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First Impressions of England and its People
Chapter X


Shenstone’s Verses. — The singular Unhappiness of his Paradise. — English Cider. — Scotch and English Dwellings contrasted. — The Nailers of Hales Owen; their Politics a Century ago. — Competition of the Scotch Nailers; unsuccessful, and why. — Samuel Salt, the Hales Owen Poet. — Village Church. — Salt Works at Droitwich; their great Antiquity. — Appearance of the Village. — Problem furnished by the Salt Deposits of England ; various Theories. — Rock Salt deemed by some a Volcanic Product; by others the Deposition of an overcharged Sea; by yet others the Produce of vast Lagoons. — Leland. — The Manufacture of Salt from Sea-water superseded, even in Scotland, by the Rock Salt of England.

It was now near sunset, and high time that I should be leaving the Leasowes, to “take mine ease in mine inn.” By the way, one of the most finished among Shenstone’s lesser pieces is a paraphrase on the apophthegm of old Sir John. We find Dr. Samuel Johnson, as exhibited in the chronicle of Boswell, conning it over with meikle glee in an inn at Chapel-house; and it was certainly no easy matter to write verse that satisfied the doctor.

“To thee, fair Freedom! I retire,
From flattery, cards, and dice, and din;
Nor art thou found in mansions higher
Than the low cot or humble inn.

“’T is here with boundless power I reign;
And every health which I begin
Converts dull port to bright champagne;
Such freedom crowns it at an inn.

“I fly from pomp, I fly from plate,
I fly from falsehood’s specious grin ;
Freedom I love, and form I hate,
And choose my lodgings at an inn.

“Here, waiter, take my sordid ore,
Which lacqueys else might hope to win;
It buys what courts have not in store, —
It buys me freedom at an inn.

“Whoe’er has travelled life’s dull round,
Where’er his stages may have been,
May sigh to think he still has found
The warmest welcome at an inn.”

Ere, however, quitting the grounds to buy freedom at the “Plume of Feathers,” I could not avoid indulging in a natural enough reflection on the unhappiness of poor Shenstone. Never, as we may see from his letters, was there a man who enjoyed life less. He was not vicious; he had no overpowering passion to contend with; he could have had his Phillis, had he chosen to take her; his fortune, nearly three hundred a-year, should have been quite ample enough, in the reign of George the Second, to enable a single man to live, and even, with economy, to furnish a considerable surplus for making gimcracks in the Leasowes; he had many amusements, — he drew tastefully, had a turn, he tells us, for natural history, wrote elegant verse and very respectable prose ; the noble and the gifted of the land honored him with their notice; above all, he lived in a paradise, the beauties of which no man could better appreciate; and his most serious employment, like that of our common ancestor in his unfallen state, was “ to dress and to keep it.” And yet, even before he had involved his affairs, and the dun came to the door, he was an unhappy man. “ I have lost my road to happiness,” we find him saying ere he had completed his thirty-fourth year. Nay, we even find him quite aware of the turning at which he had gone wrong. “ Instead,” he adds, “ of pursuing the way to the fine lawns and venerable oaks which distinguish the region of happiness, I am got into the pitiful parterre-garden of amusement, and view the nobler scenes at a distance. I think I can see the road, too, that leads the better way, and can show it to others; but I have got many miles to measure back before I can get into it myself, and no kind of resolution to take a single step. My chief amusements at present are the same they have long been, and lie scattered about my farm. The French have what they call a parque ornee, — I suppose, approaching about as near to a garden as the park at Hagley. I give my place the title of a ferme ornee” Still more significant is the frightful confession embodied in the following passage, written at a still earlier period: — “ Every little uneasiness is sufficient to introduce a whole train of melancholy considerations, and to make me utterly dissatisfied with the life I now lead, and the life which I foresee 1 shall lead. I am angry, and envious, and dejected, and frantic, and disregard all present things, just as becomes a madman to do. I am infinitely pleased, though it is a gloomy joy, with the application of Dr. Swift’s complaint, ‘ that he is forced to die in a rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole.’ ”Amusement becomes, I am afraid, not very amusing when rendered the exclusive business of one’s life. All that seems necessary in order to render fallen Adams thoroughly miserable, is just to place them in paradises, and, debarring them serious occupation, to give them full permission to make themselves as happy as they can. It was more in mercy than in wrath that the first father of the race, after his nature had become contaminated by the fall, was driven out of Eden. Well would it have been for poor Shenstone had the angel of stem necessity driven him also, early in the day, out of his paradise, and sent him into the work-day world beyond, to eat bread in the sweat of his brow. I quitted the Leasowes in no degree saddened by the consideration that I had been a hard-working man all my life, from boyhood till now; and that the future, in this respect, held out to me no brighter prospect than I had realized in the past.

When passing through York, I had picked up at a stall a good old copy of the poems of Philips, — John, not Ambrose; and in railway carriages and on coach-tops I had revived my acquaintance, broken off for twenty years, with “Cider, a Poem,” “Blenheim,” and the “Splendid Shilling;” and now, in due improvement of the lessons of so judicious a master, I resolved, when taking my ease in the “Plume of Feathers,” that, for one evening at least, I should drink only cider.

“Fallacious drink! ye honest men, beware,
Nor trust its smoothness; the third circling glass
Suffices virtue.”

The cider of the “Plume” was, however, scarce so potent as that sung by Philips. I took the third permitted glass, after a dinner transposed far into the evening by the explorations of the day, without experiencing a very great deal of the exhilarating feeling described, —

“Or lightened heart,
Dilate with fervent joy, or eager soul,
Keen to pursue the sparkling glass amain.”

Nor was the temptation urgent to make up in quantity what was wanting in strength: “the third circling glass sufficed virtue.” Here, as at the inns in which I had baited, both at Durham and York, I was struck by the contrast which many of the older English dwelling-houses furnish to our Scotch ones of the same age. In Scotland the walls are of solid stone-work, thick and massy, with broad-headed, champer-edged rybats, and ponderous soles and lintels, selvaging the opening; whereas the wood-work of the interior is almost always slight and fragile, formed of spongy deal or moth-hollowed fir rafters. After the lapse of little more than a century, there are few of our Scotch floors on which it is particularly safe to tread. In the older English dwellings we generally find a reverse condition of things: the outsides, constructed of slim brick-work, have a toy-like fragility about them: whereas inside we find strong oaken beams, and long-enduring floors and stairs of glossy wainscot. We of course at once recognize the great scarcity of good building-stone in the one country, and of well-grown forest-wood in the other, as the original and adequate cause of the peculiarity. Their dwelling-houses seem to have had different starting points ; those of the one being true lineal descendants of the old Piet’s house, complete from foundation to summit without wood, — those of the other, lineal descendants of the old forest-dwellings of the Saxon, formed ship-like in their unwieldy oaken strength, without stone. Wood to the one class was a mere subordinate accident, of late introduction, — stone to the other; and were I sent to seek out the half-way representatives of each, I would find those of England in its ancient beam-formed houses of the days of Elizabeth, in which only angular interstices in the walls are occupied by brick, and those of Scotland in its time-shattered fortalices of the type of the old castle of Craig-house, in Ross-shire, where floor rises above floor in solid masonry, or of the type of Borthwick-castle, near Edinburgh, stone from foundation to ridge.

