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Charles G. (Charles George) Harper.

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and takes a piece here and another there, and so fits them together in
a composition of his own, he cannot get into one view the quaint old
barn-yards, with their curious barns standing, for fear of the rats,
shouldered off the ground on stone staddles; nor can he include the
bridge, the stream, and the long, poplar-lined road into the village.
In no case could he bring in the time-worn tower of a village church,
that sanctifies a sketch, for Sarre is godless and graceless and owns
no church, its inhabitants finding their nearest place of worship at
St. Nicholas-at-Wade, nearly two miles distant.




CHAPTER XVI

SARRE AND RECULVER TO CANTERBURY


The rows of feathery poplars lining the causeway road out of Sarre
towards Canterbury give it, for a little distance, the look of a
French road. But they presently cease, and it becomes for some miles a
singularly dreary way. All the more excuse, therefore, for adventuring
away from it across country to Reculver, celebrated by Ingoldsby in the
"Brothers of Birchington."

Chislett village, through which the route lies, shows prominently
from its ridge - or, rather, its church does. A church it is of
singular outline, viewed from a distance, and calculated to entice the
inquisitive away from the direct road, only to find that the bizarre
appearance is caused by the spire having been almost wholly shorn off
at some time not specified, and the stump suffered to remain. For the
rest, Chislett is sufficiently interesting in the wheat and swede and
mangold way, but not otherwise attractive, unless the stocks, still
preserved in the churchyard, may be mentioned.

The route from here to Reculver is a five miles long stretch of
scrubwoods, through the hamlet of Marsh Row. These rabbity solitudes
lead at last to the low, broken, earthy coast presenting a weak and
dissolving barrier to an encroaching sea between Herne Bay and
Birchington. Midway between those two watering-places stands the gaunt
ruin of that ancient church built within the Roman castle of Regulbium,
to which its name in mutilated form has descended. Its skeleton towers
rise over the hillside, minatory, as we descend toward the sea.

[Illustration: CHISLETT.]

Reculver is popularly - and mistakenly - spoken and written of in the
plural, "Reculvers." There is no real warranty, in the derivation of
the name, for what our grandfathers would have called a "vulgar error."
We can clearly trace the place-name from the Roman times, when it was
"Regulbium," to the days of the Saxon King, Ethelbert, when it had been
changed into "Raculf Ceastre," and thence, by way of half a hundred
grotesque spellings in ancient historical documents, to the form it now
bears. Never, save by modern writers of guide-books, has it been spoken
of in the plural, and the only possible reason for their doing so must
be a real ignorance of its history and a belief that the twin towers of
the ruined church are themselves the "Reculvers." This is no attempt
to right the wrong: that would be a hopeless task, and a thankless. A
mistake set afoot so long ago and so popular is not to be discredited,
and "Reculvers" this will remain, certainly so long as there are _two_
towers.

In Roman times the fortress of Regulbium stood at some little distance
from the sea, on the only available firm ground, a gentle rounded hill
rising from the surrounding marshes. Now that the sea has for centuries
been advancing upon the spot, this hill has been half washed away, and
its remaining section shows as a low cliff, with the gaunt towers of
the mediæval church rising from it. This church is the successor of
that built within the walls of the Roman castle in Saxon times, as a
monument of the downfall of Paganism and the triumph of Christianity.

So long ago as 1780 the sea had begun to threaten it, and the great
north wall of the castle fell one night into the advancing tide,
leaving the monument to Christianity in a very exposed condition,
while the bones of the forgotten inhabitants were washed away out of
the churchyard, just as those of Warden, in Sheppey, are at this day.
Instead of making any attempt to save the church, the authorities began
in 1809 to demolish it, only halting when they reached the twin towers.
The surrounding farmers found the building-stones very useful for
pig-sties and cow-sheds, and cared not a rap whether they were Norman
or Early English. There were, indeed, some Roman columns in the church.
They had come from the pagan basilica within the castle, but that did
not hinder their being cast aside with the rest. In 1860 one was
discovered, one of its stones doing duty as a garden-roller. It was,
with another column, rescued from further desecration, and the two have
been set up in the Cathedral Close at Canterbury.

[Illustration: RECULVER.]

The vicarage was also abandoned in 1809, but not pulled down. It was
converted into a public-house, which long stood here under the sign of
the "Hoy." The existing inn is the "King Ethelbert."

