The Maid of Buttermere

It takes a lot of work to be cynical in a place like the Lake District.

With its quaint villages and spectacular views, it has inspired painters, poets, writers and all sorts of artists to capture its magic in their work since the 1700s. It’s the kind of place that would make a man like William Wordsworth stop his vocal support for the French Revolution to focus instead on daffodils and lonely clouds.

Buttermere, The Lake District

Buttermere, The Lake District

How can anyone be miserable when presented with this bucolic view? Even the village drunk looks friendly. In here, life seems fresh and simple, and there’s a sense that it’s always been this way. Returning from a walk in the fells, you can imagine asking someone where the parking lot is and the farmer would say, “Parking lot? But, dear lady, it’s October 1802.”

Why 1802? I don’t know…it just seems like the kind of year in which fairy tales can happen. Certainly, that’s what Coleridge thought when he wrote to the London Morning Post, informing the nation of the “romantic marriage” between a famous local beauty and a distinguished brother of an earl. It had all the elements of a once-in-a-lifetime love: a handsome aristocrat travelling in a remote town and falling for the pretty daughter of an innkeeper.

The local beauty was Mary Robinson (1778-1837), known to the nation as the Maid of Buttermere, the embodiment of unspoiled, natural beauty and guileless innocence that visitors of the Lake District sought.

Mary Robinson aka The Maid of Buttermere

Mary Robinson
aka The Maid of Buttermere

Mary drew the country’s attention when she was mentioned by Captain Joseph Budworth in his 1792 book, “A Fortnight’s Ramble to the Lakes in Westmorland, Lancashire and Cumberland.” Suddenly, Mary became one of the “must-see” attractions of the Lake District.

People would go to the Fish Inn in Buttermere specifically to see her, and among the admirers she had to entertain were the Lake Poets. This must have produced some of the finest discussions in pub history:

Coleridge: “Mary, do you think maintaining a connection with nature will help to ensure the moral health of an individual?”

Mary: “I’ve no idea, luv. Now, I have a question for you–do you want your beef with a side of salad or chips?”

We don’t know if Mary wanted all this attention or not, but we do know that odes were written to her beauty and budding artists wanted to sketch her. It’s no wonder, then, that the Hon. Alexander Augustus Hope, MP of Linlithgow and the Earl of Hopetoun’s brother, took one look at Mary and decided he had to marry the exquisite commoner. They were married within three months, after a whirlwind romance that Coleridge described as a “novel for real life.”

It was a fairy tale, and it stirred peoples’ imagination. Unfortunately, it also stirred the outrage of Charles Hope, the Earl of Hopetoun, who wrote to the Morning Post saying that his brother, the real Hon. Alexander Hope, MP, was currently residing in Vienna and was not happy that some bloke’s been using his name.

The Fish Inn, Buttermere

The Fish Inn, Buttermere


At the very least, this development would bring about some very awkward moments for Mary. How do you confront your husband of less than a year with these allegations? How do you even address him, since his name is clearly not Alexander? Who is this man you wake up with every morning?

It’s kinda hard to know when the right moment is to own up to a lie. Even if it’s just with friends you wanted to impress when you first met. When do you say, “By the way, guys, technically, I didn’t graduate from Harvard. It was a dick move, but at the time, I just thought it made me sound cool.”  Finding out that Mary’s husband was lying about his identity makes you wonder why he even married her in the first place. She wasn’t rich, and she drew too much attention.

His name was John Hatfield, and he’s made a career out of  smooth talking status-conscious men into lending him money, without any intention of paying them back. According to the Wanted notice that was printed in the papers, he was an impostor, a swindler and a felon.  Oh, he was also a bigamist. So the last thing he needed was a marriage to a darling of the press.

John Hatfield (1758-1803)

John Hatfield (1758-1803)

He was arrested in Keswick, but managed to flee to Chester until Bow Street Runners caught him somewhere near Swansea and brought him to stand trial in Carlisle. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge were there at the trial, where Hatfield was convicted and sentenced to die by public hanging on September 3, 1803.  He was demonized in the press as a corrupter of innocent maidens, and the trial was featured in national papers and Gentleman’s Magazine, and is mentioned in William Wordsworth’s The Prelude.

Maybe Hatfield and Mary really did love each other, we will never know. Life is never simple and straightforward, and idealized versions of it rarely provides substantial answers. What’s clear, though, is that when you marry into a fairy tale, then that’s all you’ll get.

Well, that… and a hard-earned lesson when reality comes back to bite.




