And I desire... to expresse my great thankfulnesse unto God for the many p[re]servacons I have had in those hazardous imployments and dangerous encounters I have mett with in the course of my pilgrimage in this troublesome world...
(Will of Thomas, Third Lord Fairfax, 1667)
For well over a century climbers with a taste for literature have kept their eyes open for allusions to the appeal or challenge of our hills and crags. In poetry, before the appearance of the Romantics, any searches were poorly rewarded. What was found derives from a short list of perhaps ten poets. With two quite expansive exceptions these contributions are fragments, some unforgettable, some simply tantalising. One poem of interest to rock-Climbers has escaped notice however, perhaps because it was written in Latin, the English version the writer usually offered is presumed lost, and few translations are available. This is Andrew Marvell's Epigramma in Duos Montes Amosclivium et Bilboreum: Epigram on Two mountains, Almscliff and Bilbrough.
The poem was written between 1650 and 1653 at Nun Appleton by the river Wharfe, Yorkshire.
At that time Marvell was tutor to the daughter of Thomas Fairfax, Commander-in-Chief of the Parliamentary forces during the Civil War and finally the Lord General. Fairfax opposed the execution of the King and subsequently resigned in protest at the planned invasion of Scotland. Handing over to Cromwell, he retired to his country estates and properties.
These were disposed in two groups. South-west of York lay those close to or near Nun Appleton and Bilborough, Now Bilbrough. 30 miles further up the Wharfe lay the cluster of estates east of the family seat at Denton.
Marvell's mountains wouldn't be called hills today but these expressions were used loosely by lowlanders. The monumental gritstone block of Almscliff stands on a grassy plinth and is seen from distant viewpoints though it barely reaches 700 feet above sea level.
It's held about 10 names, first appearing as Almusclyue or Almusclive, 1203-20. (It's thought to derive from a woman's name, Almus. That name remains unknown but -us was a feminine suffix of the time with several closely similar forms recorded locally). `Amos‑cliff which Marvell latinised in his poem, isn't seen until 1695 but would have been established in local speech much earlier.
Bilborough Hill has been so reduced by gravel quarrying that it hardly exists, now only reaching 140 feet above the plain of York. This explains a problem that puzzled some since in the well-known poem 'Upon the Hill and Grove at Bilborough'. Marvell uses extreme poetic license in assertions about the extent of the views.
Three full translations of the epigram are now in print. The earliest, by the Rev CA Clark, is undated and also uses the form Almias-cliff, not recorded until 1822. It's a stylish effort but in forcing the Latin into a tight English straightjacket some strain has been imposed on meanings. The second is by W.A. McQueen and K.A. Rockwell. Almost a literal prose translation, it offers a corrective view. The third is by Mira Seo and follows the second closely. These three appear in the Lord, Donno and Smith editions of Marvell's poems. In addition David Craig, with the advantage of a climber's eye as well as Latin, has offered a reading of the crucial line.
The poem is of a kind common enough in Marvell's time and earlier, an exercise in flattery, the poet praising his patron or employer. It's in couplets, is twenty-four lines in length, and is dedicated to Fairfax. First the two landmarks are placed as dominating the plain with the observer near or on Bilbrough Hill (here, this) so that Almscliff (there, that) is seen distantly. In six shifts between one and the other their dissimilar characters are contrasted. These characters, rugged or gentle, are then shown as displayed in Fairfax's nature, unyielding or gracious according to circumstance. It ends with a brief salutation to Mary, Fairfax's pupil.
Almscliff, then, gets just six lines. Four of these are what we'd expect for the period. It rises from its mound like Pelion on Ossa, it supports the skies like Atlas, its towering rocks stand untamed. It's seen from great distances as a goal or as the turning-post to be reached in a race. A fifth line proves divisive: paraphrasing, either the jutting rocks stand erect; or the rough rocks are cloaked in terrors (Clark) this from a curious extension of meaning possible in Latin. The remaining line seizes the climber's attention:
Erectus, praeceps, salebrosus, et arduus ille
The steep, the rough, the difficult are there
That is lofty, steep, uneven and arduous
McQueen and Rockwell
That is lofty, steep, uneven and harsh
That's high, vertical, rugged, and hard to climb
Clark's translation is intriguing since his abstract categories suggest that various lines of ascent have been noticed and that the writer realises that different approaches would present problems different in nature. It almost amounts to a prototype of a grading system. But four into three won't go unless advantage is taken of overlaps in meaning in the four terms. Looking at Marvell's work as a whole however it's hard to believe he'd wedge synonyms side by side.
McQueen and Rockwell make the distinction between height and steepness in a cliff and the sense of an on-site inspection persists. 'Uneven', on the other hand, seems a clumsy term in this context and Seo adds nothing useful. (It may be that none of these translators visited the cliff, a trivial detail in considering Marvell's output.) Craig also rejects Clark's abstractions as not in the Latin. The expression 'hard to climb' is justified since 'arduus' carries the sense of difficult to undertake. In speaking of a cliff that can only mean to get to the top.
It may be worth considering a grammatical liberty: to take 'salebrosus', usually translated as rough or rugged, neither as scholar or rock-climber but as a traveller of the time or a poet with a subliminal image.'Salebra' means a rut and might suggest 'rutted', a condition wearily familiar to every user of coach-roads and cart-tracks in England. To the crag's visitors the word brings to mind the parallel erosion grooves featured on these rocks, as on the climb named Fluted Columns.
None of Marvell's lines could have come from a distant view and the question arises: did he lay hands on the crag? It's clear he had ample free time at Nun Appleton and energy and activity characterise his life. He'd already spent four years travelling (or draft-dodging?) in Holland, France, Spain and Italy, seeing the sights no doubt.Ten years later he accompanied a two-year diplomatic mission to the courts of Denmark, Sweden and Russia. This was during his twenty years as Member of Parliament for Hull and it's recorded that he exchanged blows with Thomas Clifford on the floor of the House of Commons during his :first session. He also absented himself for two spells in Holland, during the second of which he seems to have been running a spy ring in the Hague. And this is the man who, `Had we but World enough and Time', would be willing to exercise patience -‑
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged Chariot hurrying near...
It's hard to believe he'd have spent two years or so looking towards Almscliff from Bilborough Hill — a favourite walk for him as it already was for Fairfax — without wishing to reach it. The possible clues in his other poems are slight and his movements and the mysterious gaps in his life have been so carefully examined that it seems unlikely that direct evidence will be found.
Nevertheless, the detail in the poem came from somewhere and the informant preeminently equipped to be his authority is Fairfax himself. Crucially, he owned the crag and hits will reveals some incidental detail. In it he confirms settlements of his lands already made including those for his 'mannor or Lordshipp of Rigton'. This centred on the North Rigton a mile east of the cliff.
There is also a codicil, longer than the will itself and dated I I November 1671, the day before his death. Here he scatters bequests to rich and poor, remembering numerous tenants, family servants, and local indigents. Amongst all this he reassigns a part of the rents from four farms at Rigton. Three can't now be traced but the fourth is 'the Spouse farrne.'The name is a rarity but a Spout House exists at Rigton today. The present building looks like a modern luxury home but the occupier states that parts of it date from that time. He adds that the property was a farm until as late as 1970 and that the lands might well have reached the crag.The old field walling suggests that the summit may have divided two tenancies.
West of the crag, from northwest to south, the estates of the Fairfax family and relatives formed a semicircle. Six of these lay within seven miles, with a sister barely three miles across the valley at Arthington. The Rigton estate lapped up to it from the east and may well have extended westward. Almscliff is the only viewpoint from which all these lands could be admired. It's hard to believe that Fairfax could have resisted the impulse to enjoy the summit's overviews of his domains whenever he passed by on a fine day.
He had a passion for horses and before the war he rode with the local hunts so that this practice alone, one biographer states, "had made every inch of Wharfedale familiar to him". (From an unknown but early date the crevices and cavities in the cliff were dry-walled up to prevent foxes going to earth there.) During the war his exploits would earn him the sobriquet 'The Rider of the White Horse'. As a young man he had made the rounds of all the properties on his grandfather's business and shortly began to oversee them. On any journeys to Rigton from Scow Hall or Fewston he would have been obliged to skirt the crag. Later he had to fit in more local travel as an officer of the civil administration.
Today he's remembered as a soldier. At 17 he was with an English contingent at the siege of Bois-le-Duc in the Low Countries and sent home his assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the town walls and defences. During the Civil War he stormed or sieged a dozen walled towns or castles. As much as any cliff in Britain Almscliff stands like a castle on a hill. It's tempting to speculate that the besieger's eye might have been sharpened by scrambling around Almscliff.
The argument has become that if Marvell didn't visit the crag then Fairfax had given him his information. The literature is as daunting as that on Marvell though it's mainly devoted to the war and its aftermath. The Fairfax Correspondence (4 vols. 1850-52) deals almost entirely with matters of state and the biographies yield nothing. The manuscript Letters and Papers are a massive archive dispersed in three main collections and are only accessible to academic researchers. At present Fairfax is simply linked to Almscliff by circumstance. Yet he had endless opportunities, ample motives, and is the only suspect we have as Marvell's source.
Almscliff is one of the marker crags of British climbing and its great test-pieces. Frankland's Green Crack, Great Western, Western Front, Wall of Horrors — are indicator climbs for the limits of achievement in several decades. It would have been gratifying to be able to install the Lord General not only as its first known visitor but also as an habitue. Clearly we can't. Nevertheless Marvell's epigram remains unique for its instant of concentration on the form and nature of a celebrated crag long before the Romantics decided that cliffs and mountains are there to be admired.
Author's note: An earlier article appeared in FRCCJ Vol XXVII (1), No 78, 2002. It was written in response to the Clark translation and looked for clues in Marvell's work rather than considering Fairfax as the source of the description.