Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Summer in Devonshire


It is sad to be obliged to speak hardly of departed friends. As we pass by their graves the tender hare-bells and sweet-scented clover tell of nothing but what is beautiful and of good report. We cannot then quarrel with buried foibles, and “sit tibi terra levis” is our only thought. Thus I would rather not mention the true character of last summer in Devon, and the watery weeks of the present one, so far as it has yet advanced. Their souls have passed into the daisies of Time’s grave, and I would fain only recal them as glad summer hours of sunshine and bee-murmurings, and pleasant lime-tree fragrance, and airy whisperings of the mountain firs. They brought their blessing with them, and it would ill-become me to resuscitate them in their storms and mists and thunderous rage. But truth compels me to admit this much of them, at least, they were not what they generally are.

As I am speaking of Devon summers, I will adopt the manner of the natives—ungrateful though it be—and write down the summer of this year and of 1860, as an old crone in that county lately spoke to me of her dead husband:

“Poor dear mon, I be real sorry for un; but he were a bad old man, dree and fifty years he ill-used me, but I quite forgive un; oh! he were a bad old man!”

Let us therefore contemplate summer in Devon as it generally is, avoiding invidious particularity, and remembering its delights in past years in those

Summer days, when we were young;
Sweet childish days, that were as long
Sweet childAs twenty days are now.

Given the county, let me try to deck it with some of the usual accompaniments of its delightful August. Of course there is pleny of sunshine, where else are you to look for it if not in Devon? Sometimes stealing gently over the land from the distant peaks of Dartmoor, and streaming over meadow, lawn and moor, with its gentle influences, it lulls all nature into serenity, only broken by the hum of insects, which seems reflected in the seas round the coast, as the gentle ripple just stirs their blue expanse. Sometimes, again, like a tropical day, it blazes over heath and hamlet, a brilliant, steady flood of light, without a flicker and without a breath, as if the sun could not lose a look of the land it loves so well. Often, again (and this is to my mind its most pleasant phase), the sunshine skims down the dark-green Tors, dances over the Combes beneath, now runs over a waving field of corn, now gilds the distant farmstead, and ere it has well passed, another flood of light is upon you and gone in its turn, gently toying with the wind as it fleets on, and keeping pace with its lightest breath. This is the weather in which Devon looks its best. This is spring, almost visibly flushing into summer. The constant alternation of light and shade brings out the varied tints of the foliage and the splendour of the wild flowers to perfection, while the sun is not too hot to rob you of their enjoyment.

Summer brings its showers as well as April, and if I dislike, as much as you do, the unvarying rains of last year, I gladly welcome many a stray shower. We cannot put up with perpetual ill-temper even in the greatest beauty, but willingly abide her chance caprices of smile and frown. And if you insist on a southern serenity, always brooding over Devon, the deep azure would rob my favourite county of half its charms. It is impossible to obtain its cloud-scenery unless you welcome these passing showers. But from this cause its beauty is heightened; after every rainy hour “blue isles of heaven smile between,” and grey and white “angels from the sea” (as Ruskin calls them) float over the hills to catch the golden tints of day as it dies in the crimson west. Not only is the splendour of the sunsets heightened by these occasional showers, but their frequent recurrence tends greatly to give summer in Devonshire that vigorous life and motion which continuous sunshine can never grant to other lands.

Let us borrow the wild bird’s wings, and take a passing glance at Devon, from end to end, as it now is.

Starting, as I have seen the cuckoo after its long voyage, between the greensand of Sidmouth and the bold chalk cliffs of Beer Head, the deep purple blossoms of the rare “Lithospermum purpureo-cæruleum” tell the botanist at once that he is drawing near the riches of the west. We may take the “Corrigiola littoralis,” which does not, however, occur further east than Slapton Sands, near the Start, as the next step towards the continental Flora of Cornwall. But, away over lanes dappled underneath with feathery lady-ferns, and smothered overhead by honeysuckles and white-clustered traveller’s joy (Clematis vitalba),—over many a strip stolen from the breezy moorland where rows of pink-flowered potatoes flourish, as yet happily untouched by disease,—over many a red and yellow mosaic of scarlet lychnis and golden-rod crowding round those green furze bushes which bend under the strangling grasp of parasitic dodder,—dashing down the verdant hills which enclose the Otter—past the gardens of Bicton and the elms of Sowton, and the giant boughs of Heavitree, where tradition tells of many a fettered criminal swinging in the breeze, we will rest by the mossy towers of Exeter Cathedral.

