Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Romantic Stroll along a Cliff

*  A Note From Nancy  *

The Cliff Walk… doesn’t it sound like the perfect place for a romance, or a Gothic tale? That’s one reason I chose it as an integral element in An Unlikely Suitor. Walking along its 3.5 mile length with my husband conjured up images of Newport in its prime, during the last half of the 19th century…
The nice thing about nature is that the basics remain the same. And so the essence of the Cliff Walk remains much as it was so long ago. Considering Newport has been around since 1639, the original paths along the shore of Rhode Island Sound and the Atlantic were probably originally worn down by deer and the Narragansett Indians. When European settlers lived there, they would go down to the rocks to recover goods from ship wrecks.

For the sea could be harsh and the rocks along the shore were (and are) jagged and dangerous. Yet there’s something very exciting about walking on a narrow path with civilization on the one side, and the fierceness of nature on the other. Standing on the Walk, looking out to sea, the centuries fall away and you feel a connection with all that came before.

Newport began to be a summer haven of wealthy New Englanders as far back as 1850. As is the way since time began, people liked having a home with a view, and so homes were built along the edge of the ocean. As the century progressed, the first homes were replaced with palatial mansions that had grounds rivaling the lush estates of Europe. Instead of merchants and politicians building there, the extraordinarily wealthy “Robber Barons” of the Gilded Age took over: the Vanderbilts and Astors built summer “cottages” that were as large as twenty homes.

The Forty Steps
The Cliff Walk was a place for all classes. Although the wealthy lived along its edges, the servants who worked in those houses were free to use the Walk. At the north end are the 40 Steps. Here’s a photo of the wooden steps taken during that olden time. The steps ended on the rocks. It was a gathering place for the working class who would have parties where they’d dance and sing Irish music. Since that time, the steps have been improved, from wood to more sturdy stone.
Servants gathering
on the Cliff Walk

As the Walk gained in popularity, improvements were made a little at a time. Now, most of the Walk is paved, though there are still areas where you are virtually walking on rocks. But in the 1890’s (the era of my book) it was a more dangerous place and every year there were accidents and even deaths. I’ll leave it at that…

My husband on the Cliff Walk
telling me "How about this one?"
What did the rich home owners think about the lower classes walking within a hundred feet of their back porticos? They were not amused. At various times in history, the homeowners tried to restrict access. At one point they even dropped the Walk 12’ below the land-line so walkers couldn't see their houses. They’d plant bushes, put rocks in the way, or even use guard dog.

But many embraced the merging of their property and the Cliff Walk and made improvements, including nice walls to sit upon and bridges. The bottom line is the walk is a public place and all are welcome to embrace its beauty and honor its history. Go to Newport and take a walk.  You won't be disappointed.//Nancy

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Talk about another level of the universe when it comes to life experience! I would have been one of those servants ... or one of the "hoi poloi" the rich didn't want so much as looking at their homes. Makes me think of one of my Dad's favorite hymns, "Mansion Over the Hilltop." Dad was poor but he had a hope of a mansion someday.