Altar on Cross-Fell

The Altar on Cross-Fell.(Formerly Fiends'-Fell.)

Come listen and hear of the Fiends'-Fell dread;
And the helm of storm that shrouds its head,
When the imps and cubs of Evil that tread
Its summit, their strifes are waging:
Who made their haunt on its topmost height,
And down the valleys came often by night,
To affright the Shepherds, the herds to blight,
And set the strong winds raging.

Ah, dwellers in peaceful vales afar!
The cloudy Helm and the dismal Bar—
You know whose work on the Fell they are;
And you know whose wort they are brewing.
And you wish that the saintly Augustine
A warier man on his errand had been,
When the lizard crept into his chalice unseen,
The power of his spells undoing.

For he came, by good men sought, they say,
To the Fiends'-Fell foot, a weary way,
To chase the fiends from the cloud that lay
On its summit, as if to hide it.
At an hour unmarked, by paths unknown,
He climbed up the mountain side alone,
And built on the top an altar of stone,
And reared the cross beside it.

And there within that mighty cloud,
Where wrathful spirits were raging loud,
The old good man, with mind unbow'd,
But body so oft-times bending,
Moved to and fro on the haunted top,
And gathered the stones from off the slope,
Nor bated a jot of heart or hope
While the Altar pile was ascending.

Then while the sun made bright below
And warmed the vales with its cheerful glow,
The mighty cloud began to blow,
And deafening cries flew round him.
But still the altar on high begun
With heart and will, from his labours done
The crowning recompence now has won
For him, to that end who bound him.

There stands the Altar the saint before.
The long laborious task is o'er.
The Cross which once the victim bore,
It too spreads wide its arms.
The Chalice is there with the juice divine;
The wafer that bares the sacred sign;
And the tapers beside the Cross to shine;
To work out the counter-charms.

All ready beside the holy man
Stood—when for a moment his eyes began
To droop, and a feeling of slumber ran
Through his veins oppress'd and weary.
For toil an old man's limbs will shake:
And toil an old man's frame will break:
But, that instant past, he stands awake
Within that cloud so dreary.

It was enough: No counter-charm
Might work that day the fiend-cubs harm.
The Chalice he offers with outstretched arm
Has a reptile form within it!
And neither the saint nor the wine has power
To banish one fiend from the Fell, that hour:
For a lizard the edge of the chalice crept o'er,
While he slept but that tithe of a minute.

Then blew the fiends, as if they would blow
The mountain itself to the plain below.
And when the saint turned round to go,
Down tumbled the Altar behind him:
And boiled and seethed the Helm and Bar,
And the winds rushed down on the valleys afar;
While the Saint emerged, like a shining star,
From the cloud where they could not bind him.

And he went his way; and the fiends prevailed.
And still is the mountain by fiends assailed.
And the dismal Helm from afar is hailed
As a tempest surely growing.
The herdsman shudders, and hies away
To his hut on the hills at close of day,
For he knows whose cubs are abroad at play
And setting the Helm wind blowing.

His children mourn at the dolorous roar,
And rush to his arms from hearth and floor.
But the good man thinks of his stacks and store,
His fields and his farmstead wasting.
The housewife prays that the rain may fall:
But the stars are shining high over all:
And the Bar extends like a pitchy wall
In the West, where the storm is hasting.

The long loud roar, it deepens amain;
And down from the Helm along valley and plain
Goes the wind with invisible hosts in its train,
And they mount the black Bar-cloud appalling;
And they heave it and row it, those mariners dread,
For days, till it anchors on Fiends'-Fell head:
Then the big drops pour from the skies o'er spread,
And the torrents to torrents are calling.

Notes to "the Altar on Cross-Fell."

The Editor of Camden (Bishop Gibson), speaking of huge stones found together on the top of steep and high mountains, thought they might possibly be the ruins of Churches or Chapels which had been built there. "For," says he, "it was thought an extraordinary piece of devotion, upon the planting of Christianity in these parts, to erect crosses, and build chapels on the most eminent places, as being both nearer heaven and more conspicuous: they were commonly dedicated to St. Michael. That large tract of mountains on the east side of the county (of Cumberland), called Cross-Fells, had the name given them upon that account; for before, they were called Fiends'-Fell, or Devil's Fell; and Dilston, a small town under them, is contracted from Devil's-town."

Among the several monuments on the pavement in the cross-aisle in Hexham Cathedral, is one ornamented with a crosier, and inscribed, "Hic Jacet Thomas de Devilston."

