Skip to main content

Oxford to Wantage

ISSUE:  Winter 1929

My stay in England would be over in two days, and I had not seen Wantage. The very sound of the gracious Saxon syllables had allured me all that Oxford summer. Wantage! Birthplace of King Alfred, when Oxford was but an oxen ford! Incredible, yet inescapable, that power of the past which clings like a living thing to the towns and downs that I had been knowing. Not even the daily sight of the ancient names on the motor busses had power to break the spell. I would wait no longer for Wantage, though it was afternoon, and a heavy, Oxford rain was falling. Eagerly I started for my outer things. Then I paused. This was England, not America. There were times and seasons and oracles to be consulted, chief among them, “Bacon’s Oxford ABC.”

I hastily found the page. Oxford and Wantage. I had it. “Wantage Early Closing, Thursday. Market Wednesday.” But this was Friday! O, well, that made no difference. Markets concerned only morning busses. Two busses in the afternoon, one already gone, the other, last of the day, five-fifty. Arrive at Oxford again after nine. Wretched service! We could show them a few American ways! I looked hesitantly out of my window across the garden, where purple clematis, sodden in the wet, hung heavily on the wall. Between the window and Magdalen Tower the rain was falling in steady perpendicular. But I would go! I would wear my, detested old serge and the ugly black felt. No one would know me and no one would care.

To be sure it meant missing dinner. I would be away when they served the mutton and cabbage and boiled potatoes, and that acid “sweet,” unsunned green gages stewed, and garnished with junket. I would miss it, but it would make no difference.

I must hurry that I might still use the afternoon; a final browse in Blackwell’s, a bit of last-minute shopping in the Cornmarket, perhaps tea at the Old Ship, and I would be ready for the five-fifty. If it poured too hard, I could wait at the crowded little bus office near the “top” of the High.

I was there at five-fifty, patiently ready. I had noted with satisfaction that the rain had lessened; then with gathering dismay that the bus was late, and later. When at last it appeared, it slowly, but firmly—trundled past without stopping! A hurried question and answer. O, that bus stopped away around the corner by the Town Hall. It was gone! But not yet. Automatically, from long practice in Boston, I ran in and out and around the groups crowded on the narrow sidewalk and gained the step just as the vehicle lurched forward.

“Bus for Wantage?” I asked breathlessly.

“Yes, and you very near missed it!” replied the conductor with something between concern and reproach. It was plain that missing the bus for Wantage was no light matter, that is, if it was necessary for one to go, as it properly should be. Would any sane person ride all the way to Wantage on a wet evening, merely for the sake of turning around and coming back? When I asked for my return ticket, he knew my rashness and eyed me narrowly.

“You’ll have to come back with us,” he warned. “Ticket’s only good to-night.” His disapproval was more dampening than the rain.

The bus was almost full, but I found an empty seat. The other passengers were going home, though not from work, at least not from daily, work; just the occasional business of shopping or visiting in Oxford town. Nearly every lap contained one of the excellent straw bags with which our own house of Woolworth supplies all England at the modest sum of threepence each, and which no one in that land of kings and coronets is too aristocratic to carry. Every bag was stuffed full, and all the interstices between bags and knobby parcels occupied with huge, wet umbrellas.

We were just getting on our way when we stopped again, suddenly; this time to take on little Tow Head. She mounted the bus alone, while her father stood on the sidewalk and paid her fare.

“Leave her at the Bear, George,” he called to our driver.

“Anybody coming to meet her?” shouted George.

“No, she’s all right. Knows the way to her aunt’s.”

George nodded and found the gas. Tow Head decided to sit by me, and I let her slip past to the seat by the window. With a smile of shy gratitude, she opened a paper bag, which she had tightly clutched in her left hand, and offered it. There were red and white candies, rather moist, half a dozen great pennies mixed with half pennies, and a little gray ball of a handkerchief.

I was absurdly pleased by her favor. I forgot the conductor and suddenly recovered my good spirits. Perhaps she thought I was English! The welcome which Oxford usually extends to the stranger may be called dignified rather than warm. Yes, it must be so! My skin is reasonably clear, and for one day at least I was dressed with English regard for weather. In my elation at her friendliness I examined my fellow passengers with new pleasure.

Across the aisle sat an athletic girl in a brown rain coat with boyish hat to match. She had a peach-bloom complexion, and even the little of her hair that showed lighted up the interior of the bus like sunshine. She had been having her racquet mended in Oxford and was examining it with a critical eye. Altogether she was of the sort who make the rouge and lipstick variety look like hopeless imitation. As I watched her, she laid aside her racquet and released the window at her side, letting in the sweet, clearing atmosphere with a rush; whereupon a lad in front opened a window. I drew a long breath and knew that I was going to have a good ride.

We were now out on the Abingdon Road. An automobile, small and bespattered, which had come close upon our right rear, began uttering tentative little toots. Subconsciously, from American habit I suppose, I waited to see George crowd the presumer over and keep him back as long as possible. On the contrary, however, George leaned far out to see if the narrow road ahead was clear, and then, waving back cheery assurance, let the little car speed gratefully past. Perhaps it was quite as well, for we had to stop anyway. Three passengers alighted, relieving the congestion of parcels and people.