The twin towers of Reculver church form a portion of the former west
front. They are of Norman and Early English date, and, constructed
as they were largely of the materials of the ruined Roman buildings,
are rich in fragments of tile. The towers were erected to serve as a
sea-mark, to warn vessels beating up for the Swale and the Medway of
the dangerous Columbine Sand, and their origin has from time immemorial
been the subject of the legend of the "Twin Sisters," which tells how
the Abbess of the Benedictine Priory of Davington and her sister,
voyaging to fulfil a vow made to Our Lady of Broadstairs, were wrecked
here for lack of a sea-mark. The Abbess was saved, but her sister was
drowned, and, as a combined thank-offering for her own escape and by
way of memorial to her sister, that holy woman erected the twin towers,
to serve all mariners sailing by. Barham perverted the legend in his
"Brothers of Birchington." Perhaps the temptation to alliteration was
too strong to be resisted, and then the idea came to him of rejecting
the familiar story and using in its stead an old monastic tale of how
there were two brothers, the one pious and the other given up to all
manner of evil courses, and how the Devil came for the wrong one by
mistake and was obliged to restore him. In the Ingoldsby legend the
brothers become Robert and Richard de Birchington, and their vow it
was, he tells us, which produced the famous sea-mark:

Well - there the "Twins" stand
On the verge of the land,
To warn mariners off from the Columbine Sand,
And many a poor man have Robert and Dick
By their vow caused to 'scape, like themselves, from Old Nick.

The mariners of old never failed as they passed to bare their heads and
pray to Our Lady or Reculver. It is said that a good omen was argued by
them if the towers were clearly seen in passing, and evil if they were
hidden by fog; but, when we consider the dangers of the sea in fogs,
there seems less superstition in those ideas than sheer common-sense.

The towers have for many years been maintained by the Trinity House,
according to the tablet over the doorway: "These towers, the remains
of the once venerable Church of Reculver, were purchased of the Parish
by the Corporation of the Trinity House of Deptford Strond in the year
1810, and groynes laid down at their expense to protect the cliff on
which the church had stood. When the ancient spires were afterwards
blown down, the present substitutes were erected, to render the towers
still sufficiently conspicuous to be useful to navigation. - Captain
Joseph Cotton, Deputy Master, in the year 1819."

Returning to Chislett and the breathless route of Smuggler Bill and his
companions, Up Street hamlet, and Westbere are passed; Westbere itself
in a deep hollow on a slip road plunging down romantically from that
dreary highway. Then comes the long, bricky, dusty, gritty village of
Sturry, whose name is taken from the River Stour, on which it stands,
or rather, in which it stood, for it was once encircled by that now
shrunken stream, and its original style was "Esturei," or "Stour
Island." In midst of the village a turning to the left will lead the
explorer to a little jewel of a place, lying forgotten by the Stour
banks. He leaves populous Sturry behind, and comes, over little brick
bridges as hump-backed as Quilp or Quasimodo, and by rustling alders,
into a spot long since retired from worldly activities - enters, in
fact, that decayed port of Canterbury, Fordwich.

[Illustration: FORDWICH.]

Canterbury was once a seaport! How incredible it seems, now that
Whitstable, the nearest point on the coast, is seven miles away, and
the Stour so small a stream that even for rowing-boats it is at the
present time scarce navigable. Yet to this very village of "Fordige"
as the local speech has it, the salt tide came up the estuary in
days well within the historic period. Not merely vague Romans, but
historical personages - palpable human beings who have personally left
great flat-footed, heavy-handed marks on the pages of our national
story - have landed at the still-existing quay, at which it is even yet
possible for one to land from a skiff, and so to parallel experiences
for one brief glorious moment of historic self-consciousness with no
less a personage than the Black Prince himself, who stepped ashore here
from no skiff, but directly from the caravel that brought him across
the Channel, fresh from his cruelties in Guienne and Spain. Those who
welcomed him home - the Mayor and burgesses of Fordwich - were as cruel
and savage as he in their unchivalric municipal way; the times were
sodden with cruelty, supersaturated with ferocity, and the rejoicings
at the warrior's home-coming did but serve as an afternoon's respite
for those petty malefactors who awaited their doom in the two dark and
dismal cells even yet existing beneath the old town hall and court
house standing so picturesquely by this self-same quay. Not the whole
of that curious building can claim so great an age, for the general
aspect of it is scarce earlier than Elizabethan times. Indeed, it has
latterly been made to look quite smart and neat, its nodding roof
carefully squared, the lichen and stonecrop removed, and some nice new
brickwork here and there inserted. "Restoration" seeks out the veriest
holes and corners and culs-de-sac of the land, and "makes up" old
buildings into new, like old dowagers masquerading as girls again.

