In autumn 1889, Arthur Quiller-Couch, 'Q', just back from his honeymoon at Torquay with his bride, Louisa Amelia Hicks, set off with Alfred Parsons, artist and illustrator, to collect material for a book on The Warwickshire Avon, of which F. Brittain in his biography of Q, writes 'The Warwickshire Avon is practically unknown to-day but contains a number of good things.'
P and Q, as they referred to themselves, were following in the footsteps of Samuel Ireland whose Picturesque Views on the Upper or Warwickshire Avon, was published in 1795. The phrase 'picturesque view' became something of a catchphrase for Parsons and Quiller-Couch during their trip, whenever they came upon a scene with sufficient attraction to 'induce' them (quoting Ireland) ' "to attempt a sketch of it as a picturesque view", and supply us with a sentence to be quoted a thousand times during our voyage, and always with ribald appreciation.'
Q was also indebted to James Thorne (1815–1881) whose Rambles by Rivers: The Avon, published by Charles Knight and Co. in 1845, contains much of the historical information referred to in The Warwickshire Avon. Thorne wrote of the river, 'it is by no means one of the most beautiful, its interest arises mainly from its associations, but in them it is alone among English rivers.'
The Warwickshire Avon in turn inspired the Reverend Edward Dew, chaplain at Trinity College, Stratford-upon-Avon from 1898 to 1903, who gave a lantern slide lecture on the same subject in 1900, having copied several of Alfred Parson's illustrations, including the two swans holding a scroll which forms the heading to the first chapter of The Warwickshire Avon and which he used as his first slide. (Anne Langley, The Inspiration for Rev. Dew's River Avon Photos.)
In 1985 The Warwickshire Avon was re-published under the title Exploring Shakespeare Country 100 years ago, edited by Stuart Ludlum (Thames and Hudson). This edition reproduces the text, with illustrations, of the original articles published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1891 (as evinced by American spellings in the text). However, the text of The Warwickshire Avon, published by Harper Brothers, New York, in 1892, differs little from that of the original articles, with the exception of some slight editing in one or two places and the addition of several route maps, drawn by Alfred Parsons.
Q used the tour as the basis for his novel True Tilda, published in 1909. Foy Quiller-Couch, Q's daughter, made part of the same trip with May Wedderburn Cannan, after the death of May's fiancé Bevil Quiller-Couch, Q's only son, who died in the Spanish flu epidemic whilst with the Army of Occupation in Germany in February 1919, having survived the war itself practically without a scratch. Foy wrote to her father 'I love every yard of Avon.'
It was whilst working for Cassell's, after he left Oxford in 1887 that Q met Alfred Parsons. Brittain writes: 'among those who were working for Cassell's at this time was Charles Harrison, the humorous artist. He entertained extensively and at his house Q made many acquaintances and began more than one friendship. It was probably at Harrison's that he first met the artists John Sargent, Francis Millet, Edwin Abbey and Alfred Parsons. Parsons became one of the closest friends of his lifetime and corresponded with him regularly for many years.'
Parsons was born on 2 December 1847 at Beckington, near Frome in Somerset. His father, Dr Joshua Parsons, was an enthusiastic gardener of alpines and a regular correspondent of William Robinson, who later commissioned Alfred Parsons to illustrate The Wild Garden: Or, Our Groves and Shrubberies Made Beautiful by the Naturalization of Hardy Exotic Plants.' (1881). Parsons began as a clerk in the Post Office but left after a couple of years to study at the Kensington School of Art. He is best known as a water-colourist of landscapes; an illustrator, particularly of botanical illustrations; and as a garden designer. One of his best known watercolours 'When Nature Painted All Things Gay' of 1887, is in the Tate Collection, and the Lindley Library, London, houses 132 watercolour paintings of roses, painted by Parsons between 1890 and 1908 to illustrate Ellen Willmott's work The Genus Rosa.
Parsons lived at 54 Bedford Gardens, London with Francis Millet and Edwin Abbey, where Q and his wife and baby son lived in 1891. Parsons lent them the house while he was away in Japan making notes for his book Notes on Japan, published in 1895. Parsons, Millet and Abbey rented a house in Broadway, Worcestershire where they became part of an Anglo-American circle which included John Singer Sargent who was at that time painting 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose', and where Parsons started designing gardens. Q later remembered 'a morning in 1889 which he spent in John Sargent's studio while the artist painted Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth "in her green robe of beetles' wings, as she stood in the act of lifting the crown to her brow." ' Q went to Paris with Sargent in the following year, 'where they saw Carminchita dance—with the result that Sargent painted his famous portrait of her, now in the Luxembourg.' (Brittain). Parsons' contacts with the American artists led to him becoming an illustrator for Harper's Magazine of New York. The Warwickshire Avon was published by Harpers in 1892, having previously appeared in 1891 as a series of articles in Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
The type of 'picturesque views' sought by Samuel Ireland, and often involving the depiction of such buildings as castles, abbeys, noblemen’s seats and ruins, became enormously popular during the eighteenth century. Felicity Myrone in her article for the British Library British Topography: Our real National Art Form? writes, 'Views were in demand, actively collected and prized, and we know of high-profile and respected collectors such as George III, Samuel Pepys, or later Richard Colt Hoare and Dawson Turner.'
The tradition of topographical writing in Britain goes back to Leland's Itineraries, William Camden, the travels of Celia Fiennes and, later, Daniel Defoe and William Cobbett, but improvements in printing and engraving techniques made pictorial representations more accessible. In the early eighteenth century, two brothers, Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, produced over 400 engravings of such topographical views which were arranged in sets according to county and reproduced innumerable times. The advantage of such engravings was their affordability compared to landscape art and they were bought in their hundreds by members of the nobility and gentry, antiquarians and the clergy. Discussing the difference between landscape art and topographical art, Felicity Mynore writes that landscape artists tended to despise topographical art as an inferior branch of landscape painting but that in landscape art 'the main interest was in rural scenes in which buildings were incidental or at least not the primary object of attention.' Topographical views were extremely important, however, as an historical resource and a means of recording changes in the landscape. Richard Gough (1735–1809) recognised the great importance of old views and maps and built up a large collection (including many pictures produced by the Bucks), now in the Bodleian Library. Bernard Nurse in an article Richard Gough: the Father of British Topography wrote:
'The printer and publisher John Nichols described Gough in a long tribute after his death as "the father of British Topography". More recently, scholars have recognised him as the leading antiquary of his day. Gough has been acknowledged as one of the first to argue for the preservation of historic buildings, a key figure in promoting the study of British medieval church architecture, the "founding father of the modern study of monumental brasses" and one who raised the standards of architectural draughtsmanship. Gough was one of the first to recognise the importance of old maps in helping to understand the history of particular places and wrote a pioneering account of the development of British maps in the second edition of his British Topography (1780). In addition, the topographical collection bequeathed by Gough to Oxford University in 1809 is one of the most important in the Bodleian Library, outstanding for the visual material received as well as the printed books and manuscripts. Among the maps is the earliest depiction of Britain in recognisable form (now known as the Gough Map) and large portions of the unique Sheldon tapestry map woven in the 1590s.'
Nurse goes on to say that Gough concentrated on printed items which could be acquired relatively cheaply 'the medieval Gough Map for example cost him two shillings and sixpence; the Sheldon tapestry maps, a guinea.'
Q's own father, Dr Thomas Quiller Couch, was a keen antiquarian. Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall, published in 1894 by Q's sisters, Mabel and Lilian Quiller-Couch, was based on a manuscript prepared by Thomas Quiller Couch and contains many of his drawings and watercolour paintings. His object, as stated in the preface, was 'to save, within my very small tether, by pen and pencil, all that continues to us of a nearly extinct faith, its material remains, and its legendary fragments.' After his death in 1884, his daughters made a 'pilgrimage' to visit all the sites mentioned in his manuscript and many others besides, a total of about 90, recording all the legends and historical information they could collect. In Memories and Opinions, Q described how his father edited Dr Jonathan Couch's (Q's grandfather's) manuscript of The History of Polperro, 'adding chapters on its natural history, the manners and customs of its people, etc.; published a Glossary ofthe Cornwall dialect at once accurate and concise; [and] his fugitive contributions to Notes and Queries and other antiquarian journals would fill a volume or two.'
