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Monday, November 28th, 2005, 08:49 AM

English Villages


Local histories--Ignorance and destruction--Advantages of the study of village antiquities--Description of an English village--The church-- The manor-house--Prehistoric people--Later inhabitants--Saxons--Village inn--Village green--Legends.

To write a complete history of any village is one of the hardest literary labours which anyone can undertake. The soil is hard, and the crop after the expenditure of much toil is often very scanty. In many cases the records are few and difficult to discover, buried amidst the mass of papers at the Record Office, or entombed in some dusty corner of the Diocesan Registry. Days may be spent in searching for these treasures of knowledge with regard to the past history of a village without any adequate result; but sometimes fortune favours the industrious toiler, and he discovers a rich ore which rewards him for all his pains. Slowly his store of facts grows, and he is at last able to piece together the history of his little rural world, which time and the neglect of past generations had consigned to dusty oblivion.

In recent years several village histories have been written with varied success by both competent and incompetent scribes; but such books are few in number, and we still have to deplore the fact that so little is known about the hamlets in which we live. All writers seem to join in the same lament, and mourn over the ignorance that prevails in rural England with regard to the treasures of antiquity, history, and folklore, which are to be found almost everywhere. We may still echo the words of the learned author of _Tom Brown's Schooldays_, the late Mr. Hughes, who said that the present generation know nothing of their own birthplaces, or of the lanes, woods, and fields through which they roam. Not one young man in twenty knows where to find the wood-sorrel, or the bee-orchis; still fewer can tell the country legends, the stories of the old gable-ended farmhouses, or the place where the last skirmish was fought in the Civil War, or where the parish butts stood. Nor is this ignorance confined to the unlearned rustics; it is shared by many educated people, who have travelled abroad and studied the history of Rome or Venice, Frankfort or Bruges, and yet pass by unheeded the rich stores of antiquarian lore, which they witness every day, and never think of examining closely and carefully. There are very few villages in England which have no objects of historical interest, no relics of the past which are worthy of preservation. "Restoration," falsely so called, conducted by ignorant or perverse architects, has destroyed and removed many features of our parish churches; the devastating plough has well-nigh levelled many an ancient barrow; railroads have changed the character of rustic life and killed many an old custom and rural festival. Old legends and quaint stories of the countryside have given place to talks about politics and newspaper gossip. But still much remains if we learn to examine things for ourselves, and endeavour to gather up the relics of the past and save them from the destructive hand of Time.