To most people today, except in the Lake District, the name of Canon Rawnsley, if it is known at all, is almost always associated with the National Trust.  During his lifetime this was far from being the case.  He was best known to his contemporaries for his promotion of the Lake District as a holiday destination, for his work in preserving it from despoliation and for his writings on the area, its people and its customs.  He was in his time the spokesman for the English Lake Counties.  To his contemporaries Hardwicke was the literary personification of the Lakes.  His books on his beloved Lakeland, all long out of print, although not ‘guide-books’ in the modern sense, were written to encourage his readers to visit this unique little corner of England.  Through his books on the area, covering every conceivable aspect of the Lake District; its history, archaeology, topography, language, customs, festivals, sports and literary associations; not to mention his journal articles, newspaper columns, letters to the Press and his poetry; Rawnsley did more than any other writer of his time to popularise the region. 

The titles of Rawnsley’s Lakeland writings give an idea of their content.  He conceived of them as ‘Rambles’, ‘Sketches’, ‘Chapters’ and so forth, ‘at the English Lakes’.  The Lake District is the only common thread in the narratives, which consist for the most part of his impressions and jottings on everything from the changing colours of the mountains, the vagaries of the weather, the life of the shepherds, the story of the German miners of Keswick, the archaeology of the region, its literary associations and Norse heritage, as well as memoirs of various Lake District characters.  Taken individually it must be admitted that these volumes are of uneven literary quality, but taken together as a whole they provide an unique account of all aspects of Lakeland life at the turn of the twentieth century.

Nature and Countryside

There can be little doubt that Hardwicke Rawnsley, as far as the Lakeland scenery was concerned, was the writer par excellence of his time, and regardless of his other achievements, he deserves to be remembered for that reason alone.  In the course of his duties Hardwicke had at some time or another walked or driven on many of the roads, lanes and footpaths that criss-crossed the area, and had no doubt climbed most of the hills and fells.  In the process of his peregrinations he had gained an encyclopaedic knowledge of the physical geography of the Lake District.  In addition, he was blessed with an exceptional acuity of vision, a sensibility to the changing panorama of nature and a recall of sights, sounds and scenery second to none, coupled with an easy felicity of style in writing about them.

In Months at the Lakes (1906), Hardwicke informed his readers that it had been his custom for the past twenty years ‘to keep a monthly record of changes in the face and mood of Nature at the English Lakes’.  He noted in minute detail all the variations and changes which he observed in nature each day, each month and during every season. 

Many of his published books are simply collections of reminiscences of such days out.  With his keen eye, acute sensitivity to his surroundings and his skill in evocative word-painting, Hardwicke was able to encapsulate in prose the ephemeral atmospheric effects which he had noticed.  What for others less observant than Hardwicke might have been just ordinary days like any other, for him were transformed into memorable occasions by his verbal gift for word-painting; moments which thereafter would be fixed for ever in the memory of the reader.  In his writing he often succeeded in capturing in words the ineffable beauty of the scene, a rare gift by which the writer conveys to the reader his own sense of the divine mystery.

Of all Rawnsley's Lakeland nature writings, the most evocative is perhaps Months at the Lakes.  In this volume he devotes a complete chapter to each month of the year, describing in keenly observed detail the different flowers which grace each season; the changing colours of the foliage as the trees come into leaf; the habits of the animals as they go about their daily business; the ever-changing weather conditions, and the varying effects of light as the days lengthen and the sun rises higher in the sky.  In the same volume he describes some of the local festivals, such as rush-bearing and ram-hiring, which, in time-honoured tradition, were associated with specific months of the year.  The wild birds in particular were one of the greatest pleasures of Hardwicke's life and in the chapter for each month, the habits of the birds are discussed. 

