Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The thankful old lady of Topsham

While skimming topographical references, I ran into Elizabeth Jane Brabazon's Exmouth & its Environs, an 1866 travel account which takes a side-excursion to Topsham that wasn't entirely to the author's taste. Directed on a pleasant field walk to "the Countess Weir’s grand house", she finds she has been sent to a pub; and she has a run-in with smoky lodgings and the Panglossian "thankful old lady of Topsham".

Dawn over marina and Trout's boatyard, 30th December 2014
Thinking that a few days total change of air would be bracing, and pleasant, I engaged lodgings for a week at the old seaport town of Topsham, or TOPA’s-ham or hoeme. Who Topa was, seems extremely conjectural, but his home has been aptly described as “the oddest of odd English towns, straggling along the banks, as if it longed to get rid of itself.” It is about five miles from Exeter, and was once of considerable importance; old Leland calls it “the great rode for shipping that usith this haven, and especially for the shippes and Merchantmannes goods of Exester,” it had, even before his time, an excellent trade with Newfoundland. It has, also associations with history as well as traffic, having repulsed the Earl of

Warwick, who in 16413, attempted to land a force here, for the relief of the Exeter Royalists, and being in 16415, the head quarters of General Fairfax.

There is now little business carried on here, but ship building, rope, and chain making, it has a few tolerable general provision shops, two Inns formerly in much repute—“The Globe,” and “The Salutation,”—and a Post and Money Order Office.

There is nothing particularly deserving of notice about its Church, Saint Margaret’s, except its great antiquity and low mossy square tower. There are two good monuments within, done by Chantrey; one, to the memory of the brave Admiral Duckworth, and the other to his son, a colonel, who fell at Albuera.

From the Strand, where was my temporary home, I had a pleasant and extensive range of view, and through the adjacent fields are pretty walks. The blunders made by strangers, ignorant of its locality and dialect,

are often highly entertaining; occasionally One blunders into something advantageous too, as was the case with myself, for I owed to a ridiculous misapprehension, one of my prettiest rambles in the neighbourhood of Topsham. Anxious to select well, as my stay here was to be short, I asked a few of the villagers to name some place within walking distance, worth going to see; several voices urged me to take the field-path to the Countess Weir’s grand house, which had “ beautiful fields close by.”
“Gay hope was mine, by fancy led,
“Least pleasing when possess’d!”
And off I set for her Ladyship’s mansion. My path was extremely pretty, as it wound by mossy rock, and limpid brook, but to no splendid mansion did it seem to me to lead; suddenly, a view so lovely opened to me, that I wished I had a painters pencil, to share with my reader my delight in gazing on it: I stood on the bank of Devon’s most beautiful and important river, the Exe, (anciently, Isca,) which rises at Exmoor in Somersetshire, and

entering this county at Exbridge, after a long and beautiful course meets the tide at a short distance above Topsham, where, perceiving the current of the ‘Clyst,' it suddenly widens to upwards of a mile, becoming navigable for vessels of several hundred tons.

Near this “meeting of the waters,” I stood, and, in the loveliness of the prospect, had a rich reward for my fatigueingly undulating walk. That, however, was my sole reward, for, on reaching at last the mansion, I discovered that it was a large “Public,” in front of which, blazing in the sunshine in golden capitals, were the explanatory words “THE COUNTESSWEIRE, HOUSE OF ENTERTAINMENT,” what a chateau en Espagne, here crumbled into dust!
This "public" is, by the way, the former Countess Wear Inn, later Countess Wear Hotel, which was by the Exe on the north side of what's now the junction of Countess Wear Road and the A379 at the eastern end of the Exe bridge (see Google Maps). As Exeter Memories mentions - see Countess Wear - it was relocated in the 1930s to the Countess Wear roundabout, where it's now the Premier Travel Inn. Continuing Elizabeth Jane Brabazon's account:
I must not bid adieu to Topsham, without mentioning a rare specimen of

the sunny side of nature, with which I there became acquainted; the thankful old lady of Topsham, as Mrs. A. my landlady for the nonce, might be well called; no matter what occurred, ‘she was thankful for it,’ that was her own phrase for expressing her perpetual satisfaction in anything,—-in everything!