I spent some time next morning in sauntering among the cross lanes of Hales Owen, now and then casting vague guesses, from the appearance of the humbler houses, — for what else lies within reach of the passing traveller?—regarding the character and condition of the inmates; and now and then looking in through open windows and doors at the nailers, male and female, engaged amid their intermittent hammerings and fitful showers of sparks. As might be anticipated of a profession fixed very much down to the corner of a country, and so domestic in its nature, nail-making is hereditary in the families that pursue it. The nailers of Hales Owen in the present day are the descendants of the nailers who, as Shenstone tells us, were so intelligent in the cause of Hanover during the outburst of 1745. “The rebellion,” he says, in writing a friend just two months after the battle of Prestonpans, “is, as you may guess, the subject of all conversation. Every individual nailer here takes in a newspaper, and talks as familiarly of kings and princes as ever Master Shallow did of John of Gaunt.” Scarcely a century had gone by, and I now found, from snatches of conversation caught in the passing, that the nailers of Hales Owen were interested in the five points of the Charter and the success of the League, and thought much more of what they deemed their own rights, than of the rights of either monarchs de facto or monarchs de jure. There was a nail-manufactory established about seventy years ago at Cromarty, in the north of Scotland, which reared not a few Scotch nailers; but they seamed to compete on unequal terms with those of England; and after a protracted struggle of rather more than half a century, the weaker went to the wall, and the Cromarty nail-works ceased. There is now only a single nail-forge in the town; and this last of the forges is used for other purposes than the originally intended one. I found in Hales Owen the true key to the failure of the Cromarty manufactory, and saw how it had come to be undersold in its own northern field by the nail-merchants of Birmingham. The Cromarty nailer wrought alone, or, if a family man, assisted but by his sons; whereas the Hales Owen nailer had, with the assistance of his sons, that of his wife, daughters, and maiden sisters to boot; and so he bore down the Scotchman in the contest, through the aid lent him by his female auxiliaries, in the way his blue-painted ancestors, backed by not only all the fighting men, but also all the fighting women of the district, used to bear down the enemy.

In passing a small bookseller’s shop, in which I had marked on the counter an array of second-hand books, I dropped in to see whether I might not procure a cheap edition of Shenstone, with Dodsley’s description, and found a tidy little woman behind the counter, who would fain, if she could, have suited me to my mind. But she had no copy of Shenstone, nor had she ever heard of Shenstone. She well knew Samuel Salt, the Hales Owen tee-total poet, and could sell me a copy of his works; but of the elder poet of Hales Owen she knew nothing. I bought from her two of Samuel’s broadsheets, — the one a wrathful satire on the community of Odd-Fellows; the other, “A Poem on Drunkenness.”

“O, how silly is the drinker!
Swallowing what lie does not need;
In the eyes of every thinker
He must he a fool indeed.
How he hurts his constitution!
All for want of resolution
Not to yield to drink at first!"

Such is the verse known within a mile of the Leasowes, while that of their poet is forgotten. Alas for fame! Poor Shenstone could scarce have anticipated that the thin Castalia of tee-totalism was to break upon his writings, like a mill-dam during a thunder-storm, to cover up all their elegances from the sight where they should be best known, and present instead but a turbid expanse of water.

I got access to the parish church, a fine old pile of red sandstone, which dates, in some of its more ancient portions, beyond the Norman conquest. One gorgeous marble, sentineled by figures of Benevolence, Fidelity, and Major Halliday, all very classic and fine, and which cost, as my guide informed me, a thousand pounds, failed greatly to excite my interest: I at least found that a simple pedestal in front of it, surmounted by a plain urn, impressed me more. The pedestal bears a rather lengthy inscription, in the earlier half of which there is a good deal of verbiage ; but in the concluding half the writer seems to have said nearly what he intended to say

“Reader, if genius, taste refined,
A native elegance of mind, —
If virtue, science, manly sense,
If wit that never gave offence,
The clearest head, the tenderest heart,
In thy esteem e’er claimed a part, —
O ! smite thy breast, and drop a tear,
For know, thy Shenstone’s dust lies here.”

The Leasowes engaged me for the remainder of the day; and I again walked over them a few weeks later in the season, when the leaf hung yellow on the tree, and the films of gray silky gossamer went sailing along the opener glades in the clear frosty air. But I have already recorded my impressions of the place, independently of date, as if all formed at one visit. I must now take a similar liberty with the chronology of my wendings in another direction; and, instead of passing direct to the Clent Hills in my narrative, as I did in my tour, describe, first, a posterior visit paid to the brine-springs at Droitwich. I shall by and by attempt imparting to the reader, from some commanding summit of the Clent range, a few general views regarding the geology of the landscape; and by first bearing me company on my visit to Droitwich, he will be the better able to keep pace with me in my after survey.

