Charles Gough had nothing more than a spot of fishing in mind when he and his dog set off over Helvellyn towards Grasmere in the Lake District on an April day nearly 200 years ago. But the 21-year-old met a gruesome end, which bequeathed the Lakes one of their most enduring mysteries and fascinated poets, writers and artists including William Wordsworth, Walter Scott and Edwin Landseer.
How he perished remains unclear, but the discovery of his dog, Foxie, three months later, in an emaciated state and still guarding the body, inspired Romantic poets as an example of man's special bond with nature.
Not until now, though, has the Gough legend been subjected to detailed historical examination. An exhibition by the Wordsworth Trust opens at Dove Cottage in Grasmere today. It attempts to shed light on the death and reveal its extraordinary literary and artistic legacy.
The exhibition embraces Scott's 1806 poem "Helvellyn" and Wordsworth's "Fidelity", written in 1805 and quoted on a memorial to Gough set up near the summit of Helvellyn by Canon Rawnsley, who co-founded the National Trust 112 years ago. It also brings together many artists' portrayals of the legend, including that of Landseer – who depicted Foxie as man's best friend. More recently, Old Faithful Cumbrian beer was named in tribute to Foxie.
The exhibition, entitled The Unfortunate Tourist of Helvellyn and his Faithful Dog, also includes the first public display of documents relating to the death, with some sensationalist accounts. On 27 July 1805, three days after the body was found, the Carlisle newspapers concluded Foxie must have eaten the body. "The bitch, shocking to relate, had torn the clothes from the body and eaten him to a perfect skeleton," one report said. Another story said Gough had been eaten by ravens.
Nobody knows how he died. Wordsworth blamed falling rocks. Another mystery was why Gough set off on his walk without a guide, which was an unusual thing to do. This time, the exhibition does have an answer.
Gough, who was employed by a local artist to copy drawings, had a dangerously free spirit, according to Thomas Clarkson, a campaigner against the slave trade, who met him briefly. He reported after the tragedy that Gough was a "venturesome person" whose headstrong nature had caused the local shepherds alarm" Gough had been excluded from the pacifist Quaker movement, probably for deciding to join the Volunteer Corps (a 19th-century Home Guard). A guide who was supposed to accompany him on the walk was also a volunteer and was busy on parade on the day Gough set off.
That is why Gough was alone on 17 April. He had the dog (probably a terrier) for company and, according to a Volunteer Corps captain, pockets bulging with fishing tackle, a gold watch, silver pencil and two Claude Lorraine lenses, which would have helped him to paint his landscapes.
But ultimately, admits Dr Robert Woof, director of the Wordsworth Trust, the mystery of Gough and his death "starts and finishes with him".
How nourished here through such long time
He knows, who gave that love sublime;
And gave that strength of feeling, great
Above all human estimate!
Fidelity, William Wordsworth
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