The Rivers of Great Britain
from Gravesend to the Nore by J. Runciman (1891).
GRAVESEND TO THE NORE.
Morning on the Lower Thames-Gravesend-Pilots and Watermen-A Severe Code—Tilbnrjr and its Memories—'The Marshes —Wild-fowl Shooting—Eel Boats— Canvey Island-Hadleigh Castle-Leigh, and the Shrimpers—Southend and the Pier— Sailing- Sheerness-The Mouth of the Medway—'The Dockyard-The Town and its Divisions —The Nore—A Vision of Wonder —Shoeburyness—Outward Bound.
The beautiful stretches of the Upper River must always offer an attraction to men who have an eye for colour, and to whom the curious spectacle of cultured wildness is pleasant.
But there are some who, while they remember the long reaches where the willow herbs shine and the glassy river rolls, think kindly of the other " reaches where the signs of toil begin, and where the great stream pours on between banks that nothing to redeem them save strangeness of form and infinite varieties of bizarre tints.
A voyage in a small boat from the hill where the Greenwich Observatory cuts sharp against the sky, down to the rushing channels where the black flood flows past the Woolwich Piers, is always unpleasant to those whose senses are delicate, but as soon as we reach Gravesend we come to another region, and there those who care little for brilliance of colour, those who care little for softness of effect, those who care only for stern suggestion, find themselves at home.
One of the pleasantest experiences in life is to wake in the early dawn, put sail on a fast yacht, and run on the tide from Gravesend, past the grim end of the Lower Hope. The colliers weigh anchor, the apple-bowed brigs curtsy slowly on the long rush of swelling water, and as you look up from your cabin you receive sudden and poignant suggestions that tell of far-off regions, and that take you away from the grim world that you have just left behind.
Here is a clumsy black brig bustling the water before her! The ripples fly in creamy rings from her bows; her black topsails, with their queer patches, flap a little as the wind comes and goes, and you hear the hoarse orders given by the man who stands near the helm, and who is in authority for the time. Then a great four-master spreads her wings, and while the little tug pulls and frets around her as though there were important business to do, which did not allow of a moment s consideration, the big ship slowly slides away, and gathering power under her
canvas, surges into the brown deep, and takes the melancholy emigrants away towards the Nore.
Then the “tramps” of the ocean—the ugly colliers—are not without interest. One of them foams up to you, and you know that the man in command of her has perhaps not slept for seventy-two hours. He lias made his wallowing rush from the North country; he has risked all the dangers of fog and darkness and storm, and lie has brought his vessel up to the derrick with satisfaction. Then in a few hours the swarm of “whippers” have cleared her; the rattle of the great cranes has rung through the night, and the vessel has been emptied in a time that would seem astonishing to those who manage sanitary corporation business on shore, and who condemn us to endure the presence of ghastly stenches and unspeakable sights for hour after hour. The anchors are whipped up and the ocean “tramp” tears away on her trip to the Tyne.
There is not a single sight or sound that does not convey its own interest. If it is autumn time, the racing yachts are clearing for action, dapper men are bounding hither and thither, as though there were nothing in life to be cared for excepting success in the race that must shortly be begun. The gun tires, jyul the lazy breeze of the morning strikes the huge spinnakers, while the razor-bowed craft move slowly out, and gradually gather speed until the troubled water foams in crisp whirls and rolls away aft in long creamy trails.
The upper reaches of the river are lightsome, and given over wholly to pleasure. Every turn conveys the sensation of wealth and comfort; every delicate shallop that floats luxuriously past the locks hints of money acquired in the crush of the great city; but in the Lower River any day the story of stress, and struggle, and coarse labour may be read on the spot, and perhaps nowhere in the world—not even in the huge docks of Liverpool—can so vivid an idea be gained of the mercantile greatness of England. No attempt is made to disguise the natural ugliness and coarseness of every feature in the scene; steamers surge up at half speed, and the vast waves that they throw curl against the bank and bring away masses of mud; the barges glide lazily, the black shrimpers troop down the current with their ragged sails, and everything speaks of a life given over wholly to rough toil.
It is true that many parties come from the City in steamboats, and iu the summer evenings the air is full of music, and shrill sounds of laughter ring from the splashing boats as they pass you; but these are only stray visitations, and no one who knows the Lower River, no one who has felt the sentiment of the locality keenly, can ever associate it with light-heartedness.
Gravesend is a pretty town that straggles around the base of a bluff hill. From the summit of this hill you can look far over the plains of Kent; you may see the waves coiling and whitening round the Nore; you can see the towers of Rochester; you can see the great desolate stretches of marsh-lands that lie between Malden and Wallend. The town is wholly given over to shipping business, and although smart villas display their finery on the outskirts, yet somehow we feel these to be merely excrescences. They are very gaudy, the gardens are oppressively handsome, and the wealth of the owners is undoubted; hut the lover of Gravesend cares only for the narrow streets that straggle down to the river; for the odd little shops where all requirements of seafarers may be satisfied; for the narrow wharves, past which the tide rushes from North fleet Hope. For all who have read nautical literature the place is peopled with memories. Here the great Tndiameu lay, in the times when the long six-months’ voyage round the Cape had to be taken by officers and civilians. In these narrow, sloping streets the women stood and watched the passing of those they loved as the monster ship slid down on the tide. The very name of Gravesend brings up memories that can hardly be put into words ; for in old yellow letters, in old books, in old newspapers, the word is always associated with meetings and partings, with great changes of fortune, with the keenest moments in the drama of life.
