Picture of George Head

George Head

places mentioned

Arriving on Guernsey

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Landing at St. Peter's Port—Yacht Club Hotel—Inns in general—A Pair of Hostesses—A President of a Table d'Hote—The Fish Market—The Shambles—Woodcocks—Wines, Fruits, and Flowers—Gardens—Frugality of the Inhabitants—Female Servants.

HAVING set apart a few days for the purpose of a visit to the island of Guernsey, I unfortunately, on the evening of a grievously bad night, departed on the voyage, leaving Southampton in the midst of rain and fog, at six o'clock p. m., after which it came on to blow hard; so that for the space of nearly fifteen hours the passengers of the rolling Atalanta were exposed to the infliction of a storm at sea. The most interesting object visible on our arrival was a huge placard, bearing the words "Yacht Club Hotel" inscribed on a board, affixed in the way of a sign to the side of a house, on an elevation not far distant from the water's edge, and which arrogated pre-eminence in favour of the principal inn in the town of St. Peter's Port. Thither, accordingly, at nine o'clock, on a bright, sunshiny summer's morning, we had no sooner landed on the quay than we bent our way.

I think I never happened to find myself among a less amiable looking set of companions than those apparitions newly risen, who, many now for the first time, encountered the light in disordered dress—a sort of hospital costume—and formed a deplorable procession. To the inn, accordingly, a crowd of passengers, extremely selfishly inclined, the weakly wailing, and the sturdy growling,—like a herd of unclean spirits, all repaired for consolation.

I was certainly at first sight disappointed by the appearance of an inn in Guernsey, where generally, it may be observed, an unseemly feeling of independence strikingly prevails among the proprietors; besides, the arrival of the packet from Southampton being the signal of departure of the same vessel immediately for Jersey, an extraordinary ebullition of contrary interests necessarily takes place among a mixed crowd of going and coming travellers. The Atalanta remained at the quay sufficient time only for exchange and preparation, all which business was effected in half an hour, during which period the Yacht Club Hotel was in a state of turmoil and confusion; each person kept a sharp eye on his own luggage; and in the meantime, while admittance to all the apartments was denied till the present occupants had abdicated their rights, the latter seemed without reason and vexatiously to maintain possession. The stranger, though deprived of actual comfort at an inn, has an unquestionable right to a comfortable welcome, and the landlord, with relation to his guest, certainly mistakes his position, so long as he arrogates in the exercise of his functions an authoritative demeanour. Civility, that costs nothing, gains him real respect, and meekness and benevolence are the groundwork of a host's vocation. The inns at St. Peter's Port are unquestionably bad; but it is an extraordinary fact, that the evil is actually engendered of liberality, arising out of universal hospitality, the characteristic of the inhabitants, who invariably bestow abundant good cheer on the worthy and Hell-recommended, and allow a visitor, so soon as once received in their houses, marvellously few opportunities to visit an inn. For my part, I had the satisfaction of finding an early friend and acquaintance happily married in these regions, from whom and his brotherhood I received unbounded hospitality, regularly dining with one or other of his family every day in succession, and leaving in perspective many feasts untasted when I went away. For five days I tarried, and rambled about the island, universally gratified by sights of content, peace, and happiness within its shores, and edified by associating with a thrifty but generous people, enjoying under a genial climate, at cheap cost, and in high perfection, the luxuries of civilization.

Arrived at the Yacht Club Hotel, and previously to going abroad on a local excursion, a difficulty stood in my way at the first onset, on undertaking the process of installation, since a congregational system prevails at the inns, whereby the inmates of the house occupy generally double bedded rooms, and assemble daily at dinner at a two o'clock ordinary. I acceded to the latter arrangement, but strenuously objected to the former; wherefore, notwithstanding I yielded one point out of two, I committed an act of nonconformity in the eyes of two fair ladies, my hostesses, such as entailed upon me a little world of trouble before I was enabled to retrieve my position in their good graces.

These two personages, mother and daughter, might indeed, as well as good looking, both fairly be called young; for time had dealt mercifully with the former, and disappointments of a delicate nature cast a shade of reflective gravity on the countenance of the latter. From a desire to preserve her own good humour, or merely perhaps for the sake of following a mother's example, at a very early period, it appeared, she had provided herself with a husband; but unfortunately, since in leading a horse to the well consists not the secret of obliging him to drink, so, if report said true, the said husband, at the time I am speaking of, whatever may have been the domestic history in point, at any rate was not there; in short, the young lady was said to be what is generally denominated a widow bewitched, and at this period, with her mother, both gaily dressed, both captivating, and, in point of appearance, readily to be mistaken for sisters, lived together in strict propriety, and jointly occupied the bar of the hotel.