The tapestry of flowers varies with each month.  In March ‘there is hardly an orchard where the daffodil has not bent his spear and turned his hint of warfare to a loving-cup of gold’; and in September the gardens are full of ‘roses, sweet peas, mignonette, dahlias, montbretia, geraniums, sunflowers, hollyhocks, the poker plant, nasturtium, Japanese anemone, Michaelmas daisies, stocks and asters’.  The trees also are not forgotten.  In February ‘the buds of the wych elm are suddenly seen to have swollen into daintiest purple jewelry’; whilst in November ‘the blue-green of the Scotch fir is seen in most wonderful beauty against the gold’.  As for the animals, both wild and domestic, they too have their seasons: in May ‘the hen wife is busy with her brood’ and ‘the lambs are gathered to have their ears bitted’; and in November can be seen ‘flotillas of the golden-eyed duck and flights of mallard and widgeon’.  With his keen eye for detail, Hardwicke missed nothing in the yearly cycles of plant and animal life and rejoiced in the changing weather and the infinite variety of scenic effects at sunrise or sunset.  In parallel with the vivid descriptions of changes in nature, he recorded the rhythmic cycle of farming life throughout the year.  Tending and clipping the sheep, mowing and turning the hay, burning the heather, cutting and laying the hedges and so on; all have their appointed seasons for the Lakeland farmer, and are affectionately recorded in these pages.  This volume reveals an intimacy with the life and nature of the Lake District which few writers have equalled and perhaps none surpassed.

History and People

Every aspect of the past was grist to Rawnsley’s mill.  Archaeology was just one of his many interests, and he was himself an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist.  At least thirty chapters in his series of books about the Lake District are devoted to the antiquarian history of the area.  He wanted to bring the past to life and give it meaning, and to encourage others to see for themselves how much of history is still visible if they keep their eyes open and learn what to look out for.  Historic ruins and artefacts are the living traces of the past which give meaning to the present. 

Rawnsley lived and breathed the past as he walked and drove around the countryside, and he had a masterly way, through his writings, of uniting different periods of time past with the present day.  In the chapter, ‘A Day with the Picts and Celts of Cumberland’, he invited the reader to accompany him on a walk up Latrigg, ‘the hill whereon the Viking chieftains rest’.  As he walked along, he conjured up, not just the shades of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, but also of Coleridge and Southey.  From Latrigg he took the reader on past the Druid’s Circle where the great assemblies of the fire-worshippers had taken place, and further on still, to the old village of the Picts at Threlkeld Knott. 

Wherever he travelled in the Lake District Hardwicke felt that he was accompanied on his journeys by the literary giants of the past.  His writings on the antiquities of the area are in turn illuminated by this knowledge.  Skiddaw, within easy reach for visitors to Keswick, has so much to offer.  Not only is it a wonderful prospect from the town, but a walk up the mountain is accompanied by the spirits of the poets who in the past frequented its slopes and paths.  They become a living presence on the journey.

The history of the Church and Christianity in the Lakes was another of Hardwicke’s special interests and in order to encourage people to visit Cumberland, he shared this interest with his readers.  In Round the Lake Country (1909) he discusses the Gosforth Cross, only two and a half miles from Seascale, which was ‘the most remarkable Christian-Viking monument that exists in England’.  An even earlier Anglo-Saxon cross, the Bewcastle Cross, dating probably from the late 7th or early 8th century, is described in the same volume, and claimed to be ‘the most remarkable Anglian cross that exists in the world’.   

The historical and mythical connections of many churches, abbeys, chapels and their scenic settings are also discussed in Rawnsley's writings.  The landing of the Irish missionaries along the western coast of the Lake District in the 7th century, and the story of St. Begha and the building of St. Bee’s Abbey, are rehearsed in detail in Round the Lake Country.  It perhaps is not surprising that as both a priest and antiquarian, Rawnsley was very interested in the early history of Christianity in the Lakes and the various associated saints, including St. Cuthbert, St. Columba, and in particular St. Kentigern, the 6th Century missionary to whom his own church at Crosthwaite is dedicated, and whose story he had researched on behalf of his parishioners.  Another chapter in this same volume, ‘Round the Coast of the Lake Country’, is nothing less than an archaeological, literary, historical and scenic tour of the western coast of the Lake District.  Starting from Barrow, where Celtic and Roman remains are found, Rawnsley identified an abundance of evidence of Scandinavian village and hill names.  The Viking influence is of particular interest since the Norsemen were the ancestors of the native population of Lakeland, ‘forefathers of the dalesmen of our day’. 

