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George Head

places mentioned

Surroundings of St. Peter's Port

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Environs of St. Peter's Port—Farm-houses—Aspect of the Country—Varech—Regulations relating to the gathering thereof—Roads—Bridle path round the Island—The Cliffs—Flat Shores at the Northern extremity—Land reclaimed from the Sea—Naturalization of Sea Fish to fresh Water.

COMFORT is no less remarkable in the interior of the island than among the inhabitants of the town. Since the dimensions are not more than eleven miles in length, and from three to six in breadth, the distance to be traversed in a straight line in any direction is necessarily inconsiderable; but no matter to what point of the opposite coast the traveller from St. Peter's Port may choose to bend his way, comfort everywhere prevails, and on both sides of the road appear well-fashioned solid and respectable country dwellings. The suburbs, expanding in the environs, blend gradually with the rural domains; the numerous ornamental villas at the extremity yielding, by such imperceptible degrees, to the substantial farmhouse, that it is really difficult to determine the exact point where one has fairly taken leave of the town. Every farm-house, encompassed by a good garden, farm-yard, and orchard, and surrounded by shrubs, such as the hydrangia, arbutus, scarlet fuchsia, and myrtle, which here flourish in the open air, is a piece of solid stone masonry, defended from the rain by a coping of tile that overhangs the eaves. The antiquity of the furniture within, no less than the substantial appearance of things without, bears indisputable testimony on the part of the occupier to long undisturbed possession. In the few houses I happened to enter here and there, the goods and chattels appeared universally the same, consisting of chairs and tables of black glossy oak, books whose covers from age might be supposed of the same material, military caps, musquets, and other things emblematical of militia service, and above all, a never failing store of hams and bacon ranged on a rack attached to the ceiling. One particular implement peculiar to the island is to be found in every cottage,—a homely description of sofa or pallet, covered with clean oaten straw or pea-hawm, whereon the elder members of the family refit their crazy joints during the day, and the younger occasionally perhaps, under particular circumstances only, are wont to repose. The legs of this simple piece of furniture are generally made fast in the floor, and since it is seldom if ever dispensed with even in the most humble dwellings, it cannot but appear to those inclined to draw invidious comparisons, that while our own clowns in the alehouses, are subject to the grievance of snoring at full length on hard oaken benches, the Guernsey peasant reclines at his ease like a man of fashion.

A high mound of earth surmounted by a strong furze hedge, is the usual fence of the country, wherefore the premises of a Guernsey farmer are as impregnably fortified and secluded, as if he were the owner of an estate and farm surrounded by a high stone wall. The lover of the picturesque during an inland walk is doomed to considerable disappointment; and as he wanders along restricted in the view on either side, as if within a Devonshire green lane, the extreme flatness of the country precludes him as he proceeds from all future chance of variety; for not a single elevated spot worthy of the name of a hill exists within the compass of the island. Now and then at rare intervals, on arriving at a gate, another perhaps happens to be so placed in a straight line beyond at the opposite end of the field, that the prospect thus partially becomes a little extended, and here probably he will observe occasional deviations from our agricultural practice. Cows, for instance, instead of roaming at large, are tethered in the meadows, and parsneps in great abundance are cultivated as an ordinary crop. Sea-weed called "varech" is used as a manure, and gathered under municipal regulations; indeed, so violent is the scramble between the contending parties, that peace officers are summoned at the harvest or gathering. A day twice in each year is set apart for this ceremony, when neighbour against neighbour, in brute strength and rivalry, contend fiercely for this tribute of the ocean. Persons of all ages, of different denominations and sexes, wives, maids, and widows, married men, and bachelors, leave and license by the proper authorities being given, may be seen striving together indiscriminately in the fury of competition, and, each anxious to possess him or herself of more varech than the other, if not absolutely quarrelling and fighting, at least tousling and tumbling one another up to their middles in water.

Trees of considerable size, on either side of the way, grow in the cross roads and lanes; whereby the general aspect of the country is improved, and many secluded spots and nooks embellished to such a degree, that the painter requiring a model for his art, might here select many a sweet specimen of rural abode. The larger roads were also formerly planted, and the timber had attained a goodly stature, but immediately that the system of Macadam was introduced in the island, the same were in consequence cut down for the sake of ventilation.

