This middle county of England is a very fair and pleasant shire. It has no high mountains, nor broad rivers, nor grand scenery of any kind. But it has broad pastures, with spreading oaks here and there for shade, and handsome cows dotted about upon them. It has pleasant hills with glorious views, and stately mansions in green parks, with stories enough belonging to them to fill a tliick book. Feudal castles, too, it has, the proudest remaining in the land.
And there are beautiful meadows, gay with flowers, spreading wide on both banks of Avon, and, here and there, all over the county, meadows with clumps of noble trees. Indeed half the county is in meadows and pastures, for Warwick is a great grazing county, and the farmers are very proud of their beasts.
The south is for the most part under the plough, though waving corn-fields and green crops and clover-fields, as well as fruit orchards, are to be seen all over the shire.
From Coventry to Warwick is an especially delightful drive, a good deal of the charm of which lies in the stories belonging to the places on the way. There is the quaint old city of Coventry, with its queer corners and gables, and half-timbered houses with overhanging stories. The spires of its three ancient and beautiful churches—St. Michael's the most beautiful of the three—may be seen from afar; for the city stands on a low hill in the middle of a valley.
Coventry used to be very famous for its grand yearly procession of the trades, and its shows, and the mystery plays performed in the streets by the monks. It owed its glory to the monks, who had a splendid Abbey there, founded by the fair Lady Godiva and the great Earl Leofric, who was lord of Coventry.
A rather hard lord he was, and forced from his people a heavy tax which they knew not how to pay, and they were weary of their lives for hard labour, which made them none the better off. This matter grieved the Lady Godiva, and she prayed her lord to ease them. The more she besought him the sterner he became, and at last he cried if she would have these idle Coventry folk eased of their burdens she must ride naked through their city at noon, a thing he thought his beautiful, delicate lady could never do. But Earl Leofric did not know what a pitiful heart may dare. The lady gave orders that every soul should shut him up in his house, that all doors and windows should be closed and screened; and, letting down her thick flaxen hair, which fell nearly to her ankles, she mounted her palfrey, and rode naked through the streets of the silent city. The story goes that one curious tailor, peeping Tom, must needs pop out his head, and that he was struck blindTor his pains.
Coventry has long been famous for the manufacture of ribbons and watches; of late years there has been much distress among the ribbon-makers; foreign ribbons are now just as cheap, and are in some ways prettier and better than those of English make, so the trade of the town has fallen off.
II. The Castles of Kenilworth and Warwick
Midway between Coventry and Warwick is the old-fashioned town of Kenilworth, with its single street stretching for a mile along the road. Combs are made there and silk is woven; not for these things, however, but for the ruins of its splendid old castle is Kenilworth famous. These grand ruins, overgrown with ivy, stand upon a rocky height, from which there is a wide view.
Kenilworth was long a royal castle, and many stories are attached to it. Its gayest days were when Queen Elizabeth went there on a visit to her favourite, Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to whom she had given the castle and its lands. She came attended by thirty-one barons, besides the ladies of the court, who, with four hundred servants, were all lodged in the fortress. For seventeen days the festival lasted, and ten oxen were slaughtered every morning, with many sheep and birds and fish.
Show after show was prepared to amuse the queen, who dearly loved shows, and all went merrily as in a fairy tale; perhaps such high festival was never held in England before or since.
The town of Warwick stands in a delightful spot upon the banks of the river Avon, in the middle of the shire of which it is the capital. It is a neat, modern-looking town, busy about the manufacture of hats and some other things; but its chief business is connected with the corn trade.
Nobody, however, pays much attention to the town, for close by, on a rocky height overhanging the river, rise the round and lofty turrets of Warwick Castle, still the splendid home of a great noble, and perhaps the finest which is still remaining of the castles raised by the princely barons of other days. Some of the towers are very old; Domesday Book speaks of the castle as "a special stronghold for the midland part of the kingdom."
Leamington, which stands where the Learn joins the Avon, is a fashionable place with mineral springs, not far from Warwick.
III. The "Swan of Avon"
A few miles lower down the river is the town which makes the Avon famous, Stratford,—
"The country about Stratford is not romantic, but extremely pleasant. The town stands in a fine open valley. The Avon, a considerable stream, winds past it through pleasing meadows. The country is well cultivated, and about are wooded uplands and more distant ranges of hills. The town itself is a good, quiet, country town; in Shakespeare's time it could be nothing more than a considerable village. Stratford appears now to live on the fame of Shakespeare."
