Blundering through the Lakes, 1818

Which view is best seen upside-down?

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The first blunder we made of which shall give account in order to make the history of our tour a history of blunders, which will be easily done, was setting out without [two of our] friends…

Tourism as we know it only really dates back to the 18th century – in earlier times certainly pilgrimages encompassed many aspects of it (wayside inns, gift shops selling tat…), and the Grand Tour of the 17th century onwards opened up travel to wealthy young people as we saw a few weeks ago. But even the idea of the countryside, for example, as something worth enjoying for its own sake rather than as the context of one’s toils to survive only developed, not coincidentally, as the Industrial Revolution took hold.

One key concept as part of the new sensibility to nature and landscape was the ‘picturesque’, a term popularised by William Gilpin (1724–1804), who wrote of the landscape in terms of art and aesthetics, and his ideas fed into the Romantic movement – and by the late 18th century it becamse common for comfortably-off middle-class people such as William Wordsworth and his friends to go on ‘tours’ to scenic parts of the country.

Last week we met Benjamin Newton, a vicar in Yorkshire whose diaries of 1816–1818 typify the life of a middle-class gentleman and his country pursuits. The trends of industrialisation on one hand and rural tourism on the other did not pass him by. This entry from 13th September 1816 is quite telling, for example:

The environs of Rochdale, Ripponden, Halifax, Bradford, the bridge over the Aire and Otley are beautiful in the extreme and were it not for the reflection that the greatness of Great Britain depended I may say principally on the defacing of the hand of nature in these parts by the hand of man, which produces not only riches in every way from exportation and taxation at home and raises in time of war an innumerable population which is seen over the whole district for the armies, one could not help regretting that scenes so romantic and lovely should be impaired and destroyed by the black steam engines, by the yarn, the cloth, the cotton, the morals of the people destroyed by being crowded together and the hammers of the water engines perpetually frighting quiet and comfort from vallies [sic] which at first view one would imagine were placed by nature in the most remote and sequestered situations for the peculiar residence of innocence and peace.

But our main focus this week is his light-hearted account of a tour heading north-west from his home near Ripon, over the Yorkshire Dales to the Lake District. The first tourist guide to the Lakes had been published back in 1778 by Thomas West (1720–79), another priest, and many others followed (including Wordsworth’s own from 1820). Benjamin Newton wrote a detailed account of his tour from 20th July 1818 until 11th August. It’s told in his light-hearted and self-mocking style, and has some enjoyable descriptions of his group’s ill-prepared ‘blunders’ as he calls them, as well as some observations about rural life of the time. Below are some extracts from just the first few days…

Tent Lodge by Coniston Water, by J.M.W.Turner, painted in 1818, the same year as Newton’s visit to the Lakes. Tent Lodge is still available as a place to stay for tourists today.

July 1818

20th. Set out for a tour without having determined which way to travel any further than Wensley where we had promised to dine in our way either to Hawes or Askrigg this evening… The first blunder we made of which shall give account in order to make the history of our tour a history of blunders, which will be easily done, was setting out without [two of our] friends… and being obliged after travelling the first three miles to send John back for the road book…

… we started for Wensley and reached Middleham without any further accident and as Mr Costabadie’s1 man had driven us through the ford the last time we came from Wensley were proceding that way, when exactly at the turn of the street that leads down to it we met Mr Brease who told us it was very unsafe, we therefore continued up the town and over the moor thro’ excessive heat and labour for the horses and a very considerable quantity of rain upon the new bonnets which were projected on a certainty of fine weather and when we arrived at the top of the moor and were to descend the steep lane down to Wensley the ladies had to descend from the carriage and found their shoes could not be used for walking, the carriage was unpacked and reckoning our blunder about the ford as the second, the improper state of the bonnets and shoes may well pass for the third…