The Warwickshire Avon was in this same topographical tradition and was also an attempt to produce for the American market, an idea of the 'spirit' and history of the places visited. It was called The Warwickshire Avon to distinguish it from the Bristol Avon (also known as the Lower Avon) and the Wiltshire Avon (the East Avon). The Warwickshire Avon is also called the Upper Avon, avon being a cognate of the Welsh afon (river). Warwickshire also represented for Americans, the epitome of Englishness. Henry James in an essay 'In Warwickshire' (1877) wrote of Warwickshire that it was 'the core and centre of the English world: midmost England, unmitigated England.' (Published in the collection English Hours, 1905).
P and Q's journey started at the site of the Battle of Naseby (1645) where 'the two armies faced each other, the royalists with beanstalks in their hats, their enemies with badges of white linen', and where Charles I and Prince Rupert were defeated by the parliamentarians under General Fairfax. Under the battle site, in a cabbage patch in an inn garden, was to be found the source of the Warwickshire Avon. In his Cambridge lecture 'On the lineage of English Literature' in On the Art of Writing, Q quotes a letter of Pliny, describing the source of the Clitumnus, 'at the foot of a little hill, covered with old and shady cypress trees . . . Hard by the spring stands an ancient and venerable temple with a statue of the river-god, Clitumnus, clothed in the customary robe of state. The Oracles here delivered attest the presence of the deity.' Q contrasts this description with the more prosaic source of the Avon under Naseby battlefield, which he found 'issuing from the fragments of a stucco swan.' In The Warwickshire Avon, he writes: 'Today a mere basin of brick encloses it: but in 1823, the date of the obelisk, [marking the battle site] some person of refinement would adorn also Avon Well; and procured from Mr. Groggan of London a Swan of Avon in plaster; and Mr. Groggan contrived that the water should gush elegantly from her bill, but not for long. For the small boy came with stones, after his kind; and now sans wing, sans head, sans everything, she couches among the cabbages.'
This inauspicious beginning set the tone for the first leg of their journey which passed through gentle countryside, very different from the rugged moorland, granite tors and cliffs, and pounding surf of Q's native Cornwall. Q quotes Dr Arnold of Rugby who said, 'I care nothing for Warwickshire' and, looking across the vale from Rugby, stated, 'there is nothing fine between us and the Ural Mountains.' The countryside through which Parsons and Quiller-Couch passed generally lacked the elements demanded by artists of the romantic and 'picturesque' genre but it had its own charm. Q wrote 'the landscape's beauty lies in its suggestion in that here we touch the true heart of country life, of quiet nights dividing slow familiar days, during which man and man's work grow steeped in the soil's complexion, secure of all but
" the penalty of Adam,
The season's difference." '
Red brick mills, isolated farmhouses, and small clusters of cottages bore witness to a quiet domesticity and held a sense of timelessness.
The first part of the journey actually began in Northamptonshire, near the borders of Leicestershire and Warwickshire, at what Q called 'the water-shed of England'. Here, he wrote, 'In the fields below rise many little springs, whereof those to the south and east unite to form the Ise brook, which runs into the Nen, and so find their goal in the North Sea; those to the west form the Avon, and seek the Bristol channel. The tiny stream flows in a north-westerly direction through pastureland, past remnants of English history: a red-brick farmhouse marking the site of the ancient Sulby Abbey—the only remaining evidence a stone coffin and the floriated cover of another. By Welford the stream has grown large enough to need a bridge and supplies a branch of the Grand Junction Canal, and from here the river and canal flow side by side.'
Q paints a prose picture: the scene is 'full of peaceful incidents and subtle revelations of color—a lock, a quaint swing-bridge, a swallow taking the sunlight on his breast as he skims between us and the inky clouds, a white horse emphasizing the meadow's verdure. The next field holds a group of sable—a flock of rooks, a pair of black horses, a dozen velvet-black oxen, beside whom the thirteenth ox seems consciously indecorous in a half-mourning suit of iron gray.' A splash of colour is given by 'a hawthorn "total gules" with autumn berries.'
At Stanford Hall (given as 'Stamford' but corrected in the 1892 book) which is too plain for Samuel Ireland's taste but admired by P and Q, the stream becomes 'a dignified sheet of water with real swans', dwindling again afterwards. At Lilburne, grassy mounds mark the site of a Roman encampment, 'the Tripontium mentioned by the emperor Antoninus in his journey from London to Lincoln.' From the high ground an outpost overlooks Watling Street and to the east is Dunsmore Heath, 'once so dismally ravaged by the Dun Cow of legend, till Guy of Warwick rode out and slew her in single combat.' For a long stretch the fields are enclosed and tilled, 'but its straggling cottages, duck ponds, and furze clumps still suggest the time when all was common land.' Below Catthorpe (where Q mentions the poet John Dyer, Wordsworth's 'Bard of the Fleece', as having held the living) there is a bridge with a long line of arches where Watling Street crosses the river and where the bridge marks the 'meeting-point of three counties, for beyond it we step into Warwickshire.'
Alfred Parson's illustration of Naseby Church, shows the Pytchley hunt in front of the church, with its spire visible for miles and so characteristic of the midland counties. There is a small cluster of cottages and a couple in the foreground, with the man wearing the smock and broad-brimmed hat still common to farm workers. At Bretford, later in their journey, a picture of the village shows a wide street bordered by a few cottages. These two drawings illustrate just how much has changed since P and Q made their journey: we see no pavements, no tarmac, no road markings, no road signs, telegraph poles, electricity pylons, no vehicles, and oxen in the fields instead of tractors. None of the visual clutter of 'progress'. After Catthorpe, however, the modern world as Q knew it begins to intrude. From Clifton no good view can be had of Rugby from the river-side 'for the middle distance is always a straight line of railway sheds or embankments.' Rugby was the first example in P and Q's journey of what William Cobbett would have called a 'wen': an ever-expanding urban and industrial centre relying on food supplied by increasingly de-populated and poverty-stricken rural areas. From a small market town little bigger than a village a century earlier, Rugby had grown rapidly into an industrial centre with the coming of the railway.
True Tilda begins in another 'wen'. The Reverend Glasson is described as living in 'Bursfield, near Birmingham'; Bursfield being an imaginary name. Various clues in the text indicate that Bursfield was probably based on Smethwick, on the border of Staffordshire, about four miles from Birmingham. Tilda, an acrobat and equestrian performer with Magg's circus, has been taken to the Hospital of the Good Samaritan, after being kicked in the thigh by a pony and has lain there three weeks. In the next bed is a woman suffering from pneumonia. The woman drifts in and out of consciousness but is agitated, wanting them to 'tell Arthur'. Tilda is aged about nine or ten but is a sharp child who finds a paper in the woman's purse with an address on it which she is unable to read, being virtually illiterate. She is determined to help the woman, who is near death, and by a ruse manages to get the doctor to agree to her (Tilda) taking the air, with the aid of a crutch. Once outside, she finds her dog, Godolphus, 'Dolph', who has been patiently waiting for his mistress to emerge from the hospital. Tilda wants to find another circus person called Bill, who will help her to read the paper and find Arthur. She and Dolph make their way back to the 'Plain' where the showground had been, and Tilda finds to her consternation that she has been left behind, penniless, to fend for herself. A kind shopkeeper feeds her and Dolph, reads the address for her, and gives her a penny for the tram, telling her to be sure to get off before the iron bridge or she will have to pay tuppence. Smethwick had a tram network (steam until 1904 when it was electrified) and the Galton Bridge, spanning the New Line canal, is a local landmark, built by Thomas Telford in 1829 to the same design as the famous iron bridge in Shropshire. Only a hamlet at the end of the eighteenth century, Smethwick, with links to an extensive canal network, was rapidly industrialised. Tilda believes that Magg's circus will probably have gone on to Wolverhampton, a feasible assumption if 'Bursfield' is Smethwick. There is a Birchfield north of Birmingham and Q perhaps based the name of the town on this, but Birchfield itself does not seem to fit the descriptions of 'Bursfield' in True Tilda.
