Laurels on Lingmoor

The Laurels on Lingmoor

High over Langdale, vale and hill,
The swans had winged their annual way;
By Brathay pools and Dungeon-Ghyll
The lambs as now were wild at play;
The mighty monarchs of the vale,
Twins in their grandeur, towered on high;
And brawling brooks to many a tale
Of lowly life and love went by.

There cheerful on the lonely wild
One happy bower through shine and storm,
Amidst the mountains round it piled,
Preserved its hearth-stone bright and warm;
Where now a mother and her boy
Stood parting in one fond embrace;
The shadow of their faded joy,
Between them, darkening either face.

"I'll think, when that great city's folds
Enclose me like a restless sea,
Of all this northern valley holds
In its warm cottage walls for me.
I'll think amidst its ceaseless roar,
Within these little bounds how blest
Was here our life, and long the more
For that far-off return and rest."—

Forth sped the youth: the valley closed
Behind him: adamantine hills,
Like giants round the gates reposed
Of his lost Eden, frowned; the rills
With fainter murmurs far away
Died in the distance; and at length
He stood amidst the proud array
Of London in his youth and strength.

He came when mid the moving life
The Terror and the Plague went by.
He walked where Panic fled the strife
Of Strength with Death the Shadow nigh.
The shaft that flew unseen by night,
The deadly plague-breath, striking down
Thousands on thousands in its flight,
Made soon the widow's boy its own.

Ah! woe for her! in that far vale
The sorrow reached her; for there came
Dread tidings and the mournful tale,
Dear relics and the fatal Name.
All in the brightness of the noon
She bent above those relics dear;
And ere the glimmering of the moon
The Shadow from his side was near.

And forth from out her home there stalked
The Terror with the name so dread;
It pass'd the dalesman as he walked;
It dogg'd the lonely shepherd's tread;
It breathed into the farms; it smote
The homesteads on the loneliest moor;
And shuddering Nature cowered remote;
All fled the plague-struck widow's door.

Alone, in all the vale profound:
Alone, on Lingmoor's mosses wide:
Alone, with all the hills around
From Langdale head to Loughrigg's side;
Alone, beneath the cloud of night,
The morning's mist, the evening's ray;
The hearthstone cold, and quenched its light;
The Shadow wrestled with its prey.

And day by day, while went and came
The sunlight in the cheerless vale,
Her hearth no more its wonted flame
Renewed, the opening morns to hail:
Glow'd not, though beating blasts and rain
Drove in beneath her mournful eaves,
Through Springs that brought the buds again,
And Autumns strew'd with fading leaves.

No human foot its timorous falls
Led near it, venturing to unfold
The scene within those mouldering walls,
The mystery in that lonely hold.
Nor on that mountain side did morn
Or noon show how, or where, for rest
That Earth to kindlier earth was borne—
The kinless to the kindred breast.

Only the huntsman on the height,
The herdsman on the mountain way,
Looked sometimes on the far-off site
How desolate and lone it lay.
Till when the years had rolled, their eyes
Saw wondering, where that home decay'd,
A little plot of green arise
Contiguous to the ruined shade.

A little grove of half a score
Of laurels, intertwining round
One nameless centre, blossomed o'er
That homestead's desolated bound;
And where their leaves hang green above—
A lowly circling fence of stone
Sprang, reared by Powers that build to Love
When man, too weak, forsakes his own.

And there where all lies wild and bare—
Where mountains rise and waters flow,
From Langdale's summits high in air,
To Brathay pools that sleep below—
A green that never fades, one grove
Of brightest laurels rears its boughs;
While o'er that home's foundations rove
The wild cats, and the asses browse.

There, if the song birds come, their notes
Are hushed, that nowhere else are still:
And when the winds pipe loud, and floats
The mist-cloud down from Dungeon-Ghyll,
Again the cottage-eaves arise
Within it, as of old, serene,—
Its lights shine forth, its smoke up flies,
And fades the grove of laurels green.

