James Edmund Vincent.

Highways and byways in Berkshire; online

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not how; and in 1480 one Alice Denton she may have been
born a Wightham died, having been seised of the manor. To
her succeeded her kinsman Sir Richard Harcourt, and here we
are on firm ground. Old Fuller tells us that " the lands of
Berkshire are very skittish and apt to cast their owners " ; in
other words, that there were few landed estates in the county
in his time which had been in the same families for many
generations. The Lysons, taking up the tale in 1805 (the
copy of their work which I have used is dated 1868), tell the
same story, noting that the Cravens date back two centuries,
the Reades, Heads, and Southbys longer, the Englefields,
Eystons, and Clarks longer still. But they do not mention the

E 2

Wytham Abbey.


Harcourts or the Lenthalls, perhaps because both were
always and principally Oxfordshire folk. Still the Harcourts
are, in respect of Wytham, a Berkshire family ; they are still
in the land ; and their handiwork remains in Wytham Abbey,
although it is now the property of the Earl of Abingdon.
That is to say, their arms are on a ceiling there, and one of
them, tradition has forgotten which, was the first builder of it.
It is to the Bertie family, however, that Berkshire owes a debt
of gratitude, and Oxfordshire very much the reverse, for some
of the grandeur of Wytham Abbey. It was an Earl of Abing-
don who pulled down the palatial house at Rycote, hard by
Thame, built by Lord Keeper Williams, which had housed
Elizabeth, James I., Charles I., and his son Charles also, and
the gentle Anna. He had some excuse, perhaps, in the fact
that the house was enormous and that a whole wing was burnt
down in 1750. At any rate, somewhere about 1800, Wytham
was, to use Mr. Meade Falkner's words, " enriched with much
of the spoil of Rycote," and Oxfordshire's loss is Berkshire's
gain. Wytham Church, too, is enriched with transported
materials, but here the lover of Berkshire gains nothing, and
loses much. Cumner Hall ought to be one of the most in-
teresting places in Berkshire, but as a matter of fact Lady
Warwick is overstating the case when, in her handsome book
on Warwick Castle, she describes Cumner as a ruin. It is not
even that, for the best of the stones were taken away in 1814,
and Wytham Church was rebuilt with them and the rest are
gone. But the inscription on the churchyard gate, "Janua vita
verbum Domini" is as appropriate at Wytham Church as at
Cumner Hall ; perhaps more appropriate.

Between Wytham Wood and Wytham Village, if one follows
the exact course of the river, comes Hagley Pool, and with it the
beginning of a reticulation of streams which is somewhat intri-
cate. The main stream proceeds due east to King's Weir, formerly
a ford (where a bridge was built about 100 years ago by the then
Earl of Abingdon), and is then turned sharply to the right or



south-east. From that point it proceeds, meandering, and
with various bifurcations, natural and artificial, to Godstow
Lock, where the forked streams re-unite and continue as one to
Medley Lock, about two miles above Folly Bridge, Oxford.


After Medley there is fresh ramification caused by junctions
with the canal and the necessities of navigation, but the main
stream is that which passes a quarter of a mile, or less, to the
west of the Great Western station from Tumbling Bay and
through Osney (the bells of whose abbey are now at Christ
Church), and then curls round to be united with other streams
as the main river above Folly Bridge. But from Hagley Pool,
past Wytham proper and west of Medley, is yet another and


perhaps the most ancient channel, which appears to become
the main stream at Tumbling Bay. All this is mentioned, not
with a view to a historical dissertation on the alterations which
the ages have seen in the course of the Thames, but because
here there comes in a question of county boundaries. Thus
the river is the boundary of Berks and Oxon to King's Weir
and for half a mile below. Then the dividing line leaves the
river, "goes inland from the right bank, almost if not quite cuts
through the ruins of Godstow nunnery, passes due south to the
west of Binsey Church, and, a furlong or so further south,
impinges on the branch of water between Hagley Pool and
Tumbling Bay, of which mention has been made. This it
follows, and we have once more a boundary, clearly defined
by running water. If the original course of the river, or the
eldest known course for there is no such thing in geology or
geography as an original course of a river was the branch
from Hagley Pool, then Berkshire has poached some of Ox-
fordshire in the past. If the elder stream be that from King's
Weir, which is the more ample of the two, Berkshire has been
the sufferer, and that, having regard to the greatness of
mediaeval Oxford, is the more likely explanation. Thus much,
at least, is certain, that man has done so much to guide and
hamper the course of the Thames immediately above and
through Oxford that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to
produce a map of Oxford and its environs showing the various
watercourses of the tenth century, which was the period in which
most counties took their present shape. Perhaps it might not
be particularly interesting either; but the fact that, for this
little space, the Thames ceases to be a boundary is worthy of

