The Scouring of the White Horse
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OLD AND NEW
The great success of the festival (or “pastime,” as it is called in the neighbourhood) which was held on White Horse Hill on the 17th and 18th of September, 1857, to celebrate the “Scouring of the Horse,” according to immemorial custom, led the Committee of Management to think that our fellow-county-men at least, if not our countrymen generally, would be glad to have some little printed memorial, which should comprise not only an account of the doings on the Hill on the late occasion, but should also endeavour to gather up the scattered legends and traditions of the country side, and any authentic historical notices relating to the old monument, of which we west-countrymen are all so fond and proud.
I had the good or ill luck (as the case may be) to be the only member of the Committee whose way of life had led him into the perilous paths of literature; so the task of compiling and editing our little book was laid on my shoulders.
Installed as chronicler to the White Horse, I entered with no ill will on my office, having been all my life possessed, as is the case with so many Englishmen, by intense local attachment, love for every stone and turf of the country where I was born and bred. But it is one thing to have zeal, and another to have discretion; and when I came to consider my materials, I found that the latter quality would be greatly needed. For, what were they? One short bright gleam of history from the writings of old monks a thousand years ago; traditions and dim legends, which I and most Berkshire men have always faithfully believed from our youth up, and shall go on believing to our dying day, but which we could hardly put before general readers in serious narrative; a dry notice here and there by some old antiquary of the seventeenth or eighteenth century; stories floating in the memories of old men still living; small broad-sheets from country town presses, with lists of the competitors for prizes at rustic games, newspaper articles, remarks by Committee-men and umpires, scraps of antiquarian lore; abuse of the Great Western Railway for not allowing the trains to stop, bits of vernacular dialogue, and odd rhymes. What could be done with them all? How out of the mass could a shapely book be called out, fit to be laid before a fastidious British public, not born in Berkshire?
Not exactly seeing how this was to be done, the only honest course which remained, was to follow the example of a good housewife in the composition of that excellent food called “stir-about” – throw them altogether into the pot, stir them round and round with a great spoon, and trust that the look of the few great raisins, and the flavour of the allspice, may leaven the mass, and make it pleasing to the eye and palate; and so, though the stir-about will never stand up in a china dish by itself, it may, we hope, make a savoury and pleasant side dish, in a common soup tureen.
The raisins, and those of the best quality, have been furnished by the great artist11
For, suppose an intelligent Englishman to be travelling in France, and to find the whole population in the neighbourhood of Tours turning out in their best clothes for a two days’ holiday on a high hill, upon which the rude figure of a huge hammer is roughly sculptured. On inquiry, he finds that the figure has been there long before the memory of the oldest man living, but that it has always been carefully preserved and kept fresh; and although there is no printed history of how it came there, yet that all neighbouring men, of whatever degree, associate it with the name of Charles Martel and his great victory over the Saracens, and are ready one and all to rejoice over it, and to work and pay that it may go down to their children looking as it does now. Or, to come to much later times, let our traveller find an eagle cut out on a hill in Hungary, similarly honoured, and associated with the name of Eugene, and the memory of the day
Should we not all thank him for giving us the best account he could of the figure, the festival, and all traditions connected with them; and think he had fallen on a very noteworthy matter, and well worth the telling when he got back to England?
Well, here we have the same thing at our own doors; a rude colossal figure cut out in the turf, and giving the name to a whole district; legends connecting it with the name of our greatest king, and with his great victory over the Pagans, and a festival which has been held at very short intervals ever since the ninth century. Rich as our land is in historical monuments, there is none more remarkable than the White Horse; and in this belief we put forth this little book in his honour, hoping that it may perhaps fix upon him, and the other antiquities which surround him, the attention of some one who can bring science and knowledge to bear upon the task to which we can only bring good will.
For, alas! let me confess at once, that in these qualities our book is like to be sadly deficient. The compiler has no knowledge whatever of the Anglo-Saxon tongue, or of Saxon or other antiquities. There is indeed of necessity a semblance of learning and research about the chapter which tells the history of the battle of Ashdown, because the materials for it had to be collected from a number of old chroniclers, whose names will be found in the foot-notes. But any fifth-form boy, with industry enough to read about 200 small pages of monkish Latin, may master the whole for himself in the originals in a week; and for those who cannot do this, there is the jubilee edition of the chroniclers, put forth by the Alfred Committee in 1852, where a translation of the old fellows will be found in parallel columns, together with much learning concerning them and their times, in foot-note, preface, and appendix. This translation I have followed in all but a few passages, in which the text used by the translators has probably differed from the one which I have seen. For the Saxon Chronicle, I have used Ingram’s translation.
