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The Oxford and Aberystwith Road

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The distance between London and Aberystwith is 207 miles, if we take the route from London to Oxford by way of Maidenhead and Henley-on-Thames. Between London (Hyde Park Corner) and Maidenhead the route is identical with the Bath Road (see pp. 108-120), and branches from it at the end of Maidenhead town to the right. In all the seven miles from this point on to Henley the road is extremely beautiful, passing as it does through woodlands. It is also very hilly. It descends at last steeply to the Thames at Henley Bridge, which we cross into the town. That bridge is often said to be the most beautiful along the whole course of the river. It was built in 1789, and is remarkable for the two finely sculptured heads on the keystones of the centre arch; that on the upstream side representing "Isis," in the head of a woman; the head on the other side typifying "Father Thames," bearded and crowned with river-plants. These were sculptured by that accomplished lady, Anna Dawson Damer. Beside the bridge, on the farther or town side, stands that vast old red-brick coaching hostelry, the Red Lion, on one of whose windows, we are told, the poet Shenstone scratched these famous lines:

Whoe'er has travelled life's dull round.
Where'er his stages may have been,
May sigh to think he still has found
His warmest welcome at an inn.

It would be quite hopeless to destroy that legend, which years ago had such a start that it cannot now be overtaken and disclaimed, once for all; but it may definitely be said that Shenstone did not select the Red Lion at Henley-on-Thames for the purpose. He wrote that melancholy stanza-one of several in a lengthy poem-on a window of the former Sunrising Inn which stood on the crest of Sunrising Hill, near Banbury, and is now a private mansion.

Leaving Henley, the road rises the Fairmile, a beautiful stretch of highway, very broad, with a fine avenue of noble old trees. In a further two miles we pass the village of Bix, and then come to Nettlebed, situated on a common at the highest point in this region of the Chiltern Hills. Beyond Nettlebed a turning on the right would take us to Ewelme. The place-name means "the wells" or "the springs," and here a number of springs gush forth from the chalk and form streams, largely put to use for watercress-growing. But the chief attraction of Ewelme is the beautiful group of church and alms-houses founded by the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk in 1437. In the church is the beautiful altar-tomb of the duchess granddaughter of Chaucer, the poet. She was one of the few ladies who have been created members of the Order of the Garter. The Garter is seen on her effigy, worn on the left arm.

Descending Gangsdown and Beggar's Bush Hills, we come into Benson (formerly Bensington), and thence into the Oxfordshire Dorchester, situated at the confluence of the Thame and Isis, or Thames. The abbey church is notable for its early English leaden font, for its "Jesse window" in the north wall of the chancel, and for the very large east window of reticulated tracery with a buttress running midway up it. The old George inn, on the opposite side of the village street, has a quaint yard. At the foot of the staircase is that old feature of some inns-a "dog-gate," to prevent dogs from finding their way upstairs.

Beyond Dorchester we come to Nuneham Courtney, a "model village" built in 1765 by the autocratic Earl Harcourt, who pulled down all the older village, which stood too near his park and mansion to please his taste. Nuneham was a seat of the late Sir William Harcourt, the Victorian statesman, who died in 1905.

From this point it is not quite six miles into Oxford, through Sandford, Littlemore, Cowley and Iffley. The city of Oxford is entered across Magdalen Bridge and beneath the shadow of the lofty chapel tower of Magdalen College. Coming along the grave scholastic High Street to Carfax, our road proceeds to the right, along St. Giles's and past the Martyrs' Memorial, and thence by the Radcliffe Infirmary, out of the city to Wolvercot, and so to Woodstock. This last was once a Parliamentary borough, but merged into a county division in 1884. Lord Randolph Churchill was the last member. He died January 24, 1895, and is buried at Bladon, close by Woodstock. A large laurel wreath, in bronze, adorns his memorial.

