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A Book of the West/Volume 1/18



A first visit to Dartmouth—Descent of the Dart—The Church of S. Saviour—John Hawley—The Butter Row—Slate-covered houses—The Ship Inn—Walk to the sea—Warfleet—S. Petrock's—The Castle—Attacks on Dartmouth—The Golden Strand—Kingswear—Burying under foundations—Newcomen—Sir Walter Raleigh and his pipe—Slapton Lea—Dame Juliana Hawkins—Visits to be made—What not to be done.

I WILL tell you how I first saw Dartmouth before I proceed to say anything about it, and then the reader will perhaps understand the peculiar affection with which I write about it. It happened early one June that I had made every arrangement to go with a friend a walking tour among the Dolomite Alps. We were to meet in town and cross the Channel together to Antwerp.

At the last moment some particularly vexatious business cropped up which detained me, and I had to wire to my friend that I could not be with him on the day fixed, but would, if possible, meet him in Cologne. In two days I saw it was all up with my Continental excursion, and I was obliged to telegraph to Cologne that my friend must go on his way by himself.

Now when a man has been slaving at his desk all winter, and has been planning out every stage of his tour, and has thought, talked, written, dreamed of it for months—then to see his hope blasted is enough to make him cross. Cross accordingly I was; so cross, that the best and most long-suffering of wives advised me to go somewhere. "Somewhere," thought I; "why, I have never been down the Dart, have never seen Dartmouth." So I took the advice given me and started.

What a day that was when I spun along the Great Western Railway from Plymouth to Totnes The day was resplendent with sun, and yet not too hot. The orchards everywhere were a mass of flowers, from white to pink. I had hit precisely on the time and train whereby a number of English officers, just landed from the Soudan at Plymouth, were dispersing to their homes. In the same carriage with me was a young officer who had bought a number of Funny Folks and was immersed in it. A brother officer came to the carriage-window, after we had reached a second station, and addressing my fellow-traveller through the window exclaimed, "I say, did you ever see the like of this, old chap? We are going through waves of colour, a sea of flowers. I never saw anything to equal it—and after the sands of Egypt, old boy!" The bell rang and he had to run back to his carriage. "Yes; all right," was the response of the man in my compartment, and down went his head and thoughts among Funny Folks.

At the next station the second officer was again at our window, and again addressing the reader of the periodical, "I say, Jones! talk of Araby the Blessed, it isn't worth mention in the same day with ten thousand times more lovely, blessed, dear old England. By George! old chap, I want to look out of both windows at once. I can't see enough of it. I feel as if I could cry, it is so beautiful!"

"Ah! indeed," responded the reader, and down went his head into his paper, and did not look off it again. "Truly," I thought, "what a blessing to publishers that all men have not the sense of beauty; and what a blessing it is to men like myself that we are not addicted to the grotesque."

The descent of the Dart should be made as I made it then, on an early summer evening when the sun is in decline, and the lawns are yellow with buttercups, when the mighty oaks and beeches are casting long shadows, and the reaches of the river are alternately sheets of quivering gold and of purple ink.

As I went down the river, all dissatisfaction at my lot passed away, and by the time Dartmouth came in view I could no longer refrain myself, but threw my cap into the air, and barely caught it from falling overboard as I shouted, "Hurrah for merry England! Verily it has scenes that are unrivalled in the whole world."

Indeed now, in gravity, as I write this, I cannot think that I have ever seen any sight lovelier than Dartmouth on an evening in early summer, with Kingswear opposite, the one bathed in soft sweet shadow, and the other glittering and golden in the sun's declining rays.

