*An illustrated version of this work is available to view or download at this link (pdf)

A memorial to a Tryst of the Poets by Ian O. Brodie 

What is Sara’s Rock, the Rock of Names?

Behind and above the Museum at William Wordsworth’s Grasmere home Dove Cottage we find the celebrated, and perhaps infamous, Rock of Names. This reconstructed slab of a Lakeland volcanic outcrop used to be found, in situ, around half-way between the homes of the Wordsworths in Grasmere and that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge who at the time of the origin of the rock story lived in Keswick. Around the turn of the nineteenth century above the eastern lake shore of Thirlmere, alongside the old turnpike road, a small rocky outcrop marked a not infrequent meeting place for the friends. In later years this rocky outcrop was the centre-piece of one of the most iconic stories to emerge out of the nineteenth-century events starting just before the proposed construction of the Thirlmere reservoir. Subsequently this campaign resulted in the building of the dam, a major aqueduct and associated works in the neighbourhood, including a new road to replace the turnpike by Manchester City Council. This trysting venue, originally referred to as sara’s Rock became known as the Rock of Names. 

The Rock of Names was a carved roadside slab of native crag, named locally as Black Crag (12), which bore the following initials




T. C.



The names are of course those of William Wordsworth, Mary Hutchinson, Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Wordsworth, and Sara Hutchinson. The obvious omission is Coleridge’s wife also named Sara. 

A description of the original site, alongside the rough-surfaced turnpike road (now replaced on a partially new route by the A591) from Grasmere, over Dunmail Raise and near to the former lake of Thirlmere also called Leathes Water, can be found in a description by Alderman John J. Harwood, a former Chairman of Manchester City Council’s Waterworks Committee who effected the construction of the dam and reservoir. Harwood  wrote  

Leaving Wythburn and pursuing our journey along the road by the side of the Lake, we come to a projecting piece of dark-coloured rock, known as the “Rock of Names,” on the smooth surface of which, fronting the road, are cut the initials of distinguished poets and literary men who have visited the district - amongst others, “W.W.,” for William Wordsworth; “S. T. C.,” for Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and “I. W.,” for John Wordsworth. These initials are said to have been carved at a time when a pic-nic was held at Thirlmere, which the poets and their friends attended. (1) 

So how did this slab of roadside rock come into being? 

The rock marked roughly the half-way meeting point of the Keswick and the Grasmere based writers who would eventually be described as the Romantics and it was, as Canon Rawnsley (6) later noted, a more significant location than that dismissed as Harwood’s single picnic. It is possible the carving started in Summer 1800 when Captain John Wordsworth was residing at brother William’s house, Dove Cottage. John left here at the end of September 1800. Other  dates are given by Coleridge (2) and Dorothy Wordsworth (3). Coleridge wrote, in 1802, ‘Cut out my name & Dorothy’s over the S.H. at Sara’s Rock.’ (2) The carving was probably begun on 4 May 1802. Dorothy noted, on this day ‘We parted from Coleridge at Sara’s Crag after having looked at the Letters which C. carved in the morning. I kissed them all. Wm deepened the T with C.’s penknife.’ (3)  

We learn from this that the first initials to be cut were those of Sara Hutchinson and were the work of Coleridge. Sara was his unrequited love and the work was carried out in the same fashion as people have done for decades on trees. However, Coleridge did not incise a heart! These first initials tell us why Dorothy, and all the relevant parties, always called the crag ‘Sara’s Crag or Rock’ the change to Rock of Names occurred later that century. As this was a regular meeting place it is most likely the initials were worked upon during several visits.  The friends had a previous, and probably earlier, record of carving names as William related ‘You will recollect that there is a gate just across the road, directly opposite the fir grove; this gate was always a favourite station of ours; we love it far more now on Sara’s account. You know that it commands a beautiful prospect; Sara carved her cypher upon one of the bars, and we call it her gate. We will find out another place for your cypher, but you must come and fix upon the place yourself. How we long to see you, my dear Mary.’ (17) The gate was more usually called the Wishing gate and was above Dove cottage. He was, of course, writing to his future wife Mary Hutchinson.  