Still, Oxfordshire cannot be allowed to exclude me from the
Benedictine nunnery of Godstow, the ruins of which still
remain, although the building was used as barracks during the
civil war, and afterwards burnt. It is, of course, in accordance
with the perversity of human nature that nobody cares in these



days about Editha, who founded the nunnery in 1138, whereas
most people are interested in Rosamond Clifford, otherwise
known as " Fair Rosamond," with the name and fate of whom

Godstmv Bridge.

the memory of Godstow is indissolubly connected. Tis true,
'tis pity, that wicked women are, as a rule, far more interesting
than those who lead saintly lives ; and it is quite sure that
Rosamond Clifford was not quite good.


How much of her romantic story, as told by Higden the
monk, is myth, is more than will ever be known ; but opinion
is agreed that the episode of the poisoned cup is false, which is
fortunate for the reputation of Queen Eleanor. Mr. Falkner, in
his History of Oxfordshire, says : " It would be perhaps as injudi-
cious to deny it (the story) in toto, as to believe all the romantic
additions which have gradually clustered round it." It would,
indeed, for Rosamond's tombstone and its inscription are un-
doubtedly historic ; and the advancement of her sons, William
Longsword, who married the daughter of the Earl of Salisbury,
and Geoffrey, who became Archbishop of York, would be
proof enough that Henry II. regarded them as his sons also,
apart from the close association in which Geoffrey was seen
with him at his death. In fact there is no doubt that Rosa-
mond Clifford, daughter of Walter, Lord Clifford, of Hertford-
shire, was Henry II.'s mistress, and that she bore him children.
She may, also, have been educated at Godstow Convent, in
which case, seeing that it had been but nineteen years in exist-
ence when she entered it to end her days in 1157, after some
years of association with Henry, she must have been one of its
earliest pupils. Mr. Falkner suggests, very reasonably, that
Henry did not, as some have it, make a clean breast to Queen
Eleanor when he married her, and that Rosamond Clifford
accompanied the Court from place to place, but was discovered
by the jealous Queen at Woodstock, more or less by chance.

That may be the reason why legend points to so many bowers
connected with this lady's name. Legend indeed has been
almost as busy with her as fiction itself, and Sir Walter Scott,
in The Talisman and in Woodstock, has used her as freely as
that other lady, Amy Robsart, in whom Berkshire is interested.
Dryden, too, wrote, one knows not on what ground :

" Jane Clifford was her name, as books aver,
Fair Rosamond was hut her nom de guerre."

At any rate Rosamond was the name under which she was buried


in the conventual church, after she had remained an inmate of
the convent for twenty years ; and all that one has read of con-
ventual life in those ages tends to the belief that, if her sins
were capable of being atoned for, she is likely to have ex-
piated them to the full. Her epitaph, too, is historical.

" Hie jacet in tumulo Rosa Mundi non Rosa Munda,
-Non redolet sed okt qua redolere solet."

Mr. Falkner thinks there is reason to believe that this
epitaph, which seems so distinctly and personally appropriate,
was not composed expressly to meet the case of Rosamond
Clifford, but was the stock couplet used by monumental masons
of the Middle Ages for the tombs of all Rosamonds, and that
the allusion, in the first line, as well as the second, was to the
natural state of the body after death. But is it necessary to be
quite so matter of fact as all that ? The couplet is very neat
and apposite as it stands ; there have been hundreds of other
Rosamonds, mediaeval Rosamonds too, to whom it was not
applied, and surely, in ages when Latin was generally under-
stood, and men were rough, so flagrant a departure from the
salutary maxim de'mortuis would have been likely to invite the
chastisement of the tomb-maker. The probability is that
p .osamond Clifford was so cruelly and epigrammatically
insulted on her tomb because, like most of her sisters who
have erred in like fashion, she had no friends, especially
amongst her own sex. True, the excellent and imaginative
monk Higden says that Henry decorated her tomb lavishly ; but
Henry was a busy king ; and it was a hard age. How hard it
was, Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, proved in 1191, for he caused
the remains to be removed to the outside of the church. They
were taken back again, however, and there they lay in peace
until the dissolution. Leland, who was very much alive at the
time of the dissolution of the monasteries, informs us : " Rosa-
munde's tumbe at Godestow Nunnery was taken up a late : it is
a stone with the inscription tumba Rosamundie. Her bones were


closid in lede, and within that closid in lether; when it was
openid there was a very swete smell came owt of it."

