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THE MAID'S HEAD
THE first view of Norwich was slightly disappointing. The twilight was fading rapidly, and in the half-light the drive in the 'bus to the Maid's Head took us through streets which looked like any other street in any other city. An electric car which passed us made the resemblance to more commonplace localities even stronger.
The Maid's Head, one of the most noted inns in England, now dignified (or disgraced) by the name of Hotel, is a judicious mixture of ancient and modern. After a career which associated its name with some of the most interesting and entertaining events in the history of Norwich, it was about to pass into the hands of a brewing company, when it was rescued and put into its present shape by Mr. Walter Rye, a distinguished antiquarian, who has the interests of his native city of Norwich very near to his heart. The fine Tudor office, the bar, and the carved wainscoted smoke-room have been saved from the vandals and beer-drinkers. The ancient gables look down through the glass of the roofed-in courtyard, and Queen Elizabeth's room, with its narrow private stairway, remains in all its pristine glory.
Queen Elizabeth, as great a lover of change as Emperor William, if tradition speaks truly, made Norfolk several visits during her many progresses. In Norfolk her mother's early youth was passed.
The Maid's Head is full of treasures. The corridor is hung with charming old prints, and with drawings of ancient Norwich monuments now destroyed. The bedrooms, in spite of their modern furniture and electric lights, still show heavy oak beams across the ceilings, and the inside walls take quaint forms from the outside gables. The great assembly-room, at present given over to French cooking and a table d'hote, has witnessed the efforts of strolling players and the concerts of court musicians.
It was in this hall, where we hungry travellers gathered about a daintily lighted little table to eat with the vigour of Goths, that the good people of Norwich held a meeting in 1778, to decide whether they should or should not collect money to help conquer "the American rebels." The Norfolk men, it seems, had, however, so many relatives and friends among these same rebels, and so little love for King George, that they decided to refuse the government pecuniary assistance.
Great feastings went on within these four walls early in the history of Norwich. In the Paston letters – and every one who goes to Norfolk must read the Paston letters – "Ye Mayde's Hede" figures several times. All the great Norfolk families patronized this hostelry on their journeys to and from the court in London. The paved courtyard walls have echoed to the wheels of the lumbering coaches and the hoof-beats of the stout travelling horses of the Howards, the Oxfords, the Walpoles, and the Bullens, as they drove in for a halt, a change, or a night in Norwich before proceeding farther. The heavy oaken iron-barred doors, still to be seen at the entrance, were hung here earlier in the inn's history; indeed they were on duty fully a century before Sir John Paston's time. In the thirteenth or early fourteenth century a robbery of some pilgrims took place in a chamber of the Mayde's Hede. The unjust accusation that the victims directed against an innocent girl in their party brought the landlord before the courts of English justice, and the innkeeper put up these heavy doors to prevent thieves from entering in future.
The Maid's Head is a house of entertainment so full of interest that we each spent a profitable evening reading the artistic little pamphlet containing its history, and presented us by the thoughtful management, along with our rooms.
Norwich does not get the attention it deserves from the tourist. We discovered, the morning following our arrival, that, in spite of the uninteresting streets on which we had passed judgment the evening before, this city possessed great charm for the antiquarian. It is as full of ancient flint churches as if they had been sprinkled out of a pepper-pot. Many of them are falling rapidly into a state of utter dilapidation, while others have been well restored.
The narrow lanes teem with houses of the most curious sort, with gables of quaint shapes and heavy overhanging facades, which cluster about the melancholy old churches; and it is to be feared they will soon all disappear, together with the old lanes and alleys, which are too narrow to admit of thoroughfare or other than foot-passengers.
Norwich, too, has a town-crier, but he is altogether a much more magnificent personage than his Boston confrere. He is a pompous little man, with a voice and a bell quite out of proportion to his stature. He hurries from corner to corner with an air of great mystery and importance, halting only to swing his loud bell and announce that some noted man has died, or that a church concert will be given. Dressed in a long blue coat much embellished with red and gold, a broad gold band around his hat, and gold stripes down the sides of his trousers, Norwich has cause to be proud of its town-crier.
