SUMMER RAMBLES.—DOWN THE MEDWAY.
LOOKING down from the old battlements of Rochester Castle —regal domain of the Conqueror, usefully appropriated by the noble Earl, its present owner, to picnic parties, at the charge
of three-pence per head—a singular picture, all but unique in England, presents itself to the view. At our feet lies an ancient cathedral, covered with the dust of eight centuries ; there lie quaint, high-gabled houses of the time of Queen Elizabeth ; there stands, close to them, a monstrous ugly railway bridge of the time of Queen Victoria; then there is a sixteenth-century alms- house for poor travellers, in which, as clearly inscribed over the gate, "neither rogues nor proctors are admitted ;" and not far from it, there is a grand modern joint-stock hotel, which, though "limited," admits everybody, even proctors. The juxtaposition of all these things, old and new, is odd enough, but it does not complete the curious picture outspread at the foot of Rochester Castle. The most striking portion of it is the wide river which creeps, in many tortuous windings, among windmill-clad hills, and bears on its back a number of extraordinary-looking objects— big ships, without masts and sails, flags and streamers ; weird and ominous in appearance, like dead whales cast ashore by the sea.
Far as eye can reach to the east, where land and sea are mingling together, there the dead whales are lying, closely packed, the spray of the waves chasing around them, and the white mist floating over their heads. How did they get there, the monstera of the deep? The answer is prosaic,—the big creatures, queer- looking as they may be, are real ships, duly entered in the Navy Lists as "Her Majesty's fleet in reserve."
A trip down the Medway to inspect this phantom fleet is a matter easily accomplished, and well worth the trouble. At the foot of Rochester Bridge we step on board a small steamer, not very clean nor elegant, yet on the whole not much worse as re- gards dirt than the sister vessels of the metropolis. The little
boat culled the City of Rochester is crowded with a very miscella-
neous company of labourers, fishwomen, young recruits, navvies, English sailors, and Irish hop-pickers, through which, with some difficulty, we elbow our way to the stern, reserved to such select travellers as can command an extra sixpence. Even here the com- pound smell of tar and onions, fish, tobacco, and stale beer, is somewhat strong ; but once fairly started, with a good breeze in front, the voyage is pleasant enough. A few minutes' ride brings us to Chatham pier, right in front of an immense mass of stone and masonry, on the top of which little red-coated soldiers are seen stalking up and down, like distant figures in a pantomime. The sight is rather picturesque, but carries with it a train of contemplation. We feel very much in the mood of a friend in whose company we once went to Shoe- buryness to see the famous gunnery practice. He was delighted with the spectacle till, all on a sudden, he bethought himself that the play of the big guns must be expensive, and inquiring upon the subject, he discovered to his horror that every shot was equal in cost to the amount of his income-tax. "There, they blaze away my income-tax." The idea was overwhelming, and spoilt what pleasure there was in the thunders of Big Will and his brothers and sisters. We dare not imagine the sorrows of our sensitive income-taxpaying friend in visiting Chatham. What mortal man can reckon up the millions that are sunk in this end- less maze of fortifications, towers, battlements, piers, barracks, ditches, scarps, and counterscarps? What mortal man, even be he Chancellor of the Exchequer, can calculate the millions more that will be sunk here into the bottomless mud of the Medway? And all because one fine morning, nigh two hundred years ago, Mynhe,er de Ruyter and friends came sailing up the river, and burnt some - of Old England's woolen walls. The time of wooden walls is gone long ago, and so is that of flying Dutchmen ; yet do we keep on sinking stones in the Medway till the mass has outgrown in size the pyramids of Egypt. Our City of Rochester has scarcely quitted the pier at Chatham when we find ourselves right in the midst of the first detachment of dead whales, that is, Her Majesty's fleet in reserve. An odd fleet it is. Sails and masts, ropes, chains, spars, and flags, and the whole paraphernalia of outward tackle which make a ship a ship, have been taken from these vessels of Her Majesty's navy, and there they lie now, bereft alike of useful wings and ornamental feathers, like creatures dying or already dead. They lie in twos and threes together, strewn here and there ; some in the midst of the river; others close to the banks ; others, again, up the muddy little creeks which stretch inward along the flat shore. The smaller ones of the company in particular have taken the fancy of hiding themselves up these muddy creeks. They are, we learn, the repre- sentativea of that portion of Her Majesty's fleet in reserve called mortar vessels, sent into being some ten years ago to knock down the walls of Cronstadt, and teach humility to the Czar of All the Ru.ssia.s. They did not do it, the little ones, and for punishment have been exiled to this Medway shore, to contemplate the move- ment of the tides and the growth of periwinkles. The British nation, we may be certain, is rich enough even to keep men-of-war for looking after the periwinkles.