Goodwin’s picture of the carved crag. Courtesy of the Trustees of Dove Cottage 

The two quotations above of Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsworth provide us with our first challenge with the use of language, does carving mean deeply incised lettering with the skill of a mason or does it mean scratchings through the fine vegetational cover and into the hard rock surface? We have only some indeterminate illustrations to show us the quality of that work in situ but are these pictures of the original carving? When you see the stone there are obvious questions as to the competence of the level of carving in respect of the craftsmanship and tools used to achieve the quality and depth of carving. There is some evidence in that William Wordsworth was adamant it was their own constant exercise to achieve the carvings. 

It is not clear how many of the initials Coleridge alone carved but given the nature of the geology of the rock, part of the Borrowdale Volcanic series, and described by Canon Hardwicke Rawnlsey (6) as ‘hard volcanic ash’ and by Eleanor Rawnsley (5) as ‘larva and volcanic ash’ [i.e. volcanic ash metamorphosed into rock] then questions about the carvings begin to emerge. Rawnlsey, normally a very reliable source, was convinced the two poets had done all the carving, and incised in a ‘Roman’ style of lettering with which he was familiar. He noted the poets ‘who had wrought their initials painfully upon the volcanic ash.’ (6). He added Coleridge had encouraged William ‘to deepen the cross cutting of the crosses or middle stroke in his capitals W.W., and the bard had taken Coleridge’s penknife and was as hard at work as may be seen by a reference to Dorothy’s Journal under the May 4, 1802.’ Rawnsley thought William’s efforts, on several part days, was ‘hard at work’ which, if was a long and concerted effort, could it really have been time to create the carvings Rawnsley knew. 

It be noted WW’s initials were on top. Rawnsley’s view was   

Wordsworth, the tallest of the party, cut his initials highest up, W. W.. Next to him, because she loved him so, were wrought out the initial letters of the maiden name of his late affianced bride, M.H.  And underneath the initials of Mary Hutchinson came the letters D. W. Below and close to Dorothy Wordsworth’s name was written the initials of the man who, more than any other, Wordsworth excepted, honoured and understood Dorothy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was for his sake that the tryst was held there, he was then living in Keswick. (10)  

Rawnsley added

But other poets’ names are on the Rock, for John Wordsworth and Sara Hutchinson had all the poet’s feeling within their souls, and they too laboured with the penknife; he, the sailor, perhaps with more skill than they all. At least one infers that brother John …is responsible for the initials J. W.. It is impossible to believe, had it been otherwise, that Wordsworth would have written the lines descriptive of the company of stone gravers: (10)

Rawnsley also commented

 For they were all poets who wrought their initials painfully upon the hard volcanic ash, and graved upon the “rock’s smooth breast”; letters

That once seemed only to express

Love that was love in idleness. (7) 

Eleanor Rawnsley, Hardwicke’s second wife following the death of Edith, gave her understanding of the order on names, not unexpectedly, sharing her husband’s opinion  

Wordsworth, the tallest of the party, had cut his initials the highest, then came those of his affianced bride, Mary Hutchinson, next those of his “dear, dear sister,” Dorothy Wordsworth, followed by the initials of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Wordsworth and Sara Hutchinson. (5)  

Dorothy’s Journal has several references to the Rock and William referred to it in his original draft for, but not included in the originally published variation of the poem, The Waggoner. These draft lines included


            We worked until the Initials took

            Shapes that defied a scornful look. -

            Long as for us a genial feeling

            Survives, or one in need of healing,

            The power, dear Rock, around thee cast,

            Thy monumental power, shall last 

          For Me and Mine! O thought of pain,

          That would impair it or profane!

            Take all in kindness then, as said

         With a staid heart but playful head;

            And fail not thou, loved Rock! to keep

            Thy charge when we are laid asleep. (4)


Wordsworth recognised that the initials would still remain when he had departed the earth. And so they appeared to remain, until around the mid-1880s, protected only by the slow growth of algae, lichens and moss. Canon Rawnsley, after noting his theory that Coleridge revisited the site on a small number of occasions perhaps, he hinted, with an infatuation to see Dorothy and hopefully Sara, added 

 It was with the sorrow of that brave sailor’s untimely end heavy upon him that Wordsworth wrote the poem entitled The Rock of Names; and pathetic it is to think of the power the Rock had to console and comfort: to give our world-blinded souls a light, and to preserve the wayside shrine of the poets, a sanctuary for high thought and inspiring association still. (10) 