In one instance, I must allow that my temper was tried by this excess of contentment; my sitting-room was afflicted with that bane of tranquillity, smoke. The chimney had, Mrs. A. admitted, ‘an inclination to puff a little occasionally,’ suspicious words from a householder! When I had been with her about three days, after the usual morning-lighting of the fire, out came Puff! Puff! Puff! on observing which, she very coolly remarked that she ‘was very thankful,’ “ for what?” enquired I,‘ that this chimney ’ she answered quietly, ‘smokes only in a particular wind.’ I consoled myself by hoping that the wind might speedily change ; and so it did, but not my chimney’s propensity to smoke. I

announced to her the sad fact, that the fire must be taken down; that performance she set about with the utmost alacrity, muttering to herself all the while, that she felt “most truly thankful.” “Why so?” I said rather hastily, growing out of patience with her provoking serenity, “That this never happened, to the annoyance of any other lodger ma’am.”

Wearied at last with a hopeless continuance of the evil, I gave notice that I must leave, confessing my weakness in liking a fire at breakfast time, as far as possible into the summer, to secure that necessity of the hour —boiling water. She was sitting in her own comfortable room, the flue of which, by some strange mistake, drew exceedingly well, and looking up with a countenance wreathed in smiles, she made answer, “Dear heart! have I not reason to be thankful.” "It is because my room is for ever smoking!” I exclaimed, now getting quite irritated by her imperturbable “thankfulness.” “La! ma’am, no,” she replied, with the utmost good humour,

“but because it is the only one in the house that does smoke?” “I am very much obliged to you,” said I, in vain endeavouring to suppress a laugh, “but part we must! so part we did, and very good friends too; her latest words being an invitation to return to her in very warm weather, when I should not need a fire; for, when there was no fire, there was no smoke, for which she was ‘exceedingly thankful!'

Well, well! though she did not make me think that temper may be provokingly good, I believe the world would be happier, were there more people who resemble the thankful old lady of Topsham.”

Exmouth & its Environs: being a hand book to that delightful watering-place, Elizabeth Jane Brabazon (NL Hiorns, 1866, Google Books ybdYAAAAcAAJ).
Exmouth & its Environs is very readable. Apart from a few standard longeurs of recycled historical and topographical description (her quotation about Topsham comes out of Black's guide to the south-western counties of England), it's a very fresh and personal account of Brabazon's visit, appreciative where it's due, but, as with the Topsham episode, quite acerbic in places.

The frontispiece credits identify the author's other works as ...
"Home Happiness,” “Outlines of the History of Ireland,” “The Muslims in Spain,” “Russia, and her Czars,” “Month at Gravesend,” &c.
... and a cross-check with Google Books fills out the bibliography:
  • Home Happiness; or, Three Weeks in Snow (1834, republished 1855)
  • Stories from the Rectory (1840)
  • Statistical Account of Ireland
  • Jessy Grey; or Biblical Instruction
  • Outlines of the History of Ireland for schools and families (1847, Google Books 2OYDAAAAQAAJ)
  • Historical tales from the History of the Muslims in Spain (1853, Google Books BxVBRff5kc0C)
  • Russia and her Czars: illustrated by engravings of the Kremlin, and the church of Saint Basil, Moscow, from original views (1855, Google Books r9YKAAAAIAAJ)
  • A Month at Gravesend (1863, Google Books eg4HAAAAQAAJ)
  • Exmouth & its Environs: being a hand book to that delightful watering-place (1866, Google Books ybdYAAAAcAAJ)
There's a brief biography of Elizabeth Jane Brabazon (née Levinge) - she was an Irish writer - at An Electronic Version of A Guide to Irish Fiction 1650-1900.

Dawn, 30th December 2014, looking down Exe estuary

- Ray

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