A choice of roads here confronts the tourist. The pleasantest way to Old 선릉오피 Windsor is by the easily rideable towing-path for three-quarters of a mile, bringing one to a narrow lane, looking like a private road, leading to past the little church of that village. Old Windsor Church is a prettily situated building, itself of little interest, although there may be those who will find food for reflection in a sight of the last resting-place of “Perdita” Robinson, the discarded early favourite of the “First Gentleman in Europe.” Her career can at least serve to point a moral, if it cannot adorn a tale. “Perdita” died December 26th, 1800; Florizel lived and flourished for close upon thirty years longer. Grown old, wheezy, and corpulent, drawn about Windsor Great[201] Park in a pony-carriage in his last days, and morosely shunning the sight of his fellow-creatures, the once gay Florizel died in 1830, as George the Fourth. He lies in the Royal Vault, but his pretty wanton’s bones moulder, all but forgotten, near the Thames-side towing-path.

Leaving Old Windsor Church behind, the second turning to the right leads into Windsor town. But instead of making for the Royal Borough, we will take the right-hand fork, duly sign-posted, and crossing the Thames by the Albert Bridge, enter Buckinghamshire. In half a mile’s run by the river bank, Datchet is reached by turning to the right and so over the level crossing by Datchet railway station. This is a very much rebuilt village, which in another hundred years (when its modern Elizabethan villas have weathered a little) will begin to be picturesque.

We now take the left-hand road for the old-fashioned hamlet of Upton, the mother parish of Slough, that modern suburban town, the “Sloughforwindsor,” familiar to travellers on the Great Western Railway. It may, perhaps, be remembered that the Slough people, anxious at one and the same time to show their loyalty and to suppress the unlovely name of their town, proposed a few years since to change its title to “Upton Royal,” but nothing came of the project.

Upton, so near that populous place, is singularly retired. It has an ancient and highly interesting Norman and Early English village church, which shares with that of Stoke Poges the honour of being the scene of Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”; but the tourist who follows the wheelmarks of the present writer will doubtless,[202] like him and the vast majority of visitors to both places, prefer to think Stoke Poges churchyard the original. In any case, and however well its “ivied tower” answers to the description in the poem, it would be impossible nowadays to deprive Stoke of its fame.

Let not the cyclist by any means omit to look for a singularly puzzling epitaph on a broken flat stone on the north side of the church, whose meaning has been utterly obscured by lapse of time. It runs thus:—

Here Lies the Body of
SARAH BRAMSTONE,
of Eton, Spinster; a person who dared
to be just in the Reign of
George the Second.

Obijt Jan. ye 30th, 1765. Ætat 77.

This is, indeed, strange, for it is impossible to believe that law and order were so hard to preserve in the days of the second George that for a person to “dare to be just” should be so notable a thing. A popular hymn urges us to “dare to be a Daniel,” but what lions lurked in the narrow path that Sarah Bramstone trod? It must be confessed that this sorely piques the curiosity. We know what befell Solomon, Julius Cæsar, William the Conqueror, and hundreds of other highly important historical characters, and know also that even they did not always dare so much; but we shall never know the secret of this tombstone.

Notice, also, on the north side of the church the white marble tomb of George Fordham, the jockey, who died, aged fifty, in 1887, with the odd and significant quotation, “’Tis the pace that kills.” Those who[203] did not know the amiable George might well take that as an aspersion upon his character; but Fordham was the gentlest of jocks and a model husband and father, and this is but a singularly unhappy phrase in such a connection.

Leaving Upton Church, we take a road that leads from opposite it to George Green, crossing the old Bath road, and over the Great Western Railway. A direct road runs thence to Langley Park, through whose recesses there is an entirely unhindered right of way for self and cycle. Black Park is alone worth the ride; a vast stretch of solemn pine-woods, where the breezes die away in hollow murmurs, or sink to absolute silences amid the clustered giant trunks. The sunlight filters down in scanty patches to the carpeting of pine needles, on whose yielding bed you walk with silent footsteps, save for the occasional breaking of a dry twig, whose destruction sounds with startling distinctness in this solitude. Few ever come to these woodlands, and it is likely enough that you will have them all to yourself, excepting, indeed, the wood-pigeons, breaking now and again into a weird chorus of cooing.

