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The Valley of the Wye

E were invited by friends of the family to visit them, some few years ago, at a pretty house called Doward, on the banks of the Wye, and then, for the first time, we saw that lovely river. Our railway arrival-station was Ross, and the drive from thence of seven miles gave us a glimpse, at least, of the beautiful county through which it flows. It was evening; the air was redolent of the scent of apples, for the cider harvest was at hand, and we drove down picturesque roads, bordered by orchards, rich in golden fruit, or looked down on green pastures where red, white-faced cows were feeding. The trees were still in full foliage. All nature, in fact, had reached that fulness of perfection that immediately precedes decay, and was most beautiful.

Doward is on a hill that hid the Wye as we approached; and next morning we looked from our windows on a thick white mist that concealed everything, but this by degrees cleared away and we went out, and ascending the hill by narrow winding paths, where blackberry bushes bent under the weight of fruit that no inhabitant of the villages would eat, we reached at last the summit, and from the edge looked down on the beautiful Wye. There it was, running in deep romantic hollows between hills clothed from summit to foot with woods, on which the sunshine cast an autumnal glory. Its course is very serpentine, and its current then was swift, for there had been heavy rains. The rapids, therefore, must have been stronger than usual, and there was a soft babbling murmur from the river as we gazed on a rapid below, and saw the hurrying water dash, clear and sparkling, over the small piled rocks or stones. These rapids are sometimes dangerous, as we were soon to learn.

The orchard at Doward was then yielding its golden store, and we saw the apples crushed for cider, a poor meek horse walking round and round and turning the machinery for pressing them, while the juice, thick and yellow, ran into buckets.

The gardens were full of glorious flowers, all of the richest tints, as befits Lady Autumn; and on one spot was a large walnut tree that showered down its nuts on us. Such walnuts we had never eaten before.

The next day, we think it was, the kind and clever officer who had guided us up the hill to gaze on the lovely river escorted us in a trip on its stream, that we might see it to the greater advantage. We had to meet the boat by a hard, or landing place, at a little distance from the house. We drove there; and then, as the boat was not yet up, we waited for it in the churchyard close by. The inspection of the tombstones was not encouraging for intending Wye voyagers, for nearly half or more of the inscriptions recorded that the deceased was drowned on the Wye! We were glad to be relieved from such dismal suggestions by the appearance of our stalwart boatman, and were soon seated with our escort in his boat. It was one of those brilliant days that sometimes close September, when the air has a clearness we never see in summer, without much warmth, but is fresh and exhilarating, and the tints around us, though beautiful and rich, are very different from the colours of July. The sky was far off, of a most celestial blue. A few tiny white clouds floated gently over it, even as we floated on the clear blue-tinted, or here and there, brown-hued water of the stream. It was delightful; and it would be scarcely possible to describe the banks. The romantic rocks, the wood-clad steeps, that came sheer down to the river's edge, here blowing with the light of the sun, there in masses of shade; and the flowers we could see on the banks, how they shone golden amongst the green! the gipsy gold of the tall clock sorrel still flourishing; the witch's plant, the ragwort, the mouse-ear hawkweed, unfolding its golden fringes, and the yellow bedstraw shining in the sun; the golden flowers of the golden period of the year. Then came our first rapid - the first we had ever crossed - for though accustomed to oceans, we had never before rowed on a river except the Thames. How lovely the water looks as it plays over the little rocks, sparkling and babbling as it dances by them! Yet boats are sometimes, as we have seen, upset in these picturesque spots, and then if a strong swimmer could reach the shore, it is most frequently an impregnable wall of rock he would find before him. But our boatman was skilful, and we passed them well.

Now red hues came on the eastern banks of trees, the glory of the declining sun, and they took a new, rich beauty. High on the top of them, too, people were moving - a man with a cart; a labourer going home. We glided onwards, and watched the sunlight fade and softer, into a lovely grey, and by-and-by the moon rose full and stately, and cast her light upon the stream and the trees, and we felt as in a dream of beauty. Then the river widened, and we saw green lawns and clumps of the finest trees on them, and landed at the splendid home of Mr. Bannerman, of itself worth description as one of the loveliest of stately dwellings. Here we were hospitably entertained, and from thence the carriage sent to meet us took us back to Doward. "A thing of beauty" is indeed a joy for ever, for that scenery will, whenever it recurs to the mind, give a pleasure almost as great in remembrance as it did in present enjoyment.