Woodstock is a quiet little glove-making town, situated at the gates of Blenheim, or Woodstock, Park, a vast demesne eleven miles round (and thus considerably larger than Richmond Park). It was the gift of Queen Anne and the nation to John Churchill, the great Duke of Marlborough, the most outstanding military genius this country has produced. Blenheim Palace, built for him also by the nation, is, of course, named from his greatest victory. It is a "palace" because the park was formerly a royal park. It is technically held from the sovereign by an annual act of "petit serjeantry": the presentation at Windsor Castle of a silken flag on the anniversary of the victory of Blenheim. The vast building ol Blenheim Palace by the architect Vanbrugh is of such a scale as to give the impression of being designed for the use of giants.

Beyond Woodstock we come through Enstone to Chipping Norton, passing those cross-roads at which once stood the Chapel House inn, whose real sign, not often heard of, was the Shakespeare's Head. This was the comfortable hostelry at which Dr. Johnson expounded to Boswell his theory that a good inn was the most desirable of places on earth. "You know you are welcome; the more trouble you give, the more good things you call for, the welcomer you are."

Chipping Norton is a little town interested in the manufacture of cloth. In "New Street," which is not new, it possesses what is perhaps the very narrowest of exits or entrances in any town on a main road. By this narrow gullet of a street we leave for Moreton-in-the-Marsh, passing on the way the pillar, without date or inscription of any sort, which is known as the "Four Shire Stone," marking where the boundaries of Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire meet. Moreton is called "in the Marsh," not from any marshy situation, but for the reason that it was situated in the "mark" or "march" (that is, the frontier line of old divisions now forgotten).

In eight miles from this little town we reach Broadway, descending to it by the long steep fall of Broadway Hill. At the cross-roads just before reaching this hill, where a road goes off to the right for Chipping Campden, is a signpost which divides the honour with that at Teddington, near Tewkesbury, of being the oldest in England. The wooden post itself is not old, but the four slim iron arms are original and are dated 1669, with the initials "N.I." which stands for the name of one of the Izod family, at that time landowners in this district. The signpost was, in fact, like many a signpost and milestone of that age, a private act of grace. One of the four roads to which these arms point is no longer in existence, and the mileage of the others is all incorrectly stated; being correctly given on a modern and smaller post which stands beside the old one.

Before descending the hill we have, on the right, the Fish Inn, with the picture of a trout outside, and the lines:

This is the Fish on top of the hill,
But how it got there is more wonderful still.

If there is any story belonging to this, it has long ago been forgotten. The house itself is a charming old architectural work, apparently of the seventeenth century. The interest, however, is all centred about the exterior. The one long street of Broadway really is broad, and thus this considerable village is well named.

The charming picturesque qualities of it and of its old stone-built houses were discovered at the time when Mary Anderson married and became Madame de Navarro. Since then nearly all the houses and cottages have been taken by appreciative persons of wealth; and thus the folk native to Broadway have mostly to live elsewhere. The Lygon Arms is a stately inn of the fifteenth century and later periods, and is very much cared for and luxuriously appointed. In less than another five miles we are at Bengeworth, on the south side of the Avon. Evesham town is on the other side, across the bridge, but the Worcester road does not actually go through Evesham. Here we are in that famous and fertile Vale of Evesham, which is one of the principal fruit-growing districts in England, specialising very largely in plums and those of a yellow variety. Evesham is, therefore, a town very prosperous in the fruit-growing way. Historically it is famous for that bloody Battle of Evesham, August 4, 1265, in which the great Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, was defeated and slain. The once proud abbey, among the richest and noblest in England, was demolished so utterly, after its dissolution, that in a few years (1540) the antiquary Leland could write "gone; a mere heap of rubbish." All that is left of it is the beautiful bell-tower, which was being completed at the time of the abbey's dissolution.

When, in another five miles, we cross the Avon into Pershore, the abbey there will not be found to have suffered so complete a wreck; for, although all its domestic buildings have vanished, the abbey church has in large part survived, although the nave has gone. Pershore is within the fruit-growing region, and is famed for its " Pershore plums."

