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Recollections of the late William Beckford - of Fonthill, Wilts and Lansdown, Bath
by Henry Venn Lansdown
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Naveled in the woody hills, And calm as cherished hate, its surface wears A deep, cold, settled aspect nought can shake.

The north wing of the Abbey, containing the oratory, does not seem to have suffered from the fall of the Tower, and we next proceeded to inspect it. A winding staircase from the kitchen court leads you at once to that portion of the gallery called the vaulted corridors. The ceilings of four consecutive rooms are beautiful beyond all expectation. Prepared as I was by the engravings in Rutter and Britton to admire these ceilings, I confess that the real thing was finer than I could possibly have imagined. King Edward's ceiling of dark oak (and its ornaments in strong relief) is as fresh as if just painted, and the beautiful cornice round the four walls of this stately gallery is still preserved, with its three gilded mouldings, but the seventy-two emblazoned shields that formed an integral part of the frieze have been ruthlessly torn off. The roof of the vaulted corridor with its gilded belts is the most perfect of the series of rooms, and that of the sanctum is beautifully rich; it is fretted in the most elegant way with long drops, pendants, or hangings like icicles, at least nine inches deep. Here alas! the hands of vandals have knocked off the gilded roses and ornaments that were suspended. These three apartments are painted in oak, and gold is most judiciously introduced on prominent parts. But the ceiling of the last compartment is beyond all praise; it gleams as freshly with purple, scarlet, and gold as if painted yesterday. Five slender columns expand into and support a gilded reticulation on a dark crimson ground. In the centre of the ceiling is still hanging the dark crimson cord which formerly supported the elegant golden lamp I had formerly admired in Lansdown-crescent; it seemed to have been hastily cut down, and its height from the floor and its deep colour, the same as the ceiling, has probably prevented its observation and removal. The southern end of the gallery has been stripped of its floor, and it was with difficulty, and not without danger, I got across a beam; and, standing with my back against the brick wall that has been built up at the end, where were once noble glazed doors opening into the grand octagon, I surveyed the whole lovely perspective; the length from this spot is 120 feet. The beautiful reddish alabaster chimney-piece still remains, but it is split in the centre, whether from the weight of wall or a fruitless attempt to tear it out I know not. The recesses, once adorned with the choicest and rarest books, still retain their sliding shelves, but the whole framework of the windows has been removed, and they are open to the inclemency of the weather, or roughly boarded up. The stove, once of polished steel, is now brown and encrusted with rust as if the iron were 500 years old. It is impossible for an architect or artist to survey the ruthless and wanton destruction of this noble wing, unscathed and uninjured but by the hands of barbarous man, without feelings of the deepest regret and sorrow. How forcibly do the lines of the noble bard recur to the mind on surveying these apartments, still magnificent, yet neglected, and slowly and surely falling into ruin—

For many a gilded chamber's here, Which solitude might well forbear, Within this dome, ere yet decay Hath slowly worked her cankering way.

I ran up the circular staircase, and entered the noble state bedroom. The enormous plate glasses still remain; the ceiling is of carved oak relieved by gold ornaments. With what emotion did I turn through the narrow gallery, leading to the state room, to the tribune, which looked into the great octagon. A lofty door was at the extremity. I attempted to open it; it yielded to the pressure, and I stood on the very balcony that looked into the octagon.

Here the whole scene of desolation is surveyed at a glance. How deep were my feelings of regret at the destruction of the loftiest domestic apartment in the world. Twenty years ago this glorious place was in all its splendour. High in the air are still seen two round windows that once lighted the highest bedrooms in the world. What an extraordinary idea! On this lofty hill, 120 feet from the ground, were four bedrooms. Below these round windows are the windows of two of the chambers called nunneries. Landing on this balcony I quickly conjured up a vision of former glory. There were the lofty windows gleaming with purple and gold, producing an atmosphere of harmonious light peculiar to this place, the brilliant sunshine covering everything within its influence with yellow quatrefoils. From that pointed arch once descended draperies 50 feet long! The very framework of these vast windows was covered with gold. There was the lovely gallery opening to the nunneries, through whose arches ceilings were discovered glittering with gold, and walls covered with pictures. Exactly opposite was another tribune similar to this; below it the immense doors of St. Michael's Gallery, whose crimson carpet, thickly strewed with white roses; was seen from this place, whilst far, far above, at an elevation of 130 feet, was seen the lofty dome, its walls pierced with eight tall windows, and even these were painted and their frames gilded. The crimson list to exclude draught still remained on these folding doors, but the lock was torn off! I closed the doors, not without a feeling of sadness, and returning to the small gallery again ran up the Lancaster Gallery to another noble bedroom. Finding the stairs still intact I mounted them, and found a door, which opened on to the roof. We were now on the top of the Lancaster Tower. Though not so extensive as the view from the platform of the great staircase, there is a peep here that is most fascinating; it is the extreme distance seen through the ruined window of the opposite nunnery.

The glimpse I had of the bittern lake having sharpened my appetite to see it, I descended the staircase of the Lancaster turret, and marching off in a southerly direction hastened towards its shores. But it is so buried in wood that it was not without some difficulty we found it. Never in happy England did I see a spot that so forcibly reminded me of Switzerland. Though formed by Art, so happily is it concealed that Nature alone appears, and this lovely lake seems to occupy the crater of an extinct volcano. It is much larger than I anticipated. A walk runs all round it; I followed its circuit, and soon had a glorious view of the Abbey, standing in solitary stateliness on its wooded hill on the opposite side. The waters were smooth as a mirror, and reflected the ruined building; its lofty towers trembled on the crystal wave, as if they were really rocking and about to share the fate of the giant Tower that was once here reflected. We followed the banks of the lake. Passing some noble oaks that were dipping their extended boughs in the water, we soon gained the opposite side. Here is a labyrinth of exotic plants, a maze of rhododendrons, azaleas, and the productions of warmer climes, growing as if indigenous to the soil. We passed between great walls of rhododendrons, in some places 15 feet high, and reached a seat, from whence you see the whole extent of this lovely sheet of water. What I had seen and admired so much on Lansdown was here carried to its utmost perfection; I mean the representation of a southern wilderness. In this spot the formality of gardening is absolutely lost. These enormous exotic plants mingle with the oak, the beech, and the pine, so naturally that they would delight a landscape painter. These dark and solemn groves of fir, contrasting so strikingly with the beech woods, now arrayed in their last gaudiest dress, remind me forcibly of Switzerland and the Jura Mountains, which I saw at this very season. Nature at this period is so gaudily clad that we may admire her for her excessive variety of tints, but cannot dare to copy her absolutely. In this sheltered and sequestered spot the oaks, though brown and leafless elsewhere, are still verdant as July. Every varied shade of the luxuriant groves—yellow, red, dark, and light green—every shade is reflected in these clear waters. Three tall trees on the opposite shore have, however, quite lost their leaves, and their reflection in the wave is so exactly like Gothic buildings, that one is apt to imagine you see beneath the waters the fairy palace of the Naiads, the guardians of this terrestrial Paradise.

THE END

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