Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend/Chapter IX
Windsor, 23rd June.
I have already, my dearest friend, now that I write to you from hence, experienced so many inconveniences as a traveller on foot, that I am at some loss to determine whether or no I shall go on with my journey in the same manner.
A traveller on foot in this country seems to be considered as a sort of wild man or out-of-the way being, who is stared at, pitied, suspected, and shunned by everybody that meets him. At least this has hitherto been my case on the road from Richmond to Windsor.
My host at Richmond, yesterday morning, could not sufficiently express his surprise that I intended to venture to walk as far as Oxford, and still farther. He however was so kind as to send his son, a clever little boy, to show me the road leading to Windsor.
At first I walked along a very pleasant footway by the side of the Thames, where close to my right lay the king's garden. On the opposite bank of the Thames was Isleworth, a spot that seemed to be distinguished by some elegant gentlemen's country-seats and gardens. Here I was obliged to ferry the river in order to get into the Oxford Road, which also leads to Windsor.
When I was on the other side of the water, I came to a house and asked a man who was standing at the door if I was on the right road to Oxford. "Yes," said he, "but you want a carriage to carry you thither." When I answered him that I intended walking it, he looked at me significantly, shook his head, and went into the house again.
I was now on the road to Oxford. It is a charming fine broad road, and I met on it carriages without number, which, however, on account of the heat, occasioned a dust that was extremely troublesome and disagreeable. The fine green hedges, which border the roads in England, contribute greatly to render them pleasant. This was the case in the road I now travelled, for when I was tired I sat down in the shade under one of these hedges and read Milton. But this relief was soon rendered disagreeable to me, for those who rode or drove past me, stared at me with astonishment, and made many significant gestures as if they thought my head deranged; so singular must it needs have appeared to them to see a man sitting along the side of a public road and reading. I therefore found myself obliged, when I wished to rest myself and read, to look out for a retired spot in some by-lane or crossroad.
When I again walked, many of the coachmen who drove by called out to me, ever and anon, and asked if I would not ride on the outside; and when, every now and then, a farmer on horseback met me, he said, and seemingly with an air of pity for me, "'Tis warm walking, sir;" and when I passed through a village, every old woman testified her pity by an exclamation of--"Good God!"
As far as Hounslow the way was very pleasant; afterwards I thought it not quite so good. It lay across a common, which was of a considerable extent, and bare and naked, excepting that here and there I saw sheep feeding.
I now began to be very tired, when, to my astonishment, I saw a tree in the middle of the common that stood quite solitary, and spread a shade like an arbour round it. At the bottom, round the trunk, a bench was placed, on which one may sit down. Beneath the shade of this tree I reposed myself a little, read some of Milton, and made a note in my memorandum-book that I would remember this tree, which had so charitably and hospitably received under its shade a weary traveller. This, you see, I have now done.
The short English miles are delightful for walking. You are always pleased to find, every now and then, in how short a time you have walked a mile, though, no doubt, a mile is everywhere a mile, I walk but a moderate pace, and can accomplish four English miles in an hour. It used to take me pretty nearly the same time for one German mile. Now it is a pleasing exchange to find that in two hours I can walk eight miles. And now I fancy I was about seventeen miles from London, when I came to an inn, where, for a little wine and water, I was obliged to pay sixpence. An Englishman who happened to be sitting by the side of the innkeeper found out that I was a German, and, of course, from the country of his queen, in praise of whom he was quite lavish, observing more than once that England never had had such a queen, and would not easily get such another.
It now began to grow hot. On the left hand, almost close to the high road, I met with a singularly clear rivulet. In this I bathed, and was much refreshed, and afterwards, with fresh alacrity, continued my journey.
I had now got over the common, and was once more in a country rich and well cultivated beyond all conception. This continued to be the case as far as Slough, which is twenty miles and a half from London, on the way to Oxford, and from which to the left there is a road leading to Windsor, whose high white castle I have already seen at a distance.
I made no stay here, but went directly to the right, along a very pleasant high road, between meadows and green hedges, towards Windsor, where I arrived about noon.
It strikes a foreigner as something particular and unusual when, on passing through these fine English towns, he observed one of those circumstances by which the towns in Germany are distinguished from the villages--no walls, no gates, no sentries, nor garrisons. No stern examiner comes here to search and inspect us or our baggage; no imperious guard here demands a sight of our passports; perfectly free and unmolested, we here walk through villages and towns as unconcerned as we should through a house of our own.
Just before I got to Windsor I passed Eton College, one of the first public schools in England, and perhaps in the world. I have before observed that there are in England fewer of these great schools than one might expect. It lay on my left; and on the right, directly opposite to it, was an inn, into which I went.
I suppose it was during the hour of recreation, or in playtime, when I got to Eton, for I saw the boys in the yard before the college, which was enclosed by a low wall, in great numbers, walking and running up and down.