The scene gradually changes as we are gliding further down the Medway. Passing a large island called Bishop's Marsh, memento of the good old times when all the lands far and wide stuck to the crosier, the river changes into a lake, surrounded by flat and dreary shores, overgrown with rank grass. Until the farthest horizon there is one immense plain, made up apparently of a close union of dark land and darker water, overhung by a fleecy canopy of grey mist, through which the sun's rays cleave their way at fitful intervals. There is only one object distinctly visible before us, and that is more outlandish than any we have yet seen in this curious Medway -river. It looks about as big as Rochester Cathedral, but is altogether of fantastic outline, and seems to have three or four steeples instead of one. While we are wondering whether this, too, can be one of Her Majesty's ships in reserve, the waves of luminous mist are driven away by a sudden gust of wind, and before us stands in all her glory the world-renowned big ship, the Great Eastern. Even the Irish hop-pickers on board the City of Rochester are stirred by the sight, and for a moment leave off smoking and jabbering, giving way to their emotion in beautiful flashes of silence. It is a grand sight indeed, that of the Leviathan of the waves, as she now lies there in towering majesty, with her six masts and three immense steam funnels, the noblest house ever built by man to swim on the wide ocean. Though by no means inclined to worship mere bigness, we cannot suppress a feeling of real admiration for the colossal structure resting here on the placid waters of the Medway. There is something in her proportions so absolutely noble and commanding, that it makes the giant ship stand out at the first glance from among other vessels as a splendid old oak from among the common shrubs of the field. At this moment the Great Rastera looks particularly venerable, returned as she is from a bout of Herculean work, with all the signs of the travel-stained warrior about her. A rusty weather-beaten coat, with a thick lining of seaweed at the bottom ; battered skylights ; broken _paddles, and fragments of chains which hang over the sides, are come of the tokens which show the hard work the Leviathan has gone through. Even that she has failed to do the almost super- human labour she was sent to accomplish, adds to the halo of tenown hanging about the big ship. They look so tiny, the little wheels which project both from the prow and stern of the Great Eastern, that the mind is filled with wonder how ever they could undertake the task of tying together two continents by a rope thousands of miles long, and, once broken, fishing the cable up again from the bottom of the sea, from a depth little lees than the height of Mont Blanc. Were it not for the horrible loquacity of our daily "liners," who have been prating about the Atlantic telegraph till the thing has become almost a nuisance, one might remember the recent voyage of the big ship as the very Odyssey of the age.
Near the Great Eastern commences the station of the second division of Her Majesty's fleet in reserve. The crowd is much more dense here than at Chatham, indeed in some places, on the sight bank of the river, the men-of-war seem to swarm literally as thick as blackberries. We count thirty-two of them between Burntwick Island and Queenborough, a distance of little more than a mile. Oh for British taxpayers to come this way, and see how the income-taxes of whole generations are rotting away ingloriously in the mud, good to none but the periwinkles!
"That's one of the things I could never understand," says an old sailor, our neighbour in the stern of the City of Rochester, whom we interrogate on the subject. "Them millions spent in building all these heavy ships is sheer waste; I could never understand it." —" Does anybody live on board ?" we ask.—" Oh yes ; each ship has an officer, with about eight or ten men to wait upon him and keep the place clean."—" A comfortable berth, it seems?" —" Yes, I should think, if ever there was. The captain has nothing on earth to do but to draw his pay, and allow himself to be waited upon. On fine days he has a sail up or down the river, or goes a fishing, or shooting, along the banks. A splendid residence, too, and no rent nor rates and taxes to pay—entirely out of the parish, you know." The last words our sailor friend is grunting forth with a kind of savage chuckle. Poor man, we dare say he has got a cottage somewhere in Kent, with wife and piokaninnies, and the parish tax-gatherer does not leave him alone.
