Remembering a famous climb

An advertising board at Dove Cottage


Two hundred years ago on Sunday, 7th October 1818, the diarist and poet Dorothy Wordsworth, sister to fellow poet William Wordsworth, with a friend, Mary Barker climbed England's highest peak Scafell Pike. Dorothy was 46 at the time and Mary two years younger. They took food with them, ‘wrapped in paper’, and writing and drawing materials, and set out, no doubt in their ordinary working clothes of long woollen skirt or dress and stout shoes, and Dorothy wrote an account of the climb to record the event, that in its day must have been a considerable adventure for two women on their own, even though they were tough, and were quite used to walking many miles through the Lake country, and elsewhere, and at a brisk rate.

In Dove Cottage, where the Wordsworth home was at that time, there is an exhibition on remarkable women and their exploits during this autumn. This is a theme that is being explored during these days of centenary reminders: of the determination of suffragettes, and of the massive contribution of the female workforce in taking on what would have been seen as men’s jobs during the Great War. These are timely reminders.

Recently, on the Sunday afternoon of the Folk Festival in Swanage, 9th September, the singer/song-writer and instrumentalist Louise Jordan gave a fascinating concert in St Mary’s Church entitled No Petticoats Here, outlining the amazing achievements of a number of women during and soon after the First World War. Those at it learnt much about both famous and completely unknown women, all woven into a narrative of wartime austerity and danger. In one of those odd coincidences her touring concert series took her to the Isle of Man while we were there two weeks ago, and of all places she had arranged to sing, it was the community hall in our village of Laxey. We almost went to hear it again on Thursday 20th September just for the sake of sharing such a chance in a million happening.

Anyway, back to Dorothy and her mountain climb. She was, of course, a beautiful writer and her journals are read to this day. Whilst the two women enjoyed the views all around, and the weather was quite good for the walk, so distant hills and lakes were clearly to be seen, but her observation was close to the ground too, so she took in the details at her feet, as she describes coming close to the summit:

“not a blade of grass was to be seen - hardly a cushion of moss; and only growing rarely between the huge blocks and stones which cover the summit and lie in heaps all round to a great distance like skeletons or bones of the earth not wanted at the creation and here left to be covered with never-dying lichens, which the clouds and dews nourish; and adorn with colours of the most vivid and exquisite beauty, and endless in variety.”

John Mann