England – To Exeter

THE drive to Bridgewater was a dull one, in spite of our having secured the twilight as a torch and the stars as fellow-travellers. Bridgewater was as dull as its approaches, the town being in the heart of a long stretch of flat lands, the sole uninteresting feature we had seen on the face of this lovely Somersetshire. Bridgewater, however, might have been even less attractive than we found it, and it would still have been fraught to us with a serious import, for our reaching it at all was to mark an epoch in our journey.

It had been decided at Salisbury, between two tall and viciously feeble candles that refused to shed any save the most meagre light on the county-maps, the guide-books, and the discussion, that we should go from Bridgewater to Exeter by train. This decision had not been arrived at, as may well be imagined, without much and serious thought. The inception of the plan had grown out; of a mistaken policy of which we had never been wholly able to rid ourselves, — the folly of asking. advice. The hills about Bath and the betrayal of Ballad’s weakness in the matter of ankles had engendered the vague fear in our minds that the Devonshire hills might prove to be even more prolific in disaster than Stonehenge and Coombe Down. On one or two incautious occasions we mentioned our fears to a friendly Somersetshire hostler ; thereupon the entire county seemed to arise as one man to save us from what, it appears, would be certain peril.

” He’s too light, sir ; he ain’t up to such rough work.”

” The hills, sir, why, the hills is like the sides of a house ; an’ he ‘s for easy-goin’ travel, he is.”

” You ‘d be left high and dry, tak’ my word for it, sir ; he’d drop on your hands after the first mile of stiff climbing.”

When hostlers agree, how is the untutored, un-horsey mind to stand firm ? We weakly yielded ; and on one particularly bright, late August morning we all three took the morning express to Exeter. The gain to Ballad of such an arrange-ment was obvious. Securely fastened in the freight-car, he was, perhaps, for the first time since the beginning of his travels, able to enjoy the scenery from an impersonal critical stand-point. Our own loss of two days’ driving through the Devonshire lanes and hills was equally certain.

Through the narrow slits of the railway-carriage windows it was possible, however, to snatch swift if unsatisfactory glimpses of the country. For at least a third of our journey we were to be in Somersetshire ; the landscape, therefore, still wore the smile of a friend. The morning, had it been made to order, could hardly have been better chosen for this our last view of this noble county. The sky had just the right quality of tone, and the atmosphere the perfect note of clearness, to bring into harmony the distant hill-lines and the softness of the nearer meadows. The country seemed to roll away as if in happy, conscious abandonment towards the brilliant edges of the morning horizon, carrying with it the wondrously tender green and gold and brown undulations. In the valleys the shadows were still nestling, as if loath to leave their midnight camping-grounds ; on the hills was still lingering the faint blue mist, the breath of the not too broadly awakened day.

In spite, however, of such a banquet of beauty for a morning repast, the haunting sense of regret was not wholly stilled. A carriage rolling leisurely along a well-shaded lane, raising a light cloud of white dust, which the whiter smoke of the train voraciously devoured, seemed to emphasize with peculiar impressiveness the poignancy of our remorse. Why had we been wise ? What, after all, were perpendicular hills compared to the joy and delight of our lost open-air days, with their leisurely calm, with Nature at arm’s length, and Adventure perhaps, plumed hat and sword in hand, to meet us en route? The hills, now that we faced them, seemed commonplace enough, like most of the troubles in life which experience levels to the reach of our capacity. Already, what with our regret and remorse, the whole of our enchanting tour seemed to belong to a part of our past, — a glorious bit of experience relegated to the perspective of retrospect instead of being the living, acting present.

One event in our journey dispelled for a time these dismal thoughts. This event was our entrance into Devon. The country gave us no enlightening hint of the precise moment when we should cross the boundary-line between the two counties. But a short distance before reaching Taunton our sole fellow-traveller, a young Britisher of florid aspect, who had been diligently engaged in reading a strangely familiar-looking little brown book, ” The Tourist’s Guide to Devon,” remarked, ” We shall be in Devon in a few moments,” immediately resuming the perusal of the little brown book. He belonged to the class of tourists who prefer to see scenery and a new country properly bound between the pages of a book, with well-arranged notes and statistical information ; they are then quite sure of doing the thing thoroughly.

It was at Wellington, several miles farther on, that the first proofs of a distinctly different and alien beauty in the scenery proclaimed that Devon was equal to maintaining its reputation for certain high qualities. The land all at once took on strange depressions and abrupt alternations. Suddenly there burst on our sight a magnificent stretch of country. The spurs of the Black Hills projected into the landscape with the ruggedness of robust mountains. Farther on, the rude little villages, the primitive-looking huts, and the comparatively sparse population proved that the wilder characteristics for which Devon is so much praised are no fable. The romantic character of the land deepened in charm as we sped along ; the streams were fuller and the dells more sylvan, while there was a bolder vigor of outline about the uplands and the remoter hills which made the feet long to press them.