The town has the reputation of being the Cockney’s Watering Place, but to those who know it intimately the normal life goes on unaffected by the incursion of the chattering crowds brought down by the steamers. The Whitechapel tripper at once betakes himself to the public-house, or to the tea-gardens, or to the dancing- rooms; while the watermen, the seamen, and the shrimpers go on composedly with their old-fashioned tasks. The pilot goes out with bis smart cutter. He is a comfortable man, with a healthy ah- of authority, and there is something in the very roll of his voice that speaks of riches and monopoly. The Guild of Pilots keep then- business very much to themselves. It would be hard to find one of them who is not exceedingly well to do, and any accidents that may happen do nothing to diminish a pilot’s means. If on some dark and foggy night lie makes a mistake, as some great ship gropes her way down the misty reach, it matters little to him; for even if he cuts down the ship, and drowns tho whole crew, he can make himself perfectly easy. His money is settled on his wife, and the cleverest lawyer in the world could not wring anything in the way of composition out of him. The watermen still ply in their flitting wherries, but the glory of their trade is departed. Long ago the tilt-boats left for London Bridge with every tide bearing their loads of passengers. ,
The sternest rules were made for the guidance of the watermen. There is one curious order made by the Court of Rulers, Auditors, and Assistants oi the Company of Watermen, forbidding any indecent behaviour or expression towards their fare, 01* whilst plying or rowing on the river. It runs thus :—
“Whereas, several watermen, lightermen, and the apprentices of such, whilst they arc rowing, working upon the River Thames, and at their several respective places of resort, or plying places, between Gravesend and Windsor, do often use immoderate, obscene, and lewd expressions towards passengers, and to each otli^r, as are offensive to all sober persons, and tend extremely to the corruption and debauchery of youth. For prevention therefore of such ill-praetices for the future, it is hereby declared and ordained by the Court aforesaid, That if any waterman or lighterman, after the 16th day of October, 1701, shall upon the said river, or at any place of their resort, as aforesaid, be guilty of using any such lewd expressions, and be thereof duly convicted by one or more witness or witnesses, or by confession of the offender before the
Eulers of this Company, he shall forfeit and pay for even,' such offence the sum of 2s. 6d. And if any waterman’s or lighterman’s apprentice shall herein offend, the master or mistress of every such offender (the offender being duly convicted a-s aforesaid) shall forfeit and ]>ay the like sum of 2s. 6d., and in ease of refusal the offender shall suffer correction, as the Rulers of this Company shall in their discretion think fit and necessary; which said forfeitures (when paid) shall be applied to the use of the poor, aged, decayed, and maimed members of the Company, their widows and children.”
This enactment is two hundred years old, and lasts up to this day. The wherries were regulated with equal strictness. No boat was allowed to take more than seven passengers at a time, and the sum of ‘2s. Gd. was charged on each passenger embarked over the number.
Everybody who knows the build of tho wherries knows that on the Thames it is extremely difficult to turn to windwrard in a small boat. When the tido is running out it is, of course, impossible to turn at all; but even wiien the flood is running up it is extremely hard to “beat;” and the wisdom of the old masters is very prettily shown in one enactment, which declares that “ If any master carrying passengers to and fro from London to Gravesend shall at any time hereafter turn to windward in any of the said boats wherein are any of her Majesty’s subjects, he shall forfeit and pay for every such offence tho sum of 10s.” This severity of regulation made the river as safe for the ordinary travellers as it now is for those who use the large steamboats. Many persons were drowned first and last, but the number of deaths due to the upsetting of watermen’s boats in the whole of the last century did not in sum equal the number destroyed in the massacre which took place when the By well Castle ran into the Princess Alice.
The regulations as to fares and fines are all very curious, and a glance at the droll bye-laws of the Watermen’s Company seems to lift a curious veil between us and a dead society. Here is one terrible code of punishments :■—-
£ s. d
Private watermen reviling passenger ... ... ... ... ... 0 2 0
TOC \o "1-5" \h \z Swearing or cursing ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 0 2 0
Towing a boat while carrying a passenger ... ... ... ... 0 2 6
Plying when his boat is not at the stairs .......................................... 0 5 0
Working with a wrong number... ... ... ... ... ... 0 10 0
Marrying in apprenticeship .......................................................... 10 0 0
Refusing to carry a fare .. ... ... ... ... ... 0 2 6
Bum-boats selling goods before sunrising and after sunsetting are very hardly dealt with. For the first offence the boat forfeits 40s., and for every succeeding offence £4.
Tho fares made for the year 1785 were easy enough. From London to Gravesend the figure required was six shillings, and the other fares were proportionately reasonable. Thus quiet City men ran down from London Bridge on one tide and returned on the next, but the tilt-boat is now as extinct as the caravel. A few smart wherries dodge about the lower reaches waiting for inward bound vessels; but the watermen is no longer jolly, and in a few years it will be found impossible to find a youthful member of the craft, for no parent would apprentice his son to a trade in which few men can earn enough tu keep tody and soul together. A righteous retribution seems to have doomed a race of harpies to extinction. In the old days when a towering East Indiaman came up the river, and the tanned soldiers and the weary civilians crowded joyously to tho side, the watermen pounced on their prey, and each eager passenger had to run the gauntlet of a band of marauders. Times have altered, and the keen, ragged men who ply the wherries are only too glad to take a passenger to the Nore and back for a sovereign.
Across the water Tilbury Fort frowns over the bulge of the reach. The guns command the Lower Hope, and it would be impossible for an enemy’s vessel to sail so far as Northfleet without being badly mauled or sunk. The place is associated with the names of a great queen and our greatest soldier. There the fierce Amazon mustered her troops and spoke rough words of encouragement to them; there General Gordon walked, with his quick, quiet movements, and his curt, low speech. Gordon planned the fortifications at the south of the river, but ho travelled from bank to bank with that eager activity which marked his every action. His work is masterly in conception and execution, and if the torpedo service is properly organised it is hardly likely that the roar of a foreigner’s cannon will ever be heard in London again. A roistering multitude once iluttered the people of the infant village of Tilbury, and rioted through the quiet place on the southern shore. The old historian grows quite haughty in his malice as he tells how “A rude rout of Rascals, under the leading of Wat Tyler, a taylor, who commanded in chief, with their grave ministers, John Ball, Jack Straw, a thresher, Jack Sheppard, of the Council of War, under the title of King’s Men, and the servants of the Commonwealth of England, after ransacking and demolishing all the fair structures of the nobility and gentry of the Essex side, summoned K. Richard TI. to give them a meeting, who accordingly, accompanied with most of his best counsellors, took his barge and went to Gravesend, but seeing the rabble so ragged and rogue-like, a company of swabs, composed of the scum of the people; it was held no discretion for the King to venture his person among them, and so returned to the Tower from whence he came.’’
Poor Richard let the “swabs'* pass up the north side of the river, and he met them there with a gallantry which is a little unlike the conduct of tho driveller who long afterwards fell from the throne which lie had covered with dishonour. All the scene is dull and peaceful now. Gordon is gone from us, and his name will pass, like that of tho “swab” Tyler, into the quietude of the history-books.
“So much carry the winds away.”
