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In the Country

In the Country

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Excerpt from In the Country: Essays

A glance at the physical features of the country shows how these picturesque lanes were formed. The aboriginal track-way over hill and dale, rudely marked out by stones laid at intervals, just as the Devon coastguardsmen still guide themselves over the cliffs at night by lines of stones so deposited, sank gradually into the soil. Mud from the path was ?ung on either side.

Violent rains cut deep furrows in the road; during winter the path became a water-course where it was not a bog, and this continued for centuries. Then came an age Of improvement; the adjoining moor was divided from the road, after the native fashion, by banks of earth, trees and bushes took possession of them and while every season washes the road away, every time the farmer mends his fences the banks above gain height. Thus each year deepens the lane. Frost Often brings down one of these banks, which are topped by hedges, in some cases thirty feet above the traveller's head and this rongement, as they call it in Devon, must be replaced before the lane is passable, so that their depth seldom diminishes, and perpetually increases.

Many Of these lanes are extremely ancient. Round Dart moor especially they go back to Celtic times, or beyond them to that dim pre-historic antiquity, where even archaeology loses itself. Their natural formation, as we have described it above, overthrows a theory which has before now found favour with ethnologists, and which would contrast the generous, open hearted Roman with the skulking Celt. The Roman shows his character according to this fancy by his wide, elevated streets, driven for the most part in a straight line through the length and breadth Of the land while the other's nature was to hide in circuitous hollow lanes, fighting in trenches, as it were, while the legions manoeuvred in the Open. What little the ancients have told us Of the Celts negatives this view. Though superior force and a higher civilization drove the ancient Briton to the fastnesses of Wales and Cornwall, the Celt was brave to rash ness, ready, as Aristotle says, to dare even the waves with his sword.

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