Picture of William Gilpin

William Gilpin

places mentioned

Ross to Monmouth

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HAVING thus analyzed the Wye, and considered separately its constituent parts; the steepness of its banks, its mazy course, the grounds, woods , and rocks , which are its native ornaments; and the buildings , which still further adorn its natural beauties; we shall now take a view of some of those pleasing scenes which result from the combination of all these picturesque materials.

I must, however, premise how ill-qualified I am to do justice to the banks of the Wye, were it only from having seen them under the circumstance of a continued rain, which began early in the day, before one third of our voyage was performed.

It is true, scenery at hand suffers less under such a circumstance, than scenery at a distance , which it totally obscures.

The picturesque eye also, in quest of beauty, finds it almost in every incident and under every appearance of nature. Even the rain gave a gloomy grandeur to many of the scenes; and by throwing a veil of obscurity over the removed banks of the river, introduced, now and then, something like a pleasing distance. Yet still it hid greater beauties; and we could not help regretting the loss of those broad lights and deep shadows which would have given so much lustre to the whole, and which ground like this is in a peculiar manner adapted to receive.

The first part of the river from Ross is tame. The banks are low; and scarcely an object attracts the eye, except the ruins of Wilton-castle , which appear on the left, shrouded with a few trees. But the scene wants accompaniments to give it grandeur.

The bank, however, soon began to swell on the right, and was richly adorned with wood. We admired it much; and also the vivid images reflected from the water, which were continually disturbed as we sailed past them, and thrown into tremulous confusion by the dashing of our oars. A disturbed surface of water endeavouring to collect its scattered images and restore them to order, is among the pretty appearances of nature.

We met with nothing for some time during our voyage but these grand woody banks, one rising behind another; appearing and vanishing by turns, as we doubled the several capes. But though no particular objects characterized these different scenes, yet they afforded great variety of pleasing views, both as we wound round the several promontories, which discovered new beauties as each scene opened, and when we kept the same scene a longer time in view, stretching along some lengthened reach, where the river is formed into an irregular vista by hills shooting out beyond each other, and going off in perspective.

The channel of no river can be more decisively marked than that of the Wye. Who hath divided a water-course for the flowing of rivers? saith the Almighty in that grand apostrophe to Job on the works of creation. The idea is happily illustrated here. A nobler water-course was never divided for any river than this of the Wye. Rivers, in general, pursue a devious course along the countries through which they flow; and form channels for themselves by constant fluxion. But sometimes, as in these scenes, we see a channel marked with such precision, that it appears as if originally intended only for the bed of a river.

After sailing four miles from Ross, we came to Goodrich-castle ; where a grand view presented itself; and we rested on our oars to examine it. A reach of the river, forming a noble bay, is spread before the eye. The bank, on the right, is steep, and covered with wood; beyond which a bold promontory shoots out, crowned with a castle, rising among trees.

This view, which is one of the grandest on the river, I should not scruple to call correctly picturesque ; which is seldom the character of a purely natural scene.

Nature is always great in design. She is an admirable colourist also; and harmonizes tints with infinite variety and beauty: but she is seldom so correct in composition, as to produce an harmonious whole. Either the foreground or the background is disproportioned; or some awkward line runs across the piece; or a tree is ill-placed; or a bank is formal; or something or other is not exactly what it should be. The case is, the immensity of nature is beyond human comprehension. She works on a vast scale ; and, no doubt harmoniously, if her schemes could be comprehended. The artist, in the mean time, is confined to a span ; and lays down his little rules, which he calls the principles of picturesque beauty , merely to adapt such diminutive parts of nature's surfaces to his own eye as come within its scope.—Hence, therefore, the painter who adheres strictly to the composition of nature, will rarely make a good picture. His picture must contain a whole ; his archetype is but a part. In general, however, he may obtain views of such parts of nature, as with the addition of a few trees or a little alteration in the foreground, (which is a liberty that must always be allowed,) may be adapted to his rules; though he is rarely so fortunate as to find a landscape so completely satisfactory to him. In the scenery indeed at Goodrich-castle the parts are few; and the whole is a simple exhibition. The complex scenes of nature are generally those which the artist finds most refractory to his rules of composition.

In following the course of the Wye, which makes here one of its boldest sweeps, we were carried almost round the castle, surveying it in a variety of forms. Some of these retrospects are good; but, in general, the castle loses, on this side, both its own dignity and the dignity of its situation.

The views from the castle were mentioned to us as worth examining; but the rain was now set in, and would not permit us to land.

As we leave Goodrich-castle the banks on the left, which had hitherto contributed less to entertain us, began now principally 'to attract our attention, rearing themselves gradually into grand steeps; sometimes covered with thick woods, and sometimes forming vast concave slopes of mere verdure; unadorned, except here and there by a straggling tree: while the sheep which hang browzing upon them, seen from the bottom, were diminished into white specks.

The view at Rure-dean-church unfolds itself next; which is a scene of great grandeur. Here both sides of the river are steep, and both woody; but in one the woods are intermixed with rocks. The deep umbrage of the forest of Dean occupies the front; and the spire of the church rises among the trees. The reach of the river which exhibits this scene is long; and, of course, the view, which is a noble piece of natural perspective, continues some time before the eye: but when the spire comes directly in front, the grandeur of the landscape is gone.

The stone-quarries on the right, from which Bristol bridge was built, and on the left the furnaces of Bishop's-wood , vary the scene; though they are objects of no great importance in themselves.

For some time both sides of the river continue steep and beautiful. No particular circumstance indeed characterizes either: but in such exhibitions as these nature characterizes her own scenes. We admire the infinite variety with which she shapes and adorns these vast concave and convex forms. We admire also that varied touch with which she expresses every object.

Here we see one great distinction between her painting and that of all her copyists . Artists universally are mannerists in a certain degree. Each has his particular mode of forming particular objects. His rocks, his trees, his figures, are cast in one mould; at least they possess only a varied sameness . The figures of Rubens are all full-fed; those of Salvator spare and long-legged: but nature has a different mould for every object she presents.

The artist again discovers as little variety in filling up the surfaces of bodies, as he does in delineating their forms. You see the same touch , or something like it, universally prevail; though applied to different subjects. But nature's touch is as much varied as the form of her objects.

In every part of painting except execution, an artist may be assisted by the labours of those who have gone before him. He may improve his skill in composition, in light and shade, in perspective, in grace and elegance; that is, in all the scientific parts of his art. But with regard to execution , he must set up on his own stock. A mannerist , I fear, he must be. If he get a manner of his own, he may be an agreeable mannerist; but if he copy another's, he will certainly be a formal one. The more closely he copies the detail of nature, the better chance he has of being free from this general defect.

At Lidbroke is a large wharf, where coals are shipped for Hereford and other places. Here the scene is new and pleasing. All has thus far been grandeur and tranquillity. It continues so yet; but mixed with life and bustle. A road runs diagonally along the bank; and horses and carts appear pasting to the small vessels which lie against the wharf to receive their burdens. Close behind a rich woody hill hangs sloping over the wharf, and forms a grand back-ground to the whole. The contrast of all this business, the engines used in lading and unlading, together with the variety of the scene, produce all together a picturesque assemblage. The sloping hill is the front-screen; the two side-screens are low.

But soon the front becomes a lofty sidescreen on the left; and sweeping round the eye at Welsh-Bickner , forms a noble amphitheatre.

At Cold-well the front-screen first appears as a woody hill, swelling to a point. In a few minutes, it changes its shape, and the woody hill becomes a lofty side-screen on the right; while the front unfolds itself into a majestic piece of rock-scenery.

Here we should have gone on shore and walked to the New-Weir , which by land is only a mile; though by water, I believe, it is three. This walk would have afforded us, we were informed, some very noble river-views: nor should we have lost any thing by relinquishing the water, which in this part was uninteresting.

The whole of this information we should probably have found true, if the weather had permitted us to profit by it. The latter part of it was certainly well-founded; for the water-views in this part were very tame. We left the rocks and precipices behind, exchanging them for low banks and sedges.

But the grand scenery soon returned. We approached it, however, gradually. The views at White-church were an introduction to it. Here we sailed through a long reach of hills, whose sloping sides were covered with large, lumpish, detached stones; which seemed, in a course of years, to have rolled from a girdle of rocks that surrounds the upper regions of these high grounds on both sides of the river; but particularly on the left.

From these rocks we soon approached the New-Weir , which may be called the second grand scene on the Wye. The river is wider than usual in this part; and takes a sweep round a towering promontory of rock; which forms the side-screen on the left, and is the grand feature of the view. It is not a broad fractured face of rock; but rather a woody hill, from which large rocky projections, in two or three places, burst out; rudely hung with twisting branches and shaggy furniture, which, like mane round the lion's head, give a more savage air to these wild exhibitions of nature. Near the top a pointed fragment of solitary rock, rising above the rest, has rather a fantastic appearance; but it is not without its effect in marking the scene.—A great master in landscape has adorned an imaginary view with a circumstance exactly similar:

Stabat acuta silex, praecisis undiq; saxis,
——dorso insurgens, altiflima visu,
Dirarum nidis domus opportuna volucrum,
——prona jugo, laevum incumbebat ad amnem."
                                                            AEn. VIII. 233.

But the most wonderful appearance of this kind I ever met with, is to be found in the 249th page of Mr. Anderson's Narrative of the British Embassy to China; where he tells us, that in Tartary, beyond the wall, he saw a solitary rock of this kind, which rose from the summit of a mountain at least one hundred feet. Its base was somewhat smaller than its superstructure; and what was very extraordinary, several streams of water issued from it.

On the right side of the Wye, opposite the rock we have just described, the bank forms a woody amphitheatre, following the course of the stream round the promontory. Its lower skirts are adorned with a hamlet; in the midst of which, volumes of thick smoke, thrown up at intervals from an iron-forge as its fires receive fresh fuel, add double grandeur to the scene.

But what peculiarly marks this view, is a circumstance on the water. The whole river at this place makes a precipitate fall; of no great height indeed, but enough to merit the name of a cascade; though to the eye, above the stream, it is an object of no consequence. In all the scenes we had yet passed, the water moving with a slow and solemn pace, the objects around kept time, as it were, with it; and every steep and every rock which hung over the river, was awful, tranquil, and majestic. But here the violence of the stream and the roaring of the waters impressed a new character on the scene: all was agitation and uproar; and every steep and every rock stared with wildness and terror.

A kind of fishing-boat is used in this part of the river, which is curious. It is constructed of waxed canvas stretched over a few slight ribs, and holds only a single man. It is called a coricle ; and is derived, probably, as its name imports, from that species of ancient boat which was formed of leather .

An adventrous fellow, for a wager, once navigated a coricle as far as the isle of Lundy, at the mouth of the Bristol-channel. A full fortnight, or more, he spent in this dangerous voyage; and it was happy for him that it was a fortnight of serene weather. Many a current and many an eddy; many a flowing tide, and many an ebbing one, afforded him occasion to exert all his skill and dexterity. Sometimes his little bark was carried far to leeward, and sometimes as far to windward; but still he recovered his course; persevered in his undertaking; and at length happily atchieved it. When he returned to the New-Weir ; report says, the account of his expedition was received like a voyage round the world.

Below the New-Weir are other rocky views of the same kind, though less beautiful. But description flags in running over such a monotony of terms. High, low, steep, woody, rocky , and a few others, are all the colours of language we have to describe scenes in which there are infinite gradations, and, amidst some general sameness, infinite peculiarities.

After we had pasted a few of these scenes, the hills gradually descend into Monmouth, which lies too low to make any appearance from the water; but on landing, we found it a pleasant town, and neatly built. The town-house and church are both handsome.

The transmutations of time are often ludicrous. Monmouth-castle was formerly the palace of a king, and birth-place of a mighty prince: it is now converted into a yard for fatting ducks.

The sun had set before we arrived at Monmouth. Here we met our chaise; but, on inquiry, finding a voyage more likely to produce amusement than a journey, we made a new agreement with our bargemen, and embarked again the next morning.

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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