A citizen, for recreation sake,
To see the country would a journey take
Some dozen mile, or very little more;
Taking his leave with friends two months before,
With drinking healths, and shaking by the hand,
As he had travail’d to some new-found land.
—Doctor Merrie-Man, 1609.
I believe I have mentioned that the Hall is situated in a retired part of the country, at a distance from any great coachroad; insomuch that the arrival of a traveller is apt to make every one look out of the window, and to cause some talk among the ale-drinkers at the little inn. I was at a loss, therefore, to account for the Squire’s indignation at a measure apparently fraught with convenience and advantage, until I found that the conveniences of travelling were among his greatest grievances.
In fact, he rails against stage-coaches, post-chaises, and turnpike-roads, as serious causes of the corruption of English rural manners. They have given facilities, he says, to every humdrum citizen to trundle his family about the kingdom, and have sent the follies and fashions of town, whirling, in coachloads, to the remotest parts of the island. The whole country, he says, is traversed by these flying cargoes; every by-road is explored by enterprising tourists from Cheapside and the Poultry, and every gentleman’s park and lawns invaded by cockney sketchers of both sexes, with portable chairs and portfolios for drawing.
He laments over this, as destroying the charm of privacy, and interrupting the quiet of country life; but more especially as affecting the simplicity of the peasantry, and filling their heads with half-city notions. A great coach-inn, he says, is enough to ruin the manners of a whole village. It creates a horde of sots and idlers, makes gapers and gazers and newsmongers of the common people, and knowing jockeys of the country bumpkins.
The Squire has something of the old feudal feeling. He looks back with regret to the “good old times” when journeys were only made on horseback, and the extraordinary difficulties of travelling, owing to bad roads, bad accommodations, and highway robbers, seemed to separate each village and hamlet from the rest of the world. The lord of the manor was then a kind of monarch in the little realm around him. He held his court in his paternal hall, and was looked up to with almost as much loyalty and deference as the king himself. Every neighbourhood was a little world within itself, having its local manners and customs, its local history and local opinions. The inhabitants were fonder of their homes, and thought less of wandering. It was looked upon as an expedition to travel out of sight of the parish steeple; and a man that had been to London was a village oracle for the rest of his life.
What a difference between the mode of travelling in those days and at present! At that time, when a gentleman went on a distant visit, he sallied forth like a knight-errant on an enterprise, and every family excursion was a pageant. How splendid and fanciful must one of those domestic cavalcades have been, where the beautiful dames were mounted on palfreys magnificently caparisoned, with embroidered harness, all tinkling with silver bells, attended by cavaliers richly attired on prancing steeds, and followed by pages and serving-men, as we see them represented in old tapestry! The gentry, as they travelled about in those days, were like moving pictures. They delighted the eyes and awakened the admiration of the common people, and passed before them like superior beings; and, indeed, they were so; there was a hardy and healthful exercise connected with this equestrian style that made them generous and noble.
In his fondness for the old style of travelling, the Squire makes most of his journeys on horseback, though he laments the modern deficiency of incident on the road, from the want of fellow-wayfarers, and the rapidity with which every one else is whirled along in coaches and post-chaises. In the “good old times,” on the contrary, a cavalier jogged on through bog and mire, from town to town and hamlet to hamlet, conversing with friars and franklins, and all other chance companions of the road; beguiling the way with travellers’ tales, which then were truly wonderful, for every thing beyond one’s neighbourhood was full of marvel and romance; stopping at night at some “hostel,” where the bush over the door proclaimed good wine, or a pretty hostess made bad wine palatable; meeting at supper with travellers, or listening to the song or merry story of the host, who was generally a boon companion, and presided at his own board; for, according to old Tusser’s “Innholder’s Posie,”
“At meales my friend who vitleth here
And sitteth with his host,
Shall both be sure of better cheere,
And ’scape with lesser cost.”
The Squire is fond, too, of stopping at those inns which may be met with here and there in ancient houses of wood and plaster, or calimanco houses, as they are called by antiquaries, with deep porches, diamond-paned bow-windows, pannelled rooms, and great fire-places. He will prefer them to more spacious and modern inns, and would cheerfully put up with bad cheer and bad accommodations in the gratification of his humour. They give him, he says, the feelings of old times, insomuch that he almost expects in the dusk of the evening to see some party of weary travellers ride up to the door with plumes and mantles, trunk-hose, wide boots, and long rapiers.