The reported poem Rock of Names, of which Rawnsley included a couple of stanzas, is the above poem  titled The Waggoner and was written in January 1806 and first published 1819 without the inclusion of the Rock stanza noted above. Rawnsley greatly valued the rock as a vital memorial to his most highly regarded poet. Perhaps there was enough emotional feeling amongst the emerging devotees to William’s poetry about the rock to suggest that it would have eventually become a place for a literary pilgrimage. However, at this time, Rawnlsey said the rock was ‘unknown save to the readers of the bard.’ (6) 

When, in the mid 1870’s, Manchester laid it’s Bill for the construction of the reservoir and associated works at Thirlmere before parliament, hearings for the Bill where heard before a committee. Amongst those giving evidence was William’s son, also William. William argued that the presence of the Rock of Names was so important that the Bill should be rejected in order to ensure this special memorial was preserved for all time. Manchester did not take kindly to any opposition to it’s Bill and this may have been an underlying factor in their future actions with regard to the Rock. 

Water engineer G. H. Hill’s plan for the scheme. 

Doubts about the quality of the carvings did arise and how much Coleridge and Wordsworth  actually carved with a penknife on that hard rock are reinforced by the work of local author John Wilson published in 1894. He recorded

It was, however, long prior thereto, pretty well established, that the rudely carved scratched initials were the work of a rather clever but eccentric amateur stone-cutter who adopted the business solely for his own recreation, and was, about the period to which these refer, in the habit of occasionally spending a few days near to Wythburn, though he resided at Troutbeck bridge, and was intimately known to the writer. His name was John Longmire, who was for some years acted as paid parish constable for Ambleside prior to the introduction of the county police, (12) 

Wilson continued with his persuasive evidence by relating to other comparative work known to have been undertaken by Longmire on Ecclerigg Crag at White Cross Bay, originally Craam’s Bay, on the eastern shore of Windermere

at Ecclerigg Cragg, which is there in the memory of two young Lancashire gentlemen named Thickesse and Woodcock, who were accidentally drowned near to in 1853. It was close to the spot that the John Longmire referred to spent some six years of the prime of his life with mallet and chisel, in the task of letter cutting which to him was a pleasant but unremunerative task.. (12) 

Wilson continued to say that much of this work was destroyed when part of the rocks were quarried for the construction of Wray Castle. The Ecclerigg carvings, he noted, dated from 1833-39 with his carving of ‘W. Wordsworth’, for example, being undertaken in 1837. Other carved names included Dora Wordsworth, Sam T. Coleridge, Sara Hutchinson, John Wordsworth and which, for Wilson was ‘sufficient interpretation of the much lamented ‘Rock of Names’ at Thirlmere.’ (12) 

Some of remaining of Wilson’s known carving above White Cross bay Winderemere. Note Wordsworth’s name at the top of this panel. 

It is interesting that a number of these later quoted figures associated with the Rock of Names can no longer be found on site and must have been removed during quarrying on Ecclerigg Crag. Many of the original dates have been similarly lost. Quarrying took place variously spanning at least 1773 (for the house of Belle Island using 800 imperial tons) and for the  nearby Cragwood House in 1910 (now a hotel and owner of the site). The building of Wray Castle in 1840 also used stone from this site and was probably in part responsible for the loss  of some of the carvings. Given the carving was done during the ownership of an absentee landlord (Richard Luther Watson, grandson of Bishop Watson of Llandaff) the work may not have been commissioned and thus had no value save to the carver. Finding more personal details about John Longmire is, at present, proving elusive. As a police constable in Ambleside, until the formation of the Cumberland Force, he could have been employed by the Parish Council or the Ambleside Society for the Prosecution of Felons. Despite help from both sources no information has yet been found. 

Well respected Cumbrian antiquarian Blake Tyson published a paper about the Ecclerigg Crag carvings (11) and he recorded the names in the carvings with bibliographical details of the still extant names. Tyson attributed the work to Longmire without any documentary evidence and noted this information was according to local tradition as told by a Mr. Henderson ‘in his youth’. Tyson believed the carving was carried out by ‘an older craftsman looking back over thirty years or more to matters which impressed him enough to justify a considerable input of time and effort in expressing his thoughts. He did this with consummate skill.’ Tyson thought the carver would have used a straight-edge for the lines, the letters chalked in freehand as there are ‘small differences in the shape of the letters and size varies from line to line. There are a few spelling discrepancies.’ Tyson believed the work ended in 1837 as Queen Victoria was not included in the names however, this conflicts with Wilson’s more immediate statement of 1839. 

