OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

The Bath Road of Yesterday and To-day

Pages: <1>

There is not the least difficulty in tracing the course of the Bath Road. It is one hundred and six miles in length and is measured from Hyde Park Corner. For the first ten miles the Bath Road and the Exeter Road are identical. They part company at the western end of Hounslow. All those ten miles of what we well may now call "London" were in the old coaching days not a little dangerous. They are so now, but for a different reason. We have exchanged the perils of the highwayman for the dangers of the traffic. Of old, the wayfarers went in little bands, for safety's sake. To-day, people for the like reason cross the roads, if they are wise, not singly, but in groups for fear of the traffic.

Along Knightsbridge we go, to Kensington Gore and through High Street, Kensington; and so to Hammersmith Broadway. Thence by King Street and the Chiswick High Road to Turnham Green. Beyond this we come to Gunnersbury and Brentford, whose long narrow street smells furiously of gas. Recently, however, an avoiding road has been made, by which Brentford's narrow and odorous pass, with its tramway lines, can be cut out. This new road, the "Western Road," taking off to the right at Gunnersbury, is some six miles in length and rejoins, the old main road beyond Hounslow Barracks. But if we go through Brentford we come to Syon House and park, a seat of the Duke of Northumberland. The handsome colonnaded screen by the Adam brothers is crested by the Percy stiff -tailed lion and flanked by two sphinxes.

Through Isleworth and the long, uninteresting street of Hounslow we come to that parting of the ways where the Exeter Road goes off to the left and the Bath Road to the right. Soon we see the Hounslow Barracks, away to the left, and the railway terminal station of the same name to the right, and then the junction with the new "Western Road." All this was Hounslow Heath, now a region of orchards and market gardens. The highwaymen who infested these wilds were as dangerous as any, and responsible for many murders. Thus we come at Sipson Green to a group of cottages and two old inns which were the spot at which Mr. Mellish was shot dead by these pests on an evening in 1798. He was. returning in his carriage from a day's hunting at Windsor, when the carriage was fired on in the dark opposite that old thatched inn, the Old Magpies. The shot entered and struck Mr. Mellish in the forehead. He was carried into the other inn, the Three Magpies, where he died. The doctor who was sent for was robbed by the same gang.

The river Colne is crossed at Longford and again at Colnbrook, in whose narrow street the Elizabethan inn, the Ostrich, and the Queen Anne or early Georgian George face one another. Gory old legends of murdered travellers belong, not to the existing Ostrich, but to a former house on the same site, in the remote times of Henry the First. Presently, eighteen and a half miles from London, we come to Langley Broom, and then see on the right the church of Langley Marish. In the churchyard are the Kederminster almshouses. Sir John Kederminster built them midway in the seventeenth century, and built also the extraordinary family pew in the church, to which he also added the curious library still there.

And now into Slough, which was once a mere hamlet but, owing to the presence of the Great Western Railway, is now a town. One mile to the left is Eton, with Windsor, and to the right is the woodland of Burnham Beeches. Salt Hill, on our way out ol Slough past the cross-roads, took its name from an ancient custom annually observed by Eton scholars of gathering here on a certain day to solicit " salt," or contributions from travellers. The custom dated from times when the scholars were poor; but it was continued until 1844 as a pageant, and was well known as "Montem." This name came from a mound, which may be prehistoric, on the left in Chalvey Lane.

The descent to the Thames at Taplow is past a huge modern assemblage of motor works, which originated in the Cippenham Motor Depot established by the Government during the Great War. From Taplow we cross Maidenhead bridge into the town of Maidenhead, thence rising to the noble avenue of trees bordering the road on the common of Maidenhead Thicket. Then come the pretty hamlets of Littlewick, Knowl Hill and Hare Hatch. To these succeeds Twyford, with beyond it a turning on the right for Sonning, that pretty spot on the Thames. Thence a descent into Reading, that ever-expanding "town of biscuits, seeds and sauce." A bronze statue prominent in Reading's streets to Mr. George Palmer, of the firm of Huntley and Palmer, is probably unique, for it not only shows him in his everyday garb with a silk hat in hand, but includes also an umbrella.