Fordwich town hall filled many functions. In it were transacted
all the business affairs of the old port; in it, too, justice was
dealt out in rough and ready fashion to the miscreants of yore, and
executed swiftly, and still more roughly and readily, outside. The
justice of the Cinque Ports, of which Fordwich was a member, was
by no means tempered with mercy, and was as blood-thirsty as those
early laws of the Israelites duly set forth with much horrifying
circumstantiality in Leviticus. Theves Lane, in Fordwich, led in
ancient times to "Thefeswelle," the well in which convicted thieves
were judicially drowned. Thieves with a preference for the easiest
death commonly selected Dover for their operations in those times, for
when the inevitable happened, the Dover authorities flung them from the
cliff-top, and so they ended swiftly and mercifully with broken necks,
a better way than being dropped down a well and the lid then put on,
as here at Fordwich, or being buried alive or smothered in the harbour
mud, after the Sandwich style.

[Illustration: FORDWICH TOWN HALL.]

The dungeons beneath the town hall are provided with only a narrow
barred opening, shuttered from the outside and admitting the least
possible rays of light. On their walls may yet be seen the many scrawls
of old-time prisoners. In one cell were secured those who had offended
against the municipal authority of Fordwich, and in the other the
captives of the Monastery of St. Augustine in Canterbury were laid by
the heels; for two jurisdictions, the cause of many jealousies, ruled
here. In none was there more heat shown than in the sole right and
privilege of fishing for trout at Fordwich, claimed by the monastery
and bitterly disputed by the port.

The rough, whitewashed interior of the court-room is simple but highly
curious. The primitive bench and bar where prisoners were arraigned and
causes heard are still here. Prosecutors had a difficult task in those
days. Sometimes the court would decide that ordeal by battle was the
best way of settling a dispute - a mean way, it will be acknowledged, of
shirking its judicial responsibilities - and would secure seats outside
to witness the fray, which suggests too engrossing a love of sport;
at other times, when the court did patiently hear and adjudicate upon
plaints, it left the prosecutor with the disagreeable task of executing
the convicted felon himself, - both successful ways of discouraging
litigation.

A good deal more modern than those barbarous practices, but still
of a respectable antiquity, is the ducking-stool, resting on a
transverse beam of the interior roofing. It is long since this engine
for punishing scolds was used; not, perhaps, altogether by reason of
gentler modern methods, nor that the feminine arts of scolding and
nagging are decayed, but doubtless because the punishment was not
effectual, and the last state of the nagged and henpecked, after the
nagger and pecker had been ducked, was worse than the first. The old
clumsy wooden crane at the angle of the town hall, still overlooking
the river, was the place whence the scolding wives of Fordwich, first
firmly bound, were slung in the chair, swung out over the stream, and
ducked, deeply overhead. Raving with fear and shrieking with fury they
were ducked again and again, while their good men, standing amid the
delighted crowd, miserably anticipated a worse time than ever - and, by
all accounts, generally got it.

[Illustration: STURRY.]

Leaving Fordwich and returning to Sturry, the Canterbury road is
regained. At its extremity, where one crosses the Stour, Sturry
retrieves its reputation and exchanges its hard-featured street for
a pretty riverside grouping, where the church, an ivy-covered ruined
red-brick gateway of Sturry Court, and a plentiful background of trees
make a gracious picture. It is the last picture of the kind on this
route, for Canterbury is less than two miles ahead, entered past the
barracks and by its least attractive streets.