Given the similarity of the work at the Rock of Names and the time when Longmire was working a plausible suggestion is that Longmire augmented and deepened, perhaps adding a more ‘professional’ Roman lettered finish, to the original work of Coleridge and Wordsworth. If that was the case, given the timescale, then William may have been aware of the work Longmire undertook on the Rock. Certainly there are similarities between the style of the lettering of the incised carving at Ecclerigg Crag and that seen at Thirlmere prior to the rock’s demise. The position is further compounded by local tradition that younger residents of the parish may have added letters (see for example the addition of ‘Wordsworth’ in the lower left-hand corner of the early 1880’s photograph of the rock) or ‘enhanced’ the existing letters.  

Herbert Bell’s photograph of the rock and lettering c1880. Courtesy of the Armitt Library Trustees. 

What happened to the rock when Manchester constructed Thirlmere reservoir? 

Following the passing of the Manchester Corporation Act in 1879, the Manchester Water Works committee eventually started construction works for the Thirlmere dam in 1890 although some associated works, notably the aqueduct, were started earlier. It was around this time in the saga of the Rock of Names that the above mentioned devotee of Wordsworth and the Romantics, a founder of the Wordsworth Society, and early landscape and access campaigner Canon Rawnsley, (the ‘fiery curate’ of Crosthwaite at this time) along with his first wife Edith, were at the heart of the the campaign to stop Manchester from destroying the Rock. The Rock was situated adjacent to where some road realignment of the old turnpike may have been undertaken. The Rock carvings appeared to have survived well perhaps due to being covered in lichens or moss assisted by water trickling down the rock face. Wordsworth scholar Professor William Knight noted the state of preservation of the rock is ‘probably due to the dark olive-coloured moss, and which the “pure water tricking down” has covered the face of the “mural block,” and this secured it from observation, even from the highway.’ (15) Rawnsley had played no part in opposing Manchester’s legislation for the reservoir, he was a great believer in the need for fresh water supplies for urban areas in order to help the poorer people avoid water-borne diseases. He said the prayers at the opening ceremony along with quoting some of his own poetry written especially for the occasion. It appeared some writers considered the Rock, in its original position, would have been submerged by the rising level of the reservoir but it was more likely that its location was above the planned original high water level of the reservoir and, possibly, not directly on the route of the new road alinement. Knight was also under the impression that the Rock may become submerged when the reservoir was eventually filled. He described the Rock being near the margin of the original lake and it would soon ‘beneath water of a Manchester reservoir.’  (16)  

Picture of the Thirlmere dam opening ceremony with Canon Rawnsley, who said the prayers, on the extreme left hand side. Picture courtesy of United Utilities. 

The Rawnsleys were not the only people to be involved with the protection of this literary shrine, for after the huge public interest during the parliamentary debate over the Thirlmere scheme, the status of the Rock had risen in the national consciousness. Manchester City Council was reluctant to have a “shrine” which would attract visitors onto their catchment but Alderman Harwood did change his rigid position slightly and gave permission to the Cockermouth based Wordsworth Institute to remove the rock as the dam contractor allegedly required the rock from the crag for dam infill or road-making material. The Institute, in actuality Rawnsley, found the practicalities of removing intact the rocky crag insurmountable and so the scheme came to nought. Questions can also be asked about the need for the contractor to quarry any material given the surplus available from other parts the construction works, not least the pipeline excavation, and to the timescale involved. Manchester issued a map for the contractotors of sites along the turnpike which could be used for gaining rock and depositing soil. Much rock could also come out from the aqueduct tunnels being constructed. 

Eleanor Rawnsley noted this episode

 Hardwicke obtained leave from the Corporation’s committee to move the rock bodily, but though he took the best masons from Keswick to see if this could be done, it was found impossible from the nature of the stone, which was lava and volcanic ash, either to move the rock or to cut away and preserve its face. (5) 

Eleanor Rawnsley added, perhaps quoting Hardwicke, from when, in 1885, preparatory work to construct the reservoir was underway came the news

 the “Rock of Names,” the trysting-place of the poets, that

              ‘Upright mural rock of stone

            Moist with pure water trickling down-‘

was to be broken up and the stone used for walls of the waterworks. On this rock were graven initials of six friends, poets all - 

              ‘Meek women, men as true and brave

            As ever went to hopeful grave.’ 

