Two more chapters of The Secret Places (Elkin Mathews & Marrot London 1929) - a chronicle of the 'pilgrimages' of the author, Reginald Francis Foster (1896-1975), and his friend 'Longshanks' in Sussex, Kent and Surrey. See our posting of the first chapters for more on Foster and this book.
They refused us bread and cheese at the flaunting hotel (though I knew they had both), but told us that we might have luncheon. We left, therefore, and cast the dust of the place from off our feet, vowing never to return thither. For when a man wants bread and cheese with his ale there is nothing that is a fitting substitute.
We had to tramp five miles before we satisfied our need, and after that distance bread and cheese were not enough. But the inn, we found, provided nought else to eat, So were we punished for lack of charity towards those who scorn to provide simple fare.
A diary of vagabondage is necessarily a tale of inns, for one must eat and drink, and uncooked turnips and nuts and berries are indigestible fare.
Also one is often athirst. And what is nobler than to quench a mighty thirst in a cool inn when one was walked miles so to do?
That happened at the beginning of our pilgrimage. We were reminded of it when we came to Mickleham from Betchworth way at high noon, and it being a Sunday, we found that the inn was not yet open. Unwilling to wait, we decided to continue our journey and break our long fast at another place. We took the road to Box Hill, therefore, turned right and crossed the humped bridge over the railway, and then struck left. The air was close, and the road shimmered under a fierce sun. Bagden Hill beyond ensured a scarcity of cars.
We had no itinerary that day, Longshanks and I; and when we came to the two cottages on the left, the lift of the narrow road that goes to the southward drew us along it, and soon we were climbing the steep to Ranmore Common–a little known route thither–turning from time to time to savour the view that developed behind us.
There is no inn at Ranmore, and following the road westward from the church bridge one comes to none in many miles. So we left that road and struck across a field a little west of southward from the post office and descended steeply, complaining bitterly of our lot. For by this time we were parched and a little tired–so parched, indeed, that smoking brought no solace.
Down in the valley it was hotter still. We came to the railway track and looked along its length to where at no great distance it trembled and heaved in mirage, crossed it, and, going blindly now and bothered with the dust that had caked upon our faces, went in the direction of Westcott. But we were on an uncharted way, and we had necessarily to lose direction.
To ease our burden, then, we talked of many things, but chiefly of the fact that whereas county authorities do all they can to attract visitors to their show-places, they rarely deem it necessary to impose restrictions. The Surrey authorities, however, had at last decided that motorists who would ascend to Friday Street, that one-time pleasant place on the northern slope of Leith Hill, must now park their cars at Abinger instead of at Wotton, as they did of old. As I said to Longshanks, I have every sympathy for motorists–indeed, being myself of the salt of the earth I pity them profoundly–but I cannot find it in my heart to sorrow with them over this salutary burden.
* * * *
Friday Street is a superstition with those who plan week-end excursions for others. It has been described as being Black Forest-like. It is, except that its houses are so essentially English. But the only time to go there now is at night, and even then there may be visitors who should not be there. One should not go to a place just because someone else has rhapsodised in print about it. Nor should one go to a secret place, such as Friday Street ought to be, treading delicately from a car parked a few hundred yards away.
I am glad, therefore, that the way from Wotton is now forbidden, but chiefly, as I told Longshanks, because I can now lie in my field under Wotton and look lazily across the valley below the church and be unassailed by the scream of brakes and the stench of motor oil. Also, there is a second way thence on to the height of Leith Hill which, praise God! tourists do not take, but which they might by mischance find if they still sought Friday Street from Wotton by the inn. Now, when I go up on to the high ground by that secret path, I shall still meet no one but woodcutters–who are honest men–and I shall still find solitude and that smell of unsoiled earth and trees.
This unknown way up from Wotton by the inn is cleverly concealed. It is a cart track at first, and were it not so far west I would take it to be a forgotten bit of Stane Street, for it is straight enough, and it has its "ghost-road" atmosphere, The climb, a mile from Wotton, begins to get steep. That and the fact that one must walk warily because–the woodcutters say–there are adders hereabouts, may scare away the merely curious.
And then the track ends: there is not even a rough path beyond. But that need not deter a proper man, for he will assuredly know that when there is any doubt as to which direction he should take, then he should get on to the highest ground possible and ascend thither, if he may, by a spur. And your spur is there if you have eyes to find it; almost it is like a bridge, so narrow and high above the surrounding country it is eventually.
If I were asked which are the three most beautiful places in England I should name this spur third (my first would be a hollow in the humped Sussex Downs, Washington way–but perhaps because I am a Sussex man–and my second a place of whin and heather on Dartmoor). In late Autumn; when the only sound to be heard on this spur is the plop of a falling leaf, a whisper of wind in the trees, or the plaintive song that a robin has somehow picked up in the Summer, it is not the place for anyone who fears to be alone. For here you are face to face with melancholy.
