Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend/Chapter VIII

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Richmond, 21st June, 1782.

Yesterday afternoon I had the luxury for the first time of being driven in an English stage. These coaches are, at least in the eyes of a foreigner, quite elegant, lined in the inside; and with two seats large enough to accommodate six persons; but it must be owned, when the carriage is full, the company are rather crowded.

At the White Hart from whence the coach sets out, there was, at first only an elderly lady who got in; but as we drove along, it was soon filled, and mostly by ladies, there being only one more gentleman and myself. The conversation of the ladies among themselves, who appeared to be a little acquainted with each other, seemed to me to be but very insipid and tiresome. All I could do was, I drew out my book of the roads, and marked the way we were going.

Before you well know that you are out of London you are already in Kensington and Hammersmith; because there are all the way houses on both sides, after you are out of the city; just as you may remember the case is with us when you drive from Berlin to Schoneberg; although in point of prospect, houses and streets, the difference, no doubt, is prodigious.

It was a fine day, and there were various delightful prospects on both sides, on which the eye would willingly have dwelt longer, had not our coach rolled on past them, so provokingly quick. It appeared somewhat singular to me, when at a few miles from London, I saw at a distance a beautiful white house; and perceived on the high road, on which we were driving, a direction post, on which were written these words: "that great white house at a distance is a boarding-school!"

The man who was with us in the coach pointed out to us the country seats of the lords and great people by which we passed; and entertained us with all kind of stories of robberies which had been committed on travellers, hereabouts; so that the ladies at last began to be rather afraid; on which he began to stand up for the superior honour of the English robbers, when compared with the French: the former he said robbed only, the latter both robbed and murdered.

Notwithstanding this there are in England another species of villains, who also murder, and that oftentimes for the merest trifle, of which they rob the person murdered. These are called footpads, and are the lowest class of English rogues; amongst whom in general there reigns something like some regard to character.

The highest order of thieves are the pickpockets or cutpurses, whom you find everywhere; and sometimes even in the best companies. They are generally well and handsomely dressed, so that you take them to be persons of rank; as indeed may sometimes be the case: persons who by extravagance and excesses have reduced themselves to want, and find themselves obliged at last to have recourse to pilfering and thieving.

Next to them come the highwaymen, who rob on horseback; and often, they say, even with unloaded pistols, they terrify travellers, in order to put themselves in possession of their purses. Among these persons, however, there are instances of true greatness of soul, there are numberless instances of their returning a part of their booty, where the party robbed has appeared to be particularly distressed; and they are seldom guilty of murder.

Then comes the third and lowest, and worst of all thieves and rogues, the footpads before mentioned; who are on foot, and often murder in the most inhuman manner, for the sake of only a few shillings, any unfortunate people who happen to fall in their way. Of this several mournful instances may be read almost daily in the English papers. Probably they murder, because they cannot like highwaymen, aided by their horses, make a rapid flight: and therefore such pests are frequently pretty easily pursued and taken if the person robbed gives information of his robbery in time.

But to return to our stage, I must observe, that they have here a curious way of riding, not in, but upon a stage-coach. Persons to whom it is not convenient to pay a full price, instead of the inside, sit on the top of the coach, without any seats or even a rail. By what means passengers thus fasten themselves securely on the roof of these vehicles, I know not; but you constantly see numbers seated there, apparently at their ease, and in perfect safety.

This they call riding on the outside; for which they pay only half as much as those pay who are within: we had at present six of these passengers over our heads, who, when we alighted, frequently made such a noise and bustle, as sometimes almost frightened us. He who can properly balance himself, rides not incommodiously on the outside; and in summer time, in fine weather, on account of the prospects, it certainly is more pleasant than it is within: excepting that the company is generally low, and the dust is likewise more troublesome than in the inside, where, at any rate, you may draw up the windows according to your pleasure.

In Kensington, where we stopped, a Jew applied for a place along with us; but as there was no seat vacant in the inside, he would not ride on the outside, which seemed not quite to please my travelling companions. They could not help thinking it somewhat preposterous that a Jew should be ashamed to ride on the outside, or on any side, and in any way; since as they added, he was nothing more than a Jew. This antipathy and prejudice against the Jews, I have noticed to be far more common here, than it is even with us, who certainly are not partial to them.

Of the beautiful country seats and villas which we now passed, I could only through the windows of our coach gain a partial and indistinct prospect, which led me to wish, as I soon most earnestly did, to be released from this movable prison. Towards evening we arrived at Richmond. In London, before I set out, I had paid one shilling; another was now demanded, so that upon the whole, from London to Richmond, the passage in the stage costs just two shillings.

As soon as I had alighted at an inn and had drunk my tea, I went out immediately to see the town and the circumjacent country.

Even this town, though hardly out of sight of London, is more countrified, pleasanter, and more cheerful than London, and the houses do not seem to be so much blackened by smoke. The people also appeared to me here more sociable and more hospitable. I saw several sitting on benches before their doors, to enjoy the cool breeze of the evening. On a large green area in the middle of the town, a number of boys, and even young men, were enjoying themselves, and playing at trap-ball. In the streets there reigned here, compared to London, a pleasing rural tranquillity, and I breathed a purer and fresher air.

I went now out of the town over a bridge, which lies across the Thames, and where you pay a penny as often as you pass over it. The bridge is lofty and built in the form of an arch, and from it you enter immediately into a most charming valley, that winds all along the banks of the Thames.

