The Secret Places

Ashdown Forest* 

These are the first two chapter 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. One of those magical walking/ rambling books that appeared in the 1920s and 1930s while, to quote Waugh, 'the going was good' despite ribbon development and the ubiquitous motor car. It was probably aimed at urban and suburban dwellers who got away to the country at weekends or when they could. Foster  was a jobbing journalist who also wrote books on the countryside and how-to-write  books. Most of this book had appeared in the Evening News in the late 1920s. He also wrote detective fiction. Between 1924 and 1936, according to Hubin, he produced 11 mysteries, some featuring a detective called Anthony Ravenhill (The Dark Night, The Missing Gates, The Moat House Murder etc.,) This contemporary review of The Secret Places in The Tablet gives a flavour of the work. There follows the first two chapters…(more to come)

We like The Secret Places. Mr. R. Francis Foster knows where treasure lies hid, and would gladly share his secret with those worthy of the trust. But he fears the barbarian motorist, "with soul so dead" that he is to be stirred only by speed records until the love of country cannot touch him. Therefore he compromises by describing byways where the demon speed cannot go : quiet, ancient ways to be trodden only by the feet of the humble pilgrim in quest of peace and beauty. The author himself trod these paths with a fitting companion, setting out in the autumn along the Pilgrims' Way and wandering through the counties of Surrey, Sussex and Kent until Spring, bringing alas, a plague of cars in her train, drove the travellers from the roads ! Then they ended their journey at Chilworth Friary, where it had begun, convinced that cars are a curse of the devil, and that "the limit in permissible inventions should be the bicycle, foot propelled." This little volume, although perhaps rather self-conscious in the writing, will please lovers of the English countryside and leave them with many delightful things 'pleasant to think on.' We should like to know more of Zebedee, the Zebra, a strange gift-horse to the pilgrims whose fate, after his total disappearance by night, they never seem to have found out.




It was in mid-Autumn when Longshanks and I met out on our pilgrimage and, being full of hope and a high endeavour, we took no heed of falling leaves nor of the chill in the dawn wind. We stayed the night in the guest-house of the Friary of the Holy Ghost above Chilworth, and in the refectory, when we broke our fast before we boasted of the feats that we would perform; how we would do this and that and the other, and so come at last to this anchorage at the end of our journeying and write of the strange things we should have seen and heard and done.
"And we will take no heed of weather," I bragged, "nor will we stay more than a night in any town.”
"And," added Longshanks, "we will not go north of Thames, for if we did we should be in a strange land and among strange people."
The good Father Guardian nodded his head gravely and gave us the blessing of the Little Poor Man of Assisi, and added a generous one of his own.
"May you have fair travelling, my sons!" he said. And because–praise God !–he loved us, he added, "Don't sleep rough unless you must. Beds were made for Christians to lie in."
We waved to him as we went boldly down the rough lane from the Friary, and then passed from his sight. Above us on the ridge of the Downs, west of Guildford, St. Martha's Chapel stood clearly against the sky, marking the Pilgrims' Way to Canterbury. If we could find the old track we were resolved to follow it, for that were surely the proper start for such as we.
But we had no aim in our wandering. If, later, we came to Canterbury, it would not be the end of our design, but because it were a sufficient purpose for the day that saw us near that city. For though we said that we were pilgrims, we did thereby but ennoble vagabondage.
We went, then, Longshanks and I, up on to the Pilgrims' Way and looked upon Surrey from the height, and saw a little of the extent of this kingdom which was to be ours. Beyond the Downs to the southward lay holy Sussex, into which we would venture later on, as also we would do into Kent when the time came. And just across the valley the thin spire of the Friary topped its surrounding trees, and the drift of the blue smoke beside it showed where Anthony did his cooking.
“I feel hungry," said Longshanks.
“We feed next at Burford Bridge," I said, meaning the small inn by the station and not the grander place beyond. "We feed at Burford Bridge, and that is many miles away. Let us go.”
And turning our faces to the east, we went strongly on our way.
The long ridge of the Downs which we trod so confidently was once the great highway of southern England. British merchants went over it to barter on the coast with Phoenicians, Greeks, and Gauls; Caesar’s legions marched across it; battles were fought on it; and a few weeks after the killing of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury, the Great Way, as it had always been known, became the Pilgrims' Way. The penitent King Henry the Second travelled the Way barefoot when he returned from France, and thereafter it became the chiof path of pilgrimage in all England.
Longshanks and I covered a great distance while we told each other these familiar things. If I write of them here it is because this part of Surrey is already overrun by London folk at week-ends, and whatever I can say about the ridge shall be said; for how much better it would be for humble people like ourselves if all trippers could be concentrated in one place! In all my book I shall not do the like again, though unobtrusively I may seem so to do. Let Longshanks and I, then, speak further on the Pilgrims' Way as we march to our inn at Burford Bridge.
Sometimes, when the wind was keen, the pilgrim would come down from the uplands and travel along the sheltered valley. That car-crowded road that runs from Guildford through Shere, Abinger, and Wotton to Dorking in the hollow must have had its beginning in the track made by the weather-fearful pilgrim, while his stouter-hearted brother trod the path along the ridge above him. For him, the stout-hearted one, the Chapel of St. Martha on the height was built, only he knew it (they say) as the Chapel of the Martyr, of which the first name is a corruption. But I doubt if that be true.
There is nothing like a learned conversation for passing away the time. It is surprising to record that having said so much (solely for the benefit of those who, months afterwards, should read my book), we found that we had reached Ranmore Common, miles from St. Martha’s Chapel. It was high noon when we halted and looked back the way we had come, over the woods where grow the finest blackberries in all England–an additional lure to this parking-place for cars. In blue distance we could see the Hog’s Back, Farnham way.
We told each other (for the benefit of the book) that that was where the pilgrims entered Surrey on their way from Winchester. East of Farnham they had choice of two paths, one going along the Hog’s Back to Guildford, and the other going through Puttenham by St. Margaret’s Chapel, south of Guildford proper, and joining up with the northern path just before it gets to St. Martha’s.
Thence onwards in these days are pheasant coverts, so that if you should be on pilgrimage yourself, you must go carefully. And there you shall come on to the hard road that switchbacks across Ranmore common. That is the way the hardy pilgrim came, until he looked (unless those firs and beeches stopped his view at Box Hill) across the hollow, where Stane Street cuts through on its way to London town.
He descended by way of Denbies, and crossed thence to the ridge beyond, journeying over Box Hill and so along that pleasant height of land into Kent.
The nearest route and the hardest was across the ridge; they planted yews along it, and if you would know which of the network of tracks was the true Way, you have but to look for those yews and you shall find it.
But if there be moderns who will go on pilgrimage, the motor-car and motor-cycle will not carry them to Canterbury along the Way itself, praise God! for the patches of metalled road are few, and in between them there is but a narrow track, moist and treacherous under the sombre trees.
And now we had come to Westhumble, which is a quiet place, though its simplicity is spoilt by the the “model" farm that occupies it. Then, passing over the railway bridge, we found our inn and, entering it, told the landlord that we would have of his hospitality and that, the weather being hot, we would sit on a bench in his yard and there eat and drink what it might please him to set before us.
This, then, marks the end of our setting forth. Of some of the many things that befell us thereafter you shall learn, in sequence. But first I must relate what Longshanks told me while we ate the first meal of our pilgrimage in the yard of the inn at Burford Bridge. His tale was of how the holy St. Dustan thrust the Devil into Hell, so freeing our pleasant land from his physical presence. That Longshanks’s story is true was proved to me afterwards, for he took me to the actual place of the miracle, and I saw the evidence, exactly as he had described it.