But dimly falls the gleam of morn
Around it; on the ferns the shade
Of evening leaves a look forlorn
That elsewhere Nature has not laid.
So, lonely on its height, so, drear,
It stands, while seasons wax and fail,
Unchanged amid the changing year,
The voiceless mystery of the vale.

Notes to "the Laurels on Lingmoor."

There seems to have been a long hereditary emulation among the inhabitants of these districts to raise their sons beyond the situation of their birth; a laudable practice, but one which until recent times was clouded by a comparative neglect of their daughters, whose education at the best was very indifferent. Hence many of these youths have risen to be respectable merchants, whose early circumstances compelled them to toil for their daily bread, and to be educated in night schools taught during the winter by a village schoolmaster, a parish clerk, or some industrious mechanic. Dr. Todd states, that in his time it was reported that Sir Richard Whittington, knight, thrice Lord Mayor of London, was born of poor parents in the parish of Great Salkeld, in East Cumberland; that he built the church and tower from the foundation; and that he intended to present three large bells to the parish, which by some mischance stopped at Kirkby-Stephen on their way to Salkeld. And a similar tradition is yet current in the neighbourhood. Less apocryphal, perhaps, is the instance of Richard Bateman, a native of the township of Staveley, near Windermere; who, being a clever lad, was sent by the inhabitants to London, and there by his diligence and industry raised himself from a very humble situation in his master's house to be a partner in his business, and amassed a considerable fortune. For some years he resided at Leghorn; but his end was tragical. It is said, that in his voyage to England, the captain of the vessel in which he was sailing, poisoned him and seized the ship and cargo. The pretty little Chapel of Ings, in the vicinity where he was born, was erected at his expense, and the slabs of marble with which it is floored were sent by him from Leghorn. Hodgson states, that he gave twelve pounds a year to the Chapel, and a thousand pounds more to be applied in purchasing an estate, and building eight cottages in the Chapelry for the use of its poor.

In Westmorland and Cumberland, thanks to the piety and local attachments of our ancestors, endowed, or, as they are more commonly called, free, schools abound. Grammar schools were established on the verge of, and even within, the lake district, prior to the dissolution of monasteries. From these institutions a host of learned and valuable men were distributed over England; many of them rose to great eminence in the literary world; and contributed to the establishment of Schools in the villages where they were born. Before the conclusion of the 17th century, seminaries of this kind were commenced in every parish, and in almost every considerable village; and education to learned professions, especially to the pulpit, continued the favourite method of the yeomanry of bringing up their younger sons, till about the year 1760, when commerce became the high road to wealth, and Greek and Latin began reluctantly, and by slow gradation, to give way to an education consisting chiefly in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Many of this new species of scholars were annually taken into the employment of merchants and bankers in London, and several of them into the Excise. The clergyman generally found preferment at a distance from home, where he settled and died; but the merchant brought his riches and new manners and habits among his kindred.

The predilection for ancient literature and the learned professions seems to have been a kind of instinctive propensity among the people of these secluded vales. In the grammar schools the discipline was severe, and the instruction imparted was respectable. In addition to the endowment, the master's industry was usually rewarded at Shrovetide with a gift in money or provisions, proportioned to his desert, and the circumstances of the donor. This present was called Cock-penny, a name derived from the master being obliged by ancient usage and the "barring-out" rules, to give the boys a prize to fight cocks for; which cock-fighting was held either at Shrovetide or Easter. Indeed this custom seems to have originated in the care which was taken to instil into youth a martial and enterprising spirit. This appears from the founders, in many of the schools, having made half of the master's salary to depend on the cock-pennies; and if the master refused to give the customary prize, the scholars withheld the present. The vacations were at Christmas and Pentecost, for about a fortnight; and all red-letter days were half-holidays. But between the former seasons the Barring-out occurred; which consisted in the boys taking possession of the schoolroom early in the morning, and refusing the master admittance until he had signed certain rules for the regulation of the holidays, and a general pardon for all past offences, demanding a bondsman to the instrument. Then followed a feast and a day of idleness.