The truth of this is not clear cut for Alderman Harwood added his version as to why the City Council demolished, by blasting, the rock but, as we shall see, his was a story which may not prove accurate.

 As the works of the Corporation in connection with the raising of the Lake would interfere with this rock, it was suggested that the face of it should be removed and kept as a memento of the interesting occasion referred to. ...it was agreed to allow it to be taken to the Wordsworth Institute, Cockermouth. On attempting to disturb it, however, it was found to be in such a shattered condition that it could only be taken out in pieces. (1) 

This demolition was said to have taken place in 1885, the year before the physical works on the aqueduct began. The major construction works of the dam and associated work, however, were from 1890 to the time of opening in 1894. 

Harwood noted, in 1895, the events which followed in 1886

 The fragments containing the initials were preserved, and have been built into a cairn on the solid base of mountain stone, at a point above the new road diversion, in a line with the rock from which they were taken. This was carried out by persons in the neighbourhood. (1)  

 Eleanor ’s version is slightly at variance with Harwood’s ‘official’ history

A year later, on hearing that it had been blown up by dynamite, Hardwicke and Edith went to the place and searched for the fragments, which they carefully collected, returning another day for further search “to make sure we had missed none.” Four men from Keswick were engaged, and under Hardwicke’s direction they built the fragments into the cairn which now stands on the east side of the road, at a much higher level than the original site of the rock, but as nearly as possible exactly above it. (5)  

Hardwicke Rawnsley had also described his and Edith’s work after two days of crawling around the site so as not to miss to collect any fragments 

 The cairn, carefully built, contains only the fragments of certain letters, which are all that we are able to save from the cruel blasting powder of the contractors who wished to quarry the “Rock of Names” for material to make the water-dam. (6)  

This account leads us to understand that not all the letters of the carved names had been protected from the blast and salvaged. Rawnsley reflected

We, who after ninety years of sacred trust, see the old Rock of healing blown to slivers, though it be set up again in its poor mutilated fragments,’.

He added the need

 ‘...to give our world-blinded souls light, and to preserve the wayside shrine of the poets, a sanctuary for high thought and inspiring association still. (8) 

Rawnsley’s memorial plaque in Carlisle Cathedral. 

Again we are confronted with a dilemma as to what the Rawnsleys and the workmen actual achieved. A cairn is a structure of unconsolidated stones. Pictures show a pyramid of cemented fragments in the position of the cairn. It is likely Rawnsley’s use of ‘cairn’ was an imprecise use of the word and the reason he needed four workmen was to carry the stone a little uphill and to build a more consolidated, longer-lasting cemented structure of the fragments. Further questions arise from the photograph which shows irregular fragments and confirms only parts of the lettering to have survived intact.  [insert photograph of the ‘cairn’] Looking at the current rock at Dove Cottage suggests the fragments were, if they are the originals, of some reasonable size and in a fairly regular slab form. 

The normally reliable and accurate W. G. Collingwood adds to the probability of the total loss of some initials when he stated the Rock of Names of which ‘Part of it has been removed, and placed “on view” at the roadside.’ (13) 

The status of the rock, and thus the subsequent cairn, was iconic and no doubt the cairn would increasingly have become a site of pilgrimage for the followers of the Romantic writers. Alderman Harwood, perhaps foresaw such a position where the site would be the focus of numerous literary visitors (and perhaps the ‘gawking tourist’ which many of his locally based waterworks staff were actively discouraging away from the reservoir, it’s shore and catchment), and was less judicious with the truth for he failed to acknowledge the rock was broken into fragments as a result of the use of dynamite by the contractors. One strongly suspects this destruction occurred deliberately to meet the wishes of Manchester. Evidence for this comes from an undated letter [perhaps 1884 or 1885] sent by E.. S. Heywood, who lived in the Windermere or Ambleside area, to Canon Rawnsley following a ‘quiet’ chat he held with MCWW’s manager, a Mr. Berrey, conducted, he tells us, ‘in a friendly way’. Heywood wrote ‘there is no hurry for as far as Manchester Corpn. is concerned the Rock of names need not be interfered with for four years or so’. It was obviously not needed for dam construction material but Berrey’s answer still leaves open the possibility of a time span for the possible raising of the reservoir water level. 