The mountain, Cross-Fell, which is remarkable for the phenomenon of the Helm-Cloud upon its summit, and the Helm-wind, as it is called, generated within it, which is sometimes productive of such destructive effects in the valleys below, is said to have been formerly designated Fiends'-Fell, from the common belief that evil spirits had their haunt upon it; until St. Augustine, to whom and his forty followers, when travelling on their missionary labours in these parts, a legendary tradition ascribes the expulsion of the demons of the storms, erected a Cross, and built an altar on the summit, where he offered the holy eucharist, and thus was supposed to have counter-charmed the demons. Since that time it has borne the name of Cross-Fell; and the people of the neighbourhood style a heap of stones lying there, the Altar upon Cross-Fell.

The common saying, "Its brewing a storm," or "A storm is brewing," is one of the many phrases in which we only repeat the thought of our primeval Scandinavian ancestors; amongst whom the beverage quaffed in the halls of Valhalla, the drink of the Gods, was conceived to be a product of the storm, and had more or less identity with the Cloud-Water. In Germany, the mists that gather about the mountain tops before a storm are said to be accounted for in like manner, as if they were steam from the brewing or boiling in which dwarfs, elves, or witches were engaged. Such modes of expression, according to the dictionary of the brothers Grimm, are of extreme antiquity.

Some such ideas seem to have been popularly associated with that enormous cloud, which is often seen, like a helmet, to cover the summit of Cross-Fell, and in which the Helm-Wind is generated.

In speaking of the Helm-Wind, it may be necessary to premise that Cross-Fell is one continued ridge, stretching without any branches, or even subject mountains, except two or three conical hills called Pikes, from the N.N.W. to the S.S.E., from the neighbourhood of Gilsland almost to Kirkby-Stephen, that is about forty miles. Its direction is nearly in a right line, and the height of its different parts not very unequal; but is in general such, that some of its more eminent parts are exceeded in altitude by few hills in Britain, being 2901 feet above the level of the sea. The slope to the summit from the east is gradual, and extends over perhaps fifty miles of country; whilst on the west it is abrupt, and has at five miles from its base the river Eden running parallel to the mountain.

Upon the upper part of this lofty ridge, there often rests, in dry and sunny weather, a prodigious wreath of clouds, extending from three or four to sixteen or eighteen miles each way, north and south, from the highest point; it is at times above the mountain, sometimes it rests upon its top, but most frequently descends a considerable way down its side. This mighty collection of vapour, from which so much commotion issues, exhibits an appearance uncommonly grand and solemn; and is named from a Saxon word, which in our language implies a covering, the Helm. The western front of this enormous cloud is clearly defined, and quite separated from any other cloud on that side. Opposite to this, and at a variable distance towards the west, and at the same elevation, is another cloud with its eastern edge as clearly defined as the Helm; this is called the Bar or Bur. It is said to have the appearance of being in continual motion, as if boiling, or at least agitated by a violent wind.

The distance between the Helm and the Bar varies as the Bar advances towards, or recedes from, the Helm; this is sometimes not more than half a mile, sometimes three or four miles, and occasionally the Bar seems to coincide with the western horizon; or it disperses and there is no Bar, and then there is a general east wind extending over all the country westward.

The description of this remarkable phenomenon, the Helm-Wind, we will give from observations made by the Rev. John Watson, of Cumrew, and others. The places most subject to it are Milburn, Kirkland, Ousby, Melmerby, and Gamblesby. Sometimes when the atmosphere is quite settled, hardly a cloud to be seen, and not a breath of wind stirring, a small cloud appears on the summit of the mountain, and extends itself to the north and south; the Helm is then said to be on, and in a few minutes the wind is blowing so violently as to break down trees, overthrow stacks, occasionally blow a person from his horse, or overturn a horse and cart. When the wind blows, the Helm seems violently agitated; and on descending the fell and entering it, there is not much wind. Sometimes a Helm forms and goes off without a wind; and there are easterly winds without a Helm. The open space between the Helm and Bar varies from eight or ten to thirty or forty miles in length, and from half a mile to four or six miles in breadth; it is of an elliptical form, as the Helm and Bar are united at the ends. A representation of the Helm, Bar, and space between, may be made by opening the forefinger and thumb of each hand, and placing their tips to each other; the thumbs will then represent the Helm on the top of the fell, the forefingers the Bar, and the space between, the variable limits of the wind.

The open space is clear of clouds with the exception of small pieces breaking off now and then from the Helm, and either disappearing or being driven rapidly over the Bar; but through this open space is often seen a high stratum of clouds quite at rest. Within the space described the wind blows continually; it has been known to do so for nine days together, the Bar advancing or receding to different distances. When heard or felt for the first time it does not seem so very extraordinary; but when heard or felt for days together, it gives a strong impression of sublimity. Its sound is peculiar, and when once known is easily distinguished from that of ordinary winds; it cannot be heard more than three or fourmiles, but in the wind or near it, it is grand and awful, and has been compared to the noise made by the sea in a violent storm.

