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.