No one — at least no American, I think — enters Devon without experiencing a peculiar thrill of interest. It may be partly because the imagination has been stirred immemorially by historians and novelists, by the traditions and descriptions of the romantic character of its scenery, or it may be due to its noble historic periods and its prolific breeding of heroes and heroic deeds ; but certain it is that no other English county appeals to American sympathies with just the same quality and magnetic attraction as do the hills and the streams of Devonshire. Although it is English to its heart-core, in crossing its boundaries one has the sense of entering a different, though not a foreign, country. It seems to be apart from the rest of England. One has a vague sense that its Exmoor hills and its Dartmoor forests still abound in picturesque episodes, as they do in their legends of pixies and fairies. Devon is the fairy-land of the imagination ; it continues, by the sheer force of the magic that lies in its history and scenery, to be a part of the romance of our own lives. One of us, I remember, in his enthusiasm, went to the length of finding plausible reasons for these enchanting Devon characteristics, —for its individuality, its still-continued halo of romance, and its appeal to our transatlantic sympathies. The solution of them all was to be found in the fact that instead of Devon’s being un-English, it was superlatively English : it was the ideal, the typical, the only truly national England ; its landscape corresponded, as did no other in this green isle, to the traits of the national character,—for the Englishman is not as yet so highly and completely finished as are his sylvan Wilts or his rolling lawns of Sussex ; whereas in this ruder landscape the contrasts abound which are prefigured in his own nature. And a hand was used with effective, sweeping gesture, I also remember, to include the smoothness of a near sunny patch of corn, the ruggedness of the ,distant hill-lines, the broad spaces of solitude, and the mingled brilliancy and delicacy in the atmosphere, in triumphant proof of this theory.

I also quite distinctly remember, although my note-book very considerately does not record the snub, that whoever was listener somewhat unfeelingly remarked, that the idea was suggestive and possibly worthy of consideration; but in view of the fact that we were rapidly nearing Exeter and` the time had come to collect the hand-luggage, it would be wiser on the whole to dismiss it and to keep, instead, a sharp lookout for a porter.

The Rougemqnt Hotel was too near the railway station for the usual cursory glimpses one gains from a cab or an omnibus window, — glimpses which, like all first impressions, are valuable as a background, if only for purposes of future comparison or alteration. We had been assured, with much earnestness of asseveration, by each one of our guide-books in turn, that Exeter had preserved, in an extraordinary degree, its aspect of antiquity ; that we should find it, indeed, an epitome of Devon’s former greatness and glory.

In our five minutes’ walk from the station to a superlatively modern hotel, the impression produced by this first shock of contact was that it might have been built yesterday. The force of this impression was certainly not diminished by the figure of the hotel porter in a London livery, who stood ready to grasp our hand-luggage, nor by the admirably appointed elevator, furnished with enough mirrors to satisfy even a Frenchman’s vanity, nor by. the large, airy, and elaborately upholstered apartment into which we were ushered. In themselves there is nothing, to even a senti-mental pair of tourists, positively offensive in easy-chairs or in a spring-mattress. Boston, a little later, at luncheon formulated both our disappoint-ment and our subsequent appeasement, as he took his experimental sip of the ox-tail soup.

” After all, a good soup does tempt one to put up with civilization.”

” Yes,” I replied ; ” at its best and at close quarters civilization is, perhaps, an improvement on hoary antiquity.”

We were soon to find, however, that Exeter was as rich in hoary antiquity as in the latest experiments in civilization for subduing man by making him comfortable.

An hour after luncheon, as we turned away from the glaring brick façade of the Rougemont towards the city’s thoroughfares, we had left in the twinkling of an eye three hundred years — nay, five — behind us, and were in the heart of the grandly beautiful ancient city. The antique picturesqueness of Exeter, it was obvious at the very outset of our tour of observation, was too abundantly rich in a sense of its own completeness to be either coy or secretive. Instead of one’s having to seek for the jewels of the lovely old city among its dung-hills, its glories are set in lustrous conspicuousness in the very centre of its crown. High Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, is as crowded with its multitudinous collection of old houses, quaint churches, enticing low shops, and with the embroideries of its carvings, as an over-filled museum. The houses, in the variety and diversity of their architectural plan and arrangement and in the lovely blending of their sad soft colors, can best, perhaps, be likened to a collection of finely pre-served old portraits, on whose garb and facial ex-pression the seal of the long-ago centuries has set its mark of remoteness.

