‘The old quaint chapel of Wasdale Head, one of the most truly picturesque in the hills…sinking into the earth with humility and age, its single bell in its mouldering little turret overtopping the roof within reach of a tall man’s arm’– Dr David Ross Leitch, Keswick- 1854
There’s always one. The one in the pub, the tall one with his eager followers. He is funny. He lies, it is funny. He tells huge ludicrous stories and you laugh because you have to because he is one of us and how people howl with laughter when he has told another story.
But a liar and a joker always need the butt of a joke. The best jokes are cruel and Will Ritson knows it so.
I feel nervous around him. Any silly mistake and that big hearty laugh will be joined by others, the ones who have ‘got’ the ‘joke’ and the others who want to fit in, to be an anonymous crowd, because if you stand out, you don’t fit in to the smug crowd around the pub hearth and then you might be next.
You don’t want to be next. You watch the others, you are not good at social cues and don’t find this braggart particularly funny but others do and you watch them because you want to fit in, want a drink from someone else ( they are happy to drink the ones you pay for) and you can’t escape.
You live in Wasdale Head, that small isolated community that even those of worth who come to visit the Lakes never bother to traverse to. They think Windermere is a rural idyll. You think of it as a metropolis.
You still think he’s a right idiot though but cannot dare to say so. You smile a second too later than the others, laugh a bit to heartily to make up for it, feel nervous when he looks at you or when you go to the lavatory, what snarky ends of a cruel conversation you might hear,words that will buzz angrily about you head, words that might be about you.
You have known him all his life and he has never changed, you keep quiet or you will have to sit in your cold room, you are too old to live with your mother still and you know it so face ridicule in the inn about living with your fat angry disappointed mother or sit with your fat angry disappointed mother at home?
You expect muttered jokes, suspiciously wide grins when HE approaches. You know that HE will store up every bland sentence to use against you at a later date when you are not about.
You wish he was not the landlord.
You go to the inn.
Oh Londoners, I thank thee from my heart for now being the joke of Wasdale Head instead of me again.
What’s that London like? Asking for a friend.
Will Ritson, born in 1808 is buried in Wasdale Head and his handsome grave can still be seen. He lived and died and lied in Wasdale Head, the landlord of the Wasdale Head Inn ( formerly known as The Huntsman’s Inn )
Rogues still trouble us, the good lie dead and gone but Will Ritson and his lies are not forgotten, they are revelled in by the sorts of people he so sneered at when he was alive, especially those with a Southern accent.
An occasion is told whereupon a stranger to the vicinity demanded that Will tell a lie to order, he had travelled for a tall story and was determined to get his money’s worth. Will was not used to being treated as a performing dog and refused, the stranger kept persisting until Will turned around stared at him straight in the eye and said ‘Ah’ll tell the biggest lee Ah’ve ever tell’t…Thoo’s t’ handsomest fellar Ah’ve ivver seen.’
He told other visitors to this far flung dale that the reason the trout in the stream were so fat was because they dined so well on the louse of the Londoners who bathed there. He told a visiting cleric after a steep trek to the top of Scawfell, ‘Tha’ll niver be nighter t’ Heaven than noo.’
He showed his serious solemn side when telling some female guests at his inn the tragic tale of a large family in appalling weather, desperately wading over a raging stream and being washed away, all six children dead.
A sorrowful silence then Will calmly said ‘Ah weel, it might ha’ been worse’.
‘Ay, it might have been true.’
We have all known a Will Ritson. Centuries passing over his death makes him amusing in retrospect. Bet he was a right cantankerous sod to live with though. He drew folklore and old tales into his stories and was a master of a droll phrase. People came to watch and listen and Will was a showman, an ironic showman of the Lakes, hated the incomers but was a ringleader of them, a performer, revelled in their attention.
You quietly despise Will, your mouth turns upwards at his jibes aimed at others and sometimes this is why you hold your water too long in case you are the subject of a snide look and a laugh suddenly stifled as you walk back into the room. One day you will get to London and become someone . He will become anonymous, vanish into nothingness, no-one to remember his name. And you feel such glee for Will Ritton for he will never leave this valley.
