So they approached the spot, and, after much labour to get at the well, drank of the water, which had a brackish taste, and proceeded on their journey southward through Kirtlington, then a considerable city, although now a small village. It was their intention to pass by the cathedral city of Dorchester, where Wulfstan was then bishop, where they arrived on the second night of their journey.
It was the largest city Elfric had as yet seen, possessing several churches, of which only one now remains. The hand of the ruthless Danes had not yet been laid heavily upon it, and the magnificence of the sacred fanes, built by cunning architects from abroad, amazed the Mercian boy.
There was the tomb of the great Birinus, the apostle of Mercia, who had founded the see in the year 630 A.D., and to whose shrine multitudes of pilgrims flocked each year. But the remains of Roman greatness most astonished Elfric. The ruins of the amphitheatre situate near the river Tame were grand even in their decay, and all the imaginative faculties of the boy were aroused, as one of the most learned inhabitants described the scenes of former days, of which tradition had been preserved, the gladiatorial combats, the wild beast fights.
The heir of Aescendune found hospitality at the episcopal palace, where Wulfstan,[vii] once the turbulent Archbishop of York, held his court. The prelate seemed favourably impressed with his youthful guest, whom he dismissed with a warm commendation to Dunstan.
They left the city early in the morning, and passed through Baenesington (Benson), which having been originally taken from the Welsh by the Saxon chieftain Cuthulf, in the year 571, became the scene of the great victory of Offa, the Mercian king, over Cynewulf of Wessex in the year 777. One of Elfric’s ancestors had fought on the side of Offa, and the exploits of this doughty warrior had formed the subject of a ballad often sung in the winter evenings at Aescendune, so that Elfric explored the scene with great curiosity. Inferior to Dorchester, it was still a considerable town.
Late at night they reached Reading, where they slept, and started early on the morrow for London, where they arrived on the evening of the fourth day.
London, in the days of King Edred, differed widely from the stately and populous city we know in these days, and almost as widely from the elegant “Colonia Augusta,” or Londinium, of the Roman period. Narrow, crooked, and unpaved lanes wound between houses, or rather lowly cottages, built of timber, and roofed with thatch, so that it is not wonderful that a conflagration was an event to be dreaded.
Evidence met the eye on every side how utterly the first Englishmen had failed to preserve the cities they had conquered, and how far inferior they were in cultivation, or rather civilisation, to the softer race they had so ruthlessly expelled; for on every side broken pedestal and shattered column appeared clumsily imbedded in the rude domestic architecture of our forefathers.