The Open Road

‘I LOOK upon the whole world as my parish’, said John Wesley, and he certainly tried to cover that portion of has parish which was England as often as he could. He was dependent on a horse for fifty years, and the various horses that he rode were, in turn, dependent on muddy lanes and broken turn-pike roads that would dismay us today.

The road from Windsor to Petworth was only forty miles long, but it took fourteen hours to travel over it. ‘Almost every mile’, said Hervey, ‘was signalized by the overturn of the carriage or its temporary swamping in the mire. Even the royal chariot would have fared no better than the rest had it not been for the relays of peasants, who poised and kept it erect by the strength of arm and shouldered forward the last nine miles, in which tedious operation six good hours were consumed.’

When the roads fell into disrepair loose stones tumbled into the holes and traffic bumped and rumbled along once more. Ruts were often so deep that the horses could not stand up in them, and in these great holes water was almost always standing.

In the reign of George II it was said, ‘The road between Kensington and London is grown so infinitely bad that we live here in the same solitude as we would do if cast on a rock in the middle of the ocean; and all the Londoners tell us that there is between them and us an impassable gulf of mud’.

From London to Oxford, there were many narrow places where a horse could not pass a carriage, and the stones which had been used to fill up the holes were so large as to risk breaking the horse’s neck.

In A Six Months’ Tour Through the North of England written in 1770, the Lancashire Road from Preston to Wigan is described. ‘You will here meet with ruts which I actually measured four feet deep, and floating with mud only from the wet summer; what therefore must it be after the winter?’

Daniel Defoe has rather an amusing passage about his tour in Sussex, in 1724. He writes: ‘Going to church at a country village, not far from Lewes, I saw an ancient lady—and a lady of very good quality I assure you—drawn to church in her coach with six oxen, nor was it done in frolic or humour, but mere necessity, the way being so stiff and deep that no horse could go in it.’

Along such roads John Wesley journeyed on his horse, not slowly or leisurely but eagerly for he was a messenger of the King. Five or six times in each day’s journey he would stop at a village green, or some other convenient place, and preach to the people. In between these services, as he rode, he would read books. Apparently he had learned to trust his horse implicitly and broke all the rules of horsemanship by letting it have its head. Occasionally he was thrown, but seldom came to serious grief.

He talked with many of his fellow travellers as he had opportunity. Wagons lumbered along and he rode past them with a word to the wagoner. Long strings of packhorses went from town to town, carrying cloth or coals or some other commodity. The quickest way to get perishable goods, fish from the coast or vegetables from the field or meat from the market-town, was on pack-horses. Great herds of sheep and cattle used the same roads and there were other less peaceful travellers. Highwaymen were constantly making their raids on those whom they thought they could rob to advantage.

It is said that John Wesley was stopped by a highwayman who demanded his money or his life. He gave him what money he had but with the gift he offered some advice. ‘Let me speak one word to you,’ he said. ‘The time may come when you will regret this course of life. Remember this, the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin.’ Years afterwards a stranger came up to him, after he had been preaching, and asked if he remembered the incident. ‘I was the man who stopped you’, said the stranger, ‘and that verse you quoted was the means of changing my life and habits.’ The story may be apocryphal, but somehow I do not think that John Wesley started in his saddle when he heard a rustling in the hedge or even when he wondered if he would see a masked figure riding up to his side with a horse-pistol held at his head. When danger threatened he did not consider its effect on him—he was always so busy in devising ways of getting his message home to the people whom he met. The knight had ridden far since he feared the storm aboard the Simmonds.

Another day, as he rode along through Newport Pagnell, he overtook a man who seemed anxious for conversation John Wesley put away his book in his saddle-bag, and began to talk to him. As they rode the man began to argue about religious affairs. In vain John Wesley tried to avoid the contentious subject, the man grew excited, and said he believed John Wesley was rotten at heart, and supposed he was one of John Wesley’s followers. He answered, ‘No, I am John Wesley himself’. Upon this he appeared as one who unawares had trodden on a snake, and ‘would gladly have run away outright, but being the better mounted of the two I kept close to his side, and endeavoured to show him his heart until we came into the street of Northampton’. It must have been a wonderful sight for the people of the town as they saw these two horsemen, the one pursuing the other, and telling him, as he would have put it, ‘good and plain’ his errors.

