Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Sea-side life


There is, or used to be, among some theologians, a test of doctrinal accuracy so very complete and exacting that few opinions had any chance of satisfying it. The requirement was that the statement, dogma, or fact, should be held “always, everywhere, and by all.” Some time ago I walked, with occasional lifts, along the western coast of England, from Weymouth to Bristol, looking in, as I went, upon the watering-places which fringe the land. It was August when I made my tour, and every place I visited was filled with summer residents.

Surely, thought I to myself, as I reposed at home after my round, I have discovered the uniform invariable state, if not sentiment, which the old formula would fit. Sea-side life is led in the same way—“always, everywhere, and by all.” Whereever I went, there were the same people and the same pursuits. The scenery varied from the chalk upland to the rose-tinted rock, from the sandy beach and treeless downs of Dorset, to the wooded coombes of South Devon, and the Cornish black slate cliff, up which the long Atlantic wave crept like a tide. I saw the sea under a hundred forms, racing round the promontory—asleep in the land-locked bay—flashing with painful brightness, as if the sun had burst and been half spilt on the water. I saw it leaden-coloured—green—flat, like a soft field when it has been rolled—clear, showing the trembling pebbles and wavy weeds which floated from the rock, or rolling folds of mud from the river’s mouth. I saw it streaked with flecks of white—I saw it misty and boundless, the great waves looking unnaturally large as they bowled in out of the fog. I saw it hard-edged, metallic, with stiff little tinkling waves, like a copper-plate engraving. I saw it fight and I saw it play. Everywhere it met me with old welcome buoyant power, and a fresher grace, filling me with deeper reverence and love. But the human shrimps which capered at its brink presented everywhere the same appearance. They were all doing the same things. Of course you can’t sit on rocks where there are none, nor dig with wooden spades on granite; but there were some features peculiar to sea-side life which connected every watering-place, such as donkeys, white bathing machines, telescopes, mimic nautical phraseology, thumbed novels, and aimless interest in the reflexion of the moon on the water.

“I fear the visitors here lead a very idle life,” said a worthy man to me one day, as we had a stray chat on a bench. Being an energetic resident, he did not see that that was the very life they came there to lead. Don’t judge a man by his phase of relaxation. There is a fire-engine station at the bottom of my street, close to one of the great thoroughfares of London. When I leave my house, and put out into the great human stream, I always see one man at rest there. He wears a cleaned-up, official sort of undress, and sits on a low stool outside the engine-house door, generally smoking a long new clay pipe. There is nothing more calm than the repose of a fireman. But a breathless householder, with a mob of little boys at his heels, comes round the corner. In two minutes our friend is driving fourteen miles an hour against the stream of Regent Street, like a flash of brass and red paint.

Therefore, do not hastily judge the idler by the sea-side; he is reposing. But he can work, at the right time. Last week he fought the fiercest counsel on circuit. Last week he hushed a mob. The day before yesterday he sent in tenders for the construction of a steam-engine seven hundred thousand horse power, and will have it all hammered and rivetted within sound of his office. Yesterday he extracted the diaphragm of a bricklayer’s labourer before the College of Surgeons, in one minute and twenty-three seconds. The newspaper that gentleman offered him he saw printed this very morning (he came by a mid-day train) amid a crowd of machines and dexterous compositors. With sweat of brain he wrote the rousing novel over which that lady bends and weeps. He has come for a holiday; and falls into the telescopic pebble-gathering world with grateful acquiescence. Does he trouble himself with the wonders of the sea shore? Does he kneel down and grope among the rocks, at low tide, struggling with wretched sea anemones, who hold on for the dear life till some lover of nature uproots them? How they must hate the season and Mr. Gosse! Poor things! I remember being shown a number of them by a scientific friend, who took them out every morning with a long spoon, and laid them, gasping and limp, on a bench, while he changed the water in their cage. Some were dark and tough, showing that they were used to plenty of daylight or low tides; others were quite fair and blanched from living in the dark depths of the sea. But they were nevertheless herded with their swarthy brethren, and blinked at the sun miserably. I can’t help thinking that pseudo-science, however attractive, is often very cruel. The boiling of lobsters is a process which, however speedy, one does not much like to associate with salad, or supper. The first thrill in the pot must be horrible, but it is soon over. Whereas a slow death in an aquarium, with great eyes looking at you and offering quantities of unsuitable food, together with the puzzling resistance of the glass, like the mysterious detention of a dream, must altogether make the last hours of a “specimen” hideous. It must be as bad as dying of nightmare. “Oh! my lovely star-fish are all dead!” says charming Angelina, as she joins the breakfast table, after nine hours of the soundest rosiest sleep. “They are only just dead, I think,” says she, with her mouth full of toast and butter. “I saw one of them move a little”—very likely. But what a night for the star-fish!

