The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Historic England.

by Mary Ralph.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 696-703

    "One half her soil has walked the rest in poets, martyrs, heroes, sages."
    --[Oliver Wendell] Holmes.

There is a great lesson book, which for many generations has been practically closed to our children, that I would fain see reopened and widely studied. I mean the wonderful history in many volumes which lies all around us in the archaelogical remains and the literary and historical associations of every English country-side. [Gilbert] White's Natural History of Selborne taught every English parent and educationalist the enormous value of trying, in their turn, to teach what could be known of the natural features, the plants, the birds, the four-footed beasts of every parish or county. Of course we have not worked up to White yet: We are very far indeed from doing that: but we have our Natural History Clubs, our Saturday Rambles; and constant encouragement is given to many children to observe and collect. We teach our children the elements of botany by the study of flowers in their own fields and hedges, and we find it a far truer education for them to do so than if we secured specimens from the gardens at Kew. Froebel's methods, too, have taught us to work from the centre outwards, from the known to the unknown. A child in the Kindergarten begins to learn geography by finding the measurements of his class-room and the relative posisitions of its table and chairs.

It is excellent that we have so generally abandoned the old plan of teaching history, by which a child's interest in the subject was pretty certain to be killed out. We no longer confine ourselves to hearing pupils who are perfectly apathetic read aloud a book which is unintelligible to them, which begins, "Little is known of Britain before the time of the Romans," and which ends--did it ever end? I don't remember! It is excellent, also, for our children that we have begun to group our history teaching round personalities, bringing the life and reality of the past home to them, so far as in us lies, by stories of people who were great and who did great deeds, whether they were kings or peasants. I go one step further, and plead that these stories should very often deal with the persons and incidents connected with the locality in which pupil and teacher live.

It is a mere truism to say that great stores of the most fascinating and inspiring knowledge are locked up in the names and associations of out-of-the-way English hamlets, or in the dumb walls of lonely manor-houses, falling to ruin in the midst of farms, not to speak of the records and assiciations of country churches and country towns. And yet our children are often so deplorably wanting in any vidid realizing sense of the actuality of English history! How can they, then, be expected to gain such a sense of the reality of Greek and Roman history? And, most important of all, how can they gain in later years from any history which they may read, feeling that they are one with their kind, that nothing human is alien to them, that the memory of every helpful deed wrought in the past may lawfully energize their hearts and brains in some holy war they may find themselves engaged in?

For some years past, clergymen and others, leaders of Men's clubs in the great towns, have made a practice of taking their members occasionally to study great and venerable buildings, museums and picture galleries, with the view of interesting them in the history of their coutry. The London School Board lately instituted lectures on the historic London at various centres for its children; and in the Parents' Review for March and April of last year an excellent article was given, describing walks and talks with children at various historic points in London. [Historic London: Its Teaching for the Child by D. L. Maguire] It is such work as that I wish to see extended to the country and made part of the education of every British child. We should then be able to see whether it is possible to revive in our children the old-time love and loyalty to their own neighbourhoods, and at the same time blend with these such an interest in all neighbourhoods that the children may not fall into the old danger of thinking their parish pump "the hub of the universe."

That there is dire need for such an experiment there are proofs to hand in every direction. We have only to think of the uninterested, unintelligent want of imagination so common in the every-day life of our country, which leads directly to the want of efficency and to ceaseless craving for society and for change. "There is so little for a girl to do in a country town," a mother said to me not long ago. So when her daughter has been expensively eduated and "accomplished" at a distant school, the family will leave the country town, with its setting of green hills and ruddy cliffs and brown streams, and a thousand literary and ecclesiastical associations, and will betake itself to a fashionable suburb where the daugther can--play Ping-ping.

I have never been able to make a study of archaeology or history, but I happened to be brought up in a town rich in ancient buildings. From out of the mists of immemorial antiquity, a round tower rose, and the mind was awed in thinking of its silent mysterious age. There were Irish crosses of a historical period. There were Norman towers, too, and some remains of Gothic buildings, ivy-grown. Cromwell's fires had blazed inside a belfry, and the stones were still black and seared. I never had a set lesson on any of these ruins, it is true; but I was told about them at odd times, in conversation which arose sponatneously, and I regard the influence of those talks as one of the most priceless influences of my childhood. It has certainly been the source of one of my keenest and least expensive pleasures--the thrill of delight with which even an uninstructed person who has the "historic sense" is brought into contact with any worthy memorial of the past. I trace also to the influence of these talks (very brief and fragmentary as they were) the knowledge that the most solid and obscure of country places may hold within it memories and memorials of world-wide and undying interest if once these can be unearthed; and that faith and effort, there as in other and nobler spheres, will not go unrewarded. It was my lot to live for some years where I overlooked the site of a Roman Villa. A new house on the other side of the valley drew its water supply along a course which Roman soldiers had constructed to fill their General's bath. I was fond of the General--we were pretty sure that such had been the rank of the owner of the villa--and used to busy my imagination now and again with his comings and his earnest martinet ways. He often went to the great camp upon the Severn, fourteen miles off, and lived in hope of an honourable return to Rome with his wife and their children, to take their share in the pleasures and the distinctions due to hard work on the foreign service. But the summons to that return came in the dread urgency of a recall to all the legions to defend the city itself against the Barbarians of the North. And with terrified haste and astonishment, the valuables were packed or buried, the horses were laden, the litters set forward, and the wide halls of the villa were left to blankness and desolation; to be wandered over by the enfeebled Celt, gazed at or destroyed in brute amazement by the Saxon, and quarried by the Norman for the handy means of beautifying his house and his church.

