Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Lost Boy

By Dr John Little

In 1907 the Lake District Fells of Cumberland and Westmorland were seen by travellers in much the same way as was Switzerland. It was a place remote and far from roads, dangerous and fraught with mystery. To visit the high passes and the mountaintops, most visitors who regarded themselves as intrepid, would engage the services of an expert local guide. A few individuals would take ropes, pitons and axes to climb crags and steep cliffs, but the only people who visited regularly were keepers, shepherds and huntsmen. Apart from these, a visitor to the high places could go for days without seeing a single soul. The valleys and lakes thronged with people visiting an area made famous by the romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, but few of these tourists were bold enough to climb the fells. Even if they had, for much of the area they would have been trespassing on the property of great landowners such as the Curwens of Workington, or the Earl of Lonsdale at Greystoke castle.

In 1907 the local carrier at Bampton was a man called Thomas Martindale, but although his family came from the village, he had settled with his wife and children in Penrith. Every day he took his horse and cart the ten miles or so from Penrith to Bampton and waited at the Mitre Inn for customers to collect their orders and take new ones. Needless to say, as a local man, he had family connections in Bampton, and towards the end of July 1907 he left his nine-year-old son, Thomas, with Mr John Bland of High Howe farm, as he later said, ‘for a holiday’. 

Mr Bland had sons of his own, one of whom was fifteen-year-old Vickers Tyson Bland, known by everyone as Tyson. The farm stood at the foot of the fells, with the heights of Bampton Common looming over it. From the tops of this vast fell, a path led to Kidsty pike and the heights of the High Street range.

On Monday 29 July someone, probably a local shepherd, brought news to Mr Bland that a pony was stuck in a pond up at White Bog, a marshy area, high up and about three miles away from the farm. What condition it was in was not reported, nor whose pony it was, but Mr Bland told Tyson to go up the fell and investigate it. This he did, and with him he took young Thomas, probably as a kind of adventure. When they reached the area of White Bog a whiteout came down as so often happens in the Lake District as cloud descended over the area. The two boys had no wish to go back down the mountain without fulfilling their mission, but they could see no further than a few yards. Tyson suggested that they split up so that their search area was wider, and keep in touch with each other by whistling every so often. For a while this worked, but then Tyson found the pool with a dead pony in it, and his attention was taken by it so completely that he forgot to whistle. By the time he remembered to whistle, Thomas had gone so far ahead that he was out of earshot and did not hear the older boy. Frantically Tyson searched as well as he could, shouting Thomas’s name, but gained no response. After some time searching, and probably in a great deal of panic, Tyson gave up and pelted back down the fell to the farm to raise the alarm.

Thomas Martindale had no food or water with him. He wore a thin summer jacket, a cloth cap, and breeches, whilst on his feet were a stout pair of wooden clogs, a form of footwear in no way suited to walking the high fells. Mr Bland, Tyson, and a couple of farm hands came up to White Moss and searched as well as they could, but though the cloud lifted and they could see across the marshy area, there was no sign of Thomas. It was as if he had vanished into thin air. Though they searched for hours there was no trace of him and they had to give up when darkness came. On the next day a party of twenty local men, along with Thomas’s father combed the area to no avail. Over the next few days large searches were gathered and the whole of Bampton Common, and large areas of the surrounding mountains were examined exhaustively.

The people searching for Thomas can have had no idea of what he had done, but from his own account, it is possible to follow his route fairly well on a local map. High up on the tops runs an ancient Roman road called High Street, which even goes across the mountain with that name. Once a walker is on the track, it is easy going- for a person in good boots. At several points on his journey Thomas had to make a decision on which way to turn, and in each case he went left. I cannot tell if Thomas was left handed, but a study from Stanford university indicates that left handed people are inclined to feel positive about things to the left, and right handed people the right, if a choice is given.

Whatever the reason for his choice, the very energetic Thomas walked fourteen miles after his disappearance and ended up that afternoon in the Kentmere valley (pictured above).

