London: A Pilgrimage


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CHAPTER XII - LONDON, UNDER GREEN LEAVES

Surely, the most obstinate and prejudiced traducer of London must admit that the Cockney is well provided with greenery. The picturesqueness of the St. James's and Regent's Parks, and of Kensington Gardens, is not to be matched by any capital with which I am familiar, or of which I have heard. In these open places there are sylvan recesses and sylvan views, that carry the mind and heart hundreds of miles from the noise and dirt of Cheap-side. The scene which my fellow-pilgrim drew, lying upon the grass in the Regent's Park, one summer afternoon, would suggest a view cut out of the bosom of the Royal county-but for the peopling of it by nursery-maids, children, idlers, and the inevitable Life-Guardsman. There are corners in Kensington Gardens, and there is timber there, not surpassed by all the wealth in beauty of Windsor. Nay, in some of our London, squares-in Lincoln's Inn Fields, for instance, which is barbarously fenced off from the Londoner's tread-there are scenes ready to the landscape-painter's hand.

London under green leaves presents, in short, to the foreigner, a constant source of wonder and delight.

Then, again, the suburbs of London are renowned, wherever travelled people abide, for their rich and rare natural beauties. The sylvan glories of the English home counties have attracted all who, having business in London, can afford to escape well away from the sound of Bow Bells (sound that many a Cockney never heard) and enjoy a sleep within sight of the buttercups. Having finished our labours for the day among all classes, and shades of classes, of the metropolis, and had more than our share of fog and smoke we have often hied to the outskirts. In this way, bit by bit, we have made a journey round the world of London:-watching the great city, upon the ruins of which Lord Macaulay's New Zealander is to gaze, from every height; from Muswell Hill on the north and Sydenham on the south-from Highgate and Hampstead, and, lastly, from the hill Of Richmond.

The general view of London in the time of Charles the Second, that Macaulay has included in the famous third chapter of his history; and which was the result of laborious days in the British Museum, and a vast stretch of reading through obscure pamphlets and correspondence is of the kind we contemplated-only of the London that was living and toiling under our eyes. "Whoever examines the maps of London," Macaulay writes, "which were published towards the close of the reign of Charles the Second, will see that only the nucleus of the present capital then existed. The town did not, as now, fade by imperceptible degrees into the country. No long avenues of villas, embowered in lilacs and laburnums, extended from the great centre of wealth and civilisation almost to the boundaries of Middlesex, and far into the heart of Kent and Surrey. In the east, no part of the immense line of warehouses and artificial lakes which now stretches from the Tower to Blackwall, had even been projected. On the west, scarcely one of those stately piles of building which are inhabited by the noble and wealthy was in existence; and Chelsea, which is now peopled by more than forty thousand human beings, was a quiet country village with about a thousand inhabitants. On the north, cattle fed, and sportsmen wandered with dogs and guns, over the site of the borough of Marylebone, and over far the greater part of the space now covered by the boroughs of Finsbury and of the Tower Hamlets.

Islington was almost a solitude; and poets loved to contrast its silence and. repose with the din and turmoil of the monster London. On the south, the capital is now connected with its suburb by several bridges, not inferior in magnificence and solidity to the noblest works of the Cæsars. In 1685, a single line of irregular arches, overhung by piles of mean and crazy houses, and garnished, after a fashion worthy of the naked barbarians of Dahomey, with scores of mouldering heads, impeded the navigation of the river."

The face of the historian is familiar to most of us. Many of us have heard his voice in the Senate: the chosen few have been charmed with his ripe, full talk in the study and at the breakfast-table. And yet his contrasts, between his present and the days of Charles the Second, suggest a further contrast-almost as startling as his own. The ducks are fed in the St. James's Park from an iron suspension bridge. The underground railway from Paddington to the City; the Thames Embankment; the Holborn Viaduct; the new Bridges at Westminster and Blackfriars; the broad streets skirted with palatial offices which have been driven through the City, opening up the east and west traffic; the railway through Brunel's Thames Tunnel; and lastly, the extraordinary network of the metropolitan railway system that brings the locomotive almost to every man's door; are salient points of a London that would be as strange to the spirit of the historian, could he stir from his cerements to look upon it, as the London of Charles the Second's time appears to all of us, under the magic touches of his vivifying pen. When Macaulay wrought the third chapter of his history, men had not dreamed that they would ever pass under London from the Great Western to the heart of the City; nor that a merchant from his counting house would be able to talk with New York and Calcutta. The New York gossip of yesterday, is ours upon our breakfast table. We can almost hear the hum of Wall Street.

If externals are for ever changing, however, in this London which has few venerable aspects because of the energy of the race that dwells within it, the citizens themselves are modified by slow degrees: and it is with these, chiefly, that we have dealt. They are nowhere to be studied to greater advantage than upon the broad green spots which are the glory of London; and for which the Londoner would fight more ferociously than for any other right or privilege whatever.

In the St. James's Park, betimes in Spring and Summer, are to be found men, women, and children of all degrees, bowered in abundant greenery. The veriest Tom Allalone is to be seen furtively angling sticklebacks, and dodging the park keepers from point to point. The nurses are in groups airing children as fresh as the roses nodding in the shrubberies; and legislators and ladies are of the mixed party. We pass over the shoulder of the Green Park to Hyde Park and the Ride; and here are only the gently born and gently nurtured, driving the heat and faintness of the ball-room out, by spirited canters through a grove of such green leaves as only our well-abused English climate can produce.

Hyde Park at the height of the season; Hyde Park on an afternoon when the Four-in-Hand Club is out in full force, is the best picture we can present to the stranger, of the pride and wealth, the blood and bearing, the comeliness, beauty, and metal of Old England.

In the park are the grand head-quarters of fashion that are not to be matched for stateliness, variety, and natural beauty; and where all the loveliness seen on drawing-room nights at the Opera, is to be met betimes gathering fresh roses amid the greenery.