|Stane Street - The Slindon estate|
The other day (it was Wednesday, and the air was very pure) I went into the stable upon my way toward the wood, and there I saw my horse Monster standing by himself, regarding nothingness. And when I had considered what a shame it was to take one's pleasure in a wood and leave one's helpless horse at home, I bridled him and saddled him and took him out, and rode him the way that I had meant to go alone. So we went together along the Stene under the North Wood until we got to the edge of the forest, and then we took the green Ride to the right, for it was my intention to go and look at the Roman road.
Behind my house, behind my little farm, there are as many miles of turf as one cares to count, and then behind it also, but the other way, there goes this deep and lonely forest. It is principally of beech, which is the tree of the chalk, and no one has cut it or fenced it or thought about it (except to love it), since the parts about my village took their names: Gumber and Fairmile Bay Combe, the Nore, and the stretch called No Man's Land.
Into the darkness of these trees I rode very quietly with Monster, my horse, but whether the autumn air were pleasanter to him or to me neither of us could decide, for there is no bridge between two souls. That is, if horses have a soul, which I suppose they have, for they are both stupid and kindly, and they fear death as though a part, and but a part, of them were immortal. Also they see things in the dark and are cognisant of evil.
When I had gone some hundred yards towards the Roman road I saw, bending lower than the rest on the tree from which it hung, a golden bough, and I said to myself that I had had good luck, for such a thing has always been the sign of an unusual experience and of a voyage among the dead. All the other leaves of the tree were green, but the turn of the year, which sends out foragers just as the spring does, marking the way it is to go, had come and touched this bough and changed it, so that it shone out by itself in the recesses of the forest and gleamed before and behind. I did not ask what way it led me, for I knew; and so I went onwards, riding my horse, until I came to that long bank of earth which runs like a sort of challenge through this ancient land to prove what our origins were, and who first brought us merry people into the circuit of the world.
When I saw the Roman road the sharper influence which it had had upon my boyhood returned to me, and I got off my horse and took his bit out of his mouth so that he could play the fool with the grass and leaves (which are bad for him), and I hitched the snaffle to a little broken peg of bough so that he could not wander. And then I looked up and down along the boles of the great North Wood, taking in the straight line of the way.
I have heard it said that certain professors, the most learned of their day, did once deny that this was a Roman road. I can well believe it, and it is delightful to believe that they did. For this road startles and controls a true man, presenting an eternal example of what Rome could do. The peasants around have always called it the "Street." It leads from what was certainly one Roman town to what was certainly another. That sign of Roman occupation, the modern word "Cold Harbour," is scattered up and down it. There are Roman pavements on it. It goes plumb straight for miles, and at times, wherever it crosses undisturbed land, it is three or four feet above the level of the down. Here, then, was a feast for the learned: since certainly the more obvious a thing is, the more glory there must be in denying it. And deny it they did (or at least, so I am told), just as they will deny that Thomas à Becket was a Papist, or that Austerlitz was fought in spite of Trafalgar, or that the Gospel of St. John is the Gospel of St. John.
Here then, sitting upon this Roman road I considered the nature of such men, and when I had thought out carefully where the nearest Don might be at that moment, I decided that he was at least twenty-three miles away, and I was very glad: for it permitted me to contemplate the road with common sense and with Faith, which is Common Sense transfigured; and I could see the Legionaries climbing the hill. I remembered also what a sight there was upon the down above, and I got upon my horse again to go and see it.
When one has pushed one's way through the brambles and the rounded great roots which have grown upon this street—where no man has walked perhaps for about a thousand years—one gets to the place where it tops the hill, and here one sees the way in which the line of it was first struck out. From where one stands, right away like a beam, leading from rise to rise, it runs to the cathedral town. You see the spot where it enters the eastern gate of the Roman walls; you see at the end of it, like the dot upon an "i," the mass of the cathedral. Then, if you turn and look northward, you see from point to point its taut stretch across the weald to where, at the very limit of the horizon, there is a gap in the chain of hills that bars your view.
The strict design of such a thing weighs upon one as might weigh upon one four great lines of Virgil, or the sight of those enormous stones which one comes upon, Roman also, in the Algerian sands. The plan of such an avenue by which to lead great armies and along which to drive commands argues a mixture of unity and of power as intimate as the lime and the sand of which these conquerors welded their imperishable cement. And it does more than this. It suggests swiftness and certitude of aim and a sort of eager determination which we are slow to connect with Government, but which certainly underlay the triumph of this people. A road will give one less trouble if it winds about and feels the contours of the land. It will pay better if it is of earth and broken stones instead of being paved, nor would any one aiming at wealth or comfort alone laboriously raise its level, as the level of this road is raised. But in all that the Romans did there was something of a monument. Where they might have taken pipes down a valley and up the opposing side they preferred the broad shoulders of an arcade, and where a seven-foot door would have done well enough to enter their houses by they were content with nothing less than an arch of fifty. In all their work they were conscious of some business other than that immediately to hand, and therefore it is possible that their ruins will survive the establishment of our own time as they have survived that of the Middle Ages. In this wild place, at least, nothing remained of all that was done between their time and ours.
These things did the sight on either side of the summit suggest to me, but chiefly there returned as I gazed the delicious thought that learned men, laborious and heavily endowed, had denied the existence of this Roman road.
See with what manifold uses every accident of human life is crammed! Here was a piece of pedantry and scepticism, which might make some men weep and some men stamp with irritation, and some men, from sheer boredom, fall asleep, but which fed in my own spirit a fountain of pure joy, as I considered carefully what kind of man it is who denies these things; the kind of way he walks; the kind of face he has; the kind of book he writes; the kind of publisher who chisels him; and the kind of way in which his works are bound. With every moment my elation grew greater and more impetuous, until at last I could not bear to sit any longer still, even upon so admirable a beast, nor to look down even at so rich a plain (though that was seen through the air of Southern England), but turning over the downs I galloped home, and came in straight from the turf to my own ground—for what man would live upon a high road who could go through a gate right off the turf to his own steading and let the world go hang?
And so did I. But as they brought me beer and bacon at evening, and I toasted the memory of things past, I said to myself: "Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, Durham—you four great universities—you terrors of Europe—that road is older than you: and meanwhile I drink to your continued healths, but let us have a little room ... air, there, give us air, good people. I stifle when I think of you."
From 'The Hills and the Sea' - Hilaire Belloc, 1906