England - Fair Devon
( Originally Published 1910 )
FOR three distinct districts of England a similar claim is made. Kent, the Isle of Wight, and Devonshire is each in turn declared to be " the garden of England."
To decide among these contestants might be as dangerous an undertaking as that which fell to the lot of Paris. The county of Kent has undeniable charms : its gently undulating landscape, its peaceful farms, its picturesque hop-gardens and oasts, its venerable churches and castles, all combine to create a memory of enchanting beauty. Nor is the Isle of Wight less liberally endowed with nature's favours or romantic memorials of human history. Yet, when all pleas have been entered and weighed, no other verdict is possible than that Devonshire is the fairest, the most beautiful of all English counties. And in reaching that conclusion it may be that the factor which influenced Paris is not inoperative; for the daughters of Devon are the Helens of England.
Of course a Devonian is a prejudiced witness. Yet the eulogy of one such may be cited, chiefly because it suggests some of those qualities which are still characteristic of the county. William Browne, the Elizabethan poet who sang " Britannia's Pastorals," saluted Devonshire in these proud lines :
Hail thou, my native soil ! thou blessed plot,
Remembering how potent a part the sons of Devon bore in the overthrow of the Spanish Armada, Browne's pride in his county is pardonable. Neither in the sixteenth nor any later century has any other district of England bred so many " sea-ruling men." Even were that not true, Devon has glory enough in numbering among her children Sir Richard Grenville, the hero of that dauntless sea fight which rivals the glory of Thermopylae.
Some items in Browne's catalogue of praise may have been deleted by the hand of time, and it is questionable whether the rocks " in which the diamond fairly shines " ever existed; but in the main the attractions of Devon are unchanged. Yet, lest disappointment usurp the place of realized expectations, one warning should be laid to heart. The county will not give up its charms to the hasty traveller. He who clings to the steel highway of the railroad, who makes towns and cities the boundaries of his explorations, and dashes in speed from one " sight " to another, will leave the county wholly ignorant of its peculiar beauties. There is no district in England where it is so essential to desert the beaten track, to cut one's self off from communication with conventional transport ; where the byways are infinitely more than the high-ways.
One word frequently recurrent in Devonshire speech holds priceless suggestion for those to whom it is more than a name. It is the word " combe," a geographical term of distinctive west country use. To harmonize with its broad Devonshire pronunciation it would be better spelt " coombe," but even that concession to phonetics will fail to represent the melody of the word on native lips. And neither pen nor painter's brush can hope to render justice to that product of the Devon landscape for which the word stands. Combes, as Eden Phillpotts explains in " My Devon Year," have a distinction of their own, " and few natural scenes can be compared with these deep hollows and sudden valleys. They might be likened to miniature presentments of the .Derbyshire dales, or Scottish glens made tame and tiny and sleepy. They might be called denes or dingles, straths or dells, or any other word that stands to mean a sequestered place within the lap of high lands. Some of our combes," Mr. Phillpotts continues, " open gradually, through pastures and orchards, from the hills to the plains ; some break out in steep gullies and embouchures of limestone or sandstone to the sea ; some are concavities, where Nature hollows her hand to hold man's homestead. Gentle depressions between red bosomed hills, wide meadows extending to the estuaries of rivers, sharp rifts echoing with thunder of waves, and upland plains between the high lands, where whole villages may cuddle, may all be combes. So much do they vary in their character."
But specific description may be more illuminating than general characterization. So another whole-hearted lover of Devon, Charles Kingsley, shall, from the pages of " Westward Ho ! " tell what his eyes saw in the combes of that fortunate land. " Each is like the other, and each is like no other English scenery. Each has its upright walls, inland of rich oakwood, nearer the sea of dark green furze, then of smooth turf, then of weird black cliffs which range out right and left into the deep sea, in castles, spires, and wings of jagged iron-stone. Each has its narrow strip of fertile meadow, its crystal trout-stream winding across and across from one hill-foot to the other ; its grey stone mill, with the water sparkling and humming round the dripping well ; its dark rock pools above the tide-mark, where the salmon-trout gather in from their Atlantic wanderings, after each autumn flood; its ridges of blown sand, bright with golden trefoil and crimson lady's fingers, its grey bank of polished pebbles, down which the stream rattles towards the sea below." Such is the combe of the northern coast, but those of the southern shore " are narrower and less searched by the sun. They lie deep hid in ferns and shade-loving things ; they hide the lovely bee orchis, the purple gromwell, the lesser meadow rue, the seaside carrot, the crow garlic, the wood vetch, the Bithynian vetch, and other treasures. Their sides are draped with the wild clematis, their red cliff-faces furnish a home for jackdaws and hawks. And inland lie those deep resting-places that abound in this county of many hills."
