Picture of William Gilpin

William Gilpin

places mentioned

London to Ross

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WE travel for various purposes—to explore the culture of soils, to view the curiosities of art, to survey the beauties of nature, and to learn the manners of men, their different politics and modes of life.

The following little work proposes a new object of pursuit; that of examining the face of a country by the rules of picturesque beauty : opening the sources of those pleasures which are derived from the comparison.

Observations of this kind, through the vehicle of description, have the better chance of being founded in truth, as they are not the offspring of theory, but are taken immediately from the scenes of nature as they arise.

Crossing Hounslow-heath, from Kingston in Surry, we struck into the Reading road; and turned a little aside to see the approach to Caversham-house, which winds about a mile along a valley, through the park. This was the work of Brown, whose great merit lay in pursuing the path which nature had marked out. Nothing can be easier than the sweep, better united than the ground, or more ornamental than several of the clumps; but many of the single trees, which are beeches, are heavy, and offend the eye. Almost any ordinary tree may contribute to form a group. Its deformities are lost in a crowd; nay, even the deformities of one tree may be corrected by the deformities of another. But few trees have those characters of beauty which will enable them to appear with advantage as individuals.1

From lord Cadogan's we took the Wallingford-road to Oxford. It affords some variety, running along the declivity of a range of hills; and overlooking one of the vallies of the Thames. But these scenes afford nothing very interesting. The Thames appears; but only in short reaches. It rarely exceeds the dimensions of a pool; and does not once, as I remember, exhibit those ample sweeps, in which the beauty of a river so much consists. The woods too are frequent; but they are formal copses: and white spots, bursting everywhere from a chalky soil, disturb the eye.

From Wallingford to Oxford, we did not observe one good view, except at Shillingford; where the bridge, the river, and its woody banks exhibit some scenery.

From Oxford we proposed to take the nearest road to Ross. As far as Witney, the country appears flat; though in fact it rises. About the eleventh stone the high grounds command a noble semicircular distance on the left; and near Burford there are views of the same kind on the right; but not so extensive. None of these landscapes however are perfect, as they want the accompaniments of foregrounds.

At Mr. Lenthal's, in Burford, we admired a capital picture of the family of the Mores, which is said to be Holbein's; and appeared to us entirely in that master's stile. But Mr. Walpole thinks it not an original; and says he found a date upon it subsequent to the death of that master. It is however a good picture of its kind. It contains eleven figures—Sir Thomas More, and his father; two young ladies, and other branches of the family. The heads are as expressive, as the composition is formal. The judge is marked with the character of a dry, facetious, sensible, old man. The chancellor is handed down to us in history, both as a cheerful philosopher, and as a severe inquisitor. His countenance here has much of that eagerness and stern attention which remind us of the latter. The subject of this piece seems to be a dispute between the two young ladies; and alludes probably to some well-known family story. along the meadows by pollard-willows, and a more luxuriant vegetation.

Indeed every family-picture should be founded on some little story or domestic incident, which, in a degree, should engage the attention of all the figures. It would be invidious perhaps to tax Vandyck on this head; otherwise I could mention some of his family-pictures, which, if the sweetness of his colouring and the elegant simplicity of his airs and attitudes did not screen his faults, would appear only like so many distinct portraits stuck together on the same canvas. It would be equally invidious to omit mentioning a modern master, now at the head of his profession, 2 whose great fertility of invention in employing the figures of his family-pictures, is not among the least of his many excellences.

The country from Burford is high, and downy. A valley, on the right, kept pace with us; through which flows the Windrush; not indeed an object of sight, but easily traced along the meadows by pollard-willows, and a more luxuriant vegetation.

At Barrington we had a pleasing view, through an opening on the foreground.

About North-leach the road grows very disagreeable. Nothing appears but downs on each side; and these often divided by stone-walls, the most offensive separation of property.

From the neighbourhood of London we had now pursued our journey through a tract of country almost uniformly rising, though by imperceptible degrees, into the heart of Glocestershire; till at length we found ourselves on the ridge of Coteswold.

The county of Glocester is divided into three capital parts; the Wolds, or high downy grounds towards the east, the vale of Severn in the middle, and the forest of Dean towards the west. The first of these tracts of country we had been traversing from our entrance into Glocestershire; and the ridge we now stood on made the extremity of it. Here the heights which we had been ascending by imperceptible degrees, at length broke down abruptly into the lower grounds; and a vast stretch of distant country appeared at once before the eye.

I know not that I was ever more struck with the singularity and grandeur of any landscape. Nature generally brings different countries together in some easy mode of connection. If (he raise the grounds on one side by a long ascent, she commonly unites them with the country on the other in the same easy manner. Such scenes we view without wonder or emotion. We glide without observation from the near grounds into the more distant. All is gradual and easy. But when nature works in the bold and singular stile of composition in which she works here; when she raises a country through a progress of a hundred miles, and then breaks it down at once by an abrupt precipice into an expansive vale, we are immediately struck with the novelty and grandeur of the scene.

It was the vale of Severn which was spread before us. Perhaps nowhere in England a distance so rich, and at the same time so extensive, can be found. We had a view of it almost from one end to the other, as it wound through the space of many leagues in a direction nearly from west to north. The eye was lost in the profusion of objects which were thrown at once before it, and ran wild over the vast expanse with rapture and astonishment, before it could compose itself enough to make any coherent observations.—At length we began to examine the detail, and to separate the vast immensity before us into parts.

