Tuesday, 27 August 2019

The Wordsworth Brothers Parting Stone, Grisedale Valley.

The central running fell group of the Helvellyn range, which runs from Clough Head at the North, to Red Screes at Kirkstone Pass to the south, is a much walked, high group of fells with a myriad of routes up the ridges, leading to these high peak summits. Most prominent of these is Helvellyn itself with the ridges of Striding and Swirral Edge; Fairfield to the south of this high summit, and encompasses its well renowned namesake horseshoe. These fell summits are fitness testers, particularly from the Patterdale side as the lead in is generally that much longer. There are however a number of more leisurely walks; still testers of stamina, but not with the steepness of those previously named fells. 
There is a clear division in this group, although from the Grasmere side, it is masked by the proportionately moderate peak of Seat Sandal. That division is The Grisedale Valley, which still climbs to a height at its hause, of nearly 580 metres, and from the Grasmere side, as one reaches this top, you are met with a glorious view of the large Grisedale Tarn. From here there is the long sweeping descent to Patterdale, Glenridding, and the southern toe of St. Patrick's Landing on Ullswater, the reputed place where that saint baptised the local population in far earlier days. This gradual climb and descent is over 7 miles long and when travelling from the Grasmere direction, having passed the tarn by about 200 yards, there is a curious name on the ordnance survey maps; Brothers Parting. This is reported as the place where William and Dorothy Wordsworth parted from their brother John on 29th September 1880. John was the captain of The Earl of Abergavenny, a ship built in 1796 for the East India Company. 
William was the second of five children, born in 1770 at Cockermouth. Following him Dorothy was born a year later, followed then by John. William, assisted greatly by Dorothy, (the two were devoted to each other), lived at Grasmere in Dove Cottage, where William had his greatest spell of inspired writing, albeit not recognised by the critics until many years later. John lived with them, when not at sea, and he was to sail from the South Coast in February 1805. It would be its fifth voyage, with a crew of 160 men, 159 soldiers, 51 passengers, (40 at the captain's table and 11 at the third mate's) and 32 Chinese, making a full contingent of 402 souls. It was bound for Bengal and China, engaged in the cotton transport and was 1,200 tons burthen. It set off from Portsmouth, but only got as far as Portland when it struck a shoal of shingles and rock called The Shambles, and eventually sank, the captain dying in the disaster. 
According to Thomas Gilpin, the fourth mate, who survived, they had bared up at 10am on the captain's instructions and waited on a pilot who boarded at 3pm. Just as they then began to pass the Shambles(a shingles bank), the W.S.W. wind dropped and the strong tide pushed them onto this hazard. Initially they thought they could refloat and no damage had been caused, but leaks were than discovered and the pumps set to work. Although they later cleared the shambles, and hoped to make Weymouth sands, the ship still filled with water, and pumping stopped at 11pm. No assistance had been called by the firing of guns until later in the incident, and she sank at 2am with the loss of over 260 lives. Another  younger relative, 3rd chief mate Joseph Wordsworth, was also drowned. John's body was washed up at Weymouth beach on Wednesday 20th March 1805 and he was buried at Wyke Regis in an unmarked grave, with the local people lining the road as the hearse passed by. The tragedy hit the Wordsworth family very hard, particularly William and Dorothy. In June 1805 they both visited the spot where they had parted from their dearest brother John and William then wrote Elegiac Verses, published in 1842, heading it with:

'In Memory of My Brother, John Wordsworth, Commander of the E. I. Company's Ship, The Earl Of Abergavenny, in which He Perished by Calamitous Shipwreck, Feb. 6th, 1805'

The poem consists of seven stanzas of ten lines each and speaks of their parting place. The reader of the poem senses the loss to William of his dear brother John. William himself died in 1850, followed by Dorothy in 1855. Both were buried in Grasmere Churchyard. On 5th February 1904, a memorial stone was also erected next to their graves, to the memory of John. It was erected by Mrs. Fisher Wordsworth, of Rydal Mount following an address at The Rydal Hotel by Canon Rawnsley, on the life of Captain John Wordsworth. He read from the official account of the sinking of the ship which said John was, 'Brave and calm at his post and cheerful to the end.' Rawnsley said that John met his death with truly pious resignation , his last words being: "The will of God be done!"

