The irregularity of the river banks, now nearly level with the water, sloping gently upwards, or steep and at times almost precipitous, is much marked as we proceed on our way up the stream. After passing some gardens, and a steep bank overgrown with gorse, the sluggish stream quickens its pace, and we soon reach an abrupt turn where the current is met by an unyielding wall of lias. Under the bare limestone the water is deep and rushes swiftly, but above, the bank is covered with tangled growth of blackberry and wild clematis, and in spring the ground beneath the trees is blue with hyacinths. This sudden turn is Norton Corner, and though no signs of that village can be seen it stands hardly a mile away over the ridge of fields. The whole course we have come may be followed on foot by the old tow-path from the mill. From this point, after crossing the railway, a farm road will take us to the end of the village; or we may take the footpath through the arch beneath the line that we passed a few hundred yards further down.
After leaving Norton Corner by boat, the river, for a space slow and easy, soon becomes swift, and as we approach the ruins of an old lock the passage is attended with difficulties by reason of the shallow water and the stony bed. If we successfully pass these rapids and gain the next mill further progress is easy, but the mill can only be passed by lifting the boat over the steep weir. On the way we pass the old Fish and Anchor Inn, and a new ford calculated rather for the convenience of vehicles than of boating parties. From the "Fish and Anchor" we may ascend the long ridge of Cleeve Bank, and command a fine view of the valley and the winding of the stream below. Harvington Mill is at our feet, and the spire of the village church is visible beyond; further up the stream, some distance beyond the hanging wood, is Cleeve Mill, one of the prettiest spots on the river. The village of Cleeve Prior lies behind the bank, and there may be seen, besides the picturesque cottages and church, the old Manor, now a farmhouse, with a quaint avenue of box, elaborately clipped, leading to the front door. Over the fields on the further bank are the Salfords, and among the trees the curved gables of a fine old Jacobean mansion may be distinguished. The next place of interest on the stream is Bidford with its many arched bridge of mediaeval date.
If we follow the downward course of the Avon we find ourselves making a circuit of the town; for a considerable distance the Bell Tower does not leave us but seems to follow our boat, and ever and anon it reappears over the meadows and among the trees on our right hand. Hampton Church stands on rising ground, among the trees, on our left, and soon we are at Hampton Ferry. If we prefer the walk we can take a footpath by the bridge or the Bell Tower, and follow the winding stream to this point. According to the old chronicles a church was built at Hampton, in the reign of Canute, by Leofric and Godiva, so well known in the regions of romance, and they gave land here to the Abbey. The church we see was built and rebuilt by the Monastery, but whether on the ancient site we know not. It is a small but beautiful example of perpendicular architecture, and with the dark spreading yew tree, the remains of the old cross, and the delicately weathered tombstones, it makes a picture upon which the eye dwells with calm satisfaction.
The hill above the ferry is Clark's Hill, and the bank we are told was terraced by the monks of old as a vineyard. Whether tradition is true to facts we cannot surely say; a field beyond the ridge still bears the name of the vineyard, and this may have been the actual site. The ascent of the steep bank is rewarded on a clear day by the splendid panorama which lies around. From the terrace walk we look down upon the town, noticing with regret the predominating hues of brick and slate which mark the modern suburbs; but the old tower, the churches, and the gatehouse, despoiled but yet dignified, unconsciously hold the eye. The old wall of the Abbey precincts ended here at the river, and beside it runs Boat Lane, which would bring us out on the Green.
Looking down the stream, over the railway bridges, we see Green Hill, with the Abbey Manor and its grounds the most prominent feature. At some little distance to the right of the house is a grassy comb, and at the upper end is the spring to which legend points as the spot where Simon de Montfort was slain, and which still bears the name Battlewell.
Stretched around us are the Cotswolds, and if we take a path, or lane, leading over the hill westward we may, from the brow, behold Malvern's rugged length and the isolated mass of Bredon. Further northward, if the atmosphere be clear, we should distinguish the most striking height of the Abberly range, a peak which on one side would almost seem to overhang, and, away beyond, the Clee heights looking down on the beautiful and historic town of Ludlow.
