W3C The Packwoman's Grave DO U KNOW?

The packwoman's grave

Rosset Ghyll

It seems that few have heard the tale of the Packwoman's Grave, yet it's a tale that's been handed down for generations. Like much folklore it gets changed with the telling. Bill Birkett of Little Langdale recalls his grandfather telling him about the Packhorse Woman's Grave.

Alfred Wainwright writes, in 1955, about "the packwoman's grave, neglected and forgotten within very easy reach of the [Rosset] ghyll ... whose mortal remains were found and buried here 170 years ago. A simple cross of stones laid on the ground, pointing southeast indicates the grave, it has suffered little disturbance down the years, but because so many folk nowadays seem unable to leave things alone, its precise location is not divulged here." The source of his information was a Mr. Mounsey of Skelwith.

If Wainwright's dating is correct, her death would have occurred during the latter half of the 1700s.

Legend has it that she perished during a snow storm and her remains were not found and placed in a grave until the snows had melted. Further research into any accounts of weather conditions from those decades might provide a more accurate dating. For instance, in the book Rydal by M L Armitt (1916) we are told that the account book of Rydal Hall records on February 3rd 1757, "we have had a great storm of snow for near a month and excessive frost".

The poem (below) by T H Collinson, MA (found in Lakeland Poems and Others published by Charles Thrunam & Sons, 1905), written at least 50 years prior to Wainwright's account, unfolds more details in a vivid and imaginative description of the sad event.

It's a long poem but well worth taking the time to read.

Wendy Fraser


by T H Collinson, MA


A man of Langdale told me that, when he was a child, he knew a place, near the head of Rosset Ghyll, where tradition said generations before a woman had been buried.

Overtaken by a storm, in crossing over from Wastdale into Langdale, she lost her way, died of exposure, and was buried when and where she was found. Reputed to have been a vendor of small-wares, pins, needles, thimbles, etc. (the reason for the italic word will be seen later), it was believed that the basket, in which she carried about her goods, with all its contents, had been buried with her. He still remembers the believers and the disbelievers in the old tradition discussing its merits, until, to settle the question, some men dug up the soil around the traditional spot, and found some stones built into the shape of a coffin, wherein the soil was light and crumbling ; and though they could see no trace of human remains, yet found some of the articles she had carried about for sale.

(These wanderers must have been held in considerable esteem in the old days, not so much, perhaps, from what they sold, as that they were news-carriers, itinerating round from dale to dale in turn, acquainting the inhabitants with all that was passing in the other dales.)

Upon the above details (no more could be gathered), the following poem, such as it is not much, I fear is founded.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

WHERE e'en the solitary must cry out
For converse, startled by the unreal sound
Of his own voice ; — where the shepherd's far-heard shout
Alone e'er wakes the silences profound
A pedlar she.

From Wastdale she, one morning, took her way,
For Langdale bound - it was a winter day.
With all the force that she was able,
She clomb the rugged Pass of Sty,
Where Lingmell Beck goes thundering by,
Aslant the reaches of the Gable.
But the way was long and steep, and she
Trod with her burden wearily—
Wearily, wearily, over the stones,
And the cold it pierced her very bones.
Ere she, at length, had reached Sty-Head,
And passed its tarn, of silence dread—
A gathering storm made twilight of the noon,
The mountain-tops shrouded in awesome gloom :
The crags, beside the path, uncertain loom.
Nightfall would bring no friendly light of moon.

Sudden, the wind burst forth its fury pent,
Across the rugged Pike of Scawfell,
With a shriek of wildering madness awful ;
As all the furies dread of the Atlantic,
In an onslaught frantic,
The mountain rent.

A sudden lull—the ominous flakes begin to fall ;
Silent and singly—ghostly—still—
Upon her cheek dissolving chill,
Each with a gentle hiss—
Its traitorous kiss—
The heralds of great flakes that soon must cover all.

