“Oh, but you will be so dreadfully dull !” came in a moaning chorus from affectionate friends when I gravely announced my determination of settling down for a month or more at Walnut-tree Farm, in the delightful garden-land of apples, and hops, and hayfields and cathedrals, and battle scenes and rose-covered cottages, a ten good miles from anywhere. But this is what they always say when I meditate a “retreat,” when I advocate a pause in the busy throb of life, when I dream of the time when the footlights glare no more and theatres are in the banished background, and I can quietly settle down to write that novel which has never yet been started, and to jot down those recollections of a half century not wholly destitute of interest to those who have studied the art of amusement in the greatest city in the world. All the same, I candidly own that under certain conditions the country, a country house, and country life generally, can be desperately, deplorably dull. It would be simply maddening to me, or to anyone of the same temperament, to be dragged out of bed every morning, whether you liked it not, by the sound an incessant gong, to be placed down, before the day has yet warmed itself, a hideous meal called breakfast where unnaturally hungry men and women consume vast piles of flesh and fowl, eggs and toast and muffins, of preserves and dreadfully indigestible compounds, as a first instalment of day of gorging. It may be wrong, but I detest the man or woman who “makes a good breakfast.”
It would dull and depressing in the extreme if I were parcelled out and ticketed, and pigeon-holed and ordered off by a kind host or hostess to the pleasure I least enjoyed. I don’t like to be told when I am to ride, or when to drive, or the precise hour when I am to shoot, or the exact second when I am to play cricket or lawn tennis, or who my companions are to be throughout the live-long day. There is no deadly dulness like the discipline, admirable though it may be, of a country house, or the eternal drive to and fro to the neighbouring market town to do commissions for other people and nothing for yourself. But those who advocate these ghastly terrors of country life have not the smallest conception of the beautiful art of pure laziness, when you are absolutely your own master, and have no superior officer whatever. There is no “breakfast gong” at Walnut Tree Farm, though I am often in the meadow at five in the morning. How in the wide world can a man be dull who is suddenly possessed of the cosiest house in the world, in the heart of a country far more beautiful than I have ever seen before in England; with a smart little mare and a comfortable old cob in the stables, each ready to do its twenty miles day without turning a hair; with a pretty light cart, fashioned for the hill and dips of this mountainous district; with horses and dogs to pet, and Natural History to study at will, to say nothing of a comfortable pony if the whim seizes one for a botanical ramble in the lanes and over the common, in fact over the hills and far away in search of pleasure and information combined?
If were a guest instead of a master, no doubt the case might be very different indeed. I should not like to be told that I could not ride “Olive” to-day because somebody had be sent into Great Malvern on important business. and wanted the mare, or that unfortunately “Felix” could not be put at my disposal for a gallop over Castle Morton Common, because he had been promised to some one e lse, but that, if wanted to enjoy myself or was in search of rational amusement, I might take a pony-cart full of children to Tewkesbury. But when I am in the proud position of being able to open a lattice window in a romantic old corner in the Elizabethan farm in order to call to the cheery groom and order my day’s pleasure as I will, whether it be battlefield, cathedral town, local race-meeting, rummage sale for the parish church, or village flower show, then the case is vastly different. To me, any rate whose life is plunged in one incessant din, riot, and racket, it is a supreme rest to be wholly free of the railways, and to be utterly independent of the iron road. 1 have not seen a railway station or heard the scream of an engine for ten whole days. The trap comes to the door, away we go down the dip, over the breezy common, away, away, rattling along through countless acres of apple-trees and hop-fields, the world all so green and beautiful that it seems as if all England were one cultivated park; on and on past these picturesque old black-and-white, half-timbered farms and cottages that nestle in dips on the down or copsy corners of the meadow, until the great square decorated tower of Hereford, or Tewkesbury, or the exquisite spires of Ledbury, or Little or Great Malvern, come in sight, and for an hour or so the lazy traveller is enabled to explore the old abbeys and monasteries and religious houses and hospitals for the poor that still exist in this lovely land, which veritably flows with milk and honey. What rich and luxurious country it is, where the monks of old built their peaceful homes under the hills in this beautiful garden of old England! Salmon from the Wye and the Severn; apples in abundance weighing down the roadside trees of all Worcestershire and Herefordshire; acres and acres of pale-green hops, in wild and luxuriant festoons of blossom; all the air as we drive along from farm to city perfumed with new-mown hay, bean fields, garden roses. and sweet-smelling clover. Then, after brisk trot through the very heart of the country, we alight at some old-world inn in the Cathedral city; an inn of the old coaching days, with an arched entrance where hang well-cured hams and gammons of bacon; no modern company hotel, with uniformed porters, or fashionable waiters all obsequiousness and white choker, but an inn left to us from the England the past, where, when the trap passes under the arch, “Ting” goes the bell for the cheery ostler, out comes a smiling landlady, and you feel that warmest welcome which Shenstone recorded on the window-pane at Henley, and are able to forget the world of London far, far away.
