Picture of George Head

George Head

places mentioned

The Solway Coast

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THE village of Allonby, whether owing to the increase of the town of Maryport, only six miles distant, or that the medicinal waters of the Gillsland Spa, situated to the eastward of Carlisle, are the cause of a counter attraction; or whether the neighbouring gentry be less inclined to festivity than formerly, at all events is now deserted by the principal families who, a score of years ago or more, made it their place of resort in the summer; therefore it is not to be wondered at that the village remains, as regards improvement, just in the same state as at the period alluded to—and such is precisely the case. The spot is nevertheless well calculated for marine residence, as it affords agreeable rides and drives, sands peculiarly good, together with an extensive prospect, bounded in the distance by the mountains that overhang the Solway Firth, and the elevated land in the Isle of Man.

The only house of entertainment suitable to the wants of visiters is the Ship Inn—in point of size and appearance an ordinary country alehouse—in front of whose windows, and not exceeding a few yards in distance, a row of stepping stones, as if for the exclusive benefit of those who wear shoes and stockings, stretch across the principal drain of the village, where pigs and ducks dabble amicably together in the black stream. Within, the apartments consist of a dining and drawing room, both of more ample dimensions than accordant with the humble elevation; the former of these having served the purpose of a daily ordinary, the latter of card playing, and occasionally dancing, from time immemorial. Extravagance of space in one part of the house is compensated by its curtailment in another, the bedrooms being arranged on the smallest possible scale; these are in fact garrets, hardly exceeding ten feet either in length or breadth; across the ceilings huge uncovered beams, like the timbers of a seventy-four gun ship, deprive a tall man of the satisfaction of either walking or standing upright.

The terms of entertainment are, as may be imagined, conformable to the accommodation; that is to say, five shillings a day for every item of expense attendant on board and lodging; for this small stipend the host provides his company with a table d'hote, whereupon breakfast is served from eight to nine o'clock, dinner at three, tea at six, and supper at nine. Though one part of the world are generally inquisitive as to how others live, in this case, considering that the landlord is obliged to pay house rent and taxes, the guests, as it would appear, do not trouble themselves with his affairs. A small party of quiet people generally congregate during the summer months, seeking, on their part, sociable retirement, and receiving, from the host, the utmost attention and civility.

Fortunately, on the occasion of my becoming a visiter for a couple of days at the Ship Inn, affairs then happened to glide in a more lively stream than ordinary, owing to a recent event which afforded matter of surmise and a theme of incessant conversation. A recently married pair had arrived hither from Gretna Green, for the express purpose of ruralizing and making the most of each other's company; wherefore, not only was everybody on the alert to discover who the young married couple could possibly be, but there was, moreover, a disputed question of identity—a sort of romantic episode appended to the history, that inflamed curiosity beyond measure, and rendered all, the single ladies especially, half mad to discover the mystery.

A few evenings before, the Carlisle mail being on its way through the dreary mountainous district between Kendal and Penrith, had barely arrived at the foot of the long steep ascent called Shap Fells, when the lowering black clouds, which already enveloped its summit, appearing suddenly to burst in twain, poured forth a deluge of rain, accompanied by flashes of vivid lightning; loud peals of thunder crackled in the firmament, while the whole region of air around was swept by a tremendous hurricane. The coachman, half blinded by continued flashes of fire and volleys of stinging hail, exerted himself manfully to hold together four gallant blood horses, and preserve a straight course; but the efforts of both man and beasts were unavailing; by dint of main strength alone he kept his seat on the box, while the winds might be fairly said to take charge of the cattle, by blowing the reins almost out of his hands; and night having now spread her sable mantle around, after a hard and determined struggle, and having surmounted many serious difficulties, at last, in one black interval of darkness, over went the Carlisle mail into a ditch. Report, with many tongues, relates that at this awful moment, even in the midst of the conflicting elements, and notwithstanding, moreover, that it was pitch dark, the little god of love, of ubiquitous presence, was seen to smile. At all events, an interesting young lady, accompanied and protected the whole of the way from London by a gallant young gentleman, both on their rapid way to Gretna Green, were the only passengers within the vehicle, and they, barring discomfiture and jumblement, escaped unhurt.

