JOHN DAVIES MEREWEATHER
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THE PYRENEES

During the years 1836-1860, Mereweather recorded in a book of Memoranda quotations in poetry and prose from various authors. He also wrote down his own thoughts, poems and narratives.

In 1832, just before his sixteenth birthday, Mereweather made a tour of the French department of the Hautes-Pyrénées. The following narrative was written down around the year-end of 1843 (pages 125-152). Paragraph breaks have been inserted. Various illustrations have been added.


A Tour in the Pyrenees

Scorched by the sun who had exerted his most powerful influence during the summer without intermission, and nearly smothered by the dust, which after the excessive drought had amassed itself to many inches in depth, I longed to leave Bordeaux for a time to breathe the pure and cool air which ever circulates among the Pyrenees, mountains abounding with magnificence and sublimity of scenery scarcely to be surpassed.

Accordingly, having taken my place some days previously, on Tuesday the 21st of August 1832, I found myself at 7 in the morning on the top of M. Dotezac’s heavy diligence drawn by seven bulky but well fed grey horses with collars having loudly tinkling bells attached to them.

I may here mention that the French seem very fond of all sorts of noises, but especially of three, bells, drums and cur dogs, one being scarcely able to pass a cart but he hears the jingling of bells attached to the horse’s neck, scarcely able to walk in a principal street but he hears the deafening noise of a drum which some poor drummer is doomed to beat as he walks for a certain space of time, and scarcely able to pass a country dwelling but the shrill bark of some cur kindly awakes him from any reverie into which he might have fallen.

Well, I got on the coach early in the morning in high spirits; but you must not imagine that the French diligences resemble our little light vehicles which four small but well bred horses can make to fly over the ground at the rate of ten miles per hour. On the contrary, the French coach has four distinct compartments. The first of these with regard to price and comfort is designated the Coupé. This apartment has one side only, in fact just like a chariot, and will contain three persons. The second and middle, called the Intérieur, is made for six people, and though not so expensive as the Coupé, yet contains very respectable company. The third apartment, the Rotonde, is behind all, contains about the same number as the middle one and is usually filled by servants and people of the lower class. Then comes the Banquet or Impériale on the top of the coach which has a cover like a cabriolet to be raised or let down at pleasure; it has also a leather to come over the knees. This is intended for the same class of persons as the Rotonde, but I prefer it to all the others, as the passenger is able to have a perfect view of all the surrounding country, and is completely protected from the weather.

However! To return to my tour. Having passed through Castres and Langon, we soon came into the department of the Landes which may be distinguished from that of the Gironde by its black, marshy and uncultivated soil with few trees. The shepherds here use high stilts to traverse the swampy pastures, so that when I saw one of them stalking after his flock, he put me in mind of Polyphemus. When Buonaparte passed through this department on his way to Bayonne, the inhabitants formed a guard of honour on stilts to escort him through their country.

Towards evening, in the midst of a tremendous thunderstorm, the diligence arrived at Mont St Marsan, a pretty considerable town halfway between Bordeaux and Pau. In the morning the change of scenery announced our arrival in the department of the Basses Pyrénées [Pyrénées-Atlantiques]. The country now began to appear more luxuriant, more cultivated, and not so flat as the Landes; the cottages also were more numerous. These have at a distance a very pretty effect, but only at a distance, for on a closer examination they are found to have a very wretched appearance, which with the addition of a pig and some dirty children amusing themselves all in the strictest amity before the door, gives them the air of an Irish cabin.

At last, after a very hot ride, and almost choked by the dust, I arrived at noon in Pau (120 miles in 30 hours), in my opinion the prettiest town in the Pyrenees, and then after necessary ablutions, hastened forth to see the famed Château de Henri Quatre, generally called Henri le Grand.

Before I proceed farther, it may be well to give a short sketch of the history of this castle. According to Froissard this castle was erected by Gaston Phoebus, Count of Foix and Prince of Béarn, about the year 1363. This nobleman built four towers to which a fourth [sic] was added by Henri who was born there, and whose cradle, an entire tortoiseshell, I saw under a canopy placed there by order of Louis Quinze. The castle suffered much during the revolution; the sculpture was defaced and many souvenirs of Henri were totally destroyed. The cradle even would have fallen a prey to the fury of an enraged mob, if an individual had not taken it, and supplied its place with another, which was soon dashed to pieces. All the rooms, except that in which the cradle lies in state, are in very bad preservation, being mostly without flooring. After returning I dined at the table d’hôte, where the table groaned under a multitude of dishes.



