Monday, 2 June 2014

Ups and downs

Rosa Raine, one of many visitors taking the 'picturesque tour' of the Isle of Wight in the mid-1800s, repeats a strange anecdote about the landscape near Shanklin: variable hills.
An extraordinary assertion has been rumoured as a fact by some writers, 1 regarding Shanklin Down, to the effect that "the Down has considerably increased, both in bulk and height, within the last hundred years." This increase in its elevation is said to be "at least one hundred feet, as demonstrated by its appearance from S. Catherine's, from whence, within the memory of man, it was not to be discovered through the intervention of Week Down, though now it can be seen rising above the latter from the same spot." Strange, if true ! — yet akin to the marvellous influences through whose agency an under-world of such Eden-beauty has been created out of ruins, foreshadowing (as it were) the resurrection wherewith the Glorifled Redeemer shall create new heavens and a new earth out of the wreck of an overthrown world.
1 Warner, and other authors.
- p 77, The Queen's Isle, Rosa Raine, 1861
She cites her source too: "Warner" is the Rev. Richard Warner's 1795 The History of the Isle of Wight:
A late amiable naturalist, speaking of a range of chalk downs, in the upper part of Hampshire, resembling those of the island, has the following observation: "perhaps I may be singular in my opinion, and not so happy as to convey to you. the same idea; but I never contemplate these mountains, without thinking I perceive something analogous to growth, in their gentle swellings, and smooth fungus like protuberances, their fluted sides, and regular hollows and slopes, that carry at once the air of vegetative dilatation and expansion." * The idea is novel and ingenious, and seems to be sounded in truth, from certain appearances of gradual enlargement which the Isle of Wight hills have exhibited. It is a well-known fact, that, about half a century since, Shanklin down, which stands in the South-Eastern part of the island, was not to be discerned, from St. Catherine's, owing to the intervention of Week down, whose magnitude and elevation completely screened it from the eye. A gradual, but imperceptible expansion, however, of Shanklin down, has at length reared it to a greater bulk, and a greater height, (by at least least one hundred feet) than that of its formerly invidious neighbour.
    It seems sufficiently clear, that this difference in the appearance of the two downs must have arisen rather from the growth of Shanklin, than the sinking of Week; since the latter, and all the surrounding downs, bear the fame relative proportion to each other they ever did, which could not be the case, had any change taken place in its elevation or magnitude.
* White's Nat. Hist. Selborne, p. 163.
- pp 180-182The History of the Isle of Wight: Military, Ecclesiastical, Civil, & Natural: to which is Added a View of Its Agriculture, Richard Warner, 1795
The origin of the detailed account appears to be pp 247-248 in Sir Richard Worsley's 1781 The History of the Isle of Wight, and it was variously copied promiscuously down a line of subsequent books: pp 192-193 in John Hassell's 1790 A Tour of the Isle of Wight; pp 123-124 in John Bullar's 1806 A historical and picturesque guide to the Isle of Wight; p 679 of John Pinkerton's 1809 A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the Worldp 637 of John Smith's 1810 A System of Modern Geography; p 189 of John Feltham's 1813 A guide to all the watering and sea-bathing places; and in fictionalised form in Bentley's Miscellany in 1829:
    "That high peak that we see is St. Katherine's, the highest point of the island, is it not?"
    "Yes," he replied, "St. Katherine's is at present the highest point of the island."
    "Is at present! Why, you do not mean to say that there ever was a time when its elevation was different?"
    "That I know nothing about," he replied; "but it appears very probable that Shanklin Down will soon overtake it in height."
    "Why, you don't mean to say that Shanklin Down is growing higher?"
    "That, indeed, appears to be the case, or, at any rate, relatively to other heights in the island. The inhabitants of Chale will tell you that formerly Shanklin Down, from the interference of Week Down, could only be seen from the top of St. Katherine's, whereas it is now visible from Chale Down, which is much lower consequently, unless Week Down has sunk lower than it was, Shanklin Down must have risen considerably. Now, if Week Down is sinking, it is very probable that St. Katherine's is slipping down too; so that, whether Shanklin Down is growing higher or not, it seems very probable that it will in the course of time overlook all the rest of the Isle of Wight."
    "Very curious," said [another], with a kind of supercilious air. "I suppose the two hills playing at see-saw.Now we go up, up, up; and now we go down, down, down. Very curious,very," picking his teeth incredulously between the two last words.
    "There is no animal," thought I to myself, "so jealous of another of the same species, as your regular story-teller."
- pp 535-536, Bentley's Miscellany, Volume 3, 1829
The above version is credited to Abraham Elder's Tales and Legends of the Isle of Wight, with the adventures of the author in search of them; but it must be a one-off for Bentley's Miscellany, as there's no sign of it in Elder's 1839 book of that name (Internet Archive talesandlegends00eldegoog).

The story fizzles out at the beginning of the 20th century:
It appears that in Georgian days Week Down was charged with hiding Shanklin Down from the view of St Catherine's, as is no longer the case, the moral being that one or other of these heights has been raised or depressed, as may well have happened to superstructures upon so slippery foundation. "the self-styled science of the so-called nineteenth century " with its more elaborate observations, gives a surer title to eminence.
- p 92, Isle of Wight, Ascott Robert Hope Moncrieff, 1908
All I can say on this one is, go figure.

- Ray

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