Longshanks said that one of the worst thorns in the Devil's side was St. Dunstan–a Sussex man–and because St. Dunstan frequently crossed the border and came into Surrey, the Devil, breathing fire and vengeance, was often in that county, too. Hence the Devil's Punchbowl. Hence, too, the Devil's Jumps. For in West Surrey the Devil became very wroth that St. Dunstan had treated him with contumely and used him ill, and in his frantic rage he leapt high from hill to hill and so gave us a name for those downs, Hindhead way, for whose formation, Cobbett said, there could be no "natural" explanation.
St. Dunstan was an energetic man. It is recorded that in one day he girdled Surrey when, the Devil being within the county searching for him, the Saint sought to prevent his ever coming out again. That is why the boundaries Of Surrey–and especially that boundary which separates it from Sussex (which is now art-y, but which once was holy)–are sacred ground. You cannot go over into Sussex or Kent or Hampshire, or cross the Thames into Middlesex and not know that you have made a change; and the line of the boundary affects the natives too, so that you shall never confuse them with those of the four counties which are beyond the borders.
But though in names there is such definite evidence of the Devil’s coming to West Surrey, it was to the eastward and in mid-Surrey, Longshanks said, that Satan tarried most. And it was there–more, at Buford Bridge, where at the hotel the rich dine, and where Nelson refreshed himself before he went to Trafalgar by way of Portsmouth–that the Devil was finally vanquished by St. Dustan, so that he has never appeared in England from that day to this, though, of a truth, he still works to our confusion in secret.
Nobody stands on Buford Bridge nowadays, for nobody goes thither save in a car or a motor bus. Feeding at the hotel on the London side, Londoners cross the bridge at great speed on their way to the coast, so that they do not see the place of the Devil’s vanquishment. But there it is, and it is plainly marked. If standing there, you look eastward, the River Mole winds peacefully through park-like land under Box Hill, where stands a typical country rectory that is not a rectory; but if you look westward the Mole is suddenly turbulent. Beyond is the high land of Norbury Park dropping down to Westhumble and its barn church, which was once lost for fifty-eight years because the ancestor in tenantage of the man who now has the "model" farm thereabouts let his stacked hay go rotten, and took no heed when the ill-made rick tumbled over on to the barn church and covered it. And between that height of land and the bridge–indeed, nearly under the bridge–you shall see, as I saw, where the Devil bade Surrey farewell.
If the air is still almost you will be overcome by a pungent, unfamiliar smell. It is of nettles–stinging-nettles. For just below the bridge is what must be the most luxuriant bed of nettles in England–and where you find nettles, of course, you have most assuredly found evidence of the Devil's passing. In Autumn the smell of those nettles is overpowering–it is sulphurous!
Mark a spot half-way through that horrid • place, and then connect that spot by an imaginary line parallel with the bridge to the opposite bank. Along that line and about six feet from that further bank let the eye rest. In a few minutes you will see a violent bubbling in the water; it subsides and dies; and a few minutes later it starts again.
An air-hole in the chalk, the skeptical will say. Except that it is definitely periodical it might be a great eel breathing. Or it might be a hidden spring.
But it is none of these things. Taste the water, and savor brimstone. Look at the smoke, which is not spray. For the hole which makes the bubbling is the place where the blessed St. Dustan thrust the Devil down into Hell, and which he forgot thereafter to close.

*Image from via Pinterest - with thanks

One thought on “The Secret Places

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *