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From London to Land's End (Devon Section)

Daniel Defoe

Cassell & Co., London (1888)

Transcribed by David Price

 

Note: The text of this book was first published as Letter III in Vol. 1 of Defoe's "A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain" (1724).

[Honiton] is a large and beautiful market-town, very populous and well built, and is so very remarkably paved with small pebbles that on either side the way a little channel is left shouldered up on the sides of it, so that it holds a small stream of fine clear running water, with a little square dipping-place left at every door; so that every family in the town has a clear, clean running river (as it may be called) just at their own door, and this so much finer, so much pleasanter, and agreeable to look on than that at Salisbury (which they boast so much of), that, in my opinion, there is no comparison.

Here we see the first of the great serge manufacture of Devonshire- -a trade too great to be described in miniature, as it must be if I undertake it here, and which takes up this whole county, which is the largest and most populous in England, Yorkshire excepted (which ought to be esteemed three counties, and is, indeed, divided as such into the East, West, and North Riding). But Devonshire, one entire county, is so full of great towns, and those towns so full of people, and those people so universally employed in trade and manufactures, that not only it cannot be equalled in England, but perhaps not in Europe.

In my travel through Dorsetshire I ought to have observed that the biggest towns in that county sent no members to Parliament, and that the smallest did--that is to say that Sherborne, Blandford, Wimborneminster, Stourminster, and several other towns choose no members; whereas Weymouth, Melcombe, and Bridport were all burgess towns. But now we come to Devonshire we find almost all the great towns, and some smaller, choosing members also. It is true there are some large populous towns that do not choose, but then there are so many that do, that the county seems to have no injustice, for they send up six-and-twenty members.

However, as I say above, there are several great towns which do not choose Parliament men, of which Bideford is one, Crediton or Kirton another, Ilfracombe a third; but, those excepted, the principal towns in the county do all choose members of Parliament.

Honiton is one of those, and may pass not only for a pleasant good town, as before, but stands in the best and pleasantest part of the whole county, and I cannot but recommend it to any gentlemen that travel this road, that if they please to observe the prospect for half a mile till their coming down the hill and to the entrance into Honiton, the view of the country is the most beautiful landscape in the world--a mere picture--and I do not remember the like in any one place in England. It is observable that the market of this town was kept originally on the Sunday, till it was changed by the direction of King John.

From Honiton the country is exceeding pleasant still, and on the road they have a beautiful prospect almost all the way to Exeter (which is twelve miles). On the left-hand of this road lies that part of the county which they call the South Hams, and which is famous for the best cider in that part of England; also the town of St.-Mary-Ottery, commonly called St. Mary Autree. They tell us the name is derived from the River Ottery, and that from the multitude of otters found always in that river, which however, to me, seems fabulous. Nor does there appear to be any such great number of otters in that water, or in the county about, more than is usual in other counties or in other parts of the county about them. They tell us they send twenty thousand hogsheads of cider hence every year to London, and (which is still worse) that it is most of it bought there by the merchants to mix with their wines--which, if true, is not much to the reputation of the London vintners. But that by-the-bye.

From hence we came to Exeter, a city famous for two things which we seldom find unite in the same town--viz., that it is full of gentry and good company, and yet full of trade and manufactures also. The serge market held here every week is very well worth a stranger's seeing, and next to the Brigg Market at Leeds, in Yorkshire, is the greatest in England. The people assured me that at this market is generally sold from sixty to seventy to eighty, and sometimes a hundred, thousand pounds value in serges in a week. I think it is kept on Mondays.

They have the River Esk here, a very considerable river, and principal in the whole county; and within three miles, or thereabouts, it receives ships of any ordinary burthen, the port there being called Topsham. But now by the application, and at the expense, of the citizens the channel of the river is so widened, deepened, and cleansed from the shoal, which would otherwise interrupt the navigation, that the ships come now quite up to the city, and there with ease both deliver and take in their lading.

This city drives a very great correspondence with Holland, as also directly to Portugal, Spain, and Italy--shipping off vast quantities of their woollen manufactures especially to Holland, the Dutch giving very large commissions here for the buying of serges perpetuans, and such goods; which are made not only in and about Exeter, but at Crediton, Honiton, Culliton, St.-Mary-Ottery, Newton Bushel, Ashburton, and especially at Tiverton, Cullompton, Bampton, and all the north-east part of the county--which part of the county is, as it may be said, fully employed, the people made rich, and the poor that are properly so called well subsisted and employed by it.

