The Rivers and Streams of England
The Rivers and Streams of England
The Rivers and Streams of England
THOUGH this is not a book on angling, a life-long attachment to the fly-rod on the part of the author, and to the delightful scenes into which such predilections notoriously lead one, makes it at once more difficult and more easy to write than if one were approaching the subject as a stranger to the atmosphere, and merely to “write round” the pictures Mr. Palmer has so admirably painted. But in my case it is by no means only this. A predilection for British landscape in general, and all that thereby hangs, has stimulated a far wider acquaintance with it than any mere angling rambles could achieve, and resulted in the publication of several books concerned with such things, and covering more or less about twenty counties. I feel this explanation is desirable, lest the note of intimacy with many far-sundered streams, in allusion and otherwise, that must occur in these pages may be suspect. The more so, as from the fascination of the Cook’s ticket or what not, comparatively few of my countrymen have any considerable knowledge of their own land. The Rhine is certainly better known than the Wye, and the Danube probably than the Severn.
But these very experiences made the first proposal to write a book, other than a mere encyclopædia, within a brief space on such a big subject, seem almost hopeless. Rivers and streams from every direction, by scores, came surging out upon the memory at the very thought of it, in quite distracting fashion. It was finally agreed, however, that the literary part of the book should take shape in a series of essays or chapters dealing with the rivers mainly in separate groups or water-sheds, leaving the proportions to my discretion. Capricious in a measure this was bound to be. Selection was inevitable. It is not of supreme importance. Caeteris paribus, and without diverging more than necessary from the skilful illustrator, I have dealt more freely with the rivers I know best, and also with those I hold to be more worthy of notice. There are, of course, omissions, this book being neither a guide nor an encyclopædia, but rather a collection of descriptive essays and of water-colour sketches covering, though necessarily in brief, most of the groups. In this particular subject there is happily no need for author and illustrator to keep close company in detail. What inspires the pen, and in actual survey stirs the blood, is often unpaintable. What makes a delightful picture, on the other hand, tells sometimes but a dull tale in print. I have had to leave to the artist’s capable brush, owing to the necessary limitations of the letterpress, several subjects; a matter, however, which seems to me as quite immaterial to the general purport of the book, as it is unavoidable. But otherwise I think we run reasonably together. At first sight the omission of the Thames in description may seem outrageous. A moment’s reflection, however, will, I am sure, conduce to a saner view. Illustration is wholly another matter; but to attempt ten or fifteen pages on that great and familiar river, dealt with, too, in bulk and brief by innumerable pens, that could serve any purpose or gratify any reader, seems to me a fatuous undertaking. The Severn, on the other hand, as great, almost as important as the Thames, and still more beautiful, is by comparison an absolutely unknown river, and we have given it the first place.
A. G. B.
THERE is surely some peculiar fascination in the birthplace of a famous river when this lies in the heart of moors and mountains. For myself, I admit at once to but scant interest in the infant springs of even such slow running rivers as I have some personal affection for. There is neither mystery, nor solitude, nor privacy about their birth. They come into the world amid much the same surroundings as those in which they spend the greater part of their mature existence – amid ploughed fields, cattle pastures, and villages, farmyards, game covers, and ozier beds. When full they are inevitably muddy, and when empty are very empty indeed; lifeless, and mute at the best, at the worst actually dry. The river of low-country birth acquires, in short, neither character nor quality worthy of consideration till as a full-grown stream it can trace a shining coil in the valley, or reflect the shadow of spire, bridge or mill, of willow or poplar.
How different is the source of a mountain-born river, above all when it boasts some name famous in story, and is to become the feeder of historic cities and bearer of great navies. Its hoarse voice plashing amid the silence of the eternal hills strikes the chord responsive to such scenes as these with singular force, and a little louder perhaps than its comparatively nameless neighbour, which leaves their common watershed for some other sea. As the lowland landscape of England is unique, so the mountain and moorland solitudes of these two islands are quite different from anything else in the whole universe. The mountain regions of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, exhibit, to be sure, some slight variety of detail, due partly to human and partly to natural agencies. But such differences are positively trifling compared to the contrast they each and all present to any other of the waste places of the earth, unless perhaps some wilder portion of Brittany may be a qualified exception. This delightful singularity, to my thinking a wholly favourable one, is not sufficiently understood or appreciated. There are tremendous masses of snow and crag and evergreen timber, as well as marvellous formations of naked rock, in four continents appealing to practically another sense. There are lower ranges, too, on the scale of our own mountains, in many parts of the world draped in timber from base to summit, which again are of another family, and those who have lived or been much among them know how unsatisfactory by comparison are their limitations, how obstructive both of free movement and of outlook.
But there is nothing anywhere resembling our open hills where heather and bog grasses of many hues, where emerald turf, spreading bracken and golden gorse, broken with cliff and crag and scaur, invite the wanderer to a delightful and easy intimacy with their innermost haunts. Here you may ramble practically at will, with the unobstructed glories of earth and air always before your eyes, the fresh tempered breezes of our gulf-stream-washed island in your lungs, your feet pressing upon plants and grasses all instinct of a soil that knows nothing of fierce heats and binding frosts as those terms are understood in most other lands. And then, again, how futile to parade the altitude of our British mountains as evidence of insignificance. They laugh to scorn all such arithmetic, and many times in a single day will wrap themselves in some magic veil, and lift their peaks and shoulders round you, till scale and altitude as expressed in figures become practically a thing of naught. The obvious of the past garish and sunny hour, when their modest measurement proclaimed itself to any reasonably experienced eye, has vanished, and you find yourself confronted by heights that lack absolutely nothing in stature and dignity, and are in effect mountains of 10,000 feet. Everything that shapely form and atmosphere can achieve in the way of effect these little mountains of ours are capable of. Our much maligned climate not merely clothes them in a chequered mantle of green and russet, of grey, purple, or saffron, only less in winter than in summer, but gives them those ever-changing moods and aspects that few people who know both would as a permanency exchange for all the sun glare of the earth. And how solitary are the hollows of these hills where rivers rise: nay, often more than that, and little short of awesome. Here again, perhaps, comes in the quite undisturbing reflection that there is a railway within five miles and a town possibly within ten! What does it matter, when nobody ever comes here, and there is not a trace visible anywhere of man’s handiwork but possibly the dark line of some stone dyke built two centuries ago? The very consciousness that this is in populous Britain makes the wild wilder, the silence stiller, the solitude more solitary.
For myself, I know of a score of such valley heads in the North and Wales, whence streams and rivers have their birth, that provoke a feeling of positive and pleasurable creepiness, such as the wildest woods and the remotest prairies never touched me with. Whether opening and shutting in a driving winter mist, or with their high rocky shoulders turned gloomily from the sun on a fine autumn morning, these inner sanctuaries and water-sheds where so many of our English rivers rise seem as if they gathered the silence of unlimited wastes and distilled its very essence. The very sounds that break their solitude, intensify it: the plashing of the tiny stream when it has struggled out of the meshes of the high bog that gives it birth, and is taking its first leap for liberty and independence down the rocky ledges of the precipice towards the world below, the mournful call of the curlew, the fitful, plaintive bleat of the mountain sheep, or the faint rattle of stones misplaced by its nimble feet. Poets have written of the “startled air,” and some of them perhaps have used the phrase but tritely, and themselves but half suspecting the true felicity of the metaphor. In these sombre chambers of the hills, walled in upon every side, the stillness seems literally to grasp at every slight sound and cling to it with strange vibrations and lingering echoes, which remind one how utterly alien to these places are the common sounds of the everyday world that pass unnoticed – a world so ridiculously near and yet so infinitely remote.
Among the outstanding geographical facts which used to be hammered into the heads of schoolboys was that of Plinlimmon being the parent of both the Severn and the Wye. Many poems both in Welsh and English have been inspired by this picture of two infant streams springing from the bosom of the same mountain, and after following widely sundered courses through various counties, meeting again as great rivers, just in time to mingle their waters before merging them in the brine. It would be a pretty conceit even if it were not in the case of these two rivers an actual fact. Whether
it is on this account, or because of the huge bulk and prominent situation of Plinlimmon, many “eminent geographers” of not very remote days wrote it down for the benefit of generations of misguided students as the third loftiest mountain in Wales. But it is not even in the first rank, being less than 2500 feet. There are several mountains in South Wales alone of greater altitude and more graceful shape. But Plinlimmon, all the same, is a fine upstanding mass of wild bog, linked upon both sides to far-spreading solitudes, and worthy to be the mother of the greatest and of the most beautiful river respectively in England or Wales.
That the former deserves the epithet is a mere geographical fact. That the Wye contains a greater mileage of the highest types of British scenery than any other river, will surely be conceded by any one sufficiently equipped with a knowledge of British rivers to pronounce an opinion worth having and not disqualified by too intimate personal association with some other possible claimant. For it is the only river in the country that rises to the highest scale of physical beauty and distinction as we know them in Britain, both in its earlier and its later stages. A few large rivers, notably the Cheshire Dee, the Usk, the Tynes, the Tees, and of course many smaller ones in the north and west, compare with the Wye, though few surpass it in their higher reaches, being all distinguished by the same type of rugged and mountainous scenery. But none of them, after they have left such associations behind and become by comparison low-country rivers on their progress to the sea, break out again like the Wye for such a long period of their later course in scenes that vie with those of its youth and are among the recognised gems of British scenery.
The fountain springs of the Severn and the Wye are less than a mile apart on the long slope of Plinlimmon. The one flowing north-east, the other south-east, there is little to choose between them as they fume and fret in their sombre mountain cradles or sparkle among the narrow stone-walled meadows, the little white-washed sycamore-shaded homesteads of the upland farms. The Wye has greater things in store for her than even the wild foothills of Plinlimmon as she dashes off into the mountain gorges of Radnorshire and Brecon. But the Severn, though flowing always from source to mouth through a landscape consistently fair and often striking, seldom rises to the level maintained by her younger sister for more than half of her journey to the sea. The Severn, called hereabouts the Hafryn by the Welsh, may be said to emerge into civilization near the little Montgomeryshire town of Llanidloes, noted for its sheep fairs and its fish poachers. Here it meets, to follow northwards the only railroad which even now links North and South Wales. This will have brought with it over the wild heathery moorland watershed between Wye and Severn, where dark brooding hills enclose the region of Pant-y-dwr (Hollow of the waters), the brown streams of the Tylerch. The Clywedog meeting the other two just below their junction, the Severn now becomes a lusty little river, brawling incessantly upon a wide stony bed.
Of the thousands of tourists who every season travel on the Cambrian railway to the Welsh watering-places, few probably realise that the little trout stream which prattles in and out of the line in the high country around Moat Lane Junction bears the name of the greatest, though truly the second in fame, of English rivers. From first to last the Severn is faithful to Montgomeryshire as the Welsh county of its birth. From Blaen Hafryn, its source on Plinlimmon, just within the county bounds, for some 50 miles straight measure along its valley – all the way, indeed, from Llanidloes to the Breiddon Hills – it waters the richest pastures and the fattest corn lands of the ancient kingdom of Powys Fadog. But if the Severn drains the richest portion of this most delectable and highland country, it must not be supposed that its environment is tame or its streams lazy. Everywhere to the right and to the left lofty hills, though for the most part somewhat back-lying, bound the limits of the vale, while now and again a glimpse of some distant mountain serves to remind one that Montgomeryshire is in the main a mountain county. For the Severn valley is so intercepted with small hills, so richly wooded, so ornate in places with the park lands and foliage of country seats, so sprinkled with pleasant villages, one is apt to forget that the little streams hurrying down to the river from the north come from a really wild Wales beyond, while lying back to the south the regions of Kerry and Clun speak in their very names to the initiated of the spirit of solitude.
But the human or certainly the historic interest of Montgomeryshire and much of its visible wealth clusters along this broad and broken vale of the Severn. Newtown and its flannel industries and the name of Pryce-Jones will strike a responsive note in the ear of every British housewife. But the stern fragments of Montgomery Castle, perched on the summit of a rock 350 feet above the river, is perhaps more in harmony with the mood in which we should follow an historic artery through this Border country. The little town, absolutely the smallest and most somnolent county capital in the two countries, lies behind the rocky castle height. The Norman, Roger of Montgomery, was granted this country by his friend and chief William the Conqueror, who appears to have assumed it was in Shropshire, because Offa’s Dyke crosses the river near by. This misconception soon became apparent, and though the well-nigh impregnable castle, called always Tre-Faldwin by the Welsh after Roger’s constable, Baldwin, was retained in Anglo-Norman hands, it is not too much to say that it was a centre of strife between the Welsh and English for 200 years, till Edward the First completed the conquest of Wales and created the North Welsh counties, this one being fortunate in acquiring the sonorous name which had clung to the castle and lordship. The actual building, whose scant fragments are now so conspicuous and suggestive, was erected by Henry the Third, who in his troubles with his barons was compelled to promise Llewelyn the Second or “the Great” that this should be the uttermost western limit of his pretensions to dominion.
But a more accessible celebrity than either Henry the Third or Llewelyn, seeing that he has left us one of the raciest autobiographies in the language, owned and lived in Montgomery Castle, to wit, Lord Herbert of Chirbury. His period was the first half of the seventeenth century, but his exploits were not confined to Montgomeryshire, as his reputation for courage, brains, and eccentricity was a national one and something more. His literary remains, which are numerous, are matter, perhaps, for the specialist, but his autobiography, which in a reprint can be bought for a shilling or two, is the most delightful picture in brief of country and domestic life, of Courts and Camps abroad and at home, of social London, and, above all, of the point of view of a shrewd, original, experienced and travelled man of the world, warrior, courtier, scholar, and theologian. Chirbury is the adjoining parish, and this sombre-looking fortress above the Severn may in a sense be regarded as the cradle of the great race of Herbert, which with its many noble branches and varied achievements is perhaps the most illustrious in England. One branch, in the persons of the Earls of Powis, is still very much represented here on the Severn. For as the river tumbles along in occasional pools where the salmon ought to rise to the fly, but for some inscrutable reason refuse to do so, and in long gliding deeps to Welshpool, Powis Castle, the “Castell Goch,” the “Red Castle” of old Border days, rises out of its wooded park lands on the left bank. Known locally as “Pool,” Welshpool was a Border town like Berwick-on-Tweed and Hay-on-Wye. Two nations dwelt there in separate quarters in a sort of armed neutrality in days when nationality at intermittent periods meant life or death, and still dwell there in long-mingled unity.
Shropshire runs close up to the Severn at Montgomery Castle upon the south bank, and English only is spoken by the Welsh population all down the valley from Moat Lane, though with the spring of the hills to the northward the native tongue still everywhere asserts itself. Around Welshpool, too, the Jones’s, Hughes’s, and Williams’s begin to display the Shropshire type of man as opposed to the Welshman, whether English-speaking or otherwise. But the Severn turns away and clings to its native county for yet another 10 miles. Receiving the first of its three important affluents, the Vyrnwy from the north, it finally takes leave of Wales beneath the shadow of those imposing twins the Breiddons, which like a pair of huge sentinels stand guarding the gateway from the plains of north Shropshire into the hills of Wales. Indeed, the exit of the Severn, by this time a considerable river, from Welsh territory is finely marked, for when it has run a pleasant, uneventful course, touching by the way no place of note, to Shrewsbury, the westward view from the latter is significant and striking. To the last mile of Montgomeryshire, Wales stands finely out above the rich undulations of this once frontier and much harassed county, with singular distinction. The properly constituted Salopian as he stands upon the western outskirts of his town, where his famous school has in recent times perched itself above the high banks of Severn, sees his past laid out before him, like a page of history; the fat Saxon lowland spreading westward for a dozen miles, and the sharp rampart of Wales from north to south as far as the eye can see, height after height, range after range, almost precisely delimiting the outworks behind which for centuries lay a vigilant, unforgetting, and alien people, ready to strike at the first sign of over-confident negligence. This to the indifferent eye may seem ancient history, but it was real enough even as late as the days of Henry the Fourth, when for ten years Glyndwr kept the Border counties in a continual state of apprehension. Part of the walls are still standing, while the Severn, bending in horse-shoe shape round the town, still runs under both the English and the Welsh bridge, and the castle rises above the river-bank whence Henry the Fourth and his army marched out on that July morning 500 years ago to meet the Percies on the bloody field of Haytely.
