Dundry Downs

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The Dundry downs, on a high hilltop miles south of Clifton, are a recurring landmark in Symonds’ writings about Bristol. The distinctive shape of its churchtower (once described as “a most magnificent tower, appended to a most insignificant church”.1 ) is instantly recognisable from Clifton, and a former visitor to Clifton Hill House recalled “the long walks on the stately terrace which commanded the city, its spires and towers, and distant Dundry closing all.”2 Symonds explored the downs from time to time, and his Notes on Somersetshire home recalls both a peaceful holiday with his wife, Catherine, and an earlier more painful journey three years earlier:

It is pleasant walking here with C[atherine]. We both of us love to search for wild flowers, and from some high hill to gaze on “distant colour, happy hamlet” — the blue Mendips with their robe of wood and few faint towers and villages. In the narrow lanes we stop to examine what she calls “Nature’s vulgar embroidery” — ferns, violet leaves, great bunches of the red Guelder-rose-berries, enchanter’s nightshade, white bindweed, marsh-mallow, and cascades of clematis. I remember wandering here alone three autumns ago. How I bowed myself in anguish on Dundry hill, and walking home crowned myself with black briony leaves, and forgot my wish to die. In the night I dreamed that I met Willie at the door of the Cathedral — as he used to be, and as I used to be — but years had passed away, and we had not seen each other. He said with his eyes, ” Friend, have you come at last? I have waited for you as a watcher waiteth for the morning ” — his old words. He took me by the hand, and we sat together in an aisle and heard windy chaunts sweep through the darkness as in days gone by. I woke up well, and it was morning.3

“Three autumns ago” may recall January 1866, when Symonds was struggling with poor health, and Catherine suffering through the end of a difficult pregnancy. He toiled at his homoerotic poem John Morden, but kept the work locked away with the key in Catherine’s keeping. Writing to to H G Dakyns, Symonds commented wryly that “Your prophecy realised itself in part at least. The thorn of my flesh wreathed itself into a crown about my forehead.”4 – perhaps less a metaphorical flourish than a literal gathering of briony, plucked from Dundry Hill. In a reflection he dates to 1862, Symonds writes of returning from Dundry bedecked with bindweed in the wake of a painful night.

“[I]n the clear September sky, as I walked to Dundry and back, misery fell from me like a burden. I gathered from the hedgerow a long tendril of convolvulus, bronzed by sunlight and polished by the kisses of the summer air. And this I twined about my hat. Strange heart of man ! How we yearn with fever after knowledge, and then sicken of disgust for thought and speculation ! How we sink numbed into week-long monotony, although Nature surrounds us with beauty and love, and then by some fine touch upon our senses wake to sympathy with Fauns !”5

  1. “A Traveller”, The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle,January to June 1830, Vol C. London, 1830, p105 []
  2. Horatio Forbes Brown, John Addington Symonds: a biography compiled from his papers and correspondance, 2nd Edition, London, Smith Elder & Co, p271 []
  3. John Addington Symonds, In the key of blue and other prose essays, London, E. Mathews & John Lane, 1893, p180 []
  4. John Addington Symonds, Robert L. Peters (Editor), Herbert M. Schueller, The Letters of John Addington Symonds, Vol. 1 : 1844-1868, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1968, p615 []
  5. In the key of blue, p178 []