ASSUREDLY, considering that our tour was to be a pedestrian tour, we began it inconsistently enough, by sitting down in the stern-sheets of a boat; tucking our knapsacks under our feet, and proceeding on our journey, not by making use of our own legs, but of another man's oars.
You will be inclined to ask, how many people are comprehended under the term "we?" what was our object in travelling? and where we were travelling to? I answer, that by "we," I mean the author and the illustrator of this book; that our only object in travelling was our own pleasure; and that our destination was, generally, Cornwall, and, particularly, the village of St. Germans, towards which we were now proceeding in our boat from the town of Devonport.
The main reason that urged us to choose Cornwall as the scene of a walking tour which we had long proposed to ourselves, in some part of our own country, was simply this--- Cornwall presented to us the most untrodden ground that we could select for our particular purpose. You may number by thousands, admirers of the picturesque who have been to Wales, to Devonshire, to the Lakes, to Ireland, to Scotland; but ask them if they have ever been to Cornwall, and you begin to tell them off by twos and threes only. Nay, take up the map of the world, and I doubt whether Cornwall will not gain by comparison with foreign countries, as an unexplored region offered to the curiosity of the tourist. Have we not, in fact, got under our thumbs, or in our circulating libraries, volumes of excellent books which amuse us with the personal experiences and adventures of travellers in every part of the habitable globe---except, perhaps, Cornwall and Kamtschatka? That the latter place should still be left open ground to the modern traveller, is, in these days, extraordinary enough; but that Cornwall should share the same neglect, passes all comprehension. Yet so it is. Even the railway stops short at Plymouth, and shrinks from penetrating to the savage regions beyond! * In a word, on considering where we should go, as pedestrians anxious to walk where fewest strangers had walked before, we found ourselves fairly limited to a choice between Cornwall and Kamtschatka - we were patriotic, and selected the former.
While my travelling companion was cleaning his colour-box, and collecting his sketching-books, I employed myself in seeking for information, among my friends, on the subject of our line of route. The great majority of them wondered what was the use of going to Cornwall. Was it not a horribly dreary country, where you could expect to do nothing but tumble down mines, and lose yourself on pathless moors? Were not the whole population wreckers and smugglers? Should we not be cheated, robbed, and kidnapped? Such were a few only of the opinions that my inquiries elicited. Very different, however, were the answers I received when I applied to one friend who was a Cornishman, and to another who had really been in Cornwall. From the first, especially, I received such an account of what we might see and do in the far West of England, if we travelled on foot and looked sharply about us, as materially accelerated the day of our departure. We packed up our knapsacks, transported ourselves at once to Plymouth, and, getting to the western water-side, saw the hills of Cornwall rising before us, lit by the last glorious evening rays of a July sunlight.
And now, reader, if you can follow a couple of vagrant tourists, with all their luggage on their backs; with a perfect independence of high roads, stage-coaches, time-tables, and guide-books; with no other object in view but to wander about hither and thither, in a zig-zag course, picking up a trait of character here, and a sketch from Nature there --- why, then, step into our boat by all means, and let us go to St. Germans together.
We were lucky enough to commit ourselves, at once, to the guidance of the most amusing and original of boatmen. He was a fine, strong, swarthy fellow, with luxuriant black hair and whiskers, an irresistible broad grin, and a thoroughly good opinion of himself. He gave us his name, his autobiography, and his opinion of his own character, all in a breath. He was called William Dawle; he had begun life as a farm-labourer; then he had become a sailor in the Royal Navy, as a suitable change; now he was a licensed waterman, which was a more suitable change still; he was known all over the country; he would row against any man in England; he would take more care of us than he would of his own sons; and if we had five hundred guineas apiece in our knapsacks, he could keep no stricter watch over them than he was determined to keep now. Such was this phoenix of boatmen --- under such unexceptionable auspices did we start for the shores of Cornwall.
