A Tour Upon Wheels in 1886 (chapter III)

posted by Stephen Channing on August 31, 2014 .

Chapter III

There are other things to be seen at Beauvais besides the cathedral. There is the church of St Stephen, with its wealth of windows, the masterpieces of Engrand, le Prince and his followers: one of these has a field of blue, pure and limpid as the sky of Italy. A tree of Jesse bears on its upward branches the familiar figures of David, Solomon, the Virgin Mary, and Christ. The side branches, by a strange licence, carry kings of France—Louis XL, Louis XII., and Francis I.—while among them sits Engrand le Prince himself, now called, in proud veneration of his art, Engrand le Roy. This window is perhaps the finest which the sixteenth century has produced. There is also the great square of Beauvais, surrounded by picturesque houses, more various and broken in outline than is usual in a French town. Something of Flemish eccentricity, as well as of Flemish neatness, must have crept into the architecture. We are reminded of the neighbourhood of the Low Countries by the statue of Jeanne 1 Hachette in the centre of the square,—the brave girl who, at the head of others of her own sex, defended the ramparts in 1472 against the assault of Charles of Burgundy. The bishops of Beauvais were counts palatine, like our own bishops of Durhanj. Their ancient palace still exists, half of it a strong fortress, with a portal of twin towers like the Norman tower of Windsor or the palace of St Louis at Paris, half of it a luxurious building of late Gothic, with stately steps, grim gargoyles, and turret staircases. We must also visit the manufacture of tapestry still kept up by a republican government, and many other things of which the guidebook will inform us. The road from Beauvais to Clermont-sur-Oise is a cyclist’s paradise. It stretches for seventeen or eighteen miles flat and smooth without a break. We ran merrily along, only hindered by passing carts and by frightened horses,—for in this part of France the horses are not so well accustomed as in Normandy to the flash of the dazzling wheel. We reached Clermont in two hours in the cool of the evening, and enjoyed the fresh invigorating air. On the summit of the rock of Clermont is seated the ancient castle of its feudal counts, and from its terraced gardens the eye ranges far over hill and plain, field and forest. The church at the castle gates is rich with painted glass and is well restored in every part. In these regions France is indeed felt to be ‘the beautiful’ Few travellers on the ugly line from Boulogne to Paris know what scenery lies on either side of them. The ride to Compiegne took us a long time. The road is good at first, and passes many ancient manors and churches; but soon there are hills and, still worse, pave. Pave is the cyclist’s curse: for kilometre after kilometre he must tramp over uneven paving stones, pushing before him a machine not constructed to be pushed which jolts and rattles at every step. If he flies to the side he finds himself either ankle-deep in sand, or jolting over grass intersected by continual grips. It’s certain place of torment is paved, as we are told, with good intentions, depend upon it cyclists are punished by having to ride there. However, every road has its turning and our last turning brings us to the similar banks of the Oise, crowned by the town of Compiegne. Alas! Its glory is departed. We had been told that it was the season at Compiegne, that it was the beautiful moment that strangers would be found both there and at Pierrefonds. We saw nothing but commis-voyageurs, who abound everywhere. We expected to find a Capua in Compiegne, but there was no theatre, no concert, nothing but the crowded cafe and the eternal billiard. Still, Compiegne is well worth a visit. The castle of Pierrefonds, restored at a vast expense by Napoleon III., is a splendid specimen of the later feudal castle which combined strength and magnificence in their fullest proportions. An essay of M. Viollet-le-Duc teaches us to observe how the donjon, the living rooms of the castellan, were carefully isolated from the rest of the building; and how security was gained by an elaborate network of passages well known to those within, but difficult to be traced by those without. The fortress was so well constructed that it could be held in ordinary times by a garrison of fifty men. The long vaulted chamber which lies under the great hall could afford place for five hundred mercenaries who were admitted in time of need. It is a mark of the manners of the time to see that they were treated with the strongest suspicion, were allowed access to no part of the castle except the room in which they lived, while along the side of it ran a gallery paced by trusty guards who could fire on the defenceless mercenaries if they attempted an act of disobedience. The restoration of Pierrefonds was not a whim of boastful extravagance, but a work of national importance, and the Republic still continues parsimoniously what the Empire had begun.

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