Lowther Castle

I fell in love last weekend.

I was in Tesco, regretting buying a pork pie and browsing brochures when the one for Lowther Castle and Gardens hit me with this:

“There are no ‘keep off the grass’ rules here… we want you to explore, follow your nose, take away your own memories… We shan’t be rewinding the clock, restoring to what might have been. Lowther is made of many layers and that’s the challenge. Finding new layers for Lowther to reinvent its future.

I gotta hand it to them. I was SO there, as sold as the pork pie I ate and still trying to block from my memory like a shameful one night stand.

My castle is your castle.

My castle is your castle. Literally.

Anyway, I think I’ll put the bathroom over here…I’m sorry, what? Entry is £8? I see. So, not literally my castle then. Thank goodness I didn’t go there hauling tiles or it would’ve been awkward. That wouldn’t have impressed my new love.

The castle’s romantic ruins is still part of the Lowther Estate, owned by the Earl of Lonsdale. Obviously, he doesn’t live here any more, but why is he giving visitors free rein? Why leave the management of the grounds to an independent charity that lets commoners do things like this?



The Lowthers are a very rich family, like, “actually-owned-the-town-of-Whitehaven” kind of rich. Their family tree can be traced right to the time of Henry II (12th century), and from the time of Edward I (1239-1307), each successive head of the family in the medieval times was knighted.

Unlike their political rivals from Hutton Hall, however,  the Lowthers allow people to ramble through the thousands of acres that comprise their estate for free (just close the gates and keep dogs on leads so they do not scare the sheep), and they do not hide their dirty laundry. There’s a possibly necrophiliac ancestor. Another one would put Michael Jackson’s shopping habits to shame, and yet another who hated the castle and all it stood for so much that only petitions from the townspeople stopped him from demolishing it.

Now, that’s what I call “layers.”

And it’s haunted!

The restless soul is purported to be the 1st Earl of Lonsdale, Sir James Lowther. And no wonder–this man was bullied as a child and grew up to be known as “Wicked Jimmy”, “The Bad Earl”, “Jemmy Grasp-all, Earl of Toadstools”  and according to Alexander Carlyle, “A madman too influential to lock up.”

"Wicked Jimmy" 1736-1802

“Wicked Jimmy”

I guess some people just give off bad vibes. That can’t be helped if just part of your inheritance is worth more than £2 million and you control 9 Parliamentary boroughs in the Northwest (the Lowther “Ninepins”), but you leave an employee like Wordsworth’s dad to die while owing him £5000 in wages.

If this happened today, I’m sure his PR advisers would be able to put some positive spin on this with some photo-ops at an orphanage or making him a patron of some charity that has a mission of saving cats from tall trees. When he fell in love with the daughter of one of his tenants, made her his mistress and kept her in high luxury for the rest of her life, they could’ve been the century’s Wills and Kate. But this was the 1700s, and Britain had an equally loony king in the form of George III. When the earl’s mistress died, he wasn’t given a pamphlet entitled “How to Move On: The Art of Letting Go.” Instead, he went from being “wicked” to just plain “weird.”

He couldn’t accept that she was dead, and his servants weren’t allowed to point out this fact when he kept her body, dressing her himself and propping her on the dinner table and kept her lying in bed until the putrefaction became unbearable. Then she remained in a glass coffin for 7 weeks before finally being buried. No word on what her family thought of this.

Hard to believe he’s not the most (in)famous Earl of Lonsdale. No, that would be Hugh, the 5th Earl. Known as “Lordy” or the “Yellow Earl,” he was a second son who never expected to inherit and so joined the travelling circus. No, really.

The Yellow Earl 1857-1944

The Yellow Earl

When he inherited the earldom, he was like a lottery winner who couldn’t handle the “success.” He had scandalous affairs with actresses like Lillie Langtry, who’d also been mistress to Edward VII. Queen Victoria told the earl he must leave the country until the scandal died down. He went to the Arctic in an expedition so gruelling over 100 guides died,  gave the Lonsdale Belt to boxing, built a hot-house to grow the yellow gardenias for his button hole, had the Lowther coat of arms reproduced every day in the stable yard with colored chalk and freshly laid sand, and he also extended the estate (flattening 20 farms in the process). But there was still some money left, so he bought cars.

Many cars.

Many cars.

He founded the Automobile Association , so we can thank him for the indecipherable route finder maps that have caused countless arguments between couples on a road trip. He lived a long life and kept spending without making money, and it makes one wonder.  In the words of the band Cake,  “How do you afford your rock n’ roll lifestyle?”