Pau, from France Pittoresque, 1835


During dinner I made acquaintance with a young German who was travelling with his tutor, and in the evening I went with him and some others to the Haras or stables where the breed of horses is carefully kept up for the exclusive use of the government. I saw some very nice horses there: a young Arab in a paddock with its dam particularly attracted my attention.

On the following morning, Thursday Aug. 23rd, I started for Bagnères de Bigorre. On our way we passed through Tarbes, a large town in the midst of an extensive and well watered plain. After that we approached the Pyrenees, the sight of which caused my heart to throb with a strange but not unpleasing sensation. I felt proud at having mustered sufficient courage to leave my friends behind me at the distance of more than 40 leagues, and thus go without a guide or even a companion at so early an age to throw myself among strangers, and those foreigners.

Behind me was the fertile valley smiling under the rays of a summer’s sun; before me were the black mountains towering above thunder clouds still blacker, and which had in vain attempted to overtop them. For a time I was lost in admiration; but the sight of the lovely populous country around me soon brought me to my senses. In a space of six miles we passed through six villages containing good houses some of which had beautiful gardens attached to them: in one of these I observed a fine obelisk cut out of one entire piece of marble.

And now the mountains seem nearer and nearer, and now we enter Bagnères de Bigorre which is nearly surrounded by their giant forms, and soon I found myself seated at the Hôtel de France, the principal hotel in Bagnères, before a good dinner at 6 o’clock in the evening.

The next day, Friday Aug. 24th, I ascended a mountain which overhangs the town to try my pistols. When on the summit, I had full opportunity of observing the situation of the town which lay at my feet. It is placed between the fertile province of Bigorre and the luxuriant Vallée de Campan. I could easily distinguish the stately buildings which are erected over the mineral waters. Les Bains de la Reine, Les Bains Caseaux, La Fontaine d’Angoulème are all famous in their way for their wonderful cures. The houses in Bagnères are excellent, and the streets are delightfully clean owing to the numerous rivulets which descend from the mountains, so that the town is very much resorted to by strangers.

And now behold me at 11 o’clock next morning, seated on a very small poney, which I had hired for three francs a-day, with my portmanteau and cloak strapped in due form before and behind me, on my way into the mountains. I took the route towards Tarbes until I reached the pretty village of Montgaillard, when I turned short off to the left, following the road to Lourdes. I now began to be surrounded by mountains which by their black and frowning appearance announced themselves to be the Pyrenees. And now I could see the castle of Lourdes on a rock towering above the town, so I soon found myself at the Hôtel de Poste refreshing myself after a hot and fatiguing ride of ten miles.

However! No time was to be lost, my day’s journey was not nearly done, so I jumped up and after a steep and circuitous ascent gained the castle which completely commands all the adjacent country. This fortress was formerly the residence of the Counts of Bigorre and is of great age, having formerly been attacked by our king John. It now has a garrison of 100 men with a few pieces of artillery. From the tower I could discern four grand routes. Before me lay the road to Argelès, behind me to Tarbes, that on my right led to Pau, and that on my left to Bagnères de Bigorre which I had just left.

Having descended from the chateau, I mounted and proceeded by the side of a foaming torrent called a Gave and through a lovely valley to Argelès which is situated in a plain. After Argelès the scenery began to be more terrible every moment. Immense cliffs, to which St Vincent’s rock at the Bristol Hotwells is but a cipher, overhung the right side of the road covered with clouds : on my left the Gave de Pau foamed impetuously by. After passing through several villages I arrived at Pierrefitte, a small place about eight miles from Cauterets. The night and drizzling storms were now falling fast around me, so I rode on as fast as my jaded poney would go, more intent about keeping him on his legs than admiring the terrific and interesting scenery on either hand.

Wet and tired did I arrive at the Lion d’Or in Cauterets, wet and tired did I pass the night; for my bed was very damp, and the asthmatic groans of a sick man in an adjoining chamber acted rather as the admonitory "il faut mourir, mon frère" of the Trappistes than as an incentive to to sleep.

