Picture of William Gilpin

William Gilpin

places mentioned

Bridgend to Bristol

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FROM Pyle the country grows still worse; till at last it degenerates into a naked heath; and continues a long time totally unadorned, or at best with a few transient beauties.

At Bridgend , where we met the river Ogmore, a beautiful landscape bursts again upon us. Woody banks arise on both sides, on the right especially, which continue a considerable way, marking the course of the river. On the left is a rich distance.

Hence we pass in view of cultivated vallies, into which the rich distance we had just seen began to form itself, while the road winds over a kind of terrace above them. An old castle also enriches the scene; till at length the terrace giving way, we sink into the vale, and enter Cowbridge.

The heights beyond Cowbridge give us the first view of the Bristol channel on the right. The country between the eye and the water has a marshy appearance, but being well blended, and the lines broken, it makes a tolerable distance. The road passes through pleasant inclosed lanes.

At the fifth stone before we reached Cardiff, we had a most grand and extensive view from the heights of Clanditham. It contained an immense stretch of country, melting gradually into a faint blue semicircle of mountains, which edged the horizon; this scene indeed, painted in syllables, words, and sentences, appears very like some of the scenes we had met with before, but in nature it was very different from any of them.

In distant views of cultivated countries, seen from lofty stands, the parts which lie nearest the eye are commonly disgusting. The divisions of property into squares, rhomboids, and other mathematical forms, are unpleasant. A view of this kind therefore does not assume its beauty, till on descending a little lower, the hedge-rows begin to lengthen, and form those agreeable discriminations of which Virgil1 takes notice; where fields and meadows become extended streaks, and yet are broken in various parts by rising grounds, castles, and other objects with which distances abound; melting away from the eye in one general azure tint, just here and there diversified with a few lines of light and shade, and dotted with a few indistinct objects. Then, if we are so happy as to find a ruin, a spreading tree, a bold rock, or some other object large enough, with its appendages, to become a foreground, and balance the distance, (such as we found among the abrupt heights of Cotswold,2 ) we have the chance of being presented with a noble picture, which distance alone cannot give.

Hence appears the absurdity of carrying a painter to the top of a high hill to take a view. He cannot do it. Extension alone, though amusing in nature, will never make a picture. It must be supported .

Cardiff lies low, though it is not unpleasantly seated on the land side among woody hills. As we approached , it appeared with more of the furniture of antiquity about it than any town we had seen in Wales; but on the spot the picturesque eye finds it too entire to be in full perfection. The castle, which was formerly the prison of the unfortunate Robert, son of William the First, who languished here the last twenty years of his life, is still, I believe, a prison, and in good repair.

From the town and parts adjacent, the windings and approach of the river Tave from the sea, with the full tide, make a grand appearance. This is, on the whole, the finest estuary we had seen in Wales.

From the heights beyond Cardiff, the views of the channel on the right continue, and of the Welsh mountains on the left. The Sugar-loaf near Abergavenny appears still distinctly. The road leads through inclosed lanes.

Newport lies pleasantly on a declivity. A good view might be taken from the retrospect of the river, the bridge and the castle. A few slight alterations would make it picturesque.

Beyond Newport some of the views of the channel were finer than any we had seen. The coast, though it continues flat, becomes more woody, and the parts are larger.

About seven miles from Newport, the road winds among woody hills; which here and there form, beautiful dips at their intersections. On one of these knolls stand the ruins of a castle, which has once made a grand appearance; but it is now degraded into a modern dwelling.

As we approached the passage over the Bristol channel, the views of it became still more interesting. On the right, we left the magnificent ruins of Caldicot-castle, and arrived at the ferry-house about three in the afternoon, where we were so fortunate as to find the boat preparing to set sail. It had attempted to cross at high water in the morning, but after toiling three hours against the wind, it was obliged to put back. This afforded another opportunity when the water was at ebb; for the boat can pass only at the two extremes of the tide, and seldom oftener than once in a day.

We had scarcely alighted at the ferryhouse, when we heard the boatman winding his horn from the beach about a quarter of a mile below, as a signal to bring down the horses. When they were all embarked, the horn sounded again for the passengers. A very multifarious company assembled; and a miserable walk we had to the boat through sludge and over shelving and slippery rocks. When we got to it we found eleven horses on board, and above thirty people; and our chaise (which we had intended to convert into a cabin during the voyage) flung into the shrouds.

The boat, after some struggling with the shelves, at length gained the channel. The wind was unfavourable, which obliged us to make several tacks , as the seamen phrase them. These tacks occasioned a fluttering in the sail; and this produced a fermentation among the horses, till their fears reduced them again to order.

Livy gives us a beautiful picture of the terror of cattle in a scene of this kind.—

Primus erat pavor, quum, soluta rate, in altum raperentur. Ibi urgentes inter se, cedentibus extremis ab aqu, trepidationem aliquantam edebant; donee quietem ipse timor circumspicientibus aquam fecisset.3

The scenery of this short voyage was of little value. We had not here the steep folding banks of the Wye to produce a succession of new landscapes. Our picture now was motionless. From the beginning to the end of the voyage it continued the same: it was only a display of water, varied by that little change introduced by distance, on a coast which, seen from so low a point as the surface of the water, became a mere thread. The screens bore no proportion to the area.

After beating near two hours against the wind, our voyage concluded as it began, with an uncomfortable walk through the sludge to the high-water mark.

