A WEST COUNTRY VILLA GE.
iT is the quaintest haphazard corner of the world, lying under the lee of a common, and just in sight of the great road running southwards. So sheltered is it that you may walk across the heath all ruffled with the breeze running before the morning sun, and descend suddenly upon the hamlet lying as still as enchantment under the rim of the high ground, with all its chimneys smoking straight upwards in the shadow.
There is one street and a spur or two, And the main line of houses winds uphill towards the heath in a hook-line jointed like an ash-bough. The road was originally a wheel-track to a quarry, and one by one the cottages seem to have been planted down beside it, not straight with stiff civic propriety, but in the neighbourly disorder of a tribal village, —athwart, across, end-long, above and below each other, according as the original settler felt disposed to plant his dwelling, having an eye always to his neighbour's well, his gable- end, or his clump of yew-trees. Yews abound in this windy place, not only in the churchyards, where they, were planted, ancient charters say, to protect the church towers from the
winds; but the hedges and gardens are full of them, and you never bear of beasts being poisoned through eating the twigs or berries. In the old days, when this land was a forest beloved by Plantagenet Kings, these same yews may have furnished bows for Royal huntsmen, and have served the old-time peasantry in their homely crafts, for yew is the best wood known for resisting damp and makes almost incorruptible axles and pins for mill-wheels and flood-gates.
Here stands one cottage on the edge of a miniature precipice left from the old quarry, and some hundred years or so ago a newcomer thrust himself between it and the road, so that now you may take a devious course round other people's yards to get at the elder settlement. Over the way and down the next steep twist of road another cottage stands at the base of a thirty-foot crag, shadowed almost to its eaves by high rough edges of naked rock. The beautiful per- pendicular tower of our parish church was built of stone quarried from this hole, and some thrifty quarrier built a cottage of the remnants on the spot to save hauling. The houses are all washed white, yellow, or pink—sometimes both, for the red soil seems to have bred a sense of colour in the inhabitants—and the roofs are red-tiled ; but as you: look up the steep street to the barren heath above, there is a curiously Northern air about its bleakness, and this quality is heightened by the long walls of loose grey stones that replace hedges in that windy part.
This hamlet is an offshoot of the mother-parish of W—, and to see the latter you must go up on the common and look down to where the valley parts right and left towards the distant cities of Bath and Bristol. From the far-off dim hollow of the-former city we look for bad weather to roll up. There lies the mother-village below you, brooded over by,its great tower, in the track hollowed long ago by forgotten glaciers, and still keeping memorials of aneient drift, and the relics of an unremembered worship in a great Druid- circle standing among water-meadows, regarded with superstitious reverence by the country folk. They say the stones are a wedding-party who, dancing on into Sunday morning, were 'thrned to stone by a strange dark man who came at midnight to play for them.
Further along the high ground you may see rising out of the distant Channel two little islands that were there before the limestone hill you stand on had become part of the sea- bottom. These two, with a mainland bill hard by and the Tor that rose above the Island, of Avalon when King Arthur was borne thither by the three Queens, are survivals of the ancient world that have passed into the commonplace of modern life, bones as it were of some primeval monster, become familiar through use and wont, but always reminding you of your ghostly inheritance in the earth's immeasurable antiquity. There is no strangeness so subtle as the stiange- ness of familiar things. In the valley just below there, is a field where our miners once on a time, quarrying for strontia, laid bare a vast number of human bones and bullets. They got the strontia, and not knowing what to do with the bone., covered them up again and left them there. There they lie still, and the smooth face of the meadow is like a sphinx brooding on the wisdom of things that shall never be told. We have no record of a battle here.
The soil of this countryside is of a wonderful red colour that diffuses itself in strange shades of crimson, purple, and blood-red. A ploughed field after rain, or in the sunset, has a curious tone, almost menacing, in its colour. One meadow here is called the Bloody Field, perhaps because in certain lights it is the colour of blood, or perhaps the name is the only memory left "Of old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago "—
like the nameless bones lying beneath that fair green meadow. The bones of the old world are near the top here, our soil is thin, and when we quarry for the iron ore the red earth is cast up in heaps and drifts that gleam conspicuous from far amid the pastures and grass-lands. The " redding " works where the ore is refined into paint and powder lie down in the valley on a- little stream running by an ancient mill that must have been there in Raleigh's days, and looks as if he might walk out of it while you watch. All around the works, walls, paths, and fences are subdued to one prevailing red;, even the, trees. get a tinge of it, and the water is deep with it. Look down on the reddings from the hilltop in the sunset, and all .the place shines like burnished copper. And if you go inside the grinding-house, where the huge wet mill- stones grind incessantly upon the ore, and the air is fall of moisture and infinitesimal red particles, and the light slants down from a red-stained window on the men heaving and lifting, all of the same deep colour, clothes and boots and faces, it is a wonderful sight. For in the wet, luminous air the place looks like a workshop of gnomes or hill-spirits out of some old Norse legend, and the sense of redness gets into your eyes and brain, and the fair, peaceful hues of Nature seem swallowed by this dominating mighty colour that has a threat in it, so that when you get out in the fields again you rejoice to feel the earth green under heaven. Or see the miners crossing the fields on their way home, and you could almost fancy them strange threatening messengers from another world, so intense is the uniform redness of them in the sunset glow.
Most of our village-men are miners, and the rest farmers and labourers, with a few who work at the old necessary trades,—none of your modern fancies! Wonderful ploughmen they are; it appears to be a race-instinct that goes in certain families, notably one, a brood of silent men with flat tops to their heads and very bright eyes, significant of the consump- tion that is so common amongst this inbred race. These brothers and their father will take the prize from any one in England, and there are others who nearly rival them. A beautiful sight these ploughing matches are ; to see one you would think the world was a few hundred years younger, and you had slid back into the days when W— was given by the Conqueror to a Norman Bishop, and the villeins ploughed and sheared sheep for the monks as they do now for their own little holdings.
The old manners and the ancient superstitions have hardly departed from us who live in this primitive country safe from all but the back-wash of progress. We are intolerant of strangers, and we have more than a covert regard for witchcraft. Nothing will persuade the squire's gardener that the cows were not overlooked when they fell ill last autumn through drinking too much cold water. And one of the miners vows that old Mother Church cast the "evil eye" on him years ago, and never has he been his own man since. It is little more than half-a-century since W— was thought hardly a safe place for travellers, and if a " foreign " youth should present himself there with intent to court a W— maiden, the native population would instantly set on and stone him. Education and the railroad have done much to soften our manners, but deep down below the surface the old prejudices and the ancient superstitions are lurking still, as if they only waited the pick of the miner—circumstance—to lay them bare like the bones in that fair meadow, a grim witness to the foundation of fierceness and ignorance that lies hidden in the character of a primitive people to whom ten centuries of the world's progress are little more than the beginning of a tale forgotten in the telling.