Coming in nine miles into Worcester, we find a busy city, not in the least like the dreamy cathedral cities portrayed for us by romantic writers. It is a place of thronged streets, electric tramways, a very prosperous trade in hops and in "Worcester Sauce"; and - quite incidentally - it has a cathedral - one of the smaller cathedrals, 394 feet in length. It is a red sandstone building, externally, and stands out well, viewed from outside the city, across the Severn. In the Choir is the altar-tomb, with effigy of King John, 1216. The Battle of Worcester, the last throw of the Royalists, was fought in Worcester's streets, 1651. Charles the Second narrowly escaped capture in his defeat that day. In the Guildhall are two small brass field-pieces then used by his troops. In the Commandery died the Duke of Hamilton, mortally wounded in the fight. The "King Charles House", through which he escaped, is shown.

Crossing the Severn Bridge, and proceeding up through an unlovely suburb, we climb up a lonely road, coming down in nine miles or so to a pretty spot on the river Teme, at Knightsford Bridge, under Ankerdine Hill. Here, completing the picture, is an old coaching inn.

Up and down, over the widespreading broomy commons that give a name to Bromyard, we come to that little town of crooked and narrow streets. In eleven miles Leominster is reached, through Breden-bury and Docklow, and past Steens Bridge railway station. Leominster is a thriving market town. The name of it comes from that Leofric, Earl of Mercia, who lives in our memories to-day not for anything great he may have done, but because he was the husband of that Lady Godiva who, at Coventry, rode through the streets in a nude state, to save the citizens from a crushing tax; the sardonic Leofric having declared he would remit the impost if she would perform that act. Entirely to his surprise, she did. Here at Leominster he founded a monastery, whose remains are incorporated with the workhouse; or "The Institution" as, in our own sensitive age, we would style it. The almshouses founded in 1736 by Mrs. Hester Clarke, in Broadgates, have been rebuilt, but the quaint, original statue is still there, in an alcove, representing a man with a woebegone expression of countenance, wearing a hat and a pair of shoes, and holding a hatchet. For the rest, he is in the same condition as was Lady Godiva, on the memorable occasion already mentioned. Beneath him is the inscription:

He that gives away all
Before he is Dead,
Let 'em take this Hatchet
And knock him on ye head.

In ten miles, through a rural district, we come to the exceedingly picturesque village of Eardisland, and thence to the equally picturesque, but larger, village of Pembridge, which was once a market town. The old timber market-house is now a cart shed, Pembridge is a place of half-timbered and plastered cottages, and the church has a detached belfry.

Through Lyonshall, Penrhos and Kingston we come across the border into Wales, at Stanner.

Here are the wildly-strewn boulders of Stanner Rocks. Here we are in Radnorshire, the most sparsely populated county in England or Wales, and come presently to the village of New Radnor, the capital of the shire; and a very small capital, too. At the entrance to it is an elaborate monument to Sir George Cornewall Lewis, member of a Radnorshire family, who died in 1863. Lewis was long a Member of Parliament, and filled several Cabinet posts in Liberal Administrations. In 1855 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was a man of considerable learning and of enormous industry, and was the originator of the aphorism, "Life would be endurable but for its pleasures."

New Radnor was "new" in the time of Henry the Eighth, when the county of Radnorshire was formed. Old Radnor, consisting of a church and one house, on a hilltop, is old beyond the memory of man. From hence we traverse the wild and lonely region of Radnor Forest; a "forest" in the technical ancient hunting sense; not, as we nowadays would consider a forest to be, a place of woodlands. This, like the Forest of Dartmoor, is a region without trees, or without them in any appreciable number. Welsh place-names now mark our entrance into the Principality; and we pass Llanfihangel-nant-Melan, Llandegley and Pen-y-Bont. At Cross Gates, whose name is a reminiscence of the former turnpike gates which stood here, the road to Llandrindod Wells goes off to the left, three miles. Llandrindod, whose name means the "Church of the Trinity," came into existence as a health resort in the eighteenth century, owing to the discovery of its medicinal springs; but suffered a complete eclipse because of the undesirables who flocked to it from afar, to prey upon its fashionable visitors. It has, in modern times, more than recovered its former vogue, and has become a considerable town of red brick set amidst the grey-green of the Radnorshire hills. Most of its houses are hotels and boarding-establishments.

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