The worst part of the affair is the usage of horses. If they are unruly, or any accident occurs, there is hardly a possibility, at least if the vessel be crouded, of affording them relief. Early in our voyage, as the boat heeled, one of the poor animals fell down. Many an ineffectual struggle it made to rise, but nothing could be done till we arrived at the other side.

The operation too of landing horses, is equally disagreeable. They are forced out of the boat, through an aperture in the side of it; which is so inconvenient a mode of egress, that in leaping many have been hurt from the difficulty of disengaging their hinder legs.

This passage as well as the other over the Severn, (for there is one also a little above,) are often esteemed dangerous. The tides are uncommonly rapid in this channel; and when a brisk wind happens to blow in a contrary direction, the waters are rough. The boats too are often ill-managed; for what is done repeatedly, is often done carelessly. A British admiral, who had lived much at sea, riding up to one of these ferries, with an intention to pass over, and observing the boat, as she was working across the channel from the other side, declared he durst not trust himself to the seamanship of such fellows as managed her; and turning his horse, went round by Glocester.

Several melancholy accidents indeed within the course of a dozen years, have thrown discredit on these ferries. One we had from a gentleman, who himself providentially escaped being lost. He went to the beach just as the vessel was unmooring. His horse had been embarked before, together with sixty head of cattle. A passage with such company appeared so disagreeable, that he and about six or seven passengers whom he found on the beach, among whom was a young lady, agreed to get into an open boat and be towed over by the large one.

The passage was rough, and they observed the cattle on board the larger vessel rather troublesome. They were now about half way over, when an ox near the aperture in the side of the vessel, mentioned above for the entrance and egress of cattle, entangled his horn in a wooden slider which closes it, and which happened according to the careless custom of boatmen, to be unpinned. The beast finding his head fixed, and endeavouring to disengage himself, drew up the slider. The vessel heeled; the tide rushed in; and all was instant confusion. The danger and the impossibility of opposing it in such a croud struck every one at once.

In the mean time the passengers in the open boat, who were equally conscious of the ruin, had nothing left but to cut the rope, which tied them to the sinking vessel. But not a knife could be found in the whole company. After much confusion, a little neat tortoise-shell pen-knife was produced; with which unequal instrument they just got the rope severed, when the large vessel and its whole contents went down: all on board perished, except two or three oxen which were seen floating on the surface; and it was believed got to shore.

The joy of the passengers in the boat was however short-lived. It soon appeared they had escaped only one mode of death: they were left to themselves in a wide expanse of water; at the mercy of a tide ebbing with a violent current to the sea; without oars or sail; and without one person on board who had ever handled either. A gentleman among them had just authority enough to keep them all quiet; without which their safety could not have been insured a moment. He then took up a paddle, the only instrument on board, with an intention, if possible, to get the boat on shore; but the young lady, who was his niece, throwing her arms round him, in an agony of despair, not knowing what she did, would not let him proceed. He was obliged to quiet her by threatening in a furious tone to strike her down instantly with the oar, if she did not desist. Notwithstanding all his efforts they were hurried away by the ebbing waters as far as Kingroad; where the violence of the tide slackening, he prevented the boat from going out to sea; and got it by degrees to shore.

From the gentleman who told us this story, we had the account of the loss of an open boat in the same passage, through the obstinacy of a passenger.

The wind was rough, and a person on board lost his hat; which floated away in a contrary direction. He begged the waterman to turn round to recover it; but the waterman told him it was as much as their lives were worth to attempt it; on which the passenger, who seemed to be a tradesman, started up, seized the helm, and swore the fellow should return. In the struggle the helm got a wrong twist, and the boat instantly filled and went to the bottom. It appeared afterwards that the hat was of value, for the owner had secreted several bills in the lining of it.

For ourselves, however, we found the passage only a disagreeable one; and if there was any danger, we saw it not The danger chiefly, I suppose, arises from carelessness and overloading the boat.

As our chaise could not be landed till the tide flowed up the beach, we were obliged to wait at the ferry-house. Our windows overlooked the channel, and the Welsh-coast, which, seen from a higher stand, became now a woody and beautiful distance. The wind was brisk and the sun clear, except that at intervals it was intercepted by a few floating clouds. The playing lights, which arose from this circumstance on the opposite coast, were very picturesque. Pursuing each other, they sometimes just caught the tufted tops of trees; then gleaming behind shadowy woods, they spread along the vales till they faded insensibly away.

Often these partial lights are more stationary; when the clouds, which fling their lengthened shadows on distant grounds, hang some time balanced in the air. But whenever found, or from whatever source derived, the painter observes them with the greatest accuracy; he marks their different appearances, and lays them up in his memory among the choice ingredients of distant landscape. Almost alone they are sufficient to vary distance.

A multiplicity of objects , melted harmoniously together, contribute to enrich it: but without throwing in these gleaming lights , the artist can hardly avoid heaviness .4

1 — et lat discriminat agros. n. II. 144.

2 See page 10.

3 Lib. XXI. cap. xxviii.

4 When the shadows of floating clouds fall upon the sides of mountains, they have a bad effect.—See Picturesque Observat. on Scotch Landscape, vol. ii. p. 152.

William Gilpin, Observations of the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales (London: Cadell Junior and W. Davies, 1800) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2012.

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