Returning to our boat, we glide beneath the Abbey Manor, with its wooded slopes, and presently we reach Chadbury Lock and Mill. On a fair and warm day we may rest here in perfect content, listening to the rush of the weir, watching the swallows flit and skim over the calm water and break the glassy surface into circling ripples; or gazing with silent pleasure down the stream as it continues its peaceful course by wood and meadow.
Not far below Chadbury, past Wood Norton—a country seat of the Duke of Orleans, and by him lately rebuilt—its deer park and plantations, past flowery banks, and thick beds of rushes haunted by waterfowl, is the village of Fladbury. Pleasant-looking houses with trim gardens border the river on our right, and beyond are two mills, with the rushing weir between. That on our left is Cropthorne Mill, now a dwelling-house.
In Fladbury Church are some coats-of-arms in stained glass, said to have come from the Abbey of Evesham. One shield bears the device of Earl Simon. There is also a fine altar tomb, inlaid with brasses, bearing the effigies of some members of the Throckmorton family. The building is architecturally interesting, but the internal effect is marred by the removal of the plaster, thus exposing the rough masonry of "rubble," and the irregularity is much emphasised by "pointing."
On the opposite side of the river is Cropthorne, surmounting a steep bank. Here are many picturesque cottages of timber and thatch, and in this village of orchards, the effect of the street is much heightened if it be seen in the time of the apple-blossom. In this and the neighbouring parishes we may still find much of that rustic beauty which we have learned to associate with the names of Birket Foster and Mrs. Allingham.
The church contains many points of interest. As we enter we cannot but be impressed by the simple arches of the Norman nave, the carved pews of mediaeval date, and the Jacobean monuments—their once gaudy colouring mellowed by age. Few churches have been treated with such gentle consideration, and rarely do we find the true Gothic feeling so carefully preserved. A beautiful Saxon cross, intricately carved, and the ancient altar stone, lately discovered buried beneath the floor, are two valued treasures.
The town of Evesham is most conveniently situated as a centre from which to visit the broad vale and the surrounding hills. Within a comparatively short distance a great variety may be noticed in the general aspect of the country, and this is due not only to the contour of the surface and the nature of the soil, but also to the manner of cultivation; and, as has already been indicated, to the material employed in the buildings. The vale itself is sheltered, and the soil productive and capable of high cultivation, consequently the greater part has been utilised for agriculture. Lately the market-gardening industry, originating possibly in monastic times, has increased enormously, and the appearance of the country for many miles round Evesham has been transformed. In springtime the effect of the plum-blossom is surprisingly beautiful; and in the autumn a luxuriant effect is given by the heavily-laden trees bending beneath their weight of yellow or purple fruit. But against these transient effects we must place the tiresome regularity of the fruit-trees, their uniform size and height, and the absence or monotony of colour during a great part of the year, when the ground, the bushes, and the trees are bare.
The prosperity brought to the inhabitants of the vale by this staple industry is "writ large" in the towns and villages wherever it is practised, and, from the picturesque point of view, the gain is more than doubtful.
But though fruit-growing has spread in every direction, we can with ease escape beyond its limits, and even within them we may still find cornfields, rich pasture and woodlands, thriving farms, and villages still unspoiled by the modern "jerry-builder."
The hill country does not come within the limits of this volume, but it may be easily reached—the nearest points being Broadway, and the villages of Ashton-under-hill and Elmley Castle, both lying under Bredon. The value of the hills as a shelter and background to the vale has been touched on in former pages; and the debt which the valley owes to the stone which they provide, and the architectural style which grew up amongst them, cannot be overestimated.
Close to the town many of the field-paths have been bereft of their charm, and almost lost in the intricate maze of currant bushes and plum trees; but the river meadows are still untouched, and without going far afield we may find villages yet retaining much of their old-world character, and offering much that is picturesque and interesting.
Hampton, which has been described in the last section may be approached as easily by road as by river; from the top of the village Clark's Hill may be gained, and from here the ferry may be crossed and the town re-entered by Boat Lane.
Badsey, and Wickhamford, with the hamlet of Aldington, are all in their different ways worth a visit. Badsey in addition to its church has many interesting old houses; and at Wickhamford the church and manor form an attractive group. In the church are some fine canopied monuments, of Jacobean style, of the Sandys family, who owned the adjacent manor house—a building of stone and timber, much of it dating from the sixteenth century. The circular dovecote belonging to monastic times is carefully preserved.
