Grasmere – The Brutal Truth
You all know that William lived in Dove Cottage with his sister Dorothy. Here he chatted about very clever things with his Romantic buddies Scott, Lamb, Coleridge, Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Southey, deQuincey – man, it was crowded in there. But Grasmere isn’t all about William and his opium-eating friends, it’s not about daffodils and niceness, it’s about death and fighting and poking out people’s eyes.
St Oswald’s Church
St Oswald’s church is named after Lee Harvey Oswald who shot President Kennedy in 1963, no sorry damn that wikipedia, it was named after Oswald, King of Northumbria who introduced Christianity into the region in the 7th century.
Oswald was a saint but he killed a hell of a lot more people than Lee Harvey. With a few monks from Iona he defeated King Cadwallon at Hadrian’s Wall then marched into York and converted the whole of Northumbria to Christianity. Then he pressurized Wessex to convert and finally moved up to Edinburgh and persuaded them. When I say persuade, it was a little more assertive than that – convert to Christianity or die – do you think I could use those techniques on the website – buy my book or die.
St Oswald preached at St Oswald’s Church and as he was leaving you know exactly what he said ‘Name this church after me or die.’ He was very persuasive.
After Oswald, King Dunmail ruled Cumbria and bits of southern Scotland. But Dunmail is supposed to have met his match at Grasmere, more specifically at the hill leading out of Grasmere towards Thirlmere, now appropriately called Dunmail Raise.
There is a legend associated with this.
Poor Dunmail was ganged up on by those two bullies King Edmund and Malcolm of Scotland. Dunmail was forced to retreat into Cumbria and a battle commenced at Dunmail Raise. Legend has it that Edmund himself killed Dunmail and then he poked Dunmail’s sons’ eyes out for good measure – how childish.
The captured Cumbrians were ordered to collect rocks and pile them on Dunmail’s body forming a cairn that is still there today. Other Cumbrian’s escaped with Dunmail’s crown and climbed up to Grisedale Tarn and threw the crown in to keep it safe until Dunmail would come again to lead them.
Every year the ghostly warriors are said to return to the tarn, recover the crown and carry it down to the cairn on Dunmail Raise. There they strike the cairn with their spears and a voice is heard from deep inside the stones, saying “Not yet, not yet; wait awhile my warriors.’
While we’re up on Dunmail Raise I might as well mention what Wainwright called the ‘best known hill in the country’. Helm Crag might not mean that much to you, but The Lion and the Lamb will. Nobody gives a monkey’s about poor old Dunmail’s resting place, because everyone is pointing up:
‘Look kids – the lion and the lamb’
‘There look at the top of that hill – a lion and a lamb’
‘It looks more like a women playing a piano’
‘Well it does now, but if you’d pay attention instead of having your nose in that phone all the time…’ big rant about the countryside and getting out more ensues.
Luckily the road coming down Dunmail Raise is very wide to allow drivers to steer, point and shout.
Grasmere Rushbearing Ceremony
Enough about battles and shouting at the kids, let’s talk about something nice like the Grasmere Rushbearing ceremony.
This is a procession through the village carrying rushes and flowers accompanied by music and choirs. The rushes are laid on the floor of St Oswald’s church to stop the stench of the corpses buried beneath.
Wait, isn’t this supposed to be a nice bit.
St Oswald’s Church still had an earth floor until 1841 and still buried people under the church floor up until 1823, so back then the rushes and flowers were needed to keep the smell at bay.
Don’t worry the floor is stone now, you’re ankles are safe from the bony grip of a corpse’s hand. Despite its gruesome origins, the rushbearing ceremony is nice, and after the Church you can go to the school grounds for sack races and games and eat another Grasmere tradition, some gingerbread.
Sarah Nelson’s Gingerbread
Sarah Nelson is famous for her gingerbread. As you can see from her photo, she had an infectious joyfulness that she let loose on the world in the form of Gingerbread. She had a tough life, so I will say no more about the photo. She lived most of her life in poverty, she married a grave-digger and her children died of tuberculosis – I feel bad now… In 1850 she moved into ‘Gate Cottage’ in Grasmere where the shop still is today. After her husband and children died she turned to gingerbread. Not magically or in a bulimic way but as a business. So apart from all the deaths, it was sort of a happy ending for Sarah.
Life was tough back then in Grasmere.
The End is nigh
I decided to write about Grasmere because I love the place. I love the walks around the lake, and up to Alcock Tarn and Fairfield, I love the way the place is surrounded by fells and feels cozy, I love the shops especially Sam Read’s and Baldry’s and I love Tweedy’s Bar.. but then I wrote about fighting and eye gouging and corpses under churches. I threatened you with death if you didn’t buy my book; I caused a family argument about Helm’s Crag and even made gingerbread into a family death-fest.
It takes skill to make a place that’s so beautiful sound so awful!!