The good Squire’s remarks brought to mind a visit that I once paid to the Tabbard Inn, famous for being the place of assemblage from whence Chaucer’s pilgrims set forth for Canterbury. It is in the borough of Southwark, not far from London Bridge, and bears, at present, the name of “the Talbot.” It has sadly declined in dignity since the days of Chaucer, being a mere rendezvous and packing-place of the great wagons that travel into Kent. The court-yard, which was anciently the mustering-place of the pilgrims previous to their departure, was now lumbered with huge wagons. Crates, boxes, hampers, and baskets, containing the good things of town and country, were piled about them; while, among the straw and litter, the motherly hens scratched and clucked, with their hungry broods at their heels. Instead of Chaucer’s motley and splendid throng, I only saw a group of wagoners and stable-boys enjoying a circulating pot of ale; while a long-bodied dog sat by, with head on one side, ear cocked up, and wistful gaze, as if waiting for his turn at the tankard.
Notwithstanding this grievous declension, however, I was gratified at perceiving that the present occupants were not unconscious of the poetical renown of their mansion. An inscription over the gateway proclaimed it to be the inn where Chaucer’s pilgrims slept on the night previous to their departure; and at the bottom of the yard was a magnificent sign representing them in the act of sallying forth. I was pleased, too, at noticing that though the present inn was comparatively modern, yet the form of the old inn was preserved. There were galleries round the yard, as in old times, on which opened the chambers of the guests. To these ancient inns have antiquaries ascribed the present forms of our theatres. Plays were originally acted in inn-yards. The guests lolled over the galleries, which answered to our modern dress-circle; the critical mob clustered in the yard, instead of the pit; and the groups gazing from the garret-windows were no bad representatives of the gods of the shilling gallery. When, therefore, the drama grew important enough to have a house of its own, the architects took a hint for its construction from the yard of the ancient “hostel.”
I was so well pleased at finding these remembrances of Chaucer and his poem, that I ordered my dinner in the little parlour of the Talbot. Whilst it was preparing, I sat at the window musing and gazing into the court-yard, and conjuring up recollections of the scenes depicted in such lovely colours by the poet, until, by degrees, boxes, bales and hampers, boys, wagoners and dogs, faded from sight, and my fancy peopled the place with the motley throng of Canterbury pilgrims. The galleries once more swarmed with idle gazers, in the rich dresses of Chaucer’s time, and the whole cavalcade seemed to pass before me. There was the stately knight on sober steed, who had ridden in Christendom and heathenesse, and had “foughten for our faith at Tramissene;”—and his son, the young squire, a lover, and a lusty bachelor, with curled locks and gay embroidery; a bold rider, a dancer, and a writer of verses, singing and fluting all day long, and “fresh as the month of May;”—and his “knot-headed” yeoman; a bold forester, in green, with horn, and baudrick, and dagger, a mighty bow in hand, and a sheaf of peacock arrows shining beneath his belt;—and the coy, smiling, simple nun, with her gray eyes, her small red mouth, and fair forehead, her dainty person clad in featly cloak and “’ypinched wimple,” her choral beads about her arm, her golden brooch with a love motto, and her pretty oath by Saint Eloy;—and the merchant, solemn in speech and high on horse, with forked beard and “Flaundrish bever hat;”—and the lusty monk, “full fat and in good point,” with berry brown palfrey, his hood fastened with gold pin. wrought with a love-knot, his bald head shining like glass, and his face glistening as though it had been anointed; and the lean, logical, sententious clerk of Oxenforde, upon his half-starved, scholar-like horse;—and the bowsing sompnour, with fiery cherub face, all knobbed with pimples, an eater of garlic and onions, and drinker of “strong wine, red as blood,” that carried a cake for a buckler, and babbled Latin in his cups; of whose brimstone visage “children were sore aferd;”—and the buxom wife of Bath, the widow of five husbands, upon her ambling nag, with her hat broad as a buckler, her red stockings and sharp spurs;—and the slender, choleric reeve of Norfolk, bestriding his good gray stot; with close-shaven beard, his hair cropped round his ears, long, lean, calfless legs, and a rusty blade by his side;—and the jolly Limitour, with lisping tongue and twinkling eye, well-beloved franklins and housewives, a great promoter of marriages among young women, known at the taverns in every town, and by every “hosteler and gay tapstere.” In short, before I was roused from my reverie by the less poetical but more substantial apparition of a smoking beef-steak, I had seen the whole cavalcade issue forth from the hostel-gate, with the brawny, double-jointed, red-haired miller, playing the bagpipes before them, and the ancient host of the Tabbard giving them his farewell God-send to Canterbury.
When I told the Squire of the existence of this legitimate descendant of the ancient Tabbard Inn, his eyes absolutely glistened with delight. He determined to hunt it up the very first time he visited London, and to eat a dinner there, and drink a cup of mine host’s best wine in memory of old Chaucer. The general, who happened to be present, immediately begged to be of the party; for he liked to encourage these long-established houses, as they are apt to have choice old wines.