Exeter is a large, rich, beautiful, populous, and was once a very strong city; but as to the last, as the castle, the walls, and all the old works are demolished, so, were they standing, the way of managing sieges and attacks of towns is such now, and so altered from what it was in those days, that Exeter in the utmost strength it could ever boast would not now hold out five days open trenches- -nay, would hardly put an army to the trouble of opening trenches against it at all. This city was famous in the late civil unnatural war for its loyalty to the king, and for being a sanctuary to the queen, where her Majesty resided for some time, and here she was delivered of a daughter, being the Princess Henrietta Maria, of whom our histories give a particular account, so I need say no more of it here.

The cathedral church of this city is an ancient beauty, or, as it may be said, it is beautiful for its antiquity; but it has been so fully and often described that it would look like a mere copying from others to mention it. There is a good library kept in it, in which are some manuscripts, and particularly an old missal or mass- book, the leaves of vellum, and famous for its most exquisite writing.

This county, and this part of it in particular, has been famous for the birth of several eminent men as well for learning as for arts and for war, as particularly:-

1. Sir William Petre, who the learned Dr. Wake (now Archbishop of Canterbury, and author of the Additions to Mr. Camden) says was Secretary of State and Privy Councillor to King Henry VIII., Edward VI., Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth, and seven times sent ambassador into foreign countries.

2. Sir Thomas Bodley, famous and of grateful memory to all learned men and lovers of letters for his collecting and establishing the best library in Britain, which is now at Oxford, and is called, after his name, the Bodleian Library to this day.

3. Also Sir Francis Drake, born at Plymouth.

4. Sir Walter Raleigh. Of both those I need say nothing; fame publishes their merit upon every mention of their names.

5. That great patron of learning, Richard Hooker, author of the "Ecclesiastical Polity," and of several other valuable pieces.

6. Of Dr. Arthur Duck, a famed civilian, and well known by his works among the learned advocates of Doctors' Commons.

7. Dr. John Moreman, of Southold, famous for being the first clergyman in England who ventured to teach his parishioners the Lord's Prayer, Creed, and Ten Commandments in the English tongue, and reading them so publicly in the parish church of Mayenhennet in this county, of which he was vicar.

8. Dr. John de Brampton, a man of great learning who flourished in the reign of Henry VI., was famous for being the first that read Aristotle publicly in the University of Cambridge, and for several learned books of his writing, which are now lost.

9. Peter Blundel, a clothier, who built the free school at Tiverton, and endowed it very handsomely; of which in its place.

10. Sir John Glanvill, a noted lawyer, and one of the Judges of the Common Pleas.

11. Sergeant Glanvill, his son; as great a lawyer as his father.

12. Sir John Maynard, an eminent lawyer of later years; one of the Commissioners of the Great Seal under King William III. All these three were born at Tavistock.

13. Sir Peter King, the present Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. And many others.

I shall take the north part of this county in my return from Cornwall; so I must now lean to the south--that is to say, to the South Coast--for in going on indeed we go south-west.

About twenty-two miles from Exeter we go to Totnes, on the River Dart. This is a very good town, of some trade; but has more gentlemen in it than tradesmen of note. They have a very fine stone bridge here over the river, which, being within seven or eight miles of the sea, is very large; and the tide flows ten or twelve feet at the bridge. Here we had the diversion of seeing them catch fish with the assistance of a dog. The case is this:- On the south side of the river, and on a slip, or narrow cut or channel made on purpose for a mill, there stands a corn-mill; the mill-tail, or floor for the water below the wheels, is wharfed up on either side with stone above high-water mark, and for above twenty or thirty feet in length below it on that part of the river towards the sea; at the end of this wharfing is a grating of wood, the cross-bars of which stand bearing inward, sharp at the end, and pointing inward towards one another, as the wires of a mouse-trap.