North of Tilbury, and away to the eastward along the Essex shore, stretches a strange, level country netted with winding streams. As the tide runs out, the little ditches send down runnels of clear water. Charles Dickens was always fascinated by this region; but, strangely enough, his works have given everybody a false impression of the whole marsh country. People think of slime, and darkness, and poisonous exhalations, and an atmosphere of horror and crime. They think of the faces of hunted convicts and the grim night-scenes in which Joe Gargery and his pet took part; hut at certain times of the year the marshes are really cheerful —the clear streams glitter in the morning sun, and the larks sing their hearts out high up in the air. The multitudinous notes fall around you from the shining heights like a shower of pearls, and for miles the eye is met by a blaze of colour and dazzling glitter. The ragworts spread in blinding sheets of yellow; the purple stars of the mallow peep modestly out from the coarse grass; and amid all the riot of sound and colour the peaceful cattle stand, and give a sense of homely companionship to the scene. When the tide flows, the river slips into the channels, and the tiny runnels of spring water are driven back to their sources; the ditches fill and overflow; the fishes, in many cases, catch their prey within a yard of where the cattle were feeding; and the grass becomes impregnated by the tide. It is this daily advance of the brackish flood that makes the marshes so valuable as grazing grounds. The cattle eagerly tear at the salty grass, and its nutritive qualities are so great, that it is sometimes found that a whole herd turned out on the marshes within a week or two weigh on the average half a stone more than they did when they first fed on the saltings. In winter, truly, the marshes are bleak and inhospitable; but in the soft, rich mud of the ditches the wild-fowl swarm, and the sportsmen have good times when the weather is frosty. A man who is not greedy, and who will be content with a very moderate bag, can hardly find a better place for exciting sport than within these northern saltings. Sometimes a redshank starts up, whistling desperately, and goes off down wind until the charge stops him; the ringed plovers cower low in the ditch, and shoot along under the bank with steady, level flight, until they are forced to sweep out over the grass and give the gunner his chance. At the fall of the evening the wild note of the curlew sounds with piercing cadence. There be many men in London who count Ben- fleet Station as the entrance to Paradise; and it is a very pleasant sight to see the smart shooters dispersing on a brisk, frosty morning. Below Canvey Island, and over the immense flats of that dismal place, the heaviest bags can be made with a big duck-gun. Most of the yachts on the river have a punt with the orthodox engine of destruction attached. There is something murderous and commercial about the duck-gun. To get up to a flock of birds needs a certain cunning and skill, which almost rise to the dignity of a fine art, and the excitement is amongst the keenest forms of pleasure that sport can give; but when the black, screaming Hock has risen, and the boom of the huge gun has sent the echoes flying, then the sight of destruction, struggling, and suffering is apt to pain the sentimentalist. An hours wander with a small gun — an hour that will bring its couple of brace of birds—offers the more artistic form of sport.
The shooting country is hardly broken between Benfleet and the Blackwater. Everywhere the eye travels over dark ditches, speckled flats, and stray groups of birds. At times the ground seems to be cove-red by a struggling army, whereof the squadrons perform strange evolutions. Then the wary gunner, watching with his glass from afar off, knows that the troops are on the feed, and takes his measures accordingly.
In choosing a boat for the river work, you can hardly do better than follow the model adopted by the waterside folk. Right round the coast, the action of years of experience has enabled the inhabitants of every place to choose the exact kind of craft best suited for their locality. In the North the delicate “cobles,” with their light draught astern, are adapted for the long, shelving beaches. No fisherman ever thinks of running into the cove without preparing to make for the beach with his craft stern-foremost. The Yarmouth men have their stiff “hookers,” which draw a good deal of water, and are without the dangerous “crankness” that characterises a “coble.” The Suffolk men, on the stony stretches of coast between Southwold and Aldborough, have broad, clumsy, longshore boats, which stand a great amount of knocking about. In this way the unconscious process of adaptation, involving the transmission of hints from one generation to another, has made the Thames boats all that can be desired for their work. For all practical purposes a Gravesend wherry will see you safely to the mouth of the river, and beyond the Nore; while the average Thames “hooker,” or “bowler” boat, as it is called, will stand up well to any weather that she is likely to encounter.
Take an ordinary wherry, and an hour’s sail from Gravesend brings you into a foreign colony. Clustered thick in the sheltered haven of the river lies a fleet of vessels, strange in build, startling in colour, outlandish in rig. Their bulging bows are like the breasts of some Titanic women. The low sweep of their bulwark makes it astonishing that they can ever go to sea without being swept, even when the enormous boards are hung in position to keep out the rush of water and to stiffen the vessel. Quiet, good-humoured men lounge on the spotless decks of these ships, and address you in broken English or in a strange tongue. As you walk, you hear the sound of wallowing, and when you look into the gulf of the hold you see a strange, weltering mass of snaky-brown things of which the aspect makes an unaccustomed man shudder. Tons of eels welter in these watery caverns, and the landsman sees with astonishment that the sides of the vessel are thickly perforated to allow the rush of the sea, and that each ship is neither more or less than a huge floating sieve. In quiet ponds in Holland this harvest of eels is raised, and the vessels go to this point in all weathers. If they sailed past Gravesend, not one fish of their cargo would survive; so they remain at the bend where the water is salt, and the Thames flows through and through their holds until the last consignment has gone to Billingsgate. Then the quaint vessels warp themselves out of the haven. With their slow, blundering appearance they always seem as if they must come to mischief, yet somehow or other the quiet, phlegmatic Dutchmen make their queer craft do exactly what they wish. These fellows are not fond of the English fishermen, and a fight between the nationalities sometimes enlivens the dreary monotony of the haven; but to any one who boards their ship in a polite manner, and shows signs of good breeding, they are most complacent, and one learns to like their grim simplicity.
The river widens sharply out to the eastward of Thames Haven. On the south the Kentish Marshes stretch from the bluff of the Lower Hope to St. James’s, and deep creeks run away southward towards Cooling, Halstow, and Hoo St. Mary. It is very difficult to traverse this huge flat without a guide who knows the place pretty well. Men who have shot over the country winter after winter sometimes miss the exact spot at which a ditch may be crossed, and are kept wandering for an hour at a time before they can extricate themselves from the labyrinth of deep, muddy channels. Like the Essex Marshes, the Cliff Marsh, the Halstow Marsh, the St. Mary Marsh, and the rest, are the delight of wild-fowl shooters. A dingy can traverse most of the creeks for some distance, and birds may be got in hard weather without adventuring amongst the swamps, where a slip would produce the most unpleasant consequences. Like the Essex Marshes, too, this peninsula, which lies between the Medway and the Thames, is very beautiful in the summer for those who have learned the true sentiment of the country. Rank and luxuriant life spreads everywhere, and although sauntering is not a very pleasant employment, owing to the difficulty of negotiating the ridges between the ditches, yet the blaze of colour, and the jargon of song go on, and very pleasing thoughts come over the mind. The tide has a strong sweep, but a yacht will lie very comfortably clear of the foreshore. There are particular places, which the yachtsmen and bargemen know well, where no possible force of the tide would tear the anchor out of the ground. The present writer has again and again been caught at nightfall by the ebb, but there never was any danger, though the rush of the river went by like a mill-race. On one occasion the steering-gear of a steamer gave way as she was passing down at nightfall, and she plunged in amongst the stray vessels which were anchored alongside of the dreary flats, cutting one ship down, and bringing herself hard on the mud; but a catastrophe of this kind is hardly likely to occur once in twenty years.
