Ebooks, Fiction, Non-Fiction 1000s of Free books and stories online to read now ~ Main Page

 

 

 

In the Isle of Wight by S. F. Hopkins

 

The Solent Sea, the channel dividing the Isle of Wight from the mainland, varies in breadth from one to six miles. The island must at one time have formed a portion of the mainland, and so late as when the Greeks traded with Cornwall for tin the Solent is said to have been passable at low water by men and carts.

The circumference of the island is about sixty miles, the surface undulating, with a range of fine downs running through from east to west, having here and there points of considerable elevation. It is said to have been well wooded formerly, but no forests remain, and the hedge-rows, coppices and scattered trees are all it can now offer in the way of foliage. The scenery of the north side of the island is quiet, pleasing, here and there picturesque, but the southern side is full of the beauty of bold cliffs, chasms, irregular coast- and hill-lines, tumbled rocks, bare, wind-swept hills, and sheltered coves where flowers bloom and ivy climbs from the very verge of the sea. On this side lies the famous region known as the Undercliff—a series of terraces rising ambitiously from the sea up the steep sides of St. Boniface's Down—the tract being about seven miles long, and from a quarter to half a mile broad.

On the one hand, the bold promontories, the shell-like bays of the sea-line; on the other, the lofty, rounded down, with here and there its buttress of gray rock coming out in naked grandeur; between the two a lovely irregularity of soft slope, sinuous or dimple-like valleys, dark ravines, velvet-smooth laps of terrace, with now and again a sudden springing brook, and everywhere the thickets of holly and cedar clambered rampantly over by masses of ivy and traveler's joy—our Virgin's bower clematis—and such sunshine as falls not elsewhere in England over all.

Miss Sewell, the author of Amy Herbert, Ivors and Ursula, who resides at Bonchurch with her sisters, where they have a school, says of the Undercliff: "There is a verse spoken of a very different country which often comes to my mind when I think of it: 'It is a land which the Lord thy God careth for. The eyes of the Lord thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year, even unto the end of the year.' Sometimes it has even seemed to me that heaven itself can scarcely be more beautiful."

It was Sir James Clark who discovered the Undercliff to the public. Up to the time of the publication of his work On the Influence of Climate in the Prevention and Cure of Disease, only a few fishermen's huts marked the spot that is now populous Ventnor. But the sheltered, sunny spot, the soft air, the plants flourishing even in winter, the charming surroundings, at once caught the fancy of invalids: they came in numbers, both for a summer visit and a winter residence, and of course suitable accommodation had to be provided for them. The "plague of building" lighted on Ventnor: almost every possible and impossible spot has been used for lodging—houses, hotels, shops, villas, churches, situated with utter disregard to the natural lines of the place. The building still goes on. There are everywhere ugly scars in the chalk-banks that Nature has not had time to heal: in short, Ventnor is spoiled for those who remember it in its early days, and for aristocratic dwellers roundabout, but it is a case of the greatest good to the greatest number; and when the quick-springing green shall have kindly softened and folded in the crowded, incongruous buildings, and blended into rounded masses above them, Ventnor will be forgiven its railway that has made this region accessible to the many-headed, in consideration of the comforts and amenities of life brought to the doors of circumjacent dwellers, instead of being, as once, lacking, or brought laboriously from London at serious individual expense.

To say that Ventnor is dull, to American notions, is only to say that it is an English sea-side resort. People live mostly in lodgings, which is the most unsocial way possible of living: there are no reading-rooms, no cafés, no hops, no places of meeting and introduction. There is the rapprochement of proximity on the Esplanade and the bathing beach, where one gets a little of his fellow-creatures in a sort of spiritual endosmose and exosmose. But nothing more, and I am afraid our average youthful American specimen of Solomon's lilies would, at the end of two days, cause all her crisp, snowy and varicolored petals to be refolded within their calyx "ark," and indignantly withdraw herself for evermore from the "Fair Island." "Her own loss?" Doubtless, but it is the race's as well that any single creature should be deaf, blind, without heart to feel, intellect and culture to appreciate, or with any exquisite sense of apprehension wanting.