21st. Breakfasted at Wensley and set out a little before 9 for Askrigg, a very good road with little hill, had thence 5½m to Hardrow where we got some oats for the horses, and my wife got some water to drink with her bread and cheese, the water was brought in a white basin, they had an egg each and the charge was 5/- for their eating, so much for laking.2 The drag chain broke both the first and second time having been mended after the first. From Hardrow we set out after admiring the Scar and the beck that comes down close to the alehouse, for Sedbergh, 15 miles, very much uphill for about five miles till we got above the source of the Eure and on turning over the point of the hill came to the rise of another rivulet which runs into the Western Ocean… This Garsdale is for 5 or 6 miles a beautiful Dale, the road for the most part running close to the river walled up from 6 to 20 feet above it without any fence between the road and the river. The singularity of the Dale is that after having gradually widened from a mere ravine to valley half a mile wide it is suddenly shut up into a ravine again and the road carried up the hill a considerable way and then descends gradually as the Vale opens out again a over a handsome new bridge to Sedbergh, which is the narrowest town I ever saw, the street in no place exceeding 8 to 10 feet except for about 20 yards opposite the shambles which stand directly above the church and churchyard. In this place all the boys and girls and women are knitters employed in knitting not stockings but blue woollen caps of yarn which makes all the children look as if they came out of a dyeing factory. A circumstance obtains in many of the small towns in Yorkshire, Middleham, Askrigg, Sedbergh, etc, which I have not seen remarked, which is that of making the groundfloor of the houses merely lumber rooms, stables, cowhouses, etc, and throwing a flight of steps up out of the street to the floor above which is the part inhabited by the family. Almost all the children of Sedbergh wear wooden shoes and make a great clatter in the street. The church seems calculated to hold not only all the people but all the houses… A good knitter knits 12 caps per diem which on examining must be worn by convicts and prisoners, they are knit very loose on wooden pins…

22nd. Left Sedbergh very early this morning to breakfast at Kendal which we did not reach owing to a fifth blunder at taking the road to Kirkby Lonsdale instead of Kendal, till half past ten, being full three hours in travelling the eleven miles, the road lying all the way over mountains and some of the highest in Westmorland, with scarce a symptom of cultivation or habitation for more than six miles out of the eleven. We got an excellent breakfast at Kendal, walked a great deal about the town and among other places the Church where there happened to be assembled a numerous body of the clergy and a sermon was preaching… by a gentleman who had one of the most powerful voices I ever heard and a very good delivery, making some allowance for a North Country dialect. His sermon must have been a very long one as it lasted I should suppose at least 25 minutes after we got into the Church and I should think was half over…

A little before 2 we left Kendal and travelled for the first three miles up and along a most glorious terrace I ever yet travelled, we at length got up on the moor, the ups and downs of which were very steep and we had well nigh lost our way by the Jesuitical language of a finger post which instead of saying “To Bowness” says “to Ambleside by Bowness 8 miles” and on another finger “To the Ferry” which as it is Bowness ferry perplexes a stranger which road he is to take the Inn. We were much favoured by the weather, which though it threatened rain the greater part of the day, just as we were in the most interesting part of the road broke up and showed the landscape and the distant hills with the finest broad lights and shades that can be imagined. As it was only nine miles, after ascending and keeping on the mountain for seven miles I grew very impatient for a sight of Windermere and at every step the horses made I stretched my neck in vain to see it and owing to its breadth being narrowed by Mr Curwen’s island, did not get a view of it till we were quite descended into the Vale, which however highly gratified us, when we did see it. And cannot conceive how it is possible that anyone's expectations can be disappointed, except by their expecting that to be sublime which is only beautiful in the extreme, smiling, not frowning, not terrific but enchanting.

[‘Mr Curwen’s island’ is Belle Isle, the largest of 18 on Windermere, where a house was built in 1774. It was owned by the Curwen family from c.1781 until 1993. Newton here refers to the concept of the ‘sublime’ – a sort of intermixture of horror and beauty in one’s response to the landscape, particularly a mountainous one – which had been discussed by Gilpin, Wordsworth and many others in this era. He mentions Gilpin directly below, and doesn’t seem to have too much time for the high-flown language of the aesthetes, although he clearly appreciates the scenery.]

