Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins

“Will you allow me, reader to follow the custom to which I have just adverted; and to introduce to your notice this Book, as a friend of mine setting forth on his travels, in whose well-being I feel a very lively interest. He is neither so bulky nor so distinguished a person as some of the predecessors of his race, who may have sought your attention in years gone by, under the name of “Quarto,” and in magnificent clothing of Morocco and Gold. All that I can say for his outside is, that I have made it as neat as I can—having had him properly thumped into wearing his present coat of decent cloth, by the most competent book-tailor I could find. As for his intrinsic claims to your kindness, he has only two that I shall venture to advocate. In the first place he is able to tell you something about a part of your own country which is still too rarely visited and too little known. He will speak to you of one of the remotest and most interesting corners of our old English soil. He will tell you of the grand and varied scenery; the mighty Druid relics; the quaint legends; the deep, dark mines; the venerable remains of early Christianity; and the pleasant primitive population of the county of Cornwall.”

I love Wilkie Collins. And I love my native Cornwall. So imagine my delight when I found a book by Wilkie Collins in the library’s Cornish room. Joy!

Rambles beyond Railways: Notes in Cornwall taken a-foot. A travelogue visiting so many places I know so well. Bliss!

And it gets better. The book I picked up was the original 1851 edition. And a bookplate at the front advises me that it was found, in tatters, in 1933, restored and then presented to the library. What a wonderful thing to do! And so I was holding the same edition that the author himself must have held. Wow!

But enough gushing; enough exclamation marks! What about the contents?

I am pleased to report that they were a delight.

The journey began aboard ship. In 1851 the railway stopped in Plymouth and so travellers had to be ferried across the River Tamar into Cornwall. The vogage is wonderfully related with such vivid descriptions and a helpful local local boatman coming to life on the page.

It was the start of a 214 mile walking tour – here’s where Wilkie Collins and his friend, the artist Henry Brandling travelled and stayed.

Plymouth to St. Germans Fourteen miles (by water) The Anchor
St. Germans to Looe Ten miles The Ship
Looe to Liskeard Nine miles Webb’s Hotel
Liskeard to Lostwithiel Eleven and a-half miles The Talbot
Lostwithiel to Fowey Eight miles The Ship
Fowey to St. Austle Nine miles Lynn’s Hotel
St. Austle to Truro Fifteen miles Pearce’s Hotel
Truro to Falmouth Eleven miles Royal Hotel
Falmouth to Helston Twelve miles The Angel
Helston to Lizard Town Twelve miles Lizard Town Inn
Helston (through Marazion) to Penzance Thirteen miles The Union Hotel
Penzance to Trereen Eleven miles Loggan Rock Inn
Trereen to Sennen (Land’s End) Six miles First and Last Inn
Sennen (by Botallack) to St. Ives Twenty miles Stephen’s Hotel
St. Ives to Redruth Fourteen miles Anderson’s Hotel
Redruth to Perranporth (Excursion to Piran Round) Ten miles Tywarnhayle Arms
Perranporth to St. Columb Major (Excursion to Vale of Mawgan) Fifteen miles Red Lion
St. Columb Major to Camelford Twenty miles The King’s Arms
Camelford to Tintagel Seven miles The Stuart Wortley Arms
Tintagel to Boscastle Three miles The Commercial Inn
Boscastle to Launceston Eighteen miles The White Hart


 It was a joy to be allowed to walk alongside them. There are so many highlights, and I will share just a few.

We visited the pretty fishing village of Looe:

 “At each side of you rise high ranges of beautifully wooded hills; here and there a cottage peeps out among the trees, the winding path that leads to it being now lost to sight in the thick foliage, now visible again as a thin serpentine line of soft grey. Midway on the slopes appear the gardens of Looe, built up the acclivity on stone terraces one above another; thus displaying the veritable garden architecture of the mountains of Palestine magically transplanted to the side of an English hill. Here, in this soft and genial atmosphere, the hydrangea is a common flower-bed ornament, the fuchsia grows lofty and luxuriant in the poorest cottage garden, the myrtle flourishes close to the sea-shore, and the tender tamarisk is the wild plant of every farmer’s hedge. Looking lower down the hills yet, you see the houses of the town straggling out towards the sea along each bank of the river, in mazes of little narrow streets; curious old quays project over the water at different points; coast-trade vessels are being loaded and unloaded, built in one place and repaired in another, all within view; while the prospect of hills, harbour, and houses thus quaintly combined together, is beautifully closed by the English Channel, just visible as a small strip of blue water, pent in between the ridges of two promontories which stretch out on either side to the beach.”

St Michael’s Mount. The place, the legends and the history. They all came to life.