A bridle-path close to the edge of the cliffs extends the whole circumference of the island, and as the cliffs are lofty, the land, though extraordinarily flat, is sufficiently elevated above the level of the sea. Mounted on an active pony, enjoying sunshine and leisure, whether gazing seaward from the verge of the precipice, gaily cantering along over the flat, green sward, or putting the animal's powers to the test by scrambling through nearly impervious ravines, here at all events may be found, by one inclined to wander, an agreeable mode of passing a summer's day. Proceeding by the winding track from point to point, from one craggy promontory to its neighbouring brother, the vicissitudes of marine scenery succeed in fantastic variety, while many projecting angles attract a still deeper interest, as spots whereon the remains are yet visible of ancient forts and batteries. Reefs of rocks, huge and rugged, here and there below, protrude above the surface of the ocean, rocks of pure granite, the primary formation of the island, which, exposed to an impetuous surf for succeeding ages, have become hollow and jagged with age, perforated through and through with cracks and fissures. From an elevated spot it is beautiful to observe these rugged masses on a calm still day occasionally entirely hidden under the glassy surface of the continually bounding sea, and then again protruding in blank nakedness as the ground swell recedes. Now the light green wave dashes against their base, and the heaving waters cover the highest summit, again they descend in a hissing, streaming, milky torrent, while soft, feathery, frothy spray floats in detached portions in the air.

Although such is for the most part the description of coast of the Island of Guernsey, the shores at the northern extremity are particularly low; so much so that until a late period, a considerable portion of the country lay under water. On this spot may be seen the result of an interesting experiment whereby the late Sir John Doyle successfully reclaimed from the inroads of the sea, a portion of land previously overflowed equal to upwards of six hundred statute acres, all which territory at the present time lies under cultivation. Few instances exist of an equally important operation performed at so little trouble and cost, for the mound of earth thrown up for the purpose was judiciously placed, and the natural accumulations of sand and shingle, still continue to render the work day after day more impregnable.

A landed proprietor on the spot has taken advantage of localities in general, by maintaining a communication between the said reclaimed land and the ocean, to turn to account an experiment connected with natural history. By means of an open watercourse passing from a small lake within, through the mound or sea-wall into the sea, and a strong iron-grating on the inside, contrived to admit the ingress and egress of the tide, and to confine fish of moderate size within the lake, several sorts of salt-water fish have been by degrees subjected to the inundation of fresh water. Scientific people have faith in the result; and certainly here sea-fish have lived and thriven for weeks in succession, the sea being totally excluded by the sluice-gate, and the salt water sufficiently diluted by fresh streams, to induce cattle to drink it without hesitation.

Being introduced by a friend to the owner of the lake, the latter kindly ordered a couple of men to haul a drag net across to gratify my curiosity, the water at the same time being so fresh as to be merely brackish. The wind unfortunately was so unusually high that the haul was unsuccessful; the net moreover was lightly shotted and the fish leaped clean over it into the water, wherefore, though I saw many, owing to being thus disturbed, about half a dozen grey mullet only were brought on shore. From their size and condition, since they had lived here some weeks, one might fairly conclude, that their nature, if not at first congenial, was reconciled to the fresh pasture; and I had a further opportunity with reference to the same fact of adding a word as to their firmness and flavour, having eaten of them the same day, and found them excellent at dinner. Besides the mullet aforesaid, turbot, plaice, and smelts, were denizens of the same domain, all in equally prosperous case and healthy. Serious devastation, the proprietor informed me, was occasionally committed by fresh water eels, that large and ferocious, allured by exclusive society, and finding their way nobody knew how into the assembly, set to work on their arrival without favour or ceremony, and devoured natives and foreigners together.

What a field of watery speculation would at once be thrown open, were it ever deemed possible, as in the instance above stated, though on a more extended scale, thus to subject sea-fish to amphibious usage; and by the assistance of art or scientific persuasion, to control their exuberant fecundity. The salmon and the eel, pioneers of two distinct tribes, the scaled and unsealed, in accordance with their nature at certain seasons of the year or otherwise, leave the sea to inhabit fresh rivers, which fact perhaps argues capabilities of organization with reference to the whole species, which, if put to the test, might be farther extended. At any rate the subject creates amusing speculation, with reference to making our lakes and rivers receptacles for bringing the nations that inhabit the world of waters into converse with each other, and naturalizing of the animal kingdom almost the only creatures not yet domesticated by the hand of man. Thus cod and haddock may eventually learn to live in placid brotherhood with perch and roach, and the wild salmon rub his silver sides in amity upon the copper-coloured carp. In many parts of England pure salt water reservoirs are already employed with advantage, but none that I know of have yet effectually superseded the tanks of the London fishmonger. Yet on many spots on the coast reservoirs might be contrived of enormous dimensions, capable, whether supplied by wind, water, or steam, with sea water, of containing fish in almost unlimited numbers. It is extraordinary that, while every individual in the kingdom is more or less interested in the distribution of this boon of bountiful nature, fishmongers, almost without remonstrance, have maintained absolute and continued monopoly, neither do the inquisitive or discontented trouble themselves to know those details of combination, whereby an uncertain supply is subjugated to certain demand, and large quantities of fish abstracted and perhaps destroyed, to prevent a glut in the market.

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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