Gateway to the Classics: The Counties of England by Charlotte Mason
The Counties of England by  Charlotte Mason


I. The Vales

Gloucestershire is an easy county to describe; it consists of vales, forest, and hills. The forest lies to the west of the Severn; the vales are, Severn Valley, running through the county, and a bit of the Avon Valley, which crosses it at the north; the hilly country is in the east of the shire.

The bit of Avon Valley, or Vale of Evesham, in the north is, like the same vale in Worcester, green and fertile; and most fertile and beautiful are, also, the two parts of the. Severn Valley.

The Severn enters this county at Tewkesbury, which is seventy miles from the sea; yet with such force does the tide-wave from the Atlantic come in, that it is felt thus far up.

Tewkesbury is a busy little town where stockings are made: in a field close by was fought the last battle gave one in the long and bitter Wars of the Roses.

Henry VI. was a prisoner in the Tower of London, and Edward IV. had been crowned, when Queen Margaret, the wife of Henry, came over the sea with an army. They sailed up the Severn, and every day old friends joined the queen, who was full of hope; her young son Edward was with her.

But Edward IV. met her at Tewkesbury, and a terrible battle followed. The queen's friends fought valiantly, but earls and knights and three thousand men fell on that bloody field. The queen herself was taken prisoner; some say her son was killed while flying from the field, but others, that he was taken before Edward, who struck him in the face with his steel glove, and allowed the boy to be slain in his sight. Margaret's spirit was broken at last; she never again attempted to rouse the English people.

The Severn Valley as far south as the city of Gloucester is called the Vale of Gloucester,—a most fertile valley, about eight miles wide, where little is to be seen but waving corn-fields, and pleasant villages nestling among fruit-trees. It is bordered on the east by the Cotswold Hills; under the hills is Cheltenham, with its wholesome springs, and its baths; this is a pleasant holiday-place, which is usually crowded with visitors. Large ships come up the Severn as far as Gloucester, which is a busy trading town, sending its cargoes mostly to the Baltic Sea, from which the ships bring deal-wood, turpentine, and corn. They carry away salt, iron goods, and various other products.

Gloucester is an ancient city with a beautiful cathedral. It was in Gloucester, amongst his own people, that the good Bishop Hooper was burnt at the stake in the persecution under Queen Mary.

South of Gloucester, the Severn Valley is called the Vale of Berkeley, from the old market-town of that name. Its castle stands on a hill which overlooks the river, and to this castle a pitiful tale belongs. Here ended the life of Edward II., who governed his realm so ill that the barons of England compelled him to make the kingdom over to his young son. This was only fair, but a wicked deed followed. The king was shut up in a little lonely chamber with thick stone walls which may still be seen in Berkeley Castle, and there he was murdered in so terrible a way that his shrieks could be heard in the town. This deed was not done by the barons, but by ruffians sent by the king's wicked wife. The Severn is a broad and noble river here, with sailing ships, steamers, and barges upon its waters. It can hardly be called a river, however; it is a wide estuary by which the sea makes its way far into the land, while the Severn still flows through it down to the sea.

Berkeley Vale, which is not more than half as broad as the more northern Vale of Gloucester, is also shut in by the Cotswold Hills. It is the prettier valley of the two, with wooded hills dotted about, many cows feeding, low, deep green meadows by the river side, and apple and pear orchards beyond these. Cider and perry, excellent Gloucester cheese, and delicious butter are made in Berkeley Vale.

II. Bristol Channel and Bristol Town

It is rather an odd fact that Gloucestershire has three Avons, all of which flow into the Severn—the Warwick, or Stratford Avon in the north; an Avon in the south which has come through Wilts and Somerset, called the Bristol Avon, because Bristol stands upon it; and a third, the Little Avon, on which Berkeley stands. The coming in of the tide causes a strange change in the Bristol Avon. At low water, it is a shallow, brawling stream, that will scarcely carry the smallest boat. When the tide comes in, big West Indiamen and the largest steamers glide right up to the city. If ships arrive at low water, they wait for the returning tide to carry them up to Bristol. They do not venture up with the spring tide, however, which rises fifty feet high at Avonmouth. A strange and awful sight is the rising of the spring-tide (a very high tide which occurs twice a month, at new and full moon) in the Severn. Often, while the stream is flowing calmly, and the waters scarcely show a ripple, a low, sullen roar breaks on the*ear, getting louder and nearer every moment, till a hill of water, with a white ridge of foam, comes rolling up fast, tossing the barges and boats about in a wild way. This hill of water is called a "bore," and seems to be caused by the fact that the river channel slopes in such a way as to keep out the sea for a bit; presently the tide-wave makes its way round the corner, and up rush the waters with tremendous fury.

