Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The months: August



The general notion that the seaside is superlatively charming in September and October has probably arisen from the circumstance that the order of persons who utter their feelings in print seldom go to the sea except in those months. Literary London, as well as political and fashionable London, takes its holiday in the autumn; and when it tells of its rambles, it describes the scenery of autumn. My household have enjoyed seaside pleasures during all the months between April and November; and we agree in preferring to spend the long days and the warmest weather amidst the inexhaustible pursuits and the fresh breezes of a fine coast. The Midsummer days are not too long for what we have to do; and the dog-days are not too oppressive to persons who love bathing and perpetual dabbling in the waves, and discovering the coolest recesses of caverns in the cliffs. On a flat shore, where there are breadths of deep sand to cross to reach the sea, and no heights from which to survey a great expanse of waters, and to hail the breezes, and from which no shadows are cast below, the stormiest season must be the grandest. I have enjoyed a November walk on such a shore, amidst the steady roll of the gathering waves, and the dash of the spray, and the thunderous beat of the waters upon the land. I well know the pleasures of amber-gathering after an autumnal storm; but these are the exceptional treats of seaside life. The regular and constant delights of the coast are in their prime three months earlier. As I have before said, we go in July, and return home for the autumn privileges of country life. We have the comfort of peace and quiet during our holiday, and meet, as we depart, the throngs who are hurrying to take possession of our haunts. We are grateful to them for not having arrived before.

This year we are on the pilchard coast, according to promise. It is pleasant to see the opening of the herring fishery, and to go out for the night to get the first fish; but it is a different thing from being on the Cornish coast in pilchard season. The sea is like a different object, as seen from St. Agnes Bay in the west and Yarmouth Denes in the east. Here we have a horizon line so high that, when the sun is behind us in the early morning, the depth of the blue is as refreshing to the eye as the green vales seen from a mountain top, while the prodigious distance at which we can descry a white sail is a delicious marvel. We spend the early mornings on one or another of those high downs, being careful then and throughout the day never to be long out of sight of the Beacon, lest we should miss the approach of the pilchards. Beside the Beacon there is a patrol, as also on headlands north and south, and many eyes are turned up towards them from dawn to twilight. And when the flag is waved at last, what a scene it is upon the shore! We are usually on the spot in the shortest possible time from the first wave of the flag, and the signals of the watchmen show us where to look. There it is, that peculiar light on or in the water caused by the shoal of glistening fish! It is very far off yet—very far out, we should say; but we are told that the shallow waters will tempt the fish in, to meet their doom. The silent bustle below is very strange to unaccustomed eyes, the thronging to the beach, the stowing the gear, and then the launching of the boats without an unnecessary sound. This is why there is a flag instead of a gun signal, that the shoal may not take alarm. The very infants learn not to scream at the bustle, or the boys to shout. Very gently the men paddle and dip their oars; and very smoothly they seem to glide to their position ahead of the shoal. One in each boat still gazes up at the Beacon for direction. The excitement of the hour is prodigious, and all the more contagious for working in dumb show. If the fate of the nation hung on that hour the solemnity could hardly be greater. And who can wonder? If the shoal should slip by unseen, while the people were asleep, or at church, or if it should be startled from its course, the Catholic towns along the Mediterranean would be disappointed of thirty thousand barrels of their Lent diet, and the coast population of Cornwall would miss their yearly gains, and be in despair how to pass the winter. At best, times are not so good as they were. The Catholic nations do not keep Lent as formerly; and from one cause or another the fishery falls off, and there must be no further loss from preventible accident. But what a sight it is, even when the old men are saying it is nothing to what it once was! When the boats come heavily in, loaded to the gunwale with the shining heaps of fish, where can there be a stronger illustration of plenty! If we could find some higher headland, whence we might survey the whole coast, we should descry a thousand boats, each with its three or four men and boys, and thousands of women and girls on shore, busy cleaning, salting, and pickling,—very happy amidst the heat and the oily smell, and speculating on a happy return of the escaped part of the shoals in November. In the dog-days we keep clear of the curing department. We watch from the breezy headland, and we go down to see the first boat-loads, and witness the joy. After that, the less seen of the pilchards the better, till they appear as popular food in various parts of the world. It will soon appear whether the new government at Naples will allow the Neapolitans to buy our pilchards as they once did. It is possible that it might answer better to us to keep good deal of our fish at home this particular year, when meat is out of the question for a large proportion of the working-classes; but that is a question which will not be settled before the autumn. It seems strange to see the August sun shine upon, not the harvest-field, but the hay-field; but such a spectacle is not uncommon in Cornwall, any more than in Cumberland. In both, the condensing apparatus of mountains makes the season late, wide apart as they lie. While describing the appearances of the months, I often feel how extensive are the deviations from rule, as we understand it. In this very matter of the hay-harvest,—I have seen it going on from the beginning of April to the end of October. Any traveller who is fortunate enough to see Switzerland in April enjoys a feature of the Alps which later tourists miss. To them there is no motion among those mighty masses except the waterfalls; whereas he sees expanses of rippling grass, disclosing the passage of the winds. In the hot rock-bound valleys, the meadows are mown in April; and the scythe mounts higher and higher, till the last coarse upland hay is carried, just before our English mowing begins. In our northern counties, the grass is seldom all carried: August; and sportsmen who spend their autumn in Scotland see more or less hay still courting the sun and wind in the last days of October, which are there so brilliant. In one year I have known this to be the process of successive haymakings between Venice and Inverness.

