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  • Roland Jackson

John Tyndall and the Lake District

Striding Edge, Helvellyn

John Tyndall spent every summer but one in the Alps between 1856 and his death in 1893. Mountains held a lure he could not resist. But though it was the exhilaration of the snow peaks and glaciers of Alps that drew him most strongly, he enjoyed occasional visits to the mountains in the British Isles.

Looking down Striding Edge on Helvellyn (Roland Jackson)

The Lake District, in northern Britain, was a prime Victorian holiday destination. The landscape, made famous by poets like Wordsworth, was both romantic and picturesque; and the mountains just challenging enough for excitement. Even so, the richer Victorians often headed, like Tyndall, to the Alps. They even built their own English churches and chapels there (the indigenous ones tending to be Catholic).

Nevertheless, Tyndall made several visits to the Lake District. His first, in his mid-20s, was in 1855. It was a five day walking trip with Edward Frankland en route to the British Association meeting in Glasgow. Frankland had a house with a small laboratory on the shore of Windermere, and a boat on the lake. Tyndall joined him, reading Tennyson’s Maud on the way. Their expedition started with an ascent of Orrest Head just after sunrise, from the summit of which Tyndall declaimed Tennyson’s poem on Will: ‘Oh well for him whose will is strong’. After a night at a farm at the base of the Langdale Pikes, they suffered typical Lake District weather for the next few days: pouring rain interspersed with beautiful views of the landscape. In drenching rain they toiled out of Langdale, through the sublime, rocky, and romantic Dungeon Ghyll, aiming for Wasdale. A map-reading error by Frankland led to a huge detour as they mistakenly descended the long Langstrath valley to Stonethwaite before climbing Styhead pass over to Wasdale, to collapse into a welcoming house for the night. From Wasdale, the Black Sail and Scarth Gap passes took them past the head of Ennerdale, in the rain again, and over to Buttermere. Tyndall had not seen a more glorious scene in the lake district: ‘Mountain, wood and water conspired to form a noble picture’. The next day they tramped past the torrent of Scale Force and then Honister Crag into Borrowdale, visiting the famous Bowder Stone. They were rowed across Derwentwater to Keswick, visiting Southey’s tomb and house before taking the coach to Penrith and the train to Glasgow.

After Easter in 1859, free of lecture commitments, Tyndall went with Frankland again, starting with a pilgrimage to Wordsworth’s House at Rydal Mount. Wordsworth had died in 1850 and Tyndall never met him, though his friend Frederick Pollock had once encountered him as a guest at Lowther Castle. Their subsequent ramble took in Scafell—of which Frankland made a much over-dramatised sketch, now in the John Rylands Library, Manchester— and Helvellyn. The restless Tyndall descended and re-ascended the famous Striding Edge while Frankland ate his sandwiches on the summit.

Tyndall’s next visit appears to have been in 1863, en route to another British Association meeting, in Newcastle. This time his companion was Thomas Huxley. Starting at Windermere they crossed Helvellyn to Ullswater (Tyndall again descended Striding Edge but sent Huxley down the easier Swirral Edge), and the following day over to Keswick in Borrowdale. He noticed there, after his Alpine experience, that until this visit he had not had really appreciated the magnitude of glacial action in the region. Crossing into Buttermere, they traversed Red Pike into Ennerdale and walked over Black Sail pass to Wasdale. They stayed there for two days while Tyndall made an attempt on Pillar Rock, the huge formation on the side of Pillar mountain, which had probably been ascended fewer than 30 times by then, and remains a remote high crag for connoisseurs of rock-climbing. British rock-climbing started some time after the opening years of Alpine mountaineering, and the sport of rock-climbing was barely known in Britain in the 1860s (it is said to date from Walter Haskett Smith’s ascent of Napes Needle on Great Gable in 1886). Admittedly Tyndall climbed it in driving rain and cloud, and the rock was slippery, but he reflected that ‘you might break your neck very respectably on the Pillar Rock’. British mountain crags should not be underestimated (and Pillar Rock is my favourite mountain crag).

Tyndall’s visit in 1870 also coincided with a British Association meeting. He left for the Lake District with the philosopher Herbert Spencer the day after his famous Liverpool lecture ‘Scientific use of the Imagination’, making a ramble from Windermere to Ambleside and visiting Rydal Mount, where the proprietor of Wordsworth’s property showed them over the house and gardens. After lunch at Grasmere they took a boat across the lake and climbed Loughrigg Fell (where Tyndall’s German friend Emil Du Bois-Reymond had proposed to his wife). Spencer went home, and Tyndall had a scamper to Coniston and back, before returning via Manchester to stay with the industrialist Sir Joseph Whitworth and see the first stone laid of the new building for Owens College, forerunner of the University of Manchester.

That visit appears to have been his last.

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