Their dress struck me particularly. From the biggest to the least, they all wore black cloaks, or gowns, over coloured clothes, through which there was an aperture for their arms. They also wore besides a square hat or cap, that seemed to be covered with velvet, such as our clergymen in many places wear.
They were differently employed--some talking together, some playing, and some had their books in their hands, and were reading; but I was soon obliged to get out of their sight, they stared at me so as I came along, all over dust, with my stick in my hand.
As I entered the inn, and desired to have something to eat, the countenance of the waiter soon gave me to understand that I should there find no very friendly reception. Whatever I got they seemed to give me with such an air as showed too plainly how little they thought of me, and as if they considered me but as a beggar. I must do them the justice to own, however, that they suffered me to pay like a gentleman. No doubt this was the first time this pert, bepowdered puppy had ever been called on to wait on a poor devil who entered their place on foot. I was tired, and asked for a bedroom where I might sleep. They showed me into one that much resembled a prison for malefactors. I requested that I might have a better room at night; on which, without any apology, they told me that they had no intention of lodging me, as they had no room for such guests, but that I might go back to Slough, where very probably I might get a night's lodging.
With money in my pocket, and a consciousness, moreover, that I was doing nothing that was either imprudent, unworthy, or really mean, I own it mortified and vexed me to find myself obliged to put up with this impudent ill-usage from people who ought to reflect that they are but the servants of the public, and little likely to recommend themselves to the high by being insolent to the low. They made me, however, pay them two shillings for my dinner and coffee, which I had just thrown down, and was preparing to shake off the dust from my shoes, and quit this inhospitable St. Christopher, when the green hills of Windsor smiled so friendly upon me, that they seemed to invite me first to visit them.
And now trudging through the streets of Windsor, I at length mounted a sort of hill; a steep path led me on to its summit, close to the walls of the castle, where I had an uncommonly extensive and fine prospect, which so much raised my heart, that in a moment I forgot not only the insults of waiters and tavern-keepers, but the hardship of my lot in being obliged to travel in a manner that exposed me to the scorn of a people whom I wished to respect. Below me lay the most beautiful landscapes in the world--all the rich scenery that nature, in her best attire, can exhibit. Here were the spots that furnished those delightful themes of which the muse of Denham and Pope made choice. I seemed to view a whole world at once, rich and beautiful beyond conception. At that moment what more could I have wished for?
And the venerable castle, that royal edifice which, in every part of it, has strong traces of antiquity, smiles through its green trees, like the serene countenance of some hoary sage, who, by the vigour of a happy constitution, still retains many of the charms of youth.
Nothing inspired me with more veneration and awe than the fine old building St. George's Church, which, as you come down from the castle, is on your right. At the sight of it past centuries seemed to revive in my imagination.
But I will see no more of those sights which are shown you by one of those venal praters, who ten times a day, parrot-wise, repeat over the same dull lesson they have got by heart. The surly fellow, who for a shilling conducted me round the church, had nearly, with his chattering, destroyed the finest impressions. Henry VIII., Charles I., and Edward IV. are buried here. After all, this church, both within and without, has a most melancholy and dismal appearance.
They were building at what is called the queen's palace, and prodigious quantities of materials are provided for that purpose.
I now went down a gentle declivity into the delightful park at Windsor, at the foot of which it looks so sombrous and gloomy that I could hardly help fancying it was some vast old Gothic temple. This forest certainly, in point of beauty, surpasses everything of the kind you can figure to yourself. To its own charms, when I saw it, there were added a most pleasing and philosophical solitude, the coolness of an evening breeze, all aided by the soft sounds of music, which, at this distance from the castle, from whence it issued, was inexpressibly sweet. It threw me into a sort of enthusiastic and pleasing reverie, which made me ample amends for the fatigues, discourtesies, and continued cross accidents I had encountered in the course of the day.
I now left the forest; the clock struck six, and the workmen were going home from their work.
I have forgot to mention the large round tower of the castle, which is also a very ancient building. The roads that lead to it are all along their sides planted with shrubs; these, being modern and lively, make a pleasing contrast to the fine old mossy walls. On the top of this tower the flag of Great Britain is usually displayed, which, however, as it was now late in the evening, was taken in.
As I came down from the castle I saw the king driving up to it in a very plain, two-wheeled, open carriage. The people here were politer than I used to think they were in London, for I did not see a single person, high or low, who did not pull off their hats as their sovereign passed them.
I was now again in Windsor, and found myself, not far from the castle, opposite to a very capital inn, where I saw many officers and several persons of consequence going in and out. And here at this inn, contrary to all expectation, I was received by the landlord with great civility, and even kindness--very contrary to the haughty and insolent airs which the upstart at the other, and his jackanapes of a waiter, there thought fit to give themselves.