A.L. Rowse, in his biography of Q, describes True Tilda as a delightful book and wonders 'Why has this never been made into a film?' In 1997, it did, in fact, become the subject of a TV series, adapted from Q's work by Richard Carpenter and directed by Ross Devenish, with Tilda played by Morgan Bell and Arthur by Eric Graves. Rowse states that the original idea for True Tilda came from an idea that Q had of a play based upon the Babes in the Wood. Q said that the tale 'just ran with the children's Odyssey as the pen ran; as easy as a dream or as Avon ran once, with bends and turns, through a happy fortnight.' Rowse goes on to say that Q 'had an authentic insight into the minds of children, being a family man, but where did he pick up his knowledge of show-folk?—perhaps from their regular visits to the fair-ground at Fowey. The Cockney they speak is rather a literary language, in part derived from his love of Dickens—and none the worse for that.' Q in fact had a knowledge of show-folk from his own childhood. In Memories and Opinions, Q describes the annual Whitsun Fair held at Bodmin, when for two days, booths and caravans, sweet standings and shooting galleries lined the main street . . . There would be waxworks and marionettes by the Town Wall, a circus and maybe a menagerie at the Town's end; but the Travelling Theatre Royal pitched its canvas on Mount Folly.' Dr Thomas Quiller Couch was often in demand for 'unpaid attendance upon an emergency' in consideration of which service, the Quiller-Couch children were given the 'reserved seats'. The beginning of True Tilda is also reminiscent of Dicken's Hard Times in which Sissy Jupe, a child from a travelling equestrian circus is abandoned by her father, the clown, who has disappeared, to fend for herself, and is given the option of being taken on as an apprentice at the show or remaining to be educated, according to his principle of acquiring facts, by Mr Gradgrind. Sissy is sure her father has only left her for a spell because of some urgent necessity and that he will return, so opts to stay with the Gradgrinds.
Tilda is in search of a young boy, Arthur Miles Chandon at the orphanage of the Holy Innocents, run by the sinister Reverend Glasson. Following the shopkeeper's directions, Tilda finds the orphanage at the side of the canal, just over the iron bridge. Sam Bossom, employee of Hucks, Canal End Basin, is delivering coal from a barge to the orphanage. Tilda asks him to mind Dolph while she makes enquiries. The Reverend Glasson, Tilda realises, did not know Arthur's real surname. She is frightened by the fact that she is locked in; the ragged, browbeaten aspect of the children in the yard; and by Sam Bossom's warning that she might not find it as easy to get out as in. While Glasson is eating his meal, the housekeeper shows Tilda where Arthur is, in the kitchen garden, and Tilda and Arthur escape from the orphanage via a furnace room next to the glasshouse, leading to the coal shute. Sam Bossom helps them to the other side of the canal and tells them where to find him if ever they need help. They go back to the hospital to find that Arthur's mother has died. Tilda decides she must take responsibility for Arthur and this is the start of their adventure to find Holmness, 'the Island', and Arthur's origins.
The beginning of True Tilda thus begins some way away from where P and Q were exploring the Avon. At Rugby, P and Q launched a Canadian canoe, from the Avon Inn 'her bright basswood sides gleaming in the sunshine.' Their journey continues, marked by various anecdotes related by Q regarding the local landmarks which they pass: 'Caldicott's famous spinney, where Tom Brown, East and the "Madman" sought the kestrel's nest'; Holbrook Court, where a gloomy stone farmhouse, the remains of Lawford Hall, is the scene of the 'Laurel-Water Tragedy', a story of inheritance and a poisoning; and 'Newnham Regis Baths', once a spa and another Roman site, where they bravely try the waters given to them by a cottager. At Brandon, they find they have missed the last train to Coventry. The local inn is unwelcoming but P exerts his charm to secure them a meal and accommodation. The next day Q catches a train to Coventry to call for letters, while P sketches, and they then continue their journey, via Ryton-on-Dunsmore and Bubbenhall 'a tiny village of brick and timber set amid elms, where for ages "bells have knolled to church" from the old brick buttressed tower above' there is a brick and timber mill as well, and then P and Q enter Stoneleigh deer park through a line of 'swinging deer fences hanging below the bridge.' The 'sluggish brook' becomes 'a pleasant river, stealing by wide lawns, by slopes of bracken, by gigantic trees—oaks, Spanish oaks and wych-elms, stately firs, sweet chestnuts and filmy larch coppices. We are in Arden, the land of Rosalind and Touchstone, of Jacques and Amiens.'
The route taken by P and Q gradually converges with that of Tilda and Arthur, who are approaching from the west. Sam Bossom says of Tilda 'Got an 'ead on her shoulders, that child.' Arthur is fearful and dreamy, living in a world of The Tempest, the book of which he keeps about his person all the time and which he confuses with reality and his own babyhood memories, but Tilda has an immediate grasp of essentials. At Huck's yard they find the thespian Mortimers, whose caravan has been impounded by Hucks for non-payment of rent for their pitch on the Plain. Tilda knows them of old. Glasson tracks the children to Huck's yard but is dealt with by Hucks who realises Glasson wishes to recover Arthur for reasons of monetary gain and gets rid of him. Hucks then listens to Tilda's story and her proposal that he keep the caravan for the time-being and allow the Mortimers to continue by barge, taking Tilda and Arthur, so that the Mortimers can earn enough to pay their debt. Sam Bossom is to go along with the barge Success to Commerce and bring back a cargo of beer from Stratford-upon-Avon and keep an eye on the Mortimers. Tilda is to keep Hucks informed of her progess with Arthur towards their goal. Tilda is horrified, waking the following day, to find that they can still see the chimneys of Bursfield and states that she could 'walk it quicker, crutch an' all', not being accustomed to the slow progress of travelling by canal barge, although Sam says they have been through six locks while she was sleeping.
The characters of Stanilas and Arabella Mortimer were probably inspired by the 'Travelling Theatre Royal' of Q's childhood and its miscellaneous dramatic programme. Tilda, persuading Hucks to agree to her scheme, says she and Arthur could be the 'Babes in the Wood' or the 'Princes in the Tower'. Tilda is uneducated but familiar with the repertoire of travelling theatricals. In Memories and Opinions, Q relates an anecdote relating to his sister, Mabel, who is taken home protesting after seeing The Babes in the Wood performed with which she was familiar from reading it (in verse) in The Ingoldsby Legends and which fell below her expectations as the gruesome end of the wicked uncle was not shown and 'she wanted ocular satisfaction of the Wicked Uncle's punishment that "all that he swallowed turned acid." ' In Dicken's Hard Times the story is part of the repertoire of Sleary's Circus, to which Sissy Jupe belonged. At 'Tizzer's Green' the Mortimers offer 'With Voice and Lute, a Pot-Pourri' followed by 'An Hour with the Best Dramatists.' A scene from Othello is performed—Othello also having been on the programme of the 'Travelling Theatre Royal' at Bodmin—and hearing the rehearsal, Tilda, who is unfamiliar with the work, rushes into the cabin to break up what she takes to be an ugly domestic scene. At the performance Sam Bossom who 'can't bear to see a woman used abuseful' is obliged to go out. There is a misunderstanding about the 'Carriages at Half-Past Ten' on the playbill as the local audience takes the meaning to be literal and they think everyone is to be 'taken 'ome like a lord'. Sam is obliged to assist with force.