Shrewsbury is a fine old town, and the encircling Severn adds no little to its pride of pose. It sprang into being on the ashes of the neighbouring Brito-Roman city of Uriconium a few miles down the river, so ruthlessly destroyed by the Saxon pagans. First as Pengwern, then as Schrobbesberie, the principal city of the middle March, it gave in time its name to a county, and kept chief watch and ward against the Welsh of Powys land and of North Wales. It has a great story and stout traditions like all Border towns, and looks it. Of late years it has begun to share the attentions of over-sea visitors with Chester, a fact in no way surprising. For though its antiquities are not so definite and obviously on show, Shrewsbury, unlike the other, is far removed from the disfiguring industrial atmosphere of the North. It is nothing, to be sure, but the historic market-town of a great district; but the latter is so large, so important and interesting, including as it does both English and Welsh territory, that Shrewsbury has at once the peaceful air of a country borough with the size and dignity of something very much more. It is rich in ancient half-timbered houses, often standing in their original narrow wynds or rows. Its sixteenth-century market-hall is one of the best in England. There are some beautiful old mansions too, that were the town-houses of great Salopian families in the days when counties or groups of counties were a social unit unto themselves, and London a far-away rendezvous for great nobles or pronounced courtiers only. Shrewsbury is justly proud of its old churches. The Abbey is a fine Norman building with later additions and much recent successful restoration, and will be the Cathedral when Shropshire – only a matter of time – becomes a diocese. St. Mary’s, however, is the more interesting, being of large dimensions and exhibiting almost every style of architecture from Norman onwards, and lifting a lofty and beautiful spire heavenwards. In its windows is a wealth of old stained-glass, brought at various times from various places both in the locality and on the Continent. Battlefield Church, beyond the town, was raised over the burial pits of the many thousand dead who fell at that great encounter, to say masses for ever for their souls and for those of Henry the Fourth and the pious founders. With its fine tower planted amid the quiet fields upon the site of the very shock of battle it seems to tell a strange story, and to have long outlived the prodigiously important function it was destined for, if numbers counted for responsibility in the repetition of masses.
It was here, of course, that our old friend Falstaff was almost at his very best in the scene of the fight between Hotspur and Prince Henry. To return to fact, however, it was in Shrewsbury market-place that Hotspur’s naked body, after being three days buried, was set up between two mill-stones to show the world that the lion of the north, the terror of his enemies, was in truth dead. It was on Severn’s banks at Berwick, close to Shrewsbury, that this paragon of his day and type, whose very defects of speech the golden youth of England affected, spent the last night of his life; and in the morning, when he was told the name of the place, turned pale and said that “he had ploughed his last furrow,” for a wizard in Northumberland had told him he should die at Berwick, meaning, as he supposed, that more famous one in the north, where every generation of Percy in those days fought and bled. He traced the outline of his hand with a dagger on an oak panel of the house, and it became a tradition of the Bettons, the owners, that if the panel was lost Berwick would go with it, and sure enough the double disaster occurred within quite recent times. Near a century later, Mytton, the Governor of Shrewsbury, refused to open the gates to Henry the Seventh as he was marching to fight for that title on Bosworth Field, swearing he should only enter the town “over his belly.” Matters having arranged themselves pleasantly, however, the too protesting Governor, to save his oath, lay on his back in the gate while Henry stepped over him.
The Severn is in sober mood for much of its progress round Shrewsbury, providing both the school and the townsfolk with an admirable boating course, after which it breaks out again into
those interludes of shallow rapids that mark its normal course. Soon after leaving Shrewsbury, having run under the high ridge of Haughmond Hill and the ruinous Abbey of that name, the river swerves southward, and for the rest of its long course holds more or less to that point of the compass. In spite of increasing volume from various small affluents – the Meole at Shrewsbury, the Condover brook and the little river Tern which joins it just below – the Severn still retains, in subdued fashion, the qualities of a big hill-born stream running from long pike-haunted deeps into shallow rapids, where persevering anglers still catch occasional trout, and up which the salmon run in high water as they head for their breeding-grounds among the Montgomery Hills. It is a sore point among Severn anglers that for some occult reason no Severn salmon can be persuaded to take a fly – one of those mysteries with which the king of fishes continues to bewilder and exasperate generations of experts. Here all the way up through Shropshire and Montgomery are the fish, the water, and the conditions that make the salmon a fly-taker more or less in every other river of this pattern in Great Britain. Nay, its very tributaries, the Wye and the Usk, though you would expect, to be sure, greater things of them than of the Severn, are conspicuous in this particular. Salmon are taken occasionally on a minnow above Welshpool, but so rarely on a fly as not to be worth noting.
Running under the picturesque church and bridge of Atcham the river soon passes Uriconium or Wroxeter, the partly excavated Roman British city some six miles below Shrewsbury. The wall of the Basilica (as supposed) at Uriconium is, I think, the only ruin south of the Roman wall country that has weathered the storms of centuries and the hand of man above ground – the only one, at any rate, like this one springing out of a lonely rural landscape, – and thus sitting against the skyline with a turnip-field as a foreground, it seems to move one even beyond a Norman or a Saxon church – and no wonder. How the “White city” was utterly destroyed by the west Saxons after the battle of Deorham in 577 is told us vaguely in the wail of Llywarch Hen, whose sons perished in the carnage. Still winding through a pleasant undulating region, passing the high red cliff and the deep dingle near Hamage and the wooded slopes about Shadwell, the Severn runs within a mile or two of the Wrekin, which rises some 1300 feet high to the eastward. Away to the west Wenlock Edge, Caradoc, and the Longmynd, approaching 2000 feet in altitude, show their shapely forms. At Buildwas the beautiful ruins of its Norman Cistercian Abbey overlook the river, while those of Much Wenlock Priory, once the greatest and most powerful in Shropshire, cover twenty acres not far from its banks. Just above Buildwas the Severn begins to accelerate its pace in the deep trough it has cut in the limestone hills, and enters the mining district of Coalbrook dale, where for a few miles what must once have been a beautiful gorge has been for ages smirched with many disfiguring industries; for here in the seventeenth century iron is said to have been first smelted with coal. The phase, however, is a very short one, for with Coalport the smoke and turmoil are left behind, and through peaceful and delightful scenes the river forges on to Bridgenorth.