Norwich has only within the last year or so been put upon the itinerary of the well-known tourist agencies. Not only for its noted cathedral, still enclosed by the great wall surrounding it in monkish times, but for the mixture of old and new is this city original and charming. Its position in the centre of a most interesting county lends additional motives for attraction of visitors.
The cathedral is within a stone's throw of the Maid's Head. Its beautiful cloisters and splendidly carved gateways do honour to architects long forgotten, while its tall spire towers loftily above the many churches in its neighbourhood. Near to the cathedral, upon Tombland Square, stand many noble and ancient houses. The most interesting of these is now become an antiquity shop, and is called the House of the Giants, from two great figures which support the coping over the entrance porch.
This square of Tombland was the scene of a horrible explosion in olden times, when an enterprising mayor sought to celebrate his election in a novel way. Fireworks were then little understood, and, while endeavouring to entertain his fellow citizens by a display of rockets, the unfortunate city officer succeeded in killing several hundred of the spectators.
George Borrow's description of Norwich is as graphic to-day as when the author of "Lavengro," a native of Norfolk, first wrote it: "A fine old city," he calls it, "view it from whatever side you will . . . its thrice twelve churches, its mighty mound, which, if tradition speaks true, was raised by human hands to serve as a grave heap for a heathen king." The mound is still topped by a castle, but one of modern date, while at the bottom, on Saturday, crowds gather to inspect the fine fat cattle raised on Norfolk's rich pasturelands, and here offered for sale, and also to buy the handsome horses trotted about for inspection by the successors of George Borrow's gipsy friend, Mr. Pentelengro. Great stallions, with their tails and manes braided up in straw or ribbons, muscular ponies, and even showy carriage-horses are stabled here by the dealers under the castle wall. Opposite the horse and cattle markets, through a narrow street at the foot of the mound, runs the electric tram, at once the terror and the delight of the Norwich citizen. It is not a formidable danger, judged from the standpoint of a dweller in New York, and it winds through narrow and quaintly named streets, along Unthank Road, Rampant Horse Street, Grape Lane, The Gentleman's Walk, Timber Hill, and so on to Mousehold Heath, the city's park and pleasure-ground.
Past the antique Guild Hall, it is a long tram ride to the Dolphin Inn in the ancient hamlet of Heigham, now a portion of Norwich. This inn was once the country house of Bishop Hall. It is an enchanting spot for afternoon tea. The river flows away at the bottom of its garden, a windmill is perched up on a low hill in the distance, and a charming view of Norwich forms a background.
The Invalid, who boasts a fine taste in ecclesiastical architecture, rather scorned the cathedral for the sake of St. Peter Mancroft, the great church on the market-place. We could hardly force her to leave the rosy-cheeked sexton, with whom she had lengthy gossips concerning St. Peter's history and rich relics, and she was amply rewarded by a sight of the fine communion plate, the monument to Sir Thomas Browne, and the leather money paid the bell-ringers long ago, and which they could only exchange for beer. We had no chance to test their powers, but the Invalid assured us, on the authority of the sexton, that, when the present generation of St. Peter's ringers get the bells in hand, the famous ringers of Christ Church, Oxford, hide their diminished heads with shame.
Polly's favourite haunt in Norwich was the book-shop of Mr. Agas Goose, in Rampant Horse Street. There she filled her mind with proper information concerning the whole of Norfolk county, and the best way to see it in the short time we had to spend there. It was she who decided that we were to visit, of all its famous country-seats, Blickling Hall, which we surnamed "the beautiful."
"And when are you going to lead us there?" questioned the Matron, as we sipped coffee and nibbled toast and coquetted with pink petals of Wiltshire bacon, and discussed our plans.
"To-day at ten-twenty, if we go by train. It is an easy ride of ten miles by bicycle, if any one chooses that method of locomotion," was the prompt reply.
But the longer ride by rail tempted us in our indolence, and accordingly we "booked" for Aylsham, the railroad station nearest to Blickling. Aylsham revealed its incontestable charms as we walked up from its station, by a dear old manor-house, now vacant, and surrounded by a fine park gone nearly wild.