But its great lake of about thirty acres is, perhaps, the chief feature of Black Park. Seated by its shore, with the close ranks of the great solemn pines overhanging the sullen water, you see with what appropriateness the park is named. It is a kind of place where you can readily imagine yourself a Robinson Crusoe. Little sandy beaches run out into the water; the inky recesses of the woods look as though they awaited the explorer to come and discover the savages and the big game[204] that doubtless lie hidden there; and, in fact, all you want, to be completely happy, is a raft, a rifle, a suit of goat-skins, a Man Friday, and some enemies to shoot at. It is certainly a spot R. L. Stevenson would have revelled in.

If it were not that Burnham Beeches have to be reached, nothing could be more delightful than to stay here the afternoon, taking tea, perhaps, at the “Plough” at Wexham Street (which must not be confounded with Wexham village). Leaving the lake at the end where it borders the road, turn to the right. In half a mile you reach the pretty hamlet and turn left, then right, then left again. This brings one into the broad road leading from Wexham village to Farnham Royal and Burnham. On reaching this road (which runs right and left), instead of crossing it, turn to the right, and then to the left once more. This brings us into a tree-shaded lane, which dips downwards. On the right, on the edge of the meadow overlooking this lane, a momentary glimpse of a solemn, mausoleum-like monument is caught. This sufficiently notifies the fact that we are at Stoke Poges, for it is the memorial erected to the poet Gray by a descendant of William Penn, who once resided at Stoke Park. The park, of which the great, odd-looking mansion may be seen from Stoke Poges churchyard, has belonged to men of light and leading. It is now the residence of Mr. Bryant, of Bryant & May, who purchased it of Mr. Jeremiah Colman, of Colman’s Mustard.

The melancholy looking monument, looking like a tea-caddy or biscuit-box on a pedestal, bears verses[205] from Gray’s mournful muse—from the “Elegy,” and from the “Lines on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” Having inspected this, walk a few yards down the lane. Here a white gate on the right, with an old lodge absolutely covered from the ground to the topmost bricks of the chimneys with ivy, appears to lead into the park. This is, however, the entrance to Stoke Poges churchyard. Leaving the cycle here, by the cottage fence, we walk to this place of pilgrimage through a very beautiful modern lych-gate in carved oak. The spire and “ivy-covered tower” of the church appear beyond; the whole, strange to say, quite as beautiful as one expects it to be; with the sole exception that the churchyard is now too large and too crowded with staring white marble monuments to fully realise the rural note of the famous poem. But that is a detail. Under the east window, in the churchyard he has immortalised, Gray is appropriately laid to rest, in a quiet, unpretending tomb, with his mother and his aunt.

Thomas Gray, who has come down to us chiefly as the author of the “Elegy wrote in a Country Churchyard,” as he himself entitles that famous poem, was[206] born at the close of 1716, the son of Philip and Dorothy Gray. Philip appears to have been a “law-scrivener,” and would seem to have always been on the verge of madness. He died when his son was twenty-five years of age. The poet, educated at Eton and at Cambridge, weakly all his life, and cursed with a melancholy that was partly real and partly affected, was the only one of his mother’s twelve children who survived their infancy. Never more than slenderly provided with the means of living, he dallied through his fifty-four years of life with the classics, projecting many things but completing few. His English poems are very few in number, and like the small total of his writings, few even of these are more than fragmentary. His morbid nature may perhaps be guessed from the fact that it was almost only the death of a relative or friend that would inspire him to write. Thus the famous Elegy, begun in 1742 and only completed in 1750, owes its conception and its several slow stages to successive bereavements; and the “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” originated in the same doleful manner. Save to scholars, Gray’s whole career and repute as a poet are comprised within those two poems, both in the very front rank of English song.

Gray’s muse is unhealthy and ill-assorted with the thought of modern times. Nor was it much better matched with that of his own. His physique influenced his temperament; his narrow and inactive life rendered him morbid, and finally shortened his days. He died in 1771. It is credibly said that he never in his life received more than one single payment of forty guineas[207] for literary work. For the “Elegy,” on which his deathless fame rests, he never received, nor would accept, any pecuniary remuneration. He allowed Dodsley and the other publishers to print it, which they did, reaping fortunes thereby. It is, perhaps, scarce necessary to add that this kind of poet is quite extinct. Gray, who refused the offer of Poet Laureate on the death of Colley Cibber in 1757, was of opinion that it was beneath the dignity of a gentleman to accept payment for his “inventions.” How he would have despised Tennyson, who could drive a very shrewd bargain with his publishers, built up a fortune on his writings, and went into the milk trade!