Hardwicke did not confine himself just to writing about the archaeological and ecclesiastical past of Lakeland and the Lake Poets, but also recorded for posterity brief biographies of some of its lesser-known worthies whom he considered should be remembered.  Among them were John Crozier, master of the Blencathra Hunt; Joseph Hawell, a shepherd, and Joe Birkett, a sexton at Crosthwaite.  He was fascinated by the story behind the song ‘D’ye Ken John Peel’; the larger-than-life huntsman from Ireby, whose ‘view-halloo’ echoed across the northern fells in the early years of the nineteenth century. 

Shepherds and Sheep

Rawnsley had an abiding love and respect for the men who worked the fells, ‘the bronze-faced mountain shepherds of the North’.  These men epitomised ‘Michael’, the eponymous hero of Wordsworth’s epic poem.  He considered that, like their forefathers, imbued with the life and nature of their surroundings, they really defined the Lakes.  They were Christ-like: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’. 

Of the various breeds of sheep in the Lakes, including the Rough Fell and the Swaledales, for Hardwicke, as for many others, the Herdwick was the crowning glory.  He liked to maintain that these hardy animals, ideally suited to a tough life on the high fells, able to survive on poor pasture and withstand very harsh weather conditions, had been introduced to Lakeland by the Norsemen in the ninth and tenth centuries.  Hardwicke's considerable knowledge of everything to do with the Herdwick sheep is graphically demonstrated in the chapter, ‘A Crack about Herdwick Sheep’, in By Fell and Dale at the English Lakes (1911). 

Writing about shepherds and their daily round gave him an opportunity to indulge another of his interests, the Cumberland dialect.  He not only spoke it himself when he met the shepherds, but he was also anxious to ensure that the dialect survived, and his writings about sheep and the Lakes are peppered with the taciturn syllabics of these fell dwellers.  The clipping of the sheep took place in July and was an important date in the shepherds’ calendar.  In days gone by clippers were not hired, but the farmers worked together, clipping each flock in a reciprocal arrangement.  Clippings were occasions involving the whole family from the youngest to the oldest, as well as the neighbouring farmers who lent a hand.  In several published articles as well as in his books, Hardwicke goes into great detail about the intricacies of these events.  The end of the clipping was always celebrated in the traditional manner of the dales, with a supper, dancing and singing. 

The shepherd’s calendar is punctuated by ‘meets’ and fairs, and Hardwicke’s first essay on the subject of sheep, ‘On Helvellyn with the Shepherds’, described one of the three annual assemblies of shepherds around Helvellyn, meeting for the purpose of returning to their rightful owner the sheep which have strayed from their native heaf.  These gatherings were held at the top of the mountain and the shepherds would carry the sheep over their shoulders to the meeting place.  So important were these meets that shepherds were required to pay a fine if they failed to attend.  Every district in the Lakes would have a similar meet, each one ending with the customary celebrations.  One of the famous meets for exchange of sheep was at Mardale, near Haweswater, described at length in the chapter on ‘November’ in Months at the Lakes.  

Shepherds, of course, are incomplete without their dogs and Hardwicke enjoyed nothing more than to watch man and beast working as one on the fells or at the sheep dog trials held around the county, and these occasions inspired some of his most evocative writing.  In late March the shepherd ‘rakes’ the fells to bring the sheep down towards the farm before lambing, in order to identify any pregnant ewe in need of extra nourishment. 

Sheep-dog trials, usually taking place in August or September, were also a joy.  One of the better known was held annually at Troutbeck.  A full chapter in Life and Nature at the English Lakes, is devoted to a Troutbeck trial in the 1890s.  Agricultural and sheep shows also took place around the same time, and Hardwicke and his wife made a point of being present whenever possible, awarding prizes to the winners of the trials.  November was marked by the ram or ‘tup’ fairs, of which the Keswick show was among the longest established.