It is unquestionably, I should say, the most picturesque thoroughfare in England. This superlative degree of preeminence it maintains, perhaps, because of its possessing two entirely opposite traits, — it strikes you as being at once the oldest and also the youngest of streets. It has possessed the talent of preserving, amid all its ancient features, the art of looking perennially youthful. In our own day it is the busy, vigorous, commercial air of activity and prosperity, — the young blood coursing through its old veins, — which makes its life seem sympathetically modern. This characteristic strikes, I fancy, the key-note of Exeter’s long-preserved vigor of life; she has always been in direct and active response to the stirring activities of her day. Like Rome itself, her cities have been built and destroyed, her people have been scattered and her tribes have perished, and yet she has lived on, renewing, phoenix-like, her youth and her vigor. The city, as a whole, possesses this dual aspect : it sits on its hills proudly, nobly, with an air of unshaken permanence and immovable stability, with something of the pride and the conscious dignity of the unconquered and unconquerable, — an attitude and bearing we are apt to believe belonged to the proud and passionate feudal towns, which they maintained as their heritage of heroism ; yet the city’s heart, the centre of its busy frame, pulsates with modern life, and is visibly thrilled with the modern movement. It is this union of antiquity and modernness which invests Exeter with the qualities and character usually found only in capitals. More than any other English city did Exeter impress us as an independent, autocratic city, one more used to wearing a crown than to bowing before another, — a kingly city, in other words, accustomed to meeting sovereigns on an equal footing.

The culminating point of the picturesqueness of High Street is the beautiful Guildhall, with its spacious Elizabethan colonnade, which projects, with its four grand columns, into the crowded street. The eye has endless sport and delight in deciphering the worn figures, in plunging into the fine shadows made by the overhanging galleries, and in resting on the noble mass as it proudly steps forth among the meagre nineteenth-century buildings, with their superficial smirk and pretentiousness. Among the many other rich and well-preserved treasures with which Exeter abounds, is an ideally perfect Elizabethan house in the cathedral close. Its two-storied projecting casements, entirely filled with the diminutive glass panes of the period, is said, by its proud possessors, to be the only house of similar design in perfect preservation in England. The house is now a photograph-shop ; and its enlightened owner delights in showing an upper chamber, panelled to the ceilings with rare oak carvings, above which, in the frieze, are most of the famous arms of the English past and present peer-age ; for this upper chamber was once the famous Exeter club-room, and has resounded to the wit of Sidney, to the gayety of Raleigh, and to the grave eloquence of Drake. The smallness of the chamber, its rich yet severe finish, and its suggestion of cosiness and comfort were better than pages of history to picture the intimacy and the jollity of those bygone days, when the great and famous were not scattered about in large cities nor lost in giant club-houses, but met above an ale-house to plan their brave schemes of adventure and to laugh and sing as the cup went round.

Exeter is so rich in the consciousness of its dramatic and romantic career, that the fact of its being a cathedral city at all appears to be merely a matter of detail. It can, indeed, afford to regard as secondary in importance that which in other cathedral towns is the sole reason of their existence ; yet Exeter Cathedral is such a priceless piece of splendor, such a truly royal ecclesiastical jewel, that it might well serve as the unique and solitary glory of a city’s boastful pride.

A very obvious part of the charm of Exeter Cathedral lies in the fact that it has to be sought for. It is so well and dexterously concealed from view, as one passes along High Street, that one might be some days in town without so much as suspecting that one of the finest cathedrals in England was a near neighbor. It was almost by chance, I remember, that as we turned into a long quaint alley-way filled up with little low shops, we caught a glimpse of a green plot of grass and some trees in the distance. Our guiding instinct divined these to be the cathedral close. The crooked alley-way, with its jumble of lurking recesses, gay shops, and overshadowing projections, made the wide, airily open close, with its beautiful assemblage of old houses and the grand cathedral, set like some Eastern potentate in the midst of his silent court, doubly effective and impressive. There is a wonderfully appealing and persistent charm in such Old-World contrasts; the beautiful is rendered doubly attractive by the innocent deceits and the various devices which time and happy accident together have arranged as a part of the setting of the scene. One comes to the point, at the last, of finding an alluring coquetry in every crooked alley-way and dusky opening. In Exeter this species of what might be termed flirting with chance may be carried on to a most unlimited extent ; for the city abounds in wanton little streets, in mysterious turnings and romantic alley-ways, that end by leading one into a maze of adventure. But the king of surprises holds his court in the cathedral close. No street was ever made up of such an innocent collection of projecting casements and unsuspicious-looking windows as the one that leads to the feet of the grand towers of the cathedral. Walking forward towards these towers which flank the cathedral like two colossal sentinels, gradually, and as if designed with the utmost skill and art so as to insure this slow first view, the path along the greensward leads one gently to the grand façade, and there you take your first full view of the glorious front. There are first impressions and first impressions, as there are cathedrals and cathedrals ; there are impressions that are doomed to fall into the shadowy background of disillusion, as there are cathedrals which, like many another strong and beautiful experience, gather in volume of effect as the after-knowledge of their greatness deepens. But before some of the great and glorious triumphs of art, the first and the last view of their beauty remains the same ; their all-conquering loveliness brings an overmastering ecstasy of delight. A certain strong and vivid current of emotion is sure, under the right conditions, to accompany such a moment. For art and music have this in common, that their most triumphant harmonies produce a like physical effect ; the breath comes swifter, the eyes unconsciously moisten, and the throat is seized upon by that delightful emotional clutch which paralyzes speech and action. It was such an effect as this that Exeter produced on me. It was the first and only English cathedral I had seen that brought with it an overwhelming feeling of rapture. The delight and joy in its beauty marked the moment as an epoch in pleasurable experience. It was a moment to be classed with the San Sisto, with the Venus di Milo, and with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony moments.

