The Vale of White Horse
"Most of you have probably travelled down the Great Western Railway as far as Swindon. Those of you who did so with their eyes open have been aware, soon after leaving the Didcot Station, of a fine range of chalk hills running parallel with the railway on the left-hand side as you go down, and distant some two or three miles, more or less, from the line. The highest point in the range is the White Horse Hill, which you come in front of just before you stop at the Shrivenham Station. The Great Western now runs right through it, and White Horse Vale is a land of large rich pastures, bounded by ox-fences, and covered with fine hedge-row timber. The villages are straggling, queer, old-fashioned places, the houses being dropped down, without the least regularity, in nooks and out-of-the-way corners, by the sides of shadowy lanes and footpaths, each with its patch of garden.
"I pity people who weren't born in a vale. I don't mean a flat country, but a vale: that is a flat country bounded by hills. The having your hill always in view if you choose to turn towards him, that is the essence of a vale.
"And then, what a hill is the White Horse Hill! There it stands right up above all the rest, 900 feet above the sea, and the boldest, bravest shape for a chalk hill that you ever saw. Let us go up to the top of him and see what is to be found there. Ay, you may well wonder and think it odd you never heard of this before; yes, it is a magnificent Roman camp, and no mistake, with gates and ditch and mounds, all as complete as it was twenty years after the strong old rogues left it. The ground falls away rapidly on all sides. Was there ever such turf in the whole world? You sink up to your ankles at every step, and yet the spring of it is delicious.
"And now we leave the camp and descend towards the west, and are on the Ashdown. We are treading on heroes. It is sacred ground for Englishmen; more sacred than all but one or two fields where their bones lie whitening. For this is the actual place where our Alfred won his great battle, the battle of Ashdown, which broke the Danish power, and made England a Christian land. The Danes held the camp and the slope where we are standing—the whole crown of the hill in fact. 'The heathen had beforehand seized the higher ground,' as old Asser says, having wasted everything behind them from London, and being just ready to burst down on the fair vale, Alfred s own birthplace and heritage. And up the heights came the Saxons, as they did at the Alma. The Christians led up their line from the lower ground. There stood also on that same spot a single thorn tree, marvellous stumpy, around which, as I was saying, the two lines of foe-men came together in battle with a huge shout. And in this place, one of the two kings of the heathen and five of his earls fell down and died, and many thousands of the heathen side in the same place.'
"After which crowning mercy, the pious king, that there might never be wanting a sign and a memorial to the country-side, carved out on the northern side of the chalk hill, under the camp, where it is very steep, the great Saxon white horse, which he who will may see from the railway, and which gives its name to the vale over which it has looked these thousand years and more."
It would take too long to describe, or to tell the stories belonging to half the places in the vale, which is shut in between two ranges of downs out of Wiltshire,—the downs with White Horse Hill which run across the middle of the county, and another range which keeps within a mile or so of the Thames, on the north. There is Abingdon, with no sign left of its splendid abbey; and Wallingford, with only ruined walls to show where its famous castle stood; and Faringdon, which held out so stoutly for Charles I.; and Wantage, with its cherry fair, where the Great Alfred was born. Tales of old times belong to all four, and they are all, now, pleasant market-towns to which the good things grown in the vale are brought for sale.
It is not only White Horse Vale, watered by its little river Ock, but the whole county which is full of goodly farms and pretty villages. Broad pastures for the cattle, smooth hills for the sheep, green meadows and corn-fields and copses, are to be seen everywhere; for Berkshire lies within the fertile valley of the Thames, which goes in and out in endless curves along the north of the county, dividing it from Oxford. Another beautiful and fertile valley is that of the "Kennet swift, for silver eels renowned," a valley famous for its wheat, and at the bottom of which are beautiful bright green water-meadows, which lie between the streams into which the river is here and there divided.
Within a mile of the Kennet is the market-town of Newbury, close by which two battles in two following years were fought during the Civil War, with such even courage on both sides that neither gained the victory. In the first battle, the king's side suffered a grievous loss; Lord Falkland, the most gentle and learned of them all, was among the slain. On the morning of the battle he had said, "I am weary of the times, and foresee much misery to my country, but believe that I shall be out of it ere night." "Peace, Peace!" were his last words. Before the war, he had been full of cheerfulness and playful wit; but he loved the king and he loved his country, and he thought the war altogether wrong and evil, though it still seemed to him a duty to fight for the king. So in these troublous times he went about with a heavy heart and a sad countenance; and often, among his friends, after a deep silence and many sighs, he would with a sad accent say the word "Peace." Upon Newbury field he found the peace for which he yearned.
Reading, the county town, is in a beautiful spot, just where the Kennet joins the Thames; in these days it is chiefly noted for Huntley and Palmer's delicious biscuits.
The chief glory of Berkshire is Windsor Castle, the splendid home of our beloved Queen, and a very stately and beautiful home it is. It is both a castle and a palace; the palace part is built on each side of a square, and has the State Apartments, and the Queen's Private Apartments, and the Visitors' Apartments; and in the last two alone there are more rooms than there are days in the year. Splendid as the State Apartments are, the castle is the most interesting part. A royal castle from Saxon days, it is to Edward III. that Windsor owes its chief glory. In his wars he made two kings his prisoners, David of Scotland and John of France; and with the money paid for the ransom of these captive kings he built two of the castle towers; and his architect was none other than William of Wykeham, the famous Bishop of Winchester.
One of these is the Round Tower or Keep, which stands upon a mound, and was built by the king to hold a Round Table for his knights, like the famous Round Table of King Arthur.
The interior is reached by a covered flight of one hundred steps, and a second flight leads to the battlements of the proud Keep, from which twelve counties may be seen. To this Keep belong many of the stories of Windsor Castle, for, since Edward's reign, it has been used as the castle prison.
Here, for the most part, was James I. of Scotland, the young poet-king, confined for nineteen, years by order of Henry IV. The next great captive in the Keep was, strange to say, the next poet who wrote such sweet true verses that we care for them still—Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, a brave soldier and a most courtly knight, who was beheaded for no sufficient reason by Henry VIII.
The stately towers of Windsor look out upon the Thames on the north; and to the south there is first the Great Park with its noble trees—really a part of the Forest—and beyond that still, the great Forest of Windsor.
To reach the Forest from the castle, we must go through the Long Walk, which is three miles long, and quite straight, and runs from the castle gate to the top of Snow Hill; such a walk, with its double row of great elms on each side, as is hardly to be seen anywhere else.
Then there is St. George's Chapel with its painted windows, and the Tomb House, or Albert Chapel, which the Queen has had made very beautiful in memory of her dear husband, Prince Albert, "Albert the Good."
And there is the Forest itself, with its oaks and beeches; and the Model Farms, where all the best plans are followed; and the huge statue of George III. at the end of the Long Walk. Within the palace there are more beautiful and curious things, pictures and wood carvings, and grand furnishings, than we have room to describe.