But there are Americans and Americans; and some of our countrymen and countrywomen who have been busiest at home, who have journeyed far and wide, seem to find it the most natural thing possible to linger for months in Capuan Ventnor—anywhere in the soft-aired, Sleepy-Hollow Undercliff; and to pluck themselves away from the sweet peace, the calm delights of sauntering and lying on the cliffs, watching "the wrinkled sea" that "beneath them crawls," breathing the air that has no suggestion of ocean in it save its freshness, so entirely is all odor of brine and sea-weed overborne by the fragrance of flowers, notably that of the mignonette, sweet-pea and nasturtium, making little excursions on foot or coach-top along the coast, or to the charming inland famous spots,—a thing very grievous to be borne patiently.

Just above Ventnor, where the down is steepest, and almost at its top, is a wishing well; but if one would have his wish fulfilled, made while drinking its waters, he must climb to the spring without casting one backward glance. A sure foot and a head not easily dizzied are imperative necessities, and then one may climb, as I did, with carefulest directions, scramble to the very brow and find no drop of water on the way, get a superb view of the Undercliff and the Channel for miles and miles, gather handfuls of the lovely heather that clothes the down's top, then, plunging downward again, almost set foot unawares in the milky little basin no bigger than a kneading-bowl, that on the upward way would have been a very Kohinoor, and is now only glanced at with spiteful aversion. The ancients were right: there is a malignity of matter.

At Ventnor died John Sterling, made known to the world through the biographies of Carlyle and Archdeacon Hare. He was buried in the churchyard of the old church at Bonchurch, a tiny Norman building, of date 1270, which has been for years deserted. Graves fill all the enclosure, ancient elms shade it, a noisy brook half winds about it, then dashes down the sudden slope to the restless sea, whose mighty murmur underlies the streamlet's plashes and gurgles and the ceaseless tender bird-notes, and makes for this little burial ground, that is only hidden, not widely removed from men, a wondrous sense of space and solemn solitude.

Bonchurch is perhaps a mile from Ventnor, and is the boskiest bit of loveliness in all the lovely island. By every approach you enter it under the interlacing arches of noble old trees; ivy and ferns mask all with tender and dark glossy green; the thatched cottages are masses of honeysuckle and jessamine, their tiny windows and gardens gay with old English flowers; you may stand beneath fuchsia trees so reddened with the profusion of blossoms that at a little distance they are like nothing so much as tall clumps of barberry bushes laden with the ripe berries; you may visit, by introduction or permission, gardens of the lovely villas nestled in dells here, perched on bold crags there, or backing against the abrupt gray cliff, which has here no turfy covering—gardens such as one could well dream away life in, with no wish to range beyond their bounds, had one in this work-filled world no conscience about long dalliance in an earthly paradise. In one of these gardens I wandered long one afternoon that was not sunny, and that was yet not sombre, the air of balmiest breath, all the earth and sky softened with the changing, tender tones one finds not out of England. The house was grandly placed against the cliff, and the garden, which was rather a succession of gardens, was all up and down on the scattered terraces provided by long-ago landslips. There were modern gardens with banks of color and mosaic parterres; old-fashioned gardens, clipt and quaint; a fernery brought bodily from Fairy-land; clematis, ivy, woodbine and jessamine clambering and flowering against the wall of crag, and fuchsias that seemed to have no foothold swinging long, jewel-hung branches from far overhead. In one place, from a broad low arch at the crag's base, a clear spring rushed forth. One could see some yards within the arch, discern rare ferns, a shimmer of ghostly lilies, and one vigorous tuft of maiden-hair that dropped a veil of tremulous green lace almost to the water's edge. Still, vines and vines, and in this little garden of the grot what a magnificent growth of canes, cannas and pampas-grass; with walks now dropping into densest shade, now climbing out upon a bare spur of rock or lap of smooth lawn; the musical rain of a fountain in the green depths below; the hamlet and neighboring villas so lost to sight that the very birds might well doubt where to pierce the leafy canopy to find home, wife and callow nestlings; beyond, and round all, the half ring of quiet-colored, placid sea—the emerald sea, rough with white caps; the blue sea, sparkling in sunshine; the moonlit sea, silver-gleaming, but melancholy, and terrible as eternity.

