunday they served a curry which took them four days to prepare.

We felt so at home that we asked if they could suggest anywhere local to stay (thinking of that delicious curry already in hand); they mentioned that they kept a couple of rooms upstairs for patrons overcome by exhaustion—so we spent two nights in one of their clean unpretentious rooms.

From there we went to Abbotsbury, which is one of the loveliest, most unspoiled sights in England, worth going miles to see. Abbotsbury lies on the inside of the Chesil Bank, a great arm of gravel flung into the sea, and eight hundred years ago monks bred swans on the natural lake. Nobody seems to eat swans anymore — the taste is too strong — but swans are still bred there, and you can go and look at the cygnets and talk to the swanherd. On paper this sounds as if it might be phony and touristy, but it isn’t a bit. For one thing, you cannot take your car closer than about a mile from the place; you have to leave it in a field and trek across two more fields. For another, nothing has been built on the land — no souvenir shops, icecream kiosks, or other bric-a-brac. All that is there is the swanherd’s garden, often complete with an aged relative or two asleep in the sun, and it is full of the kind of flowers which used to be popular in cottage gardens a century ago but which now are disappearing.

There’s something else about the fields around this place that moves me every time I go. It may be the very ancient stone chapels which stand half-ruined on the hills, or the barns built by the monks with stone buttresses and crosses on their roof’s, or the extraordinary quietness of the place, but only in about two other places can I remember the hallowed feeling I get here, as if holiness had seeped into the ground.

There is a huge half-wild garden down the road a bit from the swannery which pleased me very much. It is cultivated only here and there and is full of rare trees and exotic foreign birds; peacocks sun themselves on the broken stonework.

For anyone doing much pastoral motoring in England during the spring and summer, it is worth getting hold of a list of private gardens (there are several lists published, and many bookshops sell them) which are open to the public on one or two days in the year. Their owners charge a small admission fee, which goes to charity, and for this you have the opportunity of seeing how the real artists do it. It has taken me years to organize myself to the point of reaching remote gardens on the days they are actually open, but now I’m an addict.

After the Abbotsbmy garden, we drove along the gravelly shore and clambered over the shifting stones to a warm stony ledge, farther along the coast the seaside resorts were packed with families sitting almost elbow to elbow in deck chairs on the sand, but we had the sea, tingravel, and the sea gulls all to ourselves. Alter a while wc stripped and waded in. It was torture to the feet until we could take off and swim, and even then the water was cruelly cold. The English sea is temperamental. On the hottest day it can make you shudder on some bits of the coast; at other spots it is bliss. I once went to discuss business with a lawyer in Angmoring. After we had finished work, his wife lent me a bathing suit, and we ran down through their garden and into the sea, which was stormy and white and very, very warm. I could have spent a day in it, but I had to hurry and dress to catch the next train back to London.

Certain places, I must confess, lure me as a pastoral motorist, and I will travel many miles over dull country just to sec something I have remembered from another visit. Hakcwell, in Derbyshire, for example, seems to touch some private inner vision of what a town should he like, with its cows and buttercups and daisies woven right into the middle of it. And parts of Buxton, also in Derbyshire, look like Bath, though they are much less praised, and the landscape, spare and bony, is unspoiled and lovely.

There is Hadrian’s Wall up in the north of England (though this is for the feet, not the motorcar), and the lonely church of Abbeydore in Herefordshire. Hereford itself is lovely, and Winchester (I am an addict of cathedral towns as well as gardens), and Wells, (A character in Peter Shaffer’s play Five Finger Exercise says of a cathedral, “It is like walking down the throat of a whale: a great skeleton whale, with the vertebrae showing.”)

Brighton is a beautiful town to visit, either in the height of its vulgar summer popularity (though Margate, Clacton, and Blackpool are much more vulgar and perhaps more fun) or in the winter when it is all regency elegance. Sidmouth is a small, exquisitely elegant regency town built between dark red cliffs and green hills.

ChipperHeld is worth looking at summer weekends people play cricket on the village green (as in innumerable other villages), and it all looks too English to be true. At Chipperficld you can get: a very nice sedate English tea at a trust house called the Two Brewers.

Buckinghamshire is a lovely county within easy traveling distance of London, though the housing estates are spreading there. Burnham Beeches is its great set piece, and a favorite place for outings for Sunday school treats and mothers’ meetings. My favorite Buckinghamshire village is Little Missenden, where there is a very tiny, very ancient church and some houses which I have coveted for years.

It is worth going on from there to have lunch at the Bell at Aston Clinton, where both food and wine are treated with loving obsession. Jordans and Penn and Seer Green are full of peaceful Quaker memories and memorials, and are also worth taking a look at.

A little farther from London there is a great clean sweep of chalky hills around Dunstable and Ivinghoe. At Ivinghoe there is an ancient horse carved on the hillside which can be seen miles away. In summer we take our children to scramble up and down its steep sides, and then go on to have tea at a little village where we are served fresh farm eggs and homemade jam and cream on scones.

I have been talking, of course, of the obvious English glories — the countryside, the villages, the churches, and even sometimes the food. But I cannot leave out the people. Motorists are more limited conversationally than those who travel by train. Their encounters are with waiters and car-park attendants, old ladies in hotel lounges, vergers in hoary churches. If they park in streets with yellow lines painted down them, drive the wrong way on one-way streets, or otherwise contravene the traffic regulations, they may find themselves talking to policemen as well. People get more talkative and forthcoming, of course, farther away from London. My impression is that the British love having an American to talk to; we have never quite got out of our system the impact of Hollywood films, which make us feel that America is a kind of fairyland and all the people are partly immortal. This is proved, at least to me, by the case with which they can lean across a restaurant table and pick a conversation with me, a total stranger. I met an American schoolmistress in Lyons Corner House last summer who was over here on an organ-playing trip (her group traveled to churches and cathedrals trying the organs), and in half an hour there was very little that we did not know about each other.

In a thousand English villages this summer, I have no doubt that others will be doing the same thing. Astonishing, but salutary.