The prevailing geological system in this part of England is the New Red Sandstone, Upper and Lower. It stretches for many miles around the Dudley coal-basin, much in the way that the shires of Stirling and Dumbarton stretch around the waters of Loch Lomond, or the moors of Sutherland or the hills of Inverness-shire encircle the waters of Loch Shin or Loch Ness. In the immediate neighborhood of the basin we find only the formations of the lower division of the system, and these are of comparatively little economic value: they contain, however, a calcareous conglomerate, which represents the magnesian limestone of the northern counties, and which in a very few localities is pure enough to be wrought for its lime : they contain, too, several quarries of the kind of soft building sandstone which I found the old stone-mason engaged in sawing at Hagley. But while the lower division of the New Red is thus unimportant, its upper division is, we find, not greatly inferior in economic value to the Coal Measures themselves. It forms the inexhaustible storehouse of our household salt, — all that we employ in our fisheries, in our meat-curing establishments for the army and navy, in our agriculture, in our soda manufactories, — all that fuses our glass and fertilizes our fields, imparts the detergent quality to our soap, and gives us salt herrings and salt pork, and everything else salt that is the better for being so, down to our dinner celery and our breakfast eggs; it forms, in short, to use a Scoticism, the great salt-baoket of the empire; and the hand, however frequently thrust into it, never finds an empty comer. By pursuing southwards, for seven or eight miles, the road which, passing through Hales Owen, forms the principal street of the village, we rise from the lower incoherent marls, soft sandstones, and calcareous conglomerates of the system, to the equally incoherent marls, and nearly equally soft sandstones, of its upper division; and, some five or six miles further on, reach the town of Droitwich, long famous for its salt springs. There were salt-works at Droitwich in the times of the Romans, and ever since the times of the Romans. In the age of the Heptarchy, Kenulph, King of Mercia, after cutting off the hands and putting out the eyes of his brother-king, Egbert of Kent, squared his accounts with Heaven by giving ten salt-furnaces in Droitwich to the church of Worcester. Poor Edwy of England, nearly two centuries after, strove, though less successfully, to purchase the Church’s sanction to his union with his second cousin, the beautiful Elgiva, by giving it five salt-furnaces more. In all probability, the salt that seasoned King Alfred’s porridge, when he lived with the neat-herd, was supplied by the works at Droitwich. And still the brine comes welling up, copious as ever. I saw one powerful spring boiling amid the twilight gloom of its deep pot, like a witch’s cauldron in a cavern, that employs a steam-engine night and day to pump it to the surface, and furnishes a thousand tons of salt weekly. In 1779, says Nashe, in his History of Worcestershire, the net salt duties of the empire amounted to about two hundred and forty thousand pounds, and of that sum not less than seventy-five thousand pounds were derived from the salt-works at Droitwich.

The town lies low. There had been much rain for several days previous to that of my visit, — the surrounding fields had the dank blackened look so unlovely in autumn to the eye of the farmer, and the roads and streets were dark with mud. Most of the houses wore the dingy tints of a remote and somewhat neglected antiquity. Droitwich was altogether, as I saw it, a sombre-looking place, with its gray old church looking down upon it from a scraggy wood-covered hill; and what struck me as peculiarly picturesque was, that from this dark centre there should be passing continually outwards, by road or canal, wagons, carts, track-boats, barges, all laden with pure white salt, that looked in the piled-up heaps like wreaths of drifted snow. There could not be two things more unlike than the great staple of the town, and the town itself. There hung, too, over the blackened roofs, a white volume of vapor, — the steam of the numerous salt-pans, driven off in the course of evaporation by the heat, — which also strikingly contrasted with the general blackness. The place has its two extensive salt-works, — the old and the new. To the new I was denied access; but it mattered little, as I got ready admittance to the old. The man who superintended the pumping engine, though he knew me merely as a curious traveller somewhat mud-bespattered, stopped the machine for a few seconds, that I might see undisturbed the brine boiling up from its secret depths; and I was freely permitted to take the round of the premises, and to examine the numerous vats in their various stages of evaporation. It is pleasant to throw one’s self, unknown and unrecommended, on the humanity of one’s fellows, and to receive kindness simply as a man!