"How I should like to hire it and write a story about it," said the Invalid, who never wrote a line in her life, and whose ideas of the uncertain profits of literature are vague. This sad-looking brick manor-house, deserted since the last heir vanished from history, sits in a tangle of wild roses and shrubbery, and would afford a perfect scene for a novel. At the other end of the town, as soon as we could manage to get the Invalid and Polly past a cottage where they hung over the palings wrapt in admiration at the profusion, size, and colour of some wonderful begonias, we started out, along the smooth flint Norfolk road lined with fascinating country houses of ancient make, and between two rows of great elm-trees, to Anne Bullen's ancestral home. Blickling Hall bursts a bit suddenly on the view. It looks more French than English, at the end of a grass and gravelled court, with low stables, as at Fontainebleau, stretching down on either side of the court to the gate. The entrance to the garden is through a colonnade, and the like of this garden grows nowhere save in England. It spreads its beauties on but one side of this fine old Tudor mansion. The beds, in which each flower which grows is doing its mightiest to make the sweetness of its scented pleasure felt, are divided by great, fine clipped walls of box. Nowhere is a richer or more democratic garden. There the nobles and commons, the great and the humble ones of the floral kingdom, who, regardless of season, blow and blossom with all their power. Beyond the great carpet of flowers stretches for acres a wide demesne of dense groves and long, shady paths, in which Anne Bullen is said to wander and to wail by night for her lost home and happiness.
Within the Hall, on the great staircase which divides at the landing, are two portraits carved in wood. In one of them, Anne Bullen stands here revealed in all the sprightly charm which captivated Henry's fickle heart, in spite of her somewhat plain face. She displays a style, a dash, an entrancing coquetry, which, from the other pictures we had seen of this unhappy woman, we had never suspected. In the opposite carving, her daughter, Queen Elizabeth, stands stiff in a bedizened costume, lacking all the grace of her mother. About this attractive, homelike mansion everywhere the black bull of the Bullen family crest is to be seen, either carved in wood or inlaid in marble. The restorations and the splendid new library on the garden side are models of the perfect taste of their modern designers.
At the gate of Blickling Hall is a little inn called the Buckinghamshire Arms. It is one of those inns which have been lately established in England to discourage the sale of alcoholic drinks by making it more profitable to the innkeeper to sell milder beverages. The Buckinghamshire Arms is said to be a very successful experiment. It is neat, clean, a relic in architecture of Tudor days, dressed up a little to suit modern times, and there we had a most excellent luncheon for the price of one shilling each.
The church at Blickling has a fine marble monument to the memory of the late Marquis of Lothian. Here also are many relics of the very early days when the church was put up or the foundations put down. The dates being somewhat effaced, the sexton makes them as remote as he chooses.
After viewing house and park, we still had two good hours before train-time, so we strolled along slowly back to Aylsham. Before us strode three farm labourers, going home after hoeing in a field, – a father and his two sons, or it might possibly have been a grandfather, father, and son.
"Behold the true kernel of the British nut!" exclaimed the admiring Matron, as the three men, straight of limb, flat of back, and broad of shoulder, started off so briskly that it was impossible to believe they had been bent up nearly double all day. The boy, whose age was perhaps fourteen, stopped at a gate to shoulder a heavy bag of potatoes. After he raised the sack over his shoulder, he stood perfectly erect, in spite of the heavy weight, and, puckering up his lips, began to whistle what he imagined to be a tune; then started off at a pace which soon left us far behind.
In Aylsham there is a great old church of John of Gaunt's time, with a venerable lichgate at the entrance to the churchyard. The interior, however, has been too much restored, as is often the case in Norfolk, and it is spoiled by being crowded with pews.
After the day of delights at Blickling, we took train the following morning in Norwich, and rattled away, through corn and turnip-fields, past red farms and square gray church towers, a brief twenty miles, to Yarmouth on the North Sea shore. The waves of this sea play wild games, they told us, with parts of the Norfolk coast. At some points it has wiped out whole villages, at another it has dashed up great sand-dunes and buried church and tower and surrounding houses out of sight.