While exchanging notes about the mysteries of English naval administration, our little steamer has brought us to the ter- minus of her voyage. We clamber up some fishy steps, full of the odour of shrimps and seaweed, and hastening along a tiresome wooden pier, as slimy as the steps, find ourselves at Sheerness, in the Isle of Sheppey. Like its brother higher up the river, Sheerness has sprung from the flying visit of Myniteer de Ruyter and his Dutchmen, who unfortunately found an old fort here, and knocked it to pieces. Though standing in the midst of an unwholesome swamp, and not worth the cost of its keep, the old fort was a thing which John Bull thought he could not afford to see damaged, and therefore, so far from thanking Mynheer de Ruyter for ridding him of the place and saving men's lives, he determined in savage mood to raise it again and make it bigger than ever. Thus arose Sheerness,—two miles of dockyards and heavy fortifications, in such a dismal swamp as the world never saw before. Certain it is that henceforth no sane Dutchman, however thick his skin and his nasal organ, will enter Sheerness if he can help it. The dock- yard is built upon a hundred thousand piles, and the barracks are built upon piles, and the houses are built upon piles, and the fortifications are built upon piles. It is a Venice upon piles ; with this difference, that while the Italian city stands upon the rocky bottom of the Adriatic, the Isle of Sheppey town is suspended over the bottomless mud of old Father Thames. Here is the Alpha and Omega of the mighty stream of sewage which the ocean of mankind above sends as a tribilte to the ocean of waters below.
Yet even Sheerness has its bit of romance. There stands, on what is nicknamed the Marina, a large house, with "Royal Hotel" over the gate. The place appears to be now joint-stock, limited, and all that, and so far decidedly unromantic; but it was not meant to be so from the commencement. Some thirty or forty years ago, when the whole of the million of piles had not yet been rammed into the dismal swamp, the foundations of this house were laid by a man of very singular character, who, though not entitled to be called great in the strict sense of the word, had some of the ele- ments of greatness about him. The man was Edward Banks, afterwards Sir Edward. He began life as a farm labourer, but in course of time became a navvy, and in 1805, when thirty-six years old, was with others engaged in making a railroad between Chip, stead and Merstham, close to that famous old borough of Gatton which had only one inhabitant, yet sent two members to the House of Commons up to the time of the Reform Bill. Railroad-making, being new, was probably well paid in those days, and in an unlucky hour Edward Banks resolved upon saving money, and becoming what Englishmen north of the Tweed call thrifty ; of course, he thereupon rose rapidly in the world. Employing first a few of his brother navvies under him on "jobs," he gradually came to be a master builder, then a Government contractor, and so forth to the top of the ladder. For a quarter of a century, from 1810 to 1835, he was busy in executing some of the most extensive engineering works of the time; he built the Waterloo, Southwark, London, and Staines bridges over the Thames, erected Government dockyarda at Sheerness, and made new channels for the rivers Ouse, Nene, and Witham, in Norfolk and Lincolnshire. All the while his heart yearned for the life of labourer he had been lead- ing on the green, wooded slopes of Chipstead. However, though gifted with that iron determination which can accumulate hun, dreds of thousands, and make a rich Government contractor out of a poor labourer, he had not moral courage enough to follow the bent of his own inclinations. So, instead of retreating to a quiet little country house on the Surrey hills, Edward Banks, knighted Sir Edward, built himself a big house upon piles in the dismal swamp : that same house now styled the "Royal Hotel." Need- less to say that Sir Edward felt very wretched in his big house,
and yearning evermore after the green hills, died in the summer of 1835, his last words expressing the desire to be buried in the little church of Chipatead. There now lie the remains of the great Government contractor, under a pompous monument of white marble, recounting all his virtues, not omitting the " honour- ably acquired wealth."
Strange that while pacing the miry streets of pile-grown Sheer- ness, we thought of little else but the fate of poor Sir Edward Banks !