Claife Heights and Sawrey
The western shore of Windermere in the English Lake District was home to children’s author Beatrix Potter. Its wild uplands are also said to be haunted by the tortured spirit of a Cistercian monk, whose blood-curdling cries lured ferrymen to their doom. On this walk through these atmospheric woods, I recount the ghostly legend and consider how Potter’s legacy stretches way beyond her enchanting books.
The Crier of Claife
The first rays of sun blaze blood orange through the dark skeletons of December trees, casting flame-yellow auras around their stark reflections in the pewter pool of Windermere. As the lake becomes the River Leven under the old stone parapets of Newby Bridge, these shafts of warmth conjure a mist from the tranquil surface to shroud the shores in secrecy. Eerie and arcane, the scene evokes a primeval power that the uninhabited boats and empty tables of the hotel terrace can do little to dispel. Fitting then, that my thoughts should turn to the supernatural.
On Windermere’s eastern shore a long line of grand lakeside residences gives way to the honey pots of Bowness and Ambleside. By contrast, the western shore is wild and remote; and supposedly, haunted.
It is said that the wooded uplands of Claife Heights imprison the troubled ghost of a Cistercian monk from Furness Abbey. His quest was to save the souls of immoral women but the temptations of the flesh overthrew the aspirations of the spirit and he fell madly in love with one of his charges, abandoning his vows and pursuing her to Claife. She shunned his advances and the rejection destroyed him. He spent the rest of his days wandering the Heights wailing in anguish. When his weakening body gave up the ghost, it proved to be one the grave could not contain, and his tortured soul continued to haunt the woods with riven wails.
Fearing no good could come from a meeting with the spectral Crier of Claife, the ferrymen of Bowness chose to ignore his blood-chilling summons whenever they came echoing across the lake after dark. But eventually, a young recruit arrived who laughed at their superstition. Whether out of bravado or a noble concern that the plaintive cries might belong to the living, the fearless newcomer heeded the call and set out across the choppy waters.
When he returned, his boat held no passenger – at least none the mortal eye could see. But he was fatally deranged: his eyes wide in terror, his brain apparently fried and his powers of speech utterly lost – all he could manage was to shake and sob in abject fear. He died two days later without ever regaining the power to describe what he saw.
Naturally this raised considerable alarm among the locals and another monk was summoned from Lady Holme island to perform an exorcism. As darkness fell and the howls once more sent shivers down the spines of the ferrymen, the monk rowed out with a bible and a bell. The demented spirit proved a powerful adversary and, despite his best efforts, the monk was unable to exorcise the ghoul completely, but he did succeed in confining it to an old quarry where he compelled it to stay until such a day “as men walk dry shod across Windermere”.
Furness Abbey and Bekan’s Revenge
The fate of the Crier’s monastic brethren was equally dark. According to the history books, Henry VIII laid waste to Furness Abbey and seized its lands during the dissolution of the monasteries. In John Pagen White’s 1853 poem – The Rooks of Furness – however, the seeds of monks’ doom were sown centuries before.
The abbey was built in the dale of Bekan’s Ghyll, so called for a Norse sorcerer, whose bones lie buried in the earth and whose name was originally given to the herb with which the valley abounds. The herb, better known as Deadly Nightshade, is a toxic hallucinogen associated with both witchcraft and medicine. According to the poem, it was once sweet-tasting and benign, but its roots and fibre were entwined with Bekan himself. When the monks began to harvest the plant, they disturbed the sleeping sorcerer. He wrought his revenge by turning its taste bitter and endowing it with poisonous qualities:
“Witchery walked where all had been well:
Well with Monk, and well with maid
That sought the Abbey for solace and aid.
But the lethal juices wrought their spell:
One by one was rung their knell:
One by one from choir and cell
They floated up with a hoarse farewell;
And the altars fell, and the Abbey bell
Was hush’d in the Deadly Nightshade Dell.”
The souls of the monks are said to inhabit the rooks that caw continually from the trees that surround their ruined monastery.
By the time I reach Ash Landing beside the Claife ferry terminal, the sun has risen and the western woods have lost their menace. Now the trees are bathed in dappled sunlight and the forest floor is a carpet of red and ochre leaves. The lake is a cool expanse of blue.
As I cross the fields by St Peter’s church, the ground is crisp and white with frost. Dark and troubling images recede before the winter sun and make way for the kind of enchanting whimsy associated with the parish’s most famous past resident, Beatrix Potter. As I enter Near Sawrey, her house, Hilltop, is on the left, its garden straight from the pages of Peter Rabbit.
Just past the pub I turn right down a lane between cottages and on to the bridleway to Claife. After a gentle ascent the idyllic expanse of Moss Eccles Tarn appears. This was one of Beatrix Potter’s favourite spots; in fact she loved it so much, she bought the land. An information board displays her memoir of a romantic summer evening spent in a boat on its calm waters with her husband, William.
It would be easy to imagine Potter leading a charmed life of privilege, spending her days sketching animals and writing children’s stories. In reality she fought hard for her independence. As a gifted natural historian, she battled a scientific establishment that would give her no platform because she was a woman. She weathered the disapproval of her family and devoted herself to farming and conservation. Her stewardship of the Lakeland landscape and its indigenous Herdwick sheep won her much respect.
When she died she left nearly all her land to the National Trust and it was her bequest that made it possible to preserve much of the area that now constitutes the Lake District National Park.
A little further up the track, the magnitude of her legacy unfolds as the gentle countryside gives way to sweeping Lakeland grandeur, the mighty Wetherlam rising dramatically across Wise Een Tarn with Crinkle Crags, Bow Fell and the Langdales arcing round to its right.
I follow the track up into the woods, past a tarn and out into the open once more. As the track bends round to the left, I turn right to follow the way-marked footpath that leads all the way back through the wooded slopes to Ash Landing on the lake shore.
I miss the sign pointing uphill to the trig point (apparently it’s a little overgrown), but find a track that runs beneath the summit instead. This route at least allows short detours through the trees to glimpse beautiful vistas of Belle Isle and the lake with its flotillas of moored yachts. Soon enough, I pick up the signposts to the ferry which confirm I’m back on track.
Eventually, a steep descent leads down through the trees to a ruined tower. Imagination fires and I wonder if this is where the ferryman faced the Crier. Alas, the notion is a fanciful one; this is the Claife Viewing Station, built in 1790 to provide the first wave of Lakeland tourists with a purpose-built platform from which to marvel at the magnificence of Windermere. It fell into disrepair in the 1900’s but has been rescued and recently reopened by the National Trust who have restored its coloured glass window panes, which give filtered views of the lake suggesting how its appearance might vary with the seasons.
But the tower may have something in common with the spook after all. In her fine blog on Cumbrian history, Diane McIlmoyle makes a strong case for the story of the Claife Crier being a 19th century concoction, perhaps, like the viewing station, intended to attract tourists. Read Diane’s full post here:
However, even Diane concedes the tale was probably stitched together from fragments of older stories. If this is true, the question still remains: did something sinister happen here centuries ago that terrified the locals and could not be easily explained away?
In the midday sunshine, these woods look pretty and inviting, but in a few hours time as the light dies and the colours drain; and the temperature plummets and wind picks up a pace, whipping through the hidden hollows and around the stark silhouettes of trees, making all manner of ungodly noises, you’d be forgiven for experiencing a quickening of the pulse and a shiver down the spine. And should the mist roll in, you might just find yourself glancing anxiously lakewards, hoping to catch a glint or a shimmer or some reassurance that a great body of water is still out there as a barrier to men walking dry shod across Windermere.