The American, speeding up to London from his landing either at Liverpool or Southampton, always exclaims on the gardenlike aspect, the deep, rich greenness of the landscape. It is not so much the specific evidences of cultivation, though those, of course, are plentifully present, but a general air of ripeness and order. Even the land not visible under cultivation suggests immemorial care and fertility. We feel that this land has been fought over and ploughed over, nibbled over by sheep, sown and reaped, planted and drained, walked over, hunted over, and very much beloved, for centuries. It is not fanciful to see in it a land to which its people have been stubbornly and tenderly devoted—still “Shakespeare’s England,” still his favoured “isle set in the silver sea.”
As seen from the railway-carriage window, one is struck, too, by the comparative tidiness of the English landscape. There are few loose ends, and the outskirts of villages are not those distressing dump-heaps which they too often are in America. Yet there is no excessive air of trimness. The order and grooming seem a part of nature’s processes. There is, too, a casual charm about the villages themselves, the graceful, accidental grouping of houses and gardens, which suggests growth rather than premeditation. The general harmony does not preclude, but rather comes of, the greatest variety of individual character.
Herein the English village strikingly differs from the typical New England village, where the charm comes of a prim uniformity, and individuality is made to give place to a general parking of lawns and shade-trees in rectangular blocks and avenues. A New England village suggests some large institution disposed in separate uniform buildings, placed on one level carpet of green, each with a definite number of trees, and the very sunlight portioned out into gleaming allotments. The effect gained is for me one of great charm—the charm of a vivid, exquisitely ordered, green silence, with a touch of monastic, or Quakerish, decorum. I would not have it otherwise, and I speak of it only to suggest by contrast the different, desultory charm of an old English village, where beauty has not been so much planned, as has just “occurred.”
Of course, this is the natural result of the long occupation of the land. Each century in succession has had a hand in shaping the countryside to its present aspect, and English history is literally a living visible part of English scenery. Here the thirteenth century has left a church, here the fourteenth a castle, here the sixteenth, with its suppression of the monasteries, a ruined abbey. Here is an inn where Chaucer’s pilgrims stopped on the way to Canterbury. Here, in a field covered over by a cow-shed, is a piece of tessellated pavement which was once the floor of an old country house occupied by one of Caesar’s generals.
Those strange grassy mounds breaking the soft sky-line of the rolling South Downs are the tombs of Saxon chieftains, that rubble of stones at the top of yonder hill was once a British camp, and those curious ridges terracing yonder green slope mark the trenches of some prehistoric battlefield. All these in the process of time have become part and parcel of the English countryside, as necessary to its “English” character as its trees and its wild flowers.