We arrived about 4 at Bowness, a beautiful little village, too much cannot be said of its beauty or its littleness, the excellence of the White Lion as an Inn, the prospect from the windows and the odd but natural situation of the house and garden. As soon as we had dined we ordered a boat and got into it with two lads in order to be rowed to what is emphatically called the station but they landed us on Mr Curwen’s Island not far from his house and said nothing. Here our blundering again became conspicuous. We walked round the island and returned to the place which we had been landed and found no boat, we waited half an hour, the evening drew on and the wind began to whistle and to threaten rain…

23rd. I forgot to mention that the church at Kendal is very handsome and the lightest within that I ever saw. Walked down by the North end of the church and was particularly struck with the view of the a lake from a timber yard about 200 yards above the place where you take boat. My wife got up without a hint from me before 7 o’clock. This is the first time since we were married which makes me remark an occurrence that happens but once in 30 years.

… When we came to pay our bill they had charged us only for breakfast omitting both dinner and tea, and being ordered to mend the bill again omitted the tea. All things however being righted, we set out for Lowood Inn by the Bishop of Llandaff's and making only one blunder in the road arrived through excessive heat at ½ past and meeting with two other gentlemen I beguiled the time with conversation with them till the [turn]pike was ready. One of them who was an old tourist knowing the lakes told me there was one view from Dunmaile Raise which could only be seen in perfection by bending down and looking backwards at it through your legs. On my remarking that was rather awkward for ladies, he said that was not the case, for that soon after he was married he was travelling there with a large party of ladies and that they all looked at the prospect in that way except one old maid and that she always continued an old maid. On consulting the landlord of the Inn how to make an evening tour he recommended Loughrigg Tarn and Elter Water, which we set out to see, leaving Ambleside on our right we coasted the head of Windermere and were highly gratified with the mountain scenery which was really and truly sublime, especially from Elter Water. We then turned down to Skelwith Bridge and Skelwith Force, which Force was a very small Force indeed, but being one of Mr Green’s views3 which we had got at Kendal Anne seemed desirous of visiting it, and we got back to Lowood at 8 o’clock to tea, where I found the landlord Mr Ladyman had been servant of the old Bishop Barrington… and has kept this Inn about six years… Mr Ladyman told me the waterfall at Rydale exactly represented a woman standing on her head. I hope may be excused not filling my paper with epithets respecting prospects from the works of Sir John Carr, Gilpin, Walter Scott etc, as I shall have blunders enough without naming God's creatures as some of them have done and drowned their half ideas in seas of words which some people think very fine and some very foolish. Our tour this evening might be about 11 miles, our port was very good, our dinner, eels, Scotch collops and gooseberry pye. The drive this pike, evening was on the whole the most level this side of Askrigg.

24th. Rose before 7 and set out to breakfast at Grasmere, passed through Ambleside by Rydal and Rydal water, soon came in sight of Grasmere and turned out of the road to Grasmere Inn… On going down to the water I saw a gentleman’s servant fishing in a boat moored about 200 yards off in the lake who very civilly pulled up his anchor and asked me if I wished for the boat which I declined and went back for my wife and Caroline who walked down with me to the boat and as soon as we got there we were joined by the servant’s master, a Mr Burley from Lancaster, who hailed his man and we all embarked, he and his man rowing us round the island to our great delight, for a more lovely scene in the same distance it is impossible to behold…

Mr Burley told me he had been from the Inn at the foot 3½ hours in ascending Helvellyn4 and that last week it had large quantities of snow on it… The forms of the mountains are the most grotesque and at time the most sublime that can be imagined.


And so Newton’s tour continued, through to Keswick and Crosthwaite, then over to Cockermouth and Workington. Two hundred years later, many of us still take similar tours round the Lakes, and they remain as sublime as ever.

(If you’re into exploring the world on foot, please do complete my survey about a potential new publication!)

1

The Rev Jacob Costabadie was a close friend of Newton and the rector of Wensley-cum-Leyburn. They had been at Cambridge together.

2

Tourists were known as ‘lakers’ and often charged extra…

3

I’m fairly certain this is a reference to William Green’s 1796 book A Description of a Series of Picturesque Views in the North of England.

4

See here for a brief summary of tourism at Helvellyn, England’s third-highest peak, from the 1780s onwards.