As I saw the vats seething over the furnaces, some of them more than already half-filled with the precipitated salt, and bearing atop a stratum of yellowish-colored fluid, the grand problem furnished by the saline deposits of this formation rose before me in all its difficulty. Geology propounds many a hard question to its students, — questions quite hard and difficult enough to keep down their conceit, unless, indeed, very largely developed; and few of these seem more inexplicable than the problem furnished by the salt deposits. Here, now, are these briny springs welling out of this Upper New Red Sandstone of central England, — springs whose waters were employed in making salt two thousand years ago, and which still throw up that mineral at the rate of a thousand tons apiece weekly, without sign of diminution in either their volume or their degree of saturation ! At Stoke Prior, about three miles to the east of Droitwich, a shaft of four hundred and sixty-feet has been sunk in the Upper New Red, and four beds of rock-salt passed through, the united thickness of which amount to eighty-five feet. Nor does this comprise the entire thickness, as the lower bed, though penetrated to the depth of thirty feet, has not been perforated. In the salt-mines of Cheshire, the beds are of still greater thickness, — an upper bed measuring in depth seventy-eight feet, and an under bed, to which no bottom has yet been found, a hundred and twenty feet. And in Poland and Spain there occur salt deposits on a larger scale still. The saliferous district of Cordova, for instance, has its solid hills of rock-salt, which nearly equal in height and bulk Arthur’s Seat taken from the level of Holyrood House. How, I inquired, beside the flat steaming cauldrons, as I marked the white crystals arranging their facets at the bottom, — how were these mighty deposits formed in the grand laboratory of Nature? Formed they must have been, in this part of the world, in an era long posterior to that of the Coal; and in Spain, where they belong to the cretaceous group, in an era long posterior to that of the Oolite. They are more immediately underlaid in England by a sandstone constituting the base of the Upper New Red, which is largely charged with vegetable remains of a peculiar and well-marked character; and the equally well-marked flora of the carboniferous period lies entombed many hundred feet below. All the rock-salt in the kingdom must have been formed since the more recent vegetation of the Red Sandstone lived and died, and was entombed amid the smooth sands of some deep-sea bottom.

But how formed? Several antagonist theories have been promulgated in attempted resolution of the puzzle. By some the salt has been regarded as a volcanic product ejected from beneath; by some, as the precipitate of a deep ocean overcharged with saline matter; by some, as a deposit of salt-water lakes cut off from the main sea, like the salt lagoons of the tropics, by surf-raised spits or bars, and then dried up by the heat of the sun. It seems fatal to the first theory, that the eras of Plutonic disturbance in this part of the kingdom are of a date anterior to the era of the Saliferous Sandstone. The Clent Hills belong to the latest period of trappean eruption traceable in the midland counties; and they were unquestionably thrown up, says Murchison, shortly after the close of the Carboniferous era, — many ages ere the Saliferous era began. Besides, what evidence have we derived from volcanoes, either recent or extinct, that rock-salt, in deposits so enormously huge, is a volcanic product? Volcanoes in the neighborhood of the sea — and there are but few very active ones that have not the sea for their neighbor — deposit not unfrequently a crust of salt on the rocks and lavas that surround their craters; but we never hear of their throwing down vast saliferous beds, continuous for great distances, like those of the New Red Sandstone of England. And further, even were salt in such huge quantity an unequivocally volcanic production, how account for its position and arrangement here ? How account for the occurrence of a volcanic product, spreading away in level beds and layers for nearly two hundred miles, in one of the least disturbed of the English formations, and forming no inconsiderable portion of its strata ? As for the second theory, it seems exceedingly difficult to conceive how, in an open sea, subject, of course, like all open seas, to such equalizing influences as the ruffling of the winds and the deeper stirrings of the tides, any one tract of water should become so largely saturated as to throw down portions of its salt, when the surrounding tracts, less strongly impregnated, retained theirs. I have seen a fish-curer’s vat throwing down its salt when surcharged with the mineral, but never any one stronger patch of the brine doing so ere the general mixture around it had attained to the necessary degree of saturation. And the lagoon theory, though apparently more tenable than any of the others, seems scarce less enveloped in difficulty. The few inches, at most few feet, of salt which line the bottoms and sides of the lagoons of the tropics, are but poor representatives of deposits of salt like those of the Upper Old Red of Cheshire ; and Geology, as has been already indicated, has its deposits huger still. Were one of the vast craters of the moon—Tycho or Copernicus — to be filled with sea-water to the brim, and the fires of twenty JEfnas to be lighted up under it, we could scarce expect as the result a greater salt-making than that of Cordova or Cracow. A bed of salt a hundred feet in thickness would demand for its salt-pan a lagoon many hundred feet in depth; and lagoons many hundred feet in depth, in at least the present state of things, are never evaporated.