A small boat soon shoots round the Lower Hope and into the westerly channel that flows around Canvey Island. At high tide the boat will travel easily up to the sea-wall, which rears itself like a strong fortification at the innermost edge of the saltings. The wall is overgrown with sea-weed, and the very steps by which one gains the Coastguard Station are slippery with sea-grass. Inside the wall the stretch of the island lies, as it were, in a great basin. Corn waves, bright meadows shine in the summer, and marshy streams creep slowly into the channels that cut the weird place away from the mainland. A wild and forbidding place is Canvey Island. The strong sea-wall is gruesome with its shaggy wreaths of trailing weed. The inner side is well covered with coarse grass, and from thence away to the northward a flat of somewhat repulsive aspect runs as far as Benfleet. The island has a peculiar population. The coastguards’ hamlet lies close to the wall, and the men are ordinary sailors; but in the villages of Canvey, Knightswick, Panhole, and Lovis, there is a scant population of people who have their own ways, their own traditions, and then’ own methods of regarding a stranger. They are singularly hospitable, for free-handed sportsmen find the island a happy hunting-ground, and the people expect and give kindness. The one little inn by the Coastguard Station is, perhaps, the quaintest in all Essex. Memories of smugglers, of desperate water thieves, of old collier sailors seem to hang about its low walls. No one need expect comfort there, but the keeper purveys for all comers with a rude hospitality which is amusing. On the Fobbing side of the island the ditches are very deep, and the sides soft and treacherous. Once a bird is shot there it is very difficult to recover it. All the dogs kept on the island have a singularly business-like ah’, but no one would care to let a valuable dog follow his game down these steep, gluey, ramparts. To the east, however, the saltings stretch far towards Canvey Point; and it is not only safe, but absolutely pleasant to walk over them before the tide creeps through the rough herbage.
Hardly a shore-bird known in the British Islands fails to visit Canvey. Looking through a telescope from Benfleet Station, it is easy to pick out the flocks as they consort in their different communities, and squat among the mud, or pick their way carefully through the twining grass. At one time, on a frosty morning, it is possible to see dotterels, plovers, redshanks, gulls, and pipers, all busy on the eastern flats ; while to the west the cunning curlews dodge on the slippery banks of the Fobbing ditches. The foreshore is perfectly free to strangers; although one proprietor in the island has ventured to dispute the fact. A private grant of the shore was made two hundred years ago, and below the sea-wall no visitor can be considered as a trespasser, while a boat may bring up anywhere in the channel. Canvey is not an inviting spot for camping out. On a gusty night, when the lushes moan and shiver, and the great river sounds hoarsely, it is hardly possible to look out into the darkness without feeling a sense of strangeness and even of fear. The island seems to have no salient points ; the hill, topped by the house known as the Hall, rises a little, but it is more like a cloud than like a solid mound. A shadowy figure from the coastguard’s hut sometimes paces up and down, but even this gives none of the refreshment of human companionship. The writer once took refuge in the Channel at midnight during very bad weather. The boatmen did not care to land, and we sheltered ourselves as best we could from the storm. The island then showed in all its mystery through the drift of rain and the flying haze. It was an experience never to be forgotten; bat no one is recommended to try it. It is better to seek the hospitable shelter of an inn, and put up with rough fare, or any fare, rather than remain in the open amid that abomination of desolation.
The sea-wind comes with sharp, stirring breath after we pass the long spit that shoots out from the weird island; the river is still yellow, but when the breezes set the foam dancing the crests of the waves are of pure white. In the reach at Erith there is sometimes a heavy roll that travels as swiftly and as high as the jumping seas of the Channel, but the curling crests of the waves are yellow, and they hint of foulness beneath. All changes when the estuary fairly breaks open to receive the unchecked wash of the tide, and it is exhilarating to sweep over the full-bosomed river that swells as though it would fa,-in topple across the low rampart of the Kentish marshes and flood all the sluggish runlets. We take it for granted that any one who cares to enjoy the sights of the Lower Thames fully will use a sailing-boat.
The discreet navigator may TOC \o "1-5" \h \z then explore to his heart’s content. On the southerly shore there are few buildings which have any interest, but on the Essex bluffs there are many places hadleigh castle worth going ashore to see. The low hills command a fine outlook to the southward, and every salient point has been selected at one time or another for building purposes. Looking northward from the didl level of Canvey Island, one sees a strong tower that forms a central mark in a pretty landscape. At first sight the building looks firm and uninjured, but when you climb the bosky hillocks upon which it stands, and approach within a hundred yards, you find that the imposing shell is but a ruin after all. This is Hadleigh Castle, which is said, to have been built by the proud favourite Hubert de Burgh. Sis centuries, with frost, and fire, and snow have spent their wearing influence on the stately ruin. Where once the mad Earl of Kent held high revel the owl makes her nest and the garrulous jackdaws flutter and babble.
“’Tis said the lion and the lizard keep
Their court where Famshyd gloried and drank deep.”
The old story holds true alike on the Essex hills and on the plains of Persia. Where Hubert de Burgh gloried and drank deep the wild birds harbour and the moaning winds pour unchecked through the desolate towers. Hadleigh Castle could only have been built by a man who took long views of life, and who felt his hold on his place in life very secure. Even now, though the towers are hollow, and the grass makes the battlements shaggy, the castle has an air of grim strength, of steadfast power, that give pause to the mind. All round the grey walls the birds flutter in changing flocks. Far down the slope the river rolls and the ships glide without ceasing, while the trees rustle and the grass gleams as the breeze flies over. There is movement and colour everywhere, the trains rush along the embankment just below us, and amid all, scorning change, fronting, incurious of night-time or day, the centuries’ enormous weariness, stands the structure that was built in the dark ages. Dark ages ! Can we equal this nobility of outline, this triumphant strength, nowadays? When all the rickety streets of modern London shall have sunk in decay, when perchance the great city is but a fading memory, the rugged Castle of Hadleigh will remain in disdainful steadfastness—a monument of human pride and skill, and alas! of human folly and failure. Elizabeth came here, as did her savage father before her. Generations of ladies, gay and courtly knights, met in their turn within those tremendous walls, and now the curious traveller may wander unchecked amid the remnants of magnificence. Let no one who sails on the Lower River miss seeing Hadleigh Castle, for it is a worthy example, all mutilated and imperfect as it stands, of a noble school of architecture; and there are no ruins of a finer and grander type even on the storied banks of the many-memoried Rhine.