When the tide flows up, the fish can with ease go in between the points of these cross-bars, but the mill being shut down they can go no farther upwards; and when the water ebbs again, they are left behind, not being able to pass the points of the grating, as above, outwards; which, like a mouse-trap, keeps them in, so that they are left at the bottom with about a foot or a foot and a half of water. We were carried hither at low water, where we saw about fifty or sixty small salmon, about seventeen to twenty inches long, which the country people call salmon-peal; and to catch these the person who went with us, who was our landlord at a great inn next the bridge, put in a net on a hoop at the end of a pole, the pole going cross the hoop (which we call in this country a shove-net). The net being fixed at one end of the place, they put in a dog (who was taught his trade beforehand) at the other end of the place, and he drives all the fish into the net; so that, only holding the net still in its place, the man took up two or three and thirty salmon- peal at the first time.

Of these we took six for our dinner, for which they asked a shilling (viz., twopence a-piece); and for such fish, not at all bigger, and not so fresh, I have seen six-and-sixpence each given at a London fish-market, whither they are sometimes brought from Chichester by land carriage.

This excessive plenty of so good fish (and other provisions being likewise very cheap in proportion) makes the town of Totnes a very good place to live in; especially for such as have large families and but small estates. And many such are said to come into those parts on purpose for saving money, and to live in proportion to their income.

From hence we went still south about seven miles (all in view of this river) to Dartmouth, a town of note, seated at the mouth of the River Dart, and where it enters into the sea at a very narrow but safe entrance. The opening into Dartmouth Harbour is not broad, but the channel deep enough for the biggest ship in the Royal Navy. The sides of the entrance are high-mounded with rocks, without which, just at the first narrowing of the passage, stands a good strong fort without a platform of guns, which commands the port.

The narrow entrance is not much above half a mile, when it opens and makes a basin or harbour able to receive 500 sail of ships of any size, and where they may ride with the greatest safety, even as in a mill-pond or wet dock. I had the curiosity here, with the assistance of a merchant of the town, to go out to the mouth of the haven in a boat to see the entrance, and castle or fort that commands it; and coming back with the tide of flood, I observed some small fish to skip and play upon the surface of the water, upon which I asked my friend what fish they were. Immediately one of the rowers or seamen starts up in the boat, and, throwing his arms abroad as if he had been bewitched, cries out as loud as he could bawl, "A school! a school!" The word was taken to the shore as hastily as it would have been on land if he had cried "Fire!" And by that time we reached the quays the town was all in a kind of an uproar.

The matter was that a great shoal--or, as they call it, a "school"- -of pilchards came swimming with the tide of flood, directly out of the sea into the harbour. My friend whose boat we were in told me this was a surprise which he would have been very glad of if he could but have had a day or two's warning, for he might have taken 200 tons of them. And the like was the case of other merchants in town; for, in short, nobody was ready for them, except a small fishing-boat or two--one of which went out into the middle of the harbour, and at two or three hauls took about forty thousand of them. We sent our servant to the quay to buy some, who for a halfpenny brought us seventeen, and, if he would have taken them, might have had as many more for the same money. With these we went to dinner; the cook at the inn broiled them for us, which is their way of dressing them, with pepper and salt, which cost us about a farthing; so that two of us and a servant dined--and at a tavern, too--for three farthings, dressing and all. And this is the reason of telling the tale. What drink--wine or beer--we had I do not remember; but, whatever it was, that we paid for by itself. But for our food we really dined for three farthings, and very well, too. Our friend treated us the next day with a dish of large lobsters, and I being curious to know the value of such things, and having freedom enough with him to inquire, I found that for 6d. or 8d. they bought as good lobsters there as would have cost in London 3s. to 3s. 6d. each.

In observing the coming in of those pilchards, as above, we found that out at sea, in the offing, beyond the mouth of the harbour, there was a whole army of porpoises, which, as they told us, pursued the pilchards, and, it is probable, drove them into the harbour, as above. The school, it seems, drove up the river a great way, even as high as Totnes Bridge, as we heard afterwards; so that the country people who had boats and nets catched as many as they knew what to do with, and perhaps lived upon pilchards for several days. But as to the merchants and trade, their coming was so sudden that it was no advantage to them.

Round the west side of this basin or harbour, in a kind of a semicircle, lies the town of Dartmouth, a very large and populous town, though but meanly built, and standing on the side of a steep hill; yet the quay is large, and the street before it spacious. Here are some very flourishing merchants, who trade very prosperously, and to the most considerable trading ports of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the Plantations; but especially they are great traders to Newfoundland, and from thence to Spain and Italy, with fish; and they drive a good trade also in their own fishery of pilchards, which is hereabouts carried on with the greatest number of vessels of any port in the west, except Falmouth.