One day it will be you who Wasdale Head is known for, not that dull witted braggart, Will Ritson. His name will be gone forever.
November is the time of the Biggest Liar competition, held in the memory of the infamous Will Ritson. You have five minutes to lie your head off in a scenic location, the nearby Santon Bridge Inn. Nowadays the winners have constructed gags around Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn and politicians and lawyers are not allowed to enter the competition due their propensity for calm, well-spoken untruths.
It all feels so sad now though.
Will Ritson’s tall tales of enormous turnips big enough for sheep to shelter in, his preposterous boasting of his genetic splicing of eagles and dogs, his rudeness towards non-locals now sadly seem so provincial, so lacklustre-now that Boris Johnson exists.
I went to Wasdale Head the other day. I stupidly somehow missed the ‘handsome grave’ of Will Ritson that inspired this chapter, a bizarre act of idiocy and blindness in the tiny graveyard shadowed under the bulk of the sunless mountains looming over the tiny Wasdale Head, a pub, a random tiny shop that is part of the pub and the petite church with its interior that takes you instantly back in time. This small interior has little trace of how the word has moved on, no changes, no comforts, no displays on how the church has helped South Sudan and how you can help too! No Children’s Corner with a sticky Noah’s Ark where most animals are now single, their faded wooden partner secretly pocketed so many Sundays ago.
No, this a place where you sit with a straight back in your designated pew, you do not choose to be there, you have to be there, there is no grandiose ornamentation, no gleaming prophesying from ancient stained glass windows. This is a simple place, one level, old beams and old stone to hold it together, to make it become a place to pray. What need for Man to try and make something beautiful and ornate in this part of the world, where the sublime overrules?
Nature has won. Look at Nature and feel or fear God, the mightiest of Nature holds sway here and this is a place to gather and hide from her wrath and think of death, nature, life or just talk about sheep and bad weather along with other people who understand sheep and bad weather. This is a place where you are born and you will most surely die, this is a place of families who have lived here for generations subsiding on little, genteelly starving at times but always going to church, no matter the weather, you trudge down the slopes, your feet feeling for the footpath you just somehow know is there, underneath the snow. Your old knowledge can be wrong of course and sometimes your hardy neighbours who know the fells as much as they know themselves are found frozen, frozen and huddled or frozen and broken, tumbled from a sudden surprisingly nothingness.
In Wasdale Head now, there is the potentially coldest but most lovely looking tiny campsite again darkened by the fells and a big car park full of expensive cars, cars so expensive that the writer’s partner had to pull over frequently on the small endless picturesque road so that the other lovely car could not be possibly damaged but our (shit ) car and the occupants inside not deemed worthy of consideration, reflection or at one point, life.
This is a major problem in the Lake District where knackered old farm vehicles are increasingly eclipsed by shiny new Land Rovers who are worth so much that the owner does not want the risk of them potentially getting a slight mark on their shiny exterior thus normal cars are forced off the small roads to get scratched by dry stone walling while the glossy behemoths driven by millionaires drive blithely on. These are generally owned by the people who have made the Lake District a playground for the rich or who come from urban areas to pay to stay at the homes of people who make money from beauty.
Old ancient homesteads of generations who used to be interred together in old graveyards, now quiet, dead and empty, yet their rural idyllic whitewashed exterior and cozy interior on the internet means a sudden flurry of a forceful weekend possession in good weather, a new shiny Land Rover parked outside with no scratches, a sudden flurry of life again before more brooding silence, Farrow and Ball paint quick to moulder and break in a dark wet climate.
I blame my child for missing the grave of Will Ritson, a child who is now shockingly bored by graveyards and looking at these beautiful historical places of reflection, love and loss is now like a macabre version of Supermarket Sweep where you race around in a flurried panic, trying to get every interesting death in, take a bad mobile photo of a historic grave before racing to the next, missing out on so so much but fortunately without Dale Winton and a crew from ITV overlooking you and making arch comments on notable graves and epigraphs you have missed. This is my terrible idea and I will be deeply unhappy if ‘Grave-Grabber’ ever becomes a popular show. I suspect this is what the person behind The Tipping Point once said though and the modern age is a terrible thing.
