A Tour Upon Wheels in 1886 (chapter I)

Oscar Browning (17 January 1837 – 6 October 1923) was an English writer, historian, and educational reformer. His greatest achievement was the cofounding, along with Henry Sidgwick, of the Cambridge University Day Training College in 1891. This was one of the earliest institutions in Great Britain to focus on the training of educators, preempted only by the founding of the Cambridge Teaching College for Women by Elizabeth Hughes in 1885

To be found in Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine, Volume 140, 1886, pp. 348-363


Chapter I

No traveller should despise railways. Rapid trains, lightning trains, are not the worst triumphs of civilisation. We breakfast one morning in London, the next morning at Lucerne, and dine that evening at Milan. We commit ourselves to a sleeping-carriage, and wake up some days afterwards at Rome or Constantinople, having found all our wants supplied in our travelling house. But this rapidity is purchased at some cost. There are towns which habitual travellers never see. Early in an autumn morning we brush the film from our windows to catch a glimpse of the hill-fortress of Laon, or of the cathedral of Rheims. If we wish to visit them, we must get out in the cold, and wait twenty-four hours for another train. Other names great in history or art pass by us unnoticed. We know the refreshment-room of Amiens better than its cathedral. What is the remedy for this? We cannot return to the days of travelling-carriages. The old post-stations are shut up; post-horses and postilions are not to be had. We should not like to stable our own horses in the close, ill-smelling hovels which would be offered to us for our accommodation. It is poor fun to take a walking tour along the hard high-road. Luckily civilisation has provided the best remedy for it own ravages. The bicycle supplies the place of the pad-horse, and the tricycle of the gig. We rattle merrily along the macadam at the rate of seven or eight miles an hour; our steeds only need a few drops of Tringham’s oil; we carry in our wallet enough clothes for a night or two, and send our heavy luggage by train or diligence. We are restored again to the delights of the road,—we see the hills, the open fields, the peasantry, and the country inns; we stay in many an old town, forgotten since the time of our grandfathers; we have freedom, air, and exercise for our bodies and plenty of entertainment for our minds. Filled with this idea, two friends started, on a summer afternoon, from the good city of Rouen. As we mounted the steep slope which leads up to Boos, we looked down for the last time on the pools and islands of the Seine, on the towers of St Ouen and the cathedral, and on the tall chimneys of the manufacturing suburbs. Trade, we were told, is dull in this rival of Manchester, but Rouen does not lay this to the fault of the Republic. At Boos we refreshed ourselves with Normandy cider, the peculiar drink of the province, visited a fifteenth-century dovecot which marks a manor of the Abbey of St Amand and fare on the highroad to Paris. At Fleury we cross the Andelle, a humble tributary of the Seine, mount the laborious slope on the other side, take a road to the right which leads to the English-looking village of Fresne-l’Archeveque, in which a magnificent mountain-ash full of berries justifies the name of the township. The slope of a deep Devonshire lane opens a vista which is closed by the majestic keep of Chateau Gaillard, the favourite child of Richard Cceurde-Lion. We soon find ourselves in the streets of Grand Andely and commit ourselves to the hospitality of Madame Leroy of the Hotel Grand Cerf. Les Andelys, the large and the small, are two of the prettiest villages in France. The lesser Andelys lies on the banks of the Seine, as it flows in graceful curves, and embraces wooden islands in its course; the greater spreads in a long line up the valley. The church of Grand Andelys is rich with carved crockets and painted windows. Its construction was spread over three hundred years, from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. It is too imposing for a village church, and attests the former splendour of the town of Saint Clotilde. Just opposite stands our inn, the Grand Cerf, a curiosity worth a visit. It was the country house of Niaolas du Val, counsellor at the Parliament of Rouen in the time of Francis I. He built this house in the first half of the fifteenth century. The front towards the street is carved with helmeted heads and works of agriculture. The lower story contains the great hall, now divided by a partition, with its huge chimney, where ten people can warm themselves with ease. The projecting cover of the fireplace is carved with coats of arms and other devices. We are shown into a large bedroom on the upper floor with two beds set in deep alcoves. The room is full of ancient furniture, pottery and pictures. Three large commodes of the time of Louis XV are placed against the walls. The tables are so covered with every form of blue and white china, Rouen, Moustiers, Strasbourg and Delft, that there is no room for anything else. Our very hand-basins are of majolica, while the walls are hidden with clocks, Flemish pictures, ivory statuettes, fragments of stained glass, resting on large panels of Beauvais tapestry. The house is a Musee de Cluny on a small scale, better perhaps to visit than to live in. Little Andelys owes its celebrity to the ‘saucy’ castle which Richard I built in a single year’s truce as a barrier against France. It remained untouched till the beginning of the seventeenth century and was lived in by Henri IV. We are sometimes tempted to regret the dismantling of these ancient buildings and to wish that they had been quietly left to the ravages of time. But it is easy to see that, as long as they were habitable, but un-kept and unguarded, they were a nuisance to the neighbourhood. Their deserted halls and intricate passages found a shelter for brigands, false coiners, beggars, tramps and vagrants of all kinds. It was necessary either to garrison them or to destroy them. The first course was expensive or impossible; the second was lucrative, by sale of the materials. Chateau Gaillard is justly considered as the high-water mark of castle-building at the end of the twelfth century and dates from the year 1197. We still admire the lofty donjon with its circular bastians, the three concentric fosses cut in the living rock and the precipitous escarpment which falls directly to the Seine. But the traveller must not forget to visit the parish church. It is a gem of architecture of the same date as the castle. The exquisite purity of its vaulting fascinates the eye. It would be just in place in an English village.

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