The spirit of improvement is, however, bringing my countrymen into obedience to the seasons, even in the remote places of our islands. Even Cornwall the farmers and the miners talk of agricultural shows, and can take to heart what affects them most. Skirting and crossing their bare and dreary downs there are rich valleys and clefts where one meets the rural sights and sounds Old England; and in the most sunny and sheltered of these we find that it is really August. The women and children are giving the last thinning to the turnips. There is great rejoicing at the disappearance of the black caterpillar, which had made skeletons of half a field of root-plants, when a vast flock of starlings alighted upon it, and left all clean when it rose again. We see the cottagers trimming the scarlet-runners in their gardens, and putting in kale or cabbage wherever there is a spare foot of ground for it. We see the boys going after wasps’-nests in the evening,—partly to save the fruit from their ravages, and partly for the sake of the money the fishermen will give for the grubs; but chiefly perhaps for the fun. It is not good fun if the job is imperfectly done; for the stings given under the circumstances are very fierce: but if the gunpowder is made to dart and fizz properly into the nest, and if the sulphurous vapour is properly shut in, so as to disable the old wasps, the adventure is a pretty one. The gleam of the candle on the faces round the hole or the covert where the nest is, the solemnity of carrying the squib, and the reserve of powder; the waving of the boughs which everybody carries for defence, make up quite a spectacle, grandly concluded by the bringing home of the prize when there is one. For my part, I shall always henceforth carry a bottle of sal volatile to apply to the sting on such occasions; for there is usually some awkward or timid boy who gets stung, and comes home in a fever of fright and pain which is not likely to improve his skill and courage next time. I advise the same precaution to all whom I see collecting their honey. The bees make good profit of the wilds and uplands, it is clear. They go high and far for the sweets of the heather; and pretty is the sight of the rows of hives in the warm dells below. The practice of taking the honey by opiating the bees with a smouldering fungus seems to be spreading wherever the enlightened practice of not smoking at all remains to be learned. The old brimstone is seldom heard of now, I believe; and the common spectacle is of a man carrying the great knob of fungus on the end of a stick, by which it is to be made to reek into the hive. In many a shed are the women seen straining the golden honey into jars for sale in the town markets, and among the druggists and surgeons who dispense medicines. Then, again, the growers of potatoes, who in this county are Legion, have heard of a machine for taking up potatoes, and are wondering how much will be left for human hands to do in their children’s time. We see the rural housewives jogging to market with some treasure wrapped in moist cloths, evidently some production of value;—a sucking-pig or two, as my readers will guess by the season. After each heavy shower, children cross the downs with baskets of mushrooms. Men come up from the bays with mullet, for which they know Londoners are on the watch everywhere near the coast. Occasionally a leveret is found among the paniers. Near sea-bathing places, a gardener here and there fixes himself in a sunny spot, and sends out of his sheltered ravine the most delicious apricots, greengages, and Orleans plums, and Windsor pears, and the first filberts of the year. It is worth while to seek the fruit in its home; for then we come in for the various lovely lilies of the season, and the passion-flower mantling the house walls, and the rows of various hollyhocks, and the luscious clematis, and balsams, and the splendid tiger-lily, and all blooms which delight in the dog-day heats. Sunflowers flare in cottage gardens; and there are spots where they have been tried as a crop, for the sake of their seeds and oil, as well as other parts of the plant. Down in these recesses the birds sing again as if it were spring; and the few trees there are are variegated with young shoots; but we shall see more of this as we travel homewards. As we ascend to the downs we see the mountain ash hanging out its red berries above the streams which cut their way down to the sea, and the winter cherry showing itself in the fringe of woodland. It is undeniable that the elms and the limes exhibit already some change of tint.

