Sunday, 6 January 2013

England's West Country: Coleridge, Shelley, Mayne...and Baskerville Hounds

At the end of December a friend and I spent a few days in the West Country - mainly Devon, with a quick foray into Cornwall and Somerset. Reports that Devon was an entirely underwater county proved to be more or less unfounded, and although there was definitely quite a lot of rain, there were also many sunny intervals. Most importantly, Dartmoor featured some satisfyingly foggy moments.

Dartmoor has probably been on my must-visit list ever since I read Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (a long time ago) and the only slightly less-known story 'Silver Blaze', both of which feature a fairly well-known detective named Sherlock Holmes. I would be at least mildly interested in visiting almost every place I have ever come across in a book; even if they are not terribly exciting places in themselves, the literary associations will add and add and add to them. If the place is beautiful and wonderful in itself, though, few things could be more wonderful.

Approaching Dartmoor by train with Sir Henry, Dr Watson describes what he sees in vivid terms: "Over the green squares of the fields and the low curve of a wood there rose in the distance a gray, melancholy hill, with a strange jagged summit, dim and vague in the distance, like some fantastic landscape in a dream." Later, as they approach Baskerville Hall by carriage:

We had left the fertile country behind and beneath us. We looked back on it now, the slanting rays of a low sun turning the streams to threads of gold and glowing on the red earth new turned by the plough and the broad tangle of the woodlands. The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline. Suddenly we looked down into a cuplike depression, patched with stunted oaks and firs which had been twisted and bent by the fury of years of storm. Two high, narrow towers rose over the trees. (from The Hound of the Baskervilles)

My friend, less enthused by Holmesiana than I am and a little tired of driving, still drove me obligingly all over the moor, and the above descriptions were exactly what I found. At one point we plunged into a cloud; later, in a moment of madness, I braved the wind and rain and ran up the eerie and beautiful Haytor. Here is a picture:

I was struck by how utterly vast Dartmoor seemed. Its skies were wider than I imagined; maybe it's partly that TV screens make it small, but I felt that I had to go there to really understand. Although we did not drive all around its edge, I had a very strange feeling that the moor was larger inside its boundaries than ordinary physical dimensions would permit, and that I had passed into a place which was utterly detached from the soft and lovely countryside around it.

On a more poetic note, the West Country held more poetry associations than I had imagined. In Lynmouth, we found Shelley's Hotel, although this may or may not have been the exact building where Percy Bysshe Shelley and his young bride stayed during their honeymoon. I was even more fascinated by the Coleridge associations. We had lunch in Porlock, a beautiful town on the north coast which yielded a sinister Person from Porlock, who disturbed the drugged-up and dream-haunted Samuel Taylor Coleridge and prevented him from giving us the fullest possible account of 'Kubla Khan'. Near the Quantock Hills, we stopped briefly at the Coleridge Cottage, where he wrote 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', among others. Here is a picture:

We based ourselves in a flat kindly lent by a colleague, in a very small town called Hatherleigh. I discovered that this was the birthplace (or at least place of baptism) of Jasper Mayne, a clergyman, translator and poet who lived in the seventeenth century. This rather fascinating poem, 'Time', is his:

TIME (Jasper Mayne)

TIME is the feather'd thing,
And, whilst I praise
The sparklings of thy looks and call them rays,
Takes wing,
Leaving behind him as he flies
An unperceivèd dimness in thine eyes.
His minutes, whilst they're told,
Do make us old;
And every sand of his fleet glass,
Increasing age as it doth pass,
Insensibly sows wrinkles there
Where flowers and roses do appear.
Whilst we do speak, our fire
Doth into ice expire,
Flames turn to frost;
And ere we can
Know how our crow turns swan,
Or how a silver snow
Springs there where jet did grow,
Our fading spring is in dull winter lost.
Since then the Night hath hurl'd
Darkness, Love's shade,
Over its enemy the Day, and made
The world
Just such a blind and shapeless thing
As 'twas before light did from darkness spring,
Let us employ its treasure
And make shade pleasure:
Let 's number out the hours by blisses,
And count the minutes by our kisses;
Let the heavens new motions feel
And by our embraces wheel;
And whilst we try the way
By which Love doth convey
Soul unto soul,
And mingling so
Makes them such raptures know
As makes them entrancèd lie
In mutual ecstasy,
Let the harmonious spheres in music roll!


  1. Your comment about the sky and TV was fascinating, and I was quite taken with your observation about the dimensions of the moor and its detachment from the rest of the landscape. The first part of the Jasper Mayne poem I was quite touched by, for personal and quite heartfelt reasons, while the second part doesn't seem to go with the first much at all, yet reminds me somehow of Ronsard's lovely 'Mignonne, allons voir si la rose...' You had a fine excursion.

    1. I think the poem is along the lines of Marvell's To His Coy Mistress..."seize the day before we get old" sort of thing! That was my reading, anyway.