At Bonchurch lived the parents of the poet Swinburne, but they left some years since, because, it is affirmed, there was no church hereabouts sufficiently ritualistic to content their consciences. One cannot help thinking, with a little unmalicious amusement, what a cuckoo child the poet must have been to this pair. Here, too, lived a good old man and prolix poet, a friend of Tennyson. It is asserted, on authority, that the laureate, in his visits to the family, sometimes found himself so intolerably bored by his fellow-craftsman that he was fain to betake himself to a bathing-machine, dallying therein and over his bath for two or three hours to purchase the necessary respite.

Beyond Bonchurch are three lions—"the Landslip" and the Luccombe and Shanklin Chines. Many and many a rocky hillside pasture in New England is far finer than the Landslip, and the Chines (fissures or ravines—"He that in his day did chine the long-ribb'd Apennine," sings Dryden) are by no means impressive to American eyes. But the mixture of miniature wildernesses, tumbled rocks, stream, waterfall, airy little swells and falls of ground, elegant villas, charming walks where all is beautiful, finished, dainty, with incessant views of the really grand features of the scene—the sea and the down—forms an enchanting combination. The authoress who under the nom-de-plume "Holme Lee" has done so much for the readers of circulating libraries, resides at Shanklin, and here in 1819 came Keats and tarried while writing Lamia.

From Ventnor south-west through the Undercliff to St. Catherine's Hill, the western bulwark of the Elysium of suave airs, the scenery is perhaps even finer to Western hemisphere taste than that of the more noted northern region. It is, if not wilder, more solitary, unimproved by art, less pervaded with tourists and tourists' needs: one feels less suffocated, crowded, and very, very covetous of one or another of the lovely, lonely homes scattered here and there.

On this side of Ventnor is situated the National Consumptive Hospital projected by Dr. Arthur Hill Hassall. It is on the cottage plan. There are to be sixteen cottages, each to contain about six patients. Several of the buildings are already completed and in use. The hospital is partly self-supporting, partly dependent upon voluntary aid, and in all the places of resort one sees the little alms-box with its eloquent appeal, "For I was sick, and ye visited me not."

High up upon the hill above Ventnor is the seaside refuge of the London city missionaries. The block of buildings was erected as a series of model cottages for laborers. Whether these found their intended homes too fine, too phalansterian, or what not, I cannot tell, but the group of houses was made over to the tired workers in the London slums, and the laborers perch upon all sorts of inaccessible places upon the down, scratching great unsightly places in the chalk, erecting therein the tiniest houses of red brick; and though the one or two windows may be filled with flowers, the ugly gashes do not heal quickly high on the wind-swept hill.

The longest, and certainly the most interesting, excursions to be made from Ventnor are those to Carisbrooke and to Freshwater. The first leads you into the very heart of the island, through lanes that must be the boweriest in all England. Often the road-bed drops for a long way into a deep cutting. Ivies cover all the sides, ferns, vetches, campions and arums spring thickly amid them, and the tall, straggling hedges of dog-roses, brambles and hawthorn that top the banks are luxuriantly overrun with honeysuckle, filling the whole air with its spicy fragrance. On either side are blossoming fields of clover and beans, the larks are mounting and singing in ecstasy overhead, the road climbs a steep ascent, and we have miles and miles of finished landscape in view. There are timber-tied farm-houses here and there, or tiny hamlets whose straw thatches are simply glorious with their patches of velvet moss and the brilliant golden blossoms of a succulent whose name I do not know—houses and hamlets one would like to seize in one's arms and drop them down in America, in the midst of New England's hideous factory-villages, ornamentless, shadeless, unrestful, glaring with white-painted deal.

