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, including a contemporary review in The Tablet.
THE WOOD OF MYSTERY
Leatherhead used to be famous for its "nappy" ale, as King Henry the Eighth's laureate knew, for he wrote a song about the mistress of the Running Horse Inn and praised the brew, as a man should. And the Mole, which chatters its way half round the town, was famous for its trout. Alas! in these days the ale there is no better than it should be, and of trout there are none–at least Longshanks and I were not served with any.
But Leatherhead has its distinction even now, and you shall mark it whether you proceed thither by train, by car, or on foot. For at Leatherhead the rather threadbare rusticity of the country south of London ends, and when you have climbed the steep hill beyond the bridge on the Guildford road you are in a new land. In the little rectangle of which one side is the main road between Leatherhead and Dorking, and the opposite side an imaginary line running through Little Bookham and Effingham and ending roughly five miles due ; west of Dorking, you may get lost an hundred times.
I scruple to say how this may be done, for when a horde of people get lost together there is no mystery nor any fear; only paper bags and bottles left on the eternal hills and in the secret places of the woodland. And so I shall be vague.
A mile or so along the Guildford road from Leatherhead, Longshanks and I turned towards the east along a hidden path. You may do it, too, if you will, but the path ends soon, and the map will not help you–he would be no proper man who took one on such a journey. But if you have woodcraft, and, when the path ends, you do not fear to venture on in the same direction–the wind on a wetted finger will keep you right–you will come by another path, as we did, which crosses your way at rightangles. Now must you turn due west, marking for later guidance whence the wind comes. And you will start to climb.
That is what Longshanks and I did on a day of melancholy rain. Gradually the thicket on our left became a wood; the birches and the hazels gave place to solemn beeches. In the deep gloom of that wood there was silence; no bird called; nothing rustled in the undergrowth. The hill became steeper: we looked into an abyss whereof the steep slope down was columned with the straight boles of those beeches. There was mystery down there. The air was heavy, with pockets of warmth. My wetted finger could detect no fugitive wind.
And Longshanks, who is superstitious and believes in elementals, became afraid. In a measure his fear communicated itself to me, and I knew that if I gave way to the intense desire I had to run, our journey would end in trouble. One of us, at least, must keep his head, and that one must be I–for I am not superstitious.
"We'd better turn back," said Longshanks presently. "We're lost."
I told him that he was an idiot. "We can't be wrong," I said. "We are going in exactly the right direction, and presently we shall come to Bookham."
So we went along that path, keeping to the height–for when you are uncertain of direction the highest land is the best for your journeying–slipping in the wet clay, dodging low branches, and avoiding soggy hollows.
The density of the beechwood–a cavernous depth on our left–made darkness behind the nearer boles. There was no staying the mind from wandering beyond them.
"We might go on like this for days," said Longshanks almost in a whisper.
The uncertain path became enclosed. The air was oppressive. The slope of the beechwood more acute–almost vertical, I told myself. A stone displaced by one of us tumbled into the gulf. I felt that panic was not far off and tried to rally myself with the thought that we were but letting the primitive fears of getting lost obsess us. But was it that?
We came to a bend, and to a little path that descended the hill diagonally. And the faint sound of hammering fluttered the silence.
"It's down there," said Longshanks, pointing into the depth of the beechwood.
The human noise had heartened me, but I told Longshanks that we must not go down from the height to seek its cause.
The faint hammering ceased, and there was no sound other than the drip, drip of moisture from the great trees. Longshanks stopped irresolutely, and I slipped my arm under his.
"Let us keep along this path for ten minutes more," I said, "then, if we still seem to be wrong, we will return and descend into the wood."
My guardian angel had put wisdom into my mouth, for of a sudden as we walked onWe came to the end of the path and a green meadow lay ahead, On the farther side of it was a road which I recognised as that which runs from Camilla Lacy down Bagden Hill.