He had a conversation with a young man he found cutting bracken in a field, and was directed to the reservoir cottage at the head of the valley where Mr William Bland would give him food. It is a curious thing that Thomas was with a Bland when he got lost, and that the man who could have helped him also had that name but it is a common one in the area. Inexplicably Thomas did not ask the man for help but for directions back to Bampton. Mr Bland was busy at the time, but gave directions nonetheless and showed Thomas that the way home was back up the way he had come and pointed to the path to the Nan Bield pass. Why he did not give more help made him the subject of some criticism in the newspapers subsequently, but in his defence it must be remembered that he gave exactly what was asked for. This is what one might expect from a man with a literal mind. Thanking him, the boy wearily dragged himself up to the pass, about two thousand feet up, and found a hold in a crag where he settled down and went to sleep for the night.

By Friday the story of the missing boy had made more than a local ripple. The story had been syndicated across the country and when the Saturday newspapers came out, Thomas was national news.  All searching was in vain and he had been without food for four days. Even larger numbers of people turned out to comb the fells but there was no trace. Thomas had come to the top of Nan Bield pass and missed the right hand turn that would have taken him down towards home. Where the path joined High Street, he had turned left where he might have gone right, and spent the second night in another cleft in the rocks. He was a town boy in unsuitable footwear. He would have stiff legs from his walk of the day before, and his feet would be swollen and in a dreadful state. This accounts for his failure to go very far on his second day of being lost. On his second night, as he lay in the cleft, a lamb came into where he was, and snuggled up to him, keeping him warm. 

On Thursday he strayed into the fells above Troutbeck and found a remote shepherd’s hut. At least it had a roof and he spent the next two nights there.  It is highly likely, as this author knows from experience, that his feet would make any walking an agonising torture; they would be swollen and eventually his toenails would start to come off. After four days in summer heat with only water and no food it is also possible that he would have been feeling the onset of salt deficiency, along with the prickly heat, cramps, shivering and nausea that go with it. The stage was set for tragedy.

However, on Saturday morning Thomas heard the lowing of cattle and reasoned that they must come from a nearby farm so with a supreme effort he staggered down the hill and found the cows. There he was discovered by the son of the farmer at Troutbeck Farm and his ordeal was over. At midnight on Sunday his father arrived to take him home and father and son boarded the Ambleside to Penrith coach. The passengers got very excited when they realised who he was, for they had all read their newspapers. The coach stopped for photographs and at Glenridding an enthusiastic crowd gathered and cheered him on his way. The news was telegraphed ahead to Penrith, where the coach was met by another cheering crowd. They hailed him the ‘hero of the fells’ and his photograph appeared in newspapers and sold as a celebrated postcard; he had become a national figure.

That might have been the end of Thomas’s adventures but ten years later he was called on to serve in the British army and was posted to Iraq, then called Mesopotamia. Nothing is known of what he did there, but it seemed plausible that he might have got lost again, this time in the desert. Using the war diary of his regiment revealed where he was on the same dates as his adventure ten years previously.

Thomas reflects so very well the millions of ordinary boys of his generation who cannot have imagined when they grew up in their northern backstreet that they would be called upon to serve in the trenches, or the deserts of Iraq. Tommy Martindale is a good representative of his age.

Thomas became a signalman on the railways, just outside Penrith. He was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1932. No other vehicle was involved, no one saw it and one theory was that he ran onto a hedge while looking back to see if his brother was following. Had he been wearing a crash helmet it is likely that he would have lived. A month after his death his brother died in a similar accident not far away. Tyson Bland also served in the war, in the Border Regiment. He survived the war also, married, had a family, and his descendants live in the Penrith area to this day, as do those of Thomas’s siblings. 

The Hero of the Fells - The Lost Boy


Dr John Little
spent almost forty years teaching in various schools in London and the South East. He was head of History at Meopham School and Rochester Independent College. He gained the first