The calm summer evening drew near its close, as we began to move through the water. The broad orb of the moon was rising dim behind us, above the dark majestic trees of Mount Edgecombe. Already, the houses of Devonport looked pale and indistinct as we left them behind us. The innumerable masts, the lofty men-of-war hulks, the drooping sails of smaller vessels - all the thickly grouped objects of the great port through which we were proceeding - assumed a solemn stillness and repose under the faint light that was now shining over them. On this wide scene, at other hours so instinct in all its parts with bustle and animation, nothing spoke now of life and action - save the lights which occasionally broke forth from houses on the hill at our side, or the small boats passing at intervals over the smooth water, and soon mysteriously lost to view behind the hull of a man-of-war, or in the deep shadows of the river's distant banks.
In front of us, the last glories of day still lingered in the west. Here, the sky was yet bright and warm to look on, though the sun had gone down, and, even now, the evening star was plainly visible. In this part of the landscape, the wooded hills rose dark and grand against their transparent background of light. Where the topmost trees grew thinnest, long strips of rosy sky appeared through their interstices; the water beyond us was tinged in one place with all the colours of the prism, in another with the palest and coldest blue - even the wet mud-banks, left by the retiring tide, still glittered with silvery brightness in the waning light. While, adding solemnity and mystery to all beside, the great hulks, painted pale yellow and anchored close in against the black trees, lay before us still and solitary, touched alike by the earliest moonbeams of night and the last sunlight of day. As the twilight gloom drew on - as the impressive tranquillity of the whole scene deepened and deepened gradually, until not even the distant barking of a dog was now heard from the land, or the shrill cry of a seabird from the sky-the pale massy hulls of the old war-ships around and beyond us, assumed gradually a spectral and mysterious appearance, until they looked more like water-monsters in repose than the structures of mortal hands, and the black heights behind them seemed like lairs from which they had issued under cover of the night!
It was such an evening, and such a view, as I shall never forget. After enjoying the poetry and beauty of the scene uninterruptedly, for some time, we were at length recalled to practical matters of business by a species of adjuration suddenly addressed to us by that prince of British boatmen, Mr. William Dawle. Resting impressively upon his oars, and assuming a deplorable expression of countenance, he begged to be informed, whether we really wished him to "row his soul out any longer against tide?" - we might laugh, but would we be so kind as to step forward a minute and feel his shirt sleeves? - If we were resolved to go on, he was ready; for had he not told us that he would row against any man in England? -but he felt it due to his position as a licensed waterman, having the eyes of the public on him, and courting inspection, to inform us that "in three parts of an hour, and no mistake," the tide would run up; and that there was a place not far off, called Saltash-a most beautiful and interesting place, where we could get good beer. If we waited there for the turn of the tide, no race-horse that ever was foaled would take us to St. Germans so fast as he would row us. In short, the point was, would we mercifully "spare his shoulders," or not?
As we belonged to the sauntering and vagabond order of travellers, and - cared very little in how roundabout a manner we reached our destination, we inclined to the side of mercy, and spared the shoulders of Mr. William Dawle; who, thereupon, reckless of the state of his shirt-sleeves, began to row again with renewed and alarming energy. Now, he bent forward over the oars, as if he was about to fall upon us-and now, he lay back from them, horizontal, and almost lost to view in the dim light. We passed, triumphantly, every boat proceeding in our direction; we brushed, at hairbreadth distances, by vessels at anchor and stakes planted in shallow water. Suddenly, what seemed to be a collection of mud hovels built upon mud, appeared in sight; shortly afterwards, our boat was grounded among a perfect legion of other boats; and the indefatigable Dawle, jumping up nimbly, seized our knapsacks and handed us out politely into the mud. We had arrived at that "beautiful and interesting place," Saltash.
There was no mistaking the tavern. The only light on shore gleamed from the tavern window; and, judging by the criterion of noise, the whole local population seemed to be collected within the tavern walls. We opened the door; and found ourselves in a small room, filled with shrimpers, sailors, fishermen and watermen, all "looming large" through a fog of tobacco, and all chirping merrily over their cups; while the hostess sat apart on a raised seat in a corner, calm and superior amidst the hubbub, as Neptune himself, when he rose to the surface to save the pious Eneas from shipwreck, at the crisis of the storm. As there was no room for us in this festive hall, we were indulged in the luxury of a private apartment, where Mr. Dawle proceeded to "do the honours" of Saltash, by admonishing the servant to be particular about the quality of the ale she brought, dusting chairs with the crown of his hat, proposing toasts, snuffing the candle briskly with his fingers, and performing other pleasant social attentions of a similar nature. Having, as he imagined, sufficiently propitiated us by this course of conduct, he started an entirely new proposition - which bore reference, however, to the old subject of mercifully sparing his shoulders, and was expressed to the following effect :- Might he go now, and fetch his "missus," who lived hard by? She was the very nicest and strongest woman in Saltash; was able to row almost as well as he could, and would help him materially in getting to St. Germans; but perhaps we objected to admit her into the boat? We had but to say the word, if we did; and from that moment forth, he was dumb on the subject for ever.