It was evening. The sun was just shedding her last parting rays on the valley; but such an evening, and such a valley! Oh, it is impossible I should ever forget them. The terrace at Richmond does assuredly afford one of the finest prospects in the world. Whatever is charming in nature, or pleasing in art, is to be seen here. Nothing I had ever seen, or ever can see elsewhere, is to be compared to it. My feelings, during the few short enraptured minutes that I stood there, it is impossible for any pen to describe.

One of my first sensations was chagrin and sorrow for the days and hours I had wasted in London, and I had vented a thousand bitter reproaches on my irresolution, that I had not long ago quitted that huge dungeon to come here and pass my time in paradise.

Yes, my friend, whatever be your ideas of paradise, and how luxuriantly soever it may be depicted to your imagination, I venture to foretell that here you will be sure to find all those ideas realised. In every point of view, Richmond is assuredly one of the first situations in the world. Here it was that Thomson and Pope gleaned from nature all those beautiful passages with which their inimitable writings abound.

Instead of the incessant distressing noise in London, I saw here at a distance, sundry little family parties walking arm in arm along the banks of the Thames. Everything breathed a soft and pleasing calm, which warmed my heart and filed it with some of the most pleasing sensations of which our nature is susceptible.

Beneath I trod on that fresh, even, and soft verdure which is to be seen only in England. On one side of me lay a wood, than which nature cannot produce a finer, and on the other the Thames, with its shelvy bank and charming lawns rising like an amphitheatre, along which, here and there, one espies a picturesque white house, aspiring in majestic simplicity to pierce the dark foliage of the surrounding trees; thus studding, like stars in the galaxy, the rich expanse of this charming vale.

Sweet Richmond! never, no, never, shall I forget that lovely evening, when from thy fairy hills thou didst so hospitably smile on me, a poor lonely, insignificant stranger! As I traversed to and fro thy meads, thy little swelling hills and flowery dells, and above all that queen of all rivers, thy own majestic Thames, I forgot all sublunary cares, and thought only of heaven and heavenly things. Happy, thrice happy am I, I again and again exclaimed, that I am no longer in yon gloomy city, but here in Elysium, in Richmond.

O ye copsy hills, ye green meadows, and ye rich streams in this blessed country, how have ye enchanted me? Still, however, let me recollect and resolve, as I firmly do, that even ye shall not prevent my return to those barren and dusty lands where my, perhaps a less indulgent, destiny has placed me, and where, in the due discharge of all the arduous and important duties of that humble function to which providence has called me, I must and I will faithfully exert my best talents, and in that exertion find pleasure, and I trust, happiness. In every future moment of my life, however, the recollection of this scene, and the feelings it inspired, shall cheer my labours and invigorate my efforts.

These were some of my reflections, my dearest friend, during my solitary walk. Of the evening I passed at Richmond, I speak feebly when I content myself with saying only, it was one of the pleasantest I ever spent in my life.

I now resolved to go to bed early, with a firm purpose of also rising early the next day to revisit this charming walk; for I thought to myself, I have now seen this temple of the modern world imperfectly; I have seen it only by moonlight. How much more charming must it be when glistening with the morning dew! These fond hopes, alas, were all disappointed. In all great schemes of enjoyment, it is, I believe, no bad way always to figure to yourself some possible evil that may arise, and to anticipate a disappointment. If I had done so, I should not perhaps have felt the mortification I then experienced quite so pungent. By some means or other I stayed too long out, and so when I returned to Richmond, I had forgot the name and the sign of the inn where I had before stopped; it cost me no little trouble to find it again.

When at last I got back, I told the people what a sweet walk I had had, and they then spoke much of a prospect from a neighbouring hill, known by the name of Richmond Hill, which was the very same hill from the top of which I had just been gazing at the houses in the vale, the preceding evening. From this same kill, therefore, I resolved the next morning to see the sun rise.

The landlady of this house was a notable one, and talked so much and so loud to her servants, that I could not get to sleep till it was pretty late. However, I was up next morning at three o'clock, and was now particularly sensible of the great inconveniences they sustain in England by their bad custom of rising so late, for as I was the only one in this family who was up, I could not get out of the house. This obliged me to spend three most irksome and heavy hours till six o'clock; however, a servant at length opened the door, and I rushed out to climb Richmond Hill. To my infinite disappointment, within the space of an hour, the sky had become overcast, and it was now so cloudy that I could not even see, nor of course enjoy one half of the delightful prospect that lay before me.

On the top of this hill is an alley of chestnut trees, under which here and there seats are placed. Behind the alley is a row of well- built gentlemen's country seats. One does not wonder to see it thus occupied; besides the pure air, the prospect exceeds everything else of the kind in the world. I never saw a palace which, if I were the owner of it, I would not give for any of the houses I now saw on Richmond Terrace.

The descent of the hill to the Thames is covered with verdure, the Thames at the foot of it forms near a semicircle, in which it seems to embrace woody plains, with meadows and country seats in its bosom. On one side you see the town and its magnificent bridge, and on the other a dark wood.

At a distance you could perceive, peeping out among the meadows and woods, sundry small villages, so that notwithstanding the dulness of the weather, this prospect even now was one of the finest I had ever seen. But what is the reason that yesterday evening my feelings were far more acute and lively, the impressions made on me much stronger, when from the vale I viewed the hill and fancied that there was in it every thing that was delightful, than they are this morning, when from the hill I overlooked the vale and knew pretty exactly what it contained?

I have now finished my breakfast, and once more seize my staff, the only companion I have, and now again set out on this romantic journey on foot. From Windsor you shall hear more of me.