The view from a steamer is very well in its way, but the quaint glimpses of mysterious creeks, the chance views of forlorn waterside cottages, the flashes of colour from red-tiled roofs and glowing gardens can only be seen at their best from a stiff boat that can either creep inshore or bowl over the solemn flow of the outer current. Leave the chilly stillness of a channel like that which bubbles around Canvey Island; spread the boat’s wings, and in a few minutes you may have the whitening ripples purling clearly along under the quarter, and you see the fleet waves coiling and plashing at the Nore.
To the north of Canvey Point lies the village of Leigh, which may be called the Yarmouth of shrimpers. The bulk of the village lies close to the water’s edge, but the church, with its picturesque tower, crowns the top of the hill and forms a conspicuous landmark. The black boats bustle out of the haven in swarms, and settle like ungainly sea-fowl as their trawls go down. It appears as though nothing were being done—as though the boats were merely anchored in a clumsy fashion, but, all the time, the brailed-up mainsail is imperceptibly dragging each vessel along, and the nets are gathering their prey from the muddy bottom. Solemn, grimy men move listlessly about, or sit amidships, as if they were burdened with misanthropy; the rudder takes its own way, for the drag of the net usually serves to keep the boat on her course; the sail flaps mournfully, and the jar of a shaken block cuts the ah’ like the report of a pistol. Yet the lazy-looking craft are busy, and the bubbling boiler amidships is kept always ready, When the haul is made, and the wriggling myriads of shrimps are sorted out, then the boiling-nets come into requisition; the crustaceans are swiftly dipped into hot water, and the impassive fishermen prepare deliberately for another haul. No one who goes down Thames should miss landing at Leigh, and, if possible, he should contrive to spend a Saturday evening with the men. They are a civil race, and they take a stranger’s presence as a compliment. Many of them are yachtsmen, and the admirable semi- naval discipline of the yachts has leavened the manners of the place. The rough fellows sing their silly songs, and exchange wise remarks about fishing and yachts (which are the only subjects of worldly interest to them), and they are always ready to take a visitor into their confidence. Barring the slight polish acquired from mariners who have seen the strange regions of Cowes and Dartmouth, these villagers are like survivals of a dim past. In fact, so thoroughly marine is the general atmosphere, that shore-going costume seems incongruous in Leigh, the presence of a dealer is painful, and one feels as if it were a sin against propriety to wear anything but old-fashioned garments. It is worth while to pay a visit to the station in the evening when the last up-train is about to start; the platform is crowded with hampers of all shapes and sizes. They contain shrimps ready for transmission to the all-devouring Metropolis.
It is best to run well out to the southward after leaving Leigh, for then the pleasant slope of the hills that fringe the northern shore is well seen. Stray copses straggle here and there; lines of fir-trees strike against the sky like regiments with arms at the carry, and pleasant houses peep from their pretty perches. Southend is already feeling its way toward the west. The central ganglion of the town is perched in its little basin in thick clusters of houses, that seem to climb over the rounded wold; but the stray villas are planted like pioneers, and by-and-by the lines will be completed, and Southend will perhaps come to be in touch of London.
The magnetic attraction of the great city is felt everywhere. We are so secure now that bodies of men no longer huddle themselves within the solid safety of stone walls. Every modern English town has a tendency to sprawl. Only cross this river and run southward to the Foreland, and you are within sight of quaint old towns that had a serene, corporate existence, and nestled inside their defences like discreet swarms of bees. Rye, Sandwich, and all the rest, resemble the eyries of seabirds planted safely in snug coves, but this Southend sprawls like its own wriggling pier. Carlyle foretold the junction of London and Reading, and there is a sad probability that this will come about. In the same way Southend at last will blend with London, and we may have the jingling horror of a tramway from London Bridge to the low bluff that fronts the Nore.
As we move eastward a strange serpentine shape rises out of the water. At first it is like a cloud, then it takes on the appearance of a huge centipede with an abnormal number of feelers and a blunt, horned head. That is Southend Pier, which strikes for a mile and more over the mud-flats. The lighthouse rounds off the end of this odd structure with a somewhat dignified suggestion of solidity, but the long, straggling chain, alas ! looks as if it were all unfit to stand the fierce rush of the North Sea. It is quite easy to land on the hulk that creaks and sways below the lighthouse, but the present writer never cares to trust a small boat against the outer edge when the river is running hard. There are strong steps at intervals all the way along, and it is best to go round the pierhead and place the boat according to the wind. When once the upper pathway is gained, it seems as though the town were within easy reach. But let no one try fast walking along that treacherous road; it is meant for men who care for gentle pedestrianism, for meditation, for quiet glimpses to seaward, for lazy criticism of passing vessels. Indeed, there is enough of interest to take away all desire for hurry. Around the piles the grey water laps and swirls, scooping out round holes in which black colonies of mussels nestle.
Little fish pursue their nervous activities in the clear pools ; the scream of sea-birds comes faintly from far away, and the keen breeze makes hoarse noises in the labyrinth of the piles. At low water the flat seems interminable, and it must be owned that it does not look very pleasant. Glossy hillocks of mud thrust their shoulders out of stray ponds of salt water, and every hillock seems to be composed of a rather nasty kind of gruel. Lumps of sea-weed lie about the greasy surface: they are like currants in a monstrous, uneatable custard. The gulls settle and chatter around the bitter lakelets, and they are the only beings that find the flats easy to walk on. It is hard to say how far one would sink if he were daring enough to adventure himself among the wreathing mazes of mud. Perhaps the footing is more solid than it seems, but we never cared to try. Slowly and warily the traveller moves over the puzzling planks, and as each new landmark shows itself, the length of the pier impresses itself on the imagination of tired humanity. The men below who wallow in then enormous boots among the oyster- beds take matters easily, and tend their precious charges with deliberate care. They are like wild denizens of the gruesome, glistening waste; and they are as much at their ease as the sea-birds. But the stranger only longs to be rid of the jolting monotony of the cross-planks, and as the town comes sharply into view one is tempted to leave off contemplating the green piles, and the busy fishes, and the long melancholy of the sea-marsh, and the most phlegmatic of new-comers is inchned to break into a trot. The leisurely persons who stroll out to inhale the wind from the Nore may take their ease as they will, but, after the first minutes of interested observation, the foreigner longs for human companionship; he longs to be rid of the dominion of this intolerable roadway. The town straggles down a brief, steep bank of clay, and spreads itself over a fine level. It has all the outward appearance of a southern watering-place; the bathing-machines stand along the low seawall, the boats repose 011 the beach, and the strollers wander listlessly over the very narrow border of sand. The old town is quaint and pretty, and the new town is flashily handsome. London has set its mark deeply everywhere, and, from the smart cabmen, who salute with demure shrewdness, to the imposing platform where the band plays, everything tells of city influence. Southend is a lesser Ramsgate, and, in its way, it is a very fair imitation of that other dependency of Cockaigne.