A tall, stout woman entered. Her feather-trimmed hat, reminiscent of 1890, rested high above rolls of iron gray hair. Large, work-worn hands protruded conspicuously below the tight sleeves of her rusty black coat, and she had fixedly red cheeks, which on nearer view were seen to be the result of a close network of enlarged capillaries. She breathed heavily as she sat down beside Miss Tennis, but she was not too exhausted to notice at once the open window.

“Would yu close it?” said she to her seat mate. “Hi don’t like the hair on a person’s joints. Hi don’t mind it hall around, but a draught’s not good for hanybody.”

Miss Tennis quickly closed her window, and the lad in front closed his.

We were climbing the Hinksey slope. The road passed between tall hedges of thorn and holly, made a turn near Boar’s Hill and ran for a while by tall evergreens and through depths of dripping shade. Then later, between villages, we saw orchards and golden stretches of ripe wheat, with the rolling miles of Berkshire downs lying misty in the distance. And now—joy of joys!—the sun was shining, with the tender beauty of an English evening that follows hours of cloud and rain. Through the blue that had broken and widened, the rays slanted across the whole landscape—field and broad oak, thatched cottage and rainbow garden, every tiniest leaf and blade suffused with a golden-edged glory; while the clouds, which had lowered, became lifted by some magic of closing day into shining dreams of white and silver.

“It’s fine now!” announced somebody’s grandmother, vigorously shaking her wet umbrella, and we all agreed.

We passed from town to town, effecting homecomings all the way. The people, who had shopped in Oxford, were left at cottages or at ends of lanes; while passengers were picked up at ends of lanes or at cottages and carried to other villages. I had forgotten that anywhere in the world people “spent the day” any more; but here they were, rosy cheeked young mothers saying good-bye through the bus windows to aunts and cousins, fat infants in the bus waving da-das to fat infants in weather-proof perambulators outside, a curate with a bicycle parting from an old man. It was plain that there is time somewhere for these important social matters, even if America is busy.

Lovable little houses, surrounded by flowers, received the homecomers or sent the visitors forth warmed with hospitality. Thatch was everywhere; above brick hung with ivy, above gray stone lighted with scarlet geraniums, over creamy plaster and broad timbering against which yellow roses climbed to nod heavily at open casements. Something efficiently American recalled that there were no screens to ward off flies, that uneven stone flooring turns the ankle and invites rheumatism; but something centuries older than the United States knew that the English thatches shelter the inmost heart of home, while beside them tower trees which were beloved before the Mayflower set sail.

We passed more and more wheat, some tied into sheaves; then a few turns, a long straight stretch, and we were coming into Wantage. We drew up at our appointed spot in the market place.

Does any arrival quite fulfil expectation? This was Wantage, a neat little picture-book town in the clear light of early evening, with a butcher, a baker, an “ironmonger,” a shoe shop, a Bear Inn, and, beyond the end of the square, a fourteenth century church. And there in the middle of the market place was King Alfred himself, a rugged figure standing appropriately on a boulder, which, like the country that he dominated, was rude and half formed.

Tow Head and I alighted and crossed the square, she to go to her aunt’s house, I conspicuously and lonesomely to read the inscription on Alfred’s boulder. Nearly eighty years ago they had celebrated his thousandth anniversary. I read down to the very last word, reluctantly absorbing the meaning. The thousand years were as the eighty, and both as a day. King Alfred was a go-getter! A typical American! If the inscription was true, we have hundreds of him, a whole country full! It was all exactly like what a congressman says of himself when he seeks re-election. Romance suddenly skipped across the market place to the Bear Inn. . . . Though I have seen a score of Bear Inns and two score Angels and White Harts, they forever keep their glamour; while in a separate, enchanted spot, which I shall seek to spend my dotage, stands the Inn of the Quiet Woman!

Well, there would be time to glance at the church. In my reaction against Alfred, I indulged in some resentment toward the peaceful green graves in the churchyard. Lugubrious, the custom of always associating religion with death and corruption, building, doubtless, incurably doleful ideas in the minds of little children! And yet—and yet, it might barely be possible that children who have grown up with friendly graves may unconsciously, acquire a steadying, rational view of the ongoing of human life. On my way to Wantage I had seen no middle-aged English women madly rushing around in knee-length skirts and vainly endeavoring to hide their forties and fifties beneath misapplied cosmetics.

But my minutes in Wantage were nearly over. It was time to be hastening back to the bus, which was waiting near the shoe shop. I fancied that both George and the conductor looked relieved when I appeared. Seats were filling with passengers, most of whom the two seemed to know.

As we started, I realized that we had the sister of Sir Toby Belch aboard. She was comfortably fat, with bright red hair, and, when a little in her cups, as now, a free tongue.

“There’s another lydy comin’!” she called in alarm when we jerked off. George slowed.

“Where?” said he, looking about.

“I don’t see her yet,” said his informer, “but she said she was comin’!”