The last time but one that I went on to the height by way of this spur I knew why it is that I suffer such agony during the two minutes' silence in London on Armistice Day. For the complete cessation of noise puts one on the fringe of another world: one is on the edge of eternity and to be able to contemplate that mystery and be at peace needs a preparation that the uncloistered cannot perform.
* * * *
"But the last time I was there in that silent place," I told Longshanks, "the wind was little west of north, and it carried to me the scream of what must have been the father and the mother of all motor-horns. And then I knew that I was really alive and that not far off were my jolly fellow beings bent upon getting somewhere as swiftly, as dangerously, and as noisily as possible. Man is a queer animal.”
But Longshanks was not listening. He was sniffing the air, and presently he uttered a hoarse croak of triumph. I heard the homely quacking of ducks and the ugly hoot of a motorhorn above us on the height. The path was more defined. Wood smoke stung our noses.
And now the imminence of satisfying our honest needs increased our impatience. Almost we ran, though the hill was steep. And panting we came to the inn. . . .
It is vulgar to talk of inns and ale and drinking, and this, of course, is a vulgar episode I write of~ but of all joys under heaven ,there is none so wonderful as that of finding a pleasant place after much tribulation of heat and weariness; and there is no nectar like our native wine when dust has made a lime-kiln of one's mouth.
This inn was everything that an inn should be, but I shall not give its name, because the bar parlour is small, and the way to it from the north is the only true way, to traverse which is for stern adventurers. Besides, you might prefer tea or water, which you can get anywhere.
THE HOME VALLEY
Because we were near the place which I call home–it is in the valley of the Sussex Arun–I departed from Longshanks, being desirous of visiting it alone, and journey thither, as a man should, on foot, and by such a way that I came upon it suddenly, looking down from a neighbouring hill. I had not been to my own place for many years, and I had but to stand there in the dawn light and watch the blue smoke rising straight until it was caught by the wind, to see the clustering houses and the church and the inn, to smell the home scents, and hear the dear, familiar sounds–I had but to stand there and see and smell and listen, to experience the sanctity of home-coming, than which there is nothing more precious in life.
It is strange how the sight of life in a valley will arouse the soldier that is in any proper man. He will consider the lie of the land, how this spur offers a speedy ascent to the defences on the heights; how that dead ground is dangerous and the approach td it from above should be guarded, lest the enemy reach it–and all men outside the valley are enemies; how the south side, where runs the river, is protected naturally; and how to the "northward, where the houses straggle, there should be a stockade lest the outer defences fall.
I saw the valley as one that I must needs help to protect if danger threatened. It was like no other place on earth, like no other home that I have lived in since I left that hollow in the hills. I felt, too, that our river is holy, though it is someone else's stream outside our valley. It fills our wells and waters our crops; we do not call it "the river," but "Arun," as we call men by their names. So, too, do we give a name to the thicket, to the spur and the saddle on the south hill, to the fold of land under the north, to the breast of earth where the mushrooms grow, and the dewpond on the little height above the church. For these things are all part of us and our life, and it would be impossible to conceive that death will rob us of them.
As I say, I came upon my own place just after dawn. A mist hung over the river meadows, and the hill beyond was black against the growing light. I could hear water. A bird was calling from the thicket, a dog whined, and I smelled the incense of wood smoke. I heard footsteps on the road, the dulled clatter of pails, the lowing of kine, the creak of a cart, and the voices of my own folk. A little wind came through the seaward gap and twisted the mist into fantastic shapes. It began to move: it was gone.
The throbbing note of the church bell floated across the water and on to the hill–an invitation, not a summons, for in my valley God and eternity are not mere matters of belief but of knowledge, everyday things, familiar as the things of home. We are all one people in that place, and the dust of those who are gone is about the church.
In these days there is contact between my home valley and the outside world, but this bit of earth shut in by the high hills is still a sacred place. And when I came upon it that early morning, and smelled the home-smells; and saw the familiar life, and heard things whereof none was strange or beyond my under' standing, I knew that one day I must go back and stay there and so come finally to my rest.
This place in the hills is but fifty miles from London, and I have been near to it often, but always when I have come upon a familiar road which I knew would take me there, I have turned aside, for I was not then ready to go home. Nor was I ready the other day when, on my pious pilgrimage, I went and looked upon my home valley in the dawn light. When I had stayed on the height until the sun lifted above the hill beyond the village, I turned away, and went sadly back into Surrey. And at Leatherhead I found Longshanks waiting for me in a tavern, where he poured scorn upon me for my foolishness.