Dying To Be Famous

It was just recently that I went on a short holiday to the lake district, during this short stay I climbed the 3rd highest mountain in England, the mighty Helvellyn. After a hair-raising climb over Striding Edge and then enduring the steep scree scramble to the summit, I was surprised to see (even through the fog) an impressive stone monument. Upon closer inspection this monument was dedicated to Charles Gough (born 1784) an aspiring artist of the early English Romantic movement.

Memorial stone for Charles Gough erected in 1890, with an inscription containing quotes from Wordsworth's poem 'Fidelity'.

Memorial stone for Charles Gough erected in 1890, with an inscription containing quotes from Wordsworth’s poem ‘Fidelity’.

On the 17th of April 1805 the 21 year old artist visiting the Lake District (reputedly by Wordsworth for the sake of angling in Patterdale) from Manchester set out to walk over Helvellyn to Grasmere. At the beginning of the 19th century mountaineering for enjoyment and not out of necessity was a relatively new pursuit, and as such Gough would be facing the mountain with no specialist clothing or equipment. It was advisable even then to take a guide with you when scaling the mountain, Gough had indeed secured a guide, however as a member of the local militia his guide was called up for training that unfortunate day. So Gough set out alone, with the exception of his dog Foxie on his way eventually to Grasmere via Striding Edge. He was never again seen alive, with no one expecting him to venture back the way he came and seemingly no one expecting him to arrive in Grasmere. For 3 months he seemed to have vanished, until on the 27th of July a shepherd heard a dogs frantic barking near Red Tarn and upon further investigation discovered Foxie beside Gough’s dispersed bones and threadbare clothing. Depending on which report you read it is debatable as to whether the shepherd then asked the assistance of some walkers or left the scene and returned with a crowd and collected Gough’s remains and possessions consisting of some fishing tackle and reel, a gold watch, a silver propelling pencil and two Claude glasses (a darkened convex mirror used by landscape painters), they also recovered Gough’s hat which had been torn in two. From this it was surmised that Gough had fallen to his death from the treacherous Striding Edge and had died from the head injuries procured or from exposure to the elements. The barks which had alerted the shepherd to Gough’s resting place had of course originated from Foxie, not only had she survived the months exposed to the elements beside her dead master, but also given birth to a pup, which unfortunately died shortly after their discovery and subsequent rescue. Foxie’s seemingly impossible health and the skeletal remains of her master caused a Carlisle newspaper to report  ‘The bitch had pupped in a furze near the body of her master, and, shocking to relate, had torn the cloaths from his body and eaten him to a perfect skeleton.’ Yet another report suggested that Gough had been eaten by Helvellyn’s resident ravens. The mystery encompassing Gough’s death, not only how he died but why he took the risk of ascending Helvellyn without a guide, continues to inspire those who climb Helvellyn lending the mountain an element of history all its own. Gough had been asked by a local artist to copy some drawing, but Gough was known for taking risks. Thomas Clarkson an abolitionist who had met Gough stated that Gough was a ‘venturesome person’ whose headstrong nature had caused the local shepherds alarm. Gough’s body is now interred in a Quaker graveyard in Tirril.

A view of the knife-edge striding edge, where Charles Gough fell from.

A view of the knife-edge Striding Edge, where Charles Gough fell from.

At the time William Wordsworth lived at Grasmere and news of this tragedy inspired his creative genius. As word spread Sir Walter Scott also became intrigued by the calamity and Wordsworth guided him and Humphry Davy (a chemist) to the area in which Gough met his end. Subsequently both poets were motivated to write poems romanticizing and recording the event for eternity. They both certainly believed that Foxie remained guarding Gough’s body out of loyalty, the truth however was probably darker.

William Wordsworth’s poem ‘Fidelity’ written in 1805 and published in 1807.

A barking sound the Shepherd hears,
A cry as of a Dog or Fox;
He halts, and searches with his eyes
Among the scatter’d rocks:
And now at distance can discern
A stirring in a brake of fern;
From which immediately leaps out
A Dog, and yelping runs about.

The Dog is not of mountain breed;
It’s motions, too, are wild and shy;
With something, as the Shepherd thinks,
Unusual in its’ cry:
Nor is there any one in sight
All round, in Hollow or on Height;
Nor shout, nor whistle strikes his ear;
What is the Creature doing here?

It was a Cove, a huge Recess,
That keeps till June December’s snow;
A lofty Precipice in front,
A silent Tarn below!
Far in the bosom of Helvellyn,
Remote from public Road or Dwelling,
Pathway, or cultivated land;
From trace of human foot or hand.

There, sometimes does a leaping Fish
Send through the Tarn a lonely chear;
The Crags repeat the Raven’s croak,
In symphony austere;
Thither the Rainbow comes, the Cloud;
And Mists that spread the flying shroud;
And Sun-beams; and the sounding blast,
That, if it could, would hurry past,
But that enormous Barrier binds it fast.

Not knowing what to think, a while
The Shepherd stood: then makes his way
Towards the Dog, o’er rocks and stones,
As quickly as he may;
Nor far had gone before he found
A human skeleton on the ground,
Sad sight! the Shepherd with a sigh
Looks round, to learn the history.

From those abrupt and perilous rocks,
The Man had fallen, that place of fear!
At length upon the Shepherd’s mind
It breaks, and all is clear:
He instantly recall’d the Name,
And who he was, and whence he came;
Remember’d, too, the very day
On which the Traveller pass’d this way.

But hear a wonder now, for sake
Of which this mournful Tale I tell!
A lasting monument of words
This wonder merits well.
The Dog, which still was hovering nigh,
Repeating the same timid cry,
This Dog had been through three months’ space
A Dweller in that savage place.

Yes, proof was plain that since the day
On which the Traveller thus had died
The Dog had watch’d about the spot,
Or by his Master’s side:
How nourish’d here through such long time
He knows, who gave that love sublime,
And gave that strength of feeling, great
Above all human estimate.

And Gough was not only immortalised in words, several famous painters of the time also immortalised him and Foxie. Both Francis Danby and one of queen Victoria’s favourite painters Edwin Landseer painted the event. Landseer’s painting entitled ‘Attachment’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1830 in conjunction with Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘Helvellyn’.

Edward Landseer's painting entitled Attachment. Painted in 1829.

Edward Landseer’s painting entitled ‘Attachment’. Painted in 1829.

So Charles Gough achieved fame certainly not in the way he would have wished, his death on the mighty Helvellyn and the subsequent interest of poets and painters romanticizing the loyalty of his dog Foxie, has immortalised him forever more on the eerie summit of Helvellyn. As for me I realised when I reached the summit that despite my aching joints and burning lungs I had enjoyed the challenge and the summits landscape unaffected as it was by time, is I believe a memorial enough for Gough. In short I loved every moment of it and dad and me will definitely be climbing Helvellyn again, although he may not know it yet!

Me and Dad about to climb Helvellyn.

Me and Dad about to climb Helvellyn.


2 thoughts on “Dying To Be Famous

    • Hi,
      This post is one of my older ones from 2014, so unfortunately I cannot recall all of my sources. If you are more interested in the literature generated around the incident then British Romanticism and the Literature of Human Interest by Mai-Lin Cheng might interest you, though the book is expensive and the entry concerning the incident exceedingly short. The Memoirs of William Wordsworth also provide interesting context. There was also an article in The Guardian (2003), entitled ‘The Romantics and the myth of Charles Gough’. I hope this helps!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s