Thursday, 17 November 2011

Richard Rosny - and an apocryphal rhyme

Gore Cliff - "over-beetling crags"
One of the pleasant aspects of researching a topic is how later experience and research brings new light to topics previously visited. A while back I mentioned Maxwell Gray's 1903 novel Richard Rosny, (Internet Archive richardrosny00graygoog), which is set on the Isle of Wight. One chapter, The Storm, features this extended description of the landscape of the coastal road where Ronald Musgrave attempts to persuade Richard's wife Evelyn to elope with him.
The high ridge of Wimbury Down ended seaward in an abrupt and precipitous fall of some three hundred feet to a grassy level, bestrewn with fallen rocks and sheltered from the north by the grassy cliff crowned with weathered limestone crag that was drawn bold and sharp against the sky. This broken level, itself on the summit of cliffs descending less abruptly to a rocky shore on which the sea broke with thunderous roar in stillest summer weather, was a sunny and peaceful place enjoying a climate of its own, and much clothed, especially between projecting spurs of the upper cliff, with woods feathering away on the steep to mere brush, bramble, and ivy, that sometimes ran up even to the over-beetling crags, where ravens built and hawks, and more rarely a falcon, had their homes.

Here on one wild December day, when the hoarse roar and harsh scream of the ground swell made a continuous fundamental bass to all other sounds; when the wind, striking the tide sideways, crushed the long rollers one over the other upon themselves and tore their crests into white haze of blinding spindrift, and whistled shrill and sharp over the shuddering turf above the crag, and howled across the open country and smote tree-tops together and tore them apart with savage shrieks and cruel mirth amid grinding branches and twisting trunks; here in the mossy heart of a wooded hollow there was peace and warmth, and all the tumult of wailing wind and beaten surge and roaring woodland was subdued and blended to a deep majestic organ symphony, with trumpet stop and bourdon alternatively prevailing. Hence, through thinning trunks and boughs to the south could be caught a glimpse of foam-ridged sea, empty of mast and sail; here a small wren, climbing through the low brush feathering the cliff flank, raised a disproportionately powerful strain of shrill, sweet song from time to time, and not far, the waters of a clear spring fell musically and were caught in a rude stone basin; the nearest house was hidden from sight.
- Maxwell Gray, Richard Rosny, 1903
Slight purpleness of prose aside, this is an accurately-recollected landscape description. Evelyn is walking home in a storm, with the wind at her back, toward "Wimbury" (which internal clues identify as Whitwell). The landscape description and wind direction put her on the Undercliff, not from from "Caster Cove" (Puckaster Cove) where her husband is helping in a shipwreck rescue. The Sandrock Road between Blackgang and Niton is most likely where she is.

The spring where Evelyn Rosny meets Musgrave isn't just a romantic invention: the coastal road runs along the base of an aquifer, which gave rise to a number of such springs.  Perhaps Maxwell Gray's spring with its "rude stone basin" was inspired by the roadside Shakespeare Memorial Fountain.

I wouldn't want to be on this road in a storm now. The remaining segment cut off by landslips at both ends - see below, and On the lost road - is picturesque, but frightening in its precariousness.

The road now
There are some good photos of the Undercliff landslip, with explanation, in Dr Ian West's Introduction to Isle of Wight Geology (scroll down a bit over half-way or search the page for "Gore Cliff" - this one is especially nice).

I noticed in the references a citation to a research project by Mark Davies concerning the same area, whose abstract contains this section:
Blackgang stands in the south western corner of the Isle of Wight. The area has a history of land movement which continues up to the present day. Legend has it that in 1539, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the monk at St. Catherines Oratory on the hills above Blackgang was so unhappy that he laid a curse on the parish of Chale. This condemned the parish to fall into the sea and it is reported to read as follows:

I curse the hill and I curse the strand
I curse the ground whereon I stand
Flower nor fruit this earth shall bear
and all shall be dark and waste and bare,
But a poisonous stream shall run to the sea
bitter to taste and bloody to see
and the earth shall crumble and crumble away
and crumble on to Judgement Day.

(Anon c.16th Century)
(from Blackgang exhibition, plate 3)

[The reference to a bitter stream of bloody appearance describes a chalybeate spring resulting from oxidation of pyrite; sulphate ions in solution account for the bitterness, while ferric humic colloids provide the red colour. Such springs are common in the pyritic Lower Greensand of the Isle of Wight.]
It's a nice story, but I'd bet money that it's not "Anon c.16th century". Like the Dawlish-associated legend of the Parson and Clerk, it appears to be a 19th century invention, and the earliest occurrence I can find of this rhyme is in the pseudonymous Abraham Elder's 1839 Tales and Legends of the Isle of Wight ("with the adventures of the author in search of them" - Internet Archive talesandlegends00eldegoog).

Elder's book is quite fun; it uses the framing device of the author touring the Island with the antiquary Mr Winterblossom and the folksy Ragged Jack, while Winterblossom recounts stories about the places visited. Ragged Jack is a great invention: on being acquitted of stealing luggage, he asks for compensation for loss of earnings over the time he was in court but could have been begging. He previously got off a charge of involvement in smuggling by arguing his character made it impossible: no smuggler would trust him to carry a tub.

The actual stories, however, don't ring true as authentic legend. The Story of the Pied Piper of Newtown, for instance, is most likely a ripoff of the Verstegan version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin legend, transplanted to Franchville, the old name for Newtown.  (even in Victorian times, its authenticity as an Isle of Wight story was disputed - see  Joseph Jacobs, The Problem of Diffusion: Rejoinder, Folklore, 1890, page 141).

The one containing the curse is A Legend of Blackgang Chyne, which tells the story of The Giant of Chale, a cannibal ogre; he's finally confronted by a saint, who utters a curse that causes the Giant and all his minions to disappear (with the rather excessive side-effect of permanently blighting the landscape). The assertion of antiquity comes from the framing narrative:
" Pray Mr. Winterblossom," said I, "do you consider this legend to be an undoubted antique?"

"All I know about it," replied he, "is, that the copy of it that was given to me twenty years ago was written upon a very dirty piece of paper, and certainly in an old-fashioned character. There appears to me also to be a certain quaintness about it that smacks of age ..."
Yeah, and the dog ate my homework. As a Notes and Queries correspondent wrote:
[Elder's] book is clever and interesting: but it does not appear how far the stories told by him are really local legend, and how far they are due to his own fancy or to the folk-lore of places other than the island.
- "A.J.M.", Notes and Queries, 5th S, VI, Oct 21, 1876, page 338
- Ray

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