Now your busy man, or rather your man who really works hard in his profession, will, if he be wise and brave, leave the wonders of the seashore alone when he comes to rest. Lying on the rounded shingle, he lets his mind uncoil and gather unconsciously suppleness and strength; he lets it stretch and sun itself without interruption. And he is no loser, for so surely as he is content and not ashamed to sit maybe for a whole bright forenoon, doing nothing, thinking of nothing, the unfolded mind will have filled itself like a sleeping net; and when afterwards he gropes within for thought and illustration he will find good store. The dusty, faded chambers of his brain will have become wholesome and fresh. He will return to the operating-room, the law court, the editor’s den, with an atmosphere of salt and sunshine about him. Of course, some active mind’s must grub about the rocks and fish in the clear pools of brine left by the tide, but I beg once for all to protest against the sweeping condemnation uttered by some people, who would employ every idle saunterer on a fruitful beach.

Let them whip the bonâ fide lounger, the man who never works. Ay! there is something in that; or better still, let them try to save him. Seize the moment when the dull mind is touched with fresh thought, when the sleepiness of the daily inland routine is somewhat rubbed off, and arouse a new interest in a crab if you can. There are people who have been plucked from a life of blindness by the wonders of the shore. The only danger is of a relapse, as if the “littoral zone” were really more wonderful than the brook round the meadow, or the glade in the wood.

Therefore do I like to see—though they be only faint flashes of thought (like summer lightning), quickened in the drowsy mind by some popular revelation of the beach; nay, I like to see even a persevering reliance on the brightness of wet pebble. True, the gems are opaque in the morning—not to say gritty—and will probably be found by the next comer to the lodgings in the drawer of the dressing-table; but they have rubbed a human mind as well as one another. They have perhaps made some crafty soul childlike for a day. Childlike! Give me either science or simplicity. Either a seeing eye, which, however ignorant of geological details, recognises the progress of the world as it rests on a cliff; or the eye which loves the cliff, without a reason indeed, though none the less for that—perhaps the more. Preserve me from the distilled prattle of the conscientious quack who grinds up facts out of a printed book, and then repeats them at hap-hazard, because he thinks educated society expects some acquaintance with the phraseology of science. Protect me from him, I should only put him out; let him enjoy himself in his own way, I in mine, out of shot. Perhaps, while I am peopling a flat valley with ancient monsters, smacking the slime with their great tails, gobbling, sleeping, snorting, fighting—while I hear the shriek and the rustle of strange birds in the air, but see the same blessed sun above our heads, the same harvest moon, though rising on the unreaped earth—while I am thus out of date, or may be picturing to myself the naked battle around the barrows on the windy downs, my friend with the book shouts to me that he thinks he has found a Coleopterum ridiculosum in the shingle. Will I come and see? And the inspected beast bounds off his open palm with an elastic “spang,”—very like a shrimp, as I tell him,—and is gone past verification; is probably at the moment hastily shoving himself, at great risk of bruises, deep down among his native stones. But my friend says, contemptuously, that it cannot be a shrimp—because shrimps are red.

There is one subject in which all seaside visitors are expected to take an interest, and that is the annual regatta. Nine-tenths of them don’t know a brig from a schooner, but they talk as if they had built the winning boat, screwing away at everything with their telescopes throughout the day. There are, however, moments in a regatta which the uninitiated may enjoy, as when a number of white-sailed yachts open their wings together like rising gulls; but, to most, the duck-hunt at the end affords a sensible relief. They have been bewildered with the banging of signal guns and sudden jaunty appearance of all the craft in the harbour, which string up every scrap of bunting they have on board for the occasion. The “million” have never any clear idea of the merits of the boats, get sorely deceived about time races, and, as I said, gladly welcome the “duck-hunt” and “greased bowsprit.” Paterfamilias—caught enjoying it on the sly—says the latter is vulgar, as if he had not hit upon the very thing in it which, despite of his protest, is amusing his refined mind far more than the great race of the day. My dear sir, why not accept heartily a piece of vulgar play? Did you ever see two boys swallow respectively, in rival gulps, a tumbler of water and a bun—the water to be taken with a spoon? You set the boys on a table, in two chairs facing each other—One, two, three, off! That is vulgar, but highly ludicrous. Paterfamilias may look another way, but I choose to see it out with unaffected interest. Which do you think won? Try it, and be popular for an evening.