By the way, it is interesting to read a contemporary “review” of the “Elegy.” Here it is: “An Elegy wrote in a country churchyard, 4to, Dodsley 6d., seven pages. The excellency of this little piece more than compensates for its lack of quantity.” Who wrote that "review"? Was it some draper or grocer, whose objections to short measure were overcome by the excellence of the goods?

Here, at Stoke, Gray spent his vacations with his mother and his aunt. His mother died in 1753. She, good soul, thought this rickety son of hers—as infirm of purpose as he was of body—engaged in reading for the Law, and went to her grave unconscious of his odes. He loved his mother, and on the lichened slab that covers the unpretending red brick altar-tomb in the churchyard you may yet read the epitaph he wrote—" ... beside her friend and sister, here sleep the remains of Dorothy Gray, widow, the careful tender mother of[208] many children, one of whom alone had the misfortune to survive her.”

The “yew tree’s shade” is cast over the south porch from a very ancient tree of that species, and the scene generally accords well with the poem. In this connection, as an additional proof that Gray referred to Stoke Poges, it may be noted that the spire, surmounting “yonder ivy-mantled tower,” is an addition since his time, being little over a century old. This would appear to finally dispose of the claims put forward for Upton Royal by the sticklers for absolute accuracy of description, who have held that if Gray were writing of Stoke, he would have written “spire” instead of “tower.”

The church is very picturesque, and the interior worth seeing for the sake of the ancient architecture and for the curious little fragments of stained glass set in one of the windows, among them one representing a nude angel, or wingless cherub, with a monastic tonsure, blowing a trumpet and bestriding a veritable “hobby-horse,” or primitive bicycle. There is no questioning the antiquity of the fragment, for the date, 1642, appears on another portion of the glass, and so the mystery of the bicycle is unexplained. Every visitor to Stoke Poges visits Gray’s tomb, and no less a matter for pilgrimage has the so-called “Bicycle Window” become[209] of late years. Indeed, to those who have no literary sympathies, this undoubtedly takes the first rank as an object of interest.

Having seen everything, we retrace our steps to the road, and, turning to the left, make for Farnham Royal, where there is a very beautiful modern church, and in the churchyard an extraordinary monument to a Mr. Henry Dodd, who died in 1861, “brickmaker and contractor. Began life as a ploughboy within a mile of St. Paul’s.” On the south side of the churchyard is the grave of Sarah Hart, victim of George Tawell, who administered prussic acid to her, in 1845, at Salt Hill. He had been carrying on an intrigue with the woman and made her an allowance; but fearing that his wife would hear of the connection, determined to put her out of the way. Tawell himself lived at Berkhamsted, in Hertfordshire. His was an evil career. Living in his youth a secret dissolute life, he had been sent to penal servitude in Australia for forgery. Released after a time, he amassed a fortune out there in business, and retired. Dark rumours, however, were current that he acquired a great part of his fortune by poisoning his partner.

The unhappy woman’s grave is unmarked by any stone, but is the nearest mound to the door in the churchyard wall. Tawell was the first criminal arrested through the agency of that then novelty, the electric telegraph. He rushed off to Slough Station after committing the crime, and just succeeded in catching the train to Paddington. He was clad in Quaker dress, and the telegraphist sent a message up to detain "a man[210] in the garb of a Kwaker," the original code not containing the letter Q. He was duly arrested and hanged.

From the church we retrace our steps to the village, and taking the middle one of three roads, past the ornamental well-house in the centre of the street, make for that famous woodland, Burnham Beeches, along a very winding lane, taking every left-hand turning. Along a strip of common land, bordered by refreshment houses, we come downhill to the first glade, where the giant beeches crowd together in a dim light. The purchase of Burnham Beeches, unquestionably the finest piece of natural woodland in England,—finer than anything in the New Forest or in Savernake Forest,—was a noble work of the City of London Corporation, which has thus preserved the spot for ever.