Down fell the flakes, amain,
High twirling round and round,
Or, slanting, driven upon the ground—
Every motion of the wind
Made visible—before, behind,
The snow was quickly lain ;
Naught to be seen, but the mountain path ;
The only hope she hath ;
She clung to it—as they to hope,
Who oft, in other darkness, grope.

Why had she come, on such a day ?
She ? had ever she been known to fail,
Or turn back from the toilsome way,
For darkness, tempest, snow or hail ?
Had she not new wares in her pack,
Which made her dare to face the wrack ?
Had she not news—great news, to tell ?
That must be told, tho' storms may do their worst—
Untold, her woman's heart had well-nigh burst —
Was't not her day for Langdale ? o'er the fell,
Come fair or foul, she must betake her way,
And then, by the cottage firelight glow,
She'd soon forget the wildering snow,
With all the trials of the day.

Over Esk Hause's brow,
Her course is downward leading now,
But the way is difficult and slow,
The treacherous stones lie covered with snow.

Here is the heart of solitude,
When seen beneath a summer sky :
But, ah ! when the storm-fiends are at war,
And the powers of darkness brood,
And the seething torrents roar
From the unseen mountains high !

To mark her way,
No guiding stone-heaps lay.
Set is the shrouded sun :
The winter day is done.

But, looming from the darkness, now,
A boulder she hath reached ;
Torn from the mountain's brow,
Smoothed by the ages, and by tempests bleached ;
A thankful warmth within her grew,
For here was something that she knew !

She eased her from her burden, there—
Long and wearily it pressed—
Ere she descended by the steepy stair,
That winds a way down Rosset Ghyll ;
Where the waters never, never rest—
E'en now the tumult doth her hearing fill,
Of the torrent hoarse,
Over great boulders in its course.

Rested at length, she started again,
To find the path down the headlong glen.
She wandered long—but alas ! she found,
Fainter and fainter, came the torrent's sound.
Mistaking a path the sheep had made—
Diverging far from the human track—
Her weary feet hath strayed ;
And they must trace the weary distance back.

Awhile she followed those erring footprints, slow—
Obliterated soon by the driving snow—
Then she was lost !
Lost—and in such a place !
But with blind chance, at most,
To aid her hopeless case.
For hours she wandered aimlessly,
Through weary wastes of snow—
Now round and round, now to and fro—
Oh ! whither, whither, could she go,
The impending doom to flee ?

Sudden, within some water, still and black,
Her feet were plunged—it was a tarn :
And a glimmering ray came trembling back,
Of the hope that she thought had flown.
Following the stream, by the emptying waters worn,
She stood once more by the well-known boulder-stone.

Then, like the imprisoned bird, whose fluttering rage
Beats helpless against the bars of its cage,
And every means of escaping tries—
Till, sickened by the fruitless effort, dies :
So she, again, again —
To find the path she tried—'twas all in vain.
For, as the hunted stag, weary and spent,
Crawls homeward to some covert-haunt,
To die in that familiar sight,
And make its dying light :
So she, returning to the stone—
Glad to have something that was known—
Where a small space of unsnown ground,
On the sheltered side of the stone, was found—
There sank she down,
To rest—to rest,
By the snow caressed,
Till a sweet oblivion stole o'er every sense—
Nature's blest antidote for woes intense.

The unregarded snow came swirling down
Rest, rest she craved, delicious, welcome rest
The storms may rave, the snows may fall :
Sweetly oblivious she of them all.

But around the stone, on either side,
The snow blew soft, in a powdery tide :
Meeting in front, they built a drifted wall—
More, over the top of the stone, did gently fall—
Till higher and higher rose that prison wall ;
The wind the builder, with the small,
Incessant, rustling, gentle snow—
Spreading perfidious, sure and slow,
The enclosing doom—
Her living tomb.

Long, long, it snowed.
But when, at last, faint sunshine glowed,
Not a trace of that boulder was seen,
Save a gently rising mound —
Smooth, soft and round—
And all the white mountains showed,
With their valleys, boulder-strewn,
As tho' in marble they were hewn

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The Pass was snow-blocked long.
But relenting slow, at length,
The south wind blew with a genial strength,
Over the snow-bound mountains flew,
And from his wings a softening moisture threw.