The sea is not visible from Dartmouth, which is hemmed in by hills that rise to a great height on every side, shutting in the basin of water that is the port of Dartmouth, and shutting out all winds. The town itself is full of picturesque bits. The church, dedicated to S. Saviour, is really a chapelry in the parish of Townstal, the church of which, set as a beacon on a hill, is two miles distant, and reached by a scramble. The church of Dartmouth was built at the end of the fourteenth century, and has happily escaped the reckless restoration which has befallen Totnes. What has been done has been reparative, and all in the best taste. The church contains a magnificent painted and gilt wood screen, and a pulpit of the same character, with the royal badges of later date on its sides. A gallery runs round three sides of the church, over the aisles; that is of Elizabethan date, and the panels in front are emblazoned with the arms of the merchant princes of the town at the time of its prosperity. A curious door, covered with iron-work of very rich description, representing lions impaled on an oak tree, bears the date 1631, but this merely represents the restoration of the woodwork of the door. In the floor of the church is the brass of John Hawley, merchant, who died in 1408, and his two wives, Joan, who died in 1394, and Alice, who died in 1403; there can be little doubt as to which of the wives he loved best, for he is represented holding the hand of the first. This is the Hawley, merchant of Dartmouth, mentioned by old Stow in his Annals, who, in 1390, "waged the navie of shippes of the ports of his own charges, and took 34 shippes laden with wyne to the sum of fifteen hundred tunnes." The visitor may compare the costume worn by the ladies on the brass with the description given by Stow of the fashion that then set in: "This time was used exceeding pride in garments, gownes with deepe and broad sleeves, commonly called peake sleeves, whereof some hung downe to their feete, and at least to the knees, ful of cuts and jagges."

Among the old houses in the town, unhappily fast disappearing, must be noted those in Butter Row, a short piazza like that at Totnes, and in one of these is a very fine carved oak chimney-piece, that merits examination.

Other old houses are in Fosse Street and the Shambles. A peculiarity of the old Dartmouth houses is that they are covered with small slates, cut into various devices, and forming elegant patterns, that cover them as a coat of mail against the rain. Forty years ago there were many of these picturesque old houses, they are now woefully reduced in numbers.

The "Ship Inn" is an old-fashioned hostel, very comfortable, and though modernised externally, yet has much that is characteristic of an old inn in the inside. I was dining there one evening when the train from town had arrived, and launched its passengers into Dartmouth. Among these happened to be a German, who was on his way by the Donald Currie boat to the Cape. He came into the dining-room of the "Ship," seated himself at a table at a little distance from me, and signed that he wanted something to eat.

The courteous, elderly waiter bowed and said, "What will you have, sir, soup?"

"Yesh! yesh!"

"There is vermicelli."

"Yesh! yesh!"

"And Julienne."

"Yesh! yesh!"

"And ox-tail."

"Yesh! yesh!"

"And mulligatawny."

"Yesh! yesh!"

"And fish, sir. Would you like some?"

"Oh, yesh! yesh!"

"There is some turbot."

"Yesh! yesh!"

"And a nice pair of soles."

"Yesh! yesh!"

"And some brill."

"Oh, yesh! yesh!"

"And perhaps you would like, sir, a mayonnaise of lobster?"

"Oh, yesh! yesh!"

It was time for me to interfere. I jumped up and hastened to the assistance of the poor German, and said in his own tongue: "I beg your pardon for my interference, sir, but are you ordering dinner for yourself or for the entire crew? You will, I know, excuse me, but I thought it advisable to speak before it came to the wine list."

"Ach, du lieber Herr!" gasped the German. "I know but one English word, and that is Yesh. Will you be so merciful as to order dinner for me?"

I at once entered into consultation with the waiter, and settled all matters agreeably.

A charming walk may—no, must, be taken from Dartmouth to the sea; the street, very narrow, runs between houses for a long way, giving glimpses of the water, of old bastions and towers, of gardens hanging on the steep slopes, of fuchsias and pelargoniums running riot in the warm, damp air, of red rock and green foliage, jumbled together in the wildest picturesqueness, of the blue, still water below, with gulls, living foam-flakes swaying, chattering over the surface. Then the road has to bend round Warfleet, a lovely bay bowered in woods, with an old mill and a limekiln, and barges lying by, waiting for lime or for flour. When this has been passed, and, alas! a very ugly modern house that disfigures one of the loveliest scenes in South Devon, a head-land is reached by a walk under trees, and all at once a corner is turned, and a venerable church and a castle are revealed, occupying the rocky points that command the entrance of Dartmouth Harbour.

The church undoubtedly served as chapel to the castle, but is far older in dedication than any portion of the castle, for it is dedicated to the purely British Saint Petrock, who lived in the sixth century.

The church is small, much mutilated, and contains a number of old monuments, and some brasses to the Roope and Plumleigh families. On the opposite side of the estuary is another castle.

