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Aira Force


Aira Force on the A592, 3 miles from Glenridding, is probably one of the best know waterfalls in the Lake District, especially after appearing in three of William Wordworths poems. The name derives from the Norse word for waterfall, ‘fors’, and Aira Force is where the Aira Beck plummets 66 foot down toward Ullswater. Apart from being one of the Lake Districts many recognisable and favourite landmarks, Aira Force is, according to tradition, reputedly haunted by a medieval lady.

According to tradition Lady Emma lived at Lyulph's Tower, near Aira Force and she was engaged to a Knight named Sir Eglamore. The knight would spend long stretches of time away from home and during these long absences Lady Emma started to sleepwalk, sometimes out as far as the waterfall. One day Sir Eglamore returned and discovered Emma sleepwalking and tried to wake her. The shock of waking caused her to slip into the waters and drown. Another version suggests she did not sleep walk, but often wandered down to Aira Force wiling away the days until her fiancé returned. On the day of his return she had fallen asleep beside the falls and when he woke her up she so startled she fell into the ravine and drowned. Her ghost is said to wander the area around the waterfall and Sir Eglamore lived out the rest of life in a nearby cave unable to forgive himself.  This story inspired William Wordworths poem The Somnambulist, composed in 1833.

Apart from the legend and supposed haunting of Lady Emma, there is another reported strange experience at Aira Force. In The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain (1897), John Ingram directly quotes an account in an article that appeared in News from the Invisible World, in which a Miss Elizabeth Smith experienced an apparition of the living whilst on holiday in Cumbria, late 1800. This account of Elizabeth Smith’s experience is related below.

There is, on the western side of Ullswater, a fine cataract (or, in the language of the country, a force), known by the name of "Aira Force", and it is of importance enough, especially in rainy seasons, to attract numerous visitors from among the "Lakers”. Thither with some purpose of sketching, not the whole scene, but some picturesque feature of it, Miss Smith was gone, quite unaccompanied. The road to it lies through Gobarrow [Gowbarrow] Park; and it was usual, at that time, to take a guide from the family of the Duke of Norfolk's keeper, who lived in Lyulph's Tower, a solitary hunting-lodge, built by His Grace for the purpose of an annual visit which he used to pay to his estates in that part of England. She, however, thinking herself sufficiently familiar with the localities, had declined to encumber her movements with such an attendant; consequently, she was alone. For half an hour or more, she continued to ascend; and, being a good "cragswoman", from the experience she had won in Wales as well as in northern England, she had reached an altitude much beyond what would generally be thought corresponding to the time occupied. The path had vanished altogether; but she continued to trace out one for herself amongst the stones which had fallen from the force, sometimes approaching much nearer to the openings allowed by the broken nature of the rock. Pressing forward in this manner, and still never looking back, all at once she found herself in a little stony chamber, from which there was no egress possible in advance. She stopped and looked up. There was a frightful silence in the air. She felt a sudden palpitation at her heart, and a panic from she knew not what. Turning, however, hastily, she soon wound herself out of this aerial dungeon; but by steps so rapid and agitated that, at length, on looking round she found herself standing at the brink of a chasm, frightful to look down. That way, it was clear enough, all retreat was impossible; but, on turning round, retreat seemed in every direction alike quite impossible.

Down the chasm, at least, she might have leaped, though with little or no chance of escaping with life; but in all other quarters it seemed to her eye that at no price could she effect an exit, since the rocks stood round her in a semicircle, all lofty, all perpendicular, all glazed with trickling water, or smooth as polished porphyry. Yet how, then, had she reached the point? The same track, if she could discover it, would surely secure her escape. Round and round she walked; gazed with almost despairing eyes; her breath came thicker and thicker; for path she could not trace by which it was possible for her to have entered. Finding herself grow more and more confused, and every instant nearer to sinking into some fainting fit or convulsion, she resolved to sit down and turn her thoughts quietly into some less exciting channel. This she did; gradually recovered some self-possession; and then suddenly a thought rose up to her, that she was in the hands of God, and that He would not forsake her.