The canal party reach the junction with the Stratford-on-Avon canal and here the journey begins to resemble that of P and Q. The following passage could have been taken straight from The Warwickshire Avon:
Many locks encumber the descending levels of the Stratford-on-Avon Canal . . . the boat glided deeper and deeper into a green pastoral country, parcelled out with hedgerows and lines of elms, behind which, here and there lay a village, half hidden—a grey tower and a few red-tiled roofs visible between the trees. Cattle dotted the near pastures, till away behind the trees—for summer had passed into late September—the children heard now and again the guns of partridge shooters cracking from fields of stubble. But no human folk frequented the banks of the canal, which wound its way past scented meadows edged with willow-herb, late meadow-sweet, yellow tansy and purple loosestrife, this last showing a blood-red stalk as its blooms died away.'
(Chapter XII, True Tilda)
'We had the flowers too—the forget-me-not, the willow-herb, and meadowsweet (though long past their prime), the bright yellow tansy and the loosestrife, with a stalk growing blood-red as its purple bloom dropped away.' (The Warwickshire Avon near Barford Bridge).
Even the time of year was similar to that of the Warwickshire Avon trip which began 'in that season when the year grows ancient. . . In the stubble the crack! Crack! of a stray gun speaks of partridge-time.'
The Success to Commerce passes Lowsonford Lock and at Preston Bagot (real place names) there are three locks to be negotiated. The children wander off while the locks are being negotiated and find in a storehouse a wooden horse from a roundabout. Tilda recognises it and finds an address 'James Gavel, Proprietor, Imperial Steam Roundabouts, Henley-in-Arden.' Tilda realises that Bill (who is the engineer for Gavels) must not have gone to Wolverhampton as she had thought. A wagon draws up and Tilda learns from the disgruntled waggoner that Gavel had been expecting six painted horses to be delivered at the wharf and taken to Henley-in-Arden but that most of the consignment was missing 'An' by consequence here I be with a pair of 'osses and the big wagon'. Here Stanilas Mortimer hears the magic words 'Henley-in-Arden' 'O Helicon! O Parnassus!' He echoes Q's words of Stoneleigh deer park 'Name redolent of Shakespeare! Of Rosalind and Touchstone, Jacques and Amiens'. He is overjoyed to find himself within a mile and a half and determines to hire the big wagon for his tent and props and perform at the Primrose Fête at Henley. The rest of the wooden horses turn up after the wagon has departed. The children have been instructed to keep near the boat and in hiding but Tilda worries that Bill will be in trouble if the horses aren't delivered and knocks at the cottage door to tell the waggoner's son. The children go back to the wharf but realise with horror that Glasson is there. They hide, then walk to Henley as soon as it is safe, to find Bill at Gavel's roundabout.
From Stoneleigh Abbey (Q makes no mention of Jane Austen's connection with the Leigh family) P and Q go to Ashow. 'From P.'s Journal: "A hateful day, with sheets of rain. Q's temper insufferable." From Q.'s Journal: "P. today like a bear with a sore head. Rain in torrents." ' (text from the 1891 article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine but omitted in the book version of 1892). They pass under Old Chesford Bridge, 'whereby the road runs to Kenilworth, that lies two miles back from the river, and shall, therefore, for once in its history, escape description.' They pass Blacklow Hill 'whither, on the 19th of Jun, 1312, Piers Gaveston, the favourite of King Edward II, was marched out of Warwick Castle by the barons to meet his doom.'
'Hence, by the only rocks of which Avon can boast—and these are of the softest sandstone, their asperities worn all away by the weather—we wind beneath Milverton village, with its odd church tower of wood, to the weir and mill of Guy's Cliffe. The beauties of this spot have been praised for centuries. Leland speaks of them; Drayton sings them. "There." says Camden, "have yee a shady little wood, cleere and crystal springs, mossie bottoms and caves, medowes alwaies fresh and greene, the river rumbling heere and there among the stones with his streams making a milde noise and gentle whispering, and, besides all this, solitary and still quietness, things most grateful to the Muses." . . . The water-mill is mentioned in Domesday-book, and has been sketched constantly ever since.' The Warwickshire Avon is illustrated by an engraving from Parson's delightful water-colour of the spot.
The imposing edifice of Warwick Castle lies right on the river 'its massy foundations growing, as it seems, from the living rock'. Unlike the romantic ruin that is Kenilworth Castle, by-passed by P and Q, Warwick Castle is intact and inhabited still (in Q's day, anyway. It was sold to Tussaud's Group in 1978). P and Q spend all day exploring the castle and town, the epitome of the palimpsest of the Warwickshire past and present that they are endeavouring to depict for their American readers:
'Evening has drawn in and still we are pacing Warwick streets. We have seen the castle; have gazed from the armory windows upon the racing waters, steep terraces, and gentle park below; have climbed Guy's Tower and seen far beneath us, on the one side, broad cedars and green lawns where the peacocks strut, on the other, the spires, towers, sagged roofs, and clustering chimneys of the town; have sauntered down Mill Street; have marvelled in the Beauchamp Chapel as we conned its gorgeous tombs and canopies and traceries; have loitered by Lord Leycester's Hospital and under the archway of St. James's Chapel. Clearly we are but two grains of sand in the hour-glass of this slow mediaeval town; our feet, that will to-morrow be hurrying on, tread with curious impertinence these everlasting flints that have rung with the tramp of the Kingmaker's armies, of Royalists and Parliamentarian, horse and foot, drum and standard, the stir of royal and episcopal visit, of mail-coach, market, and assize.'
Henry James writes:
'The American tourist usually comes straight to this quarter of England—chiefly for the purpose of paying his respects to the birthplace of Shakespeare. Being here, he comes to Warwick to see the castle; and being at Warwick, he comes to see the odd little theatrical-looking refuge for superannuated warriors which lurks in the shadow of one of the old gate-towers . . . there are few things that speak more quaintly and suggestively of the Old England that an American loves than these clumsy little monuments of ancient benevolence [hospitals, alms-houses, asylums etc.] Such an institution as Leicester's Hospital at Warwick seems indeed to exist primarily for the sake of its spectacular effect upon the American tourists, who, with the dozen rheumatic old soldiers maintained in affluence there, constitute its principal clientèle.'
At Henley, Tilda and Arthur hear from a distance the sound of Gavel's roundabout but Tilda is dismayed to find that Bill and Gavel have parted company. Sam Bossom tells the children to hide under the Grand Stand until he comes for them. They witness a 'ladies' race with egg and spoon won by 'Miss Sally', sister of Sir Elphinstone Breward, to her brother's horror and the hilarity of the locals: 'With half the county, too, lookin' on from the Grand Stand! I bet Sir Elphinstone's cussin'.' Whilst hiding under the Grand Stand, however, and listening to a conversation between Miss Sally Breward and her brother, Tilda hears Sally mention Miles Chandon. Tilda decides she must risk trying to speak to Miss Sally and as the Breward's car is leaving, jumps onto the running board but only manages to say a few words before she falls off. She is seen by Gavel, who, with Glasson, has come in search of the children. She is saved by the (false) report of an explosion at the roundabout and the crowd surging to view the scene, together with the darkness as it is now evening, and manages to get back under the Grand Stand unseen. Here she finds Arthur and Dolph but also Mrs Lobb, Gavel's 'Fat Lady' who has got wedged in her panic. Sam Bossom rescues her and Mrs Lobb takes pity on the children, hiding them in her caravan for the night. Sam takes the Mortimer's effects by cart back to the boat whilst the Mortimers stay at a small public-house for the night. The party is to meet the following evening at The Red Cow in Stratford-on-Avon. Mrs Lobb's caravan is harnessed up during the night by the fairground people and the children wake the next morning in Stratford.