Here Mr. Taunt, of Oxford, who has been quoted already,
is of assistance, but it is a pity that one who has clearly spent
much pains in research does not quote his authorities. After
describing the action of Hugh of Lincoln, he adds : " But after
a while the sisterhood collected the desecrated bones and laid
them, enclosed in a perfumed leather bag, in the abbey church
again, where they were found so preserved after the dissolution
of the monastery." So Leland's words are amplified and made
intelligible, and the rather singular story of an exhumed corpse
which breathed forth sweet savours is not dissipated by the
light of research, but confirmed and, at the same time, im-
proved in poetic quality. That, in an age which would have
William of Wykeham no architect, and .revels in describing
Edward VI. as a spoiler of schools, is distinctly refreshing.

And now we are very near the end of the little voyage.
From Wytham to Oxford, being tied to navigable water more
or less, it is best to go by way of King's Weir, halting, perhaps,
for tea at the "Trout" inn at Godstow. This stands on an
island, and a little detour must be made to reach it. But
Consule Planco, which being loosely interpreted in this case is,
" When Dean Liddell ruled in august fashion at Christ Church,"
the digression was worth making for tea, or for spiced beer,
cunningly made in vessels of tin, funnel-shaped for thrusting
between the glowing coals, and for the really fine old English
game of skittles. Other memories, indeed, than those of
Rosamond Clifford are associated with Godstow in the minds
of many of those who were once irresponsible undergraduates.
They are memories of days of fresh air in the rain and the sun,
when the pleasant perils of the voyage from over against Binsey
to the " Trout " up-stream, or across the flooded surface of Port
Meadow (which the citizens of Oxford have enjoyed since the
time of the Confessor, at least), had been encountered triumph-
antly in a cranky centreboard sailing boat. Winter was the


best season, for then there was the better chance of wind and
water, and shipwrecks were many in number. It was real joy,
then, to be .skipper of one out of perhaps thirty boats which
pushed up river gaily after luncheon, and to be one of two or
three which won to the haven where they would be under the
willows of Godstow. Then, indeed, spiced beer appalling
thought now ! was thrice welcome, and sequela there were
none, since dura messorum ilia were not a circumstance to the
digestion of a nineteenth century undergraduate. They are
more fragile and indulge in hearts and things now. Nor was
the homeward course, plain sailing as it was by reason of the
aiding stream, whatsoever might be the alrt of the wind,
rendered any the less enjoyable by the sight of the half-inverted
hulls of less fortunate craft that had capsized by the way and
of the other wrecks stranded on many a lee-shore. No harm
had been done to men, save what could be cured by a change
of clothes, and none to boats that "Jupiter" for so the
attendant on sailing boats had been named by others than his
sponsors could not repair before the morrow. A genuine
" character " was " Jupiter," full of strange sayings and laconic
sailing directions, and even able to prescribe for the wounded.
Once a sudden gibe inevitable but none the less stupidly
unforeseen caused the boom of the good ship Romeo to break
my head rather severely, and " Jupiter's " prescription was
immense. "When you gets yer dinner fill a spoon with butter,
an' melt it in the candle, and pour it on the wownd." It is,
perhaps, almost a pity that the advice was not followed. The
dent in a battered skull would probably not be less deep than it
is to-day, for the knock was a shrewd one, but the scene in Hall,
if a Junior Student had suddenly anointed himself with butter
coram populo, would certainly have been merry in retrospect.