Cauterets, drawn by Thomas Allom, engraved by S. Fisher, c. 1850


On Sunday I attended the dog market which is held weekly in Cauterets, the peasants bringing down these animals from the mountains, when they descend to attend mass. I bought a pup of the mountain breed véritable espèce for six francs. I at first objected to him fearing that, from his then appearance, he would never be very large; but my mouth was soon stopped by a mountaineer chorus of "Mon Dieu, Monsieur, il sera monstre" and certainly in aftertimes when I watched him stalking majestically by my side far overtopping all the dogs around him, like Agamemnon among his compeers, I considered that I had no reason to repent of my purchase.

Cauterets, The Dog Market, card postmarked 1905


Cauterets is entirely surrounded by lofty mountains, consequently unapproachable by horses or carriages except on the Pierrefitte side. It has three baths all warm, the principal of which, La Raillère, owes its discovery to a cow. I amused myself for an hour or two in the forenoon by clambering up an adjacent mountain, and as I toiled up a steep and difficult ascent a mountaineer passed swiftly by closely followed by three goats. These animals, frightened at the sight of a stranger, bounded up on a lofty rock overhanging the path with incredible agility and then darted down again, as soon as I had passed, to follow their master.

Bath of La Raillère towards Cauterets
Aquatint from Joseph Hardy, A Picturesque and Descriptive Tour in the Mountains of the High Pyrenees, London 1825

 
Next morning at ½ past five, accompanied by a guide who as well as myself had in his hand a long pole shod with iron, I set out for the Vignemale, the highest mountain of the French Pyrenees, being 3356 metres = 10907 feet above the level of the sea. Having passed the baths called La Raillère, we arrived at the Cascade de Ceriziet [Ceriset], a picturesque fall of about forty feet. It was after that that the scenery became so majestically wild. This combined with the increasing rarity of the air brought on a kind of delirium which I had some difficulty in checking.

After passing another fine cascade called Boussès, we arrived at the Pont d’Espagne, on which travellers have in vain exhausted their descriptions. I stood upon a slender bridge formed of the trunks of three of four pines negligently flung across a chasm of 100 feet in depth under which the Gave, after tumbling tumultuously down a precipice, rushed furiously. The deafening roar of the wild waters, their greedy rushing through the narrow bourn, the rocks, abysses and wildnesses on all sides of me; all this, combined with the sharp and clear atmosphere, produced such an effect on me, leaning as I was over the frail parapet of the bridge, as I certainly should not wish repeated under similar circumstances.

Pont d’Espagne, drawn by Thomas Allom, engraved by R. Wallis, c. 1860


After walking some distance farther we arrived at the Lac de Gaube which is fed by mountain streams that worm their way down the lofty steeps surrounding it on every side. At the lake the scenery is very striking. Behind me were mountains through the almost impassable paths of which I had come; at my feet was the blue and deep lake nearly motionless; on the right and left were lofty cliffs which seemed to have risen out of the waters by enchantment, and on the sides of which unscaleable by man I could see the wild chamois bounding; and before me, towering above all, rose the lofty Vignemale, his head enveloped with clouds and everlasting snows.

My guide and I breakfasted on the banks of the lake hard by an old fisherman’s cottage, the inhabitant of which has resided there during the four summer months for the last 30 years. His name is Gaye, and he is 90 years old; nevertheless, he rowed us over the lake with the agility of youth. Having crossed, we bent our steps towards the Vignemale. The scenery now began to change: the space between the mountains on either hand became wider and was completely choked up with immense stones which descend from the mountains in spring at the melting of the snows.

At noon we arrived at the glacier of the Vignemale and walked over the snow which was very hard. After writing your name, my dear, on the enduring snow with the iron point of my staff, I sat down on the ground and partook of the contents of the guide’s wallet. Seldom does it befal mortals to have such superb witnesses to their repasts as it then befel my guide and me. Before us were the three peaks of the Vignemale, the highest of which inaccessible to mortal footstep was surrounded by mist. On our right and left were two lofty cliffs: over the left height is carried the path which leads into Spain whence we were not many miles distant. The valley in which we were was full of desolation: no verdure, no trees, no water; but instead a chaos of huge rocks rent by convulsions from the neighbouring heights, and paving the surface of the earth, huge and unequal.