“Look up at the Mount. Behold, where the naked granite alone rose before, a chapel with a tower, built on the pinnacle of the eminence, and a range of buildings by its side; both superb with the massive adornments of Saxon architecture, and both rising like crowns of beauty on the noble summit of the Mount. See, on that stone terrace before the chapel, which overlooks the causeway, a row of men in black robes, with the sign of the cross worked on them. Hear the music of the organ rising sublimely, and mingling with the chaunt of the advancing procession, as it already begins to toil up the steep ascent. Now, while the foremost ranks approach the terrace, one man steps forth from his brethren who stand there, and speaks, holding up a crucifix in his hand. His words, as he addresses those beneath him, fall slowly and distinctly from his lips. He tells his audience that here, on the pinnacle of the Mount, the Archangel Michael first descended to earth; he commends them for coming from afar to visit the holy place; he promises remission of their sins, by the authority which he and his brethren hold from the Apostles of Christ, to all who have journeyed to St. Michael’s Chapel for religion’s sake. When he ceases, the pealing of the organ swells louder and louder on the air, and the members of the throng below kneel together, bareheaded, on the earth. As the robed Abbot, who has just addressed them, stretches out his hands over the whole assembly and speaks the blessing of the Church, the scene fades, darkens, vanishes; and this view dissolves in its turn, as the last dissolved before it. You have just beheld the Mount as it was in the eleventh century, when the shrines of religion grew many in the land – as it was when King Edward the Confessor gave the place to Benedictine monks, and when pilgrims journeyed to it reverently from all parts of our native country.”

And just around the bay, a glimpse of my home town:

” Look on, some three miles away on the beach, and observe those long ranges of white walls fronting the sea; extending up the base of the hill, inland; and backed by fields, plantations, gardens, and country dwelling-houses, all intermingled charmingly on the broad surface of the rising ground. This place has grown out of a few cottages built by fishermen: it is the most western town in Cornwall – Penzance.”

Of course there were standing stones:

“If a man dreamt of a great pile of stones in a nightmare, he would dream of such a pile as the Cheese-Wring. All the heaviest and largest of the seven thick slabs of which it is composed are at the top; all the lightest and smallest at the bottom. It rises perpendicularly to a height of thirty-two feet, without lateral support of any kind. The fifth and sixth rocks are of immense size and thickness, and overhang fearfully, all round, the four lower rocks which support them. All are perfectly irregular; the projections of one do not fit into the interstices of another; they are heaped up loosely in their extraordinary top-heavy form, on slanting ground half-way down a steep hill. Look at them from whatever point you choose, there is still all that is heaviest, largest, strongest, at the summit, and all that is lightest, smallest, weakest, at the base. When you first see the Cheese-Wring, you instinctively shrink from walking under it. Beholding the tons on tons of stone balanced to a hair’s breadth on the mere fragments beneath, you think that with a pole in your hand, with one push against the top rocks, you could hurl down the hill in an instant a pile which has stood for centuries, unshaken by the fiercest hurricane that ever blew, rushing from the great void of an ocean over the naked surface of a moor.”

So many wonderful places to see:

“What a scene was now presented to us! It was a perfect palace of rocks! Some rose perpendicularly and separate from each other, in the shapes of pyramids and steeples—some were overhanging at the top and pierced with dark caverns at the bottom—some were stretched horizontally on the sand, here studded with pools of water, there broken into natural archways. No one of these rocks resembled another in shape, size, or position—and all, at the moment when we looked on them, were wrapped in the solemn obscurity of a deep mist; a mist which shadowed without concealing them, which exaggerated their size, and, hiding all the cliffs beyond, presented them sublimely as separate and solitary objects in the sea-view.”

“We now go across the beach to explore some caves—dry at low water—on the opposite side. Some of these are wide, lofty, and well-lighted from without. We walk in and out and around them, as if in great, irregular, Gothic halls. Some are narrow and dark. Now, we crawl into them on hands and knees; now, we wriggle onward a few feet, serpent-like, flat on our bellies; now, we are suddenly able to stand upright in pitch darkness, hearing faint moaning sounds of pent-up winds, when we are silent, and long reverberations of our own voices, when we speak. Then, as we turn and crawl out again, we soon see before us one bright speck of light that may be fancied miles and miles away—a star shining in the earth—a diamond sparkling in the bosom of the rock.”

