But we are at Wythburn; and it is Sunday, October 8, 1769. And the same figure we met [Thomas Gray], Claude glass in hand, beyond the Raise, is watching the Sunday congregation issuing out of, what he called, the little chapel of Wi’burn. There was no “Horsehead Inn”; the “Cherry Tree,” as famous as the “Famous Swan,” was their halfway house. (p. 214)
But here is another little shuffling-gaited man, “untimely old, irreverendly grey,” who pays for his pint of beer by scribbling a bit of doggerel, or telling a good story. He is “Lile Hartley,” well-met again, as before at the Lowwood Inn. Here, “beneath this little portion of the skies,” holy and happy thoughts have risen heavenward from his soul, for with all his faults, there is about him just the meekness and humility which he saw bodied forth by the little chapel across the way, and which he described thus:
Humble it is and meek and very low,
And speaks its purpose with a single bell,
But God Himself, and He alone doth know
If spiry temples please Him half as well.
I sometimes think that Hartley must have written this after a visit to Keswick. The only spiry temple in this part—the church of St. John’s, of which Frederick Myers was the minister—had just been built, and this may have been in his mind. But Hartley is in a fine vein of humour to-day, and he is recounting that excellent story of how, when Wilson of Elleray had come into the Nag’s Head one day with a posse of sportsmen, and was just sitting down to table, he had slyly taken his neighbour’s gun, and putting the barrel up the chimney, fired at imaginary game with such effect, as to fill the hearts of all at the Nag’s Head with alarm, and their eyes and their dinner table with soot, and of how, e’er the smother had passed away, the pealing laugh of Christopher North had made anger impossible. (pp. 214-215)
The folk at Wythburn are rather proverbial for firing up the chimney. Old Dan Birkett, away across the dale, near “the city,” was once found with his hand half blown away, because feeling that the fire was getting rather low, and thinking that it wanted a bit fettling up, he took a powder horn and emptied a charge on the smouldering embers, and was not a little astonished at the result. (pp. 215-216)
But with the presence of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy and Brother John, come for a day’s fishing in the beck and lake, other reminiscences arise of singers who have here sought rest as they journeyed through the country. Here in June of 1818, Keats, writing to his brother Tom, after telling him that he had called on Wordsworth and found him not at home, says, “I wrote a note and left it on his mantelpiece.” Thence, on we came to the foot of Helvellyn, where we slept, but could not ascend it for the mist.” There is another poet who halted here; he gazes at us from fine eagle face with genial gentle eyes, son of the “Old Eagle” as the name may mean, Arnold, the Poet. Hither he came in July of 1830, a lad of eleven summers. He, and with him his sister the “Fausta” of his poem, of whom he used to speak as “his first and last best critic,” his brother Tom, his father, Dr. Arnold, and Captain Hamilton. What a merry party they were! And how they rested, and cracked on with old John Hawkrigg the crippled landlord,—John the giant, for since he lost the use of his limbs by getting overheated in the hayfield and then going as guide without a coat, and overdoing himself on Helvellyn, he had waxed in all his members. (p. 216)
There are those living still, “ghosts of that boisterous company,” who remember that walk from Allan Bank, by Wythburn and Armboth, to Watendlath, sixty years ago, who still speak of the fun of it, and the sun of it, the hard task it was to drag young limbs through the high heather upon the Armboth Fells. The impressions of Wythburn that day; the “open lying stores under their burnished sycamores”—of the farm in mid-valley; of the low stone bridge across the narrows at Armboth, now submerged beneath the dammed up water flood; of “the cheerful silence of the fells” as they passed across to Watendlath, were to win immortality of verse. And we who to-day read Matthew Arnold’s tender poem, Resignation, which he published in the Strayed Reveller in 1849, and pause beside the Nag’s Head at Wythburn, can mount the bank which the Highway Authorities of the Cumberland Council have carefully preserved by the old seat, can survey the scene which the Arnolds saw—or so much of it as is not blocked out by the lodging house hard by—can, in fancy, hear again the cheery voice of jovial John Hawkrigg—and be in heart with that happy band of mountaineers, whose family name England will not soon forget. (pp. 216-217)
The wayside stone, by the rude bench, lately erected to the memory of Matthew Arnold, may remind us of the words of the poem:
We left, just ten years since, you say,
That wayside inn we left to-day.
Our jovial host, as forth we fare,
Shouts greeting from his easy chair.
High on a bank our leader stands,
Reviews and ranks his motley bands,
Makes clear our goal to every eye—
The valley’s western boundary.
One almost sees Dr. Arnold, with all his headmaster’s power to direct and guide, in business-like manner pointing out the way:
And now, in front, behold outspread
Those upper regions we must tread!
Mild hollows, and clear healthy swells,
The cheerful silence of the fells.
It was well for us that the mother of the Poet kept a journal in those days, otherwise we should never have known so certainly that the brave walkers not only crossed the Fells to Watendlath and thence passed to Keswick, but that they put the best leg forward and got as far as Cockermouth. There they must surely have hired some conveyance, and so actually got to Whitehaven on that night, but wearied and foredone with the long journey across the littoral plain “parched and road-worn,” with the “many a mile of dusty way,” they still had heart to go down to the sea shore. (pp. 217-218)
(Literary Associations of the English Lakes, Vol. II, pp. 214-241)