To analyze the beauties of Exeter is only to add another note to one’s joy in them, their quality and rarity being of such an order as to warrant one’s cooler admiration. The front is as unique in design as it is architecturally beautiful. There is that rarest of features in English cathedrals,—an elaborately sculptured screen, thoroughly honest in construction. In originality of conception this front is perhaps unrivalled, at least on English soil ; there are three receding stories, so admirably pro-portioned as to produce a beautiful effect in perspective. The glory of the great west window is further enhanced by the graduated arcades which have the appearance of receding behind it. Above the west window rises a second and smaller triangular window in the gabled roof. Thus the triangular motif is sustained throughout, from the three low doorways in the screen up to the far-distant roof. This complete and harmonious front is nobly enriched by the splendid note of contrast in the two transeptal Norman towers, whose massive structural elegance and elaborateness of detail lend an extraordinary breadth and solidity to the edifice.

The grandeur which distinguishes the exterior is only a fitting preparation for the solemnity and splendor of the interior. Passing beneath the thickly massed sculptures of the low portals, the effect of the vastness of the nave is striking in its immensity. Curiously enough, in this instance, this effect of immensity is not due to an unbroken stretch of nave-aisles or to a lengthy procession of pier-arches, but to the magnificent sweep of the unencumbered vaulting in the roof. An organ screen intercepts the line of vision at the entrance to the choir. This, however, is the sole obstruction which the eye encounters. Above, the great roof, with its unbroken three hundred feet of interlacing lines, rises like some mighty forest, its airy loftiness giving to the entire interior a certain open-air atmosphere of breadth and vastness.

For once, I fear, our sense of duty slumbered. Architecturally, we may be said to have been derelict in assiduous devotion to the inexhaustible beauties of this wonderful cathedral. The zest which had characterized our earlier attacks on the architectural peculiarities of Winchester or Wells had given way, before the enrapturing perfections of this interior, to the lethargy of a purely abstract and aesthetic enjoyment. We read from the pages of Murray, and we heard from the lips of the verger, that the geometric traceries in the windows were of the very rarest order of perfection, that the windows were themselves extraordinarily large and pure in design, that the roof was perhaps excelled by no other in its lightness and grace or in the beauty of its slender vaulting shafts and in their delicately carved bosses, that these bosses in their variety and carving were marvels of sculpture, also that the transformation of the interior from the Norman to the elaborate Geometric was a triumph of completeness and finish surpassing the less thorough reconstruction of Winchester and Gloucester ; but we read and heard all this as in a dream.

What most deeply concerned us was the desire to secure an uninterrupted session of contemplative enjoyment. We had lost our hearts to the beauty of the cathedral, and cared little or nothing for a clever dissecting of its parts. We came again and again ; and it was the glory of the cathedral as a whole — its expressive, noble character, its breadth and grandeur, the poetry of its dusky aisles, and the play of the rich shadows about its massive columns — that charmed and enchained us. It was one of the few English cathedrals, we said to each other, that possess the Old-World continental charm, the charm of perpetual entertainment, and whose beauty has just the right quality of richness and completeness to evoke an intense and personal sympathy ; for in all the greatest triumphs of art there is something supremely human.

Our last visit was like a farewell to a friend. The occasion was the more sorrowful because we knew that it was not only our last of Exeter, but also that it was our last cathedral. The brief half-hour was imbued, therefore, with the sentiment and the solemnity of a final parting As if in response to our emotion, the organ poured forth a mournful tender groaning, the twilight shrouded the interior with a silvery pallor, and the faces on the tombs seemed to smile forth upon us a melancholy benediction of peace.