When the tide flows, the scene is really pretty. The suggestive flat is so very, very level that the first rush of the tidal wave sends foaming streams careering among the winding hollows and pools. Like magic the vanguard of the sea gams the limit, and soon the wide sweep from Southend to Canvey becomes a shallow dimpled lake. The sense of depth is wanting, but if you only look at the surface, then you may take for granted that you are on the border of a very noble bay. As the tide gains, the little yachts rise from their bed of mud and curtsy at their moorings, the fishing-boats glide in, and the curve of the beach is full of animation. We know nothing of the bathing, but we should incline to think that there may possibly be a good deal of suspended matter in the water. Be that as it may, the bathers enjoy themselves mightily, and, even were there no bathing, the compensation offered by the sailing-boats that shoot over the wide bight is worth reckoning. To sail on a water where is depth enough to float you, but hardly enough to drown you, must be pleasing to the non-adventurous mind.
Southend is very modern, and has not yet gathered any great population; but it is so cheery, and the powers that rule municipal affairs are so firmly resolved on making it “ attractive,” that it has a promising future. When the Thames no longer discharges filth to the sea, and the sands regain their purity, it will be delightful to walk over that noble level; but our generation will hardly see such a blessed transformation. From much experience we can say that, in winter-time, the pier offers very inspiriting views. The waves fly hard over the sands in heavy weather, and their eager rush breaks them into short combers, that strike the piles, and set the timbers quivering. Sometimes the spray drives high, and at night the roaring darkness is as wild as the clamorous mystery that meets you as you gaze seaward from the cliffs of Bamborough or the wind-swept marshes of Southwold. So far as creature-comforts are concerned, the traveller is practically in London. The people have been too wise, so far, to set up as plunderers, and tired brain-workers who wish to escape easily from London for a short time may get a breath of sea air without paying too heavily for the medicine.
On the Upper River a certain amount of enjoyment may be had by sailing a small centre-board boat; but precisely the same quality of enjoyment may be derived by using the same boat from Southend. It is not all whose business will allow them to run to Southampton, or Brighton, or Margate, but every one can easily get to Southend, run at intervals into the very midst of the fresh sea-breezes, and return with very little more trouble than is needed to travel from Uxbridge Road to Charing Cross. As we have so often insisted, the great blessing of the royal river is, that its pleasures are so easily accessible to the poor man. A sound longboat may always be had at a moderate price in Victoria Docks, and a fresli-built boat, on the longboat pattern, need not cost more than £30 when the most minute articles employed in fitting are paid for. The exhalations from the Kentish and Essex marshes, which become unspeakably horrible when mixed with the suspended carbon that floats above the City, are never felt at sea, and the priceless boon of health may thus be had at a less price than that paid by many middle-class families for the ministration of the physician.
A splendid run from Southend to Sheerness may be had in any state of the tide. A yacht must go through the passage called the Swasliway, where the soundings are deep, but a wherry will easily pass the sands. There is nearly always a good breeze, and when the wind is strong enough to set the scuppers awash, the sensation of skimming from land to land with the speed of a bird is something to be remembered. At first, Sheerness is like a low-lying cloud, but gradually the pouring mouth of the Medway becomes distinct, and soon the front of the forts is seen, and we realise the full strength of the place of arms, which has been created on an island that once was a dismal swamp. England paid dearly before the value of Sheerness as a strong position was recognised. Twelve guns were mounted there after the Restoration, but the bold Ruyter minded the puny armament very little, and destroyed our fleet after passing under the very nose of the batteries. It must have been a wild time when the apple-bowed Dutch men-of-war cleared the Swashway, and held on straight up the Medway. Well might the people “think of Oliver, and what brave things he did, and how he made all foreign princes fear him.” The Admiralty showed vigour when the dreaded Ruyter was out of sight, and from that day until the present scarcely a year has passed that has not seen some addition made to the colossal works which were begun in the time of Pepys.
At the latter end of the last century lines of old war ships were formed into breakwaters, and each vessel was utilised as a barracks. Chimneys of brick were built on the hulks, ancl the lines of ships looked like floating streets. Under the shelter of these queer barriers the most extensive works were carried on in safety, and • there is hardly a spot in the world where the victory of man over dumb obstacles is more triumphantly made apparent than in the monster basins where the war ships rest. A right instinct told our engineers that Sheerness protects the heart of the nation, and the energy displayed in building the stone wall, which runs for a quarter of a mile parallel with the pier, was worthy of Stephenson himself. After the great dock had been completed, which was to accommodate a dozen first-rates, it was found that, in order to make room for the huge structures, enough soil had been excavated to raise the level of the whole swamp more than fifteen feet. The history of other engineering achievements has been written at a mighty great length, but this—perhaps the most extraordinary feat on record—has met with scant notice.
The age of iron has come in, but memories of the old times hang round the town. Here is a burly hulk, moored in the swinging tide. Long ago she carried her two tiers of guns; those slovenly sides were polished like a violin, and there was not a reef-point out of place. She could not sail much better than a floating haystack, and her mode of getting through the water consisted of going three miles ahead and two to leeward. But she was good enough to fight anything that she met on blue water, and she took her share of hard knocks in her time. The remnants of the men-of-war meet us everywhere, and whispers of boyish romance come to the mind as we think of their clumsy majesty.
But there was not much romance in the life that went on in the ships that made our boast, and no glamour of poetry or rollicking fiction affects the minds of those who know the facts. When towering liners lay in this anchorage, and their strength was the wonder of the foreigner, it was too often true that the life of the men on board was one round of sordid slavery, starvation, and hopeless suffering. The men who fought our battles were fed worse than dogs, and Hogged worse than convicts. Think of all that happened when the ships were running toward the sea, down this very brave river that we have traced so far. The water-casks were filled from the befouled flood, and in a few weeks the horrible stuff was so putrid that it had to be strained through linen before it could be used, and men turned sick at the smell of the nauseous draught, which was all that they had for drinking and cooking. This unspeakable nastiness was of a piece with the rest of the life on shipboard. The work of the fighting-machine went on smoothly under iron discipline, but in most cases each ship was an abode of vice and random tyranny. We hear ridiculous talk of the great days of the Navy. In those great days the men between decks lived in squalor to which paupers from the slums would object; many of them were stolen away from home and from love to go and dwell in that dim quarter among the odious hammocks; they endured shameful stripes, they drank poisonous water, they ate meat that a kennel of hounds would have refused, and they were regarded as having forfeited their manhood. Then in time of need they had to stand to their guns and run the chance of being smashed by a French round-shot. Truly the romance shines out but dimly when we insist on plain prose truth!
