Bryan Thompson gives a hint to the BBC …
Warts-and-all vision of Lake District life
MURDER, arson, violence, rioting, drunken orgies, set amidst Lakeland’s beauty. No, it’s not TV’s notorious The Lakes, it’s Hugh Walpole’s Herries novels, written around 1930 and spanning the preceding 200 years. Surprisingly, this action-packed saga, with colourful characters and the magnificent backdrop of Cumbrian scenery and life, never reached TV.
But this is not the rose-coloured Lakeland of the Lake poets. It’s a realistic warts-and-all picture of an area whose beauty captures the heart but whose wild cruelty can blight lives. “… Its bleak paces, its coldly-blowing winds, its little stone walls running like live things about the fells …”.
The people are portrayed as solid, dour countrymen, unsophisticated but showing common sense, loyalty and lasting if hard-earned friendship. “Its strong people have their feet in the soil and are independent of all men” is a fair summary.
Though not a Cumbria, Walpole loved the area and came to live at Manesty. His novels may not be deemed classics, but they have stood the test of time, and his characters are so identified with the area as to blur the line between fact and fiction.
The Herries were a London family with Cumbrian connections, divided between a pretentious, trivialised city lifestyle and a down-to-earth Cumbrian existence.
The rebellious, tempestuous Rogue Herries transported his reluctant London family along Borrowdale’s muddy tracks on a dark, stormy night to seek his roots at Rosthwaite, and later his daughter, Judith Paris, found self-contained seclusion at Watendlath.
Keswick, a focal point throughout, is portrayed as a place of filthy hovels, bawdy taverns, itinerant thieves, pedlars and loose women, contrasting with wealthy houses like Greta Hall.
Keswick had its revenge in the naming of the monstrosity Herries Thwaite, which would surely have affronted Walpole.
Borrowdale claims the title, “Herries country”, yet only in the first book was it centre-stage. Although it always remained a nostalgic memory, the action in the later books moved elsewhere.
The place linking all four books is a village unfamiliar to visitors and rarely considered Herries country. It was at Uldale, back o’ Skiddaw, that Rogue’s son David made his home, and Judith Paris spent her childhood and life after Watendlath.
Uldale remained the main Cumbrian Herries home, rivalled in the last two books by “The Fortress”, a huge, soulless house built at High Ireby by a hostile Herries to intimidate the Uldale household.
It seems an unlikely setting, less spectacular than Borrowdale, but with its own special appeal. Uldale itself nestles peacefully in the green valley of the Ellen, but Walpole ascends the moorland above for the superb view across the Solway Firth and over to Skiddaw and the fells beyond.
Little-known High Ireby occupies a magnificent location high above the Ellen valley, looking down on Uldale and across to the green rolling Caldbeck and Uldale Fells, with Blencathra peeping over, and Skiddaw’s full range extending to the right.
But “The Fortress” that Walpole placed there was a gloomy structure alien to its beauty, based on a crumbling Victorian mansion, The Grange, whose estate and overgrown remains still exist.
Ireby village features little apart from the old church, now a supremely peaceful place in a field along the narrow road to Torpenhow. Replaced by a new church, only the chancel remains, maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust.
Many secluded places in the area feature briefly Scarness, where a delightful path along Bassenthwaite begins; Mungrisdale and Bowscale, gateway to magnificent walking behind Blencathra; Great Calva, the lonely cone-shaped peak visible from the A66 beyond Threlkeld.
There is also Blackhazel Beck, a remote spot below Mungrisdale Common where shepherds used to hold their meets.
One unexpected venue is Stone Ends, where the disreputable Squire Gauntry held drunken orgies. Here, Judith Paris met her future husband, together with nine-year-old John Peel, who later brought his Blencathra pack to the opening of the “Fortress”.
Stone Ends is a sequestered farmhouse where literally Carrock Fell’s stone ends in the Caldew’s moss. Though Walpole moved it nearer Caldbeck, the name and situation evidently attracted him.
But the place most powerfully portrayed is Skiddaw House, the isolated former shepherds’ accommodation, now a youth hostel, a sinister site for the murder of John Herries by his treacherous kinsman Uhland. John’s journey along today’s Cumbria Way to their ill-fated meeting is graphically described.
He travels from Uldale by Longlands, Overwater and Orthwaite to Peter House where walkers now park their cars, beneath threatening Dead Crags, pass Dash Falls and across the infant Caldew.
He plunges from bright sunlight into patches of mist enveloping the whole countryside then opening up to reveal glimpses of crag and path, a familiar experience here.
The most evocative piece of writing about this “other Herries country”, it would make a spine-chilling episode for a TV drama fit to rival Poldark and Jane Eyre. What about it, BBC?