In a car you hardly notice the steep climb over Dunmail Raise, as you drive the busy tourist route from Grasmere to Keswick. Just another hill on a fast stretch of road, widened in recent years so that motorists might overtake struggling lorries and holiday coaches. Not considered one of the classic Lake District mountain passes, despite the dramatic crags and summits all around. The great stone cairn, between the two carriageways, looks interesting but flashes by in an instant. Motorists probably don’t know that the Raise once marked the southern boundary of the kingdom of Strathclyde or the division between Westmorland and Cumberland.
But looked at from the surrounding summits of Steel Fell, Helm Crag or Seat Sandal, you get a perspective of Dunmail’s importance as a mountain pass giving access through the surrounding high ground. Its significance as one of the few easier routes across the Lake District confirmed by the presence of a World War Two Pillbox, guarding the pass from both directions. A wise precaution. Armies have marched this way for thousands of years.
The Raise gets its name from just such a warrior, Dunmail, Norseman and King of Cumberland, defeated in battle here by the Saxon King Edmund in 945 AD. The giant cairn, or raise, now hemmed in between two modern carriageways, is said to be his last resting place, the stones laid over his body by his surviving troops. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the cairn has been repositioned on several occasions by road-builders, absorbing rocks from a drystone wall that once marked the county boundary.
Legend says Dunmail’s golden crown was taken from the pass to nearby Grizedale Tarn and thrown into its dark waters, until Dunmail might rise to lead his men again. Once a year his phantom army appears to take the crown from the tarn down to the Raise only to hear Dunmail’s voice moan in the wind “Not yet, my warriors. In a little while. Not yet!” On dark stormy days, as you follow in their footsteps, you can almost believe it. The legend is rather compromised by the fact that Dunmail apparently died on pilgrimage to Rome many years after 945.
The old tale was often in William Wordsworth’s mind, as he walked the once narrow road over the Raise, a route he took by day and night, whatever the weather. During the Napoleonic Wars he would come this way in the dark with Thomas de Quincy, author of The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, so that they might waylay the courier bringing news from Keswick of Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain. There must have been sad memories for Wordsworth when he made this journey in later years. It was in the hills above the Raise that he had taken a last walk with his brother John, who drowned when his ship was wrecked in the English Channel in 1805.
Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge would regularly tramp ‘over the Rays’ to Keswick and back, sometimes diverting via the summit of Helvellyn. Towards the end of her life, Dorothy Wordsworth could still mount the steep hill at a steady four miles an hour, such was the conditioning brought about by many years of hard fellwalking. In the Wordworth’s time, travelling on foot or horseback was the regular way to travel the road leading up to the Raise, so much so that Dorothy commented in her journal on the unusual sight of someone making the journey in a chaise.
The arrival of the railway from Kendal to Windermere encouraged a regular stagecoach service onwards to Keswick, Dunmail Raise representing quite a challenge to coachmen. On the northward journey the coach driver would sometimes make fitter passengers disembark and walk up the steep hill, so that his horses could cope with the gradient. The descent could be equally perilous, great skill being needed to prevent the coach running away. The Lakeland writer William Palmer, recalling Victorian days, tells how the road was scored by the skid marks of coaches as drivers hauled on their brakes during the descent.
At Town Head, on the Grasmere side of the Raise, was the toll bar, where the toll-keeper would take the fee for using this stretch of road. In 1851, John Hawking, a man well-known to Wordsworth, was still working away at this unpopular job at the age of 76, aided by his 52 year old wife Betsy. Most of the tolls he collected would have been taken from carriages of early Lake District tourists, or the occasional carrier’s cart. Wilier Lakelanders, droving sheep or cattle, or moving goods by pack-pony, would bypass Dunmail Raise altogether to avoid paying the toll. Coach fares would have been well beyond the pockets of working people. Horse-drawn coaches for tourists continued to come through the Raise as recently as the 1920s.
In Victorian times this bleak pass was well known as an atchin tan (camping place) for Romanies. Why choose such an exposed place to halt? Possibly to avoid conflict with the farmers and villagers of Grasmere. The Lake District writer William Palmer recalled pulling a Gypsy lad from under the wheels of a horse-drawn coach at this point, earning the gratitude of an ancient fortune-teller, who told him he would only prosper with a lifetime of hard work. Palmer noted that she spoke pure Romani and that her words had to be interpreted by a cheroot-smoking younger woman
During its days as a county boundary, the head of the Raise was considered very much a frontier between the north and south of the Lake District, residents on each side holding the belief that little good came from the opposite end of the pass, a prejudice broken down only with easier access to cars and travel.
By the 1930s, Dunmail Raise was starting to become the busy motor road that we see today, deterring the traveller on foot or on horseback. William Palmer, who had known the road from Victoria’s reign, noting that many of the old hummocks had been ironed out by successive road builders. More recently, the Raise has become the only Lakeland pass with an effective dual carriageway, the two opposing lanes trapping King Dunmail’s cairn on an island that can be hazardous to anyone who wants to walk there.
But despite these changes, today’s traveller is seeing much the same views of wild mountains and the broad vale of Grasmere as Wordsworth, William Palmer’s Gypsies, and the coach passengers who visited the Lake District during Queen Victoria’s reign. Every wanderer through this Lake District pass adds a tale to the long history of Dunmail Raise.