Against the united force of these two ladies, each capable, by the power of her individual tongue, of sustaining the field against a host, and both determined to meet with fatal opposition my request of private apartments in their house, it was my arduous task to proceed, if indeed progress in argument be admitted to exist where one person remains passively silent, and listens to a torrent of eloquence from the opposite party. To negotiate with pretty women is always an extremely difficult matter, and especially when the subject happens to be in an opposite line of direction with their own interest; volubility of tongue in such a case sustains the most questionable premises, and serves to bind tight a preposterous conclusion, no matter how many links be wanting of the chain of the reasoning. My fair antagonists, talking vehemently both together, had an invincible fashion of relieving each other like the double acting tube of a bellows in an iron foundry, so that as soon as one became fairly exhausted, the other immediately took up the parole, and then she that stopped for want of breath merely paused for a few seconds to refit her curls, and began again. Having strenuously maintained that the Yacht Club Hotel was, and ought to be, a model for all other hotels in the known world, finally, in part relenting, they consigned me to outlodgings at a milliner's hard by.

On this, my first day in Guernsey, I dined on the one solitary occasion at the table d'hote. There were assembled a dozen persons or more, but of what grade or description, whether commercial travellers or residents, I cannot say; however, the president was a stranger, who having remained in the town many days, or weeks for aught I know, appeared either from predilection to dinner society, or an affinity to the juice of the grape in his nature, to have tumbled par excellence , very appropriately into the office. Of men, like horses in a meadow, always some one or other is disposed voluntarily to take the lead, and it may be confessed, on roads more rough, and paths more thorny, than the flowery, meandering track within the precincts of gentle Bacchus, most judiciously selected by the above individual. At all events a degree of sympathy of interest necessarily existed between the functionary and the landladies; for while a strong head and sound digestion enabled him to set a good example, the kindliness of his looks induced others of his companions to swill as much wine as their skins would conveniently hold, or their purses pay for. His countenance, it is true, reflected none of his thoughts, even if ever he had any, yet his was a broad, brown, happy face, and remarkably small and twinkling was his black eye. Though the party were chiefly young men inclined, for the most part, to yield their opinions and gastronomic tastes altogether to his guidance, not a word did he find it necessary to say in the course of his duty, nor ever detain the bottle for a moment in his grasp; an intelligent wink was usually sufficient to push it forward in its orbit; and even in extreme cases of inattention to the ceremony, a gentle elevation of the right elbow, or a nod to the left hand sidewise over his shoulder, never failed to produce the proper effect. Whenever he lifted to his mouth the glass, which he filled regularly to the brim at every solstice of the bottle, the rosy draught rolled over his projected under lip, down his throat in a continuous unbroken stream, swallowed apparently without the slightest muscular effort, while his russet cheeks beamed with reflected light, marking its progress like the sun's rays at setting, and indicating a genial warmth towards the centre of the system.

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The trouble of a voyage to St. Peter's Port is amply repaid, were it only to witness an epicurean spectacle on an enlarged scale, such as few provincial towns in the British dominions can boast; a sort of Elysium piscatorium, where the finny tribe on a hot summer's day, assorted in exuberant variety, on wellwatered blocks of black polished marble, delight the senses of the gourmand with their cool, refreshing fragrance. Of course, I simply mean to allude to the fish-market.

Within a high, airy building, amply lighted by skylights in the roof, forty stalls, twenty on one side and twenty on the other, supplied each by a pipe with pure cold water, are ranged in order. The slabs whereon the fish are laid are, I have said, of black marble; however, though such at first sight, when wetted, is the appearance, the material is rather grey, and identically the same whereof is composed the breakwater at Plymouth. The beneficence of the ocean as regards this important article of food and luxury, is really here extraordinary. On the present occasion, the various sorts exposed for sale created a sight such as I have seldom in my life witnessed, whereof the particulars, by no means uncommon, will serve to render a fair specimen of the supply on any ordinary day. In the first place, shining like silver, lay smelts, unusually large, with liberty to pick them at two-pence a dozen. Equally cheap in proportion were well grown turbot, and soles, double the ordinary size: add to these mullet both red and grey; cod and whitings, herrings and mackarel; john-dory and gurnet; rock-fish and bream; lobsters, crabs, and crawfish; plaice, brill, and sand-eels. Besides monsters of the deep, for which I really am unprovided with names; among others the huge conger, of which, by the way, the Guernsey people make very excellent soup, and here and there,

"Horrens capillis ut marinus asperis

the sea hedge-hog.—All these I saw atone and the same time, for the most part flapping and floundering still alive, the produce of the labour of the small landed proprietors of the island, who, pursuing a double occupation, plough not only the land but the sea, while the wife also thriftily turns time to good account, and appropriates her leisure hours to a trip to market.

Contiguous to the fish-market are the public shambles. All private slaughter-houses being by the municipal regulations strictly forbidden, the necessary nuisance is thus confined to one spot; neither is a single butcher's shop suffered to exist in the town. To the market consequently all the townspeople resort for the article of fresh meat; and every butcher is moreover held amenable to the public in peculiar regulations, being compelled by law to kill, cut up, and dress carcases for private individuals, at a prescribed rate, the same to be done in a workmanlike manner, on receiving twenty-four hours' notice. The artist is moreover obliged to take out a license previous to exercising his vocation, and liable to a certain penalty in every case of failure.