The castle that adjoins is supposed to date from the reign of Henry VII., but one existed in the same spot at an earlier date. Edward IV., in 1481, covenanted with the men of Dartmouth to pay them annually £30 from the customs of Exeter and Dartmouth, on condition of their building a "stronge and myghtye and defensyve new tower," and of their protecting the harbour with a chain. Certainly, the men of Dartmouth earned their money cheaply, for "the myghtye tower" is a very small affair.

For their own interest one would have supposed they would have erected a greater fortress, as Dartmouth suffered severely at times from pirates and French fleets. In 1377 it was plundered by the French, who in the same year swept our shores from Rye to Plymouth. In 1403 it returned the visit of the French; in 1404 a French fleet succeeded in putting into Black Pool, a little to the right of the entrance to the Dart, but the Dartmouth men armed and came down the steep sides of the bay upon the French, killed their leader, and forced them to regain their vessels and put off to sea. The French lost four hundred men and two hundred prisoners in the engagement.

On the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada, in 1588, two vessels, the Crescent and the Haste, were fitted out, and the former is said to have been engaged with one of the Spanish vessels. In 1592, the Madre de Dios, one of the great Indian "carracks" or plate ships, was taken on her way to Spain, and was brought into Dartmouth. She was a floating castle of seven decks, and was laden with silver, spices, rare woods, and tapestries. The neighbouring gentry and townsmen of Dartmouth began to clear the prize for the adornment of their own houses, and commissioners were sent from London to recover as much of the spoil as was possible.

There is a bay near Black Pool which goes by the name of the Golden Strand, because a vessel was wrecked there laden with treasure, and to this day gold coins are occasionally picked up on the beach. In the basement of the tower of Dartmouth Castle are still the traces of where the iron chain or boom was fastened that could be stretched across the entrance to the harbour in time of war.

That smuggling was carried on to a very large extent on this coast in former times cannot be doubted. Indeed, the caves artificially constructed for the purpose of holding "run" goods still exist in several places; and many capital stories are told of the good old smuggling days, and the way in which the revenue officers were cheated.

Immediately opposite Dartmouth is Kingswear, situated on the steep slope of rock that runs precipitously to the sea. There is a curious circumstance connected with the church. In 1845, the church was pulled down, when under the foundation was discovered a cavity cut in the rock filled with infant bones and quicklime. There is but too much reason to believe that we have here one of the many instances that remain of the old heathen belief that no building would stand unless a man or child were buried under the foundation. A few years ago, when the parish church of Wickersley, Lincolnshire, was rebuilt by Sir G. Gilbert Scott, on raising the foundations the complete skeleton of a man was found laid lengthwise under the masonry. At Holsworthy, North Devon, in the same way, a skeleton was discovered with much lime about it in the wall, as if to hasten decomposition. The custom still exists in the East. In 1860, the King of Burmah (father of Theebaw) rebuilt Mandalay. On that occasion fifty-three individuals were buried alive, three under each of the twelve gates, one under each of the palace gates, and four under the throne itself. In 1880 the virtue was supposed to have evaporated, and Theebaw proposed to repeat the ceremony with one hundred victims, but I believe the actual number sacrificed was about twenty-five. The Burmans believe that the nals or spirits of the persons buried guard the gates and attack persons approaching with hostile intentions. Precisely similar convictions were common all over Europe.

In S. Saviour's, Dartmouth, in the chancel, is buried the skull of Sir Charles McCarthy, who was for a while Governor of Sierra Leone, and was killed at Accra, in an encounter with the Ashantees, January 21st, 1824; the skull was greatly prized by the Ashantees, who had possessed themselves of it, and with it they decorated the war-drum of the king. The skull was happily recovered in 1829, and was brought to Dartmouth, where it was buried with some ceremony.

