With the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Kingsley, I posted recently about his contribution to a sense of ‘place’ in this corner of North-East Hampshire where I live, which referred to one of his works (“Prose Idylls, New and Old“), and how it described the ‘rough commons’ terrain of the area.
Since that post, I’ve learnt more about another of his works, “Madam How and Lady Why: First lessons in earth lore for children“, where he writes at length about the local landscape, name-checking very specific points on the heaths and commons, and in the woods of the area.
In the chapter titled ‘The Glen‘, he begins;
*You find it dull walking up here upon Hartford Bridge Flat this sad November day? Well, I do not deny that the moor looks somewhat dreary, though dull it need never be. Though the fog is clinging to the fir-trees, and creeping among the heather, till you cannot see as far as Minley Corner, hardly as far as Bramshill woods–and all the Berkshire hills are as invisible as if it was a dark midnight–yet there is plenty to be seen here at our very feet. Though there is nothing left for you to pick, and all the flowers are dead and brown, except here and there a poor half-withered scrap of bottle-heath, and nothing left for you to catch either, for the butterflies and insects are all dead too, except one poor old Daddy-long-legs, who sits upon that piece of turf, boring a hole with her tail to lay her eggs in, before the frost catches her and ends her like the rest: though all things, I say, seem dead, yet there is plenty of life around you, at your feet, I may almost say in the very stones on which you tread. And though the place itself be dreary enough, a sheet of flat heather and a little glen in it, with banks of dead fern, and a brown bog between them, and a few fir-trees struggling up–yet, if you only have eyes to see it, that little bit of glen is beautiful and wonderful,–so beautiful and so wonderful and so cunningly devised, that it took thousands of years to make it; and it is not, I believe, half finished yet.”
For those not so well versed in the area, Hartford Bridge Flat(s) is the long, open , flat area of land, traversed by the A30, and now home to Blackbushe Airport. During WWII when it was first built, it was named RAF Hartford Bridge. Much of the area is now a nature reserve, home to Yateley Common, and nearby Castle Bottom.
The book is an introduction to the ways of nature (using the ‘fairy’ characters ‘Madam How‘ and ‘Lady Why‘), but for me, it is as much a physical connection with this same area of Hampshire that previous generations of my family would have been roaming at the very same time as Kingsley – in particular, the Vickery family, who, at that time, had lines in Minley, Hawley, Hartford Bridge and Elvetham. Who knows, some of them may even have stumbled upon each other, although probably not my great, great grandfather Alfred, who was exactly two years old when Kingsley died in 1875. His descendants settled in Eversley, and Yateley.
Other mentions for locations on this patch in this book include:-
“All round these hills, from here to Aldershot in one direction, and from here to Windsor in another, you see the same shaped glens; the wave-crest along their top, and at the foot of the crest a line of springs which run out over the slopes, or well up through them in deep sand-galls, as you call them–shaking quagmires which are sometimes deep enough to swallow up a horse, and which you love to dance upon in summer time.”
“But what could change a beautiful Chine like that at Bournemouth into a wide sloping glen like this of Bracknell’s Bottom, with a wood like Coombs’, many acres large, in the middle of it?…… and so at last, instead of two sharp walls of cliff at the Chine’s mouth, you might have–just what you have here at the mouth of this glen,–our Mount and the Warren Hill,–long slopes with sheets of drifted gravel and sand at their feet, stretching down into what was once an icy sea, and is now the Vale of Blackwater. And this I really believe Madam How has done simply by lifting Hartford Bridge Flat a few more feet out of the sea, and leaving the rest to her trusty tool, the water in the sky.”
“Water, and nothing else, has sawn out such a chasm as that through which the ships run up to Bristol, between Leigh Wood and St. Vincent’s Rocks. Water, and nothing else, has shaped those peaks of the Matterhorn, or the Weisshorn, or the Pic du Midi of the Pyrenees, of which you have seen sketches and photographs. Just so water might saw out Hartford Bridge Flat, if it had time enough, into a labyrinth of valleys, and hills, and peaks standing along; as it has already done by Ambarrow, and Edgbarrow, and the Folly Hill on the other side of the vale.”
Reading the text, and seeing the places name-checked finally inspired me enough to take a walk around Bramshill Woods for the first time this week. I’d always wanted to see the ‘Welsh Drive‘ for myself – the historic, long-distance drove road along which cattle were herded from Wales to markets south of London, and along the route. I had to stop for a while to feel a connection with the track that is still there today, and which Kingsley must have walked himself.
Very little how, why, or wherefore, but I just felt inspired to go out, and to collect these words together too in one place, since they have helped make this place more particular for me as Kingsley’s 200th birthday approaches.