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Of course, it must be understood, even by those who most violently disagree with me, that these strictures are passed, not upon Blackmore's novel, but upon the spirit of the age which made John Ridd the hero of such a novel, the spirit which in the dress of "John Bull" has insistently presented our less attractive qualities to the outside world as the true Englishman, and which has been, by the outside world, adopted and disliked; while such admirable traits as sincerity, disinterestedness, and self-criticism, have been neglected by us and ignored by them.
For the novel itself it is difficult to have anything but praise. The admirable sense of locality, and the art with which Blackmore has so identified his persons of fiction with actual places till we no longer disassociate them, but in the church of Oare, or the Doone Valley, or Porlock, or Badgeworthy Water, think and speak of Lorna and John Kidd as if they had had an actual existence; the firm and lively drawing of the lesser characters, the charming pastoral scenes of the life on the Ridds' farm, the really magnificent descriptions of the scenery of Exmoor, and a particular gift of narrative, all place this novel of Blackmore's on a high level in the literature of the nineteenth century.
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His other novel, of which the scene is laid on this coast, is "The Maid of Sker," less well known and of less artistic weight, but of interest to anyone visiting the country between Barnstaple and Lynton, and containing a particularly vivid account of old Barnstaple Fair. I have spoken of Henry Kingsley's novel "Ravenshoe," and it is impossible to write of the literary associations of this district without mention of his elder and more famous brother; for though "Westward Ho!
The family of Kingsley, also, is intimately connected with many of the families of these villages. The Rev. Chanter, Vicar of Parracombe, married a Miss Kingsley. He himself is the author of a short monograph on Lundy, a book which is now very scarce, but which can be seen at the London Library, at the Bideford Public Library, and at the Athenaeum at Barnstaple.
The Kingsleys and the Chanters are closely connected through two generations, and the strain of authorship seems to persist in them, one member after another displaying an exceptional talent. Miss Vallings, the young author of a quickly celebrated novel, "Bindweed," is a granddaughter of Mr.
Chanter, and a grandniece of Kingsley's; and the bold and original writer "Lucas Mallet" is Canon Kingsley's daughter, and a niece of Henry Kingsley. Barnstaple is a pleasant English country town, with that air of cleanliness and quiet prosperity, of excellent sanitation and odd historic corners, side by side with big new modern buildings and exquisite green gardens where the old gnarled apple-trees are afroth with blossom in the spring, which is the peculiar flavour of an English country town.
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The incongruity is the charm; you step from a modern drapery store, with a respectable display of plate-glass, on to the clean narrow pavement, and find yourself looking down a small dark passage opposite, into a sunny paved court, where the houses are cream-washed, and the roofs are atilt in odd delicious angles, and the casement windows have still the old diamond panes of Elizabeth's day, and the sun lies slanting across the pots of wallflower, and the small boys play marbles as they played marbles there when the Armada sailed.
Barnstaple is a thriving little modern town, but it has many such charming scenes to the visitor with an observant eye—a narrow cobbled street, with an irregular sag of gabled houses either side, the cream and rose-coloured walls mellow and sunny in the late afternoon, or a cluster of really beautiful half-timbered houses of the sixteenth century, with carved oak doorposts and beam-ends, such as those which are known as Church Row, and stand back from the road, between Boutport Street, and the High Street, by St.
Peter's Church and St. Anne's Chapel. Peter's Church, which stands between these two main streets in the very centre of the town, is of the fourteenth century, and has a fine leaded spire, considered to be one of the finest in Europe, which the nineteenth century was anxious to abolish, and replace by a western tower of the more ordinary type. Fortunately Sir Gilbert Scott was called in to restore the church, and refused to have a hand in destroying the spire, so the old parish church stands as it was built, but with its spire drawn curiously out of the perpendicular by the action of the sun's rays on the lead.
Within a few yards of St. Peter's stands the grammar-school, where Bishop Jewel and his neighbour and enemy, Thomas Harding, went to school in the early sixteenth century, and the poet Gay in the beginning of the eighteenth. It was originally a chapel of St.
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The upper part of the building dates from , but the crypt is much older, and it is conjectured to be a Saxon foundation. The beauty of these buildings—the church, the grammar-school, and the old houses—consists so greatly in their surroundings, in the green of the grass and the unfolding chestnut-trees against the old grey stone, the twinkle of blossom by the angle of a house, and the soft sky of Devon above, that it is difficult to reproduce; it is a beauty of atmosphere rather than of outline, of sentiment and association.
I like, too, this lack of the "picturesque cult" which one finds in these English towns; the beautiful is allowed always to be the useful, and the family washing hangs on a line outside many a Tudor house as easily as in a London slum. In Boutport Street—that old street that runs more than halfway round Barnstaple, "about the port"—stands the Golden Lion Hotel, which was formerly the town house of the Earl of Bath, and was enriched in the seventeenth century by most beautiful moulded plaster ceilings and fireplaces, made by Italian craftsman who were brought over from Italy.