I don’t want to be thinking about The Tipping Point in Wasdale Head.
It feels so wrong in this places bathed with light and darkness, everchanging blooms, shadows,glooms and glows playing across the landscape, a fell shrouded in such a cloak of intransient shadow it seems a very part of it,surely no grass has ever been green in a place like this. Nothing but black blankness then so suddenly blooming with sunlight and the joy of the heavens, such wonders upon its face so suddenly shown, that small tree clinging to life on such an edge, that smattering of gorse, a fell vibrant and full of life and beauty whilst the previous heavenly recipricent is now doused in seemingly permanent bleakest blackest dour melancholy, in all the space of a timeless thirty seconds.
And you know that this interaction between the fells, the mountains and the sky was the same centuries ago, so little has changed and the same people buried here in this tiny churchyard also gazed upwards in delight at this heavenly interplay, so sudden and so quick the way light becomes dark and dark becomes light, then the shadow of the snow that means you will not, you cannot leave Wasdale Head for a very long time.
Many people didn’t. So many people came here to admire nature, to climb, to feel, to escape. They fell, They died. They are commemorated in this tiny graveyard that they maybe walked through before starting their climb of a lifetime, not knowing that their names will recorded on the stones of the graveyard they have just admired when walking though to their big adventure.
As I struggled along the little roads in the car looking up at the fells, I felt duty-bound to feel insignificant against the mighty forces of nature.
Instead I thought of coffins. I looked up the tiny zig-zagging lines across the fells and hoped they were made by sheep and not people.
The corpse road from Wasdale Head to Eskdale.
To bring a fellow neighbour or loved one to a consecrated ground, to shoulder a new death and in this place it would be someone you knew and knew well, to not be able to grieve for a death of a loved one while they are slip-sliding haphazardly and grotesquely in a coffin that you are holding and you are trying to remember them, their dignity, their delight in Christmas, their elegant writing and ludicrous sense of humour but you are wielding a heavy load, a surprisingly heavy load for one so thin and beautiful, so frail in life as well in death or such a fat bastard in death as in life but the fell waters run heavily no matter the weather, the fell tops speak of winter in the brightest summer day and you trip and you slide, hear a hideous bump collide against your ear of someone you used to respect so dearly, now nothing but a heavy haphazard collision against small walls, a slump and a slide, and you still continue, your feet following the old path, almost without you.
Such a long way still to go. Godly interplay between heaven and land unnoticed now.
Then there is the burning bitterness inside you that it should not have to be this way. The wealthy landowners of the place where you know every little cairn, every little rare orchid, the place where the wild hares frolic, do not want you to traverse across their land. Their land, the land where they seldom go as it lacks the excitement and intrigue of their other more urban playgrounds.
However, they are aware, they have been told that to allow a corpse to travel across their land might make it ‘a thing’, a right that becomes entitlement and who wants to see this sorry little passage crossing your land when you are only there a few weeks a year and want to impress your visitors with your grandiose ownership of this ungovernable unforbidding landscape.
A raggle-taggle bearing of a cheap coffin borne by tired locals is not romantic, not tragic enough to be Tragic, just a rather unpleasant little interlude in your rare weekend on your hunting lodge. Definitely no inferences drawn between these times and the new times. Oh no. It was said to be unlucky to travel with a corpse along any road apart from a corpse road so those bereft struggled with the harsh landscape, climate, religion, superstition and the class system as they tried to bury their loved one in consecrated ground
The Corpse Road.
He died, this young man and people from around here are used to people dying young, they know death stares at them in the face every day and this is why they go to church, that quiet unembellished church to pray, maybe they speak to themselves as they cannot speak out loud,that would be sacrocent as it would be to ask as to why if this God Is so good, why does he allow the best to die so young?
His body to slip and slide in a roughly hewn coffin too big for him as he traverses from Wasdale Head to Eskdale via the Burnsmoor corpse road.