If the studious observer of nature attempted to analyse its aspects in Devonshire in search of its most distinctive quality, the quality which lends such a peculiar charm of grace and softness to the landscape, he would probably reach the conclusion that the fern is chiefly responsible for that effect. Botanists have pointed out that in the number and variety of those beautiful plants Devon outrivals every county of England. " There they are in very truth at home. The soil and the air are adapted to them, and they adapt themselves to the whole aspect of the place. They clothe its hillsides and its hilltops ; they grow in the moist depths of its valleys ; they fringe the banks of its streams ; they are to be found in the recesses of its woods ; they hang from rocks and walls and trees, and crowd into the towns and villages, fastening themselves with sweet familiarity even to the houses."
But of the inanimate landscape there is one other feature which must not be overlooked. The lanes of Devon are as distinctive as its combes, its ferns, its " sea-ruling men " and its clotted cream. No other rural high-unless it were those fearsome " hollow lanes " of Selborne which Gilbert White celebrated, but are now things of the past. The lanes of Devon are as labyrinthine as a maze, are sentinelled on either side by lofty banks crowned with tall hedges, are so narrow that the outstretched hands may often touch either bank, but are withal the treasure-houses of nature's fairest jewels. Reflecting on these qualities a local poet found his muse inspired to celebrate a comparison between the Devon lane and marriage, with the following result :
In the first place, 'tis long, and when once you are in it,
But though 'tis so long, it is not very wide;
Then the banks are so high, to the left hand and right,
But, thinks I too, these banks, within which we are pent,
Yet Devon combes, and ferns, and lanes might leave the visitor cold if they were all. Few, perhaps, ever stop to consider why some landscapes, though painted by great artists, give the impression of emptiness. But the secret is not deeply hidden. A picture, be it a canvas or a living landscape, lacks its completing charm unless it has some touch of human nature. A figure or two will serve, but the springs of sympathy are more surely unsealed by the sight of a human dwelling. That is the most potent factor in establishing close relation between a beautiful sweep of country and its observer.
Such a factor is never far to seek in rural Devon. And in most instances it takes a form of irresistible appeal. The county is particularly rich in ancient family mansions of the Elizabethan period, suggestive of spacious chambers which have been hallowed by the sorrows and joys of many generations ; of grassy alleys and flower-adorned bowers. And it is richer still in picturesque farmhouses which are little changed from the far-off years when their roofs sheltered Devon's famous " sea-ruling " sons. But richest of all is this fair land in the lowly, rose and creeper-clad, thatched cottage of the peasant. Because of their proximity to the fashionable resort of Torquay, the thatched cottages of Cockington village are probably the best-known examples of these humble Devon homes, but their duplicates may be found far and wide throughout the county.
Few of the counties of England have bred so many immortal sons as Devon. To the great band of empire-builders she gave Sir Walter Raleigh, whose picturesque birthplace with its thatched and gabled roof and mullioned windows may be seen at Hayes Barton ; to the company of artists she added Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose natal village awaits the visitor at Plympton Earl ; in the glorious choir of English bards she is nobly represented by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who first saw the light at Ottery St. Mary ; and Charles Kingsley, who was born at Holne, gives glory to his county in the realm of fiction.
Historic landmarks cluster thickly along the south coast of Devon. It was on the Hoe at Plymouth, where a fine statue of the hero may be seen, that Drake in 1588 insisted on finishing his memorable game at bowls, protesting that there was time enough for that and for thrashing the Spaniards too. This was the port, too, from which, thirty-two years later, the Mayflower finally set sail on her " waightie voiag." Farther east, round the lofty cape of Berry Head, on the western shore of Torbay, lies the fishing town of Brixham. Here, in 1688, a landing was effected which had as notable an influence on the course of English history as the coming of William of Normandy. When William of Orange set foot on shore in that far off year Brixham was " undisturbed by the bustle either of commerce or of pleasure ; and the huts of ploughmen and fisher-men were thinly scattered over what is now the site of crowded marts and luxurious pavilions." The Prince landed " where the quay of Brixham now stands. The whole aspect of the place has been altered. Where we now see a port crowded with shipping, and a market swarming with buyers and sellers, the waves then broke on a desolate beach ; but a fragment of the rock on which the deliverer stepped from his boat has been carefully preserved, and is set up as an object of public veneration in the centre of that busy wharf."
