THE DEVIL'S RIDING SCHOOL.
Our last Excursion. — An early start. — In doubt about the way. — Horse Shoe Crater. — Rover in trouble. — The Devil's Riding School. — Fairy Rings. — What has once been here? — The Riding School no crater. — Saucepan lids. — A stone umbrella. — Broken bottles. — Last Observations. — Finis coronat opus. — Mail in sight. — Farewells.
THE sun has set on our last Ascension Sunday ; but a day or two yet remain for us to scramble among the clinker, and we have determined on a visit to the "Devil's Riding School."
When, from Green Mountain, we had looked down upon all the little craters that are scattered over the plains, we had longed to get to them, and this was our first opportunity. At four o'clock on Monday morning we were astir, and, having well broken our fast, were ready within an hour to set out crater-climbing.
Dear old Jimmy Chivas was patiently waiting for me, tied to the verandah gate ; Rover, and Brackley's little terrier, Captain, were wild with excitement, and, while we were getting ready, they kept running hither and thither, kicking up dust in all directions, and barking furiously ; no doubt to the annoyance of the still slumbering Garrison. Fortunately Jimmy Chivas had seen too much of the world's vanities to care to join in these frolics, and, started off sedately, after I had comfortably Seated myself on his poor old back, and hung from the pommel of the saddle a leather bag, containing some bottles of ginger-beer and designed to carry a return freight of clinker souvenirs.
The night had been tolerably cool, and, as we turned southwards just before sunrise, we were met by a chilly breeze that was perfectly delightful. For about a mile we trudged along the Mars Bay road, seeing no life and hearing no sound but the occasional cry of the Wide-awake and the barking of the dogs, as they chased in high glee over the clinker a wandering mule that had inadvertently crossed our path. Soon we turned off obliquely from the main road into a footpath, which led us for about half a mile towards a little hill in the south-east. So far there was no difficulty, as we had received distinct verbal directions ; but having unfortunately packed up our chart, and not finding hereabouts a finger-post as we had expected, we now began to feel an unpleasant sensation of doubt.
Here we were on a level plain, surrounded by five or six great heaps, any of which might be the Devil's Riding School, but which equally well might not ; and as these heaps were not mole-hills, the expedient of climbing each in turn, until we hit upon the right one, would be a fatiguing process. David, however, proposed to climb at least the little bill at the base of which we were standing in indecision, hoping by this means to gain a clearer notion of our whereabouts.
This he did, and then signalled for me to follow. I thought from its description that this heap could not lie the one we were in search of—it was too red—but I was glad of an excuse to take it by the way, and, leaving Jimmy under care of Brackley, I began the ascent, by no means such an easy matter as I had imagined, for the slope was at an angle of 45°, and the soil was so uncompacted that each footstep created a miniature landslip.
When at last I reached the top, I found myself standing on a narrow ridge, surrounding a great flat-bottomed basin on all sides except the south-east, where the wall was broken away. The ridge rose precipitously twenty or thirty feet from the basin, the bottom of which was so level that one might have played bowls over its whole extent ; a valley on the top of a mountain, and so shaped that we had no difficulty in recognising the "Horse-Shoe Crater."
Abutting from the south flank of this crater, another of like form and colour towered twice as high above it ; and as we could not quite make up our minds about the Riding School from our present position, David started on a further voyage of discovery up this higher hill.
Meanwhile I scrambled down again with many undignified slips, as the treacherous scoria broke up beneath my feet, and rolled in little fragments upon the plain. Once I was seized with a terrible heart thumping as I hoard a loud rumble, rumble behind me, while faster and faster the red stones came rattling down upon my heels. Suppose I have trod on some weak part of this great ash-heap, and it is going to bury me in revenge! flashed across my mind before I took courage to look behind and behold that wicked little Rover slipping and scrambling down in my wake. With white silken paws daintily touching the loose red stones, he was borne onwards and downwards, amid a cloud of dust. He looked the picture of terror, poor little fellow! and as nothing would induce him to go on in front of me, I had no choice but to take him in my arms, and, thus laden, complete the descent.
Here at the base I waited until David should reach the top of the hill, up whose steep red side he was now clambering with hands and knees, hoping that from the summit he might be able to look down upon the Riding School crater, and direct me to it. Fortunately he could do so, and his dark figure stood out so strongly against the light background of the sky, that, when he perched himself on the edge of the unbroken crater-cup—I was able to see distinctly the direction he indicated with his alpenstock.