The Wye has more beauty than many a foreign river to which our people journey at great cost and fatigue. Why do not toil-wearied men seek rest and the soothing of nature on its banks? There are many noble ruins by this stream. Here are Tintern Abbey, Goodrich Castle (with a charming historical love story attached to it), Dudley and Clifford Castles, the latter the paternal home of Fair Rosamond.

Of these we shall speak in turn, beginning with Tintern Abbey.

Tintern Abbey

We drove there through winding tree-shadowed roads, running by the side of the river, peeps of which were seen constantly through the coppice by the road-side, till at last we saw that we were approaching the famous abbey; the carriage stopped at the inn, where luncheon was ordered, and from thence we walked to the ruins. They are certainly most beautiful. The stately west front, with its exquisite great window, is really splendid, and its delicate tracery has not been injured by time.

We were admitted by the south-west door to the aisle, and then looking down the vista before us, we gazed with rapture on the beautiful east window, seen through the lofty arch, with the blue sky peeping over it, at the top, and the lovely side columns and arches, with their cluster of pillars, running into the fillets from which rose the arches; everywhere was the beautiful ivy that lends a grace to decay. The roof is gone, and the blue heaven takes its place, and on the floor - once of costly marbles or encaustic tiles - the green mossy carpet of nature spreads beneath our feet. There is something solemn as well as beautiful in these ruins; dedicated to God, as they were, they are now an awful record of man's neglect and long-lost sense of perfection. Such buildings must have affected the character of the people, made them more reverent, and given them a higher and holier sense of beauty. Englishmen should be grateful to the memory of men who erected such edifices as this one.

"Tintern was built on the spot where Theodoric, king of Glamorgan, fell whilst fighting under the banner of the Cross, against the Pagan Saxons, in the year 600." 1

The present abbey was built by Walter de Clare for Cistercian monks, in 1131. The church was erected by Roger de Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, and Earl Marshal of England and mass was first celebrated in it in 1268.

At the dissolution of the monasteries the site was granted by Henry VIII. to the second Earl of Worcester, and it is now the property of the Duke of Beaufort.

In 1847 the remains of the Hospitium, in which the monks used to entertain strangers or travellers, were discovered while an excavation was being made in an orchard adjoining the abbey. From it the guests could pass through the cloisters to the church. The extent of the hospitium shows how great and liberal was the hospitality of the fathers - the white monks, as the Cistercians were called from their habit. Here they prayed and worked; not only as spiritual but as actual pastors, for they kept vast flocks of sheep on their sheep walks, and sold their wool yearly to the Flemish merchants. The fathers did not lead an inactive life: they overlooked the flocks and the fields, worked in their garden, and tended the sick poor, who were constantly relieved by them. They copied MSS., then the only books, and had prayers in the chapel at two in the morning, at dawn, and in the evening vespers and compline.

The high altar was beneath the beautiful east window; the monks' choir occupied the space beneath the tower, and advanced into the nave, where it ended by the rood screen.

There is only one cloister door on the north; it is highly enriched in the jambs and at the top, and there is an oblique or skew door at the north-west end. In the south wing there is a flight of stairs, that formerly gave access to the dormitories, which extended over the chapterhouse, the sacristy, the passage to the infirmary, and a second flight of stairs for day use.

Further northward is an archway opening on the regular parlour and the living room.

There are the remains of a noble front to the refectory, which stands north and south with three fine arches. A vaulted pulpit is on the centre of the west wall, probably used by the reader during meals; on the other side of the refectory is the kitchen, with the hutch for passing in the dishes for dinner pierced in the wall.