To the north, we looked up the vale along the course of the Severn. The town of Cheltenham lay beneath our feet, then at the distance of two or three miles. The vale appeared afterwards confined between Bredon hills on the right, and those of Malvern on the left. Right between these, in the middle of the vale, lay Tewksbury, bosomed in wood: the great church, even at this distance, made a respectable appearance. A little to the right, but in distance very remote, we might see the towers of Worcester, if the day were clear; especially if some accidental gleam of light relieved them from the hills of Shropshire, which close the scene.

To the west, we looked toward Glocester. And here it is remarkable, that as the objects in the northern part of the vale are confined by the hills of Malvern and Bredon; so in this view the vale is confined by two other hills, which, though inconsiderable in themselves, give a character to the scene; and the more so as they are both insulated. One of these hills is known by the name of Robin's-wood; the other by that of Churchdown, from the singularity of a church seated on its eminence. Between these hills the great object of the vale is the city of Glocester, which appeared rising over rich woody scenes. Beyond Glocester the eye still pursued the vale into remote distance, till it united with a range of mountains.

Still more to the west, arose a distant forest-view, composed of the woods of the country uniting with the forest of Dean. Of this view the principal feature is the mouth of the Severn, where it first begins to assume a character of grandeur by mixing with the ocean.

We see only a small portion of it stretching in an acute angle over a range of wood. But an eye, used to perspective, seeing such a body of water, small as it appears, wearing any determined form at such a distance, gives it credit for its full magnitude. The Welch mountains also, which rise beyond the Severn, contributed to raise the idea; for by forming an even horizontal line along the edge of the water, they gave it the appearance of what it really is, an arm of the sea.

Having thus taken a view of the vast expanse of the vale of Severn from the extremity of the descent of Coteswold, we had leisure next to examine the grandeur of the descent itself; which forms a foreground not less admirable than the distance. The lofty ridge on which we stood is of great extent; stretching beyond the bounds of Glocestershire, both towards the north and towards the south. It is not everywhere, we may suppose, of equal beauty, height, and abruptness: but fine passages of landscape, I have been told, abound in every part of it. The spot where we took this view over the vale of Severn, is the high ground on Crickley-hill; which is a promontory standing out in the vale between the villages of Leckhampton and Birdlip. Here the descent consists of various rocky knolls, prominences, and abruptnesses; among which a variety of roads wind down the steep towards different parts of the vale; and each of these roads, through its whole varying progress, exhibits some beautiful view; discovering the vale, either in whole or in part, with every advantage of a picturesque foreground.

Many of these precipices also are finely wooded. Some of the largest trees in the kingdom, perhaps, are to be seen in these parts. The Cheltenham oak, and an elm not far from it, are trees, which curious travellers always inquire after.

Many of these hills, which inclose the vale of Severn on this side, furnish landscapes themselves, without borrowing assistance from the vale. The woody vallies, which run winding among them, present many pleasing pastoral scenes. The cloathing country about Stroud, is particularly diversified in this way: though many of these vallies are greatly injured in a picturesque light, by introducing scenes of habitation and industry. A cottage, a mill, or a hamlet among trees, may often add beauty to a rural scene: but when houses are scattered through every part, the moral sense can never make a convert of the picturesque eye. Stroud-water valley especially, which is one of the most beautiful of these scenes, has been deformed lately not only by a number of buildings, but by a canal cut through the middle of it.

Among the curiosities of these high grounds, is the seven-well-head of the Thames. In a glen near the road, a few limpid springs, gushing from a rock, give origin to this noblest of English rivers; though I suppose several little streams in that district might claim the honour with equal justice, if they could bring over the public opinion.

Nothing can give a stronger idea of the nature of the country I have been describing, than this circumstance of its giving rise to the Thames. On one side, within half a dozen miles below the precipice, the Severn has arrived at so much consequence, as to take its level from the tides of the ocean; on the other, the Thames arising at our feet, does not arrive at that dignity, till it have performed a course of two hundred and fifty miles.

Having descended the heights of Crickley, the road through the vale continues so level to Glocester, that we scarcely saw the town till we entered it.

The cathedral is of elegant Gothic on the outside, but of heavy Saxon within; that is, these different modes of architecture prevail most in these different parts of the building: for in fact, the cathedral of Glocester is a compound of all the several modes which have prevailed from the days of Henry the second to those of Henry the seventh, and may be said to include, in one part or other, the whole history of sacred architecture during that period. Many parts of it have been built in the times of the purest Gothic; and others, which have been originally Saxon, appear plainly to have been altered into the Gothic; which was no uncommon practice. A Grecian screen is injudiciously introduced to separate the choir. The cloisters are light and airy.

As we leave the gates of Glocester, the view is pleasing. A long stretch of meadow, filled with cattle, spreads into a foreground. Beyond, is a screen of wood, terminated by distant mountains; among which Malvern-hills make a respectable appearance. The road to Ross leads through a country, woody, rough, hilly, and picturesque.

Ross stands high, and commands many distant views; but that from the churchyard is the most admired, and is indeed very amusing. It consists of an easy sweep of the Wye, and of an extensive country beyond it. But it is not picturesque. It is marked by no characteristic objects: it is broken into too many parts; and it is seen from too high a point. The spire of the church, which is the man of Ross's heaven-directed spire , tapers beautifully. The inn, which was the house he lived in, is known by the name of the man of Ross's house .

At Ross we planned our voyage down the Wye to Monmouth; and provided a covered boat, navigated by three men. Less strength would have carried us down; but the labour is in rowing back.

1 This approach to Caversham-house, I have been informed, is now much injured.

2 Sir Joshua Reynolds.

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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