This strongly suggests the stone from the crag was not needed as a raw material for works on the dam or the new road. Heywood continued

 This gives time to turn round and think what is best to be done. The Corporation have every desire to treat the stone with respect and to respect too the wishes of those people who nationally have warm feelings as to its protection. (9) 

Heywood had been either too optimistic or was deliberately mis-led. Whatever the motivation of Manchester or its contractors events occurred quickly and the rock was blasted from it’s bedrock and scattered nearby. It was done too quickly for anyone to take any preventative action. Against this background Rawnsley’s actions in collecting the fragments and building a cairn can be seen in their true context. Canon Rawnsley had previously blurred the reality with flowery romance for, in one of his many Lake District books he wrote his version of the  destruction of the Rock

 We have now reached the little cairn perched on a boulder rock above the road, just beyond the “Straining Well” for the Manchester water-conduit. The cairn, carefully built, contains only the fragments of certain letters, which are all that we are able to save from the cruel blasting powder of the contractor who wished to quarry the “Rock of Names” for material to make the water-dam. There, by the old road just beneath us, had stood, carefully guarded by moss and lichen, unknown save to the readers of the bard, that memorial of the tryst of the poets. (7) 

This opinion was supported by Professor Knight ‘Is it too much to expect of British Philistia that it will abstain from carving or scratching any other names alongside the initials of this group of poets, - for they were all poets? The rock is yet wonderfully free from such;’ (15) Yet both Rawnsley and Knight must have visited the site a considerable time before Bell took his photograph. 

The BBC film of the Rock made in 1984 clearly shows the cairn with some remaining letters and some of these were fractured across their face. 

How did the rock fragments leave Thirlmere and come to Grasmere and to be ‘reassembled’ behind the Museum? 

In 1984 the cairn’s fragments were, on the initiative of Lakeland hotelier Michael Berry and the chairman of the Dove Cottage Trustees, Jonathan Wordsworth, ‘spirited’ away to Grasmere, where, after restoration, they were to be re-assembled and it is this panel of crag which can now said be viewed in a wall above the Wordsworth Trust museum. This removal from its original site was a further loss to Thirlmere which some residents of the dale still regard, perhaps rightly so, as a further unwarranted act of vandalism inflicted upon their parish. The successors of Manchester, the North West Water Authority (NWWA), were complicit in this removal. 

Both Jonathan Wordsworth and Michael Berry were genuinely very keen to see the Rock of Names preserved for posterity and, perhaps towards the end of 1983 agreed between themselves that the Rock would be better protected at Dove Cottage and Berry, the managing director of a group of Lakeland hotels, agreed to fund the operation. He had, he said to the BBC in 1984, been inspired to ‘save’ the Rock by reading about it in Dorothy’s Journals. A senior employee of the NWWA, Paul Duff, authorised the removal. Duff failed apparently to refer the matter to the water authorities conservation staff and its statutory conservation advisory committee.  Had he done so the outcome could well have been different. It was not until 2 March 1983 when the story of the proposed removal of the Rock fragments was released in the local newspaper, the Keswick Reminder, that local people learned of the fate of the Rock. Local vicar and chairman of the parish council Geoff Darrall wrote to the paper two days later to demand the replacement of the Rock to its original site. 

Geoff Darrall also wrote to Dove Cottage a few days later accusing them of a discourtesy to the Parish Council and seeking the return of the Rock. Dove Cottage Trustees, through their chairman Jonathan Wordsworth, accepted the discourtesy and ambiguously said they would be happy if the Parish Council sited the Rock. However, he informed his correspondent that the Rock would be bonded to a rock face ‘that very closely resembles the original’ and could provide ‘pleasure for 60,000 visitors a year’. He argued the monument would be better protected at Dove Cottage. 

The local Thirlmere parish council (St. John’s) entered the fray and their clerk, Des Oliver, received a further response from Jonathan Wordsworth which noted the missing initials would be restored according to the original photograph of the Rock, that its placement at Dove Cottage was “temporary” and he accepted “ideally” it should be restored as close as possible to its original site. However, he added that would leave problems of protection. In June of that year Jonathan Wordsworth was insisting that the Rock was ‘of course the property of the Trust’. The key phrase to note for later is ‘missing initials’.  