But while we do not pretend to be antiquaries, or historians, or learned men, we do claim to be honest average Englishmen, and will yield to no man in our love for our own quiet corner of the land of our birth. We do think, that whatever deeply interests us cannot fail in a degree to interest our countrymen. We are sure that reverence for all great Englishmen, and a loving remembrance of the great deeds done by them in old times, will help to bring to life in us the feeling that we are a family, bound together to work out God’s purposes in this little island, and in the uttermost parts of the earth; to make clear to us the noble inheritance which we have in common; and to sink into their proper place the miserable trifles, and odds and ends, over which we are so apt to wrangle. We do hope that our example will lead Englishmen of other counties, to cherish every legend and story which hangs round any nook of their neighbourhood, connecting it with the times and the men who have gone before; to let no old custom, which has a meaning, however rude, die out, if it can be kept alive; and not to keep either legend or custom to themselves, but (like us) to put them in the best shape they can, and publish them for the benefit of their countrymen; we of the White Horse Committee, at any rate, hereby pledging ourselves to read all such publications.
I must here take the opportunity of specially thanking three of my fellow Committee-men, and two other friends, for the trouble they have taken in various ways to lighten my work. If this book at all fulfils the objects for which it has been written, the thanks of my readers, as well as my own, will be due to
And now, without further preface, we commend our “stir-about” to Englishmen in general, and west-countrymen in particular.
“Richard,” said our governor, as I entered his room at five o’clock on the afternoon of the 31st of August, 1857, running his pen down the columns of the salary-book, “your quarter-day to-day, I think? Let me see; you were raised to ? – a-year in February last, – so much for quarter’s salary, and so much for extra work. I am glad to see that you have been working so steadily; you’ll deserve your holiday, and enjoy it all the more. You’ll find that all right, I think;” and he pushed a small paper across the table towards me, on which my account was stated in our cashier’s hand, and looked at me over his spectacles.
My heart jumped at the mention of my holiday; I just ran my eye down the figures, and was glad to find the total a pound or two higher than I had expected. For I had lately learnt shorthand, and had been taking notes for our firm, for which I found they allowed me extra pay.
“Quite right, Sir,” I said; “and I’m sure I’m much obliged to you, Sir, for letting me do the extra work, because – ”
“Well, never mind that,” said he, with a little laugh; “I shouldn’t give you the extra work, Richard, if it didn’t suit me, or if I could get it better done anywhere else; so the account’s all square on that point. There’s your money.”
And he pushed over to me a very nice sum of money. I dare say you would like to know what it was, reader. Now, I’m not going to tell you. Why should you know just what my income is? I don’t owe you or any one else five shillings, and have a very tidy account at the savings’ bank, besides having paid for all the furniture and books in my room, not very far from Lambsconduit Street, which I reckon to be worth fifty pounds of any man’s money; so you see my income is enough to keep me before the world, and I wish more of you could say as much.
“I’m very much obliged, Sir,” said I again, as I wrote a receipt over a stamp which I took out of my pocket-book, and stuck on to the bottom of the account.
“No, you’re not,” said our governor, quite short; “it’s your own money, fairly earned. You’re not obliged to any man for giving you what’s your own.” He is such an odd fellow about these things. But mind you, I think he’s quite right, too; for, after all, no doubt each of us earns a good penny for him over and above what he pays us, else why should he keep us on? but, somehow, one can’t help thanking any one who pays one money; at least, I can’t.
“Now, as to your holiday,” went on our governor. “There’s Jobson went for his fortnight on the 30th; he’ll be back on the 14th of September, at latest. You can take any time you like, after that.”
“Then, Sir,” said I directly, “I should like it as soon as possible.”
“Very well,” said he; “Tuesday the 16th to Tuesday the 29th of September, both inclusive;” and he made a note in another book which lay on his desk. “Good evening, Richard.”