Perchance the good folks here are busily flocking to a flower-show or an archery-meeting, or those gay streamers tell of an election, and Exeter has always been a loyal city, answering to her motto of “Semper Fidelis.” Ere now its Bishop has been torn to pieces by a London mob because he loved his king too well, and one of its parish-priests been hanged, in full canonicals from his own church-tower, because he struggled for the old religion. The patriotism which, in old times, led the Devon gentry to draw their swords for King Charles, still leads its trusty Conservatives to fight, tooth and nail, for Church and State. But we will not lose our summer holiday amid political turmoil:

Rura mihi et rigui placeant in vallibus amnes,
Flumina amem sylvasque inglorius.

Would you linger awhile on the terraced walk of Tiverton Castle, or visit the fair ruins of Berry Pomeroy? I should much like to take you from where Dart winds beneath walls of waving trees to where its salmon peel leap joyously in that sheltered harbour at its mouth, which erst witnessed a fleet of crusaders set sail for the Holy Land. From here we might, perchance with classic Rowe or poetic Carrington, spend a happy hour on Dartmoor, and discourse of the geology of the granitic Yes Tor, the highest mountain peak in the county. This, however, will suit autumn better: the summer sun requires tempering with northern breezes and the white waves of the channel.

We cannot then do better than take the North Devon Railway. It will lead us through shady valleys, near white-washed farms with patches of yellow corn interspersed, over many a glittering trout-stream to the winding Taw, where net and rod are busily employed catching salmon. How beautiful is Crediton, in the heart of woodlands and breezy pastures, queen of the cider orchards of Devon! We cannot help recurring to long past ages at its sight, to days when St. Boniface left it to Christianise Germany, and when it was the seat of a bishopric before Cornwall and Devon were united in one see. Its antiquity lingers still in the popular rhyme:

When Exeter was a furzy down
Kerton was a market town.

Lovely though the grounds of Eggesford be at any season, they seem tenfold more lovely now that a summer sun is upon them. Excellent specimens are they of the true English park-scenery, with walks winding by the streamlet’s brink,

The smell of grain, or tedded grass, or kine,
Or dairy—each rural sight—each rural sound,

and clumps of trees in deep light and shadow, and groups of wild flowers and ferns in profusion. But the train hurries us remorselessly along; we have only time to notice one of the finest trees in Devon, standing out proudly from its compeers in a glade near Umberleigh Station. A lime tree sends out two leaders from one root, which run straight up and intertwine their branches in magnificent clusters of deep green leaves. Its majestic symmetry is unrivalled; showing how greatly the soft Devon air helped its development. But we have now only indistinct visions of wooded hills and well-cultivated vales between, where heather and bracken invade civilisation at every corner, till dashing over the Taw, one of the great tidal rivers of North Devon, we find ourselves at Barnstaple.

Let us take our place on the top of the coach, one of the many relics of byegone days that meet us everywhere in this country. We skirt the estuary of the river to Braunton Burrows, as the region of sandhills round its mouth is called. Here summer brings to light many an interesting plant, though in other seasons the place is “wisht” enough (to use the expressive dialect of the natives). Ridges of sand, separating pools of salt water, run along the strand; the angry sea in the offing is generally chafing at the intrusion of the mingled waters of the Taw and Torridge, while a light-house stands out grey and ghastly on the mud-flats, like the grave-stone of the numberless vessels which have perished on this dangerous coast. I Now, however, it affords a lovely panorama from the sailor’s colony of Appledore on the other side, or from the hills where we are, beyond the Burrows.

