Historic Scenes Along the Exeter Road
Between London and Exeter the distance by the historic Exeter Road is 172¾ miles. The road is measured from Hyde Park Corner, and it and the Bath Road go in common from thence to the western end of Hounslow, where they part company; the Exeter Road proceeding to Staines, by way of East Bedfont. Between those places extended of old the dreaded Hounslow Heath, a lone waste of what was thought to be worthless land. But the Heath was broken up and brought under cultivation, and it was found to possess soil above the average in fertility. The region is, in short, one of exceptionally productive market-gardens.
East Bedfont is a small visage, lying back from the road behind its village green. The huge clipped yews that grace the entrance to the church are of great age. They are not now kept so trim as of old, but they still bear the semblance of those peacocks into which long ago they were fashioned. Huge earthworks on the right of the road on the way to Staines enclose the vast reservoirs of the Metropolitan Water Board.
Staines stands on or about the site of the Roman station, Ad Pontes. Evidently bridges in Roman times here crossed the Thames and its tributaries. The Staines bridge of our own times replaces an older, which spanned the river a little lower down than now. If we would see exactly where it reached the other side, we have but to cross the present bridge and turn to our left, where in the quiet old street of Egham Hithe is seen, again on the left, a house called "Old Bridge Cottage." This was a toll-house at this side of Staines old bridge, whose abutment remains as a river wall. Egham Hithe, therefore, was then part of the Exeter Road.
Proceeding to Egham, we have on the right that historic meadow, Runnymede, where King John affixed his seal unwillingly to Magna Charta. Egham was once a mighty place for coaching inns. Most of these are of the past, but the Red Lion is left in part, although the bulk of it is now in use as District Council offices. Beyond Egham is Windsor Great Park, with the lake of Virginia Water on the right. The cascades of the river Bourne thunder down on the other side of the park fence, over huge boulders brought in the time of George III from Dartmoor, at the time when the lake of Virginia Water was formed. Here, too, is the "ruined temple," built up from genuine columns brought from the ruins of Carthage.
When, in the seventeenth century, travellers pro ceeding by Sunningdale approached Bagshot, they came into that place past "Bow-wow." Why the approach to Bagshot was so called is not definitely stated; but there can be little doubt but that the name was applied through the kennels of the king's hounds being there, or near. For Bagshot Park, now the seat of the Duke of Connaught, has long been a Royal park, and various sovereigns hunted there. The King's Head, an old coaching inn, is on the left.
Bagshot Heath was long thought to be worthless. Nothing would grow on it, for the soil was covered with a natural deposit of oxide of iron. But the experiment of breaking this up was tried, with much success in the way of cultivation; and the heath, to which Gay refers, is a thing of the past:
Prepar'd for war, now Bagshot Heath we cross,
Those and other kinds of highwaymen gleaned from travellers what the earlier highwaymen of Hounslow Heath had missed, if any.
At the farther end of Bagshot, on its hill, stands the Jolly Farmer inn, formerly the Golden Farmer; so named after one William Davis, a farmer whose house was here. He was called the "Golden Farmer" because his payments were made always in gold; never in notes. The gold was what he had taken as a highwayman. He was hanged and his body gibbeted here. Past the military region of Camberley we come to Blackwater, and, entering Hampshire, emerge upon the common called Hartford Bridge Flats; descending to Hartford Bridge, Hartley Row and Hook. What is now a private residence, the "Old Raven House," on the right, was once the Raven inn, where "Jack the Painter,'' who set fire to Portsmouth Dockyard, was arrested. Nately Scures, in another mile or so, is an insignificant ecclesiastical parish, with a little Norman church on the left, next a farm. Passing Mapledurwell Hatch, and the King's Head, the village of Old Basing, with the ruins of Basing House, is on the right. Basing House, garrisoned by the Royalists, endured a siege of four years, ending in October 1645.
Basingstoke, which we now enter, is called in Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" "Stoke Barehills." The former Old Angel coaching inn, immediately on the left as we proceed through the town, is now a temperance hotel. In the time of Jane Austen the house had attached to it an assembly room to which resorted the fashionables of that period. It can be entered from the former coach-yard; but the room where the county society then made merry is now deserted.
