A Poet's Yorkshire Haunts
WHOEER knows Whitby, in the North Riding, merely at second-hand knows it, of course, by the old associations that so often have the effect of making the past the only apparently real thing in England, the present simply a necessary starting-point for excursions into it. No fitter place than Whitby can be found for setting out on those backward journeys of the mind, in comparison with which length of mile is but a slight affair, yet which are so exliilaratingly free from bodily effort or physical drawback. Here is the cliff from which Caedmon looked up at the stars or out over the sea, while he sang of their creation. From this same eventful cliff thought as naturally also travels back to the Saxon abbess, Hilda, whose cloisters had vanished before the present ruin first took form in stone. St. Hilda’s fame pervades the little modern town itself, either in the name of shop or terrace, or wherever on a vender’s stall the small, headless fossil ammonites recall the legend of her pious work. Yet with a history that fascinates every reader of Bede, and an acre of soil second to none in sacredness to the lover of English literature, the Whitby of to-day is not precisely as other quaint towns which take their atmosphere from minster or abbey alone, and where the shades tluit are to be met in the spirit are all cowled or mitred. Within the past decade, the hilly town and even the abbey church itself have gained some fresh memories which the tourist zealous for associations will not be likely to overlook.
The particular local habitation from which these memories diverge is not to be found in a conspicuous quarter of the fashionable West Cliff, nor even in one of the wide new streets, with cheerful rows of bay-windowed houses, leading inland from the cliff. Instead, the visitor who wishes to find the modest lodgings in which James Russell Lowell spent several weeks of each of his last summers in England, and of the last but one of his life, must turn out of the long main street of the town, where, to the right going cliffward, an opening, not far from the top of the hill, leads by the length of a few dozen yards into a short, narrow street. Facing the approach through the opening is a stable, with its yard on the left. Opposite the stableyard stands the house in question. The situation and the first view of the diminutive row, or “ terrace,” of which the house is a part, combine to make one of those unpleasantly chilling impressions to which the heated imagination of an ardent sightseer may be especially susceptible. To dissipate the chill, it is only necessary to take note of the inoffensiveness of the details which have caused it.
The stable-yard, with its compact wall and round stone well in the middle, no less than the hack yards of the lodginghouses that flank it on the left, is kept in scrupulous English trimness and neatness. Not only is there no offense in these homely surroundings themselves, but they are the means of giving the house its uniquely open outlook. Every one who has taken pleasure in those of Mr. Lowell’s published letter^ that are dated from Whitby knows what the distant view is from his windows there. Between them and the soaring East Cliff the space is clear and open. In full view on the top of the cliff is the impressive group of lofty roofless abbey, massive low-roofed parish church, and down-wardsloping graveyard, with the tall tombstones crowding one upon another, — all wearing in Mr. Lowell’s allusions to them the heightened glow which even the most poetical objects take from their passage through a poet’s mind.
Within doors, the house has no salient features that contradict the modest promise of its exterior, smallness, plainness, and colorlessness being everywhere the rule. The two rooms on the entrance floor were used by Mr. Lowell as sitting and dining rooms. They are not provided with the convenience of a door opening en suite through the partition wall; to get from one to the other, it is necessary to pass along the cramped and not too well - lighted hallway, with a treacherous step lurking midway in the floor between the two doors. From the window of the back room the only prospect is a high brick wall inclosing a small bit of paved yard, where the fishwomen thrust their wares through the gate, with shrill variations to the tune of “ two-apenny.” But the condition of the tiny yard is always such as to prove to the eye the pleasure it may get from the brightness and brilliancy of cleanliness sole and simple. Polished black horsehair covering still holds its own on the principal pieces of furniture in the front room, where there are easy-clairs in plenty, though there is no danger that their use will lead to sybaritic habits of resting after the day’s exercise. There is not a suspicion of South Kensington sentiment in any of the numerous ornaments and “ antimacassars,” while cushions and curtains are equally innocent of an acquaintance with Liberty fabrics or artistic revivals ; nevertheless, there is to be found a full measure of the ease and comfort — born, one believes, of privacy and orderly quiet — that help to make the indefinable and apparently inimitable charm of the English sitting-room.