A long gradual rise leads out of the town to a beautifully rural sequence of seventeen miles as far as Newbury. This district is largely the valley of the Kennet. That little river for long distances runs parallel with the road on the left. On the way we pass Calcot Row, Theale, the wayside inn called "Jack's Booth," Aldermaston railway station, and the conjoined villages of Midgeham and Woolhamp-ton, whose joint railway station was altered to "Midgeham," because of the confusion that often occurred by reason of a specious likeness of the place-name to that of far-off Wolverhampton. There are old coaching inns at Woolharnpton, notably the Angel, once again busy with road traffic. The Bath Road came into existence, in its entirety, at a comparatively late period; when "the Bath," as the city of Bath often was styled, became fashionable and the way to it greatly travelled, from the middle of the seventeenth century down to the decay of coaching in the first half of the nineteenth. Hence we find several towns and villages to be actually not on this road but joined to it with by-roads. So it is with Thatcham, approaching Newbury. It is a decayed old town, now a village. The same applies to Newbury itself. The old street we pass through is that of Speenhamland, an ancient suburb of the yet more ancient Newbury, to the left. At Speenhamland was a very galaxy of old inns, of which the most famous was the Pelican. That fame survives to this day-although the inn itself does not-by reason of its extravagant charges, as to which the actor, Quin, wrote in its visitors' book:

The famous inn at Speenhamland
That lies beneath the hill,
May well be called the "Pelican,"
From its enormous bill.

Speenhamland does not lie beneath any hill, but it was necessary to find a rhyme for "bill."

Newbury town, famed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for its cloth-weaving industry and for "Jack of Newbury," who died in 1519, long ago lost its textile manufactures, and is now just an agricultural market-town, with a race-course on its southern verge. The old Cloth Hall, now a museum, stands beside the Rennet and Avon canal. Two severe but indecisive battles took place outside Newbury in 1643 and 1644; one on Newbury Wash common, to the south, and the other round Shaw House, to the north; while also on the north are the bold towers of Donnington Castle, which long held out for Charles the First.

The way out of Speenhamland goes uphill to Speen; the river Rennet soon reappearing on the left. Sixty and a half miles from London there is a bold castellated old toll-house marking the halfway or thereabouts between London and Bristol. We cross the Rennet at the approach to Hungerford. That town also is completely off the road, to the left; only the old coaching inn the Bear being on it. Froxfield, in a further three miles, is heralded by a quaint almshouse founded in 1686 by the Duchess of Somerset, for fifty widows of clergymen. From one cause or another there is accommodation for only fifteen. Froxfield itself is now a village of delightfully rural character at the approach to Savernake Forest, that noble woodland, once royal property and now belonging to the Marquess of Ailesbury.

The strange sight of a gate across the public road marks the entrance to the forest, at whose farther end begins a long descent into Marlborough town. At the entrance is the Five Alls inn, with pictorial sign displaying a king, "I rule all"; a clergyman, "I pray for all"; a lawyer, "I plead for all"; a soldier, "I fight for all"; and a farmer -like John Bull- "I pay for all." Marlborough is a handsome old town with a very broad street of notable architectural character, the result of seventeenth and eighteenth century rebuildings after conflagrations had destroyed the older thatched houses. Since 1843, Marlborough has become a place of note as the site of Marlborough College, then founded in what had been one of the finest of inns: the famous Castle, the scene of Stanley Weyman's "Castle Inn." This had been originally a stately mansion of the Seymour family. Most of the English aristocracy had at one time or another been guests at the Castle on their journeys to and from Bath, one exceptionally autocratic personage indeed, Pitt, the great Earl of Chatham, stayed there for weeks, but only on the proviso that he should be the only guest and have the house to himself and his suite.

When the traveller leaves Marlborough, he bids good-bye for a good many miles to enclosed country and enters a wild region. The way goes open to Marlborough Downs, amid the dolmens and the tumuli of the prehistoric dead. It toils over the swelling hills past Fyfield and Overton, and comes dramatically to Silbury Hill: that "largest earthwork in Europe," whose purpose and age no man knoweth. That it was here when the Romans came is obvious, for here we are on a stretch of Roman road, which swerves somewhat out of the straight to avoid it. Silbury Hill, wholly artificial, is 170 feet in height, and its base covers five acres. It is a part of the ancient temple, far older than Stonehenge, of Avebury, whose stone circles and vast ditches and mounds are off to the right, at the village of Avebury.