Up these we mount one above another till we top the backbone of the country, and turning, see the Dartmoor peaks glimmering faintly in the distance, and many a snatch of fair plain and hill around us. Heather (just coming into bloom), Shakspeare’s “long purples,” and tall fox-glove spires writhe beneath jungles of white-flowered bramble at our side, while on the stone walls of the country, flourish masses of stone-crop and orpine, white, pink, yellow, and purple; and where the grey slate rocks pierce the soil, wild thyme and marsh bed-straw creep luxuriantly through the tender grass, closed in by picturesque clumps of bracken and golden furze. It is a very unsatisfactory country for a farmer, this; but how grateful to an eye that loves Nature in all her wildness! This kind of scenery follows us for miles, as we climb under walls of shale with hedges and rocks high over our heads, or dip into secluded valleys beneath, till at length the glitter of the sea and the calm grandeur of her surrounding Tors, tells us we are at Ilfracombe.

This is especially the place at which to enjoy August in summer. It is too hot, and I am too lazy to tell of its ancient glories; perhaps if I hint at the great names of Champernowne, Sir Philip Sidney, and the Audleys, who once possessed the manor, you may with them weave at leisure fairy romances of mediæval pageantry and heroism. Let us take our seat a while upon the Capstone, a conical cliff, 181 feet above the sea. Here there are walks made one over the other for the amusement of visitors, and an extensive view of land and sea. Far over the channel you see dimly a chain of blue mountains, and the faint column of smoke rising over them, tells where the Swansea furnaces are at work smelting copper. The outline of the Mumbles, too, is just visible. To the right the view is bounded by Hillsborough, an eminence 447 feet high, like a crouching lion watching over Ilfracombe. The pipit flits from rock to rock, alarmed at our intrusion; and further up the cliffs the shrike is on the watch from the top of a post. He would add a few more victims to the collection of beetles and small birds spitted on the thorns around his nest, to be eaten cold during this hot weather; for he is no vulgar savage to pounce upon his prey and devour it on the spot, like his kinsman, the kestrel-hawk, whom you may see hovering over yonder furze bushes. I need not describe the visitors promenading underneath us, the scientific searching for anemones near low-water mark, while the idle ones watch them from above, maliciously hoping that a chance wave may break over them—visitors are always the same at a sea-side place. Perhaps more hats and novels distinguish them here from others, for the sun is stronger and the climate softer than elsewhere. One local guide-book proves to its own satisfaction, I see, that Ilfracombe is as cool in summer as any other English town, and in winter actually half a degree warmer than Torquay!

Below us white houses, often hiding in trellised-work and roses, are scattered up and down, with here and there a terrace in the back-ground, while the old parish church closes the view on one side, as a light-house—built on the ruined chapel of St. Nicholas, the fisherman’s saint,—does on the other. All is very quiet; a light haze is swimming overhead, and fine mists curl round the breezy tops of the Tors. What a wild scene of grey rocks and immense blue sea is beneath! Shadowy masses of foliage on the hills seeming imperceptibly to melt into the rocks, while vistas of light open up between them, stream down to the valleys, and lose themselves amongst the waving corn or the hay-fields in the tenderest verdure of a second crop. Notice, too, the many-coloured vegetation on the hills that has replaced the “drifts of anemones” and “sheets of hyacinth,” in which poets dress our Devon spring; and how totally it differs from the sandworts, buck-horn plantains, scurvy-grass, and other characteristic littoral plants beside us on the Capstone. Truly no other watering-place of England has such varied charms; town and country and seaside seem here to blend in one delightful whole, in which the most pleasant features of each are alone prominent. The natives, too, are so simple and open-hearted. Watch the housewives coming to; market with the strawberries from their cottage gardens, or the whortle-berries gathered by the children in the neighbouring thickets. See how they drop a curtsey to every well-dressed person, while the goodman who follows with the donkey-cart touches his hat with the air of Nature’s gentleman. Their innocent life and the pure air of the hills around must doubtless do much to produce those centenarians, of which a curious list is here preserved on the east wall of the church.