Nor are these suddenly-improvised drives without their amusing adventures that dissipate all idea of dulness in a country life. I had observed a placard or so in the adjacent villages to the effect that there was to be a local race-meeting at Bosbury. The village children, as I drive past them, stare with delight at the pictures of daring steeplechasers taking hurdles and hedges in fashion worthy of the Agricultural Hall. I doubt if will be a bit like that at Bosbury; but, at any rate. I will investigate the matter for myself. The first thing to ascertain is, Where is Bosbury ? I have not the very faintest idea, but cross questions and an ordnance map shall be my guide. It is past Eastnor Castle and its lovely park, through old Ledbury with its quaint black and white market-hall, which looks as if a house had been elevated on four bedposts, and then a few miles on, among the hops and the apples, and “Anyone will guide you to Bosbury.” I had been told that Bosbury boasted a wonderful old inn with a black oak parlour centuries old ; an inn with walls a yard thick, and heaps of chests and settles, and chimney corners and blue and white Worcestershire china, and, believing my informant, came naturally to the conclusion that if Bosbury possessed so remarkable an inn, Bosbury would also possess something to eat and drink at about middle day. At any rate, it would be a pretty excursion, and it might just as well to interview Bosbury in order to see what accommodation there might be for “Olive” or “Felix’ when the race day came and the country folk poured into the little village. Away we went, with the nose of faithful Felix pointed towards Bosbury, intending to arrive there at the luncheon hour. Safely enough we arrived, as hungry as hunters. They were putting up the grand stand in the riverside meadow, and to my great delight there was local cricket match on the other side the bridge, and after having inspected the old oak-room, now the meeting-place of the Odd Fellows, the Buffaloes, or some such deserving set, and having duly admired the old-fashioned kitchen garden and seen the faithful Felix comfortably settled down to his “feed”—for the master who does not look after his beast before himself is not worth the name. Then arose the important question, “What can you give us to eat”?
The answer came like thunderbolt to one whose appetite was keen-edged with the invigorating morning air, and who abjures the popular institution known as “breakfast.” “What can I give you?” answered the quiet, unconcerned landlady, who was polishng up in the bar, “Well, exactly what have you got yourself.” “We would be content with anything—eggs and bacon would do,” and then another pause, a shuddery pause, “or even bread and cheese!” “I am very sorry,” came the answer, “but we have nothing; we are eaten out ourselves, and have just had our dinner. It is difficult to get provisions hereabouts, and they seldom eat meat at Bosbury until Saturday or Sunday!” This was on Tuesday and once more an uncomfortable gnawing feeling possessed me. Then a beautiful ray of light stole across the features of the landlady who had just dined. Said she, “But I could cook anything that you brought in.” She meant that I could go into the village to forage. I went outside and looked up the village street in despair. It consisted of about a dozen cottages, but we were gleefully informed by a grinning boy that it did contain two shops, a butcher’s and a grocer’s. I drew the butcher’s shop absolutely blank; they would not kill again till the end of the week. “They never eat meat at Bosbury except on a Saturday or Monday.” The matter was getting desperate, when we arrived trembling at the grocer’s door. Happily, this worthy man was not out of sardines, some fresh eggs had mercifully just come in; he could manage a rasher of bacon, but he was out of jams, as the season’s preserves had not yet arrived. So we marched back in something like triumph, armed with the details of a sufficient meal to be cooked at the Bosbury Inn. And a very good meal indeed it proved be. There is nothing happens like the unexpected. It was the first time in my life that I had ever presented myself an English inn, been sent out by the innkeeper to cater for my meal, enjoyed a kind of picnic in an old oaken parlour, and left my host far richer in provisions than when I arrived, half starving. at his inhospitable doors.
