Picture of William Gilpin

William Gilpin

places mentioned

Tintern to Chepstow

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MR. MORRIS'S improvements at Persfield, which we soon approached, are generally thought as much worth a traveller's notice as any thing on the banks of the Wye. We pushed on shore close under his rocks; and the tide being at ebb, we landed with some difficulty on an ouzy beach. One of our bargemen, who knew the place, served as a guide; and under his conduct we climed the steep by an easy regular zig-zag.

The eminence on which we stood (one of those grand eminences which overlooks the Wye) is an intermixture of rock and wood, and forms, in this place, a concave semicircle, sweeping round in a segment of two miles. The river winds under it; and the scenery, of course, is shewn in various directions. The river itself, indeed, as we just observed, is charged with the impurities of the soil it washes; and when it ebbs its verdant banks become slopes of mud: but if we except these disadvantages, the situation of Persfield is noble.

Little indeed was left for improvement, but to open walks and views through the woods to the various objects around them; to those chiefly of the eminence on which we stood. All this the ingenious proprietor hath done with great judgment; and hath strewn his rocks, his woods, and his precipices, under various forms, and to great advantage. Sometimes a broad face of rock is presented, stretching along a vast space, like the walls of a citadel. Sometimes it is broken by intervening trees. In other parts the rocks rise above the woods; a little farther they sink below them; sometimes they are seen through them; and sometimes one series of rocks appears rising above another: and though many of these objects are repeatedly seen, yet seen from different stations, and with new accompaniments, they appear new. The winding of the precipice is the magical secret by which all these enchanting scenes are produced.

We cannot, however, call these views picturesque. They are either presented from too high a point, or they have little to mark them as characteristic; or they do not fall into such composition, as would appear to advantage on canvas. But they are extremely romantic, and give a loose to the most pleasing riot of imagination.

These views are chiefly shewn from different stands in a close walk carried along the brow of the precipice. It would be invidious perhaps to remark a degree of tediousness in this walk, and too much sameness in many of its parts; notwithstanding the general variety which enlivens them: but the intention probably is not yet complete; and many things are meant to be hid, which are now too profusely shewn.1

Having seen every thing on this side of the hill, we found we had seen only half the beauties of Persfield, and pursued a walk which led us over the ridge of the eminence to the opposite side. Here the ground depositing its wild appearance, assumes a more civilized form. It consists of a great variety of lawns, intermixed with wood and rock; and, though it often rises and falls, yet it descends without any violence into the country beyond it.

The views on this side are not the romantic steeps of the Wye; but though of another species, they are equally grand. They are chiefly distances, consisting of the vast waters of the Severn, here an arm of the sea, bounded by a remote country; of the mouth of the Wye entering the Severn; and of the town of Chepstow, and its castle and abbey. Of all these distant objects an admirable use is made; and they are shewn, (as the rocks of the Wye were on the other side,) sometimes in parts, and sometimes altogether. In one station we had the scenery of both sides of the hill at once.

It is a pity the ingenious embellisher of these scenes could not have been satisfied with the grand beauties of nature which he commanded. The shrubberies he has introduced in this part of his improvements, I fear, will rather be esteemed paltry. As the embellishments of a house, or as the ornaments of little scenes which have nothing better to recommend them, a few flowering shrubs artfully composed may have their elegance and beauty; but in scenes like this, they are only splendid patches, which injure the grandeur and simplicity of the whole.

        ——Fortasse cupressum
Scis simulare: quid hoc? ——
—— Sit quidvis simplex duntaxat et unum.

It is not the shrub which offends; it is the formal introduction of it. Wild underwood may be an appendage of the grandest scene: it is a beautiful appendage. A bed of violets or lilies may enamel the ground with propriety at the root of an oak; but if you introduce them artificially in a border, you introduce a trifling formality, and disgrace the noble object you wish to adorn.

From the scenes of Persfield we walked to Chepstow, our barge drawing too much water to pass the shallows till the return of the tide. In this walk we wished for more time than we could command, to examine the romantic scenes which surrounded us; but we were obliged to return that evening to Monmouth.

The road, at first, affords beautiful distant views of those woody hills which had entertained us on the banks of the Wye; and which appeared to as much advantage when connected with the country, as they had already done in union with the river: but the country soon loses its picturesque form, and assumes a bleak unpleasant wildness.

About seven miles from Chepstow, we had an extensive view into Wales, bounded by mountains very remote. But this view, though much celebrated, has little, except the grandeur of extension, to recommend it. And yet it is possible, that in some lights it may be very picturesque; and that we might only have had the misfortune to see it in an unfavourable one. Different lights make so great a change even in the composition of landscape, at least in the apparent composition of it, that they create a scene perfectly new. In distance, especially, this is the case. Hills and vallies may be deranged; awkward abruptnesses and hollows introduced; and the effect of woods and castles, and all the ornamental detail of a country lost. On the other hand, these ingredients of landscape may in reality be awkwardly introduced; yet through the magical influence of light , they may be altered, softened, and rendered pleasing.

In a mountainous country particularly, I have often seen, during the morning hours, a range of hills rearing their summits, in ill-disposed fantastic shapes. In the afternoon, all this incorrect rudeness hath been removed; and each mis-shapen summit hath softened beautifully into some pleasing form.

The different seasons of the year also produce the same effect. When the sun rides high in summer, and when, in the same meridian, he just skirts the horizon in winter, he forms the mountain-tops, and indeed the whole face of a country into very different appearances.

Fogs also vary a distant country as much as light, softening the harsh features of landscape; and spreading over them a beautiful grey harmonizing tint.

We remark farther on this subject, that scarcely any landscape will stand the test of different lights . Some searching ray, as the sun veers round, will expose its defects. And hence it is, that almost every landscape is seen best under some peculiar illumination—either of an evening or of a morning, or, it may be, of a meridian sun.

During many miles we kept upon the heights; and, through a long and gentle descent, approached Monmouth. Before we reached it we were benighted; but as far as we could judge of a country through the grey obscurity of a summer-evening, this seemed to abound with many beautiful woody vallies among the hills, which we descended. A light of this kind, though not so favorable to landscape, is very favorable to the imagination. This active power embodies half-formed images, which it rapidly combines; and often composes landscapes, perhaps more beautiful, if the imagination be well-stored, than any that can be found in Nature herself. They are formed indeed from Nature—from the most beautiful of her scenes; and having been treasured up in the memory, are called into these fanciful creations by some distant resemblances which strike the eye in the multiplicity of dubious surfaces that float before it.

1 As it is many years since these remarks were made, several alterations have probably, since that time, taken place.

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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