Only a few miles away as the crow flies, a short distance east of Torquay, is a spot which in the domain of human thought has wrought as momentous changes as the landing of William of Orange effected in English history. In a small wooded limestone hill on the western side of a valley the traveller will find the modest entrance to Kent's Cavern, the exploration of which yielded results of immense importance in deciding the antiquity of man.
Although the existence of Kent's Cavern has been known for a longer time than there is any record of, the first exploration of its numerous chambers seems to have been made less than a century ago. But a thorough investigation was not begun until 1865, when William Pengelly was commissioned by the British Association for the Advancement of Science to carry out an exhaustive exploration. The work, which was continued until 1880, thus extending over a period of fifteen years, could not have been committed to more capable hands. It has been described as " the most complete and systematic investigation of a cavern " ever attempted, and the thoroughness with which Mr. Pengelly carried it to its completion has assured him as secure a place in the annals of science as that of Darwin. During the fifteen years in which the work was in progress he visited the cavern almost daily for an average period of five hours, and then laboured at home in the examination of specimens often into the early morning hours. His devotion to his task, then, richly deserved the prospective epitaph he wrote for himself :
Here rests his head on balls of album groecum,
His hammer, chisels, compass lie beside him;
Probably few visitors to Kent's Cavern will be interested in the minute details of Mr. Pengelly's laborious work; they are rather for the geologist to appraise ; but no one can grope through these quiet and sombre chambers unmoved. They have been visited by countless men and women of note, and to each doubtless they have been impressive because of the indisputable evidence they have afforded of the prodigious antiquity of man.
Whether the traveller in Devonshire devotes himself to exploring its combes, or wandering in its lanes, or visiting the haunts of famous men, or searching out historic spots, he will always be able to enjoy two of the county's distinctive products. Keats has preserved the memory of one of them in some verses he wrote while on a visit to Teignmouth. Thus, in a poetical epistle to the painter Haydon another son of Devon he confessed :
Here all the summer could I stay,
And another set of verses opened with these lines :
Where be you going, you Devon maid ?
It is not surprising that Devonshire cream, " clotted cream " as it is called, should have made such an abiding impression on the poet's memory. Richard Doddridge Blackmore owns that no praise of " Lorna Doone " pleased him half so much as that encomium which declared the novel was " as good as Devonshire cream — almost." Many visitors to England who have not been in Devonshire labour under the delusion that they have tasted the cream of the county, and it certainly is true that large quantities are sent to different parts of England daily through the post. But clotted cream eaten in Devon and the same cream eaten outside its boundaries are two different things ; for, somehow, it seems to lose its delicate flavour when tasted anywhere save in the county itself.
Perhaps a similar though not so marked a transformation may be noticed in Devonshire cider. Yet, if rumour be true, the transformation may be gain rather than a loss. The story is told of a gentleman who applied to a Devon apple-orchard farmer for a hogshead of his sparkling cider. The farmer replied that he could not oblige him as in previous years, as a certain London firm had purchased his entire output of the beverage. On writing to the firm in question the disappointed customer received a note to this effect : " We are not cider merchants. You have made some mistake. We are a firm of champagne-importing merchants from the celebrated vineyards of MM. So and So, of So and So."
What adds greatly to the delights of rambling in Devon is the courtesy of its natives. The West country folk of England are perhaps more unspoilt than any others, open-hearted in their hospitality, and notable for certain old-world graces of manner and speech. But they are not slow of wit. Thus the record stands of a boorish bicyclist who, not sure of his bearings in the quickly gathering dusk, accosted an aged farmer leaning on a gate :
" I say Johnnie, where am I ? I want a bed."
" You'm fourteen miles from Wonford Asylum," was the quiet response, " and fourteen miles from Newton Work' us, and fourteen miles from Princetown Prison, and I reckon you could find quarters in any o' they — and suitable."