What were the young lady's feelings in this untoward predicament is the province of young ladies alone to imagine; with no shelter but that of the capsized mail coach—insufficient space to stand upright—and nothing at all to sit down upon. Her lover, poor fellow, was as awkwardly situated; but he was a man, and the softer sex, at all events, supposing him able to take care of himself, will of course feel little interested as to what became of him; but there she remained, and there he remained, and there they remained both together, as it is said, for full three quarters of an hour. Finally, the mail coachman having spliced his fractures, and otherwise repaired the damage, drove away without them; for the young lady was by far too much terrified to proceed by the same conveyance, and preferred to throw herself altogether on the protection of her lover. The lot of these unfortunate young strangers, thus to be left alone in the dark, and at the mercy of the weather, was surely much to be pitied, whatever might have been on that evening their destiny. The whole tale, as it came to my ears, is merely hearsay; and what other folks relate, I will not vouch. I can only hope, and so I do sincerely, provided the adventure be as I have related it— I can only hope, I say, that the lovers found their way to Penrith; if so, they obtained, no doubt, accommodation suited to their wants, and at least shelter—for there the inns, as I have the satisfaction to testify, are most particularly warm and comfortable.

To return to the Ship Inn at Allonby. It will readily be believed, upon the foregoing premises, that the visitors in the house, who were acquainted with all these particulars, nut only acknowledged in the first place the tenderest possible general interest in the adventures of the two young pilgrims, but that they were most categorically inquisitive in matters of detail, particularly as to what became of them from the unlucky moment of the overturn to that of their safe arrival, the next day or the day after, at the shrine of bliss at Gretna; and it follows, no less as a matter of course, that upon the advent at the inn, of two persons who, according to appearances, might at all events very well be mistaken for the former, they were all dying to discover, first and foremost, whether this young couple, as they were anxious to make it appear, were that young couple, to the end that they might, in the next place, provided the identity were established, proceed thenceforward heart and mind to ferret out their names, and all the rest of their private history.

Matters had come to this point when I arrived at the Ship Inn, the young pair having strictly preserved their incognito: meanwhile their occupations and dispositions bore so little affinity with those of the rest of the inmates, that, notwithstanding all were well-meaning, agreeable people, yet, somehow or other, the two sets, ill assorted at least under present circumstances, had already fallen into disunion; thence a classification, as if proceeding sympathetically and involuntarily, had taken place; each party, actually without the trouble of arranging a dispute, had, in point of fact, absolutely sent the other to Coventry. For my part, I had the good fortune to be on amicable terms with both; feeling that each, though under different circumstances, was in a peculiar situation. The single ladies, especially, having no one whereon to bestow their love and attention, thence, alone, certainly deserves pity, and had a claim to consideration; and, poor things, I can truly declare that, although now and then one may have pricked her finger in anxiety to catch a furtive glance at the bride and bridegroom, and the eyes of all, even while they threaded their needles, were never positively averted, yet their good breeding uniformly prevailed over the pains of curiosity, and entirely repressed all appearance of vulgar, ill-restrained scrutiny. Now and then—but perhaps that was fancy—I thought I could perceive slight telegraphic looks pass from one to the other—nay, even a sort of galvanic radiance, that flitted in twitches, like shooting crystals across their foreheads, as if in painful recollection of preferences ill bestowed or unrequited, or perhaps from eagerness to read in silence and explain to one another the precise extent and meaning of the hieroglyphics in which the other party exchanged rapid intelligible sentences.

The bride—a lovely young creature ! more the pity that all such lovely young creatures are not brides— may surely on her part be excused even though in pastoral air and attitude she devoted incessantly her whole thoughts and attention to a handsome bridegroom; for where is the young lady to be found who, under modified circumstances, would not do likewise; though no doubt, at such a time, to display even the most slight air of satisfaction and triumph towards unmarried ladies then present, is not altogether excusable; nay, I will not call such demeanour otherwise than absolutely aggravating and provoking; and I must confess that, now and then, certain side looks of the young lady towards her female companions, indisputably partook of such sort of expression—evidently brought up in high society, and finding herself among ladies reared on Cumberland high hills, she did certainly seem inclined to behave as if they were sheep or cows, or any other dumb animal, or, in other words, just as if they had not been present—no wonder, therefore, that the latter were ill pleased thus to be treated altogether as nonentities, and remained unwillingly passive while, with the utmost nonchalance, the wilful little damsel sat carelessly shampooing the bridegroom, and passing her tiny fingers through his curling hair.

I overheard, involuntarily, on more occasions than one, their sotto voce conversations, of which, although the warmth of a mutual attachment might have rendered them interesting, nothing that fell on my ear might not, in point of fact, have been just as well spoken aloud. I cannot, however, reconcile to myself to record, trifling as it may he, any private discourse j besides, the evidence of one's own eyes and ears on such delicate subjects, even if credited, ought immediately to be forgotten. Who they were, whence they came, how they travelled, or what were their previous adventures, still, as far as I know, remain a mystery, notwithstanding the company at Allonby sedulously exerted themselves to obtain information; in fact, no other topic was discussed, while I remained in the house, from morning to night; that is to say, whenever the parties concerned happened to be out of the room. Ample time, moreover, it must be acknowledged, was allowed for the investigation; for the young ones, instead of accommodating their habits to the rules of the house, and conforming with the established hours of the public table, had superseded all such ordinary courses. By an arrangement of their own, they made their first appearance every day atone, dined by themselves at half past eight, and—went to bed at ten.