From Warwick, P and Q explore Charlecote: 'We had amused ourselves on the voyage by choosing and rechoosing the spot whither we should some day return and pass our declining years. P. (who has high thoughts now and again) had been all for Warwick Castle, Q. for Ashow, and the merits of each had been hotly wrangled over. But we shook hands over Charlcote. Less stately than Stoneleigh, less picturesque than Guy's Cliffe, less imposing than Warwick Castle, Charlcote is lovelier and more human than any.'
Henry James agrees with them, commenting on the charming 'happy accidents of old English houses' and saying 'In Shakespeare's day, doubtless, the coat of nature was far from being so prettily trimmed as it is now, but there is one place, nevertheless, which, as he passes it in the summer twilight, the traveller does his best to believe unaltered. I allude of course to Charlecote park, whose venerable verdure seems a survival from an earlier England and whose innumerable acres, stretching away in the early evening, to vaguely seen Tudor Walls, lie there like the backward years receding to the age of Elizabeth.' Like James before them, P and Q spend time visiting the house and admiring its mellow beauty, before continuing their voyage past Clopton Bridge, that 'long stone bridge of fourteen Gothic arches just above Stratford' built by Sir Hugh Clopton, Lord Mayor of London, in the reign of Henry VII. 'And in a minute or two we have passed under it, and are floating down beside the Memorial Theatre, the new Gardens, and the brink of Shakespeare's town.'
It is here, at the heart of Warwickshire, in the birthplace of England's most illustrious poet, that The Warwickshire Avon and True Tilda converge for the first time. Tilda and Arthur, peeping out from Mrs Lobb's caravan the next morning, found that it 'stood in a broad green meadow, and but a little way from the river. There were swans on the river, paddling about or slowly drifting in the pale light; and across the river they saw many clustered roofs, with a church spire to the left set amongst noble elms.' A view that Henry James called a 'happy mixture of lawn and river and mirrored spire'; an iconic view, much painted, including by Alfred Parsons for The Warwickshire Avon.
' "That's where Shakespeare's buried," said the Fat Lady; "and the great brick building yonder—to the right, between us and the bridge—that's the Memorial Theatre where they act his plays. There's his statue, too, beside the water, and back in the town they keep the house he was born in. You can't get away from Shakespeare here. If you buy a bottle of beer, he's on the label; and if you want a tobacco-jar, they'll sell you his head and shoulders in china, with the bald top fitted for a cover. It's a queer place, is Stratford.'
P and Q, searching for some sort of 'essence' of Shakespeare, were disappointed by Stratford at first:
'So let it be confessed that for a day we searched Stratford streets and found nothing of the Shakespeare that we sought. Neither in the famous birthplace in Henley Street—restored "out of all whooping,"crammed with worthless mementos, and pencilled over with lesser names; nor in the fussy, inept Memorial Theatre; nor in the New Place, where certain holes, protected with wire gratings, mark what may have been the foundations of Shakespeare's house: in none of these could we find him. His name echoed in the market place, on the lips of guide and sight-seer, and shone on monuments, shops, inns and banking houses. His effigies were everywhere—in photographs, in statuettes, now doing duty as a tobacco-box (with the bald scalp removable), now as a trade-mark for beer.'
A century earlier, William Henry Ireland, who accompanied his father Samuel on his sketching tour to collect material for Picturesque Views on the Warwickshire Avon, described the Shakespearean souvenirs of his day, which consisted of 'tobacco stoppers, busts, wafer-seals etc.' all reputedly carved from the remains of the mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare's own hand in the garden of his house at New Place. The house itself had burned down many years before and a later owner of the site, tired of tourists invading his garden, had felled the tree. William Ireland, a sceptic, opined that the souvenirs carved from the tree were so numerous that 'a dozen full-grown mulberry trees would scarcely suffice to produce the innumerable mementoes already extant.'
It was at Anne Hathaway's Cottage at Shottery that P and Q found what they were looking for:
'here and at this hour that it happened to us that, our hearts being uplifted, we could measure Shakespeare for a moment; could know him for the puissant intelligence that held communion with all earth and sky, and all mortal aspirations that rise between them; and knew him also for the Stratford youth treading this very foot-path beside this sweet-smelling hedge towards those elms a mile away, where the red light lingers, and the cottage below them, where already in the window Ann Hathaway trims her lamp . . . And at the cottage, old Mrs. Baker, last living descendant of the Hathaways, was pleased with our reverent behaviour, and picked a sprig of rosemary from her garden for remembrance.'
Samuel Ireland, whose obsession with Shakespeare and all things Shakespeare and whose credulity was exasperating to his son, purchased, at Anne Hathaway's cottage, a bugle purse 'said to have been a present from our great poet to the object of his choice . . . as also an old oak-chair, wherein it was stated our bard was used to sit, during his courtship, with his Ann upon his knee.' This same chair was bought back by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 2002, and replaced in Anne Hathaway's Cottage.
Samuel Ireland and his son visited the tenant of Clopton House, where Ireland had heard that some of the papers at New Place had been taken for safety at the time of the fire. William Henry describes the tenant as a 'gentleman-farmer, rich in gold . . . but devoid of every polished refinement.' This Mr Williams, as he was called, said to Samuel Ireland, according to William Henry's report of the visit 'By G–d I wish you had arrived a little sooner! Why it isn't a fortnight since I destroyed several baskets of letters and papers, in order to clear a small chamber for some young partridges . . . Mr. Ireland's feelings during this address, which were fully displayed on his countenance, may be more easily conceived than expressed.' Mr William's wife said (not without satisfaction) 'I told you not to burn those papers, as they might be of consequence.' Samuel Ireland did not come away empty-handed, however, as his host presented him with a picture of Henry VII's wife, Elizabeth of York, lying in state after her death in childbed—'being on vellum, it would not do to light the fire.'
Samuel Ireland had said he would 'give half his library to become possessed even of his [Shakespeare's] signature alone'. His son, who worked at a lawyer's chambers stated 'I cannot recollect upon what particular occasion, but I rather think I had been occupied in the perusal of a mortgage-deed formerly in the possession of David Garrick esq., which is to be found printed in Johnson and Steevens's Shakespeare, when the idea first struck me of imitating the signature of our bard, in order to gratify Mr Ireland.' Using a piece cut off the end of a parchment and a recipe for old ink given to him by a journeyman, William Ireland fabricated a lease between W. Shakespeare, Michael Fraser, and Elizabeth, his wife and made and affixed a seal in the style of the period. His father showed the deed to an antiquarian acquaintance who declared it to be authentic. If he had left it there William Ireland might have got away with the deception, but one thing led to another and William Henry Ireland forged a whole stack of Shakespearean documents and even attempted to pass off two plays as those of Shakespeare. His extraordinary imposture was eventually discovered, although his father refused to believe in his guilt and continued to insist on his belief that the documents were genuine. Samuel Ireland's reputation and that of his son were ruined, however, and after Ireland's death William Henry published his 'Confessions'.
Before they left Stratford, P and Q paid homage to Shakespeare in Holy Trinity church. Brittain writes:
'Another striking passage in the book is Q's meditation as he stood before the tomb of Shakespeare in Stratford church:
"It was easy now to forgive all that had seemed unworthy in Stratford; easy, next morning, standing before Shakespeare's monument, while the sunshine, coloured by the eastern window, fell on one particular slab within the chancel rails, to live back for a moment to that April morning when a Shakespeare had passed from the earth, and earth "must mourn therefor"; to follow his coffin on its short journey from the New Place, between the blossoming limes of the Church Walk, out of the sunlight into the lasting shadow, up the dim nave to this spot; and easy to divine, in the rugged epitaph so often quoted, the man's passionate dread lest his bones might be flung in time to the common charnel-house, the passionate longing to lie here always in this dusky corner, close to his friends and kin and the familiar voices that meant home—the talk of birds in the near elms, the chant of Holy Trinity choir, and, night and day, but a stone's throw from his resting-place, the whisper of Avon running perpetually.'
