Certain Delightful English Towns – William Dean Howells
A companion volume to ‘London Films’, in which Mr. Howells writes of Bath, Oxford, Canterbury and other delightful English towns, with glimpses of the country in between. The author catches the true spirit and dominant tone of each locality, and he regales the reader with various little adventures along the road. Mr. Howells is especially alert for details that link English history with our own, and have a special interest for the American traveler.
Certain Delightful English Towns.
Excerpt from the text:
No American, complexly speaking, finds himself in England for the first time, unless he is one of those many Americans who are not of English extraction. It is probable, rather, that on his arrival, if he has not yet visited the country, he has that sense of having been there before which a simpler psychology than ours used to make much of without making anything of. His English ancestors who really .were once there stir within him, and his American forefathers, who were nourished on the history and literature of England, and were therefore intellectually English, join forces in creating an English consciousness in him. Together, they make “it very difficult for him to continue a new-comer, and it may be that only on the fourth or fifth coming shall the illusion wear away and he find himself a stranger in a strange land. But by that time custom may have done its misleading work, and he may be as much as ever the prey of his first impressions. I am sure that some such result in me will evince itself to the reader in what I shall have to say of my brief stay with the English foster-mother of our American Plymouth; and I hope he will not think it altogether to be regretted.
My first impressions of England, after a fourth or fifth visit, began even before I landed in Plymouth, for I decided that there was something very national in the behavior of a young Englishman who, as we neared his native shores, varied from day to day, almost from hour to hour, in his doubt whether a cap or a derby hat was the right wear for a passenger about landing. He seemed also perplexed whether he should or should not speak to some of his fellow-passengers in the safety of parting, but having ventured, seemed to like it. On the tender which took us from the steamer to the dock I fancied another type in the Englishman whom I asked which was the best hotel in Plymouth. At first, he would not commit himself; then his humanity began to work in him, and he expressed a preference, and abruptly left me. He returned directly to give the reasons for his preference, and to excuse them, and again he left .me. A second time he came back, with his conscience fully roused, and conjured me not to think of going elsewhere.
I thought that charming, and I afterwards found the hotel excellent, as I found nearly all the hotels in England. I found everything delightful on the way to it, inclusive of the cabman’s overcharge, which brought the extortion to a full third of the just fare of a New York cabman. I do not include the weather, which was hesitating a bitter little rain, but I do include the behavior of the customs officer, who would do not more than touch, with averted eyes, the contents of the single piece of baggage which he had me open. When it came to paying the two hand cart men three shillings for bringing up the trunks, which it would have cost me three dollars to transport from the steamer to a hotel at home, I did not see why I should not save money for the rest of my life by becoming naturalized in England, and making it my home, unless it was because it takes so long to become naturalized there that I might not live to economize much.
It was with a pleasure much more distinct than any subliminal intimation that I saw again the office-ladies in our hotel. Personally, they were young strangers, but officially they were old friends, and quite as I had seen them first forty years ago, or last a brief seven; only once they wore bangs or fringes over their bright, unintelligent eyes, and now they wore Mamie loops. But they were, as always, very neatly and prettily dressed, and they had the well-remembered difficulty of functionally differencing themselves to the traveler’s needs, so that which he should ask for a room, and which for letters, and which for a candle, and which for his bill, remains a doubt to the end. From time to time with an exchange of puzzled glances, they united in begging him to ask the head porter, please, for whatever it was he wanted to know. They seemed of equal authority, but suddenly and quite casually the real superior appeared among them. She was the manageress, and I never saw a manager at an English hotel except once, and that was in Wales. But the English theory of hotel-keeping seems to be house-keeping enlarged; a manageress is therefore more logical than a manager, and practically the excellence of English hotels attests that a manager could not be more efficient.
One of the young office-ladies, you never can know which it will be, gives you a little disk of pasteboard with the number and sometimes the price of your room on it, but the key is an after-thought of your own. You apply for it on going down to dinner, but in nearly all provincial hotels it is safe to leave your door unlocked. At any rate I did so with impunity. This was all new to me, but a greater novelty which greeted us was the table d’hôte, which has nearly everywhere in England replaced the old-time dinner off the joint. You may still have that if you will, but not quite on the old imperative terms. The joint is now the roast from the table d’hôte, and you can take it with soup and vegetables and a sweet. But if you have become wonted to the superabundance of a German steamer you will not find all the courses too many for you, and you will find them very good. At least you will at first: what is it that does not pall at last? Let it be magnanimously owned at the outset then, while one has the heart, that the cooking of any English hotel is better than. that of any American hotel of the same grade. At Plymouth, that first night, everything in meats and sweets, though simple, was excellent; in vegetables there were green things with no hint of the can in them, but fresh from the southerner parts of neighboring France. As yet the protean forms of the cabbage family were not so insistent as afterwards.