Nor was all his journeying by road—he must cross fords, he must take ship to Ireland. When the roads were so bad that his horse could not keep its feet, he must tramp alone across the moors. Once, on his way to Grimsby, the river Trent was in flood and a raging storm prevented the boatmen putting him across. He begged them to make the attempt lest he should disappoint the congregation at Grimsby. Yielding to pressure they put off with six men, two women and three horses in the boat. Suddenly the boat heeled over, horses and men being thrown in a heap. The boatmen strained at the oars, the horses leaped overboard, but at last the boat reached the farther bank. Everyone got ashore, save John Wesley, who lay pinned to the bottom of the boat by a crowbar which had run through the string of his boot, so that he must have perished had the vessel capsized. But the congregation at Grimsby were not disappointed!

He very rarely took a long way round because the short way was dangerous. In February 1748 he had to wait at Holyhead because the weather was unfavourable. He became impatient with the sailors. ‘I never knew men make such poor, lame excuses as these bumpkins did for not sailing. It put me in mind of the epigram,

There are, if rightly I may think

Five causes why a man should drink,

which with a little alteration would just suit them.

There are, unless my memory fail,

Five causes why we should not sail;

The fog is thick, the wind is high;

It rains, or may do by and by;

Or – any other reason why.’

No storms ever turned him back. In February 1740 he rode to Newcastle. It was a wild winter but nothing daunted him. ‘Many a rough journey have I had before, but none like this I ever had; between wind, and hail, and rain, and ice, and snow, and driving sleet, and piercing wind. But it is past, those days will return no more, and are therefore as though they had never been.’

Healthy though riding in the open air was, there always seems to have been a sense of tremendous urgency about the Knight of the Burning Heart. He never had time to waste, he was full of observation as he rode along, but an easy-going man never found him companionable. That was why Dr. Johnson, who would have loved to talk to him, said, ‘John Wesley’s conversation is good, but he is never at leisure, he is always bliged to go at a certain hour. This is very disagreeable to a man who loves to cross his legs and have his talk out, as I do’.

Many of the chairs which are still treasured because he used ‘them are so shaped that he could sit astraddle as he talked. There is one kept in the vestry at City Road which has a desk on the back so that, as he sat facing it, he could write.

He had no sympathy with those who allowed weather to prevent worship! His religion was of such importance as to dominate all the forces of nature. One Saturday evening when he was preaching at North Shields one of the young women, in what we should call the choir, stayed at home because of a snow-storm. He saw her on Monday evening, and putting his hand on her shoulder said quietly, ‘So miss, you were afraid of the snow?’ She didn’t answer but she appeared at the service in the chapel next evening, thinking he had finished reproving her. Quite quietly, however, he gave out his text from Proverbs xxxi. 21, ‘She is not afraid of the snow’.

In December 1765 his horse threw him, and he was hurt much more than he had been by any previous misadventure. A lady, called Miss Lewen of Leytonstone, gave him a chaise and a pair of horses in order that he might journey in safety but he could go much better on horse-back, and it was not till later in life he really reconciled himself to travelling by carriage. Even then he fitted the carriage with bookshelves, so that it would be a travelling study.

Time and again when his life seemed in peril he quietly prayed and ceased to worry. Once the vessel in which he was sailing grounded on the rocks at Holyhead, and the captain was in despair. ‘We immediately went to prayer’, said John Wesley, ‘and presently the ship, I know not how, shot off the rocks and pursued her way without any more damage.’

Even as an old man his good humour did not fail him, and it was one of the travelling mercies for his companions. He was riding with Joseph Entwisle when Joseph’s horse stumbled and pitched him right over its head. Fortunately he alighted on his feet. John Wesley said smiling, ‘Well done, Joseph. I could not have done better than that myself’. So he rode along with the light heart of a troubadour and the courage of a knight errant. Even the greyness of his clothes, his horse, and the roads themselves did not rob life of its colour for him. It was a blithesome pilgrimage which had ceased to be a selfish journey. Everywhere he went he brought gifts above money and above price to the people by the wayside or in the market-place, on shipboard or in the town.