Good poultry is to be had in abundance, and at a reasonable rate. Of game, the produce of the island, there is little or none. Woodcocks, during flight-time at particular seasons of the year, appear in considerable numbers, and though their advent is altogether precarious, uniformly meet a warm reception; for no sooner is the arrival of a long beak made known in the island, than every sportsman, young or old, is on the alert, and a posse comitatus sally forth armed with every sort of implement of death, from a militia musket to a horse pistol; neither do they return to their homes sated with destruction till the last bird of the persecuted squadron has winged its departure.

The climate of Guernsey cherishes with the highest degree of congeniality, wines, fruit, and flowers. The former, in mellowness and flavour, far exceed those usually met with in England, and as to the port in particular, I was strongly reminded of the beverage I have tasted heretofore on the banks of the Douro, soft, smooth and oily, and enriched with a smack of Burgundy. I need hardly remark on the difference between the pure liquor drawn from the but, and the same compounded with agoa ardente for the London market; so that I draw a comparison between the former, and wine that is to be had in Guernsey.

The fruit spread, even on ordinary occasions, on the hospitable board after dinner, is here sufficient both in quantity and quality to astonish a new comer. Peaches, nectarines, apricots, grapes, apples, pears, and among these the magnificent chaumontel, are devoured as a matter of ordinary habit, in such profusion, that one's thoughts necessarily revert to those happy days of boyhood, when of apples, the contents of a hat was no immoderate measure of an every day appetite, when one ate fruit the better part of a morning against time with utter impunity, and after being fairly clogged up, so long as the weary teeth were refreshed by a bite of gingerbread, began again. In short, a sumptuous dessert such as is provided in England only in great houses and on great occasions, is seen in Guernsey almost every day, and people usually eat five or six large peaches, instead of one.

The brilliancy of flowers during the summer months here, where every plant displays extraordinary vigour, is particularly remarkable to an English eye, and their cultivation offers untold hours of delight to the horticulturist. Surely the pleasures of a flower-garden are among the rational resources of an elegant mind, whereby not only are the senses continually gratified, by parterres blazing in all the fragrant splendour of nature, but interesting communion is held with vegetative life, the most simple and most early source of human enjoyment. The gardens of Guernsey form a striking feature in the prospect as seen from a ship at sea, when arriving at the island; and the abundance of glass, reflecting the sun's rays from the roofs of the green-houses scattered among the high clean looking white houses one above another, on ground rising immediately from the seashore, exceeds ordinary proportion. Of the aforesaid space, since the old town with narrow streets is small, by far the most extensive portion is covered with suburbs; wherein comfort and independence as to the disposition of the dwellings has been consulted to an eminent degree. Every house, although within the precincts of a town, has the advantages of a rural abode; and whatever be the extent of the premises, is enclosed by a garden-wall, that renders it an isolated domain. These garden-walls, relieved by green trees here and there, bound the way on either side, forming lanes, or passages, or thoroughfares, whatever may be the denomination, which serve as streets, and afford the principal means of communication through this portion of the neighbourhood.

Domestic comfort, as relates to internal arrangements, is no where than on this soil better understood, and the dimensions of the island are at the same time so limited, as to render farther considerations almost unnecessary. Profuse expense is actually discountenanced by the manners of the people, and the example of frugality is attended with still better effect than in large communities. Even horses and carriages on a spot where short distances only are to be traversed, where idleness is at a discount, and where daily loiterers become tired of seeing each others' faces on the promenade, gradually sink into disrepute, and are less cared for. Of close carriages, at least in use, there are I believe none in Guernsey, nor even of four-wheeled one-horse vehicles, more than half a dozen kept for private purposes. Thus' the circulation of expense, in every establishment passes slow through the extremities, and tends in increased force to the vital organ of the household. One particular deviation from general custom is conspicuous in Guernsey. In by far the greater portion of houses, whether great or small, whether on especial or common occasions, the duties of the table are chiefly served by women; that is to say, although men-servants are occasionally employed, the employment of women in the offices of house steward, maitre d'hotel, butler, or lacquey, sanctioned by universal custom, is not considered incompatible, as it would be with us, with the other branches of a first rate establishment. Even of the highest families of Guernsey, the menage compared with England is limited; equal perhaps in general appearance of house, furniture, plate, pictures, and bijouterie to that of an individual possessing three or four thousand a-year. As on gala days among the heathen gods, the cup-bearer was a female, so as far as I can perceive the services of women are not in anywise derogatory to good taste or domestic splendour. Certainly the duty of waiting at table can be no where better performed than by the clever, quick, active, lynx-eyed females in Guernsey, where sacrifice, if made at all, is offered at the shrine of comfort, to the discomfiture of the competitive spirit whereby, in England, men like sheep that jump at sticks and straws, put themselves to unnecessary pains in matters of trivial moment, and disregard difficulty or peril so long as they can follow one another.

George Head, A Home Tour through various parts of the United Kingdom (London: John Murray, 1837) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2012.

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