Stock Ghyll Waterfall is a 70 foot high cascade of water situated behind the Salutation Hotel, Ambleside. It was a popular visitor attraction in Victorian times with people free to walk on a footpath that ran around the side of the falls. In August 1877, an advert appeared in the Times regarding an auction of land in which Lot 21 was:
The well-known picturesque, and romantic Parcel of Land, containing 4n. 2r. 30p., situate at Stock Ghyll, Ambleside. This lot commands the choicest view of Stock Ghyll Force or Waterfall, and throughout its entire length adjoins the Stock Ghyll stream. It is one of the great attractions in the Lake District, and, being visited, by thousands of tourists yearly affords a rare opportunity for a remunerative investment.1
The Lot went unsold, but in August 1878 it was bought by a local businessman, Alan MacKereth, for £1,800. Immediately after his purchase, MacKereth blocked the entrance to the footpath at both ends and introduced a charge of 3p per visitor to enter. This access restriction and charge enraged many local people, especially Colonel G. Rhodes. Immediately, a Stock Ghyll Footpath Committee was formed with Rhodes as its chairman and Hardwicke as its secretary. The aim of the Committee was to contest the right of Mackereth to close access to what most people believed was a free footpath. This was Hardwicke’s first venture into the subject of footpath access and the right to their use by everyone.
Colonel Godfrey Rhodes (1822-1905) was a prominent local landowner. He was born in Bramhope, near Leeds. Early in his military career he served in Jamaica and the West Indies before seeing action in Europe. He fought with the Turkish army in the early 1850s and was on Lord Raglan’s staff during the Crimean War. He first settled in West Haugh, Pontefract, where he was a Justice of the Peace. Rhodes also lived at Rothay Holme, near Ambleside, a place which became his main residence in his later years. He was a forthright and controversial character, heavily involved in local affairs. He clashed on more than one occasion with the church authorities. In the mid-1880s he was to clash with Hardwicke and the Lake District Defence Society on the proposal to build a railway line between Windermere and Ambleside.
The Stock Ghyll Footpath Committee informed Mackereth that, acting in the public interest, they intended to walk over the disputed land to the falls. On 21 September, Rhodes and two other Committee members, but not Hardwicke, walked at the head of a number of local people towards the first gate. Rhodes ordered workmen to cut through the locked gate. Everyone then proceeded, via the disputed footpath, to the farther end of the falls where the lock on the gate was forced open. Soon afterwards Mackereth served a notice of trespass against Colonel Rhodes as representative of the Stock Ghyll Footpath Committee.
On behalf of the Committee, Hardwicke issued a circular publicising the dispute and encouraging the public to support the campaign to re-open access to the footpath. He sent it to a number of newspapers including the London Evening Standard which published the following:
The rev. gentleman claims for the public the free right of way to the falls, and contends the closing of the approach and the demand for toll are illegal acts, and if once allowed to pass unchallenged might result in the path being sold to the highest bidder, to be transformed into a tea or beer garden. To prevent this, and to secure the right of way to the public, he suggests an inquiry, and, if necessary, an appeal to the law.2
Hardwicke also made his own feelings known by writing the sonnet, ‘Stock Ghyll Barred: A Protest’, which was later published in Sonnets at the English Lakes (1881):
shall craven men allow
Desire of pelf and individual greed
To bar the gate and ask a sordid fee,
To tax the wondering eye that comes to see,
Take mean advantage of a brother’s need,
And claim a toll for Nature’s public show?
Meanwhile, Rhodes had been active outside the Committee and purchased about ten acres of land on the east bank of Stock Beck that actually included the falls.
The trespass action against Rhodes did not reach court until August 1879. In many respects the outcome of the court action was unsatisfactory. The jury agreed that there had been no dedication of the footpath to the public before 1842. However, they could not agree if one had taken place after 1842. As the jury could not agree on this last point they were dismissed. The result was that Mackereth’s contention that the public did not have free access to the footpath was not proven. But neither had Colonel Rhodes shown that a dedication of free access had been made.
Prior to the outcome of the legal case, a group of Ambleside residents offered to purchase the land acquired by Mackereth. Agreement was reached after the court’s verdict and the land was sold by MacKereth for £2,100. As part of the contract drawn up by the residents they bound themselves to hand over access to the footpath for free once the money had been repaid. During 1880, efforts were made to raise this money. Hardwicke and Edith were actively involved, especially in the organisation of a three-day bazaar in August of that year. It was also decided to charge visitors 3p to access the footpath, a charge that would be dropped once sufficient funds had been raised.
As noted above, Rhodes, acting on his own initiative, had purchased land that included the falls. To actually get close to the falls, rather than simply viewing them from a distance, visitors had to walk not only through the land purchased by the Ambleside residents but additionally through the grounds owned by Rhodes. He gave permission for visitors to cross his land free-of-charge for a period of five years to get to the falls. His expectation was that by the end of this period sufficient monies would have been collected to repay the original purchase money of £2,100. This turned out not to be the case and substantial monies were still owed five years later. Rhodes believed that insufficient effort had been made to raise funds and repay the debt.
In 1885, Rhodes brought matters to a head. He came to an arrangement with a third party to charge 1p for visitors to cross his land and see the falls directly. This clearly undercut the charge that was being made by the residents group. The latter had little choice but to open access to their footpath for free. They also instigated efforts to determine if the path through the land owned by Rhodes could be constituted a public footpath as well. The dispute was not settled for a number of years. Through agreements and donations of land, including some by Rhodes, access to the falls eventually became open to the public.
Hardwicke’s first foray into Lake District conservation appears to have been relatively low-key, confined mainly to publicity, organization and fund-raising.
1. Times. 1877, 4 August, p. 15.
2. London Evening Standard. 1878, 4 October, p. 6.