“Good evening, Sir,” said I; and away I went down to our room in as good spirits as any young fellow in our quarter of London.
Of course all the other clerks began shouting out at once to know how much money I’d got, and when I was going to have my holiday. Well, I didn’t tell them what money I had, any more than I’ve told you, because I like to keep my own counsel about such matters. Besides, there are several of our clerks whose ways I don’t at all like; so I don’t do any thing I can help which might look as if I liked them. No! hands off, is my motto with these sort of chaps.
I’m sure there’s no pride about me, though. My name’s Easy, and always was; and I like every fellow, whatever his coat is, who isn’t always thinking about the cut of it, or what he has in the pocket of it. But, goodness knows, I can’t stand a fellow who gives himself airs, and thinks himself a chalk above everybody who can’t dress and do just as he can. Those chaps, I always see, are just the ones to do lick-spittle to those that they think have more in their pockets than themselves.
But I must get on with my story, for you don’t all want to know my opinions about the clerks in our office, I dare say.
Well, when I got down, as I said before, we were all just on the move, (business hours being from nine till six in our office,) taking down coats and hats, and clearing desks for the night, so I just sidled up to Jem Fisher, and little Neddy Baily, who are the two I like best, and told them to come up to my room to supper at eight o’clock, which they of course were very glad to promise to do, and then I went off to get ready for them.
Jem Fisher and I are very fond of a dish which I believe very few of you ever heard of. One Sunday in May, a year or two back, he and I had been down beyond Notting Hill, listening to the nightingales; and coming back, we walked through Kensington Gardens, and came out at the gate into the Notting Hill Road, close to Hyde Park. We were late, for us, so we hailed a ’bus, and got on the box. The driver was full of talk about all the fine people he had been seeing walking in the gardens that afternoon, and seemed to think it hard he couldn’t enjoy himself just as they did. “However, gentlemen,” said he at last, “there’s some things as the haristocracy ain’t alive to. Did you ever eat cow-heel?” Perhaps Jem, who had all his best clothes on, didn’t mind being taken for one of the aristocracy; at least just for a minute, for he’s too good a fellow to like being taken for anybody but himself when he comes to think of it; at any rate, he and I took to eating cow-heel from that time. So the first thing I did, after going home and locking up most of my money, and speaking to my landlady, who is the best old soul alive if you take her in her own way, was, to set off to Clare Market, and buy some cow-heel and sausages; and on my way back through the Turnstile, I thought, as it was so hot, I would have some fruit too; so I bought a pottle of plums and a piece of a pine-apple, and got home.
They came in sharp to time, and I and my landlady had every thing ready, and two foaming pewter pots full of bitter beer and porter. So we had a capital supper, and then cleared it all away, and sat down to eat the fruit and have a quiet pipe by the time it began to get dark.
“And so,” said little Neddy, (he is only just eighteen, and hasn’t been in our office a year yet; but he’s such a clever, industrious little chap, that he has gone over the heads of half a dozen of our youngsters, and hasn’t stopped yet by a long way,) “you’re off on the 15th! wish I was. Well, here’s luck any how,” said he, nodding to me, and taking a bite out of a slice of pine-apple.
“Gentle Shepherd, tell me where?” said Jem Fisher. (Jem is very fond of quoting poetry; not that I think half that he quotes is real poetry, only how is one to find him out? Jem is a tall, good-looking fellow, as old as I am, and that’s twenty-one last birthday; we came into the office together years ago, and have been very thick ever since, which I sometimes wonder at, for Jem is a bit of a swell – Gentleman Jem they call him in the office.) “Now, Dick, where are you bound for?”
“Well, that’s more than I know myself,” said I.
“Then,” said he, taking his pipe out of his pocket and filling it, “I vote we settle for him, eh, Neddy?”
“Aye, aye, Sir,” said Neddy, stretching over for the pottle; “but, I say, Jem, you haven’t finished all those plums?” and he poked about in the leaves with his fingers.
“Every mother’s son of them,” said Jem, lighting a lucifer; “if you come to that, Master Ned, hand me over some of that pine-apple. But now, about the tour; how much money are you going to spend on it, Dick?”
“Well, I haven’t quite settled,” said I; “but I shouldn’t mind, now, going as high as four or five pounds, if I can suit myself.”