The front of the building has been altogether modernized, but much of the beautiful decorated interior work remains, to enrich the rooms where the many unseeing visitors take their meals.
The Trevelyan Hotel, in the High Street, which presents to the street a most unpretentious exterior, and where, indeed, the principal rooms are the Victorian of Dickens, with ugly curtains and carpets, wall-papers and furniture, Victorian pictures, and Victorian bronzes on the coffee-room mantlepiece, has treasures hidden away up its dark staircases and in its cheaper and more modest bedrooms—defaced and disregarded, alas! They showed me a great open hearth, with decorated mantle, which must have been that of the dining-room; at present the room is used for lumber. Half of it has been pulled down to build a staircase, and the low casement windows are blocked by a lean-to coalshed, making the room so dark that I could barely see the plaster modelling of the wall.
This, I confess, is a vandalism, but I still consider it as the necessary penalty we pay for not putting all the treasures of our past into museums, labelling them neatly—and never looking at them. The Penrose Almshouses in Litchdon Street, a beautiful small quadrangle, with a low colonnade surmounted by an ornamented lead gutter and steep dormer windows in a red-tiled roof, are still kept to their old uses.
They stand the wear and tear of time as well as its mellowing, and, like language, if they are here and there vulgarized by the usage of every day, without it they would be a dead language. Queen Anne's Walk, overlooking the river, and close to the town station, is a small colonnade of the Renaissance style, which is most familiar to us in the architecture of Bath; it has an outlandish look, with its classical lines seen against the background of the smooth river and green Devonshire country, and has not the homely charm of Elizabethan or Stuart building. It has, however, its peculiar beauty; it is suggestive of red-heeled shoes and powder, and an artificial world of beaux and belles.
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It must have been a pleasant enough place to walk in, until the railway came between it and the river, and its earlier name of the Merchants' Walk or the Exchange gives more of its character than its present name. One must beware, however, in the present popular quest for the "antique," of overlooking the beauty of modern things; the market, for instance, which is a vast rectangular building standing on the High Street, has a strange and individual charm when you come into it out of the glare of the white street.
The windows are fitted with light green glass, which gives a sort of ghostly twilight to its bare spaciousness, with heavy masses of gloom among the pillars of the flanking colonnade.
It has no pretence to artistic ornament of any kind; it was built for a specific purpose, which it answers admirably, and when it is crowded with stalls on market-days, and noisy with buyers and sellers, it is a scene of bustle and movement which would arouse the enthusiasm of a traveller if he came upon it in some distant city of the East, though the difference of language and costume is all there is between the two. But when it is empty, with its bare walls and bare floor and high dark roof, sun and shadow make from it a beauty which it is worth a moment's pause and stepping aside to see.
The Athenaeum, also, which stands in the open space at the head of the Long Bridge, which is a noble structure of the thirteenth century, is a modern building, endowed by the late Mr. Rock, and possessing one of the best libraries in Devonshire. It is a plain, unpretentious building; on the ground-floor a geological museum, very useful for a student—for it contains a complete collection of Devonian rocks and fossils—and the library upstairs.
Sitting there on a summer afternoon, and seeing through the open windows the smooth sunlit curve of the river below, and the gentle slope of wooded hills beyond, the Athenaeum has a charm—that charm of weather and daily custom—which architectural description fails to convey for any building, whether it is the Parthenon or a farm-house. Without it, places lack their intimate personality, as photographs lack the personality of men and women. My memory of the Athenaeum Library is of the familiar, slightly musty smell of books, of the faint creaking of the librarian's boots, and the hum of bees and the whirr of a mowing machine, of the smell of an early summer afternoon, the white glare of the North Walk stretching beside the river, and the reflection of anchored boats, very perfect on the still water.
Barnstaple is a very ancient borough; it is spoken of in the Devonshire Domesday as one of the four "burghs" of Devon, and as early as the reign of Henry I, before the election of Mayors had become part of English municipal life, it was entitled to elect a chief magistrate for its own government. It was a fortified place under the Saxon Kings, and a large grass-grown mound in the centre of the town near the town station marks the site of Athelstan's castle. Athelstan is supposed to have come to Barnstaple in the early tenth century, when he was engaged in driving the British out of Devonshire, beyond the River Tamar, which marks the boundary between Devon and Cornwall for the greater part; and this was only done by him, Westcote affirms, after he had exhausted every means of gentleness and clemency.
The Taw, the Torridge, the Tamar, and the Tavy, all comprise some form of the same syllable, "Taw"; and "Tamar" is a corruption of "Taw-meer," which Westcote takes to mean the river-boundary, "Taw" occurring in the names of the four principal rivers "of these parts. There was a Saxon church at Barnstaple, probably on the site of the present parish church of St. Peter's, and the tithes were given to the Abbey of Malmesbury. The original ecclesiastic seal bore the seated figure of King Athelstan.
