Cuckoo in Borradale

The Cuckoo in Borrodale

Far within those rocky regions
Where old Scawfell's hoary legions,
Robed and capped with storms and snow,
Here like rugged Vikings towering,
There like giants grimly cowering,
Look into the vales below;

Once where Borrhy wild and fearless,
Once where Oller brave and peerless,
Hew'd the forest, cleared the vale,
Gave their names to cling for ever
Round thy dells by crag and river,
Dark and wintry Borrodale!

In that dreariest of the valleys,
Strifes for evermore, and malice
Without end the dalesmen vexed.
Neighbour had no heart for neighbour.
Never side by side to labour
Went or came they unperplex'd.

Cheerless were the fields and houses.
Gloomily the sullen spouses
Moved about the hearths and floors.
Sunshine was an alms from Heaven
That not one day out of seven
God's bright beams brought to their doors.

And 'mid discontent and anguish
Every virtue seem'd to languish;
Every soul groan'd with its load.
Lingering in his walks beside them,
Oft their friendly Pastor eyed them,
And his heart with pity glow'd.

"Ah!" he thought, "that looks of kindness
Could but enter here! the blindness
Of this life, could it but seem
To them the death it is!—but listen!"—
And his eyes began to glisten:
Spring was round him like a dream.

"'Tis the Cuckoo!"—In the hollow
Up the valley seem'd to follow
Spring's fair footsteps that sweet throat.
All the fields put off their sadness;
Trees and hills and skies with gladness
Answering to the Cuckoo's note.

Then on that still Sabbath-morrow,
Spake the Pastor—"Let us borrow
Gladness from this new-born Spring.
Hark, the bird that brings the blossoms!
Brings the sunshine to our bosoms!
Makes with joy the valleys ring!

"Coming from afar to cheer us,
Could we always keep him near us,
All these heavenly skies from far,
All this blessed morn discovers,
All this Spring that round us hovers,
Would be still what now they are!

"Let us all go forth and labour,
Sire, and son, and wife, and neighbour,
First the bread, the life, to win:
Then by yonder stream we'll rally,
Build a wall across the valley,
And we'll close the Cuckoo in.

"So this Spring time, never failing,
While it hears his music hailing
From the wood and by the rill.
Shall, its new born life retaining,
Till our mortal hours are waning,
Warm and light and cheer us still."—

Flush'd the morn; and all were ready.
Sowers sowed with paces steady;
Plough'd the ploughers in the field;
Delved the gardeners; planters planted;
Then to their great work, undaunted
Forth they fared their wall to build.

Stone by stone, the wall beside them
Rose. Their Pastor came to guide them,
Day by day, and spake to cheer;
While each labouring hand the others
Helped, and one and all like brothers
Wrought along the ripening year.

Then they gathered in their houses,
Men and maidens, sires and spouses,
Talking of their wall. And when
Soon the long bright day returning
Called them, every heart was yearning
To resume its task again.

And on every eve they parted
At their thresholds, kindlier-hearted,
Looking forth again to meet.
All had something good or gladdening
On their lips; the only saddening
Sounds were those of parting feet.

So their wall, extending ever,
Spann'd at length the vale and river;
Grasp'd the mountains there and here:
Reached towards the blue of heaven;
Touched the light cloud o'er it driven;
And the end at length was near.

June had come; and all was vernal:
Seemed secure their Spring eternal:
Eyes were bright, and skies were blue:
When—at Nature's call—unguided—
Out the voice above them glided,
"Cuckoo!"—far away, "Cuckoo!"

"Gone!" a hundred tongues in chorus
Shouted; "Gone! the bird that bore us
Spring with all things bright and good!"
While, in stupor and amazement,
Vacantly from cope to basement
Glowering at their wall, they stood.—

But though all forgot, while building
Up their wall, that months were yielding
Each in turn to others' sway,
With their leaves and landscapes changing;
And, to skies more constant ranging,
Fled the Cuckoo far away!

Winter from their hearts had perished;
Spring in every heart was cherished;
Every charm of life and love—
Love for wife and home and neighbour—
Sprang from out that genial labour;
Peace around, and Heaven above.

Faith into their lives had entered;
Joy and fellowship were centred
Wheresoe'er a hearth was found.
While the calm bright hope before them
Temper'd even the rains, and o'er them
Charmed to rest the tempests' sound.

Notes to "the Cuckoo in Borrodale."

If the traditions of the past, and the estimate formed of them by their distant neighbours, bear rather hardly upon the people of Borrodale, it must be remembered that the relations of that dale to the world without were very different a hundred years ago from what they are now. It was a recess, approached by a long and winding valley, from the vale of Keswick, with the lake extending between its entrance and the town. The highest mountains of the district closed round its head. Its entrance was guarded by a woody hill, on which had formerly stood a Roman fortress, afterwards occupied by the Saxons, and which in later times was maintained in its military capacity by the monks of Furness. For here one of their principal magazines was established, and the holy fathers had great possessions to defend from the frequent irruptions of the Scots in those days. Besides their tithe corn, they amassed here the valuable minerals of the country; among which salt, produced from a spring in the valley, was no inconsiderable article.

