1348. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Athenaeum, July 1807

1348. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Athenaeum, July 1807 ⁠* 


To the Editor of the Athenæum.


A REMARK made by the writer of the entertaining Comparison of Manners in two Centuries, in one of your early numbers, concerning the infrequency of journeys for curiosity in England, and the total absence of a taste for the picturesque, at the earlier period, is singularly confirmed by an extract from a manuscript Tour in England, made about the year 1697, by a lady of noble family, which has lately fallen into my hands. [1]  It contains an account of the Westmoreland lakes, which, as your correspondent observes, were then as little known to the southern inhabitants of the island as those of Lapland. The narrative is written in so bald a style, and is so unenlivened by any thing either sprightly or sentimental, that a transcript of it would be tedious to most of your readers; I shall therefore confine myself to the notice of a few particulars, characteristic as well of the state of the country at that time, as of the turn of a female observer in the superior ranks of society.

The lady begins her description with the town of Kendal, which was then, as at present, noted for its manufactures. These consisted of what are called cottons, used for blankets, and purchased by the Scots for their plaids, and of linsey-woolies, together with a great quantity of tanned leather. The fame of Mrs Rowlandson, at the King’s Arms, for potted char, induced her not only to bespeak some of that article from the landlady, but made her “curious to see the great water, which is the only place that fish is to be found in.” This sole motive apparently led the lady to venture through the narrow stony lanes of the country, passed by no other carriages but very narrow cars like wheelbarrows, to Winander-mere. Here she notices the principal island, then inhabited by the lord of the manor, Sir Christopher Phillips. [2]  She, of course, makes her observations on the great object of her enquiries, the char fish; and then, with sufficient accuracy, describes the water of the lakes, its motion, its feeders, and outlet. She speaks of the high rocky hills by which it is surrounded, and of the wild tract called Furness Fells. Thence she makes a digression to the manufacture of the clap-bread, or large thin oat-cakes, which were the chief food of the people, and when well made, were, she says, ‘as crisp and pleasant to eat as any thing you can imagine.’

A ride for some miles over the fells gives occasion to a general description of the face of the country, in which there is a good deal of picture, though nothing of the picturesque. It is the result of an observing eye, but which conveys to the mind no ideas but simply those of the objects themselves. The sublimity or beauty associated in a cultivated mind with scenes of nature seem to have been feelings of which she had no conception; and the only symptom of pleasure which she betrays, is where she speaks of the murmurs of the currents of water which rush from the sides of the hills. The villages are described as composed of wretched huts, made of stones without mortar, and roofed with slates; and the entertainment at public-houses only clap-bread with butter and cheese, and a cup of beer.

I shall here transcribe a passage from her letter, as a specimen of her manner of writing and surveying.

‘Thence I rode almost all the way in sight of this great water; sometimes I lost it by reason of the great hills interposing, and so continued up hill and down hill, and that pretty steep even when I was in that they called the bottoms, which are very rich good grounds; and so I gained by degrees, from lower to higher grounds, which I always went up and down before I came to another hill. At last I attained to the side of one of these vast hills, or fells of rocks, which I passed on the side, much about the middle, for looking down to the bottom it was at least a mile, all full of those lesser hills and inclosures; so looking upwards, I was as far from the top, which was all rocks, and something more barren, though there was some trees and woods growing in the rocks, and hanging over all down the brow of some of the hills. From these great fells there are several springs out of the rock that trickle down their sides, and as they meet with stones and rocks in the way, which something obstructs their passage, and so they come with more violence, that gives a pleasing sound and murmuring noise. These descend by degrees, and at last fall into the lower grounds and fructify it, which makes the land so fruitful in the vallies; and upon those very high fells or rocky hills it is, though so high, yet a moorish sort of ground, whence they dig abundance of peat, which they use for their fuel, being in many places a barren ground, yielding no wood.’

She then crossed over into Cumberland, and came to Ulleswater, which she describes in the same style as Winander-mere. On riding through a forest or park by its side, she took the diversion of coursing by means of a greyhound that accompanied her. A fine round hill at the end of this lake, fertile in grass and corn, pleased her much, as the termination of the deserts and barren rocks she had been passing. No others of the lake are mentioned, and the lady seems to have been fully satisfied with the view she had taken of this wild and unfrequented region.

Yours, &c.



* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Athenæum; a Magazine of Literary and Miscellaneous Information, 2:7 (July 1807)
Previously published: Athenæum; a Magazine of Literary and Miscellaneous Information, 2:7 (July 1807), 25–27. BACK

[1] Southey had been given the manuscript journal of Celia Fiennes (1662–1741; DNB) by her descendants, the Danvers family. For the remark referred to by Southey, see The Athenaeum, A Magazine of Literary and Miscellaneous Information, 1:2 (February 1807), 114. BACK

[2] Sir Christopher Philipson (1646–1709) of Crook Hall, near Windermere. BACK

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