Such is Ilfracombe in summer. Let us pass up one of the quaint old-world entries, that might have been well-suited for warriors in chain-mail proceeding to embark in the six ships which this town furnished Edward the Third for the siege of Calais, but which sorely embarrass the ample skirts of the fine lady of Victoria’s time descending to more peaceful conquests on the Capstone. The waves are surging round, but we may look into the gloom of Crewkhorne Cave, supposed to have been a hiding-place of Tracy, one of Thomas à Becket’s murderers. Or better still, a few miles over the cliffs, let us visit Morthoe Church, where a flat stone, on which is cut the effigy of a priest bearing a chalice, surrounded by a half-effaced Norman inscription, is shown as his tomb. Certainly the escutcheons round the stone point to the vermilion bends of the Tracy family, if the chalice disprove the notion of the repentant warrior resting below. After the outside heat it is very grateful to linger in this little church, and to note the curious carvings on the bench-ends.

But now that we are diverging to the romantic, we cannot better end our summer tour than by visiting the Haunted House of Chambercombe. It is just the place for a ghost, hidden among trees, and smothered by the foliage of narrow lanes, and withdrawn from the haunts of men. A babbling stream breaks the silence of the valley as we force our way through bowers—

The violets ofBeneath whose leaves
The violets of five seasons reappear
And fade, unseen by any human eye;
Where fairy water-breaks do murmur on
For ever.

But as it is only some two miles out of Ilfracombe, we soon reach the farm-house. The name seems a corruption of Champernowne’s Combe; and it may have been one of the nineteen manors of that house which Queen Elizabeth caused to be sold, thus effectually ruining their owner, when (aware of the small likelihood of ever seeing his fine band of singers back again) he refused to lend them to her Majesty. A ghost-story is told in connection with it, but there is little probability of a visitor being able to raise the veil of mystery which at present shrouds it. Most likely he will find even the ghost of civility fled if he inquires where the ghost-room is, and the old dame who at present inhabits the place will tell him, as she told our party, that “The ghost-room is where the ghost is, she supposes; it isn’t open now, and it never will be” (for it is a fearsome thing to raise a ghost, even in this nineteenth century, in a Devonshire house). From the manner, however, in which she afterwards pointed out to another old lady the little dark window between the ladder and the end of the house, we gathered it was there her worst fears resided. The legend is, that in past years the farmer noticed a window on the outside more than was apparent within. Breaking through an inner partition, he came upon a room lighted by this window, and hung with moth-eaten tapestry.

The chamber was dispainted all within
With sondry colours, in the which were writ
Infinite shapes of thinges dispersed thin;
Some such as in the world were never yit,
Ne can devised be of mortall wit;
Infernall hages, centaurs, feendes, hippodames,
Apes, lyons, aegles, owles, fooles, lovers, children, dames.

Surrounded by quaintly carved chairs and a wardrobe was an old oaken bed, and on tearing down the hangings, he saw a whitened scull grinning from the hollowed pillow, and one polished arm-bone lying on the crimson quilt with a firm grasp of it between its crooked fingers. Of course he fled, walled up the room directly, and thus gave rise to the notion of a ghost still haunting its old habitation.

No conjectures can be formed respecting the dead lady; each one may fill up for himself the particulars of her death or murder, and deem her riches or her beauty the cause of her untimely end.

Most likely she was an old hag, who clung to her ill-gotten gains to the last; resisting the slow approach of death or the club of the midnight robber, till the final convulsion found her still clinging to the quilt with the greedy grasp of the miser. Whatever we may think about her fate, no one will regret his visit to the leafy seclusion round the Haunted House.

Thus, then, I have given you a few sketches of Devonshire in summer. We might go eastward to Linton, and southward to the beauty of the Tamar, or the rugged grandeur of Bolt Head; or we might run through the county from Tavistock to Exmoor, and still be delighted with fresh antiquities and legends set in the sunniest of skies and purest of atmospheres. But enough has been said to show the tourist, that if luckily condemned by want of means to stay in his native land, no more beautiful and interesting corner of it can be found than this same Devonshire. Here is summer without the inconveniences it brings with it in sunnier lands; here is hospitality and cleanliness, and welcome in every large town and every myrtle-covered cottage, very different from the polite rapacity of the garçon or the servility of the vetturino. With all these accompaniments, no where else in England can our summer be so fully enjoyed as in Devonshire.