CHAPTER XVII

THE ISLE OF SHEPPEY


Sheppey is an outlying district of the Ingoldsby Country, somewhat
difficult of access. It is from Newington, a village on the Dover Road,
some seven miles from Chatham and eighteen from Canterbury, that we
will approach Sheppey, if cycling, for that affords a pleasant and
interesting route. The ancient parish church of Newington lifts its
grey battlemented tower away from the village prominently to one side
of the old coach road, but it is surprisingly long before one reaches
it, down the winding lane. Here it is abundantly evident, to right
and left, that we are in the very heart of the famous fruit-growing
district of Kent; for apple orchards, and more particularly cherry and
pear orchards, abound, and where they cease the hop-gardens fill in the
intervening space.

Coming sharply round to the church, incongruously neighboured by a
modern and matter-of-fact postal letter-box, will be seen a great
rough boulder-stone, planted between roadway and footpath - the
"Devil's Stone" as it is known locally. A very large and prominent
representation of a boot-sole is seen on it, and is the outward
and visible sign of a hoary legend current at Newington ever since
Newington church existed. It seems that the Devil objected to the
church being built, but deferred action until the tower was completed,
when, one night, he came along indignantly, and, placing his back
against the tower and a foot against the stone, pushed - to no purpose,
for the tower was not to be moved by his strongest efforts. The legend
asks us to believe that the boot-print on the stone is a relic of
this impotent Satanic spite; but it is in relief, instead of being
sunk! - and surely the imprint, in any case, should have been that of
a hoof. It is a very well-preserved and sharply-defined mark, and a
suspicion that it is periodically renewed will not be denied.

[Illustration: THE DEVIL'S FOOTPRINT.]

At any rate, it is an appropriate legend for the Ingoldsby Country.
Had Barham only known of it, to what excellent use could he not have
turned the tale!

Five miles of picturesquely winding sandy lanes lead in a gradual
descent past Iwade, through orchards, and now and again across rough
patches of open pasture, with two field-gates across the route,
proclaiming that wayfarers here are few. At length a view of Sheppey
opens out, across that arm of the sea known as the Swale, crossed by
a combined railway and road bridge on the site of the old "King's
Ferry." The railway is that branch of the Chatham and Dover running
from Sittingbourne to Queenborough and Sheerness. Here then, paying the
penny toll for self and cycle, one enters the island by road, at the
only place where the channel is bridged. The four other places from
which it is possible to enter are all ferries.

The railway to Sheerness has never opened up the island, and Sheppey,
before the opening of the light railway that has recently been made
to traverse its length, remained to Londoners an unknown land. It may
be readily supposed that it will largely so remain, in spite of the
facilities for travel that the new line provides, and notwithstanding
the frantic efforts of the strenuous land companies, whose extravagant
advertisements might lead the untravelled to suppose that here was the
Garden of Eden, and that in purchasing building-sites in this remote
corner of the kingdom speculators or prospective residents would be
laying the foundations of rude health or comfortable fortunes. There
are, it is true, few places so interesting as Sheppey, but why,
apart from its history? Just because its scenery is so weird, its
surroundings so outlandish. That scenery is of two sorts - the marshes
that border the sea-channel of the Swale, dividing it from the Kentish
mainland; and the high ridge or backbone which runs in the direction
of the island's greatest length, from Sheerness to Warden Point and
Shellness. Trees are few, and grow only in the more sheltered parts,
if it can truly be said that there is shelter at all on Sheppey, where
the winds - particularly the east winds - blow great guns, and boom,
howl, and shriek in successful competition with the cannon of the heavy
defences at Sheerness, whose deep, hoarse voices are puny compared
with those of the gales that blow on Sheppey. All these historic and
physical peculiarities of this right little, tight little island are
very well for the explorer, who goes forth to discover the unusual - and
certainly finds it here - and who would be grievously disappointed
at not finding it, but to live on Sheppey would be another matter.
Those marshlands whose delicate tints and general air so appeal to
the casual stranger in summer, that muddy sea which sullenly washes
away the crumbling, slimy cliffs of dark clay along the coast-line
from Sheerness to Warden, lose their interest in the long months of
winter, become merely grim and dismal, and obsess the mind with doleful
imaginings.