Here, perched on a high promontory between the river and a tributary ravine, with the leaning wall of its ancient castle upon the summit and its houses clinging to the steeps, the historic little Shropshire town makes a brave show. And from this point, by Hampton Wood and Highley, to Arley and Bewdley the Severn runs in a narrow valley with woody hills pressing upon the right and left, and oftentimes rolling glades of birch and bracken about its banks, and the entire distance beautifully varied with foliage and meadow. Below Arley, a place of renown for its scenery, the Severn may be said to abandon definitely all semblance of a mountain river, to cease from intermittent fretting on rocky channels, and to sober down for good – a procedure due in part no doubt to certain weirs below – into a fairly fast but smooth, deep, and navigable stream. Bewdley, though but a small town now of some 2000 souls, is a place of peculiar interest in Severn annals; for in times remote, those of the Saxon and the Roman at any rate, it was certainly the head of the swampy lagoon through which the river wandered from here to the Bristol Channel, and the head consequently of navigation. But much more interesting than this, Bewdley was, till the period of canals, a great shipping port for Birmingham and other Midland centres. Long barges travelled down to Bristol, and it can be readily understood what this meant in days when roads were practically useless for transportation. Bewdley, moreover, at one time manufactured as a monopoly the famous “Monmouth caps” worn by soldiers, sailors, and others when sumptuary laws ordained in what manner each rank of life should array itself. But canals which struck the Severn lower down, followed in due course by railroads, destroyed Bewdley. It is now, however, a singularly interesting illustration of a Queen Anne and Georgian town left commercially derelict in the full career of its prosperity. A long row of substantial buildings once full of merchandize spreads along the river-bank, while a wide street runs inland up the hill slope bordered with houses, which speak eloquently, to any one who can read such messages, of the prosperous provincial merchant of the Jacobean and Georgian period, put to such humble modern uses as an insignificant agricultural market-town can find for them. With its sombre Queen Anne church, its placid old-world air, and leafy hills mounting high in pleasant confusion above it, and its fine stone bridge spanning the river, Bewdley is a place to remember among the Severn towns. Always celebrated for its beauty of situation, old Leland, brief and curt to the verge of humour, broke out in its presence into verse:
Deliciis rerum Bellus locus undique floret
Fronde coronatus Viriarae, tempora sylvae.
Here, too, as an occasional alternative to Ludlow, was held the Court of Wales and the Marches. Of Bewdley Forest nothing is left but some great oaks scattered over meadow and park land, but that of Wyre, near by, still rolls back from the Severn, ridge upon ridge of scrub oak woodland, covering about twenty square miles with dense foliage scarcely anywhere broken but by the trail of the little streams that prattle down its narrow glens. There is nothing quite approximating to Wyre Forest remaining in England – this dense mantle of scrub oak, laid over a large tract of uninhabited hilly country. In autumn this uniform sea of russet, splashed about with the dark green of stray yew trees, rolling over hill and dale for many miles, presents a sight common enough in some other countries, but quite unfamiliar in English landscape. Stourport, a little outpost of murky industry, soon follows, with the tributary of the Stour from the Birmingham country, together with the canal that in pre-railroad days virtually killed Bewdley. But from here to Worcester the Severn steals serenely on, through pastoral scenes of quiet but engaging charm. Hills of moderate height, and muffled betimes in foliage, trend upon the narrow vale, which is always one long carpet of meadow, while a weir or two at long intervals now checks any natural tendency the wide river might have had to retain the livelier habits of its youth, being now everywhere navigable for boats, barges, or small steamers. But the Severn, unlike its famous twin the Thames, remains for all that a lonely river. At certain spots of course, such as Bewdley, Holt, Fleet, and Worcester, Midland holiday-makers paddle about within limits, but, fine boating river in a practical sense though it must everywhere be, in its long solitary journey from point to point the pleasure-boat is conspicuously absent. Probably the high, bare, grassy banks which are almost continuous, and must shut out the surrounding country from any one down on the surface of the stream, has something to do with this.
Once a day, perhaps, in summer a small steamer from Worcester or Tewkesbury carries a load of holiday-makers between those places or up to Bewdley, while occasionally a long line of tarpaulin-covered barges, drawn by a tug, lashes the brown sombre river into great commotion. Save for these rare interruptions, however, Sabrina in her pilgrimage through Worcestershire is a lonely stream; at close quarters even a thought sombre and moody, swishing noiselessly between those high grass embankments and half-submerged willows, over the top of which she gets up so readily when the fountains of the Welsh hills are loosed. Seats of old renown lie here and there upon the ridges to the right and left. Hartlebury Palace is near by, where the Bishops of Worcester are still seated in the Jacobean halls of their gorgeous predecessors, behind moats and ramparts that sheltered much earlier prelates even than these; past the many-hundred-acred wood of Shrawley and past Astley, where are the remains of hermitages cut in the cliff, used in quite recent years for profane purposes, but of old by pious recluses who exchanged benedictions with the Severn boatmen for small coin. Thence to Ombersley, the seat and village of the Sandys, who were foremost among Worcestershire loyalists in the Civil War; and Holt Castle, where the Elizabethan Chancellor, the first of the Bromleys, set up house and founded the present family. Close by, too, are the ancient oaks of Whitley, almost brushing the costly fountains and terraced gardens of the Earls of Dudley, till the uplifted glades of Hallow Park, where Queen Elizabeth stayed with a little retinue of 1500 horses, and shot a buck, makes a fitting approach to Worcester, whose Cathedral stands out conspicuously above the town, which lies sloping upwards from the river-bank.