Dartmouth was the birthplace of Newcomen, who introduced a notable improvement in steam engines. According to the first form of his discovery, the steam was condensed by sending a current of cold water on the outside of the cylinder, an arrangement that required a boy to be always at hand with a bucket of water. Watt's improvement of employing steam to drive down the piston was invented whilst he was repairing one of Newcomen's engines. Newcomen was baptised at Dartmouth in 1663; he died in 1729. His house was removed in 1864, but some of the old carved oak has been utilised in Newcomen Cottage, Townstal, as well as the "clovel" or wooden lintel over the fireplace at which Newcomen sat watching the steam puffing from his mother's kettle, and first conceived the idea of employing steam as a force for propelling engines. A chimney-piece of plaster, representing Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego before Nebuchadnezzar, is at Brook-hill House, on the Kingswear side of the river. This same handsome chimney-piece, of oak, came from Greenway, up the Dart, where lived Sir Walter Raleigh, and it is said that it was before the fire kindled under this chimney-piece that the great navigator indulged in the first pipe of tobacco he ever smoked in England. There is a story told of Sir Walter being called in with his pipe for a very novel purpose at Littleham. There lived there a gentleman of Dutch or German extraction, named Creveldt, who had been at deadly feud with a neighbour, Sir Roger de Wheelingham, and the latter died without any reconciliation. Thenceforth, Creveldt was tormented from sunset to sunrise by the ghost of his enemy. He could not rest; he could not eat, and, worst of all, he could not drink. The days for exorcising ghosts were over. He called in the parson, but the parson could do nothing. Matters were in this condition when an Exeter trading vessel, commanded by Captain Izaaks, anchored near Exmouth. The captain heard of Creveldt's trouble; he was under some obligation to him, and he at once visited him. He heard his piteous tale, and said: "In ancient times I have been told that incense was used against stubborn ghosts. I have heard that now Sir Walter Raleigh has introduced a novel sort of incense much more efficacious. Let us send for him."

Accordingly, Sir Walter was invited. He instructed Creveldt how to smoke tobacco; and the fumes of the pipe proved too much for the ghost. The spirit departed, coughing and sneezing, to the tobaccoless world.

No visitor should fail to visit Slapton Lea—a bar of pebble and sand tossed up by the sea, over which runs the coach-road to Kingsbridge—an excursion well meriting being made. The streams descending from the land are held back from entering the sea by this ridge, and form a lake that not only abounds in fish, and attracts water birds, but also contains water plants.

At Slapton lived Sir Richard and Dame Juliana Hawkins, in a house called Pool.

Dame Juliana was a haughty woman, and the story is told that she would not go to church except on a carpet Accordingly, when she went to Slapton Church to pay her devotions, a couple of negro servants proceeded before her unrolling a carpet of red velvet.

On the river is Dittisham, and how the salmon do congregate in the pool there! It is a great place for figs and plums, and should be seen when the plum trees are in flower. The view from the parsonage garden, commanding two reaches of the river, is exquisite. But for loveliness of situation, Stoke Gabriel in a lap or creek, facing the sun, shut away from every wind, is the most perfect.

A good picturesque modern house has been erected at a point commanding Dartmouth, on the opposite side at Maypool (F. C. Simpson, Esq.), that is a real feature of beauty in the landscape. At Stoke Fleming is a fine brass. The time when Dartmouth may be seen to advantage—I am not speaking now of the river—is at the autumn regatta. Then the quaint old place is en fête. The little square that opens on to the quay is devoted to dancing. Lights flare, flags wave, music peals forth, and the Mayor opens the ball in the open air. It is a sight not to be seen elsewhere in England—when viewed from the river it is like a scene on the stage.

There is one thing you must do at Dartmouth, because you cannot help doing so—enjoy yourself. But there is one thing you must on no account do—offend a single, though the most insignificant, member of the town. If you do, the whole population is out on you like a hive of angry bees—for in a place so shut in by hills and water everyone is related.

Sir Charles McCarthy, as already related, has left his head at Dartmouth. As the visitor leaves by the little steamer to remount the Dart, and looks at the lovely estuary, the hills embowered in trees, the picturesque old town—he feels, perhaps, like myself, as if he had left his heart there.

Note.—Works on Dartmouth:—
Karkeek (P. Q.), "Notes on the Early History of Dartmouth," in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1880.
Karkeek (P. Q.), "The Shipping and Commerce of Dartmouth in the Reign of Richard II.," ibid., 1881.
Newman (Dr.), "On the Antiquity of Dartmouth," ibid., 1869.