Its first effect on the spirits is exhilarating, and it gives a buoyancy to the body. The country subject to it is very healthy, but it does great injury to vegetation by beating grain, grass, and leaves of trees, till quite black.

It may further be remarked of this wind, that it is very irregular, rarely occurring in the summer months, and more frequent from the end of September to May. It generally blows from Cross-Fell longest in the spring, when the sun has somewhat warmed the earth beneath, and does not cease till it has effectually cooled it; thus it sometimes continues, according to Mr. Ritson, for a fortnight or three weeks, which he considers a peculiarity of the Helm wind of Cross-Fell. The wind itself is very chill, and is almost always terminated by a rain, which restores, or to which succeeds, a general warmth, and into which the Helm seems to resolve itself.

The best explanation of this very interesting and remarkable phenomenon is given in the following observations of Dr. T. Barnes of Carlisle.

The air or wind from the east ascends the gradual slope of the eastern side of the Penine chain or Cross-Fell range of mountains, to the summit of Cross-Fell, where it enters the Helm or cap, and is cooled to a low temperature; it then rushes forcibly down the abrupt declivity of the western side of the mountain into the valley beneath, in consequence of the valley being of a warmer temperature, and this constitutes the Helm wind.

The sudden and violent rushing of the wind down the ravines and crevices of the mountains occasions the loud noise that is heard.

At a varying distance from the base of the mountain the Helm wind is rarified by the warmth of the low ground, and meets with the wind from the west, which resists its further course. The higher temperature it has acquired in the valley, and the meeting of the contrary current, occasion it to rebound and ascend into the upper region of the atmosphere. When the air or wind has reached the height of the Helm, it is again cooled to the low temperature of this cold region, and is consequently unable to support the same quantity of vapour it had in the valley; the water or moisture contained in the air, is therefore condensed by the cold, and forms the cloud called the Helm-Bar.

The meeting of the opposing currents beneath,—where there are frequently strong gusts of wind from all quarters, and the sudden condensation of the air and moisture in the Bar-cloud, give rise to its agitation or commotion, as if "struggling with contrary blasts." The Bar is therefore not the cause of the limit of the Helm wind, but is the consequence of it. It is absurd to suppose that the Bar, which is a light cloud, can impede or resist the Helm wind; but if it even possessed a sufficient resisting power, it could have no influence on the wind which is blowing near the surface of the earth, and which might pass under the Bar.

The variable distance of the Bar from the Helm is owing to the changing situation of the opposing and conflicting currents, and the difference of temperature of different parts of the low ground near the base of the mountain.

When there is a break or opening in the Bar, the wind is said to rush through with great violence, and to extend over the country. Here again, the effect is mistaken for the cause. In this case, the Helm-Wind, which blows always from the east, has, in some places underneath the observed opening, overcome the resistance of the air, or of the wind from the west, and of course does not rebound and ascend into the higher regions to form the Bar. The supply being cut off, a break or opening in that part of the Bar necessarily takes place.

When the temperature of the lower region has fallen and become nearly uniform with that of the mountain range, the Helm wind ceases; the Bar and the Helm approach and join each other, and rain not unfrequently follows.

When the Helm-Wind has overcome all the resistance of the lower atmosphere, or of the opposing current from the west, and the temperature of the valley and of the mountain is more nearly equalized, there is no rebound or ascent of the wind, consequently the Bar ceases to be formed, the one already existing is dissipated, and a general east wind prevails.

There is little wind in the Helm-cloud, because the air is colder in it than in the valley, and the moisture which the air contains is more condensed and is deposited in the cloud upon the summit of the mountain.

There is rarely either a Helm, Helm-wind, or Bar, during the summer, on account of the higher temperature of the summit of the Cross-Fell range, and the upper regions of the atmosphere, at that season of the year.

The different situations of the Helm, on the side, on the summit, and above the mountain, will depend on the temperature of these places: when the summit is not cold enough to condense the vapour, the Helm is situated higher in a colder region, and will descend down the side of the mountains if the temperature be sufficiently low to produce that effect.

The sky is clear between the Helm and Bar, because the air below is warmer and can support a greater quantity of vapour rising from the surface of the earth, and this vapour is driven forward by the Helm-Wind, and ascends up in the rebound to the Bar. In short, the Helm is merely a cloud or cap upon the mountain, the cold air descends from the Helm to the valley, and constitutes the Helm Wind, and when warmed and rarified in the valley, ascends and forms the Bar.