A Sunday on the Surrey Hills

A Sunday on the Surrey Hills

A visit to the Salts Tilford home

I have no illusions on the subject of the country. The uneven, ankle twisting roads; the dusty hedges; the groups of children torturing something; the dull, toil-broken, prematurely old agricultural labourer; the savage tramp; the manure heaps with their terrible odour; the chain of mile stones from inn to inn, from cemetery to cemetery: all these I pass heavily by until a distant telegraph pole or signal post tells me that the blessed rescuing train is at hand. From the village street into the railway station is a leap across five centuries from the brutalizing torpor of Nature's tyranny over Man into the order and alertness of Man's organized dominion over Nature.

Last week I allowed myself to be persuaded by my friend Henry Salt and his wife 'to come down and stay until Monday' among the Surrey hills. Salt, a man of exceptional intelligence on most subjects, is country mad, and keeps a house at a hole called Tilford, down Farnham way, to which he retires at intervals, subsisting on the fungi of the neighbourhood and writing articles advocating that line of diet and justifying the weather and the season to 'pent-up' London. He entertained no doubt that a day in Tilford would convert me from rurophobia to rurolatry; and as he is a sensible companion for a walk and a talk — if only he would, like a sensible man, confine himself to the Thames Embankment — I at last consented to the experiment, and even agreed to march to the summit of a scenic imposture called Hindhead, and there shewn the downs of the South Coast.

London was clean, fresh, and dry, as I made my way to Waterloo after rising at the unnatural hour of seven on Sunday morning. Opening a book, I took care not to look out of the window between stations until, after traversing a huge cemetery and a huge camp, we reached Farnham. As usual in the country, it was raining heavily. I asked my way to Tilford, and was told to go straight on for four miles or so. As I had brought nothing that could hurt Salt's feelings by betraying my mistrust of his rustic paradise, I was without an umbrella; and the paradise, of course, took the fullest advantage of the omission. I do not know what the downs of the South Coast may be; but I can vouch for the ups and downs as far as the Surrey roads are concerned. Between Farnham and Tilford there are nearly half a dozen hills and not one viaduct. Over these I trudged uphill on my toes and pounded downhill on my heels, making at each step an oozy quagmire full of liquid gamboge. As the land-space grew less human, the rain came down faster, reducing my book to pulp and transferring the red of the cover to my saturated grey jacket. Some waterproof variety of bird, screaming with laughter at me from a plantation, made me understand better than before why birds are habitually shot. My sleeves by this time stuck cold to my wrists. Hanging my arms disconsolately so as to minimise the unpleasant repercussion, I looked down at my clinging knees, and instantly discharged a pint of black dye and rainwater over them from my hat brim. At this I laughed, much as criminals broken on the wheel laughed at the second stroke. A mile or two more of treadmill and gamboge churning, and I came to the outposts of a village, with a river hurrying over a bed of weeds of wonderful colours, spanned by a bridge constructed on the principle of the Gothic arch, so as to extort from horses the maximum of effort both when drawing carts up one side, and preventing the cards from over-running them when slipping precipitously down the other.

This was Tilford, uninhabited as far as I could see except by one man, whose surly looks asked me, more plainly than words could, what the devil I wanted there. Then up another hill between meeting-house and church, and out upon an exposed stretch of road where the rain and the wind had an unobstructed final pelt at me. Salt is mistaken in supposing that he lives at Tilford; as a matter of fact, he lives considerably beyond it; and I was on the point of turning while I yet had strength enough to get back to London, when he hailed me from his door with a delighted shout of 'Here he is!' and beamed at me as if my condition left nothing to be desired, and Tilford had done itself the highest credit. In no time my clothes were filling the kitchen with steam; and I, clothed in some garments belonging to Salt's brother-in-law, a promising poet whose figure is somewhat dissimilar to mine, was distending myself with my host's latest discoveries in local fungology.

My clothes dried fast. Quite early in the afternoon I put them on again, and found them some two inches shorter and tighter, but warm and desiccated. Then, the rain having ceased, we went out for a walk, and followed the road between the hills, which were like streaks of wet peat beneath the cloudy sky.

Next morning I got up at eight to see the sun and hear the birds. I found, however, that I was up before them; and I neither heard nor saw them until I got back to the Metropolis. Salt was jubilant because the wind was north-east, which made rain impossible. So after breakfast we started across the hills to Hindhead, through a mist that made the cows look like mammoths and the ridges like Alpine chains. Eventually we got out upon the uplands, where the mud was replaced by soft quicksand and heather already swept dry the stark wind from the North Sea. Frensham Pond, like a waterworks denuded of machinery, lay to leeward of us, with a shudder passing over it from head to foot at every squall. I sympathised with it, and looked furtively at Salt to see whether the ineffable dreariness of the scene had not dashed him. But he was used to it. When we were well out of reach of shelter, the rain began. Salt declared that it would be nothing; that it could never hold against the north-east wind. Nevertheless it did. When, after staggering and slipping up and down places which Salt described as lanes, but which were, in fact, rapidly filling beds of mountain mud torrents, we at last got upon Hindhead (which was exactly like all the other mounds), we could hardly see one another, much less the south coast, through the mist.

When we started homewards Salt was in the highest spirits. The discovery of a wet day in a north-east wind elated him as the discovery of a comet elates an astronomer, though the very sheep were brawling plaintively at the sky, and a cow to which I gave a friendly slap in passing was so saturated that the water squirted up my sleeve to the very armpit. Before we got home my clothes contained three times as much water as they had gathered the day before. When I again resumed them they seemed to have been borrowed in an emergency from a very young brother.

I need not describe my walk back to Farnham after dinner. It rained all the way; but at least I was getting nearer to London. I have had change of air and a holiday; and I have no doubt I shall be able to throw off their efforts in a fortnight or so. Should my experience serve to warn any tempted Londoner against too high an estimate of the vernal delights of the Surrey hills, it will perhaps not have been wasted.

George Bernard Shaw

Pall Mall Gazette, April 28, 1888