But this is so much more than a travelogue. There are myths and legends:

“It is said that the terrible Cornish giant, or ogre, Tregeagle, was trudging homewards one day, carrying a huge sack of sand on his back, which—being a giant of neat and cleanly habits—he designed should serve him for sprinkling his parlour floor. As he was passing along the top of the hills which now overlook Loo Pool, he heard a sound of scampering footsteps behind him; and, turning round, saw that he was hotly pursued by no less a person than the devil himself. Big as he was, Tregeagle lost heart and ignominiously took to his heels: but the devil ran nimbly, ran steadily, ran without losing breath—ran, in short, like the devil. Tregeagle was fat, short-winded, had a load on his back, and lost ground at every step. At last, just as he reached the seaward extremity of the hills, he determined in despair to lighten himself of his burden, and thus to seize the only chance of escaping his enemy by superior fleetness of foot. Accordingly, he opened his huge sack in a great hurry, shook out all his sand over the precipice, between the sea and the river which then ran into it, and so formed in a moment the Bar of Loo Pool.”

And there are wonderful accounts of Cornish lives and communities. Miners, fisherman, and so much more:

“Now, the scene on shore and sea rises to a prodigious pitch of excitement. The merchants, to whom the boats and nets belong, and by whom the men are employed, join the “huer” on the cliff; all their friends follow them; boys shout, dogs bark madly; every little boat in the place puts off, crammed with idle spectators; old men and women hobble down to the beach to wait for the news. The noise, the bustle, and the agitation, increase every moment. Soon the shrill cheering of the boys is joined by the deep voices of the “seiners.” There they stand, six or eight stalwart sunburnt fellows, ranged in a row in the “seine” boat, hauling with all their might at the “tuck” net, and roaring the regular nautical “Yo-heave-ho!” in chorus! Higher and higher rises the net, louder and louder shout the boys and the idlers. The merchant forgets his dignity, and joins them; the “huer,” so calm and collected hitherto, loses his self-possession and waves his cap triumphantly; even you and I, reader, uninitiated spectators though we are, catch the infection, and cheer away with the rest, as if our bread depended on the event of the next few minutes. “Hooray! hooray! Yo-hoy, hoy, hoy! Pull away, boys! Up she comes! Here they are! Here they are!” The water boils and eddies; the “tuck” net rises to the surface, and one teeming, convulsed mass of shining, glancing, silvery scales; one compact crowd of tens of thousands of fish, each one of which is madly endeavouring to escape, appears in an instant!”

This is a book that has clearly been thoroughly researched and it hold a wealth of  material, wonderful vivid writing and extraordinary insight.

I didn’t mean to gush, but I really can’t help it. Some books you can’t analyse and pick over, you just love them unconditionally.

I was so sorry to leave.

“Come! the night is drawing round us her curtain of mist; let us strap on our trusty old friends, the knapsacks, for the last time, and turn resolutely from the shore by which we have delayed too long. Come! let us once again “jog on the footpath way” as contentedly, if not quite as merrily, as ever; and, remembering how much we have seen and learnt that must surely better us both, let us, as we now lose sight of the dark, grey waters, gratefully, though sadly, speak the parting word: – FAREWELL TO CORNWALL!”

I will definitely be bringing this book home from the library again, and walking again through my homeland in such wonderful company.

And you can make the trip too. Rambles beyond Railways can be read online here.

15 responses

    • Well I am in Cornwall Aarti! I’m not talking about the public library this time (though that does have a decent selection of Cornish books) but the subscrition one in an old manor housew with lots of wonderful little rooms. I’ll maybe do a virtual tour one day.

    • I was stunned. The Dead Secret was set in Cornwall of course, but a lot of people write about Cornwall without coming here or finding much out. I though this might be something knocked out quickly as a souvenir but it wasn;t – it’s very much a “proper book”.

  1. What a wonderful book. Did it really take him only 21 days, or did he stay over night at some of the inns? Are any of those inns still going? I’ve been to At Michael’s Mount a couple of times and it is a magical place, even when invaded by tourists

    • The timescale isn’t made clear, but I think he must have been here a decent length of time. He clearly spent a lot of time talking to people and researching.

      I think most of the inns are still there. The Union Hotel in Penzance is definitely still in business, and the inn in St Germans. My dog was born just across the road and we stopped there for lunch when we went to fetch her home as an 8-week old puppy!

      My fiance grew up on the Mount – his father was a castle guide – and I grew up seeing it out of my bedroom window. I’ve always loved it, and always will.

  2. Oh I am so jealous of you having gotten this from the library as you may know I am a complete Collins addict and this sounds just perfect. I have been thinking about a walking holiday and wonder if one could do it the way he did, wouldnt following the footsteps of Wilkie Collins be wonderful.

    • I wasn’t expecting Collins at the height of his powers, but that was what I got. You will love this book. There are, of course, more big roads about now and a bridge over the river, but it shouldn’t be difficulat to work out where the great man travelled. Do get in touch if you come to west Cornwall!

    • I hope you track down a copy. It would be lovely to thinks of you reading a library book about my home. But if it doesn’t the online version I’ve linked to is complete, illustrated and very well set out.

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