By TREVOR ALLEN
ANOTICE in the drive tells you that the bridge is dangerous : lorries and other heavy vehicles must enter the park by another gate. I am glad it is dangerous for heavy traffic ; may it remain so ! It is one of those small humped affairs with stone balustrades that take the moss so venerably, and spans, triple-arched, a neck of the lake. It belongs to an age when Palladian mansions had balus- traded copings and pillared porticoes facing a balustraded terrace. The balusters were like the legs of the owner—stout and sturdy, yet tapering slimly to denote breeding. Somewhere in the park there should be a gazebo—also pillared—for summer dalliance, and per- haps a monument to an illustrious forbear.
If I have a particular love for the bridge it is because I can linger there and see always, in my mind's eye, a coach-and-four come clip- clopping over the hump and down the near slope in a rollicking canter. Occasionally a car may intrude, heading for the golf house ; but on such a bridge the car, not the coach-and-four, is the ghost. Lorries and other heavy vehicles would be a nightmare ; had no one else thought of installing the notice I should have been tempted to do so myself—a mere interloper—and take the consequences. Think what this bridge means to the solitary wayfarer at a time when bridges have sinister uses and are fought for bloodily or sum- marily bombed or blown. It commands as stately a piece of English parkland, little changed through the centuries, as you will find in all England. .Beechen hedge borders the drive, and you know what that means in colour when autumn bums and smoulders along it. By the bridge is a lordly beech which deigns to address you : "I hope you enjoyed the hedge, but that, of course, was only a prelude." Here, where the water darkles under sombre yews, you catch the ripples and rustlings of moorhen and other water fowl. There, where the lake broadens in a gentle curve, you see a fringe of tall willows old-gold in the afternoon sun, red dogwood, and rushes. Beyond rise the Tudor chimneys of the 16th century manor-house where Attorney-General Sir Edward Coke entertained Queen Elizabeth in 1601. When it was rebuilt towards the end of the 18th century, with mullioned and transomed windows, the chimneys remained.
On my bridge the centuries matter, for there you may have company of the kind that spans them. Thomas Gray, at twenty-five, must often have lingered here by the lake, meditating the Elegy, or the Distant Prospect of Eton College, or the Ode to Spring : Beside some water's rushy brink With me the Muse shall sit and think .
The Stoke Poges churchyard of the Elegy is but a stone's throw. In 1742, when Gray began it, he was living with his mother and aunt at West End House, a modest farmhouse with a rustic porch, a short walk across the fields. It was to Sir Christopher Hatton, Coke's predecessor at the Manor, that he alluded in A Long Story : Full oft within the spacious walls, When he had fifty winters o'er him, My grave Lord Keeper led the brawls ; The seal and maces danc'd before him.
The heroines of that diverting doggerel were the widowed Lady Cobham, a later owner ; her niece Miss Harriet Speed, and her friend Lady Schaub, who happened to be staying with her in 1751 when Walpole lent her a manuscript copy of the Elegy. Concerned that the parish should actually be hiding a live poet, Lady Cobham sent the two ladies post haste across the fields one afternoon to locate him : A brace of warriors, not in buff, But rustling in their silks and tissues . . .
The poet was not in, but Lady Schaub left her compliments' Gray returned the visit, and so introduced himself to Stoke Manor and many years' friendship. Scorning worldly goods, he even became fearful that Harriet, with her inheritance, might be married off to him when he was off his guard. Amatory lines to Harriet, yes. Marriage lines, no—despite Lady Cobham's friendly interest. The young heiress married a French officer, and went to live abroad.
But on my bridge I have nearer company, too, which I value no less. On the willow bank is a small garden with a scat and pool, and an inscription on the seat, under R.A.F. wings, tells me that it commemorates a young pilot who fell in that desperate 1940. This garden of remembrance is reverently kept, and I think that those who chose it felt something more than mourning for a loved one and homage to a hero. Perhaps he knew the place in youth and loved it for its beauty, and that was why a corner of it was laid out to perpetuate his memory.
Gray, who wrote so sonorously of churchyard mounds in their crowded acre—what would Gray, I wonder, have written on this lakeside memorial garden, in its elysian peace and solitude ? Some- thing, assuredly, for death most moved him. The vassing of his young friend Richard West inspired the elegy to Favomus. Edmund Gosse dated the beginning of the greater Elegy from the funeral of his uncle Jonathan Rogers, who died at Stoke Poges in the autumn of 1742, and its resumption in the winter of '49 from that of his aunt, Miss Mary Antrobus, for whom he had a deep affection. "The death of a valued friend," Gosse wrote, "seems to have been the stimulus of greatest efficacy in rousing Gray to the composition of poetry, and did in fact excite him to the completion of most of his important poems." Perhaps, in its one strangely apt and prophetic line, Gray anticipated our young airman's epitaph in the Ode to Spring : To Contemplation's sober eye Such is the race of Man : For they that creep and they that fly Shall end where they began.
Alike the Busy and the Gay , But flutter through life's little day, In Fortune's varying colours drcst : Brush'd by the hand of rough Mischance Or chill'd by age, their airy dance They leave, in dust to rest.