A rough crossing without a guide

Climbers on the Napes Needles including women in long skirts: About the turn of 20thcentury. Photo: Abrahams Brothers/ FRCC

Firstly, some background. My Dad, Bernard was born in Lancaster. His parents both died quite young. I never knew his Dad, like him called Bernard. His Dad, also Bernard, was killed at Ypres in 1915, just a few months before his kid brother. Their father, Bernard (You’re begining to spot a trend here…) a Shankhill Catholic had retired to Belfast after a distinguished career in the army. As my Dad has pointed out, the Dalys may have been brave professional soldiers, but they were pretty unimaginative with their childrens’ names.

 Anyway, my Dad’s Dad served in Africa during the Second World War. Back here in Blighty he drove the family Bakery van, and was then a conductor on Ribble buses.He’s a bit of a mysterious character to me – he never really seems to ‘fit’ in to the family. My Dad’s Mum was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and then Hodgkinson’s Disease. I was born about 2 years before she died, but of course, have no memory of her. I am told she doted on me and loved the colour of my eyes.

 The point is, my Dad and his parents lived with his Mum’s parents in their big old house in Bowerham, Lancaster. In fact, the house wasn’t their’s at all. It was bequeathed to them by an old school mistress to whom they had been in service,  for the term of their natural lives – something my Dad didn’t know about until after his Grandmother, who outlived her husband, had died…. and the house had been emptied and most of its contents, including family possessions had been auctioned off.

It is of this house that I have some of my earliest memories.

Ethel (or ‘Tompt’) as she was known, was my great grandmother, and as I remember her, dressed in black bodice and big skirt, her hat held with pins, was the genuine article: a Victorian Woman She could be stern at times, and certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly.  (She seemed – to me at least – to berate her long-suffering husband at every possibility) But she had a heart of gold and though very ‘prim and proper’ would occasionally silence a room with her coarse sayings and bawdy jokes – ‘straight out of a Millom iron ore works!’ as my Dad remembers.

 That long-suffering husband was Thomas, after whom I take my middle name. He was from Walney Island off the coast at Barrow. A pattern maker at Waring and Gillow, he was a kind, gentle if sometimes grumpy man (Well, let’s face it, he had some reason). Also known as ‘Nandy’ due to the fact that as a child, this is what my Dad, unable to say ‘Grandad’ called him. He almost always wore a flat hat, starched collar, braces, pin-striped jacket and had a bushy moustache. I was his favourite! He used to come down early in the morning to light the fires. I was the only soul allowed down. I helped/hindered him clearing out the grate, then intricately folding sheets of newspaper to make long-burning, almost ‘double helix’ shaped firelighters. He would always make two mugs of tea. One for him one for me. After stirring, he would drink his with the spoon still in – and so that’s how I drank my tea.

 So many legends seemed to hang in the heavy air of their house in Lonsdale Place (Like the story of the mysterious ‘Mediterranean Blood’ in the family. This, on investigation has proved to be no more than a muddling of my Great great great Grandad’s wedding, which took place when he was stationed in Gibraltar, and the birth of his first child, this time when stationed in Barbados) One of the most oft-repeated yarns was the great story of the perilous Lake District crossing in atrocious weather from Eskdale, Skirting Scafell Pike down to the Wasdale Head Hotel in the summer of 1904. A cautionary tale, it was  felt to be sound advice from ‘Those that Knew’ to get the listener to look before they leapt.

Apparently, in the July of that year, my Great grandmother, Thomas (who was courting her) along with her parents, two sisters, Molly and Annie: possibly also with escorts and a ‘mystery man’ from Kent had decided to take a trip over the fell from Eskdale down into the adjacent valley (admittedly with some quite rough terrain and steep drops for the unwary or those unwilling/unable to read a map) As was the case in those days, a guide was appointed to see them over. For some reason, on the morning in question, he did not appear, but the party decided, perhaps unwisely, to go ahead anyway.

For no sooner had they begun than the weather began to close in. It got cold, wet, rocks began to get slippery. Visibility was reduced. Suddenly every now and then, the impenetrable mist would swirl violently and clear to reveal some yawning chasm or steep drop below or equally without warning, damp rock walls would loom up at them from the depths, blocking their path. It must have been quite hair raising at the time, but they were made of strong stuff. They arrived safe, if cold, wet and not a little shaken; my Great grandmother extremely vexed (as she used to say) with those who persuaded her (one suspects the suitors )  against her better judgement to take part in what she referred to everafter as “That Rough Crossing Without A Guide”

 Well, it comes about that one Easter – 29th April 1983, to be exact, I find myself with my Dad and my brothers at the annexe to the Wasdale Head Hotel. And why there and not propping up the bar?  Well, it just so happens that, my Dad, and brothers are still keen climbers and, as such hold membership of the British Fell and Rock Club; who it transpires have organised an exhibition of climbing photography and videos to commemorate the centenary of the first ascent of the ‘Napes Needle’, a particularly spectacular climb in Wasdale.  Members had been asked to give up their time to provide invigilation for the exhibition on a rota basis. As I was home from University and kicking my heels, I decided to join them.

On arrival, I had a good look round at the exhibits. There were great large format ‘box camera’ photographs, some by the famous Abraham brothers which were simply stunning. Crystal clear, tonal tours de force. Then there was Bonnington and Whillans – ‘I say, Don, have you got that crab?’ ‘Yer-what?’ (Climbing joke)  filmed on Dovedale Groove; but the one thing that caught my eye was the open visitors book dated 1902 – 4 from the Wasdale Head Hotel. Open, because it contained the signatures of a group of famous pioneer climbers, the Slingsby family and friends. Of much more interest to me, however was what was written on the opposite page, dated July17th 1904 in a confident, though slightly shaky hand:

” J C Dawson, J J Dawson, E Dawson (my Great Grandmother) P Dawson, A Dawson, M Dawson (and their place of birth/residence: all of Millom) T Townson, Walney (My Great Grandfather) P Priest,  Liverpool, M Wall, Millom, M Borrow, Dover.

 A rough crossing without a guide!” 


This is a copy of a scan my father did recently of the ‘Dawson’ page after being given permission to record the document by the hotel’s owners. Sadly, it had been allowed to deteriorate significantly since 1983; so much so that it was almost unrecognisable as the same image.

© Andy Daly  2010

2 thoughts on “A rough crossing without a guide

  1. Pingback: Pull the udder one: three ghost stories « Sitting comfortably?

  2. Aw, this was a really quality post. In theory I’d like to write like this too – taking time and real effort to make a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something done.

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