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IF there be one thing more than another in the nice balance of tastes and prejudices (for I do not speak here of principles) which inclines us now to the elegance of Charles, now to the strength of Cromwell --which disgusts us alternately with the license of the Cavaliers and the fanaticism of the Roundheads; it would be the melancholy ruins of cast-down castles and plundered shrines, that meet our eyes all over our fair land, and nowhere in greater profusion than in this district, lying as it does in the very midst of some of the most celebrated battles of the Civil Wars. To say nothing of the siege of Reading, which more even than the vandalism of the Reformation completed the destruction of that noble abbey, the third in rank and size in England, with its magnificent church, its cloisters, and its halls, covering thirty acres. of buildings—and such buildings! within the outer courts;-to say nothing of that most reckless bar
barity just at our door-we in our little village of Aberleigh lie between Basing-House to the south, whose desperately defended walls offer little more now than a mere site-and Donnington to the west, where the ruined gate-towers upon the hill alone remain of that strong fortress, which overlooked the well-contested field of Newbury-and Chalgrove to the north, where the reaper as he binds his sheaf, still pauses to tell you the very place where Hampden fell. Every spot has its history! Look at a wooden spire, and your companion shakes his head, and says that it has been so ever since the Cavaliers were blown up in the church-tower! Ask the history of a crumbling wall, and the answer is pretty sure to be, Cromwell! That his Highness the Lord Protector did leave what an accomplished friend of mine calls "his peculiar impressions" upon a great many places in our neighbourhood is certain; on so many, that there is no actual or authentic catalogue of all; and in some cases there is nothing but general tradition, and the nature of the "impressions" in question, to vouch for the fact of their destruction at that period.
Amongst these, one of the edifices that must have been best worth preserving, and is even now most interesting to see, is the grand old castellated mansion, which in the reign of Elizabeth belonged to one of her favourite courtiers, and was known as Master Comptroller's House, at Grays.
The very road to it is singularly interesting. Passing through the town, which increases in growth every day until one wonders when and where it will stop, and looking with ever-fresh admiration at the beautiful lace-work window of the old Friary, which I
long to see preserved in the fitliest manner, by forming again the chief ornament of a church, and then driving under the arch of the Great Western Railway, and feeling the strange vibration of some monster train passing over our heads-a proceeding which never fails to make my pony show off his choicest airs and graces, pricking up his pretty ears, tossing his slender head, dancing upon four feet, and sometimes rearing upon two-we arrive at the long, low, picturesque old bridge, the oldest of all the bridges that cross the Thames, so narrow that no two vehicles can pass at once, and that over every pier triangular spaces have been devised for the safety of footpassengers. On the centre arch is a fisherman's hut, occupying the place once filled by a friar's cell, and covering a still existing chapel, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, now put to secular uses-a dairy or a cellar.
A little way down the river is one of the beautiful islands of the Thames, now a smooth and verdant meadow, edged round with old willow pollards calmly reflected in the bright, clear waters, but giving back in the twelfth century a far different scene. Here was fought a wager of battle between Robert de Montford, appellant, and Henry de Essex, hereditary Standardbearer of the Kings of England, defendant, by command, and in the presence of Henry the Second. The story is told very minutely and graphically by Stowe. Robert de Montford at length struck down his adversary, "who fell," says the old historian, "after receiving many wounds; and the King, at the request of several noblemen, his relations, gave permission to the monks to inter the body, commanding that no
further violence should be offered to it. The monks took up the vanquished knight, and carried him into the abbey, where he revived. When he recovered from his wounds, he was received into the community, and assumed the habit of the order, his lands being forfeited to the King." I have always thought that this story would afford excellent scope to some great novelist, who might give a fair and accurate picture of monastic life, and, indeed, of the monastic orders, as landlords, neighbours, teachers, priests, without any mixture of controversial theology, or inventing any predecessors of Luther or Wicliffe. How we should have liked to have heard all about "The Monastery," about the "Abbot," and Father Eustace, untroubled by Henry Warden or John Knox! From the moment that they appear, our comfort in the book vanishes, just as completely as that of the good easy Abbot Boniface himself. There we are in the middle of vexed questions, with the beautiful pile of Melrose threatening every moment to fall about our ears!
Our business now, however, is to get over the bridge, which after the excitement of one dispute with a pugnacious carrier, and another with a saucy groom, whose caracoling horse had wellnigh leaped over the parapets on either side; after some backing of other carriages, and some danger of being forced to back our own, we at last achieve, and enter unscathed, the pleasant village of Caversham.
To the left, through a highly-ornamented lodge, lies the road to the ancient seat of the Blounts, a house made famous by Pope, where the fair ladies of his love, the sisters Martha and Teresa, lived and