Only about ninety years ago Sheerness was covered by guns laid by angry mutineers, who had burst into rebellion after suffering wrong unspeakable. Had the sailors not held their hand and offered to hear reason, they might have laid the place in ruins, and opened the way to a foreign armada. They had reason enough for anger. Cheated of their pay, their food, their clothing, their liberty, imprisoned for years on pestilent foreign stations, crushed under savage discipline, they refused longer to endure a bondage that the very brute beasts would have rejected. Then Sheerness saw her direst danger, and then England was near a disaster from which she might never have recovered. The whole grim story of the mutiny starts out vividly as we see the very place where the Admiralty messengers came in terror, and where the discarded officers were put on shore. Here and there we meet with a smart, well-looking, seaman, and the very look of him reminds us that the bad days are gone. Jack is not like the scarecrows who clamoured for food and justice in the terrible times when Sheerness was panic-struck, and Gravesend Beach barricaded ; he looks like a free, independent man; his rights as a citizen are recognised, and no petty tyrant can lay the lash on him,
The tendency to dwell on the past is almost irresistible as we move amid the stupendous evidences of modern ingenuity and resource. The clangour of hammers resounds in the dockyard. That monster, over whose iron ribs the swarming workmen clamber like midges, could have steamed quietly among Nelson’s fleet and sent them all to the bottom in a couple of hours. Not one of them could have scratched her, not one could have run away from her, and, supposing that her ram were employed, she could have shorn through the Victory from bulwark to bulwark without even running the risk of being boarded. Out in the stream lies the rotting hulk which once was regarded as the prime work of the human hand and brain; in dock lies the iron monster that needs neither wind nor tide—the monster which could stand the brunt of the Bellerophon’s broadside without suffering a dent. So the world changes.
It would take a month to describe the dockyard; indeed,, in a single day’s inspection, it is hardly possible to gain an idea of the magnitude of the place. It is a little world of industry, with a separate constitution, and separate laws. In such a vast organisation it is inevitable that blunders occur, and that woful waste goes on among the incredible masses of material that bewilder the senses. Nevertheless, a sight of Sheerness Dockyard gives a more definite idea of British power than reams of abstract declamation and shadowy description.
The town is marked off into strictly defined regions. Blue Town lies within the garrison limits, and is pervaded by the military. Mile Town faces toward the Nore, and lies within a strong line of fortifications. Banks Town and Marina front the open sea, and are clear of the atmosphere of business. The two last-named quarters form a merry little watering-place, and they are intensely modern. The sea rolls up the beach, pure and clean, and there are few signs of that dubious compound which makes the Southend flat a place of fear. There the children build their sand-castles, even as the children did in Homer’s time by the blue eastern waters; there the enfranchised clerk carries out his peculiar system of enjoyment, and the usual happy, commonplace, invigorating life goes on during the season. If we described Marina, we should only describe the typical sea-side places into which the cities empty themselves in the autumn weather. We may leave Sheerness. The guide to the docks alone would occupy this book if we only indicated the points of interest. It is best merely to say that, alike to those who know the stirring history of our navy, and to those who are amused by Cockney jollity, the place is worth seeing.
The striped buoy rises and falls to the rhythm of the short seas, and the waving ball that surmounts the tall pole catches the eye at a long distance either riverward or eastward. This light is one of the marks that Englishmen think of wherever they may be on the surface of the globe. Not a passenger steamer goes past that light without a tremor of excitement running through all who are on board of her. It seems as though there were magic in the name, and whether for the sailor coming from the East Indies, or from round the Horn, or the coasters who have merely run down from the Tyne, the words, “ Here we are, abreast the Nore ! ” have a sound that acts like a charm.
That worn and battered vessel that trails past you as though she were weary of infinite travel and incessant hard battering amid furious seas, has men aboard her who have chattered for hours together about all they would see and do when once they passed this point. When the seas are crashing down on the forecastle- head, and the falling water sounds like muffled drums; while the stinking lamp gutters in the foul atmosphere, then Jack, as he stretches on his squalid bunk, grumbles to his mates about the delight that will come when all this is over, and the buoy heaves up well within sight; and man-o’-warsmen who beat about in rickety gun-boats on the hideous coasts of East and West Africa, think with longing of the time when their cruel privations shall be over, and the magic announcement shall be made that sets the pulse of every mariner dancing.
To the mere landsmen, the whole stretch of the sea around the light is pleasant to sail over. The fishermen and bargemen say, “You are sure to get a breeze down by the Nore!” and there is hardly a day at any season of the year, or in any weather, on which this prophecy is not justified. The yachts that come lazily down, with their huge spinnakers spread like a swan’s whig before cat’s-paws that merely tremble over the surface of the Thames, immediately show signs that the captains are exercising caution when they cross that breezy band. You instinctively expect to see the spinnakers taken in, and to see the swift cutters lie hard over to the mainsail and foresail they sweep round the buoy. Once you have sailed to the eastward, you feel as though your craft were suspended between sea and land. On one side you have Southend, glittering in colour; on the other, you have the more sombre vision of Sheerness. Far up the river the rippling flood advances, as it were, in steady ranks upon you; and away to the south-west the marshes glitter, and the far-off hills look cold and blue. Between tide and tide a whole day of leisure may be enjoyed by one who is content to watch merely the changes of sea and sky, and to speculate lazily as to the character of the vessels that pass in long procession. To men into whose spirits the charm of the Lower River has entered, there is no form of enjoyment dearer than merely to sail past the Nore, run outside near the Maplin sands, and there wait until the tide turns and the inward trip can be made with ease. In a small boat it is best to keep slightly out of the track of the vessels that are running into the Swin, and to hit the happy medium between those that are going north about and those that are travelling south. The colliers go by flying light; the men on board are tolerably lazy; and as the dirty, rusty hulks lumber by, the seamen wave a kindly greeting. Smart, clean-built Scandinavian barques claw their way down, and the leisurely barges—which we have mentioned so often—pass by, laden to an extent that excites wonder at the temerity of the cool ruffians who man them.