The answer, of course, was he couldn’t. He died with millions of pounds in debt which was shouldered by the 7th Earl, a D-Day veteran who was a successful businessman and engineer before he inherited the Lowther estates from his grandfather, the 6th Earl.

James Lowther, 7th Earl of Lonsdale and the key to my heart.

James Lowther, 7th Earl of Lonsdale,  1st of my heart.

Maybe fighting along peasants in the war opened his gorgeous eyes, because when he came home, he made his contempt for the castle known:

“it was a place that exemplified gross imperial decadence during a period of abject poverty”.

He  offered the castle as a gift to 3 local authorities but they all turned it down. He would have completely demolished it, but the townspeople petitioned him not to. So he removed the roof and some smaller wings, but left the silhouette intact as a romantic ruins. He didn’t forget the tenants–for some years the front courtyard was used as a pig pen, part of the gardens was used as a chicken farm and the rest were planted with timber. He had a passion for land, and he was an avid conservationist–he led the battle to prevent Ullswater from becoming a reservoir for Manchester and later he became one of the main supporters for preserving the Lake District.

He's the reason I can do things like this.

He’s the reason I can do things like this.

He died in 2006, forever depriving the world of his sexy hotness. If ghosts are real and there is one haunting the castle, it wouldn’t be his. For those interested in numbers, The Sunday Times Rich List stated his net worth was around £80 million, and he is quoted as saying  that he anticipated his death would result in a payment of

“somewhere between £3 million and £5 million to the Treasury because it’s high time society had its chunk.”

Well, he won’t get any argument from me on that one.


Hartside Pass

Standing proud at 1,904 feet above sea level, the sign at Hartside Summit proclaims that this section of A686 is called Hartside Pass. It ascends from Cumbria’s Eden Valley and according to AA Magazine, it’s one of the top ten drives in the world. With a steep gradient and notorious bends it provides a zigzagging  journey to the heart of the North Pennines. From this viewpoint, you can see across the Solway Firth and straight to Scotland. No matter where you look, you’ll be greeted by magnificent views of barren, windswept fells and big skies, as well as rolling fields dotted with grazing cattle and contented sheep.



I am “Zenned.”

Hartside Pass is within the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and as I sat on that wooden bench to contemplate the scenery I found myself agreeing with the smug claim. It’s no wonder so many poets and writers found their inspiration with the landscape in this part of the country. It is so peaceful and isolated that it’s hard to imagine people ever went up there for anything other than serenity and maybe to clear the voices in their head and put everything back into perspective. But as I look out from the summit’s viewpoint, what really impresses me about Hartside Pass is that it’s associated with this guy:

John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836)

McAdam was born in Ayr, Scotland and the word “tarmac” is named after him (for Tar McAdam) to honor his contribution to the field of road construction.  He is credited for designing the world’s first modern roads. McAdam was an engineer involved in the colliery and ironworks business. Sometime in the 1820s he was tasked by the Alston Turnpike Trust to build Hartside Pass to provide an efficient means of transporting products of the mining companies operating in the area. According to Craig David, McAdam

“discovered that massive foundations of rock upon rock were unnecessary, and asserted that native soil alone would support the road and traffic upon it, as long as it was covered by a road crust that would protect the soil underneath from water and wear.”

The method made roads a lot cheaper to build. There was still a need for surveying routes, but the actual labor could be performed by unskilled locals who’ll work for a pittance during their free time–when they are not working at the mines. Just see these charming guys here, lovingly and not at all condescendingly depicted bearing their exploitation with a grateful smile:


I bet they loved this.

Hartside is near the border between England and Scotland. Transport was difficult, unimproved until the 17th century because of the unstable relationship between the two countries, plus there were the border reivers.

So McAdam, a younger son of an impoverished baron, was responsible for the greatest advancement in road construction methods since the Roman times. The “macadam” principle is still utilized today for road maintenance, mostly with asphalting. Considering the unremitting rugged condition of the Pennines, Hartside Pass is a remarkable human achievement.

McAdam was undoubtedly a brilliant man, but as I look around from my spot at the summit to take in the harsh and poetic scenery, my thoughts are occupied by the  anonymous villagers depicted on the viewpoint sign. Their names are lost in history, their lives remain mostly untold, but the road they built is still here. I doubt they made much money for all their toil, but I give them a silent thanks before making my equally unnoticed but infinitely less significant journey back home.