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Mountain Republic: A Lake District parish, by Phillipa Harrison

13 August 2021

Martyn Halsall reviews a saga of poets, clergy, farmers, and politics

THE most profound republic in English history came from the poetic analysis of William Wordsworth, the Cumbrian literary champion Philippa Harrison argues in this marathon of affectionate scholarship grounded in the Lake District parish of Crosthwaite.

Now a scholastic suburb of Keswick, as home to its major school, Crosthwaite’s story ranges from saintly foundation to pioneering bobbin and pencil production. It marks the graveyard of Robert Southey’s poetic reputation, and a foundation stone for the National Trust. The parish, once part of Strathclyde, was arguably founded by St Kentigern in the sixth century, and historically ranged over 90 square miles of scenic drama. Beyond “England”, it remained outside the remit of the Domesday survey.

But it was the “Eighteen Men”, “customary tenants” chosen annually, whose authority over some 400 years awarded it a unique, independent authority, ranging from educational provision to include taxation, welfare for the poor, and infrastructure. Such parochial independence, Harrison argues, fostered Wordsworth’s “pure commonwealth” of upland farmers who stayed largely untouched by outside jurisdiction imposed elsewhere by the rise of the gentry. Wordsworth, who owed his voting rights to land that he acquired in the parish, honoured the democracy of these “estatesmen”, whose laureate he became.

Across this majestic canvas of “mountain republic”, Harrison traces a fastidiously researched saga that includes the terror of border warfare by raiding reivers, and plague depopulation that led parishioners to petition the Pope to allow illegitimate offspring, including priests’ sons, to be ordained. Mineral mining brought an industrial revolution of extracting “wadd”, or graphite, which led to a mechanised process enabling 130 employees to produce about ten million pencils a year. Harrison, informed by years of research, spells out the hazardous laying of mining charges, and need for swift withdrawal.

AlamyThe monument to Robert Southey (detail), in St Kentigern’s, Crosthwaite: one of the colour plates in the book

In literature, she launches a rescue mission on Southey’s reputation, so badly wounded by Byron’s acidic satire that he never wrote another line of poetry, despite being Poet Laureate, for the last 21 years of his life. Coleridge, another Romantic casualty, abandoned his family in Crosthwaite to pursue literary and theological theory in London, addled by opium. Harrison is however able to complete her parish history in the energetic company of Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, whose former vicarage she occupies.

“When he made professional excursions into theology he was, of course, off his beat,” lamented a fellow canon of Carlisle Cathedral, but whether defending footpaths, opposing railways, encouraging industrial education, Beatrix Potter, pedigree sheep-breeding, or the first mass trespass to establish rambling rights, Rawnsley practised a holistic faith.

This appropriately monumental book ends in triumph, above the old parish boundary, below the summit of Great Gable. Here, Rawnsley’s vision of liberated land came to harvest with the gift to the National Trust of 3000 acres of mountain tops in memory of named members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club killed in the carnage of the First World War.

Wordsworth, his politics scarred by “The Terror” that followed the French Revolution, would have applauded such a fell-walking “republic”. Perhaps he was not such a reactionary, after all?

Dr Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist, living and writing in rural west Cumbria.


Mountain Republic: A Lake District parish — Eighteen men, the Lake Poets and the National Trust
Phillipa Harrison
Apollo £35
Church House Bookshop £31.50

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