Amid this unceasing panorama, every separate picture of which tells some fresh and strange story of far-off regions, of grimy labour, of storm and peril, it is easy for men who are content with a day of small things to sit for hours and hours, perhaps only exchanging monosyllabic comments on each new-comer. The most glorious sight of the many that may be seen at the Nore conies when some mighty sailing-ship looms to the northward of the marshes, and swims grandly on in the wake of her puffing, fussy little tug. As the two come on in their brief procession the tug represents mind; the vessel represents matter. That great ship that will so soon perhaps be sweeping down the league-long seas southward of the Horn trails meekly in the wake of a fat little screw, which could be placed on the deck of the convoy without causing a great deal of inconvenience. The ship is the embodiment of grace—the tug is the embodiment of ugliness ; and yet until the river is clear the tug is master. But supposing a fine breeze springs up, then, of a sudden, there is a stir on board the vessel. From afar off you cannot tell exactly what is being done, but you know that presently her white wings will be shaken out; and, sure enough, as the vessel strikes the open, the sails fall—a cloud seems to spring from tlie water as if from the touch of a magician. Then the tug swings discreetly aside. Little by little, the wind lays its hand on each of the bellying sails and thrusts them out, till their broad bosoms glint in the sunshine and the hulk lunges and gathers way under their steady pull. The wind gains power, and the ship comes on with a creamy ripple of foam ringing her bows like some dainty ornament; and, with a sweep, she passes you by, leaving a billowy wake behind her; and before your last cheer has died into silence she is away on her journey. When one of the great four-masters glides out under her towers of canvas there is something in the sight that brings one’s heart into his mouth. It never grows stale. You see the great hull with a line of wistful faces peering over the bulwark, and you know that you are only gazing upon a common-place emigrant ship. Yet the most prosaic of men comes to think of this majestic structure as a living being, and the poorest emigrant that ever wept over his farewells at Gravesend acquires a certain dignity from being carried away by her.
Shore-going folk often wonder at the contented impassivity of seamen who happen to have an idle hour in which to stare at the ships and the water. Observe an ordinary East Coast seaman spending his leisure. His eyes seem devoid of speculation, he stares sleepily seaward, and when he talks to a companion he uses brief, ill-formed sentences. But his mind is active, and if you listen to his low comments you will find that, in a quiet way, he studies the water and its passing burdens as men study a beloved book. If a ship is detained to wait for a tide or a pilot, the sailors find their pastime in contemplation and rude comment which the landsman does not understand. If that landsman only spent a while in a yacht on the Lower River they would learn that the solemn men who look so still and melancholy are probably feeling a placid pleasure, and the fixed silence is the expression of a sober contentment that cannot find expression in words. When our full-rigged vessel goes rolling away with the wind rushing hoarsely out of her courses the sailor feels acute delight; but he only grunts his admiration. The landsman may be excused if he breaks into unwonted ejaculations, and we have recognised our own right to the landsman’s privilege. The present writer can never forget the shock of surprise with which he first saw a full-rigged ship slashing seaward from the Lower Hope. He rose as the dawn was painting the river with flashes of gold, and, lo! to leeward of the yacht, within forty yards, the monster ship was shouldering her way through the dappled flood. The smaller vessel was lying down till her copper gleamed to windward, and the swashing stream surged aft and rolled nearly up to the companion; but the little “floating chisel” could not long hold her own against the cloud-capped castle, and soon we watched her drawing proudly away on her long journey.
The trim gardens, the rich air of ordered beauty, the lovely song of birds —all the things that greet the senses on the Upper River are pleasant to the senses, but nothing in the gliding shallows that we love so well could equal the majesty, the strength, the glory, of that noble ship; and the sight of her was something to remember in happy nights when one cannot sleep for the delight of living.
Sometimes, when loitering northward of the Nore, we hear a sullen boom, and feel a tremor in the air. The artillerymen are at work on the ranges at Shoeburyness, and some tremendous piece of artillery is pitching masses of iron seaward. There is no danger, for it rarely happens that even an unwary bargeman ventures near the forbidden region. In our time we only remember one accident. The eighty-one ton gun had hurled a shrapnel shell over a distance of about six miles. On the landward side, the whole of the windows within a quarter of a mile were shivered from out the frames, and the officers’ quarters were left desolate; while, to seaward, a great massacre took place among a flock of unwary gulls. But this is the only loss of life that has been caused by the projectiles which scream over the broad shallows. To persons of a military turn, Shoebury is a most interesting quarter. Everything is so trim, so business-like, so ineffably military; and the work goes on so calmly that no one would think that the groups of stern officers and dashing artillerymen were studying the art of destruction. In summer, when the volunteers are encamped, the whole place breaks into merriment as soon as the toilsome competitions are over, and the forts are well worth a visit from a tourist. The picturesque is lacking, but once more, the power—the immeasurable reserve force—of our nation strikes on the mind and wakens a feeling of pride.
Morning on the Upper River is joyous, and all through the bright summer days a sense of keen gladness grows with every hour.
The sleepy afternoons, when the silence broods over the reaches like a voice, carry the day-long symphony of gladness through yet another movement; and in the evening, when the clear stars speak silence from their glimmering eyes, and wash the dusk with silver, everything grows beautiful, tender, and kindly to the thoughtful soul.
The Upper River is like a delicate lady, clad in all daintiness, and beaming with gentle beauty. The Lower River is like a burly man, who urges his way through his career with a sense of strength, with a disdain of obstacle, with a brutal insistence that keep up the masculine character. From the places where the ships curtsy at their creaking tiers, to the splendid stretch where the sea-breeze blows shrill, chilly with flecks of foam, every yard is vivid with interest.
We believe that no man- ever grew tired of the Upper River. People haunt its reaches year after year, till it seems as though all the blessed summers were blended into one memory. We cannot think with joy of summer on the Lower River; but the bitter winter days, the scream of keen blasts, the monstrous procession that connects the world of the city with the great world of the outer sea—all these things are never-fading when once their impact has fairly gained the recesses of the soul.
Old sportsmen may still be found who shot over the saltings or glided round the forbidding points of the Lower Thames in their youth; the habit never leaves them, and, as the seasons roll, these men find their keenest delight from prowling among the shadowy marshes or facing the salt, shrill wind that pulses and beats around the Nore.
Sometimes a Cockney sceptic may be found who shudders and speaks of the Lower River as a place of horror. He sighs for the glades of Clieveden, for the mossy chestnuts of Hampton Court, for the sloping gardens of Sunbury. But let a wise sportsman take the sceptic’s education in hand; let his wayward mind be disciplined by merry days among the swarming saltings, and he will acquire a taste that will be lasting. If he is judiciously taught he may come at last to feel the true ecstasy, the mysterious poetry, that touch the soul on shining nights when the moon-silvered roll of the water is gladsome, and the shadowy ships steal away to the sea. Then the sordid flats are touched into beauty by the cold gleam, and the winds, and the waters, and the sailing clouds, and the quiet ships pass like a mystic pageant, fleeting, fleeting, ever eastward. The veriest townsman that ever waked the echoes under Kingston Bridge with his clamour will own at such a time that few sights in England are finer than the noble outflow of our splendid river.