THE SEVERN

THERE is surely some peculiar fascination in the birthplace of a famous river when this lies in the heart of moors and mountains. For myself, I admit at once to but scant interest in the infant springs of even such slow running rivers as I have some personal affection for. There is neither mystery, nor solitude, nor privacy about their birth. They come into the world amid much the same surroundings as those in which they spend the greater part of their mature existence—amid ploughed fields, cattle pastures, and villages, farmyards, game covers, and ozier beds. When full they are inevitably muddy, and when empty are very empty indeed; lifeless, and mute at the best, at the worst actually dry. The river of low-country birth acquires, in short, neither{2} character nor quality worthy of consideration till as a full-grown stream it can trace a shining coil in the valley, or reflect the shadow of spire, bridge or mill, of willow or poplar.

How different is the source of a mountain-born river, above all when it boasts some name famous in story, and is to become the feeder of historic cities and bearer of great navies. Its hoarse voice plashing amid the silence of the eternal hills strikes the chord responsive to such scenes as these with singular force, and a little louder perhaps than its comparatively nameless neighbour, which leaves their common watershed for some other sea. As the lowland landscape of England is unique, so the mountain and moorland solitudes of these two islands are quite different from anything else in the whole universe. The mountain regions of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, exhibit, to be sure, some slight variety of detail, due partly to human and partly to natural agencies. But such differences are positively trifling compared to the contrast they each and all present to any other of the waste places of the earth, unless perhaps some wilder portion of Brittany may be a qualified exception. This delightful singularity, to my thinking a wholly{3}favourable one, is not sufficiently understood or appreciated. There are tremendous masses of snow and crag and evergreen timber, as well as marvellous formations of naked rock, in four continents appealing to practically another sense. There are lower ranges, too, on the scale of our own mountains, in many parts of the world draped in timber from base to summit, which again are of another family, and those who have lived or been much among them know how unsatisfactory by comparison are their limitations, how obstructive both of free movement and of outlook.

But there is nothing anywhere resembling our open hills where heather and bog grasses of many hues, where emerald turf, spreading bracken and golden gorse, broken with cliff and crag and scaur, invite the wanderer to a delightful and easy intimacy with their innermost haunts. Here you may ramble practically at will, with the unobstructed glories of earth and air always before your eyes, the fresh tempered breezes of our gulf-stream-washed island in your lungs, your feet pressing upon plants and grasses all instinct of a soil that knows nothing of fierce heats and binding frosts as those terms are understood in most other lands. And then, again, how futile{4} to parade the altitude of our British mountains as evidence of insignificance. They laugh to scorn all such arithmetic, and many times in a single day will wrap themselves in some magic veil, and lift their peaks and shoulders round you, till scale and altitude as expressed in figures become practically a thing of naught. The obvious of the past garish and sunny hour, when their modest measurement proclaimed itself to any reasonably experienced eye, has vanished, and you find yourself confronted by heights that lack absolutely nothing in stature and dignity, and are in effect mountains of 10,000 feet. Everything that shapely form and atmosphere can achieve in the way of effect these little mountains of ours are capable of. Our much maligned climate not merely clothes them in a chequered mantle of green and russet, of grey, purple, or saffron, only less in winter than in summer, but gives them those ever-changing moods and aspects that few people who know both would as a permanency exchange for all the sun glare of the earth. And how solitary are the hollows of these hills where rivers rise: nay, often more than that, and little short of awesome. Here again, perhaps, comes in the quite undisturbing reflection that there is a railway{5} within five miles and a town possibly within ten! What does it matter, when nobody ever comes here, and there is not a trace visible anywhere of man’s handiwork but possibly the dark line of some stone dyke built two centuries ago? The very consciousness that this is in populous Britain makes the wild wilder, the silence stiller, the solitude more solitary.

For myself, I know of a score of such valley heads in the North and Wales, whence streams and rivers have their birth, that provoke a feeling of positive and pleasurable creepiness, such as the wildest woods and the remotest prairies never touched me with. Whether opening and shutting in a driving winter mist, or with their high rocky shoulders turned gloomily from the sun on a fine autumn morning, these inner sanctuaries and water-sheds where so many of our English rivers rise seem as if they gathered the silence of unlimited wastes and distilled its very essence. The very sounds that break their solitude, intensify it: the plashing of the tiny stream when it has struggled out of the meshes of the high bog that gives it birth, and is taking its first leap for liberty and independence down the rocky ledges of the precipice towards the world below, the mournful{6} call of the curlew, the fitful, plaintive bleat of the mountain sheep, or the faint rattle of stones misplaced by its nimble feet. Poets have written of the “startled air,” and some of them perhaps have used the phrase but tritely, and themselves but half suspecting the true felicity of the metaphor. In these sombre chambers of the hills, walled in upon every side, the stillness seems literally to grasp at every slight sound and cling to it with strange vibrations and lingering echoes, which remind one how utterly alien to these places are the common sounds of the everyday world that pass unnoticed—a world so ridiculously near and yet so infinitely remote.

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