Plain though stately in exterior and nobly poised, Worcester Cathedral holds the visitor rather by the richness of its interior and the many successive styles of architecture it displays, including the original crypt – almost the best in England – of Bishop Wulfstan, the eleventh-century founder of the present fabric. Little of the latter indeed but this Norman crypt is left, for the church of the great Monastery of Worcester suffered sorely from fire and mischance in the Middle Ages, while during the civil wars, the city being nearly the whole time “in action,” as it were, was more fleeced and knocked about than almost any other in England. The first small battle of the war, fought by Rupert, which struck a long and serious misgiving into the minds of the raw mounted troopers of the Commonwealth, took place at Powick Bridge over the Teme, near the city. The last battle of the second brief war, as every one knows – a fierce and bloody one – was also fought at Worcester. Otherwise it was occupied for a brief time by Essex’s raw army, who worked havoc among the monuments, windows, and ornamentation of the Cathedral. Thenceforward the “ever faithful city” was held for the King, though at the cost of much hardship and constant exactions for his cause, till near the end of the struggle, when it was captured.
Modern Worcester is singularly fortunate in the wide range of its industries, gloves and porcelain still claiming pre-eminence. It still retains, however, among much of that reconstruction inevitable to a busy town, quite a large number of sixteenth and seventeenth century half-timbered houses. That occupied by Charles the Second, at the great battle of Worcester, and from which he escaped by only a hair’s breadth to pursue the adventurous course of a hunted fugitive, is still standing, as also is the yet finer old house which was the headquarters of the Scottish commanders, and in which the Duke of Hamilton died of his wounds. It would be out of place, even if space permitted, to dwell here on the peculiar position which Worcester, and the county of which the Severn valley is so important a part, occupied from the Norman Conquest to the Reformation. It was of all English counties the one where the Church had most property and most power, and the influence of great lay magnates was least. While here too, and above all while treating of the Severn, the fact must be emphasized what an influence the river had on the drift of race and political balance in England. In British, Roman, and probably for most of the Saxon period, the Severn was by no means the well-behaved river, a hundred or so yards broad, flowing between well-defined banks, that we see to-day, but the whole valley through which it now flows was a marshy lagoon. Beyond the valley was a strip of forest wilderness, and beyond the wilderness was Wales and its dubious Borderland. Worcester first came into being as the chief passage of the Severn, since Roman, British, and Saxon roads, and the route of travel for long afterwards, all converged here. As a historical boundary no river in England has played such a part. Even in that more or less authentic compact known as the Tripartite convention, caricatured by Shakespeare, between Owen Glyndwr and the Percies in the early fifteenth century to divide England and Wales into three kingdoms, the Severn was the natural frontier of the western dominion. Its west bank even to-day has a faint Celtic flavour, while nothing to the eastward of the river could possibly suggest anything but the Saxon.
Leaving Worcester for its twenty-mile run to Tewkesbury, the Severn almost immediately receives the Teme, that famous trout and grayling river which from here to its source in the Radnor moors has scarcely a dull mile. Whether brawling in the woody limestone gorges of Downton, gliding under the storied walls of Ludlow, slipping from pool to rapid through the pleasant meads of Herefordshire, or running its Worcestershire course through the deep romantic vale between Tenbury and Powick, the Teme is always beautiful. With this final contribution from the Welsh mountains, the Severn pursues its sombre, smooth, fast-gliding course between the same high banks of red sandstone soil, held together by tufted grass for the better resistance of winter floods, and the low willows which trail and dip in the stream. Occasionally some slope of woodland makes a brief change in its character. But no villas nor country-houses to speak of venture on the river edge, nor vary its somewhat monotonous character of foreground detail with their ornate accessories, such as display themselves in one shape or another on most of our famous rivers. Neither punts nor skiffs nor house-boats, nor flannelled youths nor gay parasols, ever brighten its broad silent stream. But as a natural feature in a typical English landscape of more than common beauty, rolling majestically along between
wide ox-pastures and meadows that in June are busy with haymakers and instinct with pastoral life, it leaves little to be desired. One feature, however, here adds abiding lustre to the Severn valley; for the Malvern Hills, by far the finest range for their modest altitude in all England, rise within easy distance of its western bank, and following in the same direction make a mountain background to a scene that even without them would be fair enough.
While noting contrasts, too, though in this case not anywise concerned with the physical attributes of Thames or Severn, what a curiously different tale is told in the ownership of their respective banks. Along the former, for instance, with its gayer surface, its more ornate and gregarious shores and splendid mansions, how few occupants of these last have any hereditary association with the soil, how utterly broken are most ties with the past! Along the Worcestershire Severn, on the other hand, the ancient stocks hold their ground with singular tenacity. Above Worcester something of this has been indicated; and again, as one follows the river downwards and recalls the names of Lygon (Earl Beauchamp), Hornyold, Berington, Lechmere, Coventry, Temple, or Martin – all but the last two, who are about a century later, representatives by descent of Tudor ancestors – it seems to cover almost every seat of note within hail of the river, and probably the greater portion of the land abutting on its banks to the county’s limit: and this for modern England anywhere is extremely creditable and rare enough.
Upton, a little town of some importance in the more primitive times of Severn navigation, has now scarcely anything but a bridge and small market to live upon. In the churchyard and predecessor of the present abandoned and conspicuous Georgian church was fought a desperate skirmish between the Scots and Fleetwood’s vanguard, just before the last battle of Worcester. Approaching Tewkesbury the river runs out into a wide expanse of meadow land, and through this, under the walls of the beautiful old town with its superb Abbey church rising conspicuously above its banks, Shakespeare’s Avon, having now run its course by Warwick, Stratford, Evesham, and Pershore, rolls its classic waters to their confluence.
