LONG VACATION RAMBLES.—BLANKENBERGHE. 'YESTERDAY (August 14th) we were warned by
meagre fare at the table d'hote of our hotel that it was the vigil of some saint's day. Our gastronomic knowledge was enlarged by the opportunity of partaking of boiled mussels. A small and delicate species of this little fish—despised of Englishmen—is found in extraordinary quantities on this coast. The sand is dotted with the shells after every ebb. The wattles of the jetties are full of them. After the first shock of having a salad bowl full of small black shells presented to one, following immediately on a delicate potage a roseate, the British citizen may pursue his educa- tion in this direction fearlessly, with the certainty of becoming acquainted with a delicate and appetizing morsel; and he will return
and so out of sight. And the bourgeois blew out the candles and took away the chairs on which, while the halt lasted, they had been kneeling from their shop windows, putting back the bathing dresses, and the shell boxes, and other sea-side merchandise, while the whole non-shopkeeping population, and the neighbours from Bruges, and the strangers who fill the hotels and lodging-houses turned out upon the splendid sands and on the Digue to enjoy their fete-day. In the afternoon the corps de musique of the com- munal schools.; of Bruges gave a gratuitous concert to us all by to his native country with at least a toleration for " winks " and "pickled whelks," when he sees them vended at corner stalls in Clare Market or in the Old Kent Road, for the benefit of the dangerous classes of his fellow citizens who take their meals in the street. In these Flemish parts they are eaten with bread and butter, and even as whitebait, and by all classes.
After the meal I consulted the calendar in my pocket-book as to the approaching festival, not wishing to thrust my heretical ignorance unnecessarily on the notice of the simple folk who in- habit the Lion d 'Or. That obstinately Protestant document, how- ever, informed me simply that the Rev. E. Irving was born on this day in 1792, probably not the saint I was in quest of. A Church- man's Almanac, with which the only English lady in the place was provided, was altogether silent as to the day. In the end there- fore I was obliged to fall back upon the bright-eyed little demoi- selle de la niaison, who informed me that it was the vigil of the Assumption of the Virgin, and that the fete was one greatly honoured by the community of Blankenberghe.
Thus prepared, I was not surprised at being roused at five in the morning by the clumping of sabots and clinking of hammers in the street below—my room is a corner one, looking from two windows on the Rue d'Eglise, the principal street of the place, and from the other two on the Rue des Pecheurs, or " Vissch- urs' Straet," which run$ across the northern end of the Rue d'Eglise. A flight of broad steps here runs up on to the Dive, or broad terrace fronting the sea, and at the foot of these steps they were erecting a temporary altar, and over it a large picture of fishermen hauling in nets full of monsters of the deep. They had brought it from the parish church, and, as such pictures go, it was by no means a bad one. Presently tricoloured flags began to appear from the windows of most of the houses in both streets, and here and there garlands of bright- coloured paper were hung across from one side to the other. As the morning advanced the bells from the church and convent called the simple folk to mass at short intervals, six, half-past seven, nine, and grand mass at ten. The call seemed to be answered by more people than we had fancied the town could have held. At eleven there was to be a procession, and now miniature altars with lighted candles appeared in many of the ground-floor windows, both of shops and private houses ; and the streets were strewed with rushes and diamond-shaped pieces of coloured paper. "punc- tual to its time the head of the procession came round the corner of " Visschurs' Straet," half-a-dozen small boys ringing bells leading the way. Then came the beadledom of Blankenberghe, in the shape of several imposing persons in municipal uniform, then three little girls dressed in white, with bouquets, more boys, including a diligent but not very skilful drummer, six or seven other maidens in white, somewhat older than their predecessors, of whom the centre one carried some ornament of tinsel and flowers. Then came the heavy silk canopy, supported by four light poles carried by acolytes, and surrounded by choristers, of whom the leader bore a large silver censer, and under the canopy marched a shaven monk in cream-coloured brocade satin, carrying the pyx, and a less gorgeously attired brother with an open miasmal. Around the whole of the procession, to protect it from the accompanying crowd, were a belt of bronzed fishermen in their best clothes, some carrying staves, some hymn-books, and almost all joining in the chant which was rolled out by the priest, in a powerful bass with a kind of metallic ring in it, as they neared the altar at the foot of the steps. Here the whole procession paused, and the greater part knelt, while the priest put incense in the censer and made his obeisances and prayed in an unknown tongue, and the censer boy swung his sweet-smelling smoke about, and the fishermen and their wives and children prayed too, in their own tongue, I suppose, and their own way, probably for fair weather and plenty of fish, and let us hope for brave and gentle hearts to meet whatever rough weather and short commons may be in store for them by land or water. Then the procession rose, and passed down the Rue d'Eglise, pausing at the corner of the little market-place opposite a rude figure of the Madonna in a niche over some pious doorway, "*AyaXima uX'ioras AtInvnc, faetrzazoo,"
