Travels with Arthur
About two years ago I found myself in Somerset not far from Porlock. My mission if I had one that summer’s day was to discover the identity of the mysterious visitor from Porlock who so inhibited Coleridge’s masterful poem Kubla Khan. But more of that later because when I was in Porlock, I chanced upon a battered copy of Arthur Mee’s guide to Somerset which was rather apt as I was deep in the county.
Arthur Mee (1875-1943). For those who have not gathered his acquaintance, he was a British writer who is perhaps best known for his Children’s Encyclopaedia and his massive topographical and historical book series which stretched to some forty-two volumes. Arthur Mee’s guide to the counties. Some people saw the series as a modern day Domesday Book and who am I to disagree.
My day in Porlock was interrupted when a rather unpleasant storm rolled in off of the Bristol Channel and I was forced to take tea with Arthur in a nearby café. We chatted for quite a while and parted promising to meet again sometime in the future.
I waited until two weeks ago when I met Arthur in Henley of Thames and began reading his guide to Berkshire.
Here is the passage on Hungerford which I have slightly edited.
One of the little towns on the Roman road to Bath, it has long been famous among fisherman, who come here to the waters of the Kennet.
John of Gaunt gave it a fishing charter, and a brass drinking horn which is the symbol of the office of a Constable, elected every year by the tenants of 99 houses who own fishing rights.
It is a quaint old ceremony beginning with the blowing of a 300 year old horn from the town hall, after which two men, called Tuttimen, carrying staves decked with flowers, go round to summon the tenants.
The church, more imposing outside than in, it was built in the year before Waterloo, but has kept from its predecessor a battered knight 600 years old, his shield is still on his arm though his crossed legs are broken.
A picture of St George in tiles and mosaic is in memory of Captain Astley, who fell in the Great War is also to be found within the church.
Hungerford has had its glimpses of English history.
To the Bear Inn came William of Orange to meet the kings commissioners a few days before James the Second fled to France.
It was perhaps at Eddington, not far away that King Alfred disguised himself as a harper and visited the Danish camp.
You can recognise our little town even from these bite size pieces and that it what the Mee books are all about. It you want more detailed histories then there are plenty of books on the market including some excellent ones written about Hungerford. Each of us has a favourite county, whether we were born there or have happy memories of the county. Arthur’s books cover most of these counties. The contents appear to be in alphabetical order (which makes life quite easy) and indeed, the Berkshire book starts with Abingdon (then in Berkshire until the madness of 1974) and concludes in Yattendon (where Robert Bridges once lived).
Most hamlets and villages are included as well as the towns. There is a generosity of beautiful sepia photographs to enjoy although none of Hungerford in the Berkshire book. How easy is it to purchase one of these books you might ask? Well during my last visit to Hungerford Arcade, I spotted a couple of his books. How much would they cost? They are incredibly inexpensive. It is likely that your Sunday newspaper will cost you more.
Are some county guides rarer than others?
I am not sure although one does see a good selection in bookshops and the like. On the 1939 edition I own the dust cover notes: “This is English, this is ours” , And I think that this rather sums up Arthur.
“A remarkable event has been going on quietly and unguessed at for many years in our countryside”
“It is the first census of the ancient and beautiful and curious and historic possession of England since the motor-car came to make it possible”
In 1939 the editions ran from Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire to The West Riding of Yorkshire. There was also an introductory volume called Enchanted Land (which sadly I have not seen for quite a while). In these fast days we often look at the countryside and wish we had time to stop the car (or get off the train) and just stroll. Maybe with a companion or someone closer. To just stop in the middle of a small hamlet and share its history. To be in the deep countryside. I am lucky for I have been an acquaintance of Arthur for many years and he has helped me to see things through his eyes and after that my own.
If you are planning a visit to a town or are just walking (or driving) through this rich country of ours. Then take my advice, contact Arthur who for a small fee will make your days worthwhile. The guides are the size of a normal hardback book and will fit into your bag easily.
I must be off now as I am visiting the Westbury White Horse. I have packed Arthur’s guide to Wiltshire and hope that the summer keeps its good temper.
Enjoy your walks.
And by the way, I think it was William Wordsworth and his sister who so inhibited Coleridge’s poem. But, that is another story.
Written for Hungerford Arcade
by Stuart Miller-Osborne