“Can’t wait,” said George brusquely. “What about the others? Can’t you see it’s fifteen to one?” We were off for good.

We reached the broad, straight level at the edge of town, when George yielded to sudden temptation and began to show us what the old bus really could do.

“Hi, Jarge!” shrieked Mistress Belch, above the rattle and rumble. “We’re not all goin’ to be merried!” Amid general laughter, George brought us back to our accustomed trundle.

When we slowed further near Steventon, Sir Toby’s sister opened a window, and, leaning far out until I was certain she had lost her balance, directed piercing inquiry toward a cottage two hundred feet away.

“How’s the by-y-y-by?” The call must have reached intended ears, for, with a satisfied wave of the hand, she released the spring that slammed the glass shut.

Passengers were waiting at Steventon—an attractive couple. The man would have drawn attention anywhere by his splendid posture, an upstanding man in well-fitting sports clothes, perhaps in the early thirties. His companion, even to a hasty, observer, radiated the unmistakable fineness and simplicity of quality. He carried a large basket, and the two were laughing together; but when the bus stopped, she took the basket and gave him her free arm; and when he mounted he stumbled. As they came carefully, up the aisle, I was sure of it. He was blind, stone blind! O—How? But there was no need to ask. It was something at least that a good woman was devoting her life to being his eyes.

George waited until his passengers were entirely settled before he started on. Then a gay, vibrant, masculine voice filled the car.

“That you, George?”

“Yes, Major.”

“How are you to-night?”

“Fine, Major!”

“Good! George.”

Nothing much. Nothing at all, in fact; but for me a realization of heroisms greater than those of battle.

We were passing again the bronze-gold wheat fields. In the late-drawn twilight the whole air was rich with the opalescent west. And then, for a little time, I was aware of something strange. It seemed inexplicably as if I were transported to a hitherto unknown state, where I realized myself as part of a solidarity which I had never before so much as perceived, a comradeship in which each human soul knew his own appointed task and place and his necessity to the whole.

We were approaching Boar’s Hill once more. Near the top, before we descended to town and colleges, the blind major and his wife left us. I watched them after they were safely off. Firmly he resumed his basket. She might be his eyes, but no more of his arms than he could help! The last rays of the afterglow touched the hilltop with a brooding light, light of which war had forevermore robbed him; nor could he know, except in memory, the melting loveliness of the spreading western countryside for which he had suffered, now to be shut from my own view by the turn of the way. I recalled that I too shared in the profit of that sacrifice. Then I tried to put it all behind me and remembered that just over the brow of this very hill were poets: Bridges, over eighty years of age, true still to a clear spiritual vision and to the highest ideals of his art; Masefield, finding on Boar’s Hill that which New York could not give him; Drinkwater, who interpreted our own Lincoln to us. Perhaps one of these would transmute the beauty of this very evening, along with the infinitely greater beauty of brotherhood and sacrifice, into something of imperishable consolation to the hearts of men.

As we rolled down the hill, I was conscious of a great discontent with myself and certain of my fellow Americans. Like Satan we go to and fro in the earth, and we have travelled far from the purposes of our forefathers.

“Is Oxford to Wantage typical of England?” one may ask. Is anything typical of anything? It is certainly England at her oldest and perhaps at her truest; not indeed the England of courts and cities, but of villages, and of fields that have been sown and reaped for a thousand years. On the road to Wantage, though I am sure I missed the truth of King Alfred, I won perhaps a better thing for my Americanism, a new understanding of the Mayflower Compact.

We talk much in America about democracy and brotherhood. We point to the Mayflower Compact as a thing unique in the history of the world. I have become convinced that it is a thing unique only in the circumstances of its making; that it is only one expression of a spirit, the more profound because it is not talked about, that has been taken for granted by generations of country men and women of England.

For this I shall never forget. In disguise of shabby rain clothes, which concealed the flaunting nationalism that marks us all abroad and that generally throws a stultifying reserve on any English company, I had this beautiful experience. For three hours, among the shifting passengers of a public vehicle, I saw each individual further the well-being of every other. I saw every action of every person, carried or carrying, unconsciously reveal the Golden Rule as the unquestioned assumption of all. I have seen no similar thing on any system of public transportation at home in America, nor do I hope to live long enough to do so. Perhaps when our go-getting is farther behind us, when time has had a chance to weld us, we as a nation can better realize our own advertised aims. It is not that there is anything wrong with our ideals, which were bequeathed to us. The trouble is merely that we talk too loudly about them, while we do not live them.

The bus rolled along St. Aldate’s to Oxford Town Hall. Through the red curtains of an ancient house a light shone warmly. Tom Tower rose dim in the dusk. Somewhere chimes were musically ringing the quarter hour. I could barely see the street signs. “Nash and Hayward,” or “Heywood,” read one. I could not be sure; but it made no difference. Not Elizabethan dramatists, these two; just plain friends in business, as plain as the same names spread for nearly three centuries through the towns of America.

Oxford and Wantage! I have no suggestion for the improvement of your service!


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading