Froude's Devonshire: A Sketch
IT is one of the quietest and loveliest, one of the cosiest and most restful of all the picturesque and fascinating corners on the coast of far-famed Devonshire. On the day I spent in Salcombe the blue of the summer sky arched brilliantly above the quiet harbor, and a gentle breeze was lending just a few slight wrinkles to the tide-borne waters which were moving up between the rolling hills.
I had gone there because of my interest in the life and writings of the historian Froude, — for it was there, a few miles distant from the village of his birth, that Froude had lived for many years, and there, in accordance with his wishes, he was buried.
The two abiding passions of Froude’s life, it seems, were Devonshire and the sea. In the midst of a career of deep research and constant literary toil, he often longed for the shaded lanes and fragrant fields and sheltered harbors of his native county, where he might rest and be at peace; while of the sea itself, which never is more beautiful than off the cliffs and downs of southern England, he wrote and spoke with fervor and devotion to the last. “ To a man of middle-age,” he declared in his Sea-Studies, “ whose occupations have long confined him to the unexhilarating atmosphere of a library, there is something unspeakably delightful in a sea-voyage. . . . Above our heads is the arch of the sky, around is the ocean, rolling free and fresh as it rolled a million years ago, and our spirits catch a contagion of the elements.”
James Anthony Froude was born in Dartington, a little village of South Devon, some ten or a dozen miles from Dartmouth, on the upper waters of the famous stream from which both places take their names. The “ Parsonage,” or Rectory, which was his boyhood home, — for his father was rector of the church at Dartington, and archdeacon of Totnes, — is crouched demurely in an angle of two cross-roads, some way back from the quiet highways, and underneath great trees. It is a typically English house, — long, and low, and dignified, yet distinctly homelike, — with heavy ivy clinging to the walls, and roses creeping boldly up, and looking shyly in at the open door. The pretty entrance porch is on a level with the winding drive, and broad, deep windows reach down to the lawn, and open on a quiet garden at. the side. It was here that Froude wms born and grew to manhood; and it was here that he imbibed a love of outdoor life, together with an interest in the wild adventures and the weird romance of history.
Not half a mile from the rectory is Dartington Hall, —one of the most interesting and beautiful old manor-houses in all England, — adjoining which, with stately tower, washis father’s church. The Hall was built in the time of Richard II, by a half-brother of the king, and is rich in ruined glory and historic charm. It was the early home, I believe, of Katharine Champernowne, the mother of Sir Walter Raleigh; and the Champernowne family, after five long centuries of ownership, are still in proud possession of the great estate. Archdeacon Froude and the lord of the manor in his day were close and constant friends; and the churchman, who was something of an architect as well, designed the pretty lodge which stands at the gateway of the noble park. It was natural therefore that the rector’s son should freely roam about the ancient Hall, and dream the dreams of splendid pageants which were held there in the days of Queen Elizabeth and earlier.
Moreover, close behind both Hall and rectory there lie deep stretches of dark wood, which are softly bound around by the silver girdle of the Dart. The woods and stream supplied the boy with a natural and enchanting playground, which, so far as the river was concerned, was almost equally a school. The youth no doubt had sometimes taken boat, and gone upon the ebb of the hurrying tide to Dartmouth, the famous harbor at. the river mouth, whence so many brave and gallant men had embarked in other days to sail the Spanish Main, and engage in dangerous expeditions of discovery. As he rowed back on the force of the swirling flood, he passed beneath the front of Greenway House, high perched upon a wooded bank, the early home of Sir Walter Raleigh and the Gilberts. Beyond, in a quiet cove, lay Sandridge Farm, the birthplace of John Davis, who gave his name to Davis Straits. If scenery and surroundings have any influence on character and destiny, — as it can hardly be doubted that they have,—we might trace to the romance and beauty of the whole neighborhood of his birthplace something of the freshness and fervor of the historian’s character, and the grace and vivid splendor of his style in writing.
Much of Froude’s entire life, as I have said, was associated with this special section of what he called his “ beloved Devon.” It was in Torquay, some ten miles distant from the village of his birth, that he preached his first and only sermon. He lived and worked for a time in Babbacombe, another famous spot in Devonshire, a suburb of Torquay, where great red cliffs of rock and clay reach down, all belted with green shrubs and ferns, and bathe their sandy feet in the blue and gray of the changeful sea. Finally, the happiest, longest, and most restful days of his somewhat troublous life were spent at Salcombe, a little crevice in the cliffs between old Plymouth and Dartmouth.
It is not unlikely that these same surroundings, when looked at from another point of view, had much to do with the special work in life to which he gave himself with earnest purpose and a long-continued passion. Leaving aside his general and perhaps instinctive love of history, the things in history which most appealed to Froude were men, and the men he loved best to write about were men of action, men who did things, and engaged in fearless enterprises, whether in religious or in worldly things. But these were just the kind of men that Devonshire had wondrously produced,—those men who wrought so much upon the sea to render glorious the age of Queen Elizabeth. It was from Dartmouth, almost within sight of his native village, that Raleigh and Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed away on voyages of great discovery. Drake and Hawkins, the two most famous sea-fighters of the same, or almost any age, were reared and trained in Plymouth, which was only a few miles farther distant. Moreover, it was in Plymouth, as everybody knows, that the English fleet lay quietly at anchor awaiting Philip’s great Armada, and it was thence that itsailed forth boldly toachieve its stupendous victory. It all took place in this quiet neighborhood where he was born, and where in his later years he lovingly returned to live. As Kingsley, also a Devon man and lover, wrote his absorbing stories of Westward Hot and Two Years Ago, which abound in local color, so Froude selected for his central theme in history the age which culminated in the sinking of Spain’s giant fleet.
Besides all this, the southern shore of Devonshire is not without its relics and mementos of the great encounter. In Torquay is the “ Spanish Barn,” — a portion of old Tor Abbey, — so called because a batch of Spanish prisoners from a cap trued galleon were held there. The church at Dartmouth, I believe, has a pulpit taken from a vessel of the fleet; for Philip sent his navy forth equipped with religious furniture as well as instruments of war. And in Plymouth the tourist still may take his stand upon the famous Hoe, where the English captains were engaged in a game of bowls when news was brought that the Spaniards were in sight.
Such things as these may well have stirred the fancy, as they kindled high the admiration, of young Froude. He read of them as he browsed at will within his father’s library, or wandered through the ruined Hall so near his early home. Perhaps he heard them talked of as a boy by the fishermen and sailors at the mouth of the historic river that flowed near his door; while among the friends and neighbors of his father’s household were not a few descendants of the great sea-captains of the sixteenth century.
On a radiant summer day I made a pilgrimage to the little niche upon the seashore that he loved so well in life, and where he stipulated that his body should be laid in death. The village of Salcombe is tucked away upon a long thin arm of the neighboring sea, and nestles back upon a shoulder of green hill which rises sheer and soft from the water’s edge. The little town is sheltered so tenderly and completely from the cold winds of the north that winter scarcely ever touches it with frigid hand and icy breath. The seasons come and go with a minimum of change. Groves of ilex trees, in gray and silver, wave their branches on the hillside. Oranges and citrons flourish in the open air the whole year round. All is peace and quiet and retirement and beauty, with the nearest railway six miles distant, and glorious vistas up the tidal estuary, and out beyond into the boisterous sea. It is an ideal spot for days of alternating work and rest, of toil and recreation.
Froude’s garden-wall was washed by the ebb and flow of the ceaseless tides, and his study-windows opened on the quiet harbor, which was often white with sails of yachts and fishing-vessels. As he walked along the solemn cliffs, or fished in the waters that he loved so well, or sailed across the shining waves that broke in white confusion on the famous headland of “ the Start,” he was looking off to the very spot where the English vessels opened fire on Spain’s great Armada. There, in a house that hung above the ruins of a castle built by Henry III, he wrote a large part of his brilliant history. There, at a later time, he prepared for the press his popular Short Studies, and wrote that graphic Sketch of Caesar which he thought the best of all his books. And there, in the shortening days of a mellow autumn, he waited with calm patience for the dark-sailed ship of death to come and bear him on his last long voyage out beyond the familiar headlands to the waters of the great uncharted sea. Within sound almost of the rippling tides and the whispering waves, may be found the final resting-place of a Regius Professor of Modern Flistory at Oxford.