I thought, to be different I’d offer another of my father’s epic poems for you, interspersed with some pictures from Crystal Palace Park. There’s no obvious link, just I rather enjoy both.
The Old Road
(A Tale Of The New Forest)
It is said that civilisation is only a thin veneer,
And just a crack in the surface can uncover a well of fear,
A morass of superstition, where reason is put to rout,
And comfortable, clear convictions degenerate into doubt.
Four of us boarded the local stage at the ‘Angel’ in Lymington Town,
With Coachman John that made five souls, all of us Ringwood bound,
And the cheerful chatter and bustle as the coach prepared to leave,
Was enriched by a note of revelry, for was this not New Year’s Eve?
In the Year of Our Lord 1815, a time of England’s might,
When Wellington, at Waterloo, had shown how Englishmen fight,
And healed, with that great victory, the nation’s running sore,
By bringing peace to the people, after weary years of war.
No Christmastide had ever seen more wassail and goodwill,
And the poorest in the parishes for once had fed their fill,
For the Mayor himself had made it known that joy should come to all,
And even the Frenchy prisoners had danced at the Yuletide Ball.
But that day we four good citizens, merchants of some renown,
Were travelling to Ringwood, to dine that night at the ‘Crown’,
Meanwhile, to keep out the bitter cold, we had cracked a bottle or two,
While Coachman John had supped right well on the ‘Angel’s’ famed home brew.
‘Come, gentlemen all,’ called Coachman John, ‘tis time for us to go,’
‘The wind has turned, it’s due nor’east, and I don’t doubt it will snow.’
We hurried then, though we were loath to leave the fireside bright,
For we were aware that the Forest was no place to be snowbound at night.
Though John had a brace of pistols and each of us wore a sword
And none of us was a coward, yet we knew there roamed abroad
Desperate and dangerous rogues, vagabonds, thieves – and worse,
Who would slit the throat of an honest man for the guineas in his purse.
The wind, as we hastened across the yard, was razor-sharp and raw,
And its icy fingers froze the flesh through the thick coats that we wore.
The coach-springs squeaked as we climbed aboard and huddled in our seats,
With blankets wrapped around us and hot bricks at hands and feet.
John swiftly mounted the driving-box, felt the bite of the wind and swore.
Then grinned at a buxom serving-wench, ‘You’d keep me warm for sure!’
The ostlers let go the horses’ heads and the coach, with a jolt and a lurch,
Moved forward though the ‘Angel’s’ arch and swung right towards the church.
Through the town we drove at spanking pace and soon we could espy
The high, bare mounds of Buckland Rings, stark against the sky,
While lower down the great reed beds stood drowning in the flood
Which well-nigh every winter makes our water-meadows mud.
I looked at my companions, men I’d known all my life,
The Manson brothers, Paul and Hugh, whose sister was my wife,
And whose good Forest timber, oaken planking from their yard,
Was part of every man-o’-war launched from Buckler’s Hard.
Beside me, Martin Johnson, late of the Fusiliers,
Who had gallantly campaigned, unscathed, for nearly fifteen years,
‘Til the sabre of a French Hussar, south of Salamanca,
Had sent him home and changed his rank, from brigadier to banker.
But the wine we’d drunk in our merry mood was strong, and talk soon lagged,
And eyelids drooped as the coach rolled on, and on four chests four chins sagged,
And none of us noticed the first snowflakes, soft and white as they swirled,
For as John pulled out onto Setley Plain we were sleeping, and dead to the world.
How long I slept I cannot say – I awoke with a violent start,
And the certainty that something was wrong, and a pounding in my heart,
While all around was a curious light, a strangely luminous glow,
Which revealed my three companions and, dim, through the window, snow.
Martin Johnson and the Mansons lay sprawled out, still fast asleep,
And it seemed to me uncanny that their slumber should be so deep
For surely what had awakened me should have aroused them, too,
And I shouted as I shook each one, ‘Wake up, Martin, Paul, Hugh!’
There was no response, I thought they were dead – then I saw, thank God, I was wrong,
By the regular movement of each man’s chest as he breathed steady and strong,
But their features were still and lifeless, as though carved out of stone,
And I knew that whatever lay ahead I would have to face alone.
I climbed from the coach into a world snowbound, silent and still,
The weird light illuminated all, and I recognised Wilverley Hill,
Across the valley Wooton sloped, and I knew, though I peered in vain,
That far ahead the turnpike ran, in the shadow of Goatspen Plain.
As a boy I’d explored this countryside on my Forest pony’s back,
I’d forded the streams and skirted the bogs and climbed every hill and track,
I’d known where the otter took his trout, and the honey buzzard flew,
I’d seen badger cubs playing by moonlight and followed the fox through the dew.
I’d walked in the deep inclosures by the charcoal-burners hut,
And, on quiet October evenings, heard the red deer roar at rut,
I’d skated over Hatchett Pond, and laughed as the summer rain
Spangled the hair of the gipsy maid who I’d kissed on Red Shoot Plain.
I’d welcomed the wild December gales when they raged in from the sea,
And watched the great oaks writhe and twist and bow to their mastery,
I loved this Forest in all its moods, and I’d leaned its secret ways,
And it had been playground and schoolroom since my earliest childhood days.
But the Forest this night, as I stood alone, was an awful, alien place,
With features entirely familiar – but wearing no friendly face,
But breathing a brooding menace, an evil malignant air,
And I felt a numbing helplessness, like a rabbit in a snare.
I looked up at Coachman John, that big man, bluff and brave,
And I saw how he sat on his driving-box, like a statue over a grave,
Shoulders hunched in a caped topcoat, tricorne rammed low on his head,
While this thick-gloved hand held the reins to horses as still as the dead.
Frightened, alone, in that frozen world, above all I craved human speech,
When the silence was violently ripped apart by an eldritch screech
Shocked, I staggered against the coach while beneath my feet the ground
Shook and trembled and rumbled – then again that unearthly sound.
I saw a huge black form rush by, belching fire and smoke,
The stench was foul and sulphurous and I thought that I would choke,
But though I smelt its acrid breath, I even then knew well
That this was not some demon, or fiery hound from Hell.
No pale apparition this, sad fruit of an unhinged mind,
But something hard and tangible which was drawing close behind
Several great wheeled boxes, each one filled with light,
And thundering by in line, almost snakelike in the night.
With senses reeling I half fell, my body could stand no more,
And stumbling to the coach I clambered back in through the door,
I was drained of any courage, trembling weakly, and I wept,
I collapsed back in my seat, closed my aching eyes, and slept.
Then I heard Martin’s laughter and saw him pretend to frown,
‘Come, wake up, you old rogue, we are nearing Ringwood Town!’
‘And tell us, pray, what was your dream while you slumbered long and deep?’
‘For you have kept us all awake, muttering in your sleep!’
But how could I answer his question? And who, indeed, would believe
Such an unlikely take – especially on New Year’s Eve?
But I know something happened out there in that curious light,
And I see it all as clear today as I did on that far-off night.
I’ve made that journey many times, and always I tense in my seat
As we reach the place, and I live it again, and feel my heart miss a beat,
And you ask why a sensible man like me trembles with foolish fear?
Well, they say common sense, like civilisation is only a thin veneer!
Historical note: The Southampton and Dorchester railway (now long defunct) opened in 1847, some thirty-two years after the above events occurred, and the track across the New Forest is believed by some to have followed part of the old Lymington to Ringwood stagecoach road.