For the interior of the old English cottages there is not one word of defence to be uttered: the ugliest pine box of a house to be found anywhere in all the unlovely New England towns is more comfortable, more sanitary. The English cottage has a rheumatic floor of beaten earth or tile; its rooms are few and small, and very dark; the water-supply is scanty and most inconvenient; its chimney smokes; mice and rats find secure refuge in the thatch; the masses of clinging vines make it damp and earwiggy; but what a lovely bit it is in the landscape!—the neutral tints, the patches of color, the picturesque outlines, the pitch and curved border of its roof, the yellow ricks in the background, the little garden gorgeous with marigolds, wallflowers, stocks, pinks, balsams, or white and pure with stately ranks of the beautiful Virgin lily. For the interior, away with it! but can we get no hint from all the external beauty?

Of Carisbrooke too much might be said for the scope and limits of this paper: brief mention must suffice. It is the old capital of the island. The remains of a Roman villa were discovered about a dozen years since; the old church dates from the time of William the Conqueror; and the grand old castle, connected with almost every era of English history, had for its nucleus a Saxon stronghold, which succeeded a Roman fortress, as that in turn succeeded a Celtic camp. The ruin covers a large space of ground on a hill overlooking the old town. There is no majesty of beetling crags, no girdle of turbulent sea, but the dignity of its size, its age, its story, is all-satisfying. It is a good, a fitting spot for an American to make a pilgrimage to. A noble, eloquent, peaceful sadness pervades it, and generations shrink to dots. And Nature herself has had pity on these stones for the mirth, the heroism, the misery they have encompassed: she has propped up the tottering ramparts with forests of tall trees in the courts, balustraded the dizzy heights with a sturdy, bushy growth of ivy, and firmly bound together all the crumbling decay with a centuries-old cording of vine-stems.

A mile from Carisbrooke village lies Newport, the modern capital of the island—modern in its relation to Carisbrooke, but possessing some traces that it was formerly of Roman occupation also. It is pleasantly situated in a gentle valley, the temperature mild and damp like that of Devonshire, but is chiefly interesting to visitors for the attractions of the lovely region round about—stately Carisbrooke; Osborne, the royal manor of Her Majesty, and not far from thence the birthplace of Dr. Arnold; Godshill, a hamlet so beautiful one would like to wave over it an enchanter's wand that should fix for ever just the charm one sees in it to-day. The name of the village is accounted for by a tradition that is not uncommon. The builders of the church proposed to erect it at the foot of the hill, but each morning found the previous day's work undone and the materials carried to the top. After some days' perseverance they gave up the contest, and set up their beacon of the faith on the spot indicated by their invisible combatants.

Not far from Newport, by a way filled with delight, one reaches Shorwell, a little village beautifully placed, and with a curious old church full of interest. Upon one of the walls is an old fresco illustrating the life and adventures of St. Christopher, and there is a quaint memorial brass erected by Barnabas Leigh in honor of his two deceased wives, and with a flattering allusion to wife No. 3, then living! One wife is followed by a troop of children—the other is forlornly alone. There is also a memorial to Sir John Leigh and his grandson Barnabas, who died seven days after the grand-sire:

Inmate in grave he took his grandchild heire,
Whose soul did haste to make to him repaire;
And so to heaven along, as little page,
With him did poast to wait upon his age;

and to Lady Elizabeth Leigh—"Sixteene a maide, and fiftie yeares a wife."

In the opposite direction from Newport lies Arreton, where Legh Richmond found the heroine of a narrative we have all read—The Dairyman's Daughter. Her memorial is in the churchyard, which is unusually full of interesting inscriptions. Here is an early English one from a brass, dated 1430, within the church:

Here is yburied vnder this graue
Harry Hawles his soul God saue
Longe tyme steward of ye yle of Wyght
Have mercy on hym God ful of myght.

Legh Richmond was curate of two near-by villages, Brading and Yaverland, during the first years of the present century. Both villages are very old and full of interesting antiquities—churches, Jacobean manor- and farm-houses, parish stocks, a bull-ring where our enlightened forefathers amused themselves savagely as well as sadly.