A little to the southward of this town, and to the east of the port, is Tor Bay, of which I know nothing proper to my observation, more than that it is a very good road for ships, though sometimes (especially with a southerly or south-east wind) ships have been obliged to quit the bay and put out to sea, or run into Dartmouth for shelter.

I suppose I need not mention that they had from the hilly part of this town, and especially from the hills opposite to it, the noble prospect, and at that time particularly delightful, of the Prince of Orange's fleet when he came to that coast, and as they entered into Tor Bay to land--the Prince and his army being in a fleet of about 600 sail of transport ships, besides 50 sail of men-of-war of the line, all which, with a fair wind and fine weather, came to an anchor there at once.

This town, as most of the towns of Devonshire are, is full of Dissenters, and a very large meeting-house they have here. How they act here with respect to the great dispute about the doctrine of the Trinity, which has caused such a breach among those people at Exeter and other parts of the county, I cannot give any account of. This town sends two members to Parliament.

From hence we went to Plympton, a poor and thinly-inhabited town, though blessed with the like privilege of sending members to the Parliament, of which I have little more to say but that from thence the road lies to Plymouth, distance about six miles.

Plymouth is indeed a town of consideration, and of great importance to the public. The situation of it between two very large inlets of the sea, and in the bottom of a large bay, which is very remarkable for the advantage of navigation. The Sound or Bay is compassed on every side with hills, and the shore generally steep and rocky, though the anchorage is good, and it is pretty safe riding. In the entrance to this bay lies a large and most dangerous rock, which at high-water is covered, but at low-tide lies bare, where many a good ship has been lost, even in the view of safety, and many a ship's crew drowned in the night, before help could be had for them.

Upon this rock (which was called the Eddystone, from its situation) the famous Mr. Winstanley undertook to build a lighthouse for the direction of sailors, and with great art and expedition finished it; which work--considering its height, the magnitude of its building, and the little hold there was by which it was possible to fasten it to the rock--stood to admiration, and bore out many a bitter storm.

Mr. Winstanley often visited, and frequently strengthened, the building by new works, and was so confident of its firmness and stability that he usually said he only desired to be in it when a storm should happen; for many people had told him it would certainly fall if it came to blow a little harder than ordinary.

But he happened at last to be in it once too often--namely, when that dreadful tempest blew, November 27, 1703. This tempest began on the Wednesday before, and blew with such violence, and shook the lighthouse so much, that, as they told me there, Mr. Winstanley would fain have been on shore, and made signals for help; but no boats durst go off to him; and, to finish the tragedy, on the Friday, November 26, when the tempest was so redoubled that it became a terror to the whole nation, the first sight there seaward that the people of Plymouth were presented with in the morning after the storm was the bare Eddystone, the lighthouse being gone; in which Mr. Winstanley and all that were with him perished, and were never seen or heard of since. But that which was a worse loss still was that, a few days after, a merchant's ship called the Winchelsea, homeward bound from Virginia, not knowing the Eddystone lighthouse was down, for want of the light that should have been seen, run foul of the rock itself, and was lost with all her lading and most of her men. But there is now another light-house built on the same rock.

What other disasters happened at the same time in the Sound and in the roads about Plymouth is not my business; they are also published in other books, to which I refer.

One thing which I was a witness to on a former journey to this place, I cannot omit. It was the next year after that great storm, and but a little sooner in the year, being in August; I was at Plymouth, and walking on the Hoo (which is a plain on the edge of the sea, looking to the road), I observed the evening so serene, so calm, so bright, and the sea so smooth, that a finer sight, I think, I never saw. There was very little wind, but what was, seemed to be westerly; and about an hour after, it blew a little breeze at south-west, with which wind there came into the Sound that night and the next morning a fleet of fourteen sail of ships from Barbadoes, richly laden for London. Having been long at sea, most of the captains and passengers came on shore to refresh themselves, as is usual after such tedious voyages; and the ships rode all in the Sound on that side next to Catwater. As is customary upon safe arriving to their native country, there was a general joy and rejoicing both on board and on shore.