Once again she rose, and supporting herself upon a little sketching-stool that folded up into a stick, she looked upwards in the hope that some shepherd might, by chance, be wandering in those aerial regions; but nothing could she see, except the tall birches growing at the brink of the highest summits, and the clouds sailing overhead. Suddenly, however, as she swept the whole circuit of her station with her alarmed eye, she saw clearly, about two hundred yards beyond her own position, a lady in a white muslin morning-robe, such as were then universally worn by young ladies until dinner-time. The lady beckoned with a gesture, and in a manner that, in a moment, gave her confidence to advance how, she could not guess, but in some way that baffled all power to retrace it, she found instantaneously the outlet which previously had escaped her. She continued to advance towards the lady, whom now, in the same moment, she found to be standing upon the other side of the "force", and, also, to be her own sister. How or why that young lady, whom she had left at home earnestly occupied with her own studies, should have followed and overtaken her, filled her with perplexity. But this was no situation for putting questions; for the guiding sister began to descend, and by a few simple gestures, just serving to indicate when Miss Elizabeth was to approach, and when to leave, the brink of the torrent, she gradually led her down to a platform of rock, from which the further descent was safe and conspicuous. There Miss Smith paused, in order to take breath from her panic, as well as to exchange greetings and questions with her sister. But sister was none! All trace of her had vanished; and when, two hours after, she reached her home, Miss Smith found her sister in the same situation and employment in which she had left her; and the whole family assured Elizabeth that her sister had never stirred from the house.

Both accounts refer to Lyulph’s Tower which was built as a shooting box in 1780 for Charles Howard, Earl of Surrey and 11th Duke of Norfolk (born 15 March 1746 – died 16 December 1815). It is thought to have been on the site of a medieval tower built by the Saxon L'Ulf of Greystoke.

By 1870 the Howard’s of Greystoke Castle owned Lyulph’s Tower and around this time they landscaped the area around Aira Force, planting many trees and creating the current paths and bridges, so the waterfall and its environs today will be somewhat different to the times of Lady Emma and Miss Elizabeth Smith.

Miss Elizabeth Smith (born 1776, Durham) was the daughter of Lt Colonel George Smith of Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (which he bought in 1784 and sold to Colonel Sir Mark Wood, Member of Parliament for Newark-on-Trent in 1794) and was the older sister of Lt General Sir Charles Felix Smith (born 9 July 1786– died 11 August 1858)of the Royal Engineers.

According to the Memoirs of the Late Miss Elizabeth Smith which appeared in Select Reviews and Spirit of the Foreign Magazines (E Bronson and others, 1810) they spent between October 1800 and May 1801 at Ullswater before moving to Coniston, so her experience would have taken place during those months.


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Ian Topham
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Re: Aira Force

Miss Elizabeth Smith died over 200 years ago and therefore we cannot question or gain an opinion of her as a credible witness through a personal meeting.  I did find however an account of her death (a few short years after her experience) and a description of her characer in Select Reviews and Spirit of the Foreign Magazines (E Bronson and others, 1810)

"In the summer of the year 1806, Elizabeth was seized with a cold, which terminated in her death: and I wish the cause was more generally known, as a caution to those whose studious turn of mind may lead them into the same errour. I will give the account as she herself related it, a very short time before she died, to a faithful and affectionate servant who first came into the family when my daughter was only six weeks old.

"One very hot evening in July, I took a book, and walked about two miles from home, where I seated myself on a stone beside the lake. Being much engaged by a poem I was reading, I did not perceive that the sun was gone down, and was succeeded by a very heavy dew; till in a moment I felt struck on the chest as if with a sharp knife. I returned home, but said nothing of the pain. The next day being also very hot, and every one busy in the hay-field, I thought I would take a rake, and work very hard, to produce perspiration, in the hope that it might remove the pain; but it did not."

" From that time, a bad cough, with occasional loss of voice, gave me great apprehension of what might be the consequence if the cause were not removed; but no entreaties could prevail on her to take the proper remedies, or to refrain from her usual walks. This she persisted in, being sometimes better and then a little worse, till the beginning of October."
About this time, Miss Smith accompanied her mother on a visit to Bath; and thence to Sunbury: but finding no amendment in her health, they returned to Coniston, where Miss Smith expired on the 7th of August, 1806, aged 29, and was interred at Hawkshead. The following account of her death is given by Mrs. Smith, in a letter to Mrs. H. Bowdler.