Whatever the imagination may be able to glean from the cold record of rooms and furnishings, it is of little interest compared with the recollections of the two occupants of the house, who, after their first British shyness and defiance of the stranger have worn off, can be won to the pleasantest reminiscences of their distinguished lodger. Mr. Lowell, in his turn, has said his appreciative word of them in several of his letters. In writing to them as well as of them, it is true, he would persist in a slight misspelling of their name, which they pronounce to have been “very wrong of him indeed.” But his peace on this score was made by his interest in the unusual name itself, and by his whimsical identification of it with a venerable Italian original, famous in science, through which the dropping of the second ɭ from the Yorkshire “ Gallilee ” was justified. Of the number of letters which preceded or followed his visits here, only one now remains in the hands of these landladies, and it, unfortunately, is shorn of its signature. The name has gone to swell one of those collections which are responsible for so many breaches of decorum on the part of their owners, contributions to which are part of the price celebrities now pay for their fame. The intact letter itself is interesting merely as it serves to show how considerately a request for a small service is put. A remark on the courteousness of its tone brings its owners at once to the point. The writer’s thoughtfulness for others is a theme on which, once started, one in particular of these Puritan-bred sisters grows warm. A test for the value that may be set on qualities of character is supplied by one of her comments. “ You could see he was a great man ! ” she will exclaim with conviction, after describing the gentleness of manner, the unselfish care to avoid a need for attendance, and the gratitude with which Mr. Lowell rewarded her pains to please him.
Her judgment of Mr. Lowell is naturally helped out by observations of different kinds. Whitby has become a cosmopolitan though eminently select watering-place, and visitors to Wellington Terrace, when he was there, were of course frequent. Sometimes there were guests at dinner in the small back room, which, as their names are recalled one by one, seems to expand into vistas larger than the compass of its walls. In the eyes of the positive little person — an innate Yankee of Yorkshire blood — whose duty it was to change the courses on these occasions, literary men as such have no glamour at all. Her acquaintance includes a number, and her North Country vocabulary has terms wherewith to dispose of them briefly. But there is neither reservation nor qualification in the tone in which she says of the conclusion of a certain discussion, listened to between times in the serving, ” I never forgot it.” It had wound up in a roundrobin agreement, according to which each person present was to say by what he should best like to be remembered. The host spoke last, and the sentence in which his admiring hearer puts him on record is, “ By kindly acts and helpful deeds.”
She recalls many sadder sayings as well, — allusions to age or feebleness, made sometimes to her in the long August twilight, while from the open window the sombre abbey was still to be seen looming against the clear eastern sky, above the darkened graveyard. It is easy to see that books and solitary meditation must have occupied many of Mr. Lowell’s hours near the window from which all the changes of hour and weather on the weird cliff might so easily be watched. Two of the volumes he was in the habit of using may still be seen in the house. They are now brought forth from some hiding-place only as a favor to the discreet visitor, but in happier summers were always loaned to him. They bear the title “ A History of Whitby and Streoneshall Abbey; with a statistical survey of the vicinity to the distance of twenty-five miles: By the Rev. George Young,” and the year 1817 is the date of their printing. The small bit of paper between two yellowing pages of one volume is said to be where Mr. Lowell put and left it. Whether this be the case or not, the passage it marks is worthy of note for its own sake. It relates to St. Hilda’s management of her nuns. "The pious abbess not only labored to enlighten their minds, but to improve their hearts and regulate their conduct. She pressed upon them the exercise of every grace, and the practice of every virtue : above all, she earnestly inculcated that true Christian love which excludes selfishness, and is attended by humility and a contempt of the world. In her monastery, as in the primitive church, there were none rich and none poor ; for they had all things in common, and no one challenged anything as his own.”
Any one who sees the bright, friendly Whitby of to-day will easily understand the attraction which draws a visitor to it year after year. The "brave cliffs,” as Mr. Henry James has aptly called them, — blond, many-tinted, soft sand cliffs,— face the sea breezes above a broad beach, gay in summer, at low tide, with bevies of sunbonneted children, who paddle barelegged in the shallow pools, or enjoy exhilarating rides on phlegmatic donkeys. The harbor has all the intricate confusion of mast and sail, of dark hull, clear reflection, and rippling water surface, that provides numberless pictures in the crude; the quay and the fishing quarter show a bewilderingly picturesque succession of leaning roofs, slanting balconies, lines of flying clothes hung out to dry, bright window gardens and deep shadows, with wreaths of blue smoke curling softly upwards over all. The atmosphere contains a mixture of sea and moorland air, bracing to nerves and muscles alike.
The situation gives the key to many of the coastward and inland beauties of the shire. Aislabie Moor, one of the nearest and loveliest of these, will seem like a place revisited, to any one who keeps in memory Mr. Lowell’s description of his own visit there, of the fascination of its heather and bees, its clear sunshine and keen-scented air. From the height of the moor the tall abbey on the coast is seen in dwindled but still conspicuous grandeur. As one wanders still further on and up towards the old British "cairn ” on the steep summit of Egton Moor, one may, if one has the fancy, test the verisimilitude of some of Mr. Lowell’s comments on certain Yorkshire characteristics. Nothing more is needed than to strike up an acquaintance with some of the tow-headed youngsters, who are sure to be found playing bareheaded among the heather, in order to gain proof conclusive that “ ‘ sir ’ and ‘ ma’am ’ are only half-hardy exotics here.” One party of pedestrians was content to accept the truth of Mr. Lowell’s dictum that "the manners and ways of the people are much like those of New England ” on the evidence supplied by an old man in a garden on the edge of the moor. He was gathering white strawberries in a basket, and brought them to the garden gate in response to a request to buy. The measure he gave in return for a few pence was an overflowing one ; his plain, unvarnished instruction to the recipient, embarrassed by their quantity, was to hand some of them “ to the woman there.”
Next in order of nearness after Aislabie, in the circlet of easily accessible points, comes Rigg Mill. Here the tourist used to the spaciousness and comparative monotony of New World scenery will once more wonder at the quick transitions, the sudden leaps from scene to scene, that nature, in the picturesque shires of England, makes within limits so circumscribed. Breadth of horizon plays no part in the attractions of Rigg Mill. Wildness of heather and bracken and rock there is not, nor even noisy rush of water. The streamlet flows along cheerfully, but with low voice. The big mill-wheel ceased its turning and splashing a long while ago, long enough for the great wooden circumference to have reached just the ideal of ornamental decrepitude. The dell itself is a soft, serene spot that may win the fancy, but can never take by storm an eye on the lookout for large and florid effects of size and color. Turf and flowers and vines have the graceful trimness, the restrained abundance, that are attained only where climate fosters luxuriance but never rankness of growth. Rugged, gnarled, and wind-bent trees shut in this tiny vale on all sides. They stand on the hilltops like ancient sentinels guarding mill and granary, which, tempered in their turn with the infinite mellowness of age, show no trace of the spick-and-span newness that often clashes, in man’s work, with the venerable work of nature. There is a table on the turf before the door of the mill, and all the simple requisites for the function that cheers the waning of the afternoon in this land of lingering sunset are always in readiness. Tea taken here with congenial spirits, after the pleasant fatigue of the walk, was one of Mr. Lowell’s familiar summer habits, his comment on the broad Yorkshire spoken by the old couple living in the mill being that it delighted him ; perhaps partly by distant kinship to Hosea Biglow his dialect.
The gap in mention by name of the companions who came here with Mr. Lowell may easily be filled in from records left in another place. If one decides to go from Whitby to this ancient spot, called by right of legendary association Robin Hood’s Bay, he may envy, before he arrives, the qualities of a goat or a fly. The village is built in a cove of the bay, at the base of a declivity so steep that the descent, after leaving the railway station on the level ground above, is in the nature of a climb rather than a walk. But when one can finally look back and see the cliff rising perpendicularly overhead, instead of falling away beneath the feet, one finds one’s self in a tiny fishing-port that leaves surprise and admiration not a moment’s breathing-space. Compactness and solidity of structure are the principles which have given its small dwellings their sound and shapely old age ; irregularity and diversity of plan, the accidents which lend them their fascinating picturesqueness. To find another such combination, outside of Yorkshire, of orderly preservation and artistic confusion of building, one would have to travel far and wide. The panes of the small windows shine with a brightness dear to the soul of the housewife who is able to boast her best china, her Sunday gown, and her family Bible with a respectable list of births and burials on its fly-leaves. The stone-flagged thoroughfares, of a width that should be measured by inches, turn and twist and wind in conflicting directions between houses that stand at every possible angle to, or directly above and beneath, one another. Here and there a small, sweet-smelling garden has been squeezed into some odd angle, and two or three tenacious apple-trees spread their roots under the flags, and throw their gnarled, leafy branches from window to window.
The timeworn pathways of “ Bay,” like the still more venerable proverbial roads, all lead to one terminus, — in this case the sea. The inn is perched above the sea on a boldly jutting rock. It is a comfortable little house, full of homely dignity and convenience. An unsuspected attraction, Wiich discovers itself with a sort of melodramatic suddenness, is the roofless balcony, or railed loggia, that opens out from the coffee-room over the water. Here is the very heart of the beauty of Bay. The bold headlands that inclose its harbor are seen, on either side, projecting into the sea in all their fineness of outline and color. The summits of their redbrown rocky sides are clothed by vivid green turf, which, bare of tree or shrub, runs inland to the towering moorland beyond. At the base of the cliffs, the water, broken near at hand into foam by an occasional reef, stretches away indefinitely. Along the shore, fishermen in blue blouses are busy casting nets or setting their clumsy craft in order. Overhead, behind the white sea-front of the inn, the little town rises in tiers, not incomparable to the “ little town by river or seashore ” that was emptied of its folk one “pious morn.” On this attractive balcony thin bread and butter and no less excellent tea may be disposed of ; then any one who wishes to enjoy the pleasures of association on the spot must go into the kitchen, across the hall from the coffee-room, and beg the landlady for the loan of her disused visitors’ book. Among its crumpled and frayed pages are two that amply reward search. The first bears the date Sunday, August 18, '87, and opposite the date is the name
“George du Marnier.” Then follows, in varying handwriting, this list of names : "Henry James, Boston ; Emma du Maurier, Hampstead ; J. R. Lowell, U. S. A.; Phœbe G. Smalley, Boston, U. S. A.; Eleanor Smalley, London ; Evelyn Smalley, U. S. A.; Phillips Smalley, Cambridge, U . S. A.; Sylvia Jocelyn Burn du Maurier (Hoch !).” The second page, of similar interest, is dated August 30, ’88. The autographic collection here is headed “J. R. Lowell, Cambridge, U. S. A.” Next in order come “ Thus. Hughes, Chester, England; Fanny Hughes, Whitby.”
In Yorkshire, along the coast, there is seldom a day when it forgets to rain. This, however, is no reason for staying indoors, since it almost always clears off brilliantly between whiles. So long as a shower lasts, high hedgerows, those on the side of the road from which the rain does not come, give a most hospitable shelter. There is beside — as holiday-makers to the manner born, in that part of the world, very well know — one appreciable advantage to be gained from getting caught out in the rain ; namely, the excuse that is furnished for taking refuge in cottage kitchens, and making the acquaintance of the country folk at their own firesides. It is on this ground, also, that a good, brisk downpour is to be regarded in the light of an opportunity, during an expedition to Runswick, another village that hangs like a gull’s-nest to the cliffs. How the large-framed Runswick fishermen manage to accommodate themselves to the minute dimensions of their cottages is a problem of measurement that never becomes clear to the mind. The amount of comfort that may be extracted from one of their small open fires is, on the contrary, a quantity capable of practical demonstration. The grate is not large enough to contain more than a handful or two of coals, but over it always hangs a kettle ready for brewing at a moment’s notice, while a miniature bake-oven flanks it on one side, and a small tank filled with hot water on the other. The warmth and brightness that issue from the open bars are enough in themselves to give cheer to a dull day; but what with the flower-pots on the broad sill of the window, the china cupboard in the corner, and the soft voice of the fisherman’s wife who does the honors of the room, it will be strange if one does not envy the environment of the lodgers who have installed themselves in her best room across the scrap of a hallway. Besides Runswick, one must, to make the cycle of Whitby excursions in any wise complete, also see "Falling Foss,” which is reached only by one of what Mr. Lowell has called the "shy footpaths.” His own longer expedition to Rievaulx Abbey has been described by his companion, Mr. Henry James, as charmingly as befits the theme.
It may safely he said, however, that, no matter how charming the excursion, when he comes back from it the tourist will always feel fresh pleasure at the sight of Whitby. Not only has her bold situation a perennial attraction, but her variety of interests is inexhaustible. Her leading photographer, Sutcliffe, is an artist in his profession ; the purveyor of cakes and confections across the road is another in hers ; the man who sells mushrooms and gooseberries and damsons from a handcart beside the pavement is just the sort of person whose further acquaintance one will wish for before dealings with him have come to an end ; while a veritable rara avis of antiquity dealers is to be met, with in a spot withdrawn from the bustle of summer shoppers. This queen of her class lives on the hill that overhangs the harbor, and sets out her wares in a handsome lower window which gives only a hint of the wealth in the rooms above. A tour of inspection involves no necessary financial difficulties : for the mistress of the place loves her Delft and Wedgwood, her Spode and old Nankeen, for their intrinsic interest, and will accept admiration of them in lieu of pounds, shillings, and pence. She keeps a keen eye on the treasures of the potter’s art stowed away in dressers and cupboards of farmhouses and sailors’ cottages, and knows just when to descend on their owners, silver in hand. She has an eye to London auctions as well, and probably can estimate with the best what an object will fetch in Wardour Street. There is, of course, the famous jet to be seen everywhere, in all stages of its transformation, from the uncouth lump to the carved and polished ornament. And there is the human interest of the quays, where the fishing-people unload and repack their draughts. But above all, there are always the cliff-tops, grassy and spacious and breezy. Any one who watches from them the panorama of sky and sea will have the key to Mr. Lowell’s saying, “ There is not a corner of England that has not its special charm, and the freaks of the atmosphere interest me more than any novel I ever read.”