After the Conquest the barony of Barnstaple which comprised the church was given to Judhael of Totnes; from him it passed to the famous family of Tracy, from them to the Martins whose name remains in the little village of Martinshoe, near Lynton , and from them, again, to the Audleys.
It was a Lord Audley who distinguished himself so greatly in the Battle of Poitiers, and, as his family were then in possession of Barnstaple, it appears that the town changed hands frequently in the first three hundred years after the Conquest. The story told of Lord Audley is that he had made a vow that he would strike the first stroke in a battle for Edward III or for his son, and that at Poitiers he fought with such desperate courage in the forefront of the battle that he was carried off the field severely wounded.
After the battle the Black Prince inquired after him, and was told that he lay wounded in a litter. The Prince took him in his arms, and kissed him, and praised him for the best and most valiant Knight of all that had fought that day, nor, though the wounded Knight disclaimed it, would he admit of any refusal, but gave him a yearly grant of marks out of his own inheritance. Lord Audley, being carried back to his own tent, summoned his four esquires and divided the gift among them.
The Black Prince, presently hearing of this, had Sir James once more brought before him, and asked if he did not consider the gift worthy of his acceptance, or for what other reason he had so disposed of it.
The Black Prince once more embraced him, praised him for his generosity as much as for his valour, and granted him a further marks in place of what he had given away. I have transcribed this episode because it seems to me a pretty tale of chivalry, of valour and courtesy, of generosity and noble, if fantastic, ideals.
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Under King Athelstan's rule Barnstaple was governed by two Bailiffs, "one for the King to collect his duties, the other for the town to receive their customs. The earliest industries of the town seem to have been pottery and weaving; the pottery has always been of the cheaper, coarser kind, and although some attempt was made at the close of the last century, when the industry was revived, to bring it to a higher artistic level of colour and glaze, it still, to my mind, continues mediocre, and has neither the highly finished beauty of such work as the Ruskin pottery, nor the genuinely simple lines or colouring of "peasant pottery," such as that from Quimperle in Brittany.
The Barum ware has a sort of bourgeois mediocrity between these two different types, and there is room for a bold innovator to reform the present models and methods. It is a pity, perhaps, that he has not yet arisen, for a local industry of this kind adds greatly to the vitality of a town. Of the weaving industry, what Westcote calls "lanificium," "the skill and knowledge of making cloth, under which genus are contained the species of spinning, knitting, weaving, tucking, pressing, dying, carding, combing and such-like," we have records from the twelfth century; though until the reign of Edward IV only friezes and plain coarse cloth were made.
In Edward's reign an Italian, "Anthony Bonvise," is reputed to have taught Barnstaple the making of fine "kersies," and spinning with a distaff; doubtless this was looked upon by the older generation of conservatives as a deterioration to luxury and soft living; they would hark back to the standards of a simpler age, when a King's breeches cost him no more than three shillings, and "friezes" would be good enough for the noblest.
King to wear any cloth, but it costned more: Buy a pair of a mark, or thou shalt be acorye sore. In Westcote's time, in the early seventeenth century, the wool that was worked here in Devon was brought from all over England—Dorset, Gloucester, Wales, London, and also Ireland; and clothmaking had become so large an industry that agriculture had suffered considerably. This little passage in Westcote is, I think, of great interest, as showing the difficulties which had already arisen in the time of James I, with the extension of industry, which must always flourish at the expense of agriculture, and which seems to tend, nevertheless, both to personal and to national prosperity.
It is a problem for which we have not yet found a solution, and at the present time it comes before us with especial vividness and force. Westcote gives a list of the various fabrics that are made in Devon; some of them seem to be materials no longer in use, from the unfamiliarity of the names. Exeter manufactured serges, both fine and coarse; Crediton the famous locality of the burning of Crediton Barns, in the Middle Ages made kersies; and Totnes a stuff called "narrow pin-whites," which is, I believe, a coarse, loosely woven white material; Barnstaple and Torrington were noted for "bays," single and double perhaps of the same texture as our modern baize , and for "frizados"; and Pilton, adjacent to Barnstaple, was notorious rather than celebrated for the making of cotton linings, so cheap and coarse a stuff that a popular "vae" or "woe" was locally pronounced against them.
It was in the woollen trade that the family of De Wichehalse, afterwards so intimately connected with Lynton, made the fortune that enabled them to become one of the leading houses of Barnstaple, and to acquire the beautiful estate near Lynton, which is now known as Lee Abbey. It may, perhaps, be of interest to the "curious-minded" to give an inventory of his shop, taken in at the death of Nicholas de Wichehalse, who had married Lettice, the daughter of the Mayor of Barnstaple.
The following are the chief items of the inventory, collected from manuscript records by Mr. Chanter for the Devonshire Association:. Chanter conjectures that this last item is marmalade, and can read it as nothing else, though he was not aware that it was a preserve of Queen Elizabeth's time, nor why, even if it were, it should be in De Wichehalse's shop.