These things are changed now. Sailing on the lowest
reaches of the Upper River has become systematic. There
are clubs and regattas and the like. In fact the sailing of the
'seventies was to that of what, some day perhaps, we shall call


the 'noughts, as the croquet of the 'sixties and a closer
analogy really the cricket of the 'twenties were to those of
to-day. But it was the best of fun and a good school of petty
seamanship. To have learned to mark the influence of shelter-
ing objects, a hedge, a pollard, or a haystack, in stealing the
wind, to have realised how much can be done in the way of
coaxing a boat round an awkward corner up-stream and up-
wind, was to have acquired knowledge of value in a wider
sphere. The experience was worth acquiring, apart from the
enjoyment, and, if the yachts were not exactly Valkyries or
Shamrocks, they were at least as good as the seamanship of
their crews deserved.

Surgit amari aliquid. I cannot part from the Upper River,
particularly in a volume of the " Highways and Byways "
Library, without remembering that it was the favourite haunt
and the familiar topic of the bright and sympathetic author
of the London volume, the late Mrs. E. T. Cook, whose un-
expected death in the spring of 1903 was widely mourned. It
is a topic upon which, for personal reasons, I cannot dwell.
But, just because of that, it is possible to say that an
unsigned article of singular grace on " A New River,"
which appeared in The Cornhill Magazine of September,
1893, was her work ; and, just because it and others were not
signed, it was not until some years afterwards that my friend
and connection won the reputation to which her rare beauty
of mind and her flashing intelligence entitled her. (It is a
curious but almost universal experience, by the way, that the
literary weaklings are always anxious for their names to appear,
whereas the men and women who have genius, as the " names "
Henry Seton Merriman, Anthony Hope, George Eliot, and
John Oliver Hobbes demonstrate sufficiently, are content to
hide their personality under anonymity or a pseudonym for
their early ventures. They are, as Mr. Henry James might
say, " of a modesty," which in time causes their real names to be
forgotten in connection with their fame.)


For the article, written in 1893, be it remembered, is as
good as that kind of production can be ; it is the cheerful and
natural talk of a clever and highly cultivated woman. Exaggera-
tion there may be in it, but it is the happy exaggeration which
fits the theme. The Upper River is not really "as silent, as
secluded, to all intents and purposes, as a South American
forest stream, or a Californian creek " ; but what does that
matter? The true spirit of the river-lover, the seeing eye, is
there ; and it contains some of Mrs. Cook's most essentially
characteristic passages :

" After Eynsham Bridge a solid, not a beautiful structure the real
charm begins. It is curious to notice in this connection how the only signs
of life, the only human beings you come across in your wanderings, are in-
variably to be found looking over a bridge. It reminds one of the child's
early drawings. Tell him to draw a bridge, it is never a bridge to him
until he has placed a man on it ergo to the rustic-a bridge is not so much
a bridge as a place for a man to stand on and from which to survey the
world at large. The average rustic seems to spend all his holiday-time in
this enthralling occupation. To him a bridge seems to be a scene of wild
dissipation. Bridges, however, are comparatively scarce on the Upper
Thames, which may perhaps account for their popularity."

She goes on to tell a delicious anecdote of the ruminating
apathy of an Oxfordshire rustic, and I only hope he was not
one of our Berkshire folk.

" On one occasion, above Eynsham, one of these rustics was, as usual,
on the bridge, when an upset occurred in a boat passing underneath it. ...
The stream happened to be deep at this particular place, and enclosed be-
tween high mud banks, sparsely covered by dry reeds. These reeds snapped
when grasped, like tinder, and it accordingly took the submerged ones some
time to extricate themselves from their difficulties. But the man on the
bridge did not budge an inch. When at last one of the sufferers, impelled
thereto by an imperative desire for dry clothes, went up to him and accosted
him, he slowly removed his pipe: 'There wus a young man,' he said,
' drowned in this very place six weeks ago to-day, and :?-.cy ain't found his
body yet.' "

That is Oxfordshire all over, and, it is to be feared, Berkshire
also ; and tin deft touch, introducing a piece of human interest,



so lightly and so easily, was Mrs. Cook's very self. She
always saw the pathos and the oddity of things at the same
time ; but she saw the poetry in them too. Indeed the

Eynsham Bridge.

concluding passage is so beautiful that it must be quoted at
length. In truth it is all too short.

" But alas ! our holiday is ending, and we must, however reluctantly,
turn our faces homewards. Again we must see the stream widen and

' Flow, softly flow, by lawn and lea,
A rivulet, then a river,'

as our boat slips quickly down towards Oxford. But not too quickly ; we
must not unduly hurry, for here, no less than on the Lower River,

' Where'er you tread is haunted, holy ground.'