When this curious meal was over I discovered, to my surprise, that a sudden flood of excitement had passed over hitherto deserted Bosbury. The inn-yard was crowded with gigs, carts, and shandrydans of every description. Felix, secure in his loose box, could hear the champing of innumerable bits. But Felix was digesting his feed with satisfaction. What had happened so suddenly to half-starved Bosbury? Joy of joys, it was the local cricket match! There nothing I love so much in the world as watching a cricket match in an English country village, and here was the old-world never-to-be-forgotten village cricket restored to me. No cricket pavilion at Bosbury, no fashionable boundaries, or boundary hits—the grass carefully mown and rolled for about fifty square yards, and after that the kind of rough turf on which the outfielders stood ankle-deep—the kind of stunted stubble that would stop dead short the drives of a W. G. Grace or the cuts of a Murdoch. There was not even a cricket tent at Bosbury. A deal table under the trees accommodated the “ notcher” or scorer. He might might well have “notched” up the runs, as they did in the old days, with a penknife on a stick cut out of the hedge. Hence the word “notching," so familiar at village cricket. The somewhat limited company, consisting of the parson’s and schoolmaster’s families, and the friends of the competitors were politely provided in the old style, with rough, rude benches, brought by the little “nippers” from the alehouse parlour. Why do I use the word “nippers”? It is term that belongs more to Wiltshire than Worcestershire, but it curiously connected in my mind with the country yokels who swarm on the old roller in shafts that figures prominently in every picture of a country cricket match. No picture of a village cricket ground is complete without a roller. “Sweep and roll!” is the cricket cry. We used say in the old days, that “nipper,” applied to cricket ground boys, was derived on the “luma a non lucondo” principle from the Greek “nipto,” because they don’t wash. And do they seriously tell me that it is dull, this daily, homely, health-giving life at a country farm ? Dull, when I have driven for dozen miles through the apple grounds of Worcestershire and Hereford; dull, when 1 have had a pic-nic in an old roadside inn dull, when 1 am sitting here with my pipe in mouth on a rough, uncomfortable bench, watching every ball, and predicting that the slim youngster over there at the farther end who has never bowled one ball off the difficult wicket the whole afternoon, who can break from the “off” or from “the leg,” as he wills it, and who undoubtedly, as the cricket phrase goes, “bowls with his head,” will one day be included in his county eleven! He may have graduated at Bosbury, on the village cricket ground, but will take his cricket degree, if I am not mistaken, at Lord’s or the Oval. And this simple game of village cricket which amused me for so many hours set my mind thinking how impossible it is ever to be dull in any farmhouse, or in any part of the country that boasts an apple orchard, or a paddock, a stump of a tree, a bat and a ball. In some such turfy attachment to a country house the great “W. G.” became the cricketer of the world, according to his own recorded account, and it seems that the best cricketers have paddocks or orchards or enthusiastic sisters who are as fond of cricket as themselves. Talk about being dull in the heart of the country! Why, the cricket enthusiast, located at farm with an orchard-paddock, never stirs a hundred yards in the course of the day from his amateur cricket ground.
I well remember that in the days of my youth my excellent father, anxious to make his public school boys happy during the holidays, hired for us a farm at Boveney, on the Thames, at that time a wild, romantic, tumble-down old farm called Boveney Court, hidden among the trees between Windsor and Bray. It was on the farm grounds that the Eton boys feasted on the Fourth of June and on Election Saturday. I never shall forget old Boveney Court, or its tiny church among the cornfields—a church then served every Sunday by one of the Eton masters—for it was on the news coming down of the capture of Sebastopol that my father and brother and rang a joyous peal from the belfry of old Boveney Court in honour the English victory, much to the astonishment of the sleepy villagers And I remember old Boveney on the Thames from another circumstance. On the top of a hay-rick in the old farm I first read Tennyson’s poem of “Maud” which had just come down in its old green cover hot from the press. That first edition I have carefully preserved. But Thamesside life was not then as it is now. We scarcely saw a boat pass up river between week in and week out. and I could have sculled undisturbed from Surly Hall to the Red Lion at Henley. But beautiful and attractive was the country round old Boveney Court, as ill-luck or good-luck would have it, there was apple orchard in the rear of the house too tempting for the resistance of juvenile cricket. I can see my father coming out in the midst of the agonies of writing a leader for the old Morning Chronicle, pen in hand or in mouth, and addressing the cricketing delinquents as follows ; “Look here, boys and girls, around you is widespace of unfrequented country where you are at liberty to wander the north, south, east, or west. Your actions are free and uncontrolled. You can be off the right or be lost the left. Within a stone’s-throw is a space of free land known as Dorney Common, an excellent cricketing ground, where your shouts and reproaches would be wasted on the air. But you will come and play cricket in this wretched paddock and exactly under my study window!” This argument was unanswerable, but 1 fear that the attractions of the apple orchard for embryo cricketers will never seriously diminish. The boys and girls of the “nineties,” as of the “fifties,” will play cricket within a dozen yards of any inhabited mansion.
