Robert Thomas Allen’s sentimental journeys 1: ENGLAND
Robert Thomas Allen’s sentimental journeys 1: ENGLAND
Caught up in the travel explosion that has everyone on the move, Robert Thomas Allen recently toured England, France, Italy and Greece. Here, in the first of a series of reports, he describes a nostalgic visit to the ancient resort of Bath, and to Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex” country
THE THING I HAD most in mind when I made my first trip to England was a visit to the country of the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy. I don't know how Thomas Hardy is regarded today — he’s probably hopelessly outdated — but he has turned up throughout my life like an old friend. I’ll always remember one summer, when I was renting a farmhouse near Omcmce, Ont., lying on a hot couch in a sun porch reading Tess Of The D'Urbervilles. Hardy’s world of dairy herds, hayricks, warm eggs and sunny cornfields, combined with the scent of hot fields of timothy and sweet grass coming in my window from the rolling hills of southern Ontario, started some kind of chemical combustion in me that’s apparently still at work. Before I had been in London long enough to get over being a bit stunned by the crowds, confusion, exhaust fumes, roaring traffic and the dramatically staged effects, such as the great stone sweep of Trafalgar Square, with Lord Nelson looking down on the bedlam below from up amid the blue-grey clouds, I took a train from Paddington station for the land of Thomas Hardy.
The Hardy region, which he called Wessex, from the old AngloSaxon kingdom of that name, is an area in the southwest of England, radiating for perhaps fifty miles from his birthplace near Dorchester. I went by train to Bath, which worked out very simply in spite of the apparent confusion of London. You buy your ticket and find your train waiting there, get on it, close the door and away you go without seeing anyone. Trains in England — which cost about four and a half cents a mile first class, about three cents second class — are fast and frequent and belt along at what I estimated to be about eighty miles an hour. Buses, which are just as available, cost about two cents a mile (two and a half cents express) and give you a better view of the countryside. Probably the best way is to drive yourself, but the older I get the more I find driving a nuisance, and I didn't want even to think about it.
At Bath, instead of going straight from the train to the Dorchesterbound bus, I stayed over for a couple of days in one of the world's most fascinating places. The city of Bath, which has attracted people to its hot springs since the three and half centuries of Roman occupation of England, with a social flourishing in the days of wigs, sedan chairs and Georgian high life of the 1700s, has a feeling you won’t find anywhere else on earth. It's a prim stone Georgian town of trim narrow streets, genteel little shops, police with clean virtuous faces and cultured voices, and a general atmosphere of being completely civilized, which it has been for centuries. Some of the former permanent or part-time residents whose names you can see on the doors of the houses in which they once lived, were Clive of India, Dr. Livingstone, Gainsborough, Dickens, Goldsmith, Nelson, Jane Austen. General Wolfe was living there when he got his orders to go to Quebec. Henry Fielding patterned Squire Allworthy of Tom Jones on a prominent citizen of Bath.
If you’re as fascinated walking around town as I was, you’ll get lost, and if you’re as lucky as I was you’ll come out unexpectedly at night on the Circus (in England it takes a while to realize that “circus” means “circle”). This is one of the world’s outstanding examples of cool, formal Georgian architecture, a row of connected houses that form a perfect stone circle around a perfectly round lawn with a perfect tree in the middle. There wasn’t another person in the great ring of buildings the night I stood there, and I felt as if I’d been dropped there in a space capsule. It’s more than something from another age: it’s like something from another planet. It’s hard to believe that it was built by people who lived two hundred years before us.
You see the baths inside a rambling museumlike building. The old stone pools of the Romans, surmounted by reconstructed Roman statuary, are still steaming away as they did when the Roman
conquerors lounged around trying to keep up the life they'd lived at home. They left records that lay buried for centuries, fifteen to twenty feet beneath such fashionable places as the Pump Room — lead plumbing (some of it still in use today, two thousand years later), their tombstones, a curse written on a piece of lead by someone who had his time beaten with a woman called Vilbia (“May he who carried off Vilbia waste away”), the skeleton of a tall Roman girl, twenty-nine years old, whom you try to picture as she was when she was young and had everything going for her in this remote new colony.
Above and around all this is a twentieth-century life of gentility that’s almost as foreign to a Canadian as ancient Rome. At my motel I got an impression of faint disapproval, as if I were rather rudely intruding, but good manners would prevent the staff mentioning it. Unbelievable headwaiters in long tails (there’s something about tails at breakfast that makes you realize you’ve really left North America) said, “Thank you, sir,” when all you'd done was sit down. And if I live to be a hundred I’ll never forget one rainy morning when I found myself drinking coffee in the Pump Room listening to a string orchestra, half hidden by date palms, chrysanthemums and poinsettias, play Gilbert and Sullivan, a fine drizzle outside and a fine looking red-headed woman on cello, and a gent playing piano who made chewing motions as he studied the music. I had hysterical thoughts of Henry Fielding’s wonderful rumpot. Squire Western, roaring in on the scene with one of his prize pigs, falling into the orchestra and his sister ordering, “Get up! You country clot!”
