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The Portsmouth Road and Its Memories

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Among the great roads of England, the Portsmouth Road is remarkable for the widespreading and beautiful commons through which it passes. England was like that throughout in the old days; but Enclosure Acts in the eighteenth century so changed the face of the country that fields and cultivation replaced the wild heaths and common lands which once extended for miles.

So the road between London and Portsmouth is exceptional. It also is, exceptionally, what we well may term the "Sailors' Highway." It is so for the excellent reason that it leads to our greatest dockyard and naval port. This finely romantic highway was in olden times measured from the "Stones End" in the borough of Southwark. "Stones End" originally meant the ultimate verge of London's paved streets. Beyond that you then had unmetalled roads. The name "Stones End" survives to-day only in that of a police station at the approach to Newington Causeway. From this point the distance to Portsmouth was computed to be seventy-three miles. There is little difference in the mileage for the motorist of to-day, who may choose to go by Westminster Bridge to Kennington, Stockwell, Clapham and Wandsworth; or preferably by Hyde Park Corner, Brompton, Fulham and Putney Bridge, joining up with the Wandsworth route on Putney Heath.

So, past this heath and Wimbledon Common, the first of those commons of which we have already spoken, we come down Kingston Vale, by the Robin Hood Gate of Richmond Park. Among the modern alterations to old roads is the "Kingston bypass" road. This takes off opposite the Robin Hood Gate and sweeps round through open country, rejoining the historic Portsmouth Road at the approach to Esher. The town of Kingston-on-Thames is thus conveniently cut out.

Kingston is infested with electric tramways. There is, however, a certain picturesque quality about the market place, and the succeeding riverside interlude is pretty. The modern town of Surbiton, which we skirt, is a typical example of a Victorian stuccoesque suburb, and the waterworks at Ditton do not add any grace to the view. Passing these, we come up to another series of commons - Giggs Hill Green, Littleworth Common, and Ditton Marsh. It is at the farther end of this that the Kingston by-pass road comes in, on the left. Note on the right the tall cylindrical old milestone, dated 1767, standing by the Orleans Arms. This is the object which used by coachmen, and later by cyclists, to be called the "White Lady." Here begins the rise to the hill-top village of Esher, past the green expanse of Sandown Park with its race-course.

Esher has, in the hall of that old coaching inn, the Bear, a curious relic of former road travel, a pair of postilion's boots, kept in a glass case. These were worn by the rider who brought to Esher in 1848 the fugitive king of the French, Louis Philippe, fleeing from his subjects to the asylum afforded him at Claremont by Queen Victoria. The old church stands beside the inn. In it is the former Claremont Royal pew (much like a box at the Opera), built at the time when the Princess Charlotte, only child of George the Fourth, and married to Prince Leopold of Coburg, was residing here. Had she lived she, and not the Duke of Clarence afterwards William IV, would have succeeded to the throne, and there would have been no Queen Victoria. Claremont, built originally by the Earl of Clare, and rebuilt by the great Lord Clive, became a Crown property. Here Queen Victoria spent some months of her early married life. Granted to the Duke of Albany, the property was sold later to Sir William Corry. The estate is now about to be cut up for building. A new church was erected at Esher in early Victorian times, and this also is suitably provided with a Royal pew. It resembles a drawing-room.

Along the wild uplands, past Horseshoe Clump, goes the road, past the "fair mile" and down through Cob-ham Street to cross the river Mole. The old original village of Cobham is away to the left. After crossing the Mole bridge we rise Pain's Hill, under a picturesque suspension bridge, and come to the exceptionally lovely common of Wisley, and thence to the romantic lake called Wisley Pond, or, more romantically, "Boldermere." The original small wayside inn of coaching days, Wisley Hut, has long been replaced by something more ornate.

And so past Ockham Park into Ripley, that old-world village with its great old coaching inn, the Talbot and the more rustic Anchor. It was at the humbler Anchor that the early cyclists - when cyclists were unusual and not liked - found hospitality when refused it elsewhere, and from these beginnings the " Ripley Road," as long these first twenty-four miles of this road were known, became so popular with the cycling fraternity. Ripley Green, on the right hand, is in fact much more than a green; it is one of the largest of commons. Away across it are the picturesque ruins of Newark Priory, near the not less picturesque Newark Mill.

