The Weekly Machen
Arthur Machen was no stranger to the art of wandering. His youthful journeys in Wales were well-documented in his first volume of memoirs, Far Off Things (1922); while later treks though the wilderness of the Great City finds testimony in the third volume, The London Adventure (1924). Below, we find our guide with pipe in hand, charting an unknown region, the Land of Summer. When accompanying Machen, it seems that no matter the itinerary, we arrive in Avalon.
My Wandering Week:
Part I – Record of a Pilgrimage Far and Wide
July 25, 1913
In the following article–the first of a series–Mr. Arthur Machen begins his account of a wandering week. On behalf of “The Evening News” Mr. Machen set out from London with no fixed point for his destination. He was to go whither the happy chance might lead him, and tell his experiences for the entertainment of the readers of “The Evening News.” As will be seen, he struck the Isle of Avalon, with its glorious memories of King Arthur and his knights.
Yesterday I shuddered and shivered under a black sky in London, as a bitter and austere wind drove fiercely, crudely, rudely along the gloomy streets, scourging the bodies and the souls of the passers-by: to-day I am in a glow and blaze of sunlight, under a vault of pure, and resplendent blue.
No; I have not gone to Touraine or to Provence or to the cities by the violet Mediterranean Sea. I am in Wells, and it happened as follows.
I have described London as I found it only yesterday. It seemed wholly intolerable, and I was ordered to go away, to leave the grey town of the accursed wind, to find peace and sunshine or whatever I would have anywhere, so that it was not London.
NOT A “HOLIDAY.”
It was not to be a holiday in the usual sense of the word. Holidays are fixed things, foreordained, and prearranged. You know where you are going, why you are going, and, very likely, what dishes the landlady cooks to best advantage. A holiday is an affair of the known; my trip–or whatever you like to call it–was to be an adventure of the unknown and unsurmised. Philosophically considered, the holiday-maker is a creature of the logical understanding; but I was to sally forth and get me gone to the region of Anywhere, a creature of the pure imagination.
TOWARDS THE WEST.
Now remark the process. I am of the Celtic fringe, and the Celt, like the very best society, always moves westward, if you leave him to himself. I have explored some sweet spots in Essex; but of my own will I should never go out of London by the way of Whitechapel. The North? I know that there is wild and beautiful country there; but I can never forgive Hetton-le-Hole. And as for the South, my whim makes me think of Hove and I cannot abide it.
West it had to be, then, but what quarter? Well, I hoped to find summer; so why not Somerset. And here–for I hate a pun–I would say that the Welsh used to call Somerset Gwlad yr Haf, which means land of a summer; so if there be a pun in question concerning the territory Sumorsætas, it is not of my making.
OFF TO WELLS.
I pondered as to what special quarter of the country I should visit. A memory–thirty-five years old–of clear running streams, of chiming bells, and of a grey carven house decided me; and at Paddington I took a ticket a Wells.
The Great Western (being the line that leads to the west) is naturally the best line in the world. A train raced away with tremendous speed, it fled past the gay towns on the river, delayed a moment at Reading, and was away before one knew it in a valley land between rolling bare downs. There was scarcely time to make out the great White Horses cut into the chalk; we flashed and thundered by till we ran into Westbury-on-Avon.
And, soon after, ceasing to have any part in main-line expresses, and having come into lands remote from noise and hurry and carking cares, the train adapting itself with rare tact to the genius of the place, strolled peacefully, and delayed in little stations. Whereat irate old ladies, foolishly impatient, put their heads out of carriage windows and scolded the guard bitterly.
FIERCE OLD LADIES.
But in this county the old ladies are fierce. I was the witness of an attempt made by one of them to cow and coerce a dignified ecclesiastic, either bishop or archdeacon by his legs and his apron and his hat, so that he should cease from smoking a cigarette in a non-smoking carriage. I did not see the end; but I hope the old lady was excommunicated.
We were getting near Wells, and suddenly I became aware that chance and memory had served me very well. The sullen clouds had long rolled away; the sky was all a happy blue, with here and there a white fleece drifting slowly across the azure. The sun shone mellow and golden, and to the right a wonderful land appeared; a wide, fair valley land, green with many trees, with sweet, deep pastures, with thickets of the wood. It was just such a land as one may see as the background of an old painting, in the miniatures of an illuminated Book of Hours; one dreams, if one is lucky, that one travels in just such a valley.
ISLE OF AVALON.
Glastonbury Tor; Photo by Eugene Birchall
And from the very midst of it there surged up a steep, solitary height; not a hill, but a tor, with a tall tower on its loftiest point; it was clearly a holy place, no mere hill or height, but the chosen symbol of a great and mystical adventure. It was Glastonbury Tor that rises above the Isle of Avalon, where, as some books say, King Arthur waits till he be healed of his wound, when he shall come forth to deliver us from all our ills.
When we got to Wells I made my way, on good advice, to the Swan, and here I may say that if there be any so lost as not to be wholly enchanted with ancient walls full four foot thick, with quiet comfort, real strawberry jam, and rough-hewn beams in the ceiling–well they may go to the Hôtel Glorient or the Hôtel Splendide for me; I can utter no wish more deadly nor more malignant.
And this settled, I went out with those old memories upon me, and was slowly drawn by quiet paths to the cathedral.
But the sunlight! I could scarce believe that the same island contained London and Wells. The sun shone a rich gold on the walls of the old houses, it warmed the very bones, as the sun of Touraine warms them; and as people told me, they had been having very nice weather for a long time.
I passed under the grey mediæval gateway; so venerable and ecclesiastical a piece of craftsmanship that I took my pipe out of my mouth, thinking that I must be treading on holy ground.
But there was no need of such excess of reverence. Before me stretched a broad walk, shaded by ancient elms on one side, and bordered on the other by a broad, still water. And beyond this water a battle-mented wall, ivied, overshadowed with greenery; and the sound of pouring, bubbling water came to my ears.
The wall and the moat are four-square about the bishop’s Palace; and to-morrow I hope to tell more of these matters and of the cathedral, that is of splendour and majesty and beauty.
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