Up on the wild commons, however, all is still in the glow of summer. The colouring of the heather and gorse is almost too gaudy, delicate as is each variety of heath blossom when examined. The thistledown flies abroad, the sport of the winds, as the butterflies, and even the wild birds might almost seem to be. The butterflies flicker and flit,—small and large, white, grave, and gay. One may see the lapwings assemble and fly round; and the starlings move in clouds, and the gulls come sailing in from the sea; and at evening the young owls taking short flights down a reach of some valley, looking for small creatures not yet gone to roost. Nature is all alive, certainly. Flying ants settle on one’s dress, and one must be careful to avoid ants’ nests in sitting down to rest. Beetles give one slaps on the face. Grasshoppers are noisy beside long stretches of the green path. In hollows where water has collected from above and below, water-plants are in their best beauty. The bulrush is heavy, and sways in the wind; and the delicate whites and lilacs and pinks and yellows and blues of aquatic blossoms are bewitching in the evening sunlight. As we sit looking at them, the grey plover runs behind us; and the frogs before us sound the first notes of a night concert. If we fear the damps and reek and smell of the pools and bogs, we have also to think twice before we throw ourselves on the shining hot grass at noon; for the young vipers are hatched at this time, and the earwigs swarm as vexatiously as in a church-porch venerable with ivy.

These are the stations from which to look for skysights. The heavy thunder-clouds, after blotting out the ships at sea, and turning the expanse beneath to a dark leaden colour, repay us with such rainbows as can be seen in no other month. We see more than the arch; so as to lose the idea of a bow, as one does at some waterfall where there is a broad hint of a complete circle. If the black clouds are portentous, the white are truly splendid, making islands of light in the deep blue sea. Now, too, is the time for early risers to see the phenomenon of looming, so perplexing to the inexperienced eye, which sees streaky lights apparently lifting up portions of the coast, in severance from the earth. Now, in the sultry noons, we see the wavering of the air between us and the objects we look at, which puzzles children in the laundry, when the laundress tells them that it is the heat going out of the box-iron. Common-place writers of ghost stories tell us that ghosts are of a substance like this, which they fancy a sort of compromise between body and spirit. We who know something of the secrets of this natural magic, look for certain ghosts under this appearance, but not as clothed in it. We look out for the ghosts of ships which are out of sight; and of headlands, and woods, and churches, and piers, which are certainly not within the natural range of vision. Moreover, we expect them sometimes to show themselves upside down. In short, the hot noons of August are the time for such mirage as can be seen in our climate. It is not like the mirage of the African desert; but it is sufficiently strange to impress young observers with wonder and awe. The boldest and highest headlands in the southernmost parts of England are the fittest stations from which to look out for this natural magic.

