A shout from a rocketman far ahead came ringing down the open moor: “Skidda’s clear!” Gladly we pressed on, and sure enough, black against the silver sky of evening, the great stack stood up that had to be torch to all our Jubilee bonfires hereabout.
A halt was called in shelter of “The Little Man,” rockets were adjusted to their sticks and divided between the two bonfire parties. For the hill that was unveiling its double front from mid Atlantic clouds was to wear the double crown of flame tonight. The programme was rehearsed. At 9.55 a signal rocket was to be dispatched; at 10 a second. These were to be answered from the neighbouring heights, then the bonfires were to be fired, and the National Anthem was to be sung. At 10.30, in honour of Scotland, all the fires were to burn red light, a token of love from the Rose of England to the land of the Thistle. Three rockets were to ascend in symbol of the United Kingdom. The sister heights were to answer. At eleven, green light was to be burned, for evergreen friendship and memory of the day, and also as a compliment to the Emerald Isle. The National Anthem was again to be sung, and the rest of the rockets were to ascend.
The sight as we gained the top of Skiddaw “Great Man” was beyond description. The mountains had all put on their solemnest apparel—the purple puce of twilight; the vast littoral plain lay like a deep Prussian-blue carpet, veined with silver where Derwent flowed, and silver frosted where light wisps of vapour hovered or rested by far watercourses. While over the Solway lay a low, flocculent mass of cloud that looked for all the world like a huge sea of ice, with berg and floe. Criffel’s dark top stood out above the vaporous veil, but for the rest the land beyond the Border was hidden from our sight.
At our feet, steely grey, lay Derwent Water, the islands appearing jet black upon its burnished surface; nearer, like a polished floor of ebony, in shadow of its woods, Bassenthwaite was seen. Cold blew the wind, and folk who had come to see the sight busied themselves with shelters on the leeward side of the mountain, or sat huddled under the cairn hard by.
And the land darkened, but not for sleep. On far off hills just such eager groups as were round us were gathering to their Jubilee fire stacks, or waiting with just the same impatience for the appointed hour. It was clear that either the village clock had gone wrong, or patience was outworn at some of the bonfire stations in the plain, for we saw a rocket flash up here and there five minutes before time, and when Skiddaw sent its first signal up, to explode with a loud report in the quiet heaven, there were already five fires alight in the plain. But it was a sight to remember to see how, within ten minutes of our first rocket, that vast blue carpet of the Cumbrian plain was jewelled with light, and some say 59, some say 70 fires were blazing in honour of our beloved Queen. The night was ideal in atmospheric conditions for the display. We could from our distance clearly see the blue flame that was burned on Scafell, and the coloured stars on Helvellyn as the rockets soared and burst. Not the least beautiful effect of the bonfires in the distance to the north and west was that they gleamed here and there through the rifts of the fleecy sea of low-lying cloud, and now seemed to pale, now to flash into fulness, now to be on earth, now to be in mid-heaven.
Meanwhile our bonfires, which had been lit at the top of the Man, burned torch-like-downwards with a grand head of flame, and we were proving that there is nothing like peat and paraffin for a mountain Jubilee bonfire, if only the cross flues and the central chimney are properly constructed for draught, whilst we were silencing false prophets of disaster, who assured us “that when you light from the bottom bonfires will not burn.”
But those who had climbed up Skiddaw were not only able to have their hearts enlarged by joining in fancy so many goodly companies of men in far-off places about their loyal beacons; they were enable to have a bird’s-eye view of all the loyal rejoicings of the little town of Keswick at their feet. The streets sparkled with light, flotillas of fairy fire were seen to put off from the shore and spangle the dark bosom of Derwentwater. Rockets danced up and broke in golden rain above the island trees, and overhead anon red lights gleamed and died away, while fireflies flashed across the waterflood and wove intricate patterns of sparkle and beauty upon the dim grey silver of the happy lake.
But one by one the stars in the plain and on the mountain tops faded. Still the Skiddaw fires bravely burned—the torches of their great love seemed inextinguishable; but our eyes were far away. The beacon fire of the new dawn was kindling in secret beneath the lilac bank of north-east cloud. The purple bastion was sudden fringed with fire. The first faint streamers of the morn shot trembling towards the zenith. The Pole Star paled. The Plough and Cassopeia vanished from mid-heaven, and over the grey-blue plain and that wondrous pack of Arctic sea—the fairy floes of softest filmy cloud—the sun built up the master beams of his place chamber, and came forth as a bridegroom to woo and win his bride.
(London Daily News, 25 June 1897, p. 2; also published in A Rambler’s Notebook at the English Lakes, pp. 252-258)