How could we resist this most irresistible of boatmen? There was something about his inveterate good-humour and inveterate idleness, his comical variations backwards and forwards between great familiarity and great respect, his honesty on one point (he asked us no more than his proper fare in the first instance) and his manoeuvring on another, that would have cajoled a Cynic into complacency. Besides, our innate sentiments of gallantry forbade the thought of objecting to the company and assistance of Mrs. William Dawle! So, we sent the fortunate spouse of this strong and useful woman, to seek her forthwith-and forthwith did he return, with a very remarkable species of "missus," in the shape of a gigantic individual of the male sex-the stoutest, strongest, and hairiest man I ever saw --- who entered, exhaling a relishing odour of shrimps, with his shirt-sleeves rolled up to his shoulders! "Gentlemen both, good evening," said this urbane giant, looking dreamily forward two feet over our heads, and then settling himself solemnly on a bench - never more to open his lips in our presence !
Our worthy boatman's explanation of the phenomenon he had thus presented to us, involved some humiliating circumstances. His "missus" had flatly refused to aid her lord and master in the exertion of rowing, and had practically carried out her refusal by immediately going to bed before his face. As for the shrimp-scented giant, Mr. Dawle informed me (in a whisper) that his name was" Dick;" that he had met him outside, and had asked him to favour us with his company, because he was a very amusing man, if we could only bring him out; and was capable of beguiling the time, while we were waiting for the tide, by an excellent story or two. Presuming that a fresh supply of ale was all that was wanting to develop the latent humour of our new friend, we ordered a second quart; but it unhappily produced no effect. (It would have required, I am inclined to think, a gallon to have attained the desired result.) " Dick" sat voiceless and vacant, staring steadily at the candle, and occasionally groaning softly to himself, as if he had something dreadful on his mind and dared not disburthen it in company. Abandoning, therefore, in despair, all hope of enjoying the comic amusement which had been promised us, we left our bulky humorist still silent and portentous as a Quaker at "meeting"-proof alike against the potency of the ale and the blandishments of Mr. Dawle-and went out at the last moment to make our observations on Saltash by night.
The moonlight gave us very little assistance, as we groped our way up a steep hill, down which two rows of old cottages seemed to be gradually toppling into the water beyond. Here and there, an open door showed us a Rembrandt scene-a glowing red fire brilliantly illuminating the face of a woman cooking at it, or the forms of ragged children asleep on the hearth; and leaving all beside - figures, furniture, and rough raftered ceiling-steeped in grand and gloomy shadow. There were plenty of loose stones in the road, to trip up the feet of inquisitive strangers; there was plenty of stinking water bubbling musically down the kennel; and there were no lamps of any kind, to throw the smallest light upon any topographical subject of inquiry whatever. When I have proceeded thus far, and have further informed the curious in such matters, that Charles the Second conferred upon Saltash the inestimable blessing of a Mayor and six Aldermen - that it had the honour and advantage, before the Reform Bill, of sending two members to Parliament - and that it still possesses various municipal privileges of an equally despotic and lucrative nature, connected with oyster-fisheries, anchorage, salvage, ferries, and market-tolls - I have said all that I can about Saltash; and must request the reader's permission to return to the tavern without further delay.