The excursion to Freshwater, twenty-two miles from Ventnor, is sufficiently charming when made on top of a coach in the veiled yet warm friendliness of an English summer day; but the way of ways to make it, as indeed to see the whole island, is as a pedestrian. Freshwater is at the extreme western point of the island. In going thither from Ventnor one traverses all the western portion of the Undercliff, where every glimpse is a joy; then emerges into a wilder, solitary region, with a bold coast-line sharply indented with chines whose scenery varies from beautiful to savage and drear; finds always the little hamlets—this with its church, that with its inn, become a classic resort, another with its story of an old hermitage or tradition of gold-laden galleon foundered on its cruel rocks, the gold coins still now and then to be found in certain sands. Here a landslip has exposed the remains of a Romano-British pottery; there is a down with Pictish tumuli, and at long intervals one of the old farm-houses which it is impossible not to grudge to its possessor. The landscape has none of the exuberant luxuriance and variety of the Undercliff. Bare, lofty downs, shadeless fields, no coppices, great swampy pastures—an open, breezy country all swells and falls, with occasionally fine clumps and avenues of English elms, feathered to their roots. And so, at last, Freshwater, where downs are noblest, and the air, blown straight across the Atlantic, seems not less bracing and exhilarating than that of New England.

The old village of Freshwater is picturesque, but the new lodging-house portion, only lately sprung up because it has become a fashion with doctors to prescribe Freshwater as a holiday and sanitary place, is hideous in its newness of fiery red brick and freshly uptorn earth.

But it was not for Freshwater, old or new; not for its church, which has some very fine bits, and an epitaph celebrating "the most virtuous Mrs. Anne Toppe, in her widowhood, by a memorable providence, preserved out of the flames of the Irish rebellion;" not for the really superb character of the coast-cliffs, just here mined into caverns only accessible from the sea, with huge detached masses of chalk, one hollowed into a grand arch, through which the waters rush with magnificent music; not for "the Needles," the extreme western points of the middle range of downs, isolated masses of rock that are very fine seen from seaward, entering "the Race" between the Isle of Wight and Dorset; not for Alum Bay, whose gay sands we have all seen fantastically arranged in landscapes under glass, and whose cliffs have their vertical strata in brilliant stripes of deep, purplish-red, blue, yellow, gray that is almost white, and jet black, and contrast delightfully with the snowy sides of "the Needles;"—not for any or all the sublimity of sea and shore, did I make the pilgrimage to this out-of-the-way island corner. I went, as most lovers of our English tongue in its strength and poetry will go, because here for years was Tennyson's home—the home wherein most of his poems have been written—Farringford,

Where, far from noise of smoke and town,
I watch the twilight falling brown
All round a careless-ordered garden,
Close to the ridge of a noble down.
You'll have no scandal while you dine,
But honest talk and wholesome wine,
And only hear the magpie gossip
Garrulous, under a roof of pine.
For groves of pine on either hand.
To break the blasts of winter, stand,
And farther on, the hoary Channel
Tumbles a breaker on chalk and sand.

The house is by no means beautiful, but it is in the midst of such a network of peacefulest leafy lanes, the near-by surroundings are so grand, the "groves of pine" and the "careless-ordered garden" look so utterly fitted to be haunted by a poet's step and musings, the whole place must be so associated, so saturated with his reveries and fancies, so peopled with his creations, that it seems impossible any other spot could be home to him; and one feels a great pang of sadness that the only true master of Farringford should have felt himself driven to leave it, and to set up his household gods where he would be comparatively unknown and unhunted.

An un-famous person finds it however, a little difficult to sympathize with Tennyson's overpowering horror of the troublesomely affectionate curiosity of which he is the object. Even such extreme cases of hero-worship as that of the American who climbed the tree at Farringford to survey its master at his leisure, and that of the bevy of ladies at a London exhibition who, occupying a lounge before one of the special pictures of the season, and beholding Tennyson approach for a look, overwhelmed him with discomfiture by impressively ceding to him the entire sofa,—even these, and others of their kind, have a humorous side that might serve to qualify their impertinence and ill-breeding.