Another invariable feature of sea-side life is the arrival of the steamer. People living in Euston Square never go to see the Express from Liverpool unload in the terminus hard by, but while down at Ramsmouth will get up from their luncheons and hurry out, if the vessel should arrive before its time. There is no variety in the crowd of passengers—the same people seem to come every time, especially in rough weather, when they are all wretched alike, and are quite reckless whether their bonnets be tumbled or hats crushed, so long as they can join the mocking crowd upon the steady shore; but they are stared at like Esquimaux as they land. The people who enjoy the sea-side most are the real men of business and children, who come alike, to play. I cannot conceal my dislike of the prigs, both male and female, who come to dress and be admired. Their intention is an insult to the sensible shabby visitors. But the children, with inexhaustible wealth of sand, as good as gold, and suddenly discovered licence to wet their feet!—for there is a favourite myth current among even nervous mothers and nurses that “salt water does not give cold”—look at the children digging, where mischief is impossible, defying the recollection of sanitary advice with unfading ecstacy, by walking into the water simply to get their feet wet whenever they feel dry. See them all at their early dinner through the open parlour window of the lodgings—what a gust of healthy, tanned appetite comes out as you pass!

I don’t know which is best, shingle or sand. There is something in the freshness of the flat hard beach, which no rolled gravel or concrete can approach, though the sea break at your feet. There is a grateful sense of escape from the dull road, where your own footprints are the first upon the shore. It seems as if you were a discoverer; you are severed from the world of men; you have left it behind; no one has wandered there before. But you cannot sit down on sand—not comfortably, at least—much less can you lie down upon it on your back, and turn the world topsy-turvy by gazing into skies beneath you. You can’t lie flat down on the sand, and enjoy it. You look for a big stone, the stump of an old pile, or unfold a camp stool.

Now shingle, on the contrary, affords the most perfect rest you can enjoy. A bank of dry shingle, resolutely sat upon, makes a lounge which Messrs. Gillow would do well to measure and model. Be you lean or fat, short in the thigh, or long in the back, the shingle bank takes your shape. Then shingle is clean: you do not rise as gritty as if you had been knocked down on a turnpike-road. Moreover, you are lulled by the delicious drawl of the retiring wave, to me inexpressibly soothing. But you can’t walk upon shingle—not, at least, without great fatigue. On the whole, though, I think it is better than sand, as you can always get exercise on firm ground further ashore, if you want it, whereas nothing but shingle gives the seat and couch. In my tramp around the coast I confess to great disappointment at some of the most famous watering places. You see the sea, it is true, and there are beautiful walks made upon the cliffs and among the rocks, but very often, as in the north of Devon, for instance, the impression is that you can’t get down to the water. You can’t throw stones into it; you can’t get your feet wet; you behold it from afar, like a goat: and that is all, unless you repair to some small patch of beach, monopolised by a bathing machine.

Not that patches of beach are bad; give me a shore with hidden little bays, where you may wander alone if you like, and then go back to the beauty and fashion on the promenade. Nothing is worse than one public walk, where you cannot get away from people, and where a conspicuous figure, say some staring snob, with a white hat in half-mourning, meets you on every tack; even without him it is dreary work to be confined to the same pier, up and down, like the bubble in a spirit level.

There is one class of the population at most watering-places, which I pity with all my heart; I don’t mean the donkeys, who affect an expression of patience I am convinced they don’t feel; but the goats. Goats in harness, towed by young plebeians in front, and worried by young gentlemen passengers, from behind. I can’t conceive a more unhappy, inappropriate fortune befalling any animal. I wonder whether they derive any malicious satisfaction from the consciousness of being goats, and that a ride behind them must displace even the fresh smell of the sea. But I don’t believe they think of it themselves.

Let me say a word about bathing, and I will have done.

In many respects they manage this better abroad. If you have your dip in public there, you are obliged to wear a “costume;” and the machines are often not shoved into the water; but the arrangements are convenient and decorous. The bathing at many of our watering-places is anything but this last. Perhaps it is more outrageous at Margate than elsewhere. The first time I saw it I was reminded of some old picture of the landing of the Romans, when the beach was lined with naked natives, half in and half out of the water. There is, moreover, something inexpressibly dismal in the unrobing within a machine, in the flapping of the spray at the outer door, and the shivering station on the gritty ladder, before the leap. This and the treacherous recall of the machine to the beach while you are standing on one leg, tugging at a sticky boot, make the whole process intolerable. If I must bathe, give me a clear header from a rock, and sunshine to dress in. The young lady’s amusement in the water seems to consist in a quick succession of deep perpendicular curtsies, and an attempt to tug the machine in after her by its tail. Sea-fishing is generally a failure; one or two are partially successful, the rest are sick. So with aimless sails, at a shilling an hour; the boatmen are extortionate and oracular, the excursionists wretched.

By the sea-side, however, as everywhere else, those only enjoy themselves as they might who dare seek recreation as the innocent whim may lead them; who defy the dressiness of the prigs and puppies, in easy clothing and old shoes indoors and out; who are not ashamed to roll or lounge on the shingle, unattracted by the band and the esplanade; who, having come to rest, idle wisely, with perpetual acted protest against the fuss of affected science and fashionable propriety.

H. J.