Later, a man with whom we drank ale in an inn at Clandon told us that the hammering which we had heard was supernatural. He said that a blacksmith of Abinger long ago made shoes for the Devil's horse–a monstrous winged beast–and that for his penance he was condemned to hammer at phantom shoes for ever in that place of silence beyond the beech boles.
You will say that I have exaggerated the mystery and awfulness of that place, so near to London as it is, and that my story is unbelievable. Go, then, and walk above that beechwood in Autumn, as Longshanks and I did, and you shall not scoff any more.
But if you find the wood, stay on the height of land, and leave the smith of Abinger to do his work in peace.
THE FORGOTTEN GIBBET
When I wrote "The Wood of Mystery" I feared that I had given too obvious clues to its discovery; and I was right. For a newspaper published the sketch and afterwards an enterprising builder sent me information of houses which he contemplated erecting near that place, and suggested that I might like one! And so the ghost of the Abinger smith who hammers in that beechwood will be driven from his sanctuary. Whither will he go? I fear that he will have been left no asylum, so that he will be driven from Surrey altogether.
Longshanks said that the smith will make for St. Leonard's Forest, south of the boundary, where once St. Dunstan gave the Devil such a trouncing, but the smith was a Surrey man, and between Sussex and Surrey there is a greater feud than that between Sussex and Kent. But does local patriotism linger after death? If not, then I think that Longshanks is right, and because of that I will not say too much concerning St. Leonard's Forest, lest: I send the smith on his journeying again.
Longshanks showed me the exact place that he had in mind, and in case I be tempted to write of it and be rash with my clues–for love for my fellow-men over-rides my caution–he took me thither at night, when there was but a ghost of a moon in the eastern sky, and the loveliness of late Autumn so occupied me that I took little heed of the path. I can only say that we went out from Faygate–which you shall find on the map–with a south-east blowing in our faces, and began to climb at once. Then in a little while he led me off the road. I lost direction thereafter, but I have a memory of a path that was muddy despite the dry weather. Of such phenomena are rivers born, and maybe we had found the infant Adur, Arun's sluggish twin.
We were in the forest at once, and so we lost the wind. Sometimes in a clearing we might see that wisp of a moon, but more often there was no light at all. If I could find it again I would certainly take the Abinger smith by this way to his new solitude.
I suppose that we walked two hours: scarcely did we talk at all, being too much engrossed in threading a way through the trees, and too full of the mystery of the place. The air was damp and heavy of the smell of damp leaves and fern: swift rustlings marked the passage of tiny feet, and sometimes above we heard the twitter of a restless bird. I felt that we were intruding and that presently we should pay a penalty.
The path was still difficult to tread, but it seemed less vague. Presently I voiced a thought. Surely we were on a disused road? Longshanks agreed. Soon, he said, we should come upon the place we sought.
It was certainly a road, though overgrown with grass and bramble and flanked by dense forest. Overhead we could see stars.
The way veered to the left. I felt the wind again. But it was not the wind that made me shiver suddenly. I was stifled: the weight of air was appressive. Ahead in a clear space stood a straight post with a broken arm, outlined against the moon. The post marked the junction of roads, and with a sense of apprehension I knew that I saw a gibbet.
"Yes; it is," said Longshanks, answering my thought. "Nobody seems to know about it. The roads are never used."
The moon gave a feeble fight. Behind the gibbet was a building, mouldering into ruin and obviously empty. Longshanks said that it was once an inn. He also said that he was thirsty, though I was not conscious of his remark at the time, being too convinced that I was dreaming, and wondering why I did not remember falling asleep.
* * * *
I still cannot believe in the gibbet at the forgotten cross-roads and the derelict inn behind it, though Longshanks angrily assures me that they exist. But then Longshanks is an artist, and therefore a liar when it suits his purpose. I do know that it was two hours later when we found ourselves back among human beings, and that I was not asleep then, and I had not awakened on the way. So the gibbet must be there.