The Secret Places XVII & XVIII

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' idly rambling 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.



Longshanks had vowed (he said) to drink cherry brandy with the ghost of Dickens at the Crown Inn at Sarre, on the Canterbury road, but first, it being the vigil of Christmas, we went to St. Nicholas up at Wade above the Thanet marshes, to hear the first carols of the village hand-bell ringers. There were we constrained to drink with them in their sadly modern tavern under the gaunt church, so that we were late in starting for Sarre. Longshanks feared that Dickens, who kept regular hours, would have gone, and so we sought a guide who would take us by the shorter way of the brook lands. But he being full of Christmas ale, we left him (roaring great songs into the frosty night) outside a shepherd’s croft and departed thence with all speed, alone.
  We felt the wind shifting; the little easting in it stung our faces. And then it began to snow.
Longshanks and I tramped silently and in file, intent on keeping to the narrow path between the brooks. Presently he threw an enormous Lating oath over his shoulder at me and said that Dickens could drink his cherry brandy in company with the motorists who were of a surety at the Crown Inn that night, and that we would go to another place where there were good Christian men. And, being happier because of his saying, I joined him in the merry lay that St. Leonard sang before the Crib in the little church of Shermanbury in holy Sussex centuries ago.
  Thus we came at last to Capel (which is not its name), but not singing now because of the solemn stillness of the place. Even the wind shrilled no more. Under a frey wall we paused to rest, for we had yet another mile to go. And out of the silence came the sonorous words of the Little Chapter of the First Vespers of Christmas :–
  “Apparuit benignitas et humanitas salvatoris nostri Dei. . . .”
  The voice stopped. A whispered “Deo gratias” filled the silence; then came the great hymn, “Jesu, Redemptory Omnium,” sung quietly yet joyfully against the age-distant organ, the Canticle of the Virgin, the Collect of Christmas, a long quiet, then (as we knew it must come) the merry singing of the final antiphon.
  The wind shrilled in the trees again, and an owl called from a barn across the road. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked as the noise of a ship’s siren lifted across the Thanet marshes. Longshanks and I crept round the wall and found ourselves in the skeleton of a church. It had no roof, no complete wall behind the sanctuary, and a startled night-bird swooped through the empty nave. Snow lay thick on the earth floor, and had drifted into a heap where the altar had once been. And of those who had sung the First Vespers of Christmas we saw nothing.
  Thereafter we went out from that place and, passing through the silent village, climbed a hill and entered a fenced park. Bright lights showed among trees that were black upon the snow. We heard a jolly singing, and in a little while we were close enough to see through uncertainness windows a great gathering of people. Then we knew why the village was deserted.
  For all that we were unexpected, our host, a great, hearty man, gave us welcome, and seeing our blue noses brought us to a table whereon was a tremendous bowl of steaming punch. We had to drink before the ceremony of removing our coats was begun.
  Everyone for miles round must have been in that great hall. They received us joyfully, pressed food and drink upon us, and bade us sing with them, though being a man of Sussex I had no liking for their songs. Besides, I was greatly anhungered, and not knowing whither Longshanks would take me before the holy night was done, I was minded to provision myself against a long fast.
  But we lay that night in our host’s guest-room. On the morrow’s morning Longshanks woke me while it was yet dark and bade me dress with all speed. And because I was bemused by the night’s happenings and particularly by the singing of the First Vespers of Christmas, I obeyed him and afterwards crept obediently with him downstairs.
  Later, as we tramped eastward over the crisp snow he said that we were on our way to Mass at Minster, and that he had left a note for our host, thanking him for his hospitality and apologising for our intrusion overnight. For fear of being pestered by my conscience I did not question Longshanks, but I strongly suspected that he did not know our host at all.

*               *               *               *

  It was strange, though that I should have awakened later and found myself at the Crown Inn at Sarre.



When morning was come and a threat of snow lay along the rim of the eastward flats, Longshanks and I left the railway cabin in which we had spent the night and bade farewell to the indignant linesman who had expelled us. But being uncouth he gave us only curses for answer, and so, blowing on our numbed fingers and stamping on the frozen ground, we crossed the rails and sought the Medway, in which we would have bathed but that Longshanks had toothache.
  Instead we looked gloomily across the swirling water and decided that Caesar was wise in that he went into winter quarters and regaled himself with oysters and mead (a horrid mixture) before the feast of Saturn. Also we lacked food.
  A man who had been doing something to a beached yawl a little below us left unimportant task and set a fry-pan on a glowing bucket-brazier. We heard a frizzling, and the strong smell of fat bacon mingled with the smell of snow in the wind. We turned sadly away. It was Friday. Our ancestors had not wrought so valorously in the Crusades as those Spaniards, whose descendants, as a reward, are dispensed from abstinence on Fridays.
  Our plight was serious, for at the post office at Birchington they had told us that the letter that we expected had not arrived, and as a consequence we were without money, which is an offense in law and is also very troublesome. Wherefore Longshanks said that we must go with all speed to Rochester and find the hostel where seven poor travellers (being neither rogues nor proctors) are nightly housed and entertained and given fourpence, according to the bequest of one Richard Watts, Esquire, a kindly gentleman, and where, by the grace of God, we should find suitable ministration. He added that we might be able to escape before we were compelled to complete the ritual by retiring to the bed that would be prepared for us.
  As we went towards Rochester we came upon a sturdy fellow who was sitting on a stump and sharpening a jack-knife on an anchor. He told us at once that he was a man of Canvey, and since we looked hungry, would we share his “elevens’s”? Suspiciously we asked the nature of his food, and when he said salt pork we refused it sorrowfully. He therefore gave us a drink from his can, which contained small ale, and with rebellious stomachs we continued our way.
  And so at last we came to Rochester and went swiftly to the hostelry, where we said that we were poor travelers and neither rogues nor proctors, and could we have of their hospitality according to bequest of Richard Watts, Esquire? The people received us with much kindness in that when they found that we had no money they did not beat us and have us thrown into the street but they pointed out that the bequest said “lodging for the night, entertainment and fourpence in the morning,” and it was now but high noon. Thereupon Longshanks said that we would be content if we might have lunch, and, if it must be so, we could sleep in their bed through the afternoon and depart with the fourpence apiece when darkness came.
  “And if that be impossible,” he added, “then will I paint you a sign-board–for it is a disgrace to Rochester that you have none–and you shall feed us and also give us the fourpence apiece.”
  And as a good Englishman and, moreover, a man of Kent, the warden compromised, and giving us food and strong ale–which lay more quietly on our stomachs than did the earlier beer–he set us painting his pig-sty. But he would not give us fourpence apiece when we had done, and so we departed sadly, and casting the dust of that inhospitable place from off our shoes, we went southwards into the Weald.

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