Written on 01/12/14 by Elizabeth Oldham

A Concise Description of the English Lakes

I was researching something a while ago, not that I can remember what it was now, and came across this book. It's full title is a bit of a mouthful: A Concise Description of the English Lakes and Adjacent Mountains: With General Notices to Tourists; Notices of the Botany, Mineralogy, and Geology of the District; Observations on Meterology; The Floating Island in Derwent Lake; and The Black-Lead Mine in Borrowdale, by Jonathan Otley.

The third edition was published in 1827, and you can also find the 1830 fourth edition online. Since the author's time the Lakes has continually evolved, for example this was of course before Thirlmere and Haweswater were turned into reservoirs by the Manchester Corporation. So just dipping into the book you quickly come across bits of history that no longer exists. Like at Wythburn, when you drive past the church if you look to the other side of the road there used to stand the Nag's Head Inn and The Cherry Tree. It's not certain when the buildings were taken down, possibly 1937, or they might have survived until the 1960's.

Otley writes of Helvellyn:

According to Colonel Mudge, the height of Helvellyn above the level of the sea is 3055 feet ; comparing it with Skiddaw, I estimate it at something more. It is about 2540 feet above the Nag's Head at Wythburn, from which place it is most frequently ascended; the distance here being the shortest, and a guide can be had. It is too steep to make use of horses, but by an active person on foot it is easily surmountable. The ascent on this side is no where difficult or dangerous; it may be commenced at the six mile stone, at the King's Head, or other places nearer Keswick, where the views by the way are less circumscribed than at Wythburn.

Wythburn, Comb Crags up to Nethermost Pike
Wythburn church hides in the trees at the bottom

As it happens we used this old route to ascend Helvellyn from the car park at Swirls on our walk Helvellyn round from Thirlmere. From our counting of the milestones that remain on our modern maps, and with a bit guessing, it would seem that Swirls is probably the site of the sixth milestone from Keswick but it seems like cheating to measure it accurately.

It's also good to see that the Kings Head at Thirlspot is still there, and hasn't changed its name.

He refers on occasion to Helvellyn Man as the summit. You'll occasionally still hear it called that today. Lower Man is still marked as such on the Ordnance Survey maps. The names apparently moved around over the years with various tops being called Helvellyn Man.

As an explanation of Man in the third edition he described it:

* Man is the provincial term for one of those rude obelisks or piles of stones, which are commonly built by the country people upon the summits of remarkable hills.

By the 1830 fourth edition he moderated his contempt for what we call 'cairns', with a simple:

Man, a pile of stones on the summit of a hill

We'll visit this book again as there are some fascinating gems. In the meantime you can view this book at archive.org.

Tagged: books, Jonathan Otley

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