The youths of a neighbourhood, rich and poor, were all educated together; a circumstance which diffused and kept alive a plain familiarity of intercourse among all ranks of people, which inspired the lowest with independence of sentiment, and infused no insolent or unreal consequence into the wealthy. Thus it was no unusual thing for the yeoman and the shepherd to enliven their employments or festivities with recitations from the bucolics of Virgil, the idyls of Theocrites, or the wars of Troy. A story is told of the late Mr. John Gunson, a worthy miller, who formerly kept the Plough Inn, a small public-house near the Church at Ulpha. Two or three young fellows from a neighbouring town, or, as some say, a party of students from St. Bees School, being out on a holiday excursion, called at John's, and after regaling themselves with his ale, and indulging in a good deal of quizzing and banter at the landlord's expense, demanded their bill. John in his homely country dialect, said, "Nay, we niver mak' any bills here, ye hev so much to pay"—mentioning the sum. "O," replied one of the wags, "you cannot write: that is the cause of your excuse." John, who had quietly suffered them to proceed in their remarks, retired, and in a short time brought them in a bill written out in the Hebrew language, which it need scarcely be said quite puzzled them. He then sent them one in Greek, and afterwards in Latin, neither of which they could make out. They then begged that he would tell them in plain English what they had to pay. John laughed heartily at their ignorance, which on this occasion shone as conspicuous as their impertinence to their learned and unassuming host.

If such was the level upon which the yeomanry stood in an educational sense, their favourite plan of bringing up their younger sons to the learned professions, and especially the pulpit, may account for a saying which is almost proverbial in Cumberland, "Owt 'll mak' a parson!" meaning thereby that if one of their sons proved more stupid than another, the church was the proper destination for him.

In the more secluded valleys the scholars were taught in the church; the curate, who was also schoolmaster, sitting within the communion rails, and using the table as a desk, while the children occupied the pews or the open space beside him.

In the parish register of the last named chapelry is a notice, that a youth who had quitted the valley, and died in one of the towns on the coast of Cumberland, had requested that his body should be brought and interred at the foot of the pillar by which he had been accustomed to sit while a school-boy.

Teachers of writing and arithmetic also wandered from village to village, being remunerated by a whittle gate. The churches and chapels have mostly a little school-house adjoining. In some places the school-house was a sort of antichapel to the place of worship, being under the same roof, an arrangement which was abandoned as irreverent. It continues however to this day in Borrowdale and some other chapelries.

Superstitious fears were sometimes entertained lest a boy should learn too far. It was usual to consider all schoolmasters as wise men  or conjurors. Wise men were such as had spent their lives in the pursuit of science, and had learned too much. For conjuration was supposed to be a science which as naturally followed other parts of learning as compound addition followed simple addition. The wise man possessed wonderful power. He could recover stolen goods, either by fetching back the articles, showing the thief in a black mirror, or making him walk round the cross on a market day, with the stolen goods on his shoulders. The last, however, he could not do, if the culprit wore a piece of green sod  upon his head. When any person applied to the wise man for information, it was necessary for him to reach home before midnight, as a storm was the certain consequence of the application, and the applicant ran great risk of being tormented by the devil all the way home. The wise men were supposed to have made a compact with the devil, that he was to serve them for a certain number of years, and then have them, body and soul, after death. They were compelled to give the devil some living animal whenever he called upon them, as a pledge that they intended to give themselves at last. Instances are recorded of boys, in the master's absence, having got to his books, and raised the devil. The difficulty was to lay him again. He must be kept employed, or have one of the boys for the trouble given to him. The broken flag through which he rose is no doubt shown to this day. Such superstitions are not so completely exploded in the country, but that many equally improbable tales are told and believed.

The old register-book of the parish of Penrith, which appears to have been commenced about the year 1599, contains some entries of an earlier date, which have been eithercopied from a former register, or inserted from memory. The following entries occur:—

"Liber Registerii de Penrith scriptus in anno dni 1599 anno regni regine Elizabethe 41.

Proper nots worth keeping as followethe.

Floden feild was in anno dni 15....

Comotion in these north parts 1536.

St. George day dyd fall on good friday.

Queene Elizabethe begene her rainge 1558.