Sports and Pastimes

Hardwicke and Edith rarely missed the Grasmere Sports, usually held on the third Thursday in August.  The Sports had been established at least as early as 1852 and were to become a permanent fixture in the Rawnsleys’ diary.  In the early days the event had been very much a farmers’ day out, and Hardwicke recalled that the seating round the ring, for the few members of the gentry who attended, consisted of chairs and benches brought from the neighbouring cottages.  Over the years the Grasmere Sports had become a social occasion for all classes, and it was not uncommon to have an attendance of up to 10,000 people, making their way to Grasmere on foot, on horseback or by carriage.  The journey to the Grasmere Sports could often be as pleasurable as the event itself.  Hardwicke was to become something of a celebrity at the Sports, featuring in cartoons and on postcards as ‘The Presiding Genius’, and, as he had done with so many other Lakeland traditions, he went out of his way to popularise the event. 

While the social occasion and the opportunity to meet friends were obviously very much appreciated, Hardwicke makes it clear that he personally attended the Sports principally to watch the different individual events.  These usually included the Hound Trail, Guides’ Race, Pole Leap, Long Leap, Mile Race, Tug of War, High Leap, 220 Yards, and various wrestling contests at different weights.  He would take a close interest in all the events, and when many other spectators had already started for home, he always stayed to watch the end of the wrestling.  Although he obviously enjoyed and wrote about all the different events, it seems to have been the Hound Trail and the wrestling which were closest to his heart and about which he wrote most often.  Hound trails were not restricted to Grasmere but were a staple of many agricultural shows.  As at the sheep-dog trials, Hardwicke was intrigued both by the dogs and by their interaction with their masters.  Once the preserve of the gentry, participants in hound trails were now more likely to be drawn from the working class.  The dogs were cossetted by their owners, fed on special secret diets never divulged outside the family, and trained up specifically for the races: ‘They are to all intents the racehorses of the peasantry’, Hardwicke wrote. 

Hardwicke was amazed by the single-mindedness of the dogs in following a scent for miles across all types of terrain without ever being distracted by the wind or side-tracked by other diversions.  Hound trails, though exciting, were overshadowed by the traditional wrestling; the pre-eminent sport about which Hardwicke wrote on numerous occasions.  As might be expected, he considered it likely that the sport had been introduced by the Vikings.  Generally, he observed, it was the dalesmen rather than the gentry who were most interested in following this event.  Cumberland wrestling, he explained, with its distinctive apparel and style, is a beautiful blend of art, science, skill and brawn. 

It is not simply a question of sporting ability.  The development of such skills as wrestling was a good thing for the country and would breed the right type of patriot.  One of the last articles Hardwicke wrote, for the Encyclopaedia of Education in 1920, not long before his death, was on ‘Wrestling’. 

‘Hunting, like dancing, is in the fellside blood’; and as an aspect of Lakeland life, Rawnsley naturally wrote about foxhunting and was a subscriber to the Blencathra Hunt.  What to outsiders might have seemed an unjustifiably barbaric sport, was to those involved not just a sport but an effective means of keeping down the fox population.  The fox was vermin; the enemy, the farmer’s nemesis and the biggest danger to the sheep and their lambs on the fells.  Hardwicke’s cousin, Edward Preston Rawnsley, was for many years Master of the South Wold Hunt, and a noted breeder of foxhounds, but Hardwicke would not have shared his attitude to hunting.  The Cumberland and Westmorland hunts were quite different from the fashionable mounted hunts in the Shires.  They were very democratic.  Hunting was on foot rather than on horseback, and it was a test of endurance to keep up with the dogs across the rugged terrain of the fellsides.  Starting early in the morning and often in wet, windy and snowy conditions, the hunt would not finish until late in the day.  It was not for the faint-hearted.  Just as there was no class distinction so ‘there was no separation of dress; no buttonholes and fine leather boots’.  

Certain hunt days are associated with festivals and holidays.  The Martinmas Hunt in November and the Keswick Hunt the day after Christmas are two such occasions featured in Rawnsley's writings.  The Boxing Day hunt involved the whole town and was eagerly looked forward to by young and old alike. 

Hardwicke wrote glowingly not just about the hunts, but also about some of the legendary Masters, such as John Peel and John Crozier.  Crozier had been a Master of the Blencathra Hunt and the chapter, ‘A North Country Nimrod’, in Lake Country Sketches, is a short biography of his life. 