But these things have nothing to do with the literary pilgrim, who does
not select the winter for his pilgrimage. He descends upon Sheppey in
the summer, and here is the picture he sees, so soon as he has left the
King's Ferry bridge behind. The road runs flatly and sandily ahead, in
midst of a world of marshes, cloaked and successfully hidden for the
most part by a luxuriant growth of grass. From a cloudless sky the song
of the larks comes down in changeful trills, and if one dare gaze into
the aching blue they can be seen, mounting higher and higher as though
they sought to reach the sun itself. Everything else tells of noonday
rest. The still heat that bathes the unduly energetic in undesirable
perspiration sends one seeking for wayside shelter, but only on the
distant hillside, where Minster crowns the ridge, do the trees begin,
dotted singly, and looking in the distance like giant umbrellas. The
myriad sheep of these flats have long since given up the quest for
shade in this district where trees are only objects in the distance
and hedgerows are unknown, and huddled together in an endeavour to
find a cooling shade behind each other's backs. Even the lambs have
ceased their clumsy gambols. The dykes stew in the sun, and a heat-haze
makes distant objects in the landscape perform an optical St. Vitus's
dance. Only the great brick-barges, beating up and down the creeks from
Sittingbourne, go a slow and dignified pace, their rust-red sails, seen
across country, looking as though they walked the fields. The colouring
of this scene is in a beautiful harmony - the foreground grasses
bleached to a more than straw-like pallor, toning off in the distance
to a rich apricot yellow, meeting in one direction the irradiated pale
blue sky, flecked with white clouds, and in another the green hillsides
of Minster. Over all is a sense of vastness, and the pilgrim throws
out his arms and draws deep breaths in sympathy. Space, elbow-room,
isolation, those are the dominant notes of Sheppey.

Queenborough, two miles off to the left from our entrance at King's
Ferry, finds no mention in the _Ingoldsby Legends_, but now that we
are here, a thorough exploration might as well be undertaken, and both
it and Sheerness visited. Queenborough is a place with a past, and
proclaims the fact in every nook and corner of its old streets, where
the footfall of the stranger echoes loudly, and tufts of grass grow
between the rough cobble-stones of the pavements. Queenborough owes its
name to the chivalric courtesy of Edward III., who in 1366 changed it
from Kingborough to its present title in honour of his Queen, Philippa.
At that time it was an important point, and was fortified for the
defence of the Medway by a castle designed by that master-architect and
shrewd ecclesiastic, William of Wykeham. Archæologists tell how its
ground-plan was in the shape of an heraldic rose, but nearly all traces
of it are gone. Its history never included siege or stirring incident,
and the buildings were ruinous even in the time of the Commonwealth,
when they were sold and carted off in a commonplace and inglorious way.
Now - the last note of humiliation - the railway station of Queenborough
is built on the site.

The town dates the beginning of its decay from 1377, when Edward III.
who had honoured it in the re-naming, eleven years before, ensured its
ruin by removing the staple to Sandwich; but some life and enterprise
would seem to have been left, even in the time of Queen Anne, for most
of the houses in its one long street appear to have been built about
the period of that deceased sovereign. Quaint red-brick houses they
are, the brick seamed and pitted with age, the roofs high-pitched; the
whole with that indefinite suggestion of a Dutch town which many of
these old waterside ports possess, even though it be impossible to pick
out one house and find anything particularly Dutch in its design.

It is not without a certain feeling of humiliation that one mentions
anything Dutch along the Medway and in the neighbourhood of Sheerness,
for Sheerness itself felt the brunt of the Dutch naval attack in June
1667, when seventy-two hostile ships reduced the little sandspit fort,
landed a force, and occupied the town. Thence the Dutch Admiral at
leisure proceeded up to Chatham, destroying the English ships and
even working havoc in the Thames. Pepys at Gravesend remarked in his
Diary, "We do plainly at this time hear the guns play," - and in terror
went off to Brampton, in Huntingdonshire, where he hid his wealth in
an unlikely spot. It was not until the end of June that the fear of
invasion was past, and no lapse of time has sufficed to wipe away the
shame.

The dockyards and forts of Sheerness are to-day very efficient and
formidable, but they do not succeed in rendering anything but an
unfavourable opinion of the town, whose prevailing notes are meanness
and squalor; few others than fishers or seafaring men of the Navy ever
set foot here. It is the most considerable place on the island, and,
the very Cinderella of dockyard towns, repels rather than invites the
visitor.

Bluetown, an outlying residential part, overlooking the sea and


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Online LibraryCharles G. (Charles George) HarperThe Ingoldsby Country → online text (page 13 of 16)