In this deep retreat the inhabitants of the villages of Rosthwaite and Seathwaite, having at all times little intercourse with the country, during half the year were almost totally excluded from all human commerce. The surrounding hills attract the vapours, and rain falls abundantly; snow lies long in the valleys; and the clouds frequently obscure the sky. Upon the latter village, in the depth of winter, the sun never shines. As the spring advances, his rays begin to shoot over the southern mountains; and at high noon to tip the chimney tops with their light. That radiant sign shows the cheerless winter to be now over; and rouses the hardy peasants to the labours of the coming year. Their scanty patches of arable land they cultivated with difficulty; and their crops late in ripening, and often a prey to autumnal rains, which are violent in this country, just gave them bread to eat. Their herds afforded them milk; and their flocks supplied them with clothes: the shepherd himself being often the manufacturer also. No dye was necessary to tinge their wool: it was naturally a russet brown; and sheep and shepherds were clothed alike, both in the simple livery of nature. The procuring of fuel was among their greatest hardships. Here the inhabitants were obliged to get on the tops of the mountains; which abounding with mossy grounds, seldom found in the valleys below, supplied them with peat. This, made into bundles, and fastened upon sledges, they guided down the precipitous sides of the mountains, and stored in their outbuildings. At the period to which we refer, a hundred years ago, the roads were of the rudest construction, scarcely passable even for horses. A cart or any kind of wheeled carriage was totally unknown in Borrodale. They carried their hay home upon their horses, in bundles, one on each side: they made no stacks. Their manure they carried in the same manner, as also the smaller wood for firing: the larger logs they trailed. Their food in summer consisted of fish and small mutton; in winter, of bacon and hung mutton. Nor was their method of drying their mutton less rude: they hung the sheep up by the hinder legs, and took away only the head and entrails. In this situation, I myself, says Clarke, have seen seven sheep hanging in one chimney.

The inhabitants of Borrodale were a proverb, even among their unpolished neighbours, for ignorance; and a thousand absurd and improbable stories are related of their stupidity; such as mistaking a red-deer, seen upon one of their mountains, for a horned horse; at the sight of which they assembled in considerable numbers, and provided themselves with ropes, thinking to take him by the same means as they did their horses when wild in the field, by running them into a strait, and then tripping them up with a cord. A chase of several hours proved fruitless; when they returned thoroughly convinced they had been chasing a witch. Such like is the story of the mule, which, being ridden into the dale by a stranger bound for the mountains, was left in the care of his host at the foot of a pass. The neighbours assembled to see the curious animal, and consulted the wise man of the dale as to what it could be. With his book, and his thoughts in serious deliberation, he was enabled to announce authoritatively that the brute was a peacock! So when a new light broke into Borrodale, and lime was first sent for from beyond Keswick; the carrier was an old dalesman with horse and sacks. Rain falling, it began to smoke: some water from the river was procured by him to extinguish the unnatural fire; but the evil was increased, and the smoke grew worse. Assured at length that he had got the devil in his sacks, as he must be in any fire which was aggravated by water, he tossed the whole load over into the river. The tale of the stirrups is perhaps a little too absurd even for Borrodale. A "'statesman" brought home from a distant fair or sale, what had never before been seen in the dale, a pair of stirrups. Riding home in them, when he reached his own door, his feet had become so fastened in them, that they could not be got out; so as there was no help for it, he patiently sat his horse in the pasture for a day or two, his family bringing him food, then it was proposed to bring them both into the stable, which was done; his family bringing him food as before. At length it occurred to some one that he might be lifted with the saddle from the horse, and carried thereupon into the house. There the mounted man sat spinning wool in a corner of the kitchen, till the return of one of his sons from St. Bees school, whose learning, after due consideration of the case, suggested that the good man should draw his feet out of his shoes: when to the joy of his family he was restored to his occupation and to liberty. But the story of the Cuckoo has made its local name the "Gowk" synonymous with an inhabitant of the vale. There the Spring was very charming, and the voice of the bird rare and gladsome. It occurred to the natives that a wall built across the entrance of their valley, at Grange, if made high enough, would keep the cuckoo among them, and make the cheerful Spring-days last for ever. The plan was tried, and failed only because, according to popular belief from generation to generation, the wall was not built one course higher.

The wetness of the weather in Borrodale is something more than an occasional inconvenience. It may be judged of by observations which show the following results. The average quantity of rain in many parts of the south of England does not exceed 20 inches, and sometimes does not even reach that amount. The mean rain fall for England is 30 inches. Kendal and Keswick have been considered the wettest places known in England; and the annual average at the former place is 52 inches. It was found by experiments made in 1852, that while 81 inches were measured on Scawfell Pike; 86 at Great Gable; 124 at Sty Head; 156 were measured at Seathwaite in Borrodale; shewing, with the exception of that at Sprinkling Tarn, between Scawfell, and Langdale Pikes, and Great Gable, where it measured 168 inches nearly, the greatest rainfall in the Lake District to be at the head of Borrodale. Taking a period of ten years, the average annual rainfall at Seathwaite in that dale was over 126 inches; for the rest of England it was 29 inches.