Leaving Basingstoke and proceeding through Worting, the road continues along a pleasant vale, by Clerken Green, Dean, Overton and Laverstoke, where for over two hundred years the Portal family have enjoyed the exclusive right to make the paper on which the Bank of England notes are printed. Coming into Whitchurch, we have on the right the old White Hart coaching inn, where a young curate, afterwards to become famous as Cardinal Newman, wrote in 1832 the first verses of his "Lyra Apostolica" while waiting for the Exeter and Falmouth mail-coach. Past the church and the broad acres of Hurstbourne Park, seat of the Earl of Portsmouth, the highway ascends and then descends Andover Down, into Andover, where the George inn reminds those who are interested in curious old election lore of that quaint incident in the candidature of Sir Francis Blake Delaval in the eighteenth century in which the solicitor and election agent of Sir Francis played a sorry hoax upon the officers of a regiment stationed there and the Mayor and Town Council; sending each party an invitation to dinner purporting to come from the other. Unfortunately for this practical joker he was pressnt to enjoy the fun of it, and the deed was fixed upon him. What was the result we gather from the following account, which he had the impudence to send to his client: To being thrown out of the window of the George Inn, Andover; to my leg being thereby broken; to surgeon's bill and loss of time and business; all in the service of Sir Francis Delaval, £500.
It is nine miles from Andover into Salisbury. In the course of those nine miles we leave the valley of the Ann, or Anton, in which are the quaintly-named villages of Abbot's Ann and Little Ann, and, past the yet more oddly-named villages oi Middle. Over and Nether Wallop, come upon the open heaths at Lobcomb Corner, and thence to the wayside inn called Winterslow Hut, whose real sign is the "Pheasant." Here it was that on the night of October 20, 1816, while the up mail-coach from Exeter was going at a good pace, one of the leading coach horses was attacked by a lioness, escaped from a menagerie at Salisbury fair. Fortunately the showman's men came up and captured the animal before the horse was too badly mauled. The horse, named "Pomegranate," afterwards won a race.
Down Three Mill Hill we come into Salisbury originally styled "New Sarum." Rarely can we ever put-a date to the beginnings of any among our ancient towns and cities, but in this instance the exact date can be fixed. It was on April 28, 1220, that Bishop Poore, of Old Sarum, in response to a vision, laid the foundation of the present cathedral in what, until then, had been a meadow; the city then being founded to replace Old Sarum, one-and-a-half miles north. Salisbury has numerous picturesque buildings, the fifteenth century Poultry Cross, the George inn, in the High Street, where Samuel Pepys stayed, as he tells us in his diary; St. Ann's Gate; and, of course, several fine old mansions in the Cathedral Close.
It should be noted that an alternative route to Exeter branches off west of Andover, going by Wey-hill, Park House, Amesbury, Stonehenge, Wylye, Hindon, Mere, Ilchester and Ilminster, rejoining the present route at Honiton. Stonehenge, standing lonely on that wild expanse called Salisbury Plain - which is a rolling region of downs and by no means so flat as the term "plain" would imply - looks small, for all its size, amid that vastness.
Samuel Pepys, who lived before the age of science, coming here in 1668, notes in his diary how timorous he was of this place. "God knows what its use was!" he exclaims.
Stonehenge has now been scheduled as an "Ancient Monument." It was purchased in 1918 by Mr. C. H. E. Chubb, for £6,600, at auction, and was presented by him to the nation. He was in the following year created a baronet, and took as a motto "Saxis condita": that is, "Founded on the stones." Stonehenge, about 1908, was enclosed with a barbed-wire fence and an admission fee of one shilling charged. This yields over £360 yearly.
A further alternative route which, like this on which Stonehenge is situated, was an important mail-coach route, leaves Salisbury for Wilton by way of Swallowcliffe, Shaftesbury, Henstridge Ash, Milborne Port, Sherborne, Yeovil, Crewkerne and Chard, rejoining the main route, as does the other, at Honiton. Sherborne, the "Sherton Abbas" of Thomas Hardy's "Woodlanders," is notable for its beautiful Abbey church and for Sherborne School. Outside the town is Sherborne Castle, seat of the Digby family, formerly a residence of Sir Walter Raleigh. This is one of the several places in which, by tradition, Sir Walter smoked his first pipe of tobacco in England; being drenched by an ancient servitor who threw a bucket of water over him, under the mistaken impression that his master was on fire.