Here, at any rate, is a case in point. Attached to Walnut-tree Farm, on the hill, is a smaller farm, hidden by the trees, but down in a dell by the roadside. I pass it every morning as I drive out to explore the country; I pass it in the gloaming as Felix or Olive struggles up “the dip” to the old farm gates. That sister farm possesses a fatal apple orchard. It was taken recently by a large family, who, according to their earliest impressions of the place, were prepared to scour the country, to go up all the mountains, to walk twenty or thirty miles a day, to hunt for ferns and butterflies, to become botanists and entomologists, but to my certain knowledge for the last ten days, attractive as the surrounding country may be, not one single member of the “united eleven” party has ever yet stirred out of that cricket paddock or orchard. It is the worst possible place in the wide world for the game of cricket. The paddock is studded with apple trues that stop every hit. If the ball misses the back stop it rushes into the road aud careers down an interminable hill. But cricket in some form or another is never absent from that farmhouse paddock. If you got up at six o’clock in the morning the farm hands would be milking the cows and the residents playing cricket. In the full heat of the day there they are, hard at work batting and bowling. In the evening, when the light is trying the eyes, particularly when the growing darkness is aggravated with apple branches, the sound of the merry cricketers mixes with the drowsy hum of the insects, and is appropriately accompanied by the flutter and flitter of the midnight bat. The attractions of apple orchard cncket are irresistible, and 1 have observed that on these strictly family occasions the head of the house or pater-familias is always “in,” and long-legged girls of the family are invariably fagging out. Only yesterday I was driving past the playground of a village school on the edge of a wind swept common. The cricket-loving schoolmaster was apparently enjoying a very extensive innings and the boys were scouting to the boundary hits of the worthy dominie. How can any one of a philosophic turn of mind be ever really dull in an old English farmhouse, when to his daily wanderings far and near under the apple trees are added the pleasures and excitement of expectancy? The first interest of the morning is not so much the papers a day old that the faithful postman will bring, or the letters which seem to come from another world, particularly when they contain applications for St. Giles’s parish taxes, or the annual subscription for the maintenance of a London square. Fancy, a London square, however “rus in urbo,” after the farm of the the Walnut Trees? The great excitement of a real out-of-tbe-world farmhouse is whether the postman will bring the meat from Tewkesbury. On the kindly postman depends not only our humble dinner, but the dinners of those upon whose faithful services we rely. If he forgets us we must starve, or feed upon apples or vegetables attenuated by a plague of earwigs, from which I am bound to say we suffer even in this rural paradise. There is a fold in every roseleaf, and into the insinuating earwig creeps. There are summers in which the farmhouse resident is tortured with plague of wasps, or ants, or bluebottles; but this damp year is dedicated, I fear, to earwigs. They have not only devoured all the fruit and vegetables, percolated the apricots, and ruined the window-plants, but they venture with gross familiarity into the details of our private life. An industrious lady engaged on a life-long piece of artistic embroidery has to shake it free from insinuating earwigs, who lurk in the recesses of her dainty handiwork. The bed and blankets, after dark, have to be cleared of an army of earwigs. Whenever you pour out a libation of water in the basin, more earwigs are drowned before your eyes. They are the most hardened and poison-defying earwigs that a damp season has ever bred, for though every night I pepper myself out of a castor with an ingenious mixture manufactured by myself, every morning a drowned earwig is discovered in my lemon-squash and a reckless insect has actually had the pluck to commit suicide in the receptacle for water contained in the cage of a favourite and occasionally angry parrot. After that the deluge of earwigs. They terrified me at first, but now that a friendly doctor assures me that they don't creep into your ears or wander on to the recesses of your brain, I feel defiant like the children, and “don’t care”. As to what happened to “don’t care” I’m at the present moment supremely indilferent, presumably because our daily life under the apple-trees is inexpressibly happy. Dull! at a country farmhouse? Why we keep a calendar like school-children, and mark out every day of our summer banishment, not with a cheer, but with a long drawn sigh.