Tewkesbury has some claim to be the most picturesque of the Severn towns, though lying absolutely upon the flat. It is small, unsmirched by any industry, and undoubtedly contains in its two long streets a greater proportion for its size of really good sixteenth and seventeenth century houses than any of its neighbours on either Severn or Avon, rich beyond measure in this respect as both these valleys are. Then the Abbey church alone would make a town famous. To dwell upon this imposing pile, practically a Cathedral, is here out of the question. Its massive Norman tower with its wealth of rich external arcading is one of the finest in England. Its long nave with vaulted roof resting upon massive cylindrical Norman pillars is of scarcely less renown. Its aisles and transepts, choir and chapels, its pointed windows with their old stained-glass, its many monuments, and above all its superb west front, make a subject almost foolish to touch upon in half a page. One may state, however, that its lay founder was that celebrated Robert Fitzhamon, Earl of Gloucester, who in the time of Rufus added to his earldom by a romantic adventurous exploit, well remembered in Wales, the province of Glamorgan. His body lies, too, where it should lie, in his own abbey, beneath an elegant chantry raised nearly three centuries later to his memory by a pious abbot.
It would be ill omitting, however space may press, all mention of the battle of Tewkesbury, when on May 4, 1471, the Yorkist forces under Edward the Fourth encountered the Lancastrians under Queen Margaret outside the town in the final battle of the long Wars of the Roses. The latter were defeated with prodigious slaughter; a place near Severn’s bank being still known as the Bloody Meadow. But the slaughter was not confined to the battle: the Lancastrian fugitives, when all was long over, were hunted and hounded to death, and with their chief, who had sought sanctuary in the Abbey, were dragged in great numbers to the scaffold. After this a solemn thanksgiving was held in the Abbey by the bloodthirsty victor, whose notions of a benignant deity, like most of his kind in those pitiless days, was merely the God whom he fancied had interfered in his favour.
Swishing silently onward between its high, monotonous banks of red earth and green tufty turf and unaspiring willows; stirred perhaps once a day by a trail of steam-dragged barges, but otherwise noiseless always, unless for the occasional plunge of a fish on its reddish-brown surface, the Severn rolls towards Gloucester through a fat and
teeming country. Peaceful hay meadows of ample acreage, astir but for a week of June, save when some winter flood rolling over them makes for their yet greater silence. Towering elms and yet older oaks, following some flood ditch or hedgerow along the river’s edge or across the flat valley, which give a certain sense of dignity and opulence to this part of the Severn’s course, and not least when a summer wind is ruffling their thousand leaves and curling over these great seas of mowing grass. Farms and cottages shrink backward a couple of fields’ length from the river-bank on to the edge of the upland for obvious and sufficient reason. And so by Deerhurst with its part Saxon church and wholly Saxon chapel, by Apperley Court and Ashelworth ferry to the outskirts of Gloucester. Here the navigation of the river, helped by a canal cut across to Sharpness Point 18 miles below, assumes an ocean-going character and considerable importance for small ships. The well-known “bore” or tidal wave rushes up the Severn periodically, often achieving the height of 9 feet and a speed of 14 miles an hour, and special embankments have been made below Gloucester to preserve the land from its attacks. When the Severn begins to open out into wide watery flats, and below Gloucester to take on the muddy qualities of a tidal river, there is little occasion to follow it. The general outlook, however, during the last forty-mile stretch of the Severn, is worthy of its fame, for on both sides the uplands spread back in deep lofty ridges. The Cotswolds upon the one hand, with Mayhill and the Forest of Dean upon the other, give character and interest even to the shining flats of salt marsh, sand, and mud, through which the Severn, from any height, can be seen coiling like a serpent to meet the Wye, and with the later advent of the Avon to merge into the Bristol Channel.
But Gloucester is the real port of the Severn, a clean and pleasant city, and like Worcester has two long main streets meeting where an ancient cross stood, and still in name stands; for the heart of the city, unlike the other, is a mile from the Severn as well as lower lying, and its navigation is effected by canals. As an historic town in the Middle Ages Gloucester counted for much, its earldom carrying for many reasons extraordinary power, and its situation on the edge of the Welsh Marches, and on the lowest bridge of the Severn, having alone a significance that can scarcely be realised without some understanding of the military and political importance of this corner of England and Wales before the Wars of the Roses. Centres of influence shift, and when the archer and the man-at-arms under the Clares and Mortimers ceased to be a potent factor in English political life, the country between and about the Severn and the Wye, the original home of English archery, lost its peculiar significance and took rank by mere geographical and commercial considerations. In the Civil War, however, Gloucester came again to the front. Its stubborn retention by the Parliamentary party in a Royalist country, and its defence by Massey, entitles it to rank with Royalist Worcester as among the most conspicuous centres of strife in that distressing conflict. But strangers nowadays only visit Gloucester to see the Cathedral – an expedition well worth the making. Belonging to the middle group of cathedrals in size, this one is chiefly celebrated for its beautiful tower and cloisters, both of the Perpendicular period. Most of the nave, however, retains the original Norman character in piers and arches with exceptional grandeur of elevation; elsewhere it is much obscured by Perpendicular casing. Gloucester boasts also one of the four eleventh-century crypts and the largest east window in England, still containing a good deal of the old painted glass. Originally a Benedictine monastery, the burial within its walls of Edward the Second, murdered at Berkeley Castle near by, and afterwards held as a martyr, brought pilgrims, money, and additions to the church, which became the Cathedral of the new See of Gloucester, cut off from Worcester by Henry the Eighth. A fragment too of Llanthony Abbey, the twin sister, though in fact the unfilial daughter, of that stately ruin, that other Llanthony in the Welsh vale of Honddu, still stands amid the modern litter of the docks.