But moments like this in relation to the history of this polite and polished little city are like light scenes inserted into a great and powerful drama that holds the whole sweep of English history. One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to Bath Abbey. I'm no authority on architecture, and churches, as buildings, hold no special interest for me, but whether you have religious inclinations or not, you find yourself drawn to these magnificent old stone medieval structures in Britain. The morning I stood beneath the soaring, fan-vaulted, lacey stone ceiling, someone was tuning the organ, playing a few chords and passages and then going to work with a screwdriver or something. A dozen musical passages of about eight
bars each are not much for a thirty-five-hundred-mile trip, but for me the moment was worth the entire trip from Canada. Perhaps you're not as romantic as I am, but standing there with the cold morning light coming in the north windows onto the stone of the empty cathedral, knowing it was at an abbey here that Edgar, the grandson of the Saxon King Alfred the Great, was crowned king of England, I could hear the sea wind making castle pennants crackle, hear the prayers for the health and guidance of monarchs, see ships sailing out for the new world, all the struggle and life and adventure of this lush new wet land, surrounded by the sea and sacked by the Saxons.
The city of Salisbury (Hardy’s “Melchester”) is about forty miles from Bath. An odd thing about this part of England is that much of it looks like the Canadian prairies, and I found it a relief in a strange way. The bus winds serenely and slowly through the centre of villages and through lush green sheep-raising and dairy land, with no billboards, hot-dog stands, drive-ins, motels, shoulders on the road or farmhouses, as we think of farmhouses, sitting out in the farmers’ fields, and just as you’re getting a bit depressed by the unrelenting prettiness of thatched roofs, little fairy-tale villages, precise stone walls, and those English roads that wind discreetly and apologetically between neat hedges, the plains open out as if you were entering Manitoba driving west of Kenora and you’re looking over an expanse of country that rolls unbroken to the horizon, with maybe a tiny row of elms the size of pins against the sky in the distance, and you feel that you’ve come back to the real world again.
It’s on these plains of Salisbury that you can see those strange ancient monuments, the most famous of which is the circle of Stonehenge, usually connected with the Druids. But they had no connection with the Druids, who came to Britain in about / continued overleaf
continued / the third century before Christ. Stonehenge was built centuries earlier (its most recent features arc dated 1400 B.C.; its beginnings are unknown) by Stone Age or early Bronze Age men, who labored and hauled these stones from as far away as Wales, with some strange purpose, probably connected with the position of the sun on the longest and shortest days of the year, which is easy to believe, as they stand on raised land that sweeps away in all directions to the horizon, throwing their sharp shadows on grass as green as emerald.
You can see the spire of Salisbury Cathedral for miles across the countryside, although 1 didn't know what it was as the bus approached Salisbury. Perhaps it heightens the effect to be ignorant of these world-famous structures, but I discovered Salisbury Cathedral for myself one night when I came out of a dark stone passageway and saw it soaring mistily above a great lawn, and went inside just in time to hear evensong. There were candles burning in the gloom in the distance and the voices of the choir boys echoed roundly in a great empty stone cavern. In the shadows at one side a slender stooped man pulled a bell rope. He’d give it a pull, there’d be a moment of silence, then the cathedral bell would sound far up above.
These sights were all a bonus for me; the real objective of my trip was Dorchester, the “Casterbridge” of Hardy’s novels. It’s a mark of Hardy’s genius that I knew exactly what Dorchester would be like before I arrived — not only what it would look like, but what it would be like, and feel like. There’s a peculiar stylized feeling to some of Hardy’s works, two of them in particular — Jude The Obscure and The Mayor Of Casterbridge — a feeling I’d always associated somehow with the setting of his towns which I pictured as solid-stone, geometrical and coldly formal. And that is what Dorchester is like. It hasn’t grown a great deal since Hardy’s time. I found the place where Hardy served as an apprentice architect, marked by a plaque on the brick wall at second-story level, and lit by a naked electric bulb. There’s a Thomas Hardy Room in the local museum, a reconstruction of Hardy’s study, containing the things he actually used. But there’s nothing more pointless and depressing than looking at these dead physical props — blotters, pens, pince nez and magnifying glasses. The real Thomas Hardy came alive for me in quite another way than visiting museums.
There’s a scene in The Mayor Of Casterbridge in which the mayor, Henchard, is attending a banquet. His wife, whom he had sold many years ago to the highest bidder one night when he got sauced up at a country fair, stood on some steps across the street to watch the banquet taking place inside an open window. When I read this years ago I knew exactly what it looked like: the street, the window, the whole feeling of the place. Now, on my trip, in today’s Dorchester, I asked for a good hotel and was shown to one I’d never heard of before. 1 had a cup of coffee, then wandered upstairs to a big TV lounge. I went over to the window, and knew
instantly that I was looking out from the room in which the banquet was attended by the mayor of Casterbridge — looking out of the same window, at the same street, just as I’d always pictured it. I’ve never read a biography of Thomas Hardy or anything about the scenes of his novels, but I found out later that this was the King’s Arms, which was the setting not only for this scene but for other episodes in Hardy’s books.
There was another incident that gave me a sense of my trip to England being wrapped up neatly. I had a cab driver (not unlike one of Hardy’s characters) take me out to the thatched cottage where Hardy was born and raised, which is now cared for by Miss Evelyn Evans, the sister of actor Maurice Evans. This is a doll’shouse-sized cottage. The room in which great grog parties such as the one in Under The Greenwood Tree were held is about the size of one space in a supermarket parking lot. You can go up to Hardy’s bedroom, which I did, and look out the window at the scene he must have looked at so many mornings of his life. It's a raggedy kind of landscape of dank weeds and rough stone and a kind of untidy charm, with winding lanes and the beginning of the hills leading up to his Egdon Heath.
While I looked out the window trying to figure out that I've-beenhere-before feeling that came over me, I realized that the whole personality of the place — the type of countryside, the wet, woodsy tattered feeling with the hills behind — reminded me of nothing so much as the view from my porch at the farmhouse in Omemee. ★
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.