The Parish Council had also written to NWWA and Paul Duff responded, with a statement coordinated with M. Berry and J. Wordsworth, on the 30 August, to say that the Water Authority had allowed the Rock fragments to be removed because ‘the “Rock” was in need of some restoration’. He added ‘the “Rock” would be safer and more secure at Dove Cottage’ and ‘the “Rock” would be appreciated by a greater number of people at Dove Cottage than in its inaccessible site above the A591’. He went on to note the fragile state of the fragments and the possible future loss of the rock from landslides and fallen trees. It should be noted, apart from possible danger from falling trees at Thirlmere, the cairn would have lain undisturbed and in need of no protection. Certainly the site of the cairn would have deterred all but the most determined seekers. 

The close similarity of phrasing of this and other letters show the close collusion between Duff, Wordsworth and Berry on what to say to opponents of the move. The letter from Duff added NWWA would have no objection to the parish Council restoring the Rock to near its original site but ‘NWW accepts no responsibility for the Rock’ when it had been restored. Clearly Duff had tried to mislead by so easily suggesting the NWWA would have no responsibilities for the Rock. One interpretation of the enabling legislation for the Thirlmere reservoir, the 1879 Manchester Corporation Act, suggests that Duff could have been acting ultra vires. A clause in the Act prevented Manchester (and it’s successors) from disposing of property from the Thirlmere estate. 

Michael Berry was drawn into correspondence with Des Oliver following a report in the Lake District Herald in September, 1984. Michael was a true gentlemen but, when he found obstacles in his way, he could be the forthright business man. Indeed his letter to the Parish Council might be fairly described as belligerent as he told them that previously few in the parish knew or cared about the Rock. He noted that a local skilled stonemason would restore the fragments ‘as near an exact replica as it was possible to get.’ This may prove to be a key phrase in understanding the present state of the Rock. 

Clearly Berry, Wordsworth and Duff were going to get their own way. Berry’s personal files do show he did undertake some consultation with interested bodies prior to his plan being carried forward but this appears to be after the matter had been agreed upon by the three ‘conspirators’. Indeed in the BBC film Berry categorically stated that he thought that the agreement of the three parties was sufficient as not to call for any involvement of other bodies or local people. 

What do we see today? 

The question which must be asked is how much of the Rock we see today was actually the work of Wordsworth and Coleridge? Certainly the evidence as to most of the names making the original inscription with penknives into a very hard rock is correct. But that the quality of the work we see today was achieved in a few visits lasting several hours from 1800 to 1803 or so appears to be practically unachievable. It is here that the pictures of the in situ rock face may be helpful. These suggest that the lettering we see today was not too dissimilar from that recorded in the late nineteenth-century, prior to the blasting of the Rock. This was probably the over-carving work of Longmire. 

When the fragments were re-assembled in Grasmere in Spring1984, and if we remember the state of the ‘blasted’ fragments and the number of missing letters, we should ask was any further carving work undertaken? Indeed, given the regularity of the ‘fragments’ bonded to rock outcrop above Dove Cottage can these really be the fragments blasted by dynamite by Manchester’s contractors? Certainly we see almost regular slabs of stone bonded onto a small crag at Dove Cottage.  

The work of breaking up Rawnsley’s cairn was attended by the press and the BBC north-west film team. It shows the contractor, a small Bowness based stone mason business of master craftsman Brian Johnson undertaking the work with Brian using a crowbar and lump hammer to break up the cairn. As the film recorded the bonding cement was stronger than the rock fragments. Johnson removed the fragments to Bowness, sawed the blocks of rock containing initials into more laminar, two-inch, pieces, and the fragments with initials were laid these out in the original order and bonded into one piece. The slab was then turned over, holes between the pieces were colour-grouted, and the whole face was then sand-blasted to obtain a uniform appearance we could see on site in Grasmere. The slab was then bonded to a small crag above Dove Cottage. 

Both Berry and Johnson, in the BBC film, expressed the thoughts that the carved initials from the cairn were too sophisticated to have been carried out with penknives. Johnson also noted the Roman lettering was not quite technically correct and this would accord with the work being carried out by a ‘skilled amateur’. 