We saw herds of chamois sporting over the snow; shortly afterwards there was the sharp crack of a rifle, and presently a huntsman appeared with his prey, an izard (for thus is called the wild goat of the Pyrenees) slung round his neck. These izards are much smaller than a goat with large sharp horns very crooked: they are wonderfully fleet. We now returned by the same way that we came and arrived at the inn at ½ past five, having walked during twelve hours with scarcely any intermission.
Guide and Izard Huntsman
Card postmarked 1905

 

At break of next day I set out for Luz which place I attained by noon after passing among some glorious scenery. After breakfast I set out to see the famous Cascades de Gavarnie, an excursion carefully to be remembered by me, since my life on that day was in the most imminent peril. I ought to have had a guide which precaution I neglected. I was wrong too in starting so late in the day, for travellers usually start for these cascades at eight in the morning. I soon left on my right the pretty village of St Sauveur, and struck into a path so dangerous, surrounded by scenery so wild that I shuddered to pass it in the day, little thinking that it would be so soon my fate to grope my return in the blackest night.



Luz & St Sauveur
Drawing by E. Paris, lithograph by Thierry Frères, Paris, from the mid-1800s


The path for the whole distance (nearly 14 miles) was cut out of or rather over huge masses of slippery rock. It was not above four feet in width, having on one side an abrupt precipice of 300 feet in depth at the bottom of which bounded onward an impetuous Gave, and overhung on the other side by rocks equally high. The scenery became more stupendous as I advanced. The path repeatedly wound round huge masses of rocks as big as palaces which had been torn from the adjacent summits; and in the distance I could discern with difficulty some towering peak wrapped round with mist.

Le Pas de L’Échelle, the route from Luz St Sauveur to Gavarnie
Depicted and lithographed by Julien Jacottet, Paris c. 1840


At five in the afternoon the cascade of Gavarnie broke upon my sight. To find words to describe what I then saw would be impossible. You must imagine, my dear , a vast sheet of water precipitating itself down a height of not less than 1266 feet and boiling in the basin below. The clouds which floated about amidst this vast amphitheatre of rocks gave an unearthly appearance to the scene. Æschylus might have chained his Prometheus to one of these lofty summits without detracting from the sublimity of his wonderful tragedy.



Cascade de Gavarnie, from France Pittoresque, 1835


I now turned my poney’s head towards Luz. A rain was falling from the mist, but it was still light when I arrived in two hours and a half at Gavarnie, a small and miserable hamlet situated halfway between the cascades and Luz. I had now seven miles of the most dangerous part of the journey to travel over, and before I had lost sight of the village, darkness came on. I was then stopped and questioned by one of the gendarmerie which made me later. Another mile and I could not see my poney’s head, for the rain fell heavily, the night swiftly, and the mist thickly. I had three bridges to cross, two of which were of the rudest description. I passed one bridge, but I should not have known that I was passing it, if the noise of the Gave beneath had not outsounded the elements. As I was spurring the poney to pass over the second, two huge dogs sprang out from a cleft in the rock and jumped up at me barking loudly. These were soon followed by their master, some shepherd with a lantern who lighted me over the frail planks.

As I continued my journey, I could feel (seeing was out of the question) my foot brushing the bushes which overhung the precipice. By and bye the poney stopped conscious of the danger and not able to see the way. This much dispirited me as I had for some miles been trusting myself entirely to him. However, after commending myself to Providence I urged him on, and we proceeded for some distance. He stopped again, and refused to go any farther. I dismounted that I might grope the way on foot, and slipped so that I found myself sitting with my two feet hanging over the edge of the abyss. The Gave seemed to laugh exultingly at receiving a fresh victim, for many had fallen into the torrent never to return, but the poney hearing me slip as I fell was startled and pulled me back by the bridle which luckily I held tightly, so I struck off in another direction which proved the right.

After proceeding a long way, every moment expecting to slip over the cliff, which catastrophe the poney adroitly eluded, how great was my joy to perceive the lights of St Sauveur. I then knew that I was but a quarter of a mile of good road from Luz: however, the only accident which happened to me at all was between these two places. As I was cautiously leading my poney along, I fell into a sort of ditch nine feet deep and should have pulled him over me if the bridle had not slipped over his head.

Wet frightened and scratched, hungry and sleepy I entered the town of Luz at ½ past ten at night. Not a light was in any of the windows, and my late adventures had totally obliterated from my memory all traces of the whereabouts of my hostelerie. Once more I trusted to my poney; I got on his back, threw the reins on his neck and ere long stood before the inn where I astonished the inmates with an account of my excursion.