Resuming the main road from Salisbury, passing St. Ann's gate, we cross the ancient Harnham Bridge, there bidding good-bye to the water-meadows in the pleasant valley of the Avon, and ascend to a wild stretch of downland, going mostly unfenced and open, with dumpling hills all the way, twenty-three miles into Blandford. A pretty interlude, three miles out from Salisbury, where the river Ebele crosses the road, is the very rustic village of Coombe Bissett. Seven miles beyond this is the old Woodyates inn. Away on the heath to the left is the spot where the unfortunate Duke of Monmouth was captured, on his flight from Sedge-moor, 1685 (see p. 559). He was found by an ash tree. An ash sprung from the old tree is there, and is well-known as " Monmouth Ash." The church seen in the distance to left of Woodyates inn, on the hilly skyline, is that of Pentridge, the " Trant-ridge " of Thomas Hardy's " Tess of the D'Urber-villes." In the church is a tablet set up in 1902 " To the Memory of Robert Browning, of Woodyates in this parish, who died 25th November, 1746, and is the first known forefather of Robert Browning, the poet. He was formerly footman and butler in the Bankes family."
The road descends from Pimperne into Blandford, entering that old market town by a narrow and crooked street, as though by a back door: an impression heightened by its emergence into an exceptionally wide High Street, running at right angles. In that narrow approach street is the house where Alfred Stevens, the sculptor, designer of the Wellington Memorial in St. Paul's Cathedral, was born, 1817. That High Street of Blandford is stately, with a definite architectural quality not often seen in English country towns. This is due to the great fire which destroyed most of Blandford in 1731, necessitating the rebuilding of most of it. Leaving Blandford - formerly known as "Bland-ford Forum" (a pedantic way of saying "Blandford Market"), and styled by Thomas Hardy "Shottsford Forum" - we cross the Stour bridge, with the great mansion of Bryanstone, now to be converted into a public school, on the right.
It is sixteen miles of hilly road on to Dorchester, passing the very rustic villages of Winterbourne Whitchurch and Milborne St. Andrew. Between these two, away to the right, is the sequestered village of Milton Abbas, in its deep hollow, with the noble ancient Abbey church, in perfect condition, now used as the private chapel of the mansion of the Hambro family. The village is an early example of a "model" village, and was built in the eighteenth century by Lord Dorchester.
Now we come to Piddletown, in the heart of the "Hardy Country." It is the "Weatherbury" of Thomas Hardy's Wessex novels. In the fine church is the Martin chapel, in which are monuments of that knightly family, with their mirror and monkey badge, and the motto, "He who looks at Martin's ape, Martin's ape shall look at him." Outside Piddletown, on the north, is Walterstone, the old mansion which Hardy had in mind as the home of Bathsheba Everdene, in "Far From the Madding Crowd."
Rising Yellowham Hill, and then descending, we come into Dorchester. Between the hill and the town, to the left, is Stinsford, the novelist's "Mellstock," and close at hand is the cottage at Upper Bockhampton where he was born in 1840.
We enter Dorchester past the meadows of Ten Hatches and over Grey's Bridge, the scene of Henchard's despair in the last pages of "The Mayor of Casterbridge." (Dorchester figures in Hardy's novels as "Casterbridge.") At the centre of the town is S. Peter's church. A bronze statue outside is to the Rev. William Barnes, the Dorset rustic poet, who died in 1886. On the pedestal are the lines, quoted from his own works, in the Dorset dialect:
Zoo now I hope his kindly feace
The "Bloody Assize," held by Jeffreys at Dorchester in 1685, to try the prisoners taken in the Monmouth Rebellion, resulted in 292 of the 300 prisoners being sentenced to death. The "Judge's Lodgings," in the High West Street, are still pointed out.
The ten miles between Dorchester and Bridport form the hilliest stretch of the Exeter Road. Passing Winterbourne Abbas, the Blackdown hills loom up on the left, with the monument to Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy crowning the highest point. At Travellers' Rest wayside inn the road descends swiftly towards Bridport. In the levels, one mile short of that town, Lee Lane goes off to the right, into the village of Bradpole. Here is a monument, set up in 1901, with the inscription:
King Charles II
This was an incident in the flight of Charles the Second after the Battle of Worcester, in 1651. He eventually reached Brighthelmstone (Brighton), and escaped thence across the Channel.
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