William was to become renowned as the nation's greatest poet, certainly by most of the nation and English speaking world. The passing of such a Leviathan of literature was to cause great men and women to come together to form 'The Wordsworth Society' in 1880. At its next meeting of 1881 a proposition was put forward that the implied wish of the poet to inscribe a rock at their place of parting, should be honoured. This was passed and the work superintended by Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, of Crosthwaite Church, Keswick, and one of the three founders of the National Trust. Rawnsley was a champion of all things Lake District related, and a great follower of Wordsworth's works of literature. He superintended the carving of a rock on the Patterdale side of Grisedale Tarn, facing east towards the direction John had travelled five years previously. The carving was taken from two stanzas of the poem, the start of numbers III and VII, and reads:

'Here did we stop; and here looked round
While each into himself descends,
For that last thought of parting Friends
That is not to be found.
Brother and friend, if verse of mine
Have power to make thy virtues known,
Here let a monumental Stone
Stand—sacred as a Shrine.'

Brother's Parting, Grisedale

The weather worn inscription.

It is my own interpretation, but the first section seems to refer to that awkward moment on parting from family, as you descend into yourself in that awkwardness and say a 'goodbye, see you again on your return'. What would you say though if you knew it was the last you would ever see of your kin?
The carving in rock would have been expected to last forever, but the acidity of the rain over nearly 140 years has leached away the bold edges, making the words very difficult to read. A plate is pinioned to the top of the rock to mark it to passers-by (yet still they miss it), and reads 'THE BROTHERS PARTING (and underneath is) WORDSWORTH'; it is made in brass.

Most of the above can be located from different sources on the internet and I tend only to write where I can add to a story, for that greater public knowledge. Previously it has been the belief that the plaque has been with the stone since its carving, but that is not the case. This 56 Ib plaque's erection was overseen by a local huntsman called Joe Bowman, of the Ullswater Foxhounds, around 1905, on the instructions of Mr. Theodore Carr, of Wolverhampton. However, just before The Great War it went missing. Inspection showed that the rivets that held it were chiselled through and it was supposed that it had been taken for its metal value. The war came, and far greater things occupied the minds of the nation; the plaque's fate fell from the thoughts of all. 
On Sunday 22nd April 1928, John Wall and Joseph Hebson, both of Patterdale were walking near Grisedale Tarn when they stopped to rest. 

Grisedale Tarn, looking towards Grasmere direction with Seat Sandal behind.

They saw something in the water, believing it to be a piece of iron. They left it as it weighed 1/2 cwt. and went back home. Wall casually mentioned it to a villager who then recalled the loss of the plaque. Wall volunteered to retrieve it and he brought it the full four miles back to his Patterdale home to try and discover any interested party to return it to. The tarn was uphill of the place of removal and it was now believed that it was an act of pure wantonness, and thrown into the tarn through maliciousness, but due to its weight it could not have been thrown into deep water. This retrieval was heard by Mr. Frederick Carr, of Wheatstone Park, Colsall, Wolverhampton and Mr. Marshall of Patterdale Hall, who then set about having the tablet returned to its original location.
On Sunday 3rd June 1928 it was once again carried up the mountain on a pony by the now ex-huntsman Joe Bowman, the original supervisor. He was now in his 78th year, but was known to still be an active climber and hunt follower. Many foresters', dalesman, and climbers alike attended for the second unveiling.
It has now remained in position for over 90 years since its discovery in the tarn, and let us hope it remains so, for all time to come. Sadly the plaque is likely to bare up the effects of the weather more than the rock it highlights.
This feature is not as well known as Rawnsley's other plaque on Helvellyn, namely the Charles Gough Memorial stone (quoting Scott and Wordsworth). Still, it has its own history and marks a point of family reflection which we can all identify with. It is well worth finding and taking that moment as the Wordsworth's did, to 'descend into oneself'. It is approximately 200 yards downhill from the tarn on the Patterdale side and between the path and Grisedale Beck, below Tarn and Falcon Crag on Dollywagon Pike. The plaque seems low to the ground, but as you approach it you drop and face the full inscription. 



  1. Hi
    This is all very interesting. I sought out the parting stone some years ago and was very pleased to find it and spend a moment or two there with my wife. As you say, the lettering is sadly eroded now and the other problem is that it faces north(ish) so doesn't get the light that is needed to decipher the words. The extra information on the plaque is quite new to me and is really very impressive.

    Frank Gordon

    1. Frank, thank you for your kind comments. I do a few of these 'lost histories' around lakeland and the Solway Firth. Always looking for something different, rather than just a walking blog. I think you would like the one on Brothers Water.