Armboth Banquet

The Armboth Banquet

To Calgarth Hall in the midnight cold
Two headless skeletons cross'd the fold,
Undid the bars, unlatched the door,
And over the step pass'd down the floor
Where the jolly round porter sat sleeping.

With a patter their feet on the pavement fall;
And they traverse the stairs to that window'd wall,
Where out of a niche, at the witch-hour dark,
Each lifts a skull all grinning and stark,
And fits it on with a creaking.

Then forth they go with a ghostly march;
And bending low at the portal arch,
Through Calgarth woods, o'er Rydal braes,
And over the Pass by Dunmail-Raise
The Two their course are keeping.

Now Wytheburn's lowly pile in sight
Gleams faintly beneath the new-moon's light;
And farther along dim forms appear,
All hurrying down to the darksome Mere,
The drunken ferryman seeking.

From old Helvellyn's domain they come,
A spectral band demure and dumb;
By twos, and threes, and fours, and more,
They beckon the man to ferry them o'er,
To where yon lights are breaking.

And thither the twain are wending fast;
For there from many a casement cast,
The festal blaze is burning high
In Armboth Hall; the hills thereby
In uttermost darkness sleeping.

In Wytheburn City there wakes not one
To see those dim forms hastening on;
But at Wytheburn Ferry may travellers wait,
For busy with guests for Armboth gate,
The boatman's sinews are aching.

They've reached the shore, they've cross'd the sward
To where the old portal stands unbarr'd.
With courteous steps and bearing high
They pass the hollow-eyed porter by,
With his torch high over him sweeping.

Then might the owls that move by night
Have seen thin shadows flit through the light,
Where the windows glared along the wall
In every chamber of Armboth Hall,
And the guests high revel were keeping.

Then too from cold and weary ways
A traveller's eyes had caught the rays:
And wandering on to the silent door
He knocked aloud—he knew no more;
But the lights went out like winking.

A wreath of mist rushed over the Mere,
And reached Helvellyn as dawn grew near;
And two thin streaks went down the wind
O'er Dunmail-Raise with a storm behind,
The leaves in Grasmere raking.

On Rydal isles the herons awoke;
A pattering cloud by Wansfell broke;
And the grey cock stretched his neck to crow
In Calgarth roost, that ghosts might know
It was time for maids to be waking.

The skeletons two rushed through the yard,
They pushed the door they left unbarr'd,
Laid by their skulls in the niched wall,
And flew like wind from Calgarth Hall
Where still the round porter sat sleeping.

As out they rattled, the wind rushed in
And slamm'd the doors with a terrible din;
The grey cock crew; the dogs were raised;
And the old porter rubb'd his eyes amazed
At the dawn so coldly breaking.

And lying at morn by Armboth gate
Was found the form that knocked so late;
A traveller footworn, mired, and grey,
Who, led by marsh lights lost his way,
And coldly in death was sleeping.

Notes to "the Armboth Banquet."

The Old Hall of Calgarth, whose history, it has been said, belongs to the world of shadows, but whose remains still form an object of interest from their picturesqueness and antiquity, is situated within a short distance of the water, upon the narrowest part of a small and pleasant plain on the eastern shore of Windermere. The house has been so much injured and curtailed of its original proportions, that it is impossible to make out what has been its precise form: many parts having gone entirely to decay, and others being much out of repair; the materials having been used in the erection of offices and outbuildings, for the accommodation of farmers, in whose occupation it has been for a long period. Its original character has been quite lost in the additions and alterations of later days. It is however said to have been constructed much after the style of those venerable Westmorland mansions, the Halls of Sizergh and Levens. But there are few traces of the "fair old building," which even so late as the year 1774, Dr. Burn described it to be; and the destruction of this ancient home of the Philipsons has well nigh been complete. What is now called the kitchen, and the room over it, are the only portions of the interior remaining, from which a judgment may be formed of the care and finish that have been applied to its internal decoration. In the former, which appears to have been one of the principal apartments, though now divided, and appropriated to humble uses, the armorial achievements of the Philipsons, crested with the five ostrich plumes of their house, and surmounted by their motto, "Fide non fraude," together with the bearings of Wyvill impaling Carus, into which families the owners of Calgarth intermarried, are coarsely represented in stucco over the hearth, and still serve to connect their name with the house. The large old open fireplace has been filled up by an insignificant modern invention. The window still retains some fragments of its former display of heraldic honours; the arms of the early owners, impaling those of Wyvill, and the device of Briggs, another Westmorland family, with whom the Philipsons were also matrimonially connected, yet appear in their proper blazon. And in the same window, underneath the emblazonry, is this legend, likewise in painted glass:—

Robart. Phillison.
and. Jennet. Laibor
ne. his. wife. he. die
d. in. anno. 1539
the. ZZ. Dece
mbar 1579

The old dining table of black oak, reduced in its dimensions, occupies one side of this apartment. The room over the kitchen, to which a steep stair rises from the threshold of the porch, and which looks over the lake, has been nobly ornamented after the fashion of the day, by cunning artists, and it still retains in its dilapidated oak work, and richly adorned ceiling, choice, though rude remnants of its former splendour. It has a dark polished oak floor, and is wainscotted on three sides, with the same tough wood, which, bleached with age, is elaborately carved in regular intersecting panels, inlaid with scroll-work and tracery, enriched by pilasters, and surmounted by an embattled cornice. In this wainscot two or three doors indicate the entrances to other rooms, whose approaches are walled up, the rooms themselves having been long since destroyed. The ceiling is flat, and formed into compartments by heavy square intersecting moulded ribs, the intermediate spaces of which are excessively adorned with cumbrous ornamental work of the most grotesque figures and designs imaginable, amidst which festoons of flowers, fruits, and other products of the earth, mingled with heraldic achievements, moulded in stucco, yet exist, to tell how many times the fruitage and the leaves outside have come and gone, have ripened and decayed, whilst they endure unchanged.