However, it seemed to be my fate to be still a scandal and an eyesore to all the waiters. The maid, by the order of her master, showed me a room where I might adjust my dress a little; but I could hear her mutter and grumble as she went along with me. Having put myself a little to rights, I went down into the coffee-room, which is immediately at the entrance of the house, and told the landlord that I thought I wished to have yet one more walk. On this he obligingly directed me to stroll down a pleasant field behind his house, at the foot of which, he said, I should find the Thames, and a good bathing place.
I followed his advice; and this evening was, if possible, finer than the preceding. Here again, as I had been told I should, I found the Thames with all its gentle windings. Windsor shone nearly as bright over the green vale as those charming houses on Richmond Hill, and the verdure was not less soft and delicate. The field I was in seemed to slope a little towards the Thames. I seated myself near a bush, and there waited the going down of the sun. At a distance I saw a number of people bathing in the Thames. When, after sunset, they were a little dispersed, I drew near the spot I had been directed to; and here, for the first time, I sported in the cool tide of the Thames. The bank was steep, but my landlord had dug some steps that went down into the water, which is extremely convenient for those who cannot swim. Whilst I was there, a couple of smart lively apprentice boys came also from the town, who, with the greatest expedition, threw off their clothes and leathern aprons, and plunged themselves, head foremost, into the water, where they opposed the tide with their sinewy arms till they were tired. They advised me, with much natural civility, to untie my hair, and that then, like them, I might plunge into the stream head foremost.
Refreshed and strengthened by this cool bath, I took a long walk by moonlight on the banks of the Thames. To my left were the towers of Windsor, before me a little village with a steeple, the top of which peeped out among the green trees, at a distance two inviting hills which I was to climb in the morning, and around me the green cornfields. Oh! how indescribably beautiful was this evening and this walk! At a distance among the houses I could easily descry the inn where I lodged, and where I seemed to myself at length to have found a place of refuge and a home; and I thought, if I could but stay there, I should not be very sorry if I were never to find another.
How soon did all these pleasing dreams vanish! On my return the waiters (who, from my appearance, too probably expected but a trifling reward for their attentions to me) received me gruffly, and as if they were sorry to see me again. This was not all; I had the additional mortification to be again roughly accosted by the cross maid who had before shown me to the bed-chamber, and who, dropping a kind of half courtesy, with a suppressed laugh, sneeringly told me I might look out for another lodging, as I could not sleep there, since the room she had by mistake shown me was already engaged. It can hardly be necessary to tell you that I loudly protested against this sudden change. At length the landlord came, and I appealed to him; and he with great courtesy immediately desired another room to be shown me, in which, however, there were two beds, so that I was obliged to admit a companion. Thus was I very near being a second time turned out of an inn.
Directly under my room was the tap-room, from which I could plainly hear too much of the conversation of some low people, who were drinking and singing songs, in which, as far as I could understand them, there were many passages at least as vulgar and nonsensical as ours.
This company, I guessed, consisted chiefly of soldiers and low fellows. I was hardly well lulled to sleep by this hurly-burly, when my chum (probably one of the drinking party below) came stumbling into the room and against my bed. At length, though not without some difficulty, he found his own bed, into which he threw himself just as he was, without staying to pull off either clothes or boots.
This morning I rose very early, as I had proposed, in order to climb the two hills which yesterday presented me with so inviting a prospect, and in particular that one of them on the summit of which a high white house appeared among the dark-green trees; the other was close by.
I found no regular path leading to these hills, and therefore went straight forward, without minding roads, only keeping in view the object of my aim. This certainly created me some trouble. I had sometimes a hedge, and sometimes a hog to walk round; but at length I had attained the foot of the so earnestly wished-for hill with the high white house on its summit, when, just as I was going to ascend it, and was already pleasing myself in the idea with the prospect from the white house, behold I read these words on a board: "Take care! there are steel traps and spring guns here."
All my labour was lost, and I now went round to the other hill; but here were also steel traps and spring gnus, though probably never intended to annoy such a wanderer as myself, who wished only to enjoy the fine morning air from this eminence.
Thus disappointed in my hopes, I returned to Windsor, much in the same temper and manner as I had yesterday morning from Richmond Hill; where my wishes had also been frustrated.
When I got to my inn, I received from the ill-tempered maid, who seemed to have been stationed there on purpose to plague and vex me, the polite welcome, that on no account should I sleep another night there. Luckily, that was not my intention. I now write to you in the coffee room, where two Germans are talking together, who certainly little suspect how well I understand them; if I were to make myself known to them, as a German, most probably, even these fellows would not speak to me, because I travel on foot. I fancy they are Hanoverians! The weather is so fine that, notwithstanding the inconveniences I have hitherto experienced on this account, I think I shall continue my journey in the same manner.