Rowse refers to this same passage as being 'virtually a prose poem.'
Arthur is the legitimate son of Sir Miles Chandon who, when he was only a younger son, an impoverished second lieutenant in the navy, returning from Australia on his ship the Pegasus, made a foolish bet that he would marry the first woman he met ashore. This was Arthur's mother, the daughter of a coastguard at Cawsand Bay, Helen Reynolds. The pair were married, but two days into the honeymoon Miles Chandon learned that his elder brother was dead and the title and estate of Meriton was his. He bitterly regretted his hasty and unequal marriage and wrote to his wife, whom he had left in Sidmouth, that he would never see her again. She went back to her parents but was already pregnant with Arthur. Sir Miles was informed that he had had a son but that he had died a week after his christening. Helen Chandon relied on advice from Ned Commins a friend, and another coastguard, who tattoed on Arthur's shoulder the lozenges of Sir Miles' family crest. Arthur was placed in the orphanage of the Holy Innocents when he was two years old and payments made by Ned Commins for his keep until about two years before the commencement of the story, when the payments suddenly ceased.
As a baby, Arthur had played by the sea and had been told stories of the 'island' which belongs to his father. He has a natural affinity with boats and the water which emerges during the journey. He has confused his own history with that of The Tempest and Tilda at first thinks that the book Arthur has really does hold the clue to his origins, until Arthur insists that they will find out about the Island when they get to Stratford and ask Shakespeare. Tilda exclaims 'Sakes alive, child! Don't you know he's been dead these 'undreds of years.' Arthur is undaunted, however, and at Stratford that first morning gazes at the view of river and church: 'To him it was a marvellous place; and somewhere it held his secret—the secret of the Island.'
The children have to keep out of sight that day and Mrs Lobb packs them a picnic basket. They leave Dolph with her and walk along the river bank. It is here that they meet up with George Jessup, an American artist who is camping and painting by the river 'where shone the flank of a bass-wood canoe moored between the alders.' George Jessup, spotting Arthur, says 'the boy. He just fits the bill. Youthful Shakespeare Mews his Mighty Youth. The scene Binton Bridges, beside Avon.' Tilda latches onto this name immediately. Sam Bossom had been dismayed to find that his destination was to be Stratford because he was in love with a young woman who he had intended to ask to marry him, but being shy and diffident had taken his time about it. He had unfortunately introduced his brother to her, who was also smitten. He announced to Sam that they were betrothed but that he was off to South Africa for a spell in a mine and asked Sam to look out for his intended and let him know how she was. The young woman works as a cook at an inn at Binton Bridges called the Four Alls, of which the sign board shows a king, a priest, a soldier and a yeoman farmer, with the legend 'Rule All, Pray All, Fight All, Pay All.' This is straight out of The Warwickshire Avon, in which Q writes: 'We could not remember a place so utterly God-forsaken as this inn beside the bridge, nor a woman so weary of face as its once handsome landlady.'
Tilda decides to investigate on Sam's behalf and returns in triumph with the lady in question and waving a letter, saying ' 'enery's broke it off.' She is to show the letter to Sam that evening and has arranged a rendevzous for the couple the following morning early. Brother Henry, in trying to spare her feelings has told his betrothed that he has just found out that there is insanity on his side of the family. Tilda says this is a bit hard on Sam but assures her that Henry was just trying to be tactful. Tilda is annoyed that George Jessup has painted Arthur's portrait, when they are trying to keep a low profile, until she looks at the canvas and decides there is no danger of anyone recognising him. (George Jessup is not strong on 'likenesses'.) She takes Arthur to the rendezvous at the Red Cow but on the way they pass a chemist's shop with illuminated coloured bottles in the window and an old man behind them. ' suppose if—if it should be God?' whispers Arthur Miles. 'Ga'r'n' scoffs Tilda. Arthur decides it is only Prospero and goes into the shop and asks if the man can tell them where the Island is, addressing him as 'My Lord'. Arthur tells him it is called Holmness so the elderly chemist—telling someone in the back—Arthur assumes it is Miranda in her cave—to mind the shop, takes them to the Free Library to look in the Gazeteer, where he tells them it is in the Bristol Channel. 'the river will take us to it,' Arthur says confidently, because the Avon must lead down to it. The chemist replies that in a sense it does because the Avon runs down to Tewkesbury, where it joins the Severn and from there runs past Gloucester to the Bristol Channel. 'Holmness' is probably based on Steep Holm, the nearer of the two islands called Holm in the Bristol Channel to the shore, more or less opposite Weston super Mare.
The children arrive at the Red Cow to discover that Sam and the Mortimers have been discussing their future. Sam insists that the Mortimers have a duty to the children but the Mortimers have had an offer of a fortnight at the theatre. Tilda makes short work of their problems in a very amusing scene in which she declares 'And you three 'ave been allowin' I s'pose, that our best chance to escape notice is travellin' around with a fur coat [Mortimer] an' a sixty-foot Theayter Royal? . . . It's saddenin.' She dictates a letter to Hucks which Sam writes, with interjections, Tilda saying tersely 'I wouldn' make Arguin' a 'abit, if I was you.' She tells Hucks that the Mortimers have paid most of their debt and have picked up an engagement at Stratford and that Sam will remain another week and collect the balance while she and Arthur make their way to Holmness, and she will keep him informed. After they have eaten, Tilda takes Arthur back to Mrs Lobb's caravan, having arranged for Sam to meet them first thing in the morning, when Tilda intends to reveal the letter from Henry and the good news that Sam is free to marry his beloved. Mrs Lobb is relieved to see them as Dolph, when left alone in the caravan, has been barking:
' "Gavel has sent round twice to say that if its a case of 'Love me, love my dog' him and me'll have to break contracts."
"Leadin' this sort of life don't suit him," said Tilda.
"No," Mrs Lobb agreed, " he's as drunk as a lord again, and his temper something awful."
"I meant the dog," she explained'
The next morning, Tilda is disappointed to find that Sam has already met up with his beloved and heard her news. She and Arthur find George Jessup packing up and ask him to take them with him. He agrees and Arthur proves himself a natural at paddling, then steering and navigating the river. Jessup says he can take them as far as Tewkesbury and for this stretch their journey therefore coincides with that of P and Q in The Warwickshire Avon.
P and Q pass Bidford where Shakespeare and his friends had caroused at the Falcon Inn, and Barton 'where here once dwelt another famous drinker' (Christopher Sly, The Taming of the Shrew). At Bidford bridge there is a stone near the window of an inn where generations of Bidford men have sharpened their knives. They reach Cleeve where they stop at the mill and climb to a ridge to look back at the Vale of Evesham. At Cleeve, George Jessup changes places with Arthur and lets him take charge of the journey, while he himself attempts to capture an impression of the passing landscape. They pass, like P and Q, the slopes of Marcleeve Hill and the river winds through flat meadows, the site of the Battle of Evesham, where Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, was defeated at Evesham by Prince Edward 's army in 1265.
The third section of The Warwickshire Avon led from Evesham to Tewkesbury, through Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. In True Tilda this section of the journey is accomplished by car, which George Jessup hires with a driver, inspired by Tilda asking why he didn't try travelling by train to paint the moving scenery. He explains to her that 'the railroad hereabouts wasn't engineered to catch the sentiment, and its the sentiment I'm after—the old-world charm of field and high-road and leafy hedgerow.' Then realises that a car would enable him to do just that. P and Q continue to follow the course of the river, past Chadbury lock, mill and weir, where they find the first lock kept in good repair for twenty miles. Q writes that the Avon from Stratford to Tewkesbury was made navigable in 1637 by Mr William Sandys of Fladbury 'at his own proper cost. But the railways have ruined the waterways for a time and Mr Sandys' work lies in sore decay.' Q quotes Ireland who calls Chadbury mill and weir 'so rich a landscape that nature seems not to require the assistance of art.' At Fladbury, P and Q break their journey to stay with friends at the parsonage: 'Our host at Fladbury parsonage was a painter, one in whom Americans take a just pride.' This was John Singer Sargent, who painted 'Two Girls with Parasols, at Fladbury' in 1889.
