The West of EnglandCategory: Land + People
By Ruth Manning-Sanders
Land’s End; there is something in the very meaning and sound of those two words that excites the imagination. The name is a magnet; let it but bespoken or written the tourists and the tramps will not be satisfied until they have journeyed, afoot or by car, over the ten long miles of hill, valley, and bleak tableland that lie between it and Penzance; until they have passed the hotel on the cliff top, turned right over the little intervening stretch of grass and boulders, and stood with the wind in their faces above the outcrop of pillared rocks, where the waters from north and south meet in white and swirling commotion. And, having stood there, having dropped an empty cigarette packet or two to litter the sward, or tossed a few crumbs to the screaming gulls, most of them turn round and go their way back to where they came from. For the business of life calls, and you cannot remain at the end of things.
Besides, there isn’t much to be seen but waves and more waves, rising and falling with everlasting rumour across the three thousand miles of uninterrupted ocean between here and America. Against these waves the cliffs stand bastion, broken by bays, pierced with rumbling caverns, shaped into towering fantasies of pillar and ladder, of giant and monster. Standing put to sea, a mile and a half from Land’s End itself, a snaggy scatter of submerged rocks, among which the water boils and eddies, ends in a higher rock, capped by a sturdy lighthouse. These are the Longships. To-day, the waves leap bellowing over the lighthouse top: to-morrow, perhaps, they will fall back snarling to prowl about its base, and the relief boat may put out to carry food to the three men shut in that quivering-walled yet stalwart little building.
Entering Devon from Gunnislake we soon reach Tavistock, which lies at the foot of Dartmoor, in a hollow of the
hills, on the banks of the Tavy. Here the air has already that indefinable Dartmoor quality, thin and pure, and so scentless in itself that any fragrance mingling with it — whether of autumn leaves, of heather in bloom, or wood fires — has a quite extraordinary pungency. Tavistock is a grey town with a feeling of spaciousness about it; and Tavy, here on the first lap of his journey in pursuit of Tamar, is a brown, eagerly hurrying, and foaming stream, whose urgent voice can be heard all through the town.
At Sharpham woods we pass a heronry, where you can see the huge untidy nests high up in the trees, and watch the deliberate trailing-legged flight of the birds across the water. Here the woods rise to a great height.
A charming piece of country and coast lies between Torquay and Teignmouth, with fertile valleys running inland, quarries mixed of red and grey by the high-climbing road, and little woods, gentle cliffs, clear sea, rocks and sands on the coast side.
If anyone feels that they must spend a holiday at a large seaside resort, let them go to Teignmouth, for the town has much to recommend it. It is, of course, “boiling dry”, as the Cornish say, with visitors, but it has character, and amidst all the cheerful energy with which it sets about catering for its guests, it manages to retain a good deal of its Georgian atmosphere. It is, in other words, not merely a holiday resort, but a place in itself. After the Napoleonic wars it became a refuge for retired officers, and at West Teignmouth there are really beautiful little Regency houses and terraces. The sea-front is spacious, the coast country, both to east and west, most pretty, and the river estuary mildly attractive for boating and fishing, and, with its ever-changing lights and colours, a place of genuine, if not dramatic beauty. In the winter of 1818, Keats was at Teignmouth, correcting Endymion for publication.
To compare Exmoor with Dartmoor to its detriment is perhaps ungracious; nevertheless it has to be admitted that Exmoor, despite its richness of colour, and the majestic play of light and march of cloud shadows across it, despite its glens and waterfalls, ravines and ferny and wooded combes, gives, when viewed as a whole, an impression of swelling shapelessness. As someone has remarked, the landscape is a “tumultuous waste of huge hilltops”. Camden, according to Defoe, “calls it a filthy and barren ground.” “And indeed, so it is,” comments Defoe. And indeed, so the interior of it is, we might say with more truth, though “filthy” is not an apt word. More recently the moor has been described as “gentle and friendly”, but never was statement more misleading. There is nothing friendly, and nothing gentle, in the heart of Exmoor. The glens and waterfalls, combes and birdsong, exquisite streams and leafy paradises — all these she gathers in her trailing skirts. Her heart is cold, lonely, and terrifying, a heart where breathing is secret, and life hidden; a place almost without sound, save of shuddering wind and troubled water, the creaking mew of a buzzard, or the sudden, sharp barking of a pair of ravens, a place which even primitive man seems to have largely avoided. This is the heart of the moor.
‘The Vale of Taunton Deane, the district encircled by the foot-hills and watered by the Tone and its tributaries, has been called the Garden of Somerset, and is reputed to be the most fertile in the county. But, on the whole, the “garden” is a dull one, and the Tone, by the time it reaches Taunton Deane, is an opaque and sluggish stream. Taunton, standing at the eastern gate of the garden, is a cheerful, friendly, and comely market-town, with wide streets, a triangular market-square, and some good buildings, the most interesting being the old thatched leperhouse (now an almshouse) at the east end of the town.
Taunton, which flourished greatly on the wool trade during the Middle Ages, has a venerable history, dating back to 710 when King Ine of Wessex established it as his fortress against the Welsh, whom he had driven back beyond the Tone, thus making himself master of practically the whole of Somerset, as well as of all England south of London. He was a wise and energetic monarch, perhaps the greatest of the Saxon kings before Alfred, he published a code of laws, and was the first king to give rights to the conquered Welsh. But, though he could subdue his foes and publish wise laws, he could not restrain his West Saxon subjects. The story goes that having held regal court at one of his country houses and ridden away, he was persuaded by his queen, Aethel- burgh, to return there. He found the house ransacked and besmirched with cattle droppings, and the royal bed occupied by a sow and her piglings.
Ine renounced his crown, and set out with Aethelburgh on pilgrimage to Rome, where they lived like a couple of peasants for the rest of their lives.
From The West of England, London, 1949.