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Hughes mentions skirmishes in the Civil War, rather than the great battlefields. The Chiltern Hills were the front line between King and Parliament. Here it was a war of brief encounters between mounted regiments in the beech woods; Cavaliers with feathers in their hats, Ironsides with Bibles in their boots. At one time it was very evocative to stand on the hills and look across the plain towards Oxford, the King's capital. Here history and landscape combined. In the 1640s, the King's horsemen would have been moving in the lanes down there:

For God! For the cause! For the church! For the laws!
For Charles, King of England, and Rupert of the Rhine!

The verse is from Naseby, by Thomas Babbington (Lord) Macaulay, 1800-1859. The Neolithic Ridgeway runs along these hills, too, so Hughes's undergraduates could have walked here all the way from the Vale of the White Horse with just one crossing of a river, the Thames. Disraeli, bought a small stately home — Hughenden Manor — in the hills. It has views across the plain and a fine collection of conifers from around the world. Today it's owned by the National Trust. You can eat cheese and apples, or egg-and-bacon pie, in the stable yard where the horses were groomed. Many of the Victorian fittings are still in place in the stalls in the stable-coffee shop marked with the names of foundries and workshops in towns which are no longer industrial at all.

Milton, by the way, had to sneak through the lines to get to Oxford to see the woman he was so disastrously to marry. Later, in the Commonwealth or Interregnum (the only brief period when England was a republic) he was Cromwell's Latin Secretary — the Secretary of State of his day.

Perhaps this accumulation of trivial detail — like Hughes's insistence on wood sorrel and bog bean — makes my case better than I can. If you were English in the 1950s, and old enough to be aware, all these things were yours as much as your personality or childhood memories were. They informed and shaped you, made you into what you were — for better or worse.


Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown's Schooldays. Electronic version from Project Gutenberg produced by Gil Jaysmith and David Widger.

Last modified 17 September 2006