In the window of the staircase leading to this chamber tradition has localized the famous legend of the skulls of Old Calgarth. The dilapidated, and somewhat melancholy appearance of the dwelling, in concurrence with the superstitious notions which have ever been common in country places, have probably given rise to a report, which has long prevailed, that the house is haunted. Many stories are current of the frightful visions and mischievous deeds, which the goblins of the place are said to have performed, to terrify and distress the harmless neighbourhood; and these fables are not yet entirely disbelieved. Spectres yet are occasionally to be seen within its precincts. And the two human skulls, whose history and reputed properties are too singular not to have contributed greatly to the story of the house being haunted, are, although out of sight, still within it, and as indestructible as ever.

These were wont to occupy a niche beneath the window of the staircase: and in 1775, when Mr. West visited the Hall, they still remained in the place where they had lain from time immemorial. All attempts, it is said, to dispossess them of the station they had chosen to occupy, have invariably proved fruitless. As the report goes, they have been buried, burnt, reduced to powder and dispersed in the wind, sunk in the well, and thrown into the lake, several times, to no purpose as to their permanent removal or destruction. Till at length, so persistent was found to be their attachment to the niche which they had selected for their abiding place, they are said to have been, as a last resource to keep them out of sight, walled up within it; and there they remain. Of course, many persons now living in the neighbourhood can bear testimony to the fact that the skulls did really occupy the place assigned to them by tradition.

A popular tale of immemorial standing relates that the skulls were those of an aged man and his wife, who lived on their own property adjoining the lands of the Philipsons, whose head regarded it with a covetous eye, and had long desired to number it among his extensive domains. The owners however not being willing to part with it, he determined in evil hour to have it at any cost.

The old people, as the story runs, were in the habit of going frequently to the Hall, to share in the viands which fell from the lord's table, for he was a bounteous man to the poor; and it happened once that a pie was given to them, into which had been put some articles of plate. After their return home, the valuables were missed, and the cottage being searched, the things were found therein. The result was as the author of the mischief had plotted. They were accused of theft, tried, convicted, and sentenced to be executed, and their persecutor ultimately got their inheritance. When brought up for execution, the condemned persons requested the chaplain in attendance to read the 109th psalm; for under their circumstances, there was an awful significance in the imprecatory verses, which denounced the conduct of evil doers like Philipson; and in the solemn malison prophesied against the cruel, they pronounced a curse upon the owners of Calgarth, which the gossips of the neighbourhood say has ever since cast its blight upon the proprietorship of the estate; and that, notwithstanding whatever authentic records may prove to the contrary, the traditionary malediction has been regularly fulfilled down to the present time. After the death of his victims, the oppressor was greatly tormented; for, as if to perpetuate the memory of such injustice, and as a memento of their innocence, their skulls came and took up a position in the window of one of the rooms in the Hall, from whence they could not by any means be effectually removed, the common belief being that they were for that end indestructible, and it was stoutly asserted that to whatever place they were taken, or however used, they invariably reappeared in their old station by the window.

The property of Calgarth came by purchase into the possession of the late Dr. Watson, Lord Bishop of Llandaff, who built a mansion upon the estate, where he passed much of the later period of his life: and who lies buried in the neighbouring churchyard of Bowness. The Bishop's grandson, Richard Luther Watson, Esquire, is the present possessor.

It is believed that anciently a burial ground was attached to the buildings of Old Calgarth; as when the ground has been trenched thereabouts, quantities of human bones have frequently been turned over and re-buried. There are now in the dairy of the Old Hall two flat tombstones, with the name of Philipson inscribed upon them, which not very many years ago were dug up in the garden near the house; their present use being a desecration quite in accordance with the associations which hang around the place. This circumstance may afford a clue to the re-appearance of the skulls so frequently, after every art of destruction had been tried upon them, in the mysterious chambers of Old Calgarth Hall.

The old house at Armboth, on Thirlmere, has also the reputation of being occasionally at midnight supernaturally lighted up for the reception of spectres, which cross the lake from Helvellyn for some mysterious purpose within its walls. The long low white edifice lying close under the fells which rise abruptly behind it, with the black waters of the lake in front, has something very gloomy and weird-like about its aspect, which does not ill accord with those superstitious ideas with which it is sometimes associated. As Miss Martineau has said, "there is really something remarkable, and like witchery, about the house. On a bright moonlight night, the spectator who looks towards it from a distance of two or three miles, sees the light reflected from its windows into the lake; and when a slight fog gives a reddish hue to the light, the whole might easily be taken for an illumination of a great mansion. And this mansion seems to vanish as you approach,—being no mansion, but a small house lying in a nook, and overshadowed by a hill."

The City of Wytheburn is the name given to a few houses, some of them graced by native trees, and others by grotesquely cut yew trees, distant about half a mile from the head of Thirlmere.