Wherever you turn, you see the Shakespeare Hotel, or the Shakespeare Theatre, or the statue of Shakespeare in its niche in the front of the town-hall. A large sign informs you that "In this House the Immortal Bard was born," and you go in, and find the walls written all over, from floor to ceiling, and even upon the ceiling, with the names of the thousands who have come to Stratford to honour the memory of our great poet.
The Avon, which is in Warwick a gentle stream, flowing between wooded, beautiful banks, leaves this shire a little beyond Stratford, and flows through the lovely vale of Evesham. It takes its rise upon the battle-field of Naseby. For Shakespeare's sake this Avon is held dear and famous amongst all British rivers.
IV. The Battle of Edge Hill
"As I had walked from Stratford," writes Mr. William Howitt, "Edge Hill had gradually risen, as it were, before me, till it filled with its lofty edge the whole of the horizon on that side. A tower near a mill was pointed out to me by the country people as standing just above the scene of the battle. So great is the elevation that it gives you one of the most extensive prospects in the kingdom. The district towards Stratford, Warwick, and Coventry, and across into Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, lies in a grand expanse before you. You seem to take in, on a dear day, the breadth of a kingdom almost. Edge Hill is truly an edge, that is, it is a step, where the country takes an abrupt rise, and when you gain the summit you find yourselves, not so much on a hill, as on the level of a higher country."
The king's army marched hither from Shrewsbury; the army of the Parliament, under Essex, from Worcester. The day was spent before the two armies met. The fight was fierce, and it was not plain at night-fall on which side the victory lay. All night the two armies lay under arms, and, next morning, found themselves in sight of each other. General, as well as soldier, on both sides, seemed averse to renew the battle; and thus ended the fight of Edge Hill, the first pitched battle of the Civil War. Five thousand men are said to have died on the field.
This is the prayer and charge of Sir Jacob Astley, one of the king's generals, before the battle began:—
"O Lord! Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me. March on, boys!"
Rugby, in the east of the shire, is famous for its Grammar School, one of the great public schools of England, which owes its fame to the late wise headmaster, Dr. Arnold. He taught his boys there was something for each of them to care for beyond his own share of work and play—the good of the school. For the good name of Rugby, every boy must do his best, both in lessons and games; must set his face against mean, underhand ways; must help the young ones to keep straight and do their work. Rugby boys became proud of their school; and felt that any wrong-doing was a disgrace to them all; any well-doing, a credit. And more, they learned from Dr. Arnold that in being thus faithful to their school, they were doing what school-boys could to serve the Highest Master.
V. The Toy-Shop of the World
The north of Warwickshire is a manufacturing district; a coal-field extends from near Coventry to Tamworth which employs many people, chiefly at Bedworth. Nuneaton is a busy town among the collieries, where ribbons, silk, tools, and other things are made. The great manufacturing town of Warwickshire, and one of the greatest in England, is Birmingham, situated close to the Staffordshire iron and coal mines. It stands on rather high ground, and is considered a healthy town; it has some wide streets and good buildings, and some famous colleges and schools. But it is not these things that make a holiday in Birmingham a great treat. The owners of many of the factories are good enough to let visitors go over them; and we may there see pens and pins, toys and brooches, turned out of hand in a wonderful way, for, in Birmingham, nearly everything is made by steam-power. It would be hard to name the thing which is not made there. Look round your room, and you will probably see twenty things which have been produced in this busy town: the bolt on the door, the screws which fix it, the gas-fittings, the castors on sofa or chair, the coal-box, perhaps the fender; the tea-tray, tea-pot, tea-spoons, the pen you write with, the inkstand you use; the buttons on coat or dress, the toys and dolls the Httle ones have left about; vases and glasses. Guns, too, are made here, and machines; things of all sizes and for all uses, from a pin to a steam-engine.
Let us get an order for Gillott's pen factory: the rooms are large and airy; there is no unpleasant smell; but there is such a whirr of machinery that you can hardly hear the words of your conductor, who is kindly explaining everything. Where does the noise come from? All round the room there are countless machines, each about the size of a sewing-machine, all of which are kept at work by a steam-engine somewhere in the building. A woman, or a young girl, neat and well-dressed, sits before each machine. What is she doing? That you cannot discover; you see a sort of nutter of her hand, but that is all which tells you she takes a pen from a heap, holds it under punch or press, puts it with another heap, and takes another pen. The conductor explains all this, but the work-women are too rapid for you to follow their movements.
We have no time for a peep at the button factories, nor at Elkington's great plate factory, where teapots and spoons, candlesticks, forks, and a hundred other things are made; nor at the pin-making, gun-making, or any of the other curious manufactures of this great "toy-shop."