Though we dined in an air so cold that we vainly tried to warm our fingers on the bottoms of our plates, we saw, between intervening heads and shoulders, a fire burning blithely in a grate at the farther side of the room. It was cold there in the dining-room, but after we got into the reading-room, we thought of it as having been warm, and we hurried out for a walk under the English moon which we found diffusing a mildness over the promenade on the Hoe, in which the statue of Sir Francis Drake fairly basked on its pedestal. The old seadog had the air of having lifted himself from the game of bowls in which the approach of the Spanish Armada had surprised him, and he must have already arrived at that philosophy which we reached so much later. In England it is chiefly inclement in-doors, but even out-doors it is well to temper the air with as vigorous exercise as time and occasion will allow you to take. Another monument, less personally a record of the Armada, balanced that of Drake at the farther end of the Hoe, and on top of this we saw Britannia leading out her lion for a walk: lions become so dyspeptic if kept housed, and not allowed to stretch their legs in the open air. We had no lion to lead out; and there was no chance for us at bowls on the Hoe that night, but we walked swiftly to and fro on the promenade and began at once to choose among the mansions looking seawards over it such as we meant to buy and live in always. They were all very handsome, in a reserved, quiet sort; but we had no hesitation in fixing on one with a balcony glassed in, so that we could see the sea and shore in all weathers; and I hope we shall not incommode the actual occupants.
The truth is we were flown with the beauty of the scene, which we afterwards found as great by day as by night. The promenade, which may have other reasons for calling itself as it does besides being shaped like the blade of a hoe, is a promontory pushed well out into the sound, with many islands and peninsulas clustered before it, or jutting towards it and forming a safe roadstead for shipping of all types. Plymouth is not a chief naval station of Great Britain without the presence of warships in its harbor; and among the peaceful craft at anchor with their riding-lights showing in the deeps of the sea and air one could distinguish the huge kraken shapes of modern cruisers and destroyers, and what not. But like the embattled figures of the marine and land-going soldiery, flirting on the benches of the promenade with females as fearless as themselves, or Jauntily strolling up and down under the moon, the ships tended to an effect of subjective peacefulness, as if invented merely for the pleasure of the appreciative stranger. We were, at any rate, very glad of them, and appreciated the municipal efforts in our behalf as gratefully as the imperial fortifications of the harbor. It must be confessed at once, if I am ever to claim any American superiority in these “trivial, fond records,” which I shall never be able to help making comparative, that in what is done by the public for the public, we are hardly in the same running with England. It is only when we reflect upon our greater municipal virtue, and consider how the economies of our civic servants in the matter of beauty enable them to spend the more in good works, that we can lift up our heads and look down on what England has everywhere wrought for the people in such unspiritual things as parks and gardens, and terraces and promenades and statues. I could have wished that first evening, before I committed myself to any wrong impression or association, that I had known something more, or even anything at all, of the history of Plymouth. But I did not even know that from the Hoe, and possibly the very spot where I stood, the brave Trojan Cirenseus hurled the giant Goemagot into the sea. I was quite as far from remembering any facts of the British civilization which has always flourished so splendidly in the fancy of the native bards, and which has mingled its relics with those of the Roman, not only in the neighborhood of Plymouth, but all over England. As for the facts that Plymouth had been harried throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by the incursions of the French; that it was the foremost English port in the time of Elizabeth; that Drake sailed from it in 1585 to bring back the remnant of Raleigh’s colony from Virginia; that one hundred and twenty-seven English ships waited in its waters to meet the Spanish Armada; that it stood alone in the West of England for the Parliament in the Civil War; that Charles II. had signified his displeasure with it for this by building to overawe it the entirely useless fortress in the harbor; and that it was the first town to declare for William of Orange when he landed to urge the flight of the last Stuart: I do not suppose there is any half-educated school-boy but has the facts more about him than I had that first night in Plymouth when I might have found them so serviceable. I could only have matched him in my certainty that this was the Plymouth from which the Mayflower sailed to find, or to found, another Plymouth in the New World; but he could easily have alleged more proofs of our common conviction than I. At sunset, which they have in Plymouth appropriately late for the spring season and the high latitude, there had been a splotch of red about six feet square in the watery west, promising the fine weather which the morning brought. It also brought more red coats and swagger-sticks in company with the large hats and glaring costumes which had not had so good a chance the night before, whether we saw them in our walk on the Hoe, or met them in the ramble through the town into which we prolonged it. Through the still Sunday morning air there came a drumming and bugling of religious note from the neighboring fortifications, and while we listened, a general officer, or perhaps only a colonel, very tight in the gold and scarlet of his uniform, passed across the Hoe, like a pillar of flame, on his way to church. But I do not know that he was a finer bit of color, after all, than the jet-black cat with a vivid red ribbon at her neck, which had chosen to crouch on the ivied stone-wall across the way from our hotel, in just the spot where the sun fell earliest and would lie longest. There was more ivy than sun in Plymouth, that is the truth, and this cat probably knew what she was about. There was ivy, ivy everywhere, and there were subtropical growths of laurel and oleander and the like, which made a pleasant confusion of earlier Italy and later Bermuda in the brain, and yet were so characteristic of that constantly self-contradictory England.