"I shall have a melancholy pleasure in complying with your request, and will begin where my last letter ended. Turpin slept in a room only separated from my beloved child by a boardedv partition, and so close to her bed that she could hear her breathe. On Wednesday morning Turpin told me she was much the same, though the sweet sufferer herself said she was better. I went to her, as usual, the moment I was out of bed, and was struck with the change in her countenance. On feeling her pulse, I was persuaded sho could not continue long. She told me she was better, and would get up. She did so, and was cheerful when she spoke, though it evidently in. creased her pain, and difficulty of breathing. When she coughed or moved, she seemed to be in agony. She took nourishment as usual, and on my asking what book I should read to her, she mentioned Thomson's Seasons. I read Winter. She made many observations, and entered entirely into the subject—. About three o'clock Mrs. Dixon called, having come with a party to see the lake. Elizabeth said she should like to see her. Before she went up stairs, I requested she would feel the pulse, which I was persuaded indicated the termination of her sufferings before many hours. She entered into conversation cheer-fully. Mrs. Dixon told me that she thought I was mistaken; that her pulses were not those of a dying person; and she was of opinion that she might last some time. So much were all deceived, all did not watch every turn of her countenance as I did! The apothecary came afterwards. He thought her in great danger, but could not say whether immediate, or not. At nine she went to bed. I resolved to quit her no more, and went to prepare for the night. Turpin came to say that Elizabeth entreated I would not think of staying in her room; and added, 1 she cannot bear you should do it, for she says you are yourself unwell, and rest is necessary for you.' Think of her sweet attention! I replied, ' on that one subject I am resolved; no power on earth shall keep me from her: so go to bed yourself.' Accordingly I returned to her room, and at ten gave her the usual dose of laudanum. After a little time she fell into a doze, and I thought slept till one. She then took some mint tea. Her breath was very bad, and she was uneasy and restless, but never complained: and on my wiping the cold sweat off her face and bathing it with camphorated vinegar,, which I did very often in the course of the night, she thanked me, smiled and said. ' That is the greatest comfort I have.' She slept again for a short time; and at half past four asked for some chicken-broth, which she took perfectly well. On being told the hour, she said, ' How long this night is!' She continued very uneasy, and in half an hour after, on my inquiring if I could move the pillow, or do any .thing to reliev* her, she replied, 'there is nothing for it but quiet.' I said no more, bat thinking that she was dying, I sat on the bed, watching her. At six she said, ' I must get up, and have some mint-tea.' I then called for Turpin, and felt my angel's pulse. It was fluttering, and I knew I should soon lose her. She took the tea well. Turpin began to put on her clothes, and was proceeding to dress her, when she laid her head on the faithful creature's shoulder, became convulsed in the face, spoke not, looked not, and in ten minutes expired."

The character of Miss Smith is thus briefly summed up by Mrs. Bowdler, in a letter to Dr. Mumssen:

"Her character was so extraordinary, and she was so very dear to me, that I hope you will forgive my dwelling a little longer on my irreparable loss. Her person and manners were extremely pleasing, with a pensive softness of countenance that indicated deep reflection; bat her extreme timidity concealed the most extraordinary talents that ever fell under my observation. With scarcely any assistance, she taught herself the French, Italian, Spanish, German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages. She had no inconsiderable knowledge of Arabick and Persick. She was well acquainted with geometry, algebra, and other branches of the mathematics. She was a very fine musician. She drew landscapes from nature extremely well, and was a mistress of perspective. She showed an early taste for poetry, of which some specimens remain but, I believe, she destroyed most of the effusions of her youthful muse, when an acquaintance with your great poet, and still more when the sublime compositions of the Hebrew bards, gave a different turn to her thoughts. With all these acquirements she was perfectly feminine in her disposition; elegant, modest, gentle, and affectionate. Nothing was neglected, which a woman ought to know? No duty was omitted, which her situation in life required her to perform. But the part of her character on which I dwell with the greatest satisfaction, is that exalted piety, which seemed always to raise her above this world, and taught her, at sixteen years of age, to resign its riches and its pleasures, almost without regret; and to support with dignity a very unexpected change of situation. For some years before her death the Holy Scripture was her principal study, and she translated from the Hebrew the whole book of Job, &c. &c. How far she succeeded in this attempt I am not qualified to judge; but the benefit which she herself derived from these studies must be evident to those who witnessed the patience and resignation with which she supported a long and painful illness; the sweet attention which she always showed to the feelings of her parents and friends, and the heavenly composure with which she looked forward to the awful change which has now removed her to a world, 'where (as one of her friends observes) her gentle, pure, and enlightened spirit will find itself more at home than in this land of shadows, &c. &c."



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