“You may go pretty near to Jericho for that now-a-days,” said Neddy. “As I came along Holborn to-night, I saw a great placard outside the George and Blue Boar, with ‘to Llangollen and back 15s.’ on it. What do you think of that? You’ll be turned out at the station there with ?4 5s. in your pocket.”
“Where’s Llangollen?” said I.
“Not half-way to Jericho,” shouted Jem, with a laugh. “Where’s Llangollen? Why didn’t you ever hear the song of Kitty Morgan, the maid of Llangollen? You’re a pretty fellow to go touring.”
“Yes, fifty times,” said I; “only the song don’t tell you where the place is – where is it now?”
“In Wales, of course,” said he, thinking he had me.
“Yes, I know that; but whereabouts in Wales,” said I, “for Wales is a biggish place. Is it near any thing one reads about in books, and ought to go and see?”
“Hanged if I know exactly,” said Jem, puffing away; “only of course Wales is worth seeing.”
“So is France,” struck in Neddy; “why, you may go to Paris and stay a fortnight for I don’t know how little.”
“Aye, or to Edinburgh or the Lakes,” said Jem.
“I want to have the particulars though,” said I; “I’m not going to start off to some foreign place, and find myself with no money to spend and enjoy myself with, when I get there.”
“I’ll tell you what,” said Neddy, jumping up, “I’ll just run round to the Working Men’s College, and borrow a Bradshaw from the secretary. We shall find all the cheap excursions there;” and away he went before we could say a word.
“I say,” said Jem to me, “how fond he is of bringing up that place; he’s always at me to go and enter there.”
“So he is at me,” said I, “and I think I shall, for he seems to pick up a lot of things there. How sharp he is at figures! and he knows more history and geography ten to one than I do. I’ll bet he knew what county Llangollen is in, and something about it too. Let’s ask him when he comes back.”
“Catch me!” said Jem; “he’ll look it out on the map on his way back, or ask one of the lecturers.”
“Here you are! look here!” said Neddy, tumbling in with two Bradshaws and a great atlas under his arm; “‘unprecedented attraction, pleasure excursions,’ let me see – Return tickets for Ireland, available for a fortnight. Waterford, 1l. 16s.; Cork, 2l.”
“Nonsense!” cried Jem, who had got the other Bradshaw; “listen here: ‘Channel Islands, (remarkable as being the only remaining Norman possessions of the British crown,) second class and fore cabin, 21s.”
“‘London to Dieppe, return tickets available for fourteen days, second class, 21s.,’” sung out Ned, from the other Bradshaw.
And away they went, with Brussels, and Bangor, and the Manchester Exhibition, and Plymouth and Glasgow, and the Isle of Man, and Margate and Ramsgate, and the Isle of Wight; and then to Gibraltar and Malta and New York, and all over the world. I sat and smoked my pipe, for ’twas no use trying to settle any thing; but presently, when they got tired, we set to work and began to put down the figures. However, that wasn’t much better, for there were such a lot of tours to go; and one was a bit too short, and the other too long, and this cost too much, and that too little; so all the beer was gone, and we were no nearer settling any thing when eleven o’clock struck.
“Well,” said Jem, getting up and knocking the ashes out of his third pipe, “I declare it’s almost as good as going a tour one’s self, settling it for Dick here.”
“I just wish you had settled it,” said I; “I’m more puzzled than when we began.”
“Heigh-ho, fellows never know when they’re well off,” said Neddy; “now I never get a chance. In my holiday I just go down to the old folk at Romford, and there I stick.”
“They don’t indeed,” said I; “I wonder to hear you talk like that, Ned. Some folks would give all they’re worth to have old folk to go to.”
“Well, I didn’t mean it,” said he, looking hurt. And I don’t believe he did, for a kinder hearted fellow don’t live; and I was half sorry I had said what I did say.
“Further deliberation will be necessary,” said Jem, lighting his fourth pipe; “we’ll come again to-morrow night; your bacchy’s nearly out, Dick; lay in some bird’s eye for to-morrow; real Bristol, do you hear?”
“Time to go, I suppose,” said Ned, getting up and gathering the Bradshaws and atlas together; “are we to come again to-morrow, Dick?”
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