Many things of it that I had known in flying and poising visits during fifty years of the past began to steal back into my consciousness. The nine-o’clock breakfast, of sole and eggs and bacon, and heavy bread and washy coffee, was of the same moral texture as the sabbatical silence in the pale sunny air, which now I remembered so well, with some weird question whether I was not all the while in Quebec, instead of Plymouth, and the strong conviction at the same time that this was the absurdest of obsessions. The Hoe was not Durham Terrace, but it looked down on a sort of Lower Town from a height almost as great, and the spread of the harbor, with a little help, recalled the confluence of the St. Lawrence and the St. Charles. But the rows of small houses that sent up the smoke of their chimneypots were of yellow brick, not of wood or gray stone, and their red roofs were tiled in dull weather-worn tints, and not brilliantly tinned.
Why, I wonder, do we feel such a pleasure in finding different things alike? It is rather stupid, but we are always trying to do it and fatiguing ourselves with the sterile effect. At Plymouth there was so much to remind me of so much else that it was a relief to be pretty promptly confronted on the Hoe with something so positive, so absolute as a Bath chair, which at the worst could only remind me of something in literature. A stubby old man was tugging it over the ground slowly, as if through a chapter of Dickens; and a wrathful-looking invalid lady sat within, just as if she had got into it from a book. There was little to recall anything else in the men strolling about in caps and knickerbockers, with short pipes in their mouths, or, equally with short pipes, wheeling back and forth on bicycles. There were a few people in top-hats, who had unmistakably the air of having got them out for Sunday; though why everyone did not wear them every day in the week was the question when we presently saw a shop-window full of them at three and sixpence apiece.
This was when we had gone down into the town from the Hoe, and found its quiet streets of an exquisite Sunday neatness. They were quite empty, except for very washed-up-looking worshippers going to church, among whom a file of extremely little boys and girls, kept in. line and kept moving by a black-gowned church-sister, gave us, with their tender pink cheeks and their tender blue eyes, our first delight in the wonderful West-of-England complexion. The trams do not begin running in any provincial town till afternoon on Sundays, and the loud-rattling milk-carts, bearing bright brass-topped cans as big as the ponies that drew them, seemed the only vehicles abroad. The only shops open were those for the sale of butter and eggs and fruit and flowers; but these necessaries and luxuries abounded in many windows and doorways, especially the flowers, which had already begun to arrive everywhere by tons from the Channel Islands, though it was then so early in March. It is not the least of the advantages which England enjoys that she has her Florida at her door; she has but to put out her hand and it is heaped with flowers and fruits from the Scilly Isles, while the spring is coming slowly up our way at home by fast-freight, through Georgia and the Carolinas and Virginia.
So many things were strange to me that I might have thought I had never been in Plymouth before, and so many things familiar that I might have fancied I had always been there. The long unimpressive stretches of little shops might have been in any second-class American city, which would likewise have shown the same exceptional number of large department stores. What it could not have shown were the well-kept streets, the reverently guarded heritage from the past in here and there a bit of antique architecture amid the prosperous newness; the presence of lingering state in the mansions peering over their high garden wall, or standing withdrawn from the thoroughfares in the quiet of wooded crescents or circles.