Then silent gorges all like thunder rung—
Then Rosset Ghyll awoke tumultuous :
Released from the grip of the icy king,
The seething snow-broth waters rush,
Their whelming might against the boulders fling,
Making them grate and groan,
And scrape and moan.

The mountains—not uncovered quite,
Tho' streaked their sides with black and white—
Tempted a wayfarer forth again,
To climb the steep of Rosset Glen.
He, with a pack-horse, took his way,
From Langdale, at the break of day ;
Spades, rakes and shears, selling he,
And the like things of husbandry.

The long-lost pedlar (so report—
Tho' her journeys never were known to fail—
Was doubtless wintering in some dale,
Safe from all storms in a snug resort).

Reaching the top, they breathless stand :
He, backward turning, views the far-spread land,
That lay beneath the morning haze ;
Resting himself and horse, long doth he gaze.

Turning, at length, to view the destined way—
Where, on and up, the winding passage lay—
What !—what is that ?—by yonder stone ?
A female form !—reclining, and alone !

[The snow, abating, showed her still in death,
As lifelike, as when first it stole her breath :
And, slow dissolving off the ground,
Still left a circling drift around,
Wherein she sat ;
Her pannier round her shoulder strapped—
As nothing untoward had happed—
Nor disarranged her hat.]

Pressing forward he—
Can it—can it be
The long-lost pedlar ? It is she !
A hail good morn, aloud, he cried—
Adding a mirthful jest, beside—
No answering word she spoke :
No recognising look :
Dread silence fell—
Save that the echoes deep his own words slowly tell.

No words he said—
He stands in the holy presence of the dead.
And that reposeful look was there,
The dead are wont to wear,
A smile, almost !
As tho' the last look which they took —
Those eyes that are closed —
Ere the spirit the clay forsook—
Smiled at an unseen something, near,
And left the lingering shadow here.

Should he bear her thence to hallowed ground,
To lie beneath a soft green mound ?
What was the best ?
Oft he had heard it said,
That the spirits of the unburied dead
Never do rest—

The horse vain sniffed the barren glade :
His eye fell on an unsoiled spade,
That dangled at her side—
'Gainst other wares, it tinkled like a bell
Here she had died—

Child of the mountains, she :
Here let her buried be,
Here where she fell ;
Here in her native soil—
His be the office—his the toil !

He buried her there,
With tender care—
And the pannier she bore,
When her journeys she plied,
With all of its store—
He placed at her side.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

All travellers whom chance
Did ever lead that way,
Looked with a reverent glance,
Where the pedlar's ashes lay.

The little child, in passing by,
Tugged at its mother's dress,
And, from her further side, peeped shy,
As on they quicker press.
Generations passed—
But the tale was handed on,
By father unto son,
And, like the hills, stood fast.

Till the age arose
That everything knows :
By its decrees,
None may believe,
Nor aught receive,
Save that he sees.

Two quarrymen, to test the tale,
Went forth, with spades, from Langdale Vale.
They dug away the soil,
In their impious toil;

They dug full deep,
To force the secret of the ancient heap.
For long they found naught,
Of that which they sought—
Naught checked their boisterous mirth,
As they shovelled away the earth ;
Till the spades gave a grating sound !
On some stones that, in order, were built around—
Forming a rude sarcophagus—
Which, by reverent hands, must have been made,
And someone's body therein laid,
Or else, said they, " how came it thus ? "
From it the crumbling soil they remove :
But naught did they find of human remains,
Rewarding their (now chastened) pains,
Or the old, old tale to prove.
To dig the more, thought they, was nothing worth—
And one threw up a final spade of earth —
Hark ! something jingles !
Whence came the sound ?

They search all round
The upturned ground :
At last they found
A few old rusty thimbles !

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