Bristol is a busy port, with many ships coming and going and lying in harbour. To make more room for these, the Avon has been turned out of its bed for some two miles, and a new channel dug for it. The old channel, filled with water, is used as a harbour, and with that and its long quay, Bristol can give quiet lodgings to more than one thousand vessels. The city has need to make room for the good ships that throng her busy port—ships from the Indies, with sugar and cotton, spices, and strange foreign fruits; ships from Cork, with bacon and live pigs, butter and eggs; ships from Spain and the Levant, with dried fruits and wine, oranges and wool; from South America, with hides, wool, and tallow; from Africa, with ivory and gums; ships from China and the far east, with silk and tea, preserved ginger, sugar and spice, and all things nice. It would be hard to name the part of the world which does not send cargoes to Bristol, or whither she, in turn, does not send the hardware of the "Black Country," salt, coal, and other west-country produce that has been brought down the Severn, or carried to Bristol by road or rail. Bristol sends out her own goods, also; she is a busy town, where ships are built, sugar is refined, soap, glass, and various other things are made; this old town has a long history, dating back to Roman days, when Bristol was an important camp and city.

So close as to be really part of the city, is Clifton, with its warm springs and breezy downs, at the foot of which flows the Avon, through a narrow chasm in one place, over which there is a Suspension Bridge.

Clifton is a gay, fashionable place, a contrast to the mining villages on the other side of the town. The Avon runs through the wide Bristol coal-field, the most southerly in England, which extends into Somerset. Much of the town of Bristol is in the county of Somerset. Beyond the town, the broad opening from the Atlantic into which the Severn falls is known as the Bristol Channel.

III. The Cotswold Hills

The Cotswolds run from end to end of the county, and divide the basin of the Severn from that of the Thames. Their hill ranges and valleys nearly fill the eastern half of Gloucestershire, being in some places from twenty to thirty miles across. The short grass on their slopes feeds countless flocks of sheep,—a breed famous both for fine wool and good mutton. The highest point is Cleeve Cloud, near Cheltenham (about 1000 feet high), by which the old Roman Ermine Street passes on its way north from Cirencester. Cirencester was the chief town in the west country in Roman days, and here four great roads met.

Carpets are manufactured in Cirencester, and, to the west of this town, in pretty vales, surrounded by hills, and watered by streams which flow into the Severn, are the towns where the famous west-country broadcloth is made. Stroud is the chief of these; and there are long white mills by dark-coloured streams in many of the neighbouring towns and villages—Minchin-hampton, Stonehouse, and others. The finest broadcloth is made in this county, in Wilts, and Somerset. The most notable thing about the Cotswolds is that they have the honour of giving birth to the Thames.

About three miles from Cheltenham two brooks rise—one from several openings at a spot called the Seven Springs. The spot is a lovely dell, overhung with trees, at the foot of Leckhampton Hill. "Here," says the woman who shows the place, "be the springs from which comes the great river Thames, which is called Isis till it gets past Oxford. Here they be, seven of 'em, one, two, three, four, &c. And they never run less in the driest summer, and never are frozen in winter. How thankful ought us to be for such a plenty of good water!" It gushes freely out of the rock, clear and pure as crystal, cool and grateful to the summer rambler. After a few whirls, it starts upon its course, as if impatient to reach the objects in its path. In about a mile, the brook from Seven Springs is joined by another from Ullen Farm, and the two together make the small river Churn. It flows to Cricklade, twenty miles off, where the Isis, or Thames, from Wiltshire is met. Four feeders of the Thames, the Evenlode, Windrush, Leach, and Colne, also rise in the Cotswolds.

With the exception of Windsor Forest and the New Forest, Dean Forest is the largest in England; oak and beech are grown here for the dockyards. It is a mining country; a coal-field stretches right under the forest, and iron is found with the coal. Lydney and Coleford are busy coal and iron towns.

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