The salt-works at Droitwich were visited, in the reign of Henry the Eighth, by Leland the antiquary. He “asked a salter,” he tells us, “how many furnaces they had in all; and the salter numbered them to an eighteen score, saying, that every one paid yearly to the king six shillings and eightpence.” “Making salt,” the antiquary adds, “is a notable destruction of wood, — six thousand loads of the young pole-wood, easily cloven, being used twelvemonthly; and the lack of wood is now perceivable in all places near the Wyche, on as far as Worcester.” The Dudley coal-field seems to have been broached just in time to preserve to the midland districts their iron and salt trade. The complaint that the old forests were well-nigh gone was becoming general, when, in 1662, a Dudley miner took out a patent for smelting his ironstone with coke instead of charcoal; and the iron trade of England has been the largest of which, there called Grusnoe Azore, is probably the same that is distinguished in our maps by the name of the new salt lake, and is five miles long, and two-thirds of a mile wide. These lakes have the property, in common with others of the same kind, that during the hottest season of the year, which, in these parts, is from May to the end of August, the surface of the water becomes covered with a crust of salt nearly an inch thick, which is collected with shovels into boats, and piled away. This is managed by private individuals, who rent the privilege from the government of the Don, on condition of paying a tenth of the produce. On this occasion I was much interested in being able to prove to my own satisfaction, that in such lakes it is nothing more than the rapid evaporation from the heat of the sun, and the consequent supersaturation of the water with salt, that effects the crystallization of the latter ; for these lakes are so shallow that the little boats in which the salt is gathered are generally trailing on the bottom, and leave a long furrow behind them on it; so that the lake is consequently to be regarded as a wide pan of enormous superficial extent, in which the brine can easily reach the degree of concentration required; while, on the other hand, if the summer prove cold or rainy, the superfluous water must necessarily militate against the crystallization of the salt, or even prevent it altogether.”

On the increase ever since. And only a few years later, the salters of Droitwich became equally independent of the nearly exhausted forests, by lighting up their “ eighteen score furnaces ” with coal. The railways and canals of the country have since spread the rock-salt of the New Red Sandstone over the empire; and it is a curious fact, that some of our old established Scotch saltworks — works so old that they were in existence for centuries before the Scotch salter had ceased to be. a slave — are now engaged in crystallizing, not sea-water, as formerly, but rock-salt, from the midland counties of England. I picked up, about a twelvemonth ago, on a cart-road in the neighborhood of Prestonpans, a fragment of rock-salt, and then, a few yards nearer the town, a second fragment; and curious to know where the mineral could have come from, in a district that has none of its own, I went direct to one of the more ancient salt-works of the place to inquire. But the large reservoir of salt water attached to the works for supplying the boilers, and which communicates by a pipe with the profounder depths of the sea bey ond, of itself revealed the secret. There, against one of the corners, lay a red, half-molten pile of the rock-salt of Cheshire; while the enveloping sea-water — of old the only source of the salt manufactured in the village — constituted but a mere auxiliary source of supply, and a solvent,


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