In that region, the hills enfolded one like the walls of home, and the houses, embowered in ancient gardens, were beautiful legacies from the Flemish cloth weavers of Elizabeth's time. The neighbourhood was fragant too, and will be as long as our language is spoken, with memories of John Halifax- [John Halifax, Gentleman, by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik] and Ursula his wife--sweetest, purest, and most English of lovers. Wandering thence I found myself in my present dwelling-place, the most unpicturesque assemblage of cottages in England. Raw, red-brick, little houses, of the German toy-box order of architecture, are set four square on rectangular allotments, which are bounded as to one side by a hedge or palings, and as to the other three by a barbed wire frence. We stand, unsoftened by trees, on a wide upland whose undulations never deepen into valleys and add nothing to the landscape as hills. Here, if anywhere, one might despair of "associations." But though no trees soften the as yet the garish crudities of our hamlet, there are glorious beech woods all around us at short distances. From every point on every road one sees them, mass behind mass, till they melt into the blue haze of the distance; and they are of an antiquity to command respect. These woods are the lineal descendants of the ancient beech forests which fed great herds of swine before the Roman General Heard of Britain. A neighbouring village is called Kidmore End--kid or cude, meaning "wood," and more "great' -- the inn or stopping place in "the great wood." it was on Celtic lips that the word was framed. Boadicea herself may have had correspondence with the chiefs who ruled this upland forest before Caesar sailed from France. Celt was conquered by Roman, and Roman was invaded by Goth and recalled to Italy, and the Saxons ravaged Britain and settled his "tithings" and "Hundreds" in his own methodical way. The theory that "hundred" meant a settlement of a hundred free families is well borne out by the character of the people here to-day, who are singularly honest, independent and reliable. But it is said that we were not always so. Our beech forests gave shelter once to a race of bandits so dreaded by the districts round that a steward was appointed for their protection. "The necessity for such an appointment has disappeared long ago," says the Encyclopedia Britannica, but we are in the Chiltern Hundreds and our name has now become the synonym of an apocryphal convention.

Our own particular hamlet is built on Sonning Common, enclosed now, alas! but breezy still. We were the most northern point of the great parish of Sonning--the ing or inge of a Saxon family or tribe named Sonni or Sonn. It comforts us for the rawness of our bricks that Sonning, though we are no longer in the parish, was our ecclesiastical foremother. Not to speak of her being the loveliest village on the Thames, she was the See of Bishops, three of whom became archbishops of Canterbury. King John spent a week at Sonning fifteen months before signing Manga Charta and one month before his death. He was, most likely, the guest of the then bishop, Herbert Poor, who had been present at his coronation. To Sonning came the child-wife and second Queen of Richard II., Isabella of Valois, daughter of Charles VI. of France. Married at seven years of age, she came, after three heavy troubled years, as the ward and guest of Richard Matford, confessor to the king, and bishop of Salisbury, then residing at his "Manor Place" at Sonning. This royal child of ten or eleven wandered round the village, walked by Thames' side, attended the services of the church, and continued, let us hope, to bear in all her sorrows "the port of a queen." Poor little royal exile! child-victim of state intrigues! We join with the Rev. Hugh Pearson, late Vicar of Sonning, in wishing "to know how she was treated, and who were her friends and attendants, whether she had any instructor, what were her occupations and amusements." I might write a volume about our mother church of S. Andrew's, at Sonning, but instead I will only say that one has been written by the late Mr. Pearson and published by Blackwell, of Reading. I pass on to mention in the briefest outline a few of the other places of literary and historical interest, which lie all round me, within the compass of an expedition from my doorstep.