Lakeland Customs and Festivals

As in other parts of the country, Cumberland and Westmorland had their share of old customs and festivals.  Some of these had fallen into desuetude over time, but many were still taking place or being revived, and given a new lease of life.  Examples include the Grasmere Dialect Plays; the annual distribution of dole in April at the Countess’ Pillar; the Keswick Old Folks’ Xmas Do; and the Keswick May Queen Festival.  Hardwicke wrote about such customs and traditions partly because he genuinely appreciated them and knew that they were an integral part of the fabric of Lakeland life, but also because, in a rapidly changing world, he wanted to record them for the benefit of generations to come, before they too disappeared for ever.

Rushbearing festivals were another ancient tradition, particularly in Grasmere and Ambleside.  The Rushbearing at Grasmere was particularly popular with visitors.  This took place on the Saturday in August nearest to the feast of St. Oswald, to whom the church was dedicated. 

Throughout his writings Rawnsley refers to Lakeland traditions, some ancient and fallen into disuse, others of more recent origin still being practised.  Among those still extant were the Martinmas farm hirings; the Harvest festivals; the ancient horse fair at Brough Hill; Daffodil Day at Cockermouth, and the gathering of lilies at Easter.  By drawing attention to these traditions, Hardwicke wanted to ensure that they did not pass into oblivion, and that future generations would be aware that such customs had been, at different times, an integral part of Lakeland life.

Literary Associations of the Lake District

During his early years in the Lakes Hardwicke had spent considerable time researching its past links with men of letters.  Wordsworth, of course, featured prominently among them, but while perhaps primus inter pares, he was only one among the many literary figures who had been associated with the Lake District in earlier days.  Hardwicke had recognised that as time went by, those who had had first-hand acquaintance with Wordsworth would soon be passing away, and their testimonies lost with them.  In the course of his enquiries, as he talked to people who had known the poet, he discovered associations with past writers, not just Wordsworth but many others, both famous and unknown, who had been inspired by the environment in which they lived.  Realising that if these reminiscences were not noted down, they would be lost for ever, he systematically set about recording them for posterity.  The result of his researches was his two-volume Literary Associations of the English Lakes, published in 1894. 

The first volume of this collection covers literary associations of Cumberland, Keswick and Southey's country, and the second is principally concerned with Westmoreland, Windermere and places associated with Wordsworth.  The collection of anecdotes reveals the author's detailed knowledge of the places and the personalities associated with them, and his affection for the subjects suffuses every page. 

While Wordsworth haunts almost every page, he is joined by a host of other literary figures, with whose works Hardwicke was also evidently familiar, and the whole enterprise, quite obviously a labour of love, demonstrates his exhaustive knowledge of literature.  In addition to the familiar Lake Poets, and other well-known writers such as Charlotte Bronte, Matthew Arnold, Felicia Hemans, Harriet Martineau, and so on, the reader is introduced to many others whose names might otherwise have passed into literary oblivion.  Among them, William and Lucy Smith, the Revd. Robert Graves, and Edwin Sandys, to name just a few.  The whole work is a formidable undertaking, numbering nearly five hundred pages. 

While many earlier accounts of the Lake Poets and the area’s association with the Romantic Movement had been published, Rawnsley's comprehensive excursion into the literary associations of Lakeland was far more comprehensive than any earlier writings; and marked a significant milestone in his writing career.  From this time onwards he was to lecture more frequently on this topic than on any other, both at home and abroad, and his presentations on the subject were particularly well received in the United States. 

Hardwicke's extensive writings on Lakeland demonstrate that he was much more than just a conservationist of the physical landscape.  The landscape cannot be divorced from its people, and it was the symbiotic relationship between the people and the places which Rawnsley particularly wished to preserve.  However, realising that progress would inevitably mean change he wanted, at the very least, to ensure that the unique way of life that he saw all around was recorded for posterity.  He was indeed ‘The Voice of the Lake District’ for his time.

Next: The Nation in Decline (1908-1910)