Next morning I proceeded to Barrèges, a town much more celebrated for its waters than its fine buildings. It was then exceedingly full of company. From Barrèges I struck into a path leading over the Tourmalet, a chain of mountains which it is necessary to cross in going to Bagnères de Bigorre.The scenery on the vast ridges of the Tourmalet was wild and desolate, the track tedious, lonely and difficult. When, however, I had ascended a cloud-capped mountain, I began rapidly to descend into a valley completely filled by a dense, white mist which emitted a heavy shower.

Le Col de Tourmalet, the route from Barèges to Bagnères de Bigorre
Depicted and lithographed by Julien Jacottet, Paris c. 1840



After a very uncomfortable journey, owing to the rain [and] the fear of being benighted in a country where, if I had missed the slight track on which I depended, I might have wandered several days without seeing anyone, owing too to the fatigue of my dog which I was frequently obliged to fling over the saddle whilst I walked, Gripp was at length gained, a village consisting of numberless cottages, each situated in the midst of its own meadow. Night forced me to stop there, although Bagnères was only six miles distant, so I surrendered myself to the excellent accommodation of the Hôtel de Gripp.

The Gripp Valley, card postmarked 1901


Next morning rising with the sun, which promised a lovely day, I started for Bagnères, my road lying through the charming valley Campan. I was accompanied to the nearest village, St Marie, I think, by the landlady’s daughter, a pretty child of 10 years of age who, mounted on a donkey, was going to buy bread. She beguiled the way by telling me a wonderful story of a monster which like the dragon of Rhodes had devastated the country of late. According to her this creature was immensely large, and had the body of a bear with the head of a bulldog. It had eaten three weeks before four horses, seven cows and, to crown all, an old woman. She added that on the following Sunday after mass there would be a general hunt to take and kill the brute.

And now the lovely valley became more lovely every moment. The green and luxuriant pastures speckled with innumerable cottages and beyond these the many peaks, whose eternal snows glittered like silver in the sun, made a fine contrast with the black and barren rocks which frowned on the opposite side. At 10 o’clock on Thursday the 30th of August I arrived at Bagnères having been absent on my mountain excursion during five days.

On Sunday I went to Gripp with an Englishman to see the monster hunt, but we found that it had been deferred until the Sunday following, so we went on to the Pic du Midi which is only to be surpassed in height by the Vignemale being 2973 metres = 9662 feet above the level of the sea. The extreme heat of the day prevented us from ascending, so we contented ourselves by contemplating its vast proportions. It seemed a vast rock and is exceedingly steep requiring three hours to ascend and two to descend. We sat down on the grass and conversed with three old shepherds: when we [were] about to depart my friend gave them 30 sous between them. They were so amazed at this generosity that they wished to return half. On our return to Bagnères in the evening we encountered troops of young villageoises who, clad in picturesque costume, came to offer bouquets of choice flowers.

Monday saw me arrived at Pau where circumstances compelled me to stay until the Thursday following. The more I saw of Pau the more I was enchanted with it. I prefer it much to the towns in the centre of the Pyrenees. The distant view of the Pyrenees as seen from Pau pleases me more than the black mountains or rather rocks which overhang Bagnères and Cauterets.



Panorama of the Pyrenees as seen from Pau, c. 1880


Pau possesses five promenades two of which are truly charming: one is in the middle of the town; the second is higher up and is chiefly used by the military. Another is from the terrace of the chateau whence is to be seen a lovely river rolling through the plain below; beyond that lofty yet luxuriant hills, and much farther still, so enveloped by clouds that at first view they might be mistaken for clouds, the black Pyrenees. The fourth is by the side of a small stream which hastens to throw itself into the river. The last is by the side of the limpid river which may be seen filled with carts drawn by oxen, whilst the drivers are busily employed in loading them with stones, which they pick up from the bed of the stream.

On Thursday the 6th of September I started for Bordeaux where I arrived on Friday morning (my birthday, being 16 years of age) safe and sound, thank God, after laughing heartily all the way, there being in the same part of the Diligence as myself all sorts of animals, as a man remarked, English, Gascons, Parisians, French poodles, 2 huge Pyrenean dogs, squirrels and ferrets. The odour arising from such a congregation was not, as you may suppose, the most agreeable.