Vale of Saint John

The Vale of Saint John

The morn was fresh; and ere we won
The famous Valley of Saint John,
For many a rood our thoughts had plann'd
The scenery of that magic land.
We pictured bowers where ladies fair
Had breathed of old enchanted air;
Groves where Sir Knights had uttered vows
To Genii through the silvery boughs;
Piles of the pride of ages gone
Cleft between night and morning's sun,
Or veiled by mighty Merlin's power;
And her, too, Britain's peerless flower—
Her, chained in slumbering beauty fast
While generations rose and pass'd,
Gyneth 'mid the Wizard's dens,
King Arthur's child and Guendolen's!
So, led by many a wandering gleam
From youth and poetry's sweet dream,
We climbed the old created hills,
And cross'd the everlasting rills,
Which lay between us and the unwon
But glorious Valley of Saint John.

The morn was fresh, and bright the sun
Burst o'er the drowsy mountains dun.
A moment's pause for strength renewed,
And we our pleasant march pursued.
Blythely we scaled the steep, surpass'd
By steeps each loftier than the last;
O'er rocks and heaths and wilds we follow
The vapoury path from height to hollow;
And through the winding vale below,
Where yellowing fields with plenty glow;
And, scattered wide and far between,
Lay white-walled farms and orchards green;
The hedge-rows with their verdure crowned
Hemming the little plots of ground;
The happy kine for pastures lowing;
The rivulets through the meadows flowing;
The sunshine glittering on the slopes;
The white lambs on the mountain tops;
No vision and no gleam to call
Enchantment from her airy hall;
But beauty through all seasons won
From Nature and her parent sun,
There brightening as through ages gone,
Lay round us as our hearts sped on
To reach the Valley of Saint John.

The noon was past; the sun's bright ray
Sloped slowly down his westering way
With mellower light; the sobering gleams
Touched Glenderamakin's farthest streams;
Flung all the richness of their charms
Round lonely Threlkeld's wastes and farms:
And high beyond fired with their glow
Blencathra's steep and lofty brow;
When suddenly—as if by power
Of Magic wrought in that bright hour—
Shone out, with all the circumstance
And splendour of restored Romance,
Southwards afar behind us spread,
With its grey fortress at its head,
The Valley, spell-bound as of old,
In all its mingling green and gold;
In all the glory of the time
When Uther's son was in his prime,
And chivalry ranged every clime;
And peaceful as when Gyneth, kept
In Merlin's halls, beneath it slept.
There had we roamed the live-long day
Saint John's fair fields and winding way,
With hearts unconsciously beguiled
By witcheries and enchantment wild!
And not till steps that toiled no more
It's utmost bound had vanish'd o'er,
Knew youth's wild thought our hearts had won,
And thrid the Valley of Saint John.

Notes to "the Vale of Saint John."

Near the village of Threlkeld, the road from Keswick to Penrith, branching off on the right, discloses obliquely to the view, the Vale of St. John. The well known description of this beautiful dell by Mr. Hutchinson, who visited it in the year 1773, conferred upon it a reputation which was greatly increased when the genius of Scott made it the scene of his tale of enchantment "The Bridal of Triermain." The interest which it derives from its traditional connection with the wiles of Merlin, whose magic fortress continues to attract and elude the gaze of the traveller, is well given in the words of the former writer.

"We now gained a view of the Vale of St. John's, a very narrow dell, hemmed in by mountains, through which a small brook makes many meanderings, washing little enclosures of grass ground, which stretch up the risings of the hills. In the widest part of the dale you are struck with the appearance of an ancient ruined castle, which seems to stand upon the summit of a little mount, the mountains around forming an amphitheatre. This massive bulwark shews a front of various towers, and makes an awful, rude, and Gothic appearance, with its lofty turrets and rugged battlements: we traced the galleries, the bending arches, the buttresses. The greatest antiquity stands characterized in its architecture; the inhabitants near it assert it is an antidiluvian structure.

"The traveller's curiosity is roused, and he prepares to make a nearer approach, when that curiosity is put upon the rack, by his being assured that, if he advances, certain genii, who govern the place, by virtue of their supernatural arts and necromancy will strip it of all its beauties, and by enchantment transform the magic walls. The vale seems adapted for the habitation of such beings; its gloomy recesses and retirements look like the haunts of evil spirits. There was no delusion in the report; we were soon convinced of its truth; for this piece of antiquity, so venerable and noble in its aspect, as we drew near, changed its figure, and proved no other than a shaken massive pile of rocks, which stand in the midst of this little vale, disunited from the adjoining mountains, and have so much the real form and resemblance of a castle, that they bear the name of The Castle Rocks of St. John's."

The more familiar appellation of this rocky pile among the dalesmen is Green Crag. The approach into the valley from Threlkeld displays it in the most poetical point of view, and under some states of atmosphere it requires no stretch of the imagination to transform its grey perpendicular masses into an impregnable castle, whose walls and turrets waving with ivy and other parasitical plants, form the prison of the immortal Merlin.