Neither Browning nor George Eliot is unknown by sight to the reading world of London: neither was Thackeray nor Dickens. Did either of these ever make outcry at the friendly if vulgar glances? Yet it is true that no one of them, save Dickens, has been so widely read, and it is probable that Browning, who looks like nothing so much as a hale, hearty business-man, oftenest escapes detection, while Tennyson's late photograph reproduces him so faithfully that he declares he can go nowhere without being known. Of the mischievous fidelity of the picture I am myself a witness, for having driven up one day to the Victoria station of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, by which Tennyson's new home is reached, and being busied with extricating from my purse the cabman's fare, my companion suddenly caught my arm, crying out, "Oh, S——, there's Tennyson!" The purse dropped in my lap: he was so near the cab I could have touched him, and of course he had heard the exclamation and knew why two ladies had so utterly forgotten their manners; but if he had also known that one of us had a certain shabby-through-use edition of all his earlier poems, which during a space of a dozen years had never been separated from her, traveling in a crowded trunk for even the shortest absences from home—that for months of that time she had been used to read therefrom to a precocious child who came every night in her night-gown to nestle in the reader's lap and listen to the music without which she declined to undertake the business of sleep,—I think the look bestowed upon the absorbed twain might well have been more amiable than the one which really fell upon them and blighted their innocent delight. It was all the photograph's fault, and, enthusiastic American sisters, be content with beholding the representation, for the original looks neither more patient, more gracious, nor more hopeful. So sensitive is he to looks which have in them any recognition, any stress, that a visitor at Farringford relates that, wandering about the cliffs and shores with his host, the latter would every now and then nervously cry out, "Come! let's walk on—I hear tourists!" and his companion, delaying a little, would be able to answer reassuringly, "Oh no: see! there's nothing in sight but a flock of sheep."

Perhaps I ought to confess that finding in one of the Farringford lanes a lovely little green gate opening into one of the "groves of pine," I did just try the latch. The door opened, and it looked all so still and shaded, whispery and ferny, so exactly as if Tennyson might any minute come pacing down between the tall trees, as if the "Talking Oak" was sure to stand just round a sun-lighted corner of the wood, that, incited thereto by a countrywoman of the poet's, who, herself a member of the guild, should know how poets' possessions may worthily be approached, I let my sacrilegious feet carry me a little way within that violated enclosure. But it was only a very tiny raid we made. We stood quietly for two or three minutes, just feeling the place, then scurried hastily away like two timorous hares; and as I have since lost a much prized little fern-leaf plucked within the enclosure, I think Mr. Tennyson should agree that this intrusive American has been quite severely enough punished, and that much ought to be forgiven one who has loved so much.

There really is one spot in England where "skies are blue and bright" uniformly, and, in the Undercliff, where no harsh winds come. And the whole island—with its smiling loveliness, its miniature sublimity, all its varying scenery, all its old landmarks, its rich story, its soft yet sparkling air, its dainty English culture, the sea that one never loses for long—is a honeymoon paradise. It can have been intended for nothing else. But it should be a pedestrian honeymoon. They should come to Ryde, leave all impedimenta to be sent forward to Ventnor by rail, and Madame in a serviceable walking-dress that need not be hideous, a sun-hat, with a strap holding her waterproof cloak, Monsieur with wraps, a bag containing the indispensable toilet necessaries, an umbrella and guide-book, should set gayly forth on their enchanted way. What a month in the romantic byways, over hill, down dale, in the old churches, churchyards, ivied ruins, through the ideal villages, resting amidst the heather on a down's summit, on the sands of a little scallop of a bay, stopping for food and sleep at the comfortable quaint inns or the sometimes "swell" hotels that are nowhere many miles asunder—seeing it, having it all together—the idyllic spot in the idyllic time!

And to American invalids it seems to me the Undercliff is far less known as a winter resort than it deserves to be. It is perfectly sheltered, yet has none of the dampness of Torquay and most of the other south-of-England health-resorts. And to invalids who speak no language save their own it must be infinitely pleasanter to abide where they hear their own tongue, where home comforts and home ways are joined to the other advantages they have come to seek. There is all the accessible beauty of walk and drive, ever-changing aspects of sea, shore, sky and crag, of which it would be difficult to tire, and a delicious languor in the mental atmosphere inexpressibly soothing to worn brain and nerves.

S. F. Hopkins.