From Fladbury, P and Q transport their canoe over the weir and set out past Copthorne, and Wyre lock and village to Pershore, where Oswald, nephew of Ethelred, King of Mercia , founded a house of secular canons which later became a Benedictine abbey. Q relates the history of the brother of the abbey who 'went a-courting with a lantern within the sacred walls', setting fire to the abbey and the town and leading to the suspension of all religious services there until 1299 when the Bishop of Llandaff came and 'reconciled' the church. After Pershore P and Q reached Naffington Lock, with a drop of six to eight feet before the river runs on past the villages of Eckington, Birlingham and Defford, and where, between Eckington and Defford, a bridge crosses the river.
The weary P and Q rested on the bridge for half an hour and it was this spot which inspired what Rowse refers to Q's 'most-anthologised' poem: his Ode Upon Eckington Bridge, River Avon. Brittain quotes the 'prose original' from The Warwickshire Avon:
'Rain hung over the Malverns; down on the flat plain, where the river crept into the evening, the poplars were swaying gently; a pair of jays hustled by with a warning squawk . . . A small discovery awoke us. As we rested our elbows on the parapet, we noticed that many deep grooves or notches ran across it. They were the marks worn in the stone of the tow-ropes of departing barges.
'Those notches spoke to us, as nothing had spoken to us yet, of the true secret of Avon. Kings and their armies have trampled its banks from Naseby to Tewkesbury, performing great feats of war; castles and monasteries have risen over its waters; yet none of them has left a record so durable as are these grooves where the bargemen shifted their ropes in passing the bridge. The fighting reddened the river for a day; the building was reflected there for a century or two; but the slow toil of man has outlasted them both. And looking westward over the homely landscape , we realized the truth that Nature too is most in earnest when least dramatic; that her most terrible power is seen neither in the whirlwind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the catkins budding on the hazel, the still, small voice that proves she is not dead, but sleeping lightly, and already dreaming of the spring.'
Upon Eckington Bridge, River Avon
O pastoral heart of England! like a psalm
Of green days telling with a quiet beat—
O wave into the sunset flowing calm!
O tirèd lark descending on the wheat!
Lies it all peace beyond the western fold
Where now the lingering Shepherd sees his star
Rise upon Malvern? Paints an Age of Gold
Yon cloud with prophecies of linkèd ease—
Lulling this land, with hills drawn up like knees,
To drowse beside her implements of war?
Man shall outlast his battles. They have swept
Avon from Naseby Field to Severn Ham,
And Evesham's dedicated stones have stepp'd
Down to the dust with Montfort's oriflamme.
Nor the red tear nor the reflected tower
Abides; but yet these elegant grooves remain,
Worn in the sandstone parapet hour by hour
By labouring bargemen where they shifted ropes;
Even so shall men turn back from violent hopes
To Adam's cheer, and toil with spade again.
Ay, and his mother Nature, to whose lap
Like a repentant child at length he hies,
Nor in the whirlwind or the thunder-clap
Proclaims her more tremendous mysteries:
But when in winter's grave, bereft of light,
With still, small voice divinelier whispering
—Lifting the green head of the aconite,
Feeding with sap of hope the hazel-shoot—
She feels God's finger active at the root,
Turns in her sleep, and murmurs of the Spring.
Some years later Q wrote to his daughter Foy, when she was rowing down the Avon with May Cannan:
'When you get down to Eckington, land by the bridge and see if the sandstone parapet is still dented with the marks of the tow-ropes which the bargees used to shift there where the towpath changes sides. Your father once wrote a poem there, which got into print . . . Tell May that whoever reported the Avon unnavigable above Warwick must have deceived her. That Stoneleigh can't be navigated is inconceivable. But you have seen that lovely Warwick Park and the building on the live rock: and if you're not in love with Avon by this time, I renounce you. It's the gentlest stream in England, and the most English.'
From Eckington bridge, P and Q passed, below Strensham, the last lock before Tewkesbury. Q writes, 'Mr Sandys's task here was not difficult, for the Avon Valley is so level that only two locks are required in the fifteen miles from Pershore.' At Bredon, Q relates Samuel Ireland's anecdote of Bishop Prideaux of Worcester who, during the civil war was so poor that he had to sell virtually everything he owned in order to subsist 'One day,' Ireland writes, 'being asked by a neighbour, as he passed through the village with something under his gown, what had he got there? —he replied he was become an ostrich, and forced to live upon iron—showing some old iron which he was going to sell at the blacksmith's to enable him to purchase a dinner.' (Referring to a popular belief in the Middle Ages, based upon Pliny's Natural History, that ostriches were able to digest anything, even iron: horseshoes, or sometimes nails, becoming the iconographic attribute of the ostrich.)
P and Q finally reached their goal, Tewkesbury, where the Avon meets the Severn, having first divided into four streams: one going through a lock, another over a weir and the other two powering mills. Q describes Tewkesbury as lying along the southern bank of Mill Avon, the longest branch of the divided river. Before reaching the Abbey Mill, the river passes various back gardens:
'one of these gardens—that of the Bell and Bowling-Green Inn—will be recognized by all readers of John Halifax Gentleman, and the view from the yew-hedged bowling-green itself shall be painted in Mrs. Craik's own words:
"At the end of the arbour the wall which enclosed us on the riverward side was cut down—my father had done it at my asking—so as to make seat, something after the fashion of Queen Mary's seat at Stirling, of which I had read. Thence one could see a goodly sweep of country. First, close below, flowed the Avon—Shakespeare's Avon—here a narrow sluggish stream, but capable as we sometimes knew to our cost, of being roused into fierceness and foam. Now it slipped on quietly enough, contenting itself with turning a flour-mill hard by, the lazy whirr of which made a sleepy, incessant monotone which I was fond of hearing. From the opposite bank stretched a wide green level called the Ham, dotted with pasturing cattle of all sorts. Beyond it was a second river, forming an arc of a circle round the verdant flat. But the stream itself lay so low as to be invisible from where we sat; you could only trace the line of its course by the small white sails that glided in and out, oddly enough, from behind trees and across meadow lands."
This second stream is, of course, the Severn.'
In April 1926 Q was to attend, with his wife and daughter, the Centenary Memorial Service and public luncheon for Mrs Craik at Tewkesbury Abbey, the solid stone tower of which marked the end of the journey down the Warwickshire Avon. P and Q's trip finished with another battlefield: this time of 1471 when Yorkists fought Lancastrians. Q concludes:
' There is a narrow field, one of the last that Avon washes, down the centre of which runs a narrow withy-bordered watercourse. It is called the "Bloody Meadow," after the carnage of that day, when, as the story goes, blood enough lay at its foot to float a boat; and just beyond, our river is gathered into the greater Severn.'
Tilda and Arthur accomplished the journey from Evesham to Tewkesbury at greater speed, in the car hired by George Jessup, who was able to experiment with sketching his impressions of the countryside whilst being driven. However, 'Mr. Jessup frankly owned that his experiments so far dissatisfied him.' At Tewkesbury, he sets up his easel at the Mythe Bridge—where P and Q had moored their canoe in the boat-yard—and records the scene using more conventional techniques. The children are left to wander and (echoing Mrs Craik) the sight of the 'small white sails gliding in and out, in the oddest fashion, behind clumps of trees and – for aught they could see—on dry land' draws them on until they reach a bridge 'far newer and wider' than the one upon which they have left George Jessup, and spanning a river 'far more majestic than the Avon'. They see a tug towing a line of large barges. An old road-mender tells the children these are called trows and that they are going down through Gloucester to Sharpness Dock.