Bretforton, with its church built by the monks of Evesham, lies on the road between Badsey and Honeybourne.
The villages of Middle and South Littleton have been little affected by modern enterprise. They may be reached by way of Offenham or Bengeworth, or from the village station. In South Littleton the long, narrow church though much spoiled by restoration tells of the care of the parent Abbey at least as far back as the thirteenth century. Opposite the church is a striking brick house, dignified even in its present degraded condition. With windows blocked, neglected garden, and used only as a storehouse for the farm at the back, it suggests the haunted mansion of the imagination. The building dates from about the year 1700; and the beauty of the design, especially of the roof with its chimneys and its dormers, is worthy of a better fate. A field path at the end of the street soon brings us to Middle Littleton. Among the ricks and outhouses we catch sight of the grey stone gables of the manor house, with the perpendicular church tower so familiar in the district, close beside it. The old cross is thrown into relief by the dark and spreading yew, and a natural picture is completed by the sombre walls and tower of the church.
To the lover of architecture, or mediaeval history, the greatest interest will attach to the large tythe barn which we come to on emerging into the field from the further side of the churchyard. The beautiful masonry and mouldings, the fine doorways and delicately designed finials at once mark the work as belonging to the fourteenth century, and in the chronicles of Evesham Abbey we read that it was built in the time of John de Ombresley who held the abbacy from 1367 to 1379.
In addition to the churches already mentioned St. Egwin's Church at Honeybourne was also in the "Deanery of the Vale," and under the special charge and jurisdiction of the Abbey. It may be reached either by road or rail. The fine tower and spire stamp it, at a glance, as different in style from the other churches of the neighbourhood; and these belong probably to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The porch, like that of Hampton, has a solid stone roof and dates from a century later. The chancel we learn was built by Abbot Brokehampton about 1300. The beautiful timber roof, of the Tudor period, has lately been most carefully repaired, and the interior replastered in the true mediaeval manner.
Almost within sight of this churchyard, and not many minutes' walk from it is the church of Cow Honeybourne which, with the exception of the tower, has been entirely rebuilt. For many years the nave and chancel were occupied as cottages.
On the Evesham side of the river there is only one church which seems to have been entirely the property of the Abbey. This is the church of Saint Egwin, at Norton, between two and three miles along the main north road. Here we may see a lectern of Norman date, carved out of a block of alabaster with curious forms of beasts and foliage; and in the centre, rudely cut is the figure of a bishop, holding in his left hand a crozier, his right in the act of benediction. This lectern once graced a chapel in the great church of Evesham; and the figure pourtrayed is Bishop Egwin, the first Abbot, to whom we owe the beginnings of the great and powerful Abbey.
The north chapel, with its monuments of a fashion long passed away, and its heraldic adornments, suggestive of the age of chivalry, forms a picture at once imposing and pathetic. The monuments are of considerable interest, and are good examples of Renaissance ornament and sculpture of three successive periods. The Bigge family, to the memory of whom they were erected, inherited through Sir Philip Hoby much of the Abbey land in this district. Early in the seventeenth century their mansion and estates were purchased by Lord Craven, and it is to the family of this nobleman that the funereal flags, tabards, and arms suspended above the monuments, belong.
From Norton church we may return by a field path which leads into and crosses a lane known as King's Lane, and possibly connected with some cavalier episode. The hamlet which we see before us is Lenchwick, and if we take the village street, after passing the lane to Chadbury we presently come to a steep but short descent with a group of old barns on our left. Near this spot stood, until about a hundred years ago, a stately mansion built by Sir Thomas Bigge, whose tomb we have but now visited.
A letter is still extant from Sir Philip Hoby requesting permission from the King's agent to purchase stone from the Abbey ruins for building, and there can be little doubt that this house was constructed of the same material. By the "irony of fate" this mansion, born of the spoliation of that institution, in its turn fell a prey to the destroyer, and fragments of carved stones telling of Elizabethan days may be found in these and other farm buildings within the area of the parish.