Other atmospheric effects, which occasionally occur in this District, have been alluded to elsewhere in these notes; as the aerial armies seen on Souter Fell, and the Helm Cloud and Bar, with their accompanying wind, generated upon Cross Fell.

Phenomena of a singular character, which may be ascribed to reflections from pure and still water in the lakes, have also attracted observation. Mr. Wordsworth has described two of which he was an eye-witness. "Walking by the side of Ulswater," says he, "upon a calm September morning, I saw deep within the bosom of the lake, a magnificent Castle, with towers and battlements; nothing could be more distinct than the whole edifice;—after gazing with delight upon it for some time, as upon a work of enchantment, I could not but regret that my previous knowledge of the place enabled me to account for the appearance. It was in fact the reflection of a pleasure house called Lyulph's Tower—the towers and battlements magnified and so much changed in shape as not to be immediately recognised. In the meanwhile, the pleasure house itself was altogether hidden from my view by a body of vapour stretching over it and along the hill-side on which it extends, but not so as to have intercepted its communication with the lake; and hence this novel and most impressive object, which, if I had been a stranger to the spot, would, from its being inexplicable, have long detained the mind in a state of pleasing astonishment. Appearances of this kind, acting upon the credulity of early ages, may have given birth to, and favoured the belief in, stories of sub-aqueous palaces, gardens, and pleasure-grounds—the brilliant ornaments of Romance.

"With this inverted scene," he continues, "I will couple a much more extraordinary phenomenon, which will shew how other elegant fancies may have had their origin, less in invention than in the actual process of nature.

"About eleven o'clock on the forenoon of a winter's day, coming suddenly, in company of a friend, into view of the Lake of Grasmere, we were alarmed by the sight of a newly created Island; the transitory thought of the moment was, that it had been produced by an earthquake or some convulsion of nature. Recovering from the alarm, which was greater than the reader can possibly sympathize with, but which was shared to its full extent by my companion, we proceeded to examine the object before us. The elevation of this new island exceeded considerably that of the old one, its neighbour; it was likewise larger in circumference, comprehending a space of about five acres; its surface rocky, speckled with snow, and sprinkled over with birch trees; it was divided towards the south from the other island by a firth, and in like manner from the northern shore of the lake; on the east and west it was separated from the shore by a much larger space of smooth water.

"Marvellous was the illusion! comparing the new with the old Island, the surface of which is soft, green, and unvaried, I do not scruple to say that, as an object of sight, it was much the more distinct. 'How little faith,' we exclaimed, 'is due to one sense, unless its evidence be confirmed by some of its fellows! What stranger could possibly be persuaded that this, which we know to be an unsubstantial mockery, is really  so; and that there exists only a single Island on this beautiful Lake?' At length the appearance underwent a gradual transmutation; it lost its prominence and passed into a glimmering and dim inversion, and then totally disappeared;—leaving behind it a clear open area of ice of the same dimensions. We now perceived that this bed of ice, which was thinly suffused with water, had produced the illusion, by reflecting and refracting (as persons skilled in optics would no doubt easily explain,) a rocky and woody section of the opposite mountain named Silver-how."

Southey describes a scene that he had witnessed on Derwent Lake, as "a sight more dreamy and wonderful than any scenery that fancy ever yet devised for Faery-land. We had walked down," he writes, "to the lake side, it was a delightful day, the sun shining, and a few white clouds hanging motionless in the sky. The opposite shore of Derwentwater consists of one long mountain, which suddenly terminates in an arch, thus [arch symbol], and through that opening you see a long valley between mountains, and bounded by mountain beyond mountain; to the right of the arch the heights are more varied and of greater elevation. Now, as there was not a breath of air stirring, the surface of the lake was so perfectly still, that it became one great mirror, and all its waters disappeared; the whole line of shore was represented as vividly and steadily as it existed in its actual being—the arch, the vale within, the single houses far within the vale, the smoke from the chimneys, the farthest hills, and the shadow and substance joined at their bases so indivisibly, that you could make no separation even in your judgment. As I stood on the shore, heaven and the clouds seemed lying under me; I was looking down into the sky, and the whole range of mountains, having the line of summits under my feet, and another above me, seemed to be suspended between the firmaments. Shut your eyes and dream of a scene so unnatural and so beautiful. What I have said is most strictly and scrupulously true; but it was one of those happy moments that can seldom occur, for the least breath stirring would have shaken the whole vision, and at once unrealised it. I have before seen a partial appearance, but never before did, and perhaps never again may, lose sight of the lake entirely; for it literally seemed like an abyss of sky before me, not fog and clouds from a mountain, but the blue heaven spotted with a few fleecy pillows of cloud, that looked placed there for angels to rest upon them."