Is it true that every pleasure has its price? Certainly, it’s not unusual for people to assume that if you live in Cumbria, your life out-of-season must be made a misery by the weather. It’s true, it rains a lot – that’s where the lakes come from! – but up here on the east Fellside (the Cumbrian side of the Pennines), we have another little trial. The Helm Wind.
Whilst plenty of folks across eastern Cumbria claim to get the Helm Wind, in fact, they don’t. The whole area can get a fairly strong north-east wind, but only a little strip about 20 miles long and two or three miles wide, extending from about Renwick to Warcop, actually gets it. This is a wind that roars incessantly for two or three days at a time, blowing over walkers and sheep, ripping roofs off, tearing up trees and burning leaves into blackened, scorched rolls.
It’s caused by the landscape. The NNE wind hits the Pennines at a right angle and then tips sharply down the 600m incline towards the Eden Valley. It picks up speed until it reaches the first line of villages then suddenly puffs itself out. It can be strong enough to push an unbraked tractor backwards up here, and calm and beautiful at the next village, four miles down the hill. You can actually see this wind; it forms a cloud cap, called the helm bar, which sits not on the mountain range but just above it. It’s visible from at least twenty miles away in all directions.
I’m sure you want the stats, eh? The record for highest wind speeds in England has been recorded right here, thanks to the whopping great weather station at the top of Great Dun Fell (that’s the big round thing you can see from a distance). On 15th Jan, 1968, it was 134mph. On 8th Jan, 2005, it was 128mph (although on that occasion the wind was going in the opposite direction). I know. I was there. And this year? 112mph on 5th Jan. My roof blew off. Yesterday, it reached 74mph.
The extraorinarily-detailed The Anatomy of the Helm Wind, by David Uttley1 (who lived in my village), reports that there are no clear accounts of the Helm Wind before the 17th century, but then, I suppose the little-travelled locals probably assumed that everywhere had one, and no one else bothered to visit this remote area. But the locals did tell their own stories.
‘…Cross Fell… was formerly called Fiend’s Fell, from evil Spirits which are said in former Times to have haunted the Top of this Mountain; and continued their Haunts and Nocturnal Vagaries upon it, until St. Austin, as is said, erected a Cross and built an Altar upon it, whereon he offered the Holy Eucharist, by which he countercharm’d those Hellish Fiends, and broke their Haunts,’ said the Reverend Robinson, vicar of Ousby, in 1709. 2
I’m not entirely sure why the reverend told this tale, given that the evidence suggests that St Austin (St Augustine) didn’t succeed.
Down in Crackenthorpe, they tell another story. The Helm Wind, they say, is the ghost of Peg Sleddal, or Peg Sneddle, or Meg Sleddale, driving a coach and horses along the road between Appleby and Crackenthorpe Hall, where she lived.
I feel somewhat sorry for Peg/Meg. For a start, that’s not her name: she was called Elizabeth. She was Elizabeth Sleddale, daughter of Thomas, from Penrith, and she married ‘Lanclot Maichell’ at St. Andrew’s Church in Penrith on 30th November, 1643. Lancelot Machell, to give him the usual spelling, was from an ancient family who lived at Crackenthorpe Hall and served the Cliffords of Appleby Castle for centuries. Lancelot became Mayor of Appleby and the couple had three children, Hugh, Thomas and Susan.
It was Lancelot’s will that caused all the trouble. Elizabeth was made executrix, but found to her horror that she was to inherit a third share (with Thomas and Susan) of Lancelot’s possessions – excluding the house, the furniture, the silver, the family bible, the valuable portraits, Lancelot’s best clothes and much of the money.
Peg/Elizabeth’s revenge was to haunt the Machell family. As well as the demonic-coach riding, she appeared at an oak tree near Crackenthorpe when one of the Machells was about to die. The locals’ response was to exhume Peg/Elizabeth’s body, dig a hole in the Eden river-bed, roll her into it, and place a large granite boulder above it. This treatment includes two things intended to keep an unquiet spirit down – running water, and fixing the body to the earth.
This seems to have had as little effect as St. Augustine and his exorcism, as Peg/Elizabeth’s ghost is still said to haunt Crackenthorpe Hall once a year, and the Helm Wind still blows.3
Today’s wind speed is 48mph.
Great Dun Fell’s weather reports and wind speed can be seen here: http://www.weathercast.co.uk/world-weather/weather-stations/obsid/3227.html
- The Anatomy of the Helm Wind by David Uttley (1998)
- As above, page 59.
- Peg Sleddal’s story can be found in many places but there is a good account in Laurie Kemp’s The Ghosts of Cumbria (2005), pp51-57 and it also features in David Uttley, as above, pp 102-5.