Beyond this mysterious Silbury Hill we have a fork of roads at Beckhampton. Either way leads to Bath: that to the left through Devizes: the other, the true Bath Road, which we will take, through Calne and Chippenham. The brick mansion, now part of a training establishment for race-horses, seen in the angle between the two routes was once an exclusive hostelry, Beckhampton inn. Presently, on the right, we have the picturesque thatched old Waggon and Horses. This is a Dickens landmark: the original, indeed, of "the inn on Marlborough Downs" referred to by the narrator of "The Bagman's Story" in chapter XIV of "The Pickwick Papers."

It is a mile from this point across Cherhill Downs, whose noble contours are crested by the lofty pillar known as the "Lansdowne Column." Near by it, cut in the chalky hillside, is a White Horse, a very conspicuous object, cut in 1780, but of no historic interest. The road descends to Quemerford, and into Calne, a small town largely devoted to the production of Wiltshire bacon, but formerly a cloth-weaving centre. Out of it the highway rises steeply to Black Dog Hill, where, on the left are the lordly gates of Bowood, seat of the Marquess of Lansdowne. A descent of New Derry Hill leads into Chippenham, an old stone-built town interested also in bacon and of late years in the manufacture of "condensed milk." At rather more than a mile onward is the tree-shaded hamlet of Pickwick, where the first forbear of Moses Pickwick, coach-proprietor of Bath, is supposed to have been picked up as a foundling infant. It was from this Moses Pickwick that Dickens chose the name for his Samuel Pickwick Esquire. In one mile farther we are in Corsham: properly "Corsham Regis." Here is Corsham Court, seat of Lord Methuen. This also was a cloth-weaving centre, and some picturesque cottages that were inhabited by Flemish weavers remain. Corsham is now a village of quarries, for here and at Box is quarried that well-known building material "Bath stone." The Hunger-ford almshouses, built in 1672, are very picturesque.

Now comes the long rise of Box Hill, with glimpses of the famous Box Tunnel of the Great Western Railway. Its length of close upon one mile and three-quarters made it famous, but we have made longer railway tunnels since then. Descending the western side of the hill the stone-built village of Box is passed, when a further descent is made to Bathford and Batheaston. Here the foaming weirs on the river Avon form a pretty picture, before we come to the close phalanx of houses in Bath's streets, shutting out the view. Electric tramways conduct into the centre of the city.

Bath lies in a hollow of the hills. Lansdowne and Combe Down look upon it from an eminence of some hundreds of feet, and there are times when the steamy air of the hollow is particularly enervating. The beginnings of Bath were some 2,800 years ago, when, according to tradition, Prince Bladud, a leper, was cured of his disease by the warm medicinal springs that ever since then have been the fortune of this very oldest of our health resorts. To the Romans it was "Aquae Sulis," or alternatively "Solis": either the waters dedicated to the obscure ancient British goddess Sul, or else the Waters of the Sun. The fortunes of Bath have waxed and waned, but they never have been extinguished. It is to a resurgence in those fortunes in the eighteenth century that we owe the present stately appearance of Bath, the Woods rebuilding it on a classic model, so that, instead of being a small medieval town, it grew into a something it had never aspired to be, even in those times of Roman Britain when those baths whose ruins we see were built. The eighteenth century Pump Room and the King's and Queen's Bath are fully the equal of whatever the Romans made of their health resort here.

Bath has a stately, classic dignity; and yet in its very midst rises a something Gothic: a something that caught the architectural glories of the Middle Ages. It is the Abbey Church, whose lofty tower, left incomplete in 1572, actually was not finished until 1609. The interior of Bath Abbey church is a very Valhalla of invalids real and imaginary, who came to Bath to be eased of their ills; and, so eased, elected to remain and enjoy the gay society of this fashionable place. When in the fullness of time they were gathered to their fathers, their monuments appeared upon the walls, mostly in the form of tablets. In this way, the Abbey is, as it were, another Westminster. Well might the humorist write of it: These walls so full of monument and bust. Show how Bath's waters serve to lay the dust.

Pages: <1>

Pictures for The Bath Road of Yesterday and To-day

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About