The next day the wind began to freshen, especially in the afternoon, and the sea to be disturbed, and very hard it blew at night; but all was well for that time. But the night after, it blew a dreadful storm (not much inferior, for the time it lasted, to the storm mentioned above which blew down the lighthouse on the Eddystone). About mid-night the noise, indeed, was very dreadful, what with the rearing of the sea and of the wind, intermixed with the firing of guns for help from the ships, the cries of the seamen and people on shore, and (which was worse) the cries of those which were driven on shore by the tempest and dashed in pieces. In a word, all the fleet except three, or thereabouts, were dashed to pieces against the rocks and sunk in the sea, most of the men being drowned. Those three who were saved, received so much damage that their lading was almost all spoiled. One ship in the dark of the night, the men not knowing where they were, run into Catwater, and run on shore there; by which she was, however, saved from shipwreck, and the lives of her crew were saved also.

This was a melancholy morning indeed. Nothing was to be seen but wrecks of the ships and a foaming, furious sea in that very place where they rode all in joy and triumph but the evening before. The captains, passengers, and officers who were, as I have said, gone on shore, between the joy of saving their lives, and the affliction of having lost their ships, their cargoes, and their friends, were objects indeed worth our compassion and observation. And there was a great variety of the passions to be observed in them--now lamenting their losses, their giving thanks for their deliverance. Many of the passengers had lost their all, and were, as they expressed themselves, "utterly undone." They were, I say, now lamenting their losses with violent excesses of grief; then giving thanks for their lives, and that they should be brought on shore, as it were, on purpose to be saved from death; then again in tears for such as were drowned. The various cases were indeed very affecting, and, in many things, very instructing.

As I say, Plymouth lies in the bottom of this Sound, in the centre between the two waters, so there lies against it, in the same position, an island, which they call St. Nicholas, on which there is a castle which commands the entrance into Hamoaze, and indeed that also into Catwater in some degree. In this island the famous General Lambert, one of Cromwell's great agents or officers in the rebellion, was imprisoned for life, and lived many years there.

On the shore over against this island is the citadel of Plymouth, a small but regular fortification, inaccessible by sea, but not exceeding strong by land, except that they say the works are of a stone hard as marble, and would not seen yield to the batteries of an enemy--but that is a language our modern engineers now laugh at.

The town stands above this, upon the same rock, and lies sloping on the side of it, towards the east--the inlet of the sea which is called Catwater, and which is a harbour capable of receiving any number of ships and of any size, washing the eastern shore of the town, where they have a kind of natural mole or haven, with a quay and all other conveniences for bringing in vessels for loading and unloading; nor is the trade carried on here inconsiderable in itself, or the number of merchants small.

The other inlet of the sea, as I term it, is on the other side of the town, and is called Hamoaze, being the mouth of the River Tamar, a considerable river which parts the two counties of Devon and Cornwall. Here (the war with France making it necessary that the ships of war should have a retreat nearer hand than at Portsmouth) the late King William ordered a wet dock--with yards, dry docks, launches, and conveniences of all kinds for building and repairing of ships--to be built; and with these followed necessarily the building of store-houses and warehouses for the rigging, sails, naval and military stores, &c., of such ships as may be appointed to be laid up there, as now several are; with very handsome houses for the commissioners, clerks, and officers of all kinds usual in the king's yards, to dwell in. It is, in short, now become as complete an arsenal or yard for building and fitting men- of-war as any the Government are masters of, and perhaps much more convenient than some of them, though not so large.

The building of these things, with the addition of rope-walks and mast-yards, &c., as it brought abundance of trades-people and workmen to the place, so they began by little and little to build houses on the lands adjacent, till at length there appeared a very handsome street, spacious and large, and as well inhabited; and so many houses are since added that it is become a considerable town, and must of consequence in time draw abundance of people from Plymouth itself.

However, the town of Plymouth is, and will always be, a very considerable town, while that excellent harbour makes it such a general port for the receiving all the fleets of merchants' ships from the southward (as from Spain, Italy, the West Indies, &c.), who generally make it the first port to put in at for refreshment, or safety from either weather or enemies.

The town is populous and wealthy, having, as above, several considerable merchants and abundance of wealthy shopkeepers, whose trade depends upon supplying the sea-faring people that upon so many occasions put into that port. As for gentlemen--I mean, those that are such by family and birth and way of living--it cannot be expected to find many such in a town merely depending on trade, shipping, and sea-faring business; yet I found here some men of value (persons of liberal education, general knowledge, and excellent behaviour), whose society obliges me to say that a gentleman might find very agreeable company in Plymouth.