So they are for the night scenery of the season. The skies are growing darker now, at this distance from Midsummer, and more fit to set off the brilliancy of the summer meteors. How glorious they are! Not so flashing as those of the winter, but rolling and wheeling so grandly down the sky! Those policemen and night nurses, and mothers with wakeful babies, and sea-officers on watch, who first saw the falling stars of the 12th of this month, a quarter of a century ago, were much to be envied; and especially the sea-captains who were called to witness the marvel. They, with the whole arch of heaven above them, and the coast-guard, and any meditative man who might be out on the headlands that night, were privileged men. That meteor-shower, raining from one centre down over the whole dome, must have been as much like a miraculous portent as any spectacle witnessed by men now living. Stories are told in New York and elsewhere of persons returning late from visits and excursions who might have seen the whole, but saw nothing,—never once thought of looking overhead! For years after, a general watch was kept by people worthy of the sight; and so the spectacle was honoured till it died out. That stream of world-material has flowed away from our path in the heavens, and left us but little new wisdom, though an immortal remembrance of what we saw. There is no clear August night, however, in which we may not see more or less of those ineffable fireworks; and sometimes, as soon as the sun is gone, or even before he is gone, there may be some indications of what we should have seen if it had now been midnight; some greenish star in the blue heaven, some golden streak in the green or lilac horizon, some shower of sparks in the upper air, which would have shone grandly after dark. We sometimes sit beside the Beacon till bed-time, facing all ways, to count the number of falling stars per hour. We take it in turn to face the sea, as that, after all, is as solemn and beautiful as the heavens themselves on a lustrous summer’s night.

When that time has come, however, we are about to depart. If I am to be in the Highlands in time for the opening of the black-cock shooting, we must be turning homewards, as I have to deposit my party, and look after my concerns for a day or two before starting for Scotland. The grouse shooting must begin without me, on the 12th; but it is pleasant to make one on the other opening day—the 20th. So we take our way leisurely homewards through regions busy with the great harvest of the year.

Last year we heard complaints from county to county, from parish to parish, of the mischief done by the scarcity of labour. There were few or no Irish reapers to be seen on the roads: and the resident hands were so few in proportion to the demand that great waste was made while farmers were waiting their turn. If the weather was not fickle, there was the evil of the shedding of the grain. There were petitions for soldiers, petitions for paupers; but, where everything was granted, and where pay was highest, there was still much loss. The remedy is obvious enough. Reaping machines must come into general use. If only rich agriculturists can buy machines for their own use, the farmers of a neighbourhood may subscribe to set up a depôt of agricultural machinery, so managing their crops as not to want the same implement all on the same day. My girls ask me if I can bear to think of the sickle going out of use. It is a mournful thought, certainly; but there is no help for it. The sickle shines all through human history, as the distaff did till lately. The sun coming out of a total eclipse was the “golden sickle” of thousands of years ago; and the young moon was Diana’s silver sickle. We see the sickle on the tombs of Egypt, together with the millstones, and the loom, and the fishermen’s nets. The distaff is nearly lost; and the mill is too much altered to be known; and the plough and sickle will probably go out together. When children hereafter read in the Bible of sticking the sickle in the sheaf, or in classical history of its use as a symbol, they will ask what it was like, though we, in our childhood, saw parcels of it, with a specimen outside, in every ironmonger’s shop in country places. Its pretty form will be forgotten, except in pictures; and its gleam will be no more seen in the evening light, nor its flash in the noonday sun. It is better so. Much human toil and much human food will be saved; and in time our children may have graceful and pleasant associations with the instruments which are taking the place of the husbandman’s old tools; but we need not be ashamed of mourning the sickle and the plough, if we should survive their use. Neither is gone yet. To one field where we observe a reaping-machine at work, we see several where groups of men, women, and boys are toiling in the old way at cutting and binding. With all their fun and frolic, all their pleasant restings in the shade, and all the good things with which they quench their thirst, their piecemeal cutting and hacking, and gathering into bundles, does look barbaric beside the quick, clean work made by the machine. The new method must certainly gain ground every year.