Thus guided, I rode due east across the plain until I reached a light-coloured bill, lower than some of the surrounding ones, but apparently of considerable circumference. Here Jimmy and I waited until my husband overtook us, and then I was glad to learn that we were now at the Devil's Riding School.
The lithological formation of the slope which rose above us was certainly a contrast to that of the last crater I had climbed ; for here we found firm footing on the large grey stones well-compacted together, and dotted all over with lichens, while meek little tufts of coarse grass peeped from the crevices. We reached the top without fatigue, and then found that we had been so fortunate as to gain at once the highest part of the circular summit, which was very irregular, and in some places did not rise many feet above the depressed centre. I say fortunate, because the greater elevation enabled us to obtain a clearer Idea of the whole than we should have done, had we conic at once upon the level.
We looked down upon a bit of landscape, so extraordinary in its marked contrast to the careless, irregular beauties of a natural bill, that to a non-scientific mind it almost suggested the supernatural.
The circus appeared to us about a mile and a-half in circumference, and, from our standing point, it seemed to be perfectly level. In the centre there is a reddish area of considerable extent, surrounded by a narrow rim of a very light sandy colour ; then a dark ring, in turn surrounded by a broad white circle ; while great masses of rough grey stone form an almost unbroken fence round these fairy rings. There is indeed one narrow gap—the evidence of an outflowing towards the south-east—but, viewed from a little distance, this hardly breaks the circle ; and in some places I should imagine the fence to be as high as thirty feet. At such a height we now stood, and viewed and wondered.
What is it that we see? What has once been here? A vomiting of mud? A waterspout? A lake? It was impossible for us to say, nor could we tell whether this too was a hill of sudden upheaval, like the little volcanic chimneys around, or if it were some child of slower growth.
On the Admiralty chart the "Devil's Riding School" is marked, "Crater of an old volcano," but Darwin, in his "Volcanic Islands," rejects this description as incorrect, and contends that it is no volcano at all. He says, "The hill marked in the map 'Crater of an old volcano,' has no claims to this appellation which I could discover, except in being surmounted by a circular, very shallow, saucer-like summit, nearly half a mile in diameter. This hollow has been nearly filled up with many successive sheets of ashes and scoriae of different colours, and slightly consolidated. Each successive saucer-shaped layer crops out all round the margin, forming so many rings of various colours, and giving to the hill a fantastic appearance. The outer ring is broad and of a white colour, hence it resembles a course round which horses have been exercised, and has received the name of the Devil's Riding School, by which it is most generally known. These successive layers of ashes must have fallen over the whole surrounding country, but they have all been blown away, except in this one hollow, in which probably moisture accumulated, either during an extraordinary year, when rain fell, or during the storms often accompanying volcanic eruptions."
But whence came the hollow in the beginning, and whence the rocks that form its flanks? Before the ashes and scoriae fell, there must have been, in the first place, a hill with a hollow summit, rather a novelty where there is no volcanic origin, and, as there is certainly no other hill on the island except those formed by the accumulations of craters, an ignorant observer, like myself, would be inclined to ascribe a like origin to the Devil's Riding School. This especially, as the form—circular, with a depressed summit—is similar to that of the surrounding hills.
To be sure the formation and colour are different, and this tells a story intelligible enough to the skilled geologist, but a novice in the language of stones is lost when a fresh leaf is turned ; and, finding the new page unlike the old one, be is glad, after hopeless puzzling, to throw away his own bewildered ideas, and rest his mind on the master's teaching without question.
But I had not read Darwin's "Volcanic Islands" when I visited the Devil's Riding School, and it was with a feeling of baffled curiosity that I descended from the lip into the saucer. As we walked across it, we found this saucer to be by no means so level as we had supposed, and that the outcrop of the various strata occurred at very different depths. Dotted over many parts of the circus too (particularly on the north side), there were little cones of one and two feet in height, and, on having their heads knocked off, these displayed tiny central chimneys—looking as if they were meant to represent Ascension in miniature.
It was all very interesting and curious, and we would gladly have spent a much longer time poking about among the ashes, had not the sun warned us that by-and-by he would make himself very disagreeable on the plains. For our descent we chose the north-east slope, and found it of a character altogether different from that of the south-west, by which we had come uo
Here the stones were mostly loose, and curious pieces, like saucepan lids, lay strewn about in every direction—very metallic in sound when struck with the hammer, or against each other, and very hard and sharp for the feet, making walking difficult. In some places they were securely fixed, and stood out at right angles to the slope of the hill.
I find from Darwin that these saucepan-lids are "veins," which intersect the trachyte in the most complicated manner.