In 1984 a small crowd and the press assembled at Dove cottage to unveil the Rock as Michael Berry handed it over to the Trustees of Dove Cottage. The work had taken 81 days. The stonemason who the undertook the work Brian Johnson of Windermere and his wife, Rita, revisited the rock in March, 2018 with the museum’s curator Jeff Cowton and the author. We were told how an audience watched the skilled stone mason take a pencil and mark out Roman typeface letters in the same order (and of similar proportions) to the carvings collected by Rawnsley and then, with a tungsten tipped chisel and hammer, recut the initials. However, the evidence from the film suggested Brian either did the carving in his workshop in Bowness or on a different date from the handing-over ceremony. Brian had been instructed to restore the Rock to as close as possible to as it appears in Herbert Bell’s photograph. He thus was inadvertently asked to copy the alleged work of John Longmire who, as we noted above, may have cut the original work of Coleridge and Wordsworth deeper and converted the lettering to a Roman style. The same style of lettering as was used in the 1830s, on the other set of Longmire’s attributed stone cut lettered slabs on the shore of Windermere. 

Brian Johnson, Micael Berry and Dr. Robert Woof at the unveiling ceremony of Sara’s Rock. Courtesy of Mr Mrs Johnson. 

Brian Johnson reminisces with Dove Cottage Curator Jeff Cowton and the author about his craftsmanship in 2018. 

All that remains on the original site, just above the A591 at Thirlmere, is a plaque placed close to where the Rock of Names and the ‘cairn’ used to stand. This is at Grid Reference NY320153. The plaque states 

The Rock of Names


Fragments of a rock on which William Wordsworth

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and their friends

had carved their initials 1801 - 1802 were

preserved by Canon Rawnsley in a cairn

at this spot 1886 - 1984.

They were given by the North West Water Authority

to the Dove Cottage Trust in 1984 and may

be seen incorporated in a rock face

behind the Grasmere and Wordsworth Museum.

The original “Rock of Names” lay beside

the lake and was blown up in constructing

the much larger modern reservoir. 

Perhaps the BBC chose a most appropriate title for their 1984 film about the restoration of the Rock in ‘A Marvellous Piece of Illogical English History’. Whatever the current shape and form of Sara’s Rock we see today William’s expressed wish appears to being met

And fail not thou, loved Rock! to keep

   Thy charge when we are laid asleep.

Notes and References:

(1) Harwood J J: The Thirlmere Water Scheme (1895, Manchester). Alderman Sir John Harwood was chairman of MCWW at the time of the opening ceremony.

 (2) Lindop G: A Literary Guide to the Lake District (2005 edition, Wilmslow) p 51. Coleridge’s note is dated April 20, 1802, 

 (3) Wordsworth D: Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth (1971 edition used, Oxford) p.120.

 (4) Lindop: ibid p.51; and in William Wordsworth, The Poems, Volume I, page 1018.

 (5) Rawnsley E: Canon Rawnsley  (1923, Glasgow) pp.79-80.

 (6) Rawnsley,  Rawnsley H.D.: Literary Associations of the English Lakes Volume II  (1894,Glasgow); (1901 edition used), Vol. II p.219.

 (7) Rawnsley, 1894 Literary Associations of the English Lakes Vol. II p.220. (1901 second edition used).

 (8) Rawnsley, 1894 ibid Vol. II pp.225-226.

 (9) CCC CRO Carlisle 24/16/1.

(10) Rawnsley H. .D: Literary Associations of the English Lakes Volume II (1894 Glasgow) ; (1901 edition used) pp. 218-225.

(11) Tyson B: 1981 Quarry Floor Inscriptions at Ecclerigg Crag, Windermere; Trans of The Ancient Monuments Society, New Series Vol. Twenty Five.

(12) Wilson J.: Thirlmere to Manchester (1894) Ambleside pp10-11.

(13) Collingwood W. G.: The Lake Counties (1932) Warne, London p158. This edition is a revised version of his 1902 writings.

(14) BBC North West TV: A Marvellous Piece of Illogical English History (1984) Produced by Alistair McDonald, BBC  Manchester.

(15) Knight W.: The English Lake District as interpreted in the poems of Wordsworth (1878) Edinburgh.

(16) Knight W.: Through Wordsworth Country (1887) London. Also repeated in 1892 and 1896 editions.

(17) Letter from William (and Dorothy) to Mary Hutchinson, Wednesday, April 27th, 1801. In De Selincourt (ed): (1935) The Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (1787-1805); Oxford.