Will it be so with the way of making merry at the end of the work? Here and there we come upon traces of the old ceremonies of harvest-home as I once saw them in the Eastern counties. The men sometimes join hands in a circle, and raise the stunning cry, known as “Hallo-largesse”—hallooing for a largesse—clamorously blessing the farmer or squire for a gift in money. The tipsy fellows, reeling with drink, and flaunting streamers of gay ribbons, used to be the terror of village and country-town after harvest. Now the mischief is taken in hand by Lord Albemarle and other kindly employers, who subscribe more than the old largesse to make a festival day for the wives and children, as well as the harvest-men themselves. We certainly devoutly wish them success when we find our road obstructed, and our carriage beset by a yelling throng of red-faced drunkards, or our horses pulled up with a jerk, because a tipsy fellow is lying across the road.

We arrange our journey in a very leisurely way, so as to enjoy the pleasures of the wayside. When we take our morning stroll through the unreaped fields we hear the quail and the corncrake from the meadows. When we go among the reapers we see the partridges run out from the furrow; and in the evening, when we turn in where the last shocks have been carried out, we find the geese already busy among the stubbles, gleaning the grains as the women and children are gleaning the ears. In the clover fields, whence the barley or oats have been carried, there is a gleaning which the farmer pays for. If he were an easy man, satisfied to let mice and birds consume his produce, he need not take this trouble; but he has rid himself of mice and birds, and the clover must not be choked next spring with self-sown corn: so there are the women picking up the golden ears from the green and fragrant carpet. We find pigs also ferreting out what they can find: and a good feast they make where the crop has been fully ripe.

These evenings among the corn-fields are like no others. There is the harvest-moon—so singular in its apparent bulk, and its hue, and its immediate appearance after sunset for several evenings together. To stand among the fields of some fertile plain, and see the great orb surge up from the abyss of the horizon, not like a disk gliding on the sky, but disclosing immeasurable depths of space beyond it, is an experience of August alone. Not only is the mellow hue of the great globe a singular appearance, but its light is mellow too, as it bathes the dome-like trees, and casts the shadows of the hedgerows upon the fields.

Then, as we make our way into some green lane, there are the gipsies pretending to turn in for the night. When there are so many creatures abroad in the stubbles, all may not be duly housed at night, and it may be harvest time for gipsies as for other people. Perhaps the women and children sleep under their stifling tilt; but the men get into sacks, it appears, and find a soft place on the grass—free to go and come where profit may invite. There the beetles may slap their faces, and the bats flit round them, and the young frogs jump upon them from the neighbouring ditch, where they were tadpoles only the other day. There are other gangs than those of gipsies when we traverse the hop counties. In Worcestershire and Herefordshire we find travelling families and groups of neighbours all along the road, or busy among the hop-poles. Of all our crops, surely this is the most beautiful—with its bunches tossing in the breeze, and its streamers waving, and light and shadow always at play among the leaves. The life of the hop-garden, with its errant population, is an unique spectacle; and now is the time to see it. It will be a greater change than has occurred yet if some mechanical means of getting the crop should be introduced which should banish the hop-pickers. Possibly such a change might be good for the physique of the hops and the morale of the pickers (who are not an immaculate order of people); but it will extinguish one of the most picturesque aspects of English rural life.

When we get home we find that the decline of the year has indeed begun. The swifts are gone. We miss them, and inquire for them, and find that they vanished three days before. There is already hedge-fruit for the birds; the golden rod and meadow saffron abound: the asters and marigolds are out in the garden, and there are ripe codlings in the orchard. The controversy about the relative merits of barns and stacks has arisen with seasonable vehemence. Everything tells of the approach of autumn. I must leave wife and daughters to watch its coming and report its appearances; for I have to catch the skirts of summer on the Scotch hills. There, in stirring up the black game, sportsmen find the sunshine, and the gaudy show of heath flowers, and the reflection from glassy lakes at least as full of summer heat as any July scene in England. I must see whether it will be so this year.