He says, "They are best seen on the flanks of the 'Crater of an old volcano.' . . . The veins vary much, and suddenly, from the tenth of an inch to one inch in thickness ; they often thin out, not only on their edges, but in their central parts, thus leaving round, irregular apertures ; their surfaces are rugged. They are inclined at every possible angle with the horizon, or are horizontal ; they are generally curvilinear, and often interbranch one with another. From their hardness they withstand weathering, and projecting two or three feet above the ground, they occasionally extend some yards in length. . . . . Their fragments, which are strewed on the ground, clatter like pieces of iron when knocked against each other. They often assume the most singular forms ; I saw a pedestal of the earthy trachyte covered by a hemispherical portion of a vein, like a great umbrella, sufficiently large to shelter two persons."
Curiously enough, we descended at the very spot where this umbrella stands, actually alighting on the top of it ; unless, indeed, there be more than one such phenomenon here, which is unlikely.
After our dusty climb, we were glad to return to Jimmy Chivas, with his burden of ginger-beer. Hot and dusty we longed for a draught, but alas! we had forgotten a glass, and could not quench our thirst so pleasantly as might have been desired. However, with patience and many chokings, we cured the worst of it, pouring what remained of the beer into one of the stony saucepan-lids for the dogs ; but they'd none of it.
Then we filled the empty bag with stony treasures from the hill, and left our quota of broken bottles to glisten on the clinker. These broken bottles strewn everywhere, over plains, roads and hill-sides, form a very characteristic feature in the Ascension landscape. I wonder, will their "fossils" puzzle future geologists, and lead them to mistake Ascension for the Bass Rock of this age !
We paid for our lengthened stay at the Riding School by a hot, tiring journey home. The sun had long since o'ertopped Green Mountain and its clouds, and was now shining in an unveiled sky, dazzling our eyes and making my head ache, so that I greeted with thankfulness the welcome sight of Garrison, which we reached a little before noon. We were home again from our last excursion on the clinker, tired mentally as well as physically ; for the effort of trying to understand the rough road was quite as fatiguing as the exertion of walking over it. We felt that there was very much even in this little spot of earth that puzzled us, and six months' residence on a barren rock of only twenty-eight miles in circumference, by no means justified our claiming intimate acquaintance with it.
On the evening of the 8th, my husband made his last observation for time, in the disused Magnetical Observatory across the square from Commodore's Cottage. Here he was invaded at 10 o'clock by the Corporal on guard, who demanded "Lights out," and was much surprised to find that the astronomer was not yet quite "packed up," but continued to transgress rules till the last moment.
These last Ascension days and nights were cloudless—just such days and nights as had greeted our arrival, so that all the necessary time observations were comfortably secured, and everything was well ended. Finis coronat opus.
Wednesday, 9th.—No steamer, and we began to wonder whether Ascension had been forgotten! Thursday morning—still waiting ; but, while I was sitting quietly with my needlework at 4 P.M., the white flag and ball were suddenly hoisted on Cross Hill: Mail in sight!
My needle was left half undrawn, and all at once I felt in a bustle, without exactly knowing why, for we had been ready a long while.
Within an hour of signalling, the Warwick Castle anchored in Clarence Bay, and, now that she was actually here, I almost wished she had not come. I did not like saying good-bye, nor did I enjoy the prospect of a fortnight's voyage ; and, when the Captain told us that we might still have some hours oil shore, I felt as if a respite had been granted me. These hours were occupied with last words and adieux, not the least touching of which was my parting with Rover, who was left, however, with a kind mistress, and looked by no means inconsolable.
At sunset we embarked, and before steam was up had time to arrange some comforts in our cabin, and to read the home letters which had come by the mail. These were delightful, telling as they did, that the Mars Expedition was considered, by those well-qualified to judge, to have been energetically and satisfactorily carried out—a pleasant thought to be sea-sick upon, and I felt brave enough for worse trials than the Bay of Biscay!
What a lovely evening it was, and how gloriously the crescent moon and Venus shone over the water and silvered the grim red and brown outlines of the land !
"For the last time," I said, to myself, as the evening bugle sounded ; and, before its echoes had died away, our "Six Months in Ascension" was a thing of the past.
With regard to these strata of ashes and scoriae, a German writer, quoting from Ehrenberg, says, "Aus organisirt gewesener Substanz er findet einige Kieselschalige Susswasser-Infusorien und nicht weniger als 25 verschiedene arten Kieseliger Gewebe von Pflanzen, hauptsachlich von Grasern."