Old Yarmouth, cockney resort though it be, is more interesting to the lover of the quaint and curious than any of the other more fashionable and less historic places on the Norfolk coast. It has, to be sure, a Parade for the pleasure of the tripper, and long streets of commonplace houses like those of every English seaside town. Down behind all this modern sea-wall, however, in the ancient town where the Peggottys wandered, are the curious Yarmouth Rows. These are narrow passages between the high houses, where neighbours can shake hands across the opening from the windows of their homes. Unlike similar passages in old Continental towns, the Yarmouth Rows are clean and fresh.
We ate our dinner at "The Star," looking out at the many gaudy boats tied up by the side of the solid stone quay along the river. Black sails from the Broads, and red sails from the south coast were drying out side by side, while the sharp-arched bridge, like a Chinese print, led our eyes over to the weather-worn warehouses on the other side. Our hot luncheon, price, "two and six," was just like any other hot luncheon. It consisted of the usual joint, potatoes and cabbage, and a tart. With eyes closed, we could imagine eating it in any part of England through which we had passed, but, looking over the well-known menu, we forgot its monotony because of the noble room in which it was served. "The Star" was once the home of one of those judges who condemned Charles, the king, to death. This room, with its superbly carved black oak walls, its lovely plaster ceiling and quaint blue-tiled fireplace, remains as it was in the seventeenth century, and it is the pride of the present host and owner of the hotel. Once upon a time a wealthy American offered the generous sum of six thousand pounds for its panelled walls, ceiling, and fireplace. He wished to transport them across the ocean to his fine new house in the States; but the owner of "The Star" proved to be a man of sentiment and artistic appreciation. He disdained the offer, and we rejoiced in his admirable decision.
It was on one of our many journeys by rail through Norfolk that we had caught sight of ruined towers and arches amid the foliage, and discovered our American weakness for antiquarian research and the study of church architecture. Therefore, as we rattled away in the train from Yarmouth, again bound for our headquarters in Norwich, we agreed upon a bicycle trip or two. Our conclusion was to follow the queer highways to the haunts of the ancient, the beautiful, and the gracefully dilapidated. Our consultation in the railway carriage resulted in an agreement to forswear a visit to modern and royal Sandringham, and give time and attention and admiration to Wymondham, where there is a ruined abbey, and to Thetford, an ancient Royal city.
Wymondham, by the way, is pronounced as if it were spelled Windham, for Norfolk is the prize county of all England for serious differences between the spelling and pronunciation of proper names. In preparation for this bicycle excursion, Polly and I bestirred ourselves early, and got four wheels down to the ten o'clock train going south. We had bought tickets both for machines and for the people who were to ride them, before the Matron and the Invalid came to the platform gate. The bicycle tickets cost three pence each; without tickets the wheels are not allowed on the train.
They have a way in rural England of keeping the railway from spoiling all pretty villages by its bustle and smoke, and this precaution involves a station sometimes a very long way from the attractive parts of the little towns. Neither the Invalid nor the Matron got a chance to fuss nor to make themselves miserable about the bicycles. We said not a word to them about our arrangements, but let them enjoy the Norfolk scenery without anxious anticipations. The substantial walls of Coleman's Mustard Factory, just outside Norwich, the plumy trees of Hetherset, the ancient granges by the roadside, and the numerous flint churches so aroused their enthusiasm and engaged their whole attention that, when we presented them at Wymondham station with bicycles to ride to the then invisible town, never a question nor an objection did either of them offer. Their interest and admiration were wholly absorbed by the long lines of glittering flint walls, beautifully put together, and surrounding ancient flint churches, with thatched roofs, built to last to eternity of that proverbially hard substance. The flints, cracked in half for building, shine in the sun as though artificially polished, and, at nearer range, show blue, white, pink, and black, their irregular surfaces shining like jewels.
"I believe the monks have only gone off for a pilgrimage, and will be back to-morrow," was the Matron's first comment, as we rode down the street of Wymondham in the shadow of overhanging gables.