Here, the scene had changed since our departure. The jovial company of the public room had penetrated into the private parlour. In the midst of the crowd stood Mr. Dawle, haranguing, with the last glass of ale in his hand; by his side was his son, who had been bribed, for the paltry consideration of sixpence, to relieve his parent's shoulders by helping to row us to St. Germans; and, on the old bench, in the old position, with the old fixed stare straight into the flame of the candle, sat the imperturbable "Dick" - stolid and gloomy as ever, in the midst of the festive uproar. It was now high time to proceed. So we gave the word to depart. But an unexpected obstacle impeded us at the doorway. All the women who could squeeze themselves into the passage, suddenly fell down at our feet, and began scrubbing the dust off our shoes with the corners of their aprons; informing us, at the same time, in shrill chorus, that this was an ancient custom to which we must submit; and that any stranger who entered a Saltash house, and had his shoes dusted by Saltash women, was expected to pay his footing, by giving a trifle - say sixpence - for liquor; after which, he became a free and privileged citizen for life. As I do not remember that this interesting custom is mentioned among the other municipal privileges of Saltash, in any Itineraries or Histories of Cornwall, I communicate it, in all humility, to any antiquarian gentleman who may be disposed to make a scientific use of it, for the benefit of the community at large.
On departing at last for St. Germans, grave doubts arose in our minds, as to the effect which Dawle's portations of ale might have on his professional exertions as a licensed waterman. We were immediately relieved, however, by finding that what he had drunk had influenced him for good, rather than for evil - he talked less, and rowed more. Smoothly and swiftly we glided through the still water. The tide had now been flowing for some time; the arm of the sea, up which we were proceeding, was in many places more than half a mile across; on the broad, smooth surface of the stream, the moonlight lay fair and unruffled; the woods clothing the hills on each side, grew down to the water's edge, and were darkly reflected, all along, in solemn, winding shapes. Sometimes we passed an old ship, rotten and mastless, anchored solitary, midway between land and land. Sometimes we saw, afar off, a light in a fisherman's cottage among the trees; but we met no boats, saw no living beings, heard no voices, on our lonely way. It was nearly midnight before we reached the landing-place; got out in the mud again here; and, guided by our trusty boatman, began to ascend the hill-path that led to St. Germans.
The village was about a quarter of a mile inland. Mr. Dawle's account of it was not cheering. He described it tersely (and, as we afterwards found, truly), as "a d--d strap of a place," - meaning thereby, that it consisted of one long street only; thus answering to the mathematical definition of a line - "length without breadth." The inn, when we arrived at it, was locked up for the night. After much kicking at the door, we succeeded in inducing the landlady to look down on us from her bedroom window; and a very cautious and distrustful woman she soon proved to be. First, she required to be informed what sort of characters we were? - which gave Dawle an opportunity of loudly assuring her, that he was a licensed water-man, and that we were "right-down gentlemen, and no mistake!" Satisfied on this point, the landlady next declared, that nothing should induce her to admit us, until she had first discovered whether she had any aired sheets, or not. These chamber luxuries being fortunately found to be forthcoming, the door was unbolted; and we found ourselves at last admitted to a shelter for the night on Cornish ground.
Our parting with Dawle was characteristic on his side. Interpreting the right way certain convulsive motions of his arm and twitchings of his countenance, when he came to bid us farewell, we held out our hands at a venture, and found them instantly caught and shaken with a fervour which was as physically painful, as it was morally gratifying. "Good-bye, gentlemen!" cried our friendly boatman, in his heartiest tones; "you have been very kind to me-God bless you both! I should like to walk all over Cornwall with you - and I would, if I could leave the missus, and get anybody to take care of my boat! Bill, boy!" (reproachfully to his son), "take off your hat, and make a bow directly! - Good-bye, gentlemen; God speed you both !"-and away he went, to row back to Saltash.
As for St. Germans, let me honestly confess that I have nothing to say about it. Mr. Dawle's happy metaphorical description of the village, as "a strap of a place," at once anticipates and expresses all that I could write on topographical matters. And, in reference to the only local curiosity of St. Germans - its noble old Church - I am superseded by my companion, who has already described it with his pencil, much better than I could with my pen. Beaten out of the field, therefore, at all points; and having by this time duly concluded the narration of our "Start," nothing remains for me but to pass at once to the evening when we strapped on our knapsacks for the first time, and set out on our "Rambles Beyond Railways," joyously, and in good earnest.
* This was written little more than a
and it has become an obsolete remark already. A new Cornish Railway,
Penzance to Redruth (to be hereafter extended to Truro and Plymouth)
open in two months from the present time (December, 1851). I heard the
idea of this railway talked of as a joke, when I was in Cornwall!-
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