the permission of the communal administration of that town, as we bathed, or promenaded, or sipped coffee or liqueurs in the broad verandahs of the cafes which line the Digue. Gaily dressed middle-class women (of upper classes, as we understand them, I see none), in many-coloured garments and immense structures of false back hair, such as these eyes have never before seen ; a sprinkling of Belgian officers in uniform, Russians, Frenchmen, Germans a few, and two Anglo-Saxons, Englishmen I cannot say, for one is an American citizen and the other your contributor, who compose the only English-speaking males, so far as I can judge; groups of Flemish women of the people in long black cloth cloaks, with large hoods lined with black satin, more expensive probably, but not nearly so picturesque as the old red cloak which thirty years ago was the almost universal Sunday dress of women in Wiltshire, Berkshire, and other Western counties ; little, old-fashioned girls, in nice mob caps, and the fishermen in excellent blue broad- cloth jackets and trousers, and well blacked shoes or boots, instead of the huge sabots of their daily life; in short, every soul I suppose in Blankenberghe, from the Bourgmestre who sits on his throne, to the donkey boy who drives along his Neddy under a freight of children, at half a franc an hour, whenever he can entice the small fry from the superior attraction of engineering with the splendid sand, spends his or her three or four hours on the Digue, enjoying whatever of the music, gossip, coffee, beer, or other pastimes they are inclined to or can afford ; .and in that whole crowd of pleasant holiday-making folk, there is not one single trace of poverty, not a starved face, not a naked foot, not a ragged garment. It is the same on the week-days. The people, notably the fishermen and baigneurs, dress roughly, but they have all comfortable thick worsted stockings in their sabots, and their jerseys and overalls are ample and satisfactory. Why is it that in nine places out of ten on the Continent this is so, and that in England you shall never be able to find a watering-place which is not deformed more or less by poverty and thriftlessness. Right across the sea, there, on the Norfolk coast, lie Cromer and Sherringham. More daring sailors never manned lifeboat, more patient fishermen never dragged net, than the seafaring folk of those charming villages. They are courteous, simple, outspoken folk, too, singularly attractive in their looks and ways. But alas ! for the rags, and the grinding poverty, declaring itself in a dozen ways, in the cottages, in the children's looks, in the women's premature old age. When will England wake up, and get rid of the curse of her wealth and the curse of her poverty ? When will an Englishman be able again to look on at a fete-day in Belgium, or Switzerland, or Germany, or France, without a troubled conscience and a pain in his heart, as he thinks of the contrast at home, and the bitter satire in the old, worn-out name of "Merry England?" Itis high time that we all were heartsick over it, for the canker grows on us. Those who know London best will tell you so ; those who know the great provincial towns and country villages will tell you so, except perhaps that the latter are now getting depopulated, and so contain less altogether of joy or sorrow. However, Sir, there are other than these holi- day times in which to dwell on this dark subject. I ought to apologize for having fallen into it unawares, when I sat down merely to put on paper, if I could in a few lines, and impart to your readers the exceeding freshness of the feeling which the feast-day at this little Belgian watering-place leaves on one. But who knows when he sits down, at any rate in the holidays, what he is going to write? However good your intentions, at times you can't " get the hang of it," can't say the thing you meant to say.
You may wonder, too, at this sudden plunge into the file of the Assumption at Blankenberghe, when I have never warned you even that I had flitted from my round on the great crank which grinds for us all so ruthlessly in the parts about the Strand and the Inns of Court. Well, Sir, I plead in my defence the test that a very able friend of mine applies to novels. He opens the second volume and reads a chapter ; if that tempts him, on he goes to the end of the book ; if it is very good indeed, he then goes back, and fairly begins at the beginning. So I hope your readers will be inclined to peruse in future weeks some further gossip respect- ing this place, which should perhaps have preceded the file-day. If they should get to take the least interest in Blankenberghians and their works and ways, it is more than these latter can be said to do about them, for in the two or three cheap sheets which I find on the table here, and which constitute the press of this corner of Belgium, there is seldom more than a couple of lines devoted to the whole British Empire. The fact that there is not another Englishman in the place, and that the American above mentioned, the only other representative of our English-
speaking stock here, went once to see the Derby, and got so bored by two o'clock that he left the Downs and walked back to Epsom station, enduring the whole chaff of the road, and finding the doors locked and the clerks and porters all gone up to the race, ought to be enough to make them curious—curious enough at any rate for long-vacation purposes. There are plenty of odds and ends of life a little out of our ordinary track lying about here to make a small " harvest for a quiet eye," which I am inclined to try and garner for you, if you think well. And are not the new King and Queen coming next week to delight their subjects, and witness many kinds of fireworks, and a " enneourn des juncurs de beck, dal pas baen-bolders," whatever these may be ?