"We shall probably find a fat old cellarer in here," said Polly, when we entered at the sign of "The Green Dragon" to order lunch. Never did there exist a more perfect little hostelry than this. It has lingered on to hale old age from some time in the thirteenth century, when the abbey was in its glory. Then this jewel of an inn was used as a shelter for lay guests. It is a cosy place, but now too small to afford sleeping-room for any but the innkeeper and his family.
Under the carved beam which supports the overhanging casements we found an opening to a narrow passage warped by age or the inaccuracy of the monkish architect. Before this entrance hangs a nail-studded door strong enough for a fortress. Through a stuccoed corridor, one way led to the present tap-room. Before the rest of us had finished admiring the exterior, the Invalid was deep in conversation with the rosy-cheeked, buxom landlady, who sat behind a tiny bar. This bar in monkish times was a cupboard. Sticklers for preservation of antiques as we are, we did not think is a very aggressive innovation to make a bar of this little bowed window in the corner, where all the bright mugs and polished glasses hung as a background to the most respectable of barmaids. The heavy oak beams of the ceiling in the quaint hall, black with age, are upheld with rudely carved figures of the knights who may have feasted here. The marks of the sculptor's tools are upon them and on the carvings which adorn the great fireplace.
"Don't turn the knob, Polly, or a monk will pop out of that low cellar door," I advised cautiously, as that inquisitive maiden embarked on one of her voyages of discovery around the rooms.
"Tumble out, you mean. I know there is one in there, all vine grown, who has been sipping for centuries at the noble wine laid down for guests three hundred years ago," she retorted, falling in with our mood.
"He can't get out," advised the Matron. "Don't you see the huge bunch of keys hanging on the antlers above the door? A prima donna will perhaps trip down those stairs in the corner if we stop here long enough," she continued, seriously. "Did you ever lunch in a stage inn before, all set for the first act?"
"I want but one pull at one of those leather tankards," said Polly, longingly, "and then I shall be able to tell you more about Wymondham Abbey than any guide-book."
"Yes, ladies, you can have tea and bread and butter, and eggs any way you choose, ready in half an hour," was the landlady's practical contribution to the conversation, as, bustling in, she unconsciously sent our imaginations back to the wants of the present time.
We stacked our bicycles before the inn's door, for the churchyard where, among the old cedars, stand the picturesque remains of the great abbey, is near.
Wymondham Priory was founded in 1107. It was a very rich institution, with all sorts of privileges, which made the monks very independent of the higher church authorities. They owned fields and meadows and all the lands about, and even changed the king's highway to suit themselves. A quarrel between the prior and a jealous superior, the Abbot of St. Albans, caused the Pope to turn the priory into an abbey for the Benedictines in 1448, and such it remained until the time of the dissolution. Another difference, with the Archdeacon of Norfolk, took the parish church from the jurisdiction of the abbey, and it was then that the queer things happened which gave the parish church its present unusual architectural peculiarities. The Pope decided that the abbot had no jurisdiction over the parishioners; the monks at once made a division in the church, and built another tower, in which to hang the bell which called them to matins and primes. The parish church with the parish bell-tower is preserved as in ancient times, but the monks' beautiful tower, built in 1260, is a ruin draped from top to bottom with green vines. The parish church has a superb wooden ceiling in the nave, the spandrels springing from the backs of winged angels resting on grotesque heads.
It is easy to trace the former entrances to the cloisters, the chapter-house, and the various portions of the abbey by the closed doorways still visible. Extending over the churchyard from this fine shattered tower are groups of clustered columns and picturesque arches, – all that now remains of the abbey's old glory.
"I am quite satisfied that I have seen the finest old church in Norfolk," declared the Invalid, our chief amateur student of antique places of worship. "There may be others, but, as we have not months to spare here, I am glad to take home a remembrance of the noble beauty of these dignified aisles."
An ancient font, mutilated but still beautiful, the pulpit, the chapels, and the base of the font were being that day decorated with fruits, vegetables, and flowers for the Harvest Festival.
