Aira Beck on its journey downhill into Ullswater forms a series of waterfalls, one of which is Aira (earlier Airey) Force. It is the setting for one of the Lake District’s best-known stories, told in William Wordsworth’s ‘The Somnambulist’, probably written in 1828, and mentioned in every Victorian guidebook.
The story is connected with Lyulph’s Tower, a hunting box in Gowbarrow Park built by Charles, eleventh Duke of Norfolk. A grey, castellated and turreted building, it is picturesque enough in itself, but the story is said to relate to an earlier castle on the site, supposedly built by Ulf the Saxon, first Lord of Greystock, who gave his name to the lake.
Harriet Martineau, in her Complete Guide to the English Lakes (1855), says that the tourist visiting the Force ‘ought to know of the mournful legend which belongs to this place, and which Wordsworth has preserved’. She tells it, but Mackenzie Walcott a few years later does it better:
In Lyulph’s Tower … lived Emma, the promised bride of Sir Eglamour. The gallant knight had sailed to foreign shores to do some deed worthy of his fair lady; months and months passed away without tidings of him, and every night the distracted girl went down in her sleep to the holly bower on the side of the waterfall, the trysting place where she had often met her lover, and had bidden him farewell. She was thus reposing, when Sir Eglamour, who had suddenly returned, passing through the ravine, saw a white-robed figure in the moonlight come out from the well-known bower, and, sighing, drop leaves into the rushing stream. He recognised his beloved, and rushed forward to save her; his touch awoke her, and in her terror and wonderment on waking she fell into the torrent, which swept her swiftly down. The knight leaped in to rescue her, but when he at length reached and bore out the inanimate form, it was only to receive and reciprocate her assurance of love and fidelity before she breathed her last in his arms. In sorrow and bitterness of heart the knight built a cell upon the spot, and died here mourning.
This romantic story is still said by writers on the Lake District to have ‘inspired’ Wordsworth. However, far from being a ‘legend’ that was ‘preserved’ by Wordsworth, as Miss Martineau and others have evidently thought, if we are to believe the poet himself, he and his friends Sir George Beaumont and Mr Rogers invented it.
In notes dictated to Isabella Fenwick in 1843, Wordsworth says that, while they were visiting this part of the Lake District together, they heard that ‘Mr Glover, the Artist’, while lodging at Lyulph’s Tower, had been disturbed by a loud shriek, which he had learnt came from a young woman in the house given to sleep-walking. She had gone downstairs, and while trying to open the outer door, either because it was difficult or the stone floor was cold on her feet, had uttered the cry which alarmed him. ‘It seemed to us all that this might serve as a hint for a poem, and the story here told was constructed, and soon after put into verse by me as it now stands.’
Despite its literary origin, the story of Emma and Sir Eglamore has become widely accepted as local legend. Indeed, possibly because Eglamore in ‘The Somnambulist’ at first thinks Emma to be a ‘wandering ghost’, there have been reports of her haunting Aira Force, though Jessica Lofthouse in North-Country Folklore (1976) writes, ‘I doubt if her frail ghost has been seen in modern times.’
One spectral figure seen here, however, was not a poet’s brainchild but the fetch of a living person. Thomas De Quincey, in his Recollections of the Lake Poets (1839–40), relates how a Miss Smith, who lived locally, went without a guide to sketch the Force and succeeded in climbing up beside the waterfall for about half an hour. Then she found herself in an ‘aerial dungeon’, out of which she managed to climb only to find herself trapped on the edge of the chasm. She could see no way out, ‘since the rocks stood round her in a semi-circus, all lofty, all perpendicular, all glazed with trickling water, or smooth as polished porphyry’.
Suddenly, however, as she looked around her, she saw about 200 yards (180 m) away a lady dressed in a white muslin robe. The lady beckoned to her to follow, and to her surprise she found an exit which she had not seen before. ‘She continued to advance towards the lady, whom now … she found to be standing on the other side of the force, and, also to be her own sister …’ The apparition led Miss Smith safely down to the path, then vanished. Miss Smith continued her descent alone and on arriving home found her sister there, having never left the house.