Plague was in Penrith and Kendal 1554.

Sollome Mose was in the yere....

Rebellion in the North Partes by the two earls of Northumberland & Westmorland & leonard Dacres in the year of our lord god 1569 & the 9th day of November.

A sore plague was in London, notinghome Derbie & lincolne in the year 1593.

A sore plague in new castle, durrome & Dernton in the year of our lord god 1597.

A sore plague in Richmond Kendal Penrith Carliell Apulbie and other places in Westmorland and Cumberland in the year of our lord god 1598 of this plague there dyed at Kendal"—a few words more, now very indistinct, follow, and the remainder of the page is cut or torn off.

Several records of the ravages committed by the plague in Cumberland and Westmorland are preserved in the more populous parts. The following inscription on the wall in Penrith Church is singular:—

Ex gravi peste quæ regionibus hisce
incubuit, obierunt apud
Penrith 2260
Kendal 2500
Richmond 2200
Carlisle 1196
Avertite vos et vivite
Ezek. 18th —— 32 ——

From the Register it appears that William Wallis was vicar at the time; the following entries noting the beginning and end of the calamity are interesting:—

"1597. 22d of September, Andrew Hodgson, a foreigner, was buried."

"Here begonne the plague (God's punismet in Perith.)"

"All those that are noted with the ltre P. dyed of the infection; and those noted with F. were buried on the Fell."

"December 13th, 1598, Here ended the visitation."

The fear of infection prevented the continuance of the usual markets; and places without the town were appointed for purchasing the provisions brought by the country people.

The Church register in the neighbouring parish of Edenhall takes notice of 42 persons dying in the same year, of the plague, in that village.

Some centuries previous to this, in 1380, when the Scots made an inroad into Cumberland, under the Earl of Douglas, Penrith was suffering from a visitation of the same nature; they surprised the place at the time of a fair, and returned with immense booty; but they introduced into their country the plague contracted in this town, which swept away one-third of the inhabitants of Scotland.

It is not at all likely that these calamitous visitations were confined to the towns and villages. Although few traces may be found of this frightful disease having invaded the more remote and scattered population of the dales. Records of isolated cases might easily be lost in the course of ages; and, as mere memorials of domestic affliction, were not likely to be preserved in families. Yet tradition has its utterances where purer history fails. On the side of Lingmoor in Great Langdale, a small stone-fenced enclosure, a few feet across, of green and shining laurels, indicates a spot which the pestilence had reached. This bright circular patch of evergreens is very conspicuous amid the ferns, from the heights on the opposite side of the valley. On a near approach, the foundations of what appear to be the remains of an ancient dwelling may be traced at a little distance from it. Still more distant are the ruins of one or two deserted cottages, where the sheep pasture along the base of the mountain. What has been gathered from the dalespeople about the laurels, so singular in such a spot, is, that in the time of the great plague in England a woman and her son occupied a cottage near the place. The youth went from this remote district, in the spirit of enterprise, to push his fortunes in London, was smitten by the pestilence, and died. After a time some clothes and other things belonging to him were sent to his home among the hills, infected the mother, and spread terror throughout the neighbourhood. The woman having fallen a victim to the disease, so great was the dread of the pestilence that the ordinary rites of burial could not be obtained for her. The body could not be borne for interment in consecrated ground. It mouldered away, it is supposed, on the spot which to this day is marked by the little enclosure of evergreens, a memorial of the fearful visitation in the lonely dale.

One of the most pleasing characteristics of manners in secluded and thinly-peopled districts, is a sense of the degree in which human happiness and comfort are dependent on the contingency of neighbourhood. This is implied by a rhyming adage common here, "Friends are far, when neighbours are nar " (near). This mutual helpfulness is not confined to out-of-doors work; but is ready upon all occasions. Formerly, if a person became sick, especially the mistress of a family, it was usual for those of the neighbours who were more particularly connected with the party by amicable offices, to visit the house, carrying a present; this practice, which is by no means obsolete, is called owning the family, and is regarded as a pledge of a disposition to be otherwise serviceable in a time of disability and distress.