The many venerable cedars in the churchyard suit the old place admirably, and so do the solemn, sleepy dwellings about the close. The old Green Dragon stood genial and smiling. It will take more storms than the little inn has yet weathered to wear off the jolly remembrance of its youth.
Whether it was that the landlady heard Polly's shivering at ghostly monks, or simply because she wanted us to enjoy freedom from intrusion, but she served our simple lunch in a little sitting-room, one side all lattice window, and with a ceiling so low that the shortest member of the party could touch it with an extra stretch of the arm. Great poppies on the paper and a wide fireplace caused the Matron to nod approval, as she devoured several extra slices of delicious cake.
The landlady, probably in gratitude for being answered all sorts of ingeniously conceived questions about America, recommended us earnestly to ride out to Stanfield Hall. It is not more than two miles from town. An atrocious murder having been committed there in 1808, and Wymondham folk have not yet recovered from what to them is but a recent excitement. The present house is an Elizabethan moated grange surrounded by an unkempt park full of oak-trees; the atmosphere of the place is unaccountably sad and gloomy, but the melancholy is perhaps not so much due to the tragic death of the later master who was shot here by his tenant and bailiff, as to the memories of Amy Robsart, who wandered under the shade of the ancient trees with Leicester in the short bright days when he wooed her. This old estate washer father's home. Leicester, then Lord Robert Dudley, came wounded to old Stanfield Hall when his duty brought him to Norfolk with the troops at the time of the Ket rebellion, and Amy nursed him and loved him. The road to Stanfield, one of those perfect Norfolk highways which puts all other roads to shame, leads along with only one turn between the town and the Hall, passing fascinating old farmhouses, none younger than the age of Queen Elizabeth, with their front gardens decorated with quaint sun-dials, stilted rows of box, and fancifully trimmed bay-trees.
"We are the perfect time-keepers," said Polly, as we rode up to the station just one minute before the Thetford train was due. When we got to Thetford, we very nearly wished we had stayed in curious old Wymondham.
"This may be an ancient royal city," said the Matron, "but it looks more early Victorian."
"But here is one of Mr. Pickwick's inns to console us," said the Invalid, as we rode into the court of "The Bell," a marked contrast to the thirteenth-century style of the Green Dragon.
"Those deceptive guide-books!" indignantly exclaimed the Matron, without noticing the interruption. "I supposed these streets would be full of queer old things, and all I see is a Jane Austen house or two."
We did not ask what a Jane Austen house was, but we did try to get some information from the green-aproned Boots at the Bell concerning the King's House, certain assurance of its existence having been dug by me out of our Norfolk Guide.
"I never heard of no King's House. Did you mean the house of Mr. King?" was his lucid reply.
The guide-book had told us that immediately upon entering Thetford we should become conscious of its antiquity. We stared about in indignant disgust.
"That writer could not have known Wymondham," said Polly. "I only see Georgian houses, but perhaps we are not experts."
At last we found the so-called King's House, a former country residence of English kings, now a plain square brick mansion set in a garden and showing a small royal emblem stuck up above the flat cornice.
"This is all the king left there," said Polly, as she pointed her camera in the air. Thetford, we discovered for ourselves, possesses an artificial mound as large as the castle foundations at Norwich. There we also found a fine Elizabethan house down near the millstream, and outside the town lies a huge rabbit-warren extending for miles. It seemed to go on for ever over hill and hollow, and the little cottontails were skipping around, or sunning themselves outside their front doors, in the tamest sort of way, not at all like their wild Dartmoor kindred. Their silver-tipped tails amid the bracken made the whole great undulating plain flash and sparkle.
The Bell Inn is the most ancient and admirable structure remaining in Thetford, but all the quaintness is on the outside. The inside has followed the prevailing Thetford fashion and become Georgian. The tea we found was of the extreme modern sort, – very dear and no flavour.
"After all, it was a delightful day," said the Invalid, as we said farewell to the last of the Thetford antiquities, the abbey gateway near the station, which is really more royal than the King's House. It led formerly to Thetford Abbey, the ancient burial-place of the Dukes of Norfolk.
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