Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Waggonettes, Worcestershire, and Wessex
Buildings get under our skin for all kinds of reasons and often it’s the most incidental detail that catches the eye and stays in the memory. So here for me, it was not the double-fronted stone house but the brick extension, and most of all the sign above what must once have been a shop window. Not quite faded enough to be a ghost sign perhaps, it still comes to us as if from another era.
The sign looks Victorian in style – both the curlicues around the lettering and that final full stop have a 19th-century feel about them. But it could as easily be from the interwar period, a time when both horses and horse-drawn vehicles were still in demand, especially in the country – this village is several miles from the nearest town.
The carriages on offer provided transport for several passengers in two strikingly different forms. In a landau, with its pair of seats, passengers sat facing one another across a central dropped foot well, rather like travellers in an old-fashioned railway compartment, either facing the horse or with their back to the horse. With a top that could be left down or pulled up against the rain, it was a rather sophisticated vehicle. In a waggonette, by contrast, the pair of seats were set parallel to the road, with just the driver’s seat facing ahead. I think of waggonettes as usually open-topped vehicles with hard wooden seats, seen more often in the countryside than the more comfortable and urban landau. They were the minibuses of their time.
The waggonette, then, seems a kind of carriage that would have been at home in rural Worcestershire. As it was too in Hardy’s Wessex, and when I saw the sign I was instantly reminded of Hardy’s poem, ‘At Castle Boterel’, in which the poet pauses at a junction familiar because of something important that happened there when he was much younger:
As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And rain bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
To ease the sturdy pony’s load
When he sighed and slowed.
Hardy doesn’t explain exactly what happened all those years ago – could it have been a declaration of love? – but emphasizes its significance. As the poem goes on (you can read all of it here), the twin scenes – the young poet and the ‘girlish form’, the older poet looking back – are seen against a broader picture of passing time. There was never a moment of such quality, Hardy says, as that first time all those years ago, even though we’re all transitory beings in the context of ‘Earth’s long order’. In such a setting, vivid details such as the sodden waggonette become moving in a surprising and rather unnerving way.
Looking at an old sign advertising forms of horse-drawn transport triggers an association for me because I happen to have read Hardy’s poem. For some, it’s just an old sign. But such scraps and fragments of former days shown forth in old signs – waggonettes and landaus, seed potatoes and hay, Bovril and Bile Beans – are apt to act as bridges to former times in this way, bringing us suddenly into close connection with the past. And some of the backward glances they illuminate are as bright and arresting as Hardy’s on that rainy byway long ago.