My own curiosity, I freely confess, struck by the epidemic excitement raging in the house, grew feverish accordingly; not with reference to the private affairs of these young people, but from a wish, being in the neighbourhood, to visit the celebrated spot—

"That mystical bourne,
From whence maidens and bachelors seldom return"—

see with my own eyes a shrine equally famous with that of Thomas a Becket, and become partially acquainted, on authority, with the observances of the pilgrims. I therefore took advantage of a fine morning, hired a horse at Carlisle, and rode thither.


THE old original marrying house is in the village of Springfield, nearly a mile from Gretna Green, an exceedingly small public house, kept at present by one John Sowerby, as notified by a square sign, nailed against the side of the house, over the door. The house, since the days of old David or Daniel Laing, the notorious blacksmith, has undergone no alteration, and the same business as formerly is transacted under its roof; but the matrimonial branch is now confined almost altogether to the poorer classes: although the officiating clergymen are various, many is the epithalamium that in humble life still resounds within its walls. That the edifice, small as it is, is large enough for all reasonable purposes, is evident from the numerous scribblers in prose and in verse who, in various ways, have been pleased, on the windows and on the walls, to bear testimony to hours passed agreeably, and express otherwise their entire satisfaction. Among these I was informed (for the room in question, during my visit, was occupied by a newly married pair) may be seen the handwriting of the late Lord E——.

Gretna Hall, a very respectable-looking country inn, is immediately contiguous to Gretna Green, which latter is, as many people know, a small rural common, nine miles from Carlisle. At this house all the modern matrimonial affairs, among the higher classes, have of late years been conducted; and hither all inquiring strangers are directed point blank; besides, a painted board points out the way from the Green to lovers and travellers, along a wide, straight drive leading to the door. The establishment possesses considerable advantages over the old one—indeed, the one is a comfortable country residence, whereas the other more resembles a pot house, such as the "Jolly Sailor," or "The Three Loggerheads," in a seaport town. The new clergyman also, who may be said, phoenixlike, to have arisen from the ashes of the old one—for whether or not the ancient Daniel or David departed in a fit of spontaneous combustion, is a point, I believe, hardly determined—exists under terms of comparison with his predecessor equally favourable. He is not only clergyman, but landlord also—both persons in one; whence it arises, partly proceeding from his own moral qualities, and partly owing to his office of landlord, which confines him to the spot, that he possesses those qualifications that every Gretna Green clergyman ought to have—namely, he is at all times to be found in a hurry: and, finally, when found, sober, and able to perform his duty. In person he is a slight, fair, good-looking man; in age about forty, of prepossessing manners, and mild. and respectful in his demeanour; without bearing the mien of a dignitary of the church, he seems a person qualified to encourage a timid bride, or allay the scruples of any young lady his customer, provided she chanced to bring any so far along with her. On the present occasion, he was dressed in the style of a respectable layman or farmer—altogether in rural costume, namely, a clean, tidy, light-coloured fustian shooting jacket and shooting etceteras.

In case of emergencies a qualified deputy or sub-clergyman resides on the spot, in the person of a slim, civil, harmless-looking lad, his son, who, were it not that youth, where the fair sex are concerned, seldom detracts from personal merit, might be thought too young; though he states his age to be two-and twenty, he looks hardly out of his teens. At fill events, it is well to ensure against the possibility of dissappointment, and prudent thus to have, in case the old man should happen to be out of the way, a young one at hand. No matter by which of the clergymen the everlasting knot be tied, whether by the young one or the old one, a regular entry of the marriage is made in a book kept for the purpose; this entry, after some months, is copied into the register; in the mean time, the register alone is submitted to the inspection of inquisitive strangers.

The house, though comfortable, is on a moderate scale in point of size; the apartments scrupulously tidy, rather to be called snug than spacious: the furniture is really excellent. The site, as a country residence, is equally calculated for retirement and meditation, exultation or repentance. While the casual visiter is exhilarated by a refreshing airiness and agreeable rural scenery, every possible accommodation is afforded to lovers that lovers can require; particularly the little garden, embellished with its flowery banks, affords a retreat worthy of Calypso, and the arbours, literally impervious to the eye of a robin, are such that even the most fastidious Rosamond could, I think, hardly, with justice, if accompanied by a suitable helpmate, complain of her bower.

George Head, A Home Tour through the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1836) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2009.

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