Guildford, six miles onward, is reached after passing the gateway of Sutton Place. The place-name "Guildford" has no connexion with guilds. It derives from the old British name of the river Wey, which was the "Gwili." The steeply descending High Street of Guildford is among the most picturesque streets of any town in England. Easily to be missed by the stranger, because it is off to the left, is Guildford Castle, whose Norman keep is still sturdy, though roofless. No story of siege or battle attaches to it. The chief features of the High Street are the noble almshouse built in 1622 by George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the quaint Guildhall, whose great bracketed clock, dated 1683, stretches far out above the pavement. At the foot of the High Street we cross the river Wey and steeply rise -to St. Catherine's Hill, whose ruined pilgrims' chapel is seen against the skyline. This was one of the numerous chapels on that ancient track, the famous Pilgrims' Way, between Southampton and Canterbury. Turner painted St. Catherine's Chapel. It looked much the same then as it does now.

The road now goes level, across Peasmarsh Common and into Godalming, an old town of narrow streets. On the hills to the right is the great Charterhouse School, built here when that old foundation was removed from London in 1870. A further level run of two miles leads to Milford. From hence to Hindhead you have, in five and a half miles, an almost uninterrupted stretch of the wildest of commons, leading up lengthily to that place of ominous name, the Devil's Punchbowl. Until the last years of the eighteenth century the road wound away to the left, to the very crest of where the cross stands on Gibbet Hill, one of the several memorials of the murder of a sailor who in 1786 was murdered by three ruffians when tramping the road to rejoin his ship at Portsmouth. The three men were duly hanged and their bodies gibbeted on the hilltop. A headstone recounting the facts stands beside the present road, where you look down into that deep cuplike hollow, the Devil's Punchbowl.

Until recent years this place was extremely lonely. The only house was The Huts inn. Then about 1887 Professor Tyndall built himself a house and gave wids publicity to the bracing air of these heights. Now Hindhead is a "residential district." Turning off to the right, the explorer will find the parish church of Thursley. On the lonely north side of the churchyard is the spot where the unknown murdered sailor was buried. A tombstone with a grisly piece of sculpture representing the murder is there.

A long, long descent conducts from Hindhead, past the Seven Thorns' inn, where Hampshire is entered, over more commons, into the little town of Liphook. Here the old Anchor inn of coaching days has become the Royal Anchor Hotel.

Thence over Milland Common we come to the Flying Bull and a rising road at Rake, whence fine views range down to the left over the beautiful wooded vale of Harting Combe. Still rural, the road comes past the hamlet of Sheet to Petersfield. This old market town is chiefly on the right. A curious leaden equestrian statue of William the Third, once gilded, shows that sovereign in the apparently insufficient garb of a Roman Emperor.

From Petersfield we enter the country of the chalk downs and rise through a remarkable road-cutting in the flank of Butser Hill. It is the deepest road-cutting in England, and the chalky sides rise up like cliffs. The old road winds away to the left, to Buriton, where Gibbon the historian once lived in the still-existing manor-house. That old road rejoins the present highway at the farther end of Butser Hill cutting. Here, on the left, in the hollow is seen a gamekeeper's cottage beside the deserted way. This once was Bottom Inn, the house meant by Charles Dickens in "Nicholas Nickleby" as the wayside inn where Nicholas and Smike stayed on their tramp to Portsmouth.

Onward now, amid the downs, to Horndean, in what once was the Forest of Bere. Here an electric light railway runs beside the road, past Cow Plain and Waterlooville, to Cosham. Waterlooville is the name given to a kind of settlement which arose round an inn called the Heroes of Waterloo. Beyond this place we come to the crest of Portsdown Hill, whence the eye ranges over the wonderful panorama of Portsmouth Harbour and its many creeks. The old land defences of Forts Widley and Purbrook are now out of date, and until 1925 the road, having passed Cosham at the foot of the hill, went over a moat and a drawbridge and proceeded through a ring of fortifications now demolished. At this point the suburbs of Portsmouth begin, with Hilsea and Ncrth End. The lately-demolished fortifications were "Hilsea Lines."

At Landport, to which we now come, Charles Dickens was born, in 1812. The house, still standing, is on the right, No. 393 Commercial Road. It is now a Dickens museum.

And thus into Portsmouth town: its modern centre is where the great Town Hall stands; but the real old Portsmouth - a very small place when compared with its neighborhood, Southsea and all its suburban expansions, is centred in the quiet old High Street, by which way we come to that ultimate bourne in the olden days of the Navy, whence the Admirals embarked, Portsmouth Point. It was in Portsmouth High Street, at a house which then lately had been an inn, the Spotted Dog, that Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was assassinated by Felton in 1628. The house is still standing. In the same street is the old George inn, where Nelson stayed before embarking in 1805 for that last cruise which ended at Trafalgar. A tablet records the facts. A gruesome relic is kept in the Museum, hard by. It is the mummified little finger of James Hill, alias Aitken, or "Jack the Painter," who in 1776 set fire to Portsmouth dockyard, doing immense damage. He was duly hanged for this crime.

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Pictures for The Portsmouth Road and Its Memories

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