The children watch the boats and Dolph starts behaving oddly: he has recognized Bill who is on the tug. The children race after the tug, through a meadow but Bill, to Tilda's despair, is lost to sight. They spend the night in the shed of a kindly cranesman at the tidal basin and the next morning are watching the tug for signs of life. They have taken leave of Mr Jessup who has paid their train fares down to the docks at Gloucester and given them some money. Tilda dictates a letter to Hucks, which Arthur writes. Tilda is dismayed when a man finally emerges from the tug to discover that Bill has left. All is not lost, however, as he returns to the boat because he has left his cap behind. He is in a bit of a state after a night's drinking but coffee and eggs revive him and he agrees to make enquiries about how to get to Holmness. The children spend the day dodging Authority and in the evening Bill finds them and announces that they are to go aboard a cargo steamer, the Evan Evans, bound for Cardiff which Bill has found to be their nearest port for Holmness and from where they may be able to get a pleasure steamer to Holmness. Bill has got a job in the engine room. The skipper has gone to a revival meeting in Bristol and they are to pick him up on the way, so the children can sleep in his cabin that night. They are woken by Bill, black with sweat and coal-dust, and told to tidy the cabin quickly because they are off Avonmouth and the skipper is about to come aboard. Luckily, the stowaways find that they are hidden by a thick fog. Bill is in the engine room, the mate is dead drunk, and the skipper has had a revelation that 'if a man only 'ad faith 'e could let everything else rip'. Unfortunately, this doesn't apply to navigation and the boat goes right off course. The crew hear what they take to be breakers but turns out to be a two boatloads of psalm-singing men and maidens, with a load of sheep, in charge of a bearded old man, who tells the skipper he is about 25 miles off course, between Holmness and land. Once more, fate has taken a hand. Tilda tells the old man they have a message for Sir Miles Chandon, or failing him, Miss Sally. The children are taken into the boats and Arthur finally sees his Island. The party are making for Inistow Farm which the family lease from Miss Sally. The children are given a bath and one of the girls notices the mark on Arthur's shoulder and draws Tilda's attention to the fireplace where she sees the four lozenges on Sir Miles' coat of arms. The farm had previously belonged to the Chandons.
Tilda and Arthur meet Miss Sally who decides to send for Sir Miles, who is in the south of France. Her friend, the clergyman Mr Chichester, says he will ride over to Meriton, Sir Miles' seat, the following day. He does so and meets Glasson, who is on the same errand. The children are due to meet Miss Sally again at Culvercoombe the following day. Mr Chichester is forced through politeness to admit to Mr Glasson that he knows Sir Miles' address but that Mr Glasson should nevertheless apply to Miss Sally as he has been told to do by the butler at Meriton. Miss Sally gives Glasson the address but arranges for Mr Chichester to send a telegram to Sir Miles telling him to come home at once. So Glasson is sent on a wild goose chase and Miss Sally sets off to Holy Innocents orphanage to see the plight of the children for herself, rescue them, and enlighten the subscribers. Meanwhile, Arthur takes matters into his own hands. There is a boat on the beach and he and Tilda set off for Holmness in the night. They reach there exhausted. They sleep but wake to find that the boat has drifted away and they are marooned. The worst is feared by those who find the empty boat but Sir Miles has equipped a refuge on the island for shipwrecked mariners.
Tilda's ambition is to become a lady. She peruses avidly the Lady's Vade-Mecum, or How to Get on in Society which she has been given by Chrissy of Inistow farm, after she makes something of an unladylike exhibition of herself demonstrating her ability as an acrobat. The adults who go to rescue Tilda and Arthur from the island, are bemused to find Tilda draped in a crimson velvet curtain, next to a table laid for a dinner-party of eight, reading to Arthur, acting as butler, from the Lady's Vade-Mecum. Tilda achieves her ambition as she is taken under Miss Sally's wing and educated. All ends happily: Glasson is sent off to the south of France and is unmasked as a villain in Bursfield; and Sir Miles returns to take charge of the son he believed to have died in infancy. The epilogue intimates that Tilda, now grown up and educated, and Arthur, a midshipman and soon to become a second lieutenant in the navy, will make a match of it. Sir Elphinstone says of Arthur that that would be repeating the same mistake as his father and of Tilda that she is 'nobody's child' but his sister retorts that without Tilda, the same would have applied to Arthur Chandon.
True Tilda and The Warwickshire Avon which inspired it are both a delight to read. In The Warwickshire Avon, Parsons and Quiller-Couch capture the essence of Shakespeare's country for their American readers: there is no grand scenery—no mountains or lakes—but the journey is full of incidental quiet charm. This pastoral heart of England is encapsulated by the prose version in the book of Q's later Ode Upon Eckington Bridge, River Avon.
In the only mention which he makes of True Tilda, Brittain refers to it as 'pure adventure'. Rowse describes it as 'all fantasy and fun, with plenty of visual appeal.' Passages from The Warwickshire Avon reappear in the descriptions of the landscape which Tilda and Arthur pass through on their way from the industrial 'Bursfield', near Birmingham, to 'Holmness', the island in the Bristol channel which is their goal. The route of The Warwickshire Avon, is more tortuous, following the meanders of the river, and beginning at Naseby in the east; whereas Tilda and Arthur's journey begins in the west and the first part of their journey is by canal barge, and follows a straighter route, although the journey is still far slower than Tilda would like. The two routes first come together at Stratford-upon-Avon which is the lynchpin of both books: it is Shakespeare's birthplace that American tourists flock to see, according to Henry James; P and Q search for the spirit of Shakespeare amongst the tourist tat, and pay homage at his tomb; the theme of Shakespeare's The Tempest runs through True Tilda, and it is in Stratford that the various strands of the plot of True Tilda are drawn together. Here Sam Bossom is finally united with his love, and the actor Mortimers, whose Mecca is Stratford, finally are able to discharge their debt to Hucks and obtain an engagement at the Memorial Theatre, both results due to the exertions of Tilda. Here, also, Tilda and Arthur meet the American artist George Jessup who takes them on the next leg of their journey as far as Tewkesbury and provides them with the money to accomplish the final stage. The route from Stratford to Evesham is the only part of the journey which both parties—P and Q, and Tilda and Arthur—travel along the river Avon.
The characters in True Tilda are engaging and the story is full of humour. Rowse writes that it arose from an idea which Q had for a play based on the Babes in the Wood. Unlike the poor defenceless Babes who perish in the wood, Tilda and Arthur succeed in their quest to find the 'island' and Arthur's origins, largely because of Tilda's robust determination. She is an orphan and has stood on her own two feet since babyhood (and indeed would find suddenly acquiring parents as something of an inconvenience), whereas the dreamy, innocent Arthur Miles is far more vulnerable and would surely have met a similar fate to that of the Babes if left to fend for himself. It is the forthright Tilda who takes charge of the adults in the story and moves the plot forward, with her ability to grasp essentials and ignore trifling objections. At one point she confides to Arthur 'It's a strange thing to me 'ow all these grown-ups get it fixed in their 'eads that they're doin' the pertectin'. I reckon their size confuses 'em.' Tilda and Arthur are helped on their journey by the kindness of strangers and happy accidents of Fate. Rowse quotes Q who said of True Tilda: 'The various people they meet are kindly or morose: each helps or hinders in a fashion. But the moral to be that, in the end, the children have somehow helped everyone they asked.' Rowse comments 'Very true to Q., that—each of his mature novels has a moral, a leading theme.' Tilda is steadfast and true and Q named his own yacht True Tilda.