IF the Severn under its infant name of Hafren leaps towards such modified civilization as Llanidloes and the lonely trail of the Cambrian railway implies, amid solitudes profound, the Wye, though running even longer in the wild, has the company almost from its source of that ancient coach-road that in the good old stay-at-home days took even persons of condition on their wedding tours to Aberystwith. It was a wild and long way though, and its solitudes must have struck something like terror into the hearts of a Midland or East Anglian squire of the Regency period, getting outside the hedges as it were for the first time in his life, and looking possibly for the only one, upon actual mountains and tumbling streams. The Severn running north-east, and drawing mainly on the fountains of North Wales in its way to Welshpool and Shrewsbury, taps another country from the Wye. The latter is soon swollen into quite a large river by many lusty affluents from one of the wildest and most prolific watersheds in England or Wales. Birmingham, some of us may regret, has already discovered and laid this last under tribute. London engineers have had it all surveyed this ten years, and some day it is to be feared London will make it a burning question. The ordinary Londoner of intelligence, however, knows nothing about it outside possibly the path from Aberystwith to the top of Plinlimmon and back. Of its great lonely heart, tuneful only with the noise of waters, the bleat of sheep, and the plovers’ cry, of its romantic girdle of crag and wood, of little white-washed sycamore shaded homesteads and rude hoary shrines of British saints through which these bog-fed torrents break, the outer world knows absolutely nothing at all. Here, however, are about 600 to 800 square miles of more continuously wild upland than anything even in North Wales, all lying in a block, to which the counties of Montgomery, Radnor, Brecon, Cardigan, and Caermarthen each contribute a slice. A land penetrated by no roads south of the Upper Wye, though pricked around its edges by rough and short-lived arteries
for local use. A region whose hidden charms are for the stout pedestrian alone, but have remained so far undiscovered even by him, for practically no human form but the Welsh-speaking sheep farmer on his pony or some more than commonly adventurous angler or occasional grouse shooter ever breaks upon the solitude of this far-reaching mountain waste even in mid-August. This barrier, so broad, so lofty, and so long, which counted for so much in Welsh history, was known by the men of old as “the mountains of Ellineth.” They have now no composite name, and there is not a range in Britain needs one more. It is as if Dartmoor and Exmoor, which could be together dropped into this other one, each lacked a concrete designation.
The Wye draws little further on this watershed, till after 20 miles of wandering in the wilderness, growing gradually less savage, and playing all the tunes and chords known to little trout streams amid the pastures of Llangurig, it meets the Marteg and the Elan, near Rhayader, and begins to take itself seriously. This indeed is the real beginning of the Wye, for most of those who know its upper reaches. For here it achieves maturity and enters the world; and a beautiful world too, of waving woodlands and overhanging mountains, but one which many pass their lives in and others visit, and traversed by a good valley road and a railway. The Elan but a few short years ago came from the west out of this Ellineth wilderness, bringing with it the waters of the Claerwen through a deep vale, unforgettable by those who knew it for the exquisite combination of luxuriant low ground and the fine grouping of its overhanging mountain walls. If Cwm Elan was retired from the world in the ordinary sense, it is a familiar enough name to all students of Shelley, whose cousins then owned it, and who himself settled here for a time with his young, hapless, and ill-suited wife. The hills and crags, however, that inspired the poet’s earliest muse,
Those jagged peaks that frown sublime,
Mocking the blunted scythe of time,
look down now upon far different scenes, though perhaps in their way not less lovely ones. Deep waters now glimmer from hill to hill where the Elan ran but yesterday through wood and pasture to join the Wye; and yet deeper into the hills, where the Claerwen leaped from the wild into this now submerged Arcadia, is another lake, thus laying both the main stem of the valley and its forks under the same vast sheet of water. If this chain of lakes is the work of the Birmingham Corporation and not of Nature, they are of this last at any rate a good imitation, and reflect upon their bosoms no shadows less harmonious than those of the everlasting hills.
The Wye is a delightful river from its source to its mouth; scarcely a suggestion of industrial defilement comes near it anywhere. The, in this respect, utterly guileless Cathedral town of Hereford is, indeed, the only place above the scale of a small market-town within touch of its banks. Everywhere, even between the rapids, the river itself is instinct with the sense of buoyancy. After leaving the Black Mountains above Hereford it becomes at intervals for pleasure-boats a navigable stream; but till it leaves Wales it has all the boil and rush and stir of a salmon river. It is easy to pick out those sections of the Wye, charming as they are in a quiet, pastoral, Severn-like fashion, which are the least distinguished. And that they form collectively much the smaller portion of a river running a course of 130 miles, says something for its qualities. The Wye divides itself readily into four distinct stages. The first, its infancy as a mere mountain stream to Rhayader; the second, its course thence for some 30 odd miles as a considerable river fretting in a rocky channel, and pressed between the heavily-wooded feet of hills and mountains, to Boughrood with a few reaches more of less violent perturbation, but imposingly guarded by the Black Mountains, to Hay or Clifford. The third stage may be reckoned as covering the rich and broken low country of Herefordshire; while the fourth begins near Ross, where the river enters that series of magnificent scenes which, opening with Symond’s Yat, continues for above 30 miles, past Monmouth to Tintern, the Wyndcliff and Chepstow, maintaining a standard of beauty and grandeur altogether above the scale that you would look for, even in the more than pretty region through which it cuts its way. It is by means of this lower stage that the Wye seems to defy a rival; for as regards its upper reaches between Rhayader and Hay, beautiful as they are, the Dee through the vales of Edeyrnion and Llangollen, the Usk between Brecon and Abergavenny, the North Tyne, and one or two Yorkshire rivers, could show 30 miles of as noble a torrent, equally beautiful in environment. But none of these rivers, after they have abandoned their highland glories and settled down into the comparative quiet of the low country, wake again as they near the sea as the Wye awakes, and repeat, though with a difference of detail that is the more charming, the glories of their prime. Which of the two sections of the Wye is the more beautiful it would be ill saying. Their contrast, happily, makes comparison foolish. No other English river of any size can offer at once such a spectacle as Symond’s Yat on the Wyndcliff, near its mouth, and the long gorge between Aberedw and the Epynt in its higher reaches.