And first and chief there is Reading. Five miles southward lie the few but gigantic fragments of Reading Abbey, third greatest of the English abbeys before the dissolution under Henry VIII. Thirty acres were covered by the buildings and courts of that great and wealthy house, and now, except for a gateway which as been restored, hardly one stone is left upon another. But the Holy Brook, which supplied the monastery with water from a distant source, still sings through some of the gardens of the town, as though the three centuries since the last abbot of Reading was hanged were but "a watch in the night." Henry I. founded Reading, and his dead body was brought from Rouen to lie within its walls. John of Gaunt was married there to Blanche of Lancaster. Thither came Henry VII., having converted the monastery into a palace; Elizabeth came three times to Reading. Several parliaments were held there. During the Civil Wars Reading was taken and retaken by the rival armies. In its Grammar School Achbishop Laud received his education. It has returned members to Parliament since the twenty third year of the reign of Edward I. As to more modern and literary associations, Miss [Mary Russell] Mitford, naturally, has made Reading her own. She and her parents lived in a house in the London Road there for several years, and as Belford Regis the town figures in many of her stories. It was in Dr. Mitford's house that the romance of Coleridge's enlistment came to a fitting end. Let these suffice as examples of the crowded history of Reading. About five miles south-west of my doorstep, at Mapledurham, is a famous Elizabethan mansion, the seat of the Blounts, immortalised by Pope as the home where Martha and Teresa lived and died. Nearer to me in the same general direction is Woodcote, where Sir. Edward Bulwer Lytton spent the earlier years of his married life, and where several of his novels were written. Five miles south-east lies Shiplake, where Alfred Tennyson was married to Emily Selwood on a June day in 1850. From "the vicarage by the quarry" the bride walked across the road to the church while the

    "Thames along the silent level
    Streaming thro' his osiered aits"

reflected the "blue of June heavens" to which Tennyson afterwards likened his wife's eyes. The windows of Shiplake Church are filled with very choice specimens of stained glass, brought chiefly from "the remains of the celebrated Abbey of St. Bertin, near St. Omers, sacked during the first French Revolution." It is a curious coincidence that the former squires of Shiplake, the Plowdens, sent a son one generation after another to St. Bertin, and that at the downfall of the house, the glass came to Shiplake Church. Portraits of the abbots of St. Bertin were embodied in the windows, and one of these abbots was a son of Alfred the Great, who looked down in benedition on this great Alfred come to his nuptials with her through whom he grew

    "Into perfect orbed completeness,
    Tho' but made of erring dust."

Now to turn northward from my doorstep. There is a country walk, quite away from towns and tourists, which leads to Rotherfield Grays. Through the wood and over Peppard Common--Rotherfield Peppard, called so from William Pyper or Peppard, a Knight of the Crusades--we reach Peppard chruch and vicarage. Down the lane we go and through the farmyard, and across three fields, the hedges of which are rich in violets in the spring time. By a larch plantation, where the rabbits run fearlessly to and fro before us, into the road, down another bit of lane, and once more across a field, and we lean our arms on the boundary wall of the churchyard of Rotherfield Grays. The village is named from Robert de Grey, a son of Walter, Archbishop of York, who is buried in the church. His brass effigy is underneath the alter and is dated 1387. There is a squint in the church, and above and underneath it are the words, "the lepers are cleansed." What volumes of social history might be written upon that one small circumstance alone! Leprosy rife in England: so common that such a small window as this was arranged in many churches, that so the poor infected creatures might witness the elevation of the Host without endangering other folk! And to-day, except for cases brought to the East End by pauper aliens, England is free from leprosy: free by greater cleanliness, by more sunshine, by better dwellings, by more varied food-- in a word, by living more in accordance with God's laws of health. I confess that this squint attracts me more, gives me more pleasure and more food for thought, than the chapel full of monuments and tablets which opens from the north side of the chancel. There are Le Despensers mentioned there, however, reminding one of the founder of their house who fell at Evesham, and of Hugh Le Despenser who was so faithful to Edward II. and died for his constancy at Hereford, by order of Isabel of France. In the chapel is buried Sir Francis Knollys, who was Comptroller of the Household to Queen Elizabeth. And it was to this "Master Comptroller's house at Grays" that Lord Essex begged Elizabeth to allow him to retire for the benefit of his health, worn by anxiety and imprisonment in London. The house of Grays Court was a splendid and spacious castellated mansion in those days, and the modern house has been erected amongst its ruins. So, from my doorstep, my thoughts circle round the compass of my immediate neighbourhood, finding everywhere, in name or graven stone or ruin or church, some evidence of a great history, the prophecies of a great destiny. I have not space to speak of Henley-on-Thames, nor of Cane End, nor of Checkendon, nor of Wyfold Court, whose lands were held in feudal times by presenting a rose to the king should he pass by a certain road on a May day: I have not space to write of the well at Stoke Row--a "modern instance" worthy to take its place with other unselfish acts which make our world the better. But I have surely said enough to shew that whoso will may find anywhere in England helpful and stimulating material for his own thought, and fascinating lessons for English children--plenty of material for teaching them to love their land

    ". . . With love far brought
    From out the storied Past, and used
    Within the Present, but transfused
    Thro' future time by power of thought."
    [from "Love Thou Thy Land," by Tennyson]

Typed by GandalfStormcrow, Mar. 2021; Proofread by LNL, Apr. 2021