Tintern Abbey is of the Early English or Decorated style, used generally in the thirteenth century. The grand west front is, as we have said, wonderfully preserved; its delicately moulded tracery is still perfect.

The church is a cruciform building joining the abbey by the north transept. Its length from east to west is 228 feet; and there are 150 feet through the transept from north to south. The nave and chancel are thirty-seven feet broad; the height of the central arches is seventy feet. The floor - now, of course, like all the rest of the ruins, covered with greenest turf - was once paved with encaustic tiles, some of which have been carefully preserved. The pillars of the nave are formed by four cylindrical columns, with a slender shaft between them; the capitals are plain fillets, and the arches springing from them have plain mouldings. The four tower arches are remarkably bold and grand.

Wordsworth has the following beautiful lines on revisiting the banks of the Wye:-

"Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration:- feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love."

We sailed up the river past Monmouth, landed at Symond's Yat or Gate, and ascended it by a rocky path, pausing often to gaze around as we advanced. We reached the summit - the termination of the Coldwell promontory, - and the most magnificent prospect lay before us: the river rolling along, rather in shade; the great mass of perpendicular rocks; the woods clothed in varied tints around us; the rich and fertile pastures below; rock, river, wood and plain; sheep feeding on the grass, birds fluttering from the trees, on which a robin still sang. The most brilliant imagination could never dream of a more lovely scene than that which we gazed on by the banks of the Wye.

Ross bridge

And we will not leave the Wye without a word or two about the lovely little town of Ross, where we first arrived.

It is quite the prettiest country town we have ever seen, and famous for something far better than the glory of a battle won or a prince's birth - even the life of a good man: the "Man of Ross," as he has been called, since Pope immortalised on earth his goodness.

He was not born in this picturesque town, though his family lived in its neighbourhood, at Fawley Court.

He had only five hundred a year, yet he managed to greatly benefit the town. He built a market-place for it; he became the arbiter, to whom the townsmen brought all their complaints or differences; he portioned their daughters and apprenticed their sons; but Pope has told us all he did in lines that will never die:-

Rise, honest Muse, and sing the Man of Ross,
Pleased Vaga 2 echoes through her winding bounds.
And rapid Severn hoarse applause resounds,
Who hung with woods you mountain's sultry brow?
From the dry rock who bade the waters flow?
Not to the skies in useless columns tossed,
Or in proud falls magnificently lost,
But clear and artless, pouring through the plain,
Health to the sick, and solace to the swain;
Whose causeway parts the vale with shady rows?
Whose seats the weary traveller repose?
Who taught the heaven-directed spire to rise?
'The Man of Ross,' each lisping babe replies.

Behold the Market-place with poor o'er-spread.
The MAN of Ross divides the weekly bread;
He feeds yon almshouse, neat but void of state
Where Age and Want sit smiling at the gate;
Him portioned maids, apprenticed orphans bless,
The young who labour and the old who rest.
Is any sick? THE MAN OF Ross relieves,
Prescribes, attends, the medicine makes and gives.
Is there a variance? enter but his door,
Balked are the courts, and contest is no more.
Despairing quacks, with curses fled the place,
And vile attorneys, now a useless race.
Thrice happy man! enabled to pursue,
What all so wish, but want the power to do!
Oh say, what sums that gen'rous hand supply?
What mines to swell that boundless charit?
Of debts and taxes, wife and children clear,
This man possest five hundred pounds a year."

This wonderful person died in 1724, at the age of ninety, and lies interred in the chancel of the church of Ross. He built the church, but of course we must understand that he collected subscriptions to do so, and probably, being of good family and well connected, his influence gained much more for the townsmen than he could have given them himself.

We gazed with great interest at the church and market-place he built; and were especially attracted by two trees that grow inside the church, close to the pew in which the Man of Ross used to sit. He planted some fine trees round, and in the churchyard. Afterwards a rector of Ross cut several of them down; but shoots from the roots of two forced their way through the pavement of the church, and have grown there unmolested ever since - a touching memorial of a good man.

The view from the Prospect Hill of Ross, across the Wye, is very picturesque and beautiful.

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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004