The Missing Coffin
Mist in front, mist behind and mist beyond. Not just your light fine heavenly mist that evaporates as you pass almost in apology, like some fine faerie miasma. No, this mist is a winter moorland mist, sodden, heavy and impenetrable, it clings to you, almost an actual entity, almost A Thing.
Oh and it’s cold alright. A thousand tiny frozen ethereal fingers slipping into what you thought would be warm on this godforsaken night, leave your actual skin old and prickled. It’s unnatural is what it is.
The horse pulling your son’s coffin knows it to be as well. Horses are said to have a innate sense of death and this horse is not a happy one, his ears pinned back so far they are almost touching his wet steaming head. You prefer the old method of people, not horses with such an unhappy load but know that winter is against you. The clouds ammassing, the sky blackening. You whip the horse, knowing the act to be unfair, he is not lingering on this hillside, is as anxious as you are and you pick up on this primeval fear, know there to be ill forces on this moor and it is now so dark that you worry the horse might stray off the path that leads you to sanctuary and safety, try not to think about what lies in the cart behind you.
He was a nice lad, a good lad but he has not been properly buried, is not safe from evil. You know of what fate is said to enfall on those already dead if they have not been given a good burial and you have already had too much suffering, you have not yet time to truly realise that he is gone, to change ‘is’ to ‘was’ but you want him, you need him to have a decent holy funeral, much as you love him, can’t bear to used the word ‘loved’ because your feelings to him are the same, despite the fact he is dead. You know what people say, that those who have entered the earth in an unnatural way, come back to haunt and he is, was too much of a nice boy to be wanting that sort of thing, bad enough to think of him being dead without becoming…something else, something wrong. You want him in God’s care and try not to think about how God treated one of his own, such a nice boy.
Suddenly a flash of lightning flashes down before you, it is too much for the poor old horse and he bolts, the horse and cart has gone, you all tumble over before you too are lost. The sounds and sight of the hooves and the grumbling wheels of the cart lost in seconds to the swirling mist. You try and listen but now in such a sudden silence, you walk one way, then the other, your feet sodden from invisible bogs. Maybe the horse has somehow doubled its way back?
You know you will not survive if you don’t attempt to find safety and so you and the other tragic members of the funeral party pick yourself home on the long way back, not knowing what you are going to say.
This morning you didn’t think it could become any worse. Now, now. You try not to think, put one foot in front of the other, not even knowing that you are keening, crying.
The mist opens in front of you. No-one expected you to walk in like this.
You open your mouth, too many words, too many terrible things to say. Too much. You gape, try and stand, try to remain dignified in the face of this farce but it all starts fading away, then rushing suddenly backwards as you see yourself watching someone else collapse, the frozen horrified faces suddenly rushing forwards to the broken body that is no longer a part of you. You die quickly.
Now the mother of the son, a horse attached to the coffin containing her body. The same coffin road. The skies darken, this is not uncommon in the Lake District, the horse pulls forward. Darker now, darker, the horse fretful, ears pinned back across. Snow starts to fall, not the fluffy miniature clouds of christmas cards but constant heavy drifts eclipsing and swirling, confusing and constant. The horse bolts. Vanishes along with its trailing dead cargo. Again. Yes. Really. So it is said.
So thus broken mourners trample across the fells again, looking for death. They find it. Not in the mortal remains of the mother but they find the horse and the corpse of the dead son. The mothers small funeral procession was never found but oh, I bet you are expecting this, of course the ghostly procession is said to materialise occasionally from out of the harsh mist and snow of the corpse road.
This story is worthy of Will Ritson himself.
The first tragic story is enough, almost believable- do we really need yet another tragedy so close to the last one? Over-egging a ghostly coffiny pudding, a jumping of a ghostly shark? Time-warped legends of a cut-off insular part of the world or something.
There is a book full of wonderful lies, truths and potential half- truths left open at the Wasdale Inn. It is a strange and beautiful thing of delight to see strangers being silly, communicating and exaggerating wildly on paper, paper in this day and age. This is Popbitch surrounded by acres and acres of timeless sky, scree and hill.
I think Will Ritson would have approved of the internet to be fair.