The ruined walls of Godstow Nunnery, within which Fair Rosamond once
dreamed away long enchanted days, the manor-house of Stanton Harcourt,


where Pope wrote and suffered and writhed under cruel criticism, mens
curva in corpore curvo ; what tales they could 'tell you out of the far distant
past ! Here, in the fragrant meadows of Kelmscott, Rossetti made himself
sweet imageries through the livelong day ; here William Morris thought out
The Earthly Paradise, and here he clothed his idea of a social Utopia in
beautiful description. You drift down towards Oxford thoughtfully, and
almost sadly ; the heat of the day is past, the sun sinks in bands of orange
and purple behind the Cumnor Hills, and the mysterious twilight comes on.
But you are no longer alone. The ' shades of poets dead and gone ' all the
dim memories and associations of the past draw from out the vast solitude
and accompany you on your way. Here, in the gloaming, you see no
shepherd boy, but a rural Pan, dipping his lazy feet among the water-reeds ;
and there, waiting listlessly by an osier-clump, his drooping figure melting
into the evening mists, can you not see the Scholar-Gipsy himself,

' Trailing in his hand a withered spray,
And waiting for the spark from heaven to fall ' ? "

Of a truth, with her help, for she had such a gift of easy
and apt quotation as is seldom given to man or woman, I can
see them all, and I can see also the shade of her who has
helped to open my eyes more widely to the inner meaning of
the Upper Thames.

So, with a note of sadness, we have done with this expedition
on the boyish breast of Father Thames, for to the oarsman the
passage from Godstow to Medley Weir is easy and dull, and
here, if he is wise, he will entrust his craft to a hireling if, as
the chances are, he has taken it from below Folly Bridge ; for
the navigation through Oxford is intricate, noisome, and not in
the least picturesque. There have been those who have spoken
of this aspect of Oxford as Venetian ; but that was an example
of mechanical hyperbole. In plain truth this part of Oxford
has nothing in common with Venice except water and dirt, and
that is not enough to justify a simile.

Below Oxford the river of course continues to be a.
highway of Berkshire, to be indeed its most noble highway,
the use of which is the purest of pleasures. But in this
our cruise upon paper it shall not be used as a highway,


for the present. For a while at least, let us be content to keep
our feet on the firm earth of Berkshire, pausing only to
note that, strangulation of canals by railway companies
notwithstanding, the Thames is still used not a little for
purposes of commercial navigation. Many a heavy-laden
barge conies into Oxford from the North. Although the old
Berks and Wilts Canal is a waterless ditch, of some three years'
standing as such, the farmers at the mouth of the Vale of the
White Horse still send their corn to Reading by barge from
Sutton Courtney and elsewhere, and commercial Reading makes
intelligent use of the river. But here I must needs draw rein,
since I have mounted a favourite hobby, and there is no intention
of being unduly serious. Only, if men would reflect that
haulage by rail costs roughly fifty times as much as carriage by
canal, which is every whit as effectual in the case of heavy
articles, and that the interest of the railway companies is
bound up in the effacement of canals, they would realise how
irretrievable a blunder has been committed by the body public,
which needs cheap transport, in permitting the railway com-
panies to annex a large proportion of the canal mileage of the
country and that in central districts. It is that which makes a
deserted waterway, like the Berks and Wilts Canal, which
used to enter the Thames at Abingdon, after running through
the heart of the Vale, one of the saddest of sights. It is worse
than the talent buried in a napkin, which may be dug up
again, for it is good money absolutely thrown away.



Early history of the Great Western Didcot an accident Old Didcot
Abingdon's and Oxford's perversity Access to Abingdon difficult Its
hotels and inns The "Lion" Mr. Ruskin at the "Crown and
Thistle " Burford Bridge A wild theory The building of the bridge
The benefit it conferred View from the bridge Andersey Island
Abbey barters for Goosey and rues the bargain Destruction of records
The abbey at Sunningwell Its migration " Piers Plowman's "prophecy
and its partial fulfilment Old-time disputes and quarrels Abingdon
Fair The clothing trade Manufactures Malt in the abbey Relics of
the abbey Corporation plate and portraits The Town Hall- -The
ancient Cross A rollicking Dean of Christ Church The destruction

Online LibraryJames Edmund VincentHighways and byways in Berkshire; → online text (page 5 of 33)