Saturday, 8 November 2014

An excursion over Kirkstone Pass in 1807

On the third morning after my arrival in Grasmere, I found the whole family, except the two children, prepared for the expedition across the mountains. I had heard of no horses, and took it for granted that we were to walk; however, at the moment of starting, a cart - the common farmers’ cart of the country-made its appearance; and the driver was a bonny young woman of the vale.

Such a vehicle I had never in my life seen used for such a purpose; but what was good enough for the Wordsworths was good enough for me; and, accordingly, we were all carted along to the little town, or large Village, of Ambleside - three and a half miles distant. Our style of travelling occasioned no astonishment; on the contrary, we met a smiling salutation wherever we appeared - Miss Wordsworth being, as I observed, the person most familiarly known of our party, and the one who took upon herself the whole expenses of the flying colloquies exchanged with stragglers on the road. 

What struck me with most astonishment, however, was the liberal manner of our fair driver, who made no scruple of taking a leap, with the reins in her hand, and seating herself dexterously upon the shafts (or, in Westmorland phrase, the 'trams' of the cart.)

From Ambleside - and without one foot of intervening flat ground - begins to rise the famous ascent of Kirkstone; after which, for three long miles, all riding in a cart drawn by one horse becomes impossible. The ascent is computed at three miles, but is, probably, a little more. In some parts it is almost frightfully steep; for the road being only the original mountain track of shepherds, gradually widened and improved from age to age, (especially since the era of tourists began), is carried over ground which no engineer, even in alpine countries, would have viewed as practicable.

In ascending, this is felt chiefly as an obstruction and not as a peril, unless where there is a risk of the horses backing; but in the reverse order, some of these precipitous descents are terrific: and yet, once in utter darkness, after midnight, and the darkness irradiated only by continual streams of lightning, I was driven down this whole descent, at a full gallop, by a young woman – the carriage being a light one, the horses frightened, and the descents, at some critical parts of the road, so literally like the sides of a house, that it was difficult to keep the fore wheels from pressing upon the hind legs of the horses.

Indeed, this is only according to the custom of the country, as I have beforementioned. The innkeeper of Ambleside, or Lowwood, will not mount this formidable hill without four horses. The leaders you are not required to take beyond the first three miles; but, of course, they are glad if you will take them on the whole stage of nine miles, to Patterdale; and, in that case, there is a real luxury at hand for those who enjoy velocity of motion.

The descent into Patterdale is much above two miles; but such is the propensity for flying down hills in Westmoreland that l have found the descent accomplished in about six minutes, which is at the rate of eighteen miles an hour; the various turnings of the road making the speed much more sensible to the traveller. The pass, at the summit of this ascent, is nothing to be compared in sublimatity with the pass under the Great Gavil from Wastdalehead; but it is solemn, and profoundly impressive. At a height so awful as this, it may be easily supposed that all human dwellings have been long left behind: no sound of human life, no bells of churches or chapels ever ascend so far.

On the solitary area of tableland which you find at the summit - though, heaven knows, you might almost cover it with a drawing-room carpet, so suddenly does the mountain take to its old trick of precipitous descent, on both sides alike there are only two objects to remind you of man and his workmanship. One is a guide-post - always a picturesque and interesting object, because it expresses a wild country and a labyrinth of roads, and often made much more interesting (as in this case) by the lichens which cover it, and which record the generations of men to whom it has done its office; as also by the crucifix form which inevitably recall, in all mountainous regions, the crosses of Catholic lands, raised to the memory of wayfaring men who have perished by the hand of the assassin.

The other memorial of man is even more interesting: - Amongst the figments of rock which lie in the confusion of a ruin on each side of the road, one there is which exceeds the rest in height, and which, in shape, presents a very close resemblance to a church. This lies to the left of the road as you are going from Ambleside; and, from its name, Churchstone (Kirkstone,) is derived the name of the pass, and from the pass the name of the mountain. The guide-post - which was really the work of man - tells those going southwards (for to those who go northwards it is useless, since, in that direction, there no choice of roads) that the left hand track conducts you to Troutbeck, and Bowness, and Kendal; the right hand to Ambleside, and Hawkshead, and Ulverstone.

The church - which is but a phantom of man’s handiwork - might, however, really be mistaken for such, were it not that the rude and almost inaccessible state of the adjacent ground proclaims the truth. As to size, that is remarkably difficult to estimate upon wild heaths or mountain solitudes, where there are no leadings through gradations of distance, nor any artificial standards, from which height or breadth can be properly deduced.

This mimic church, however, has a peculiarly fine effect in this wild situation, which leaves so far below the tumults of this world; the phantom church, by suggesting the phantom and evanescent image of a congregation, where never congregation met; of the peeling organ, where never sound was heard except of wild natural notes, or else of the wind rushing through these mighty gates of everlasting rock - in this way, the fanciful image that accompanies the traveller on his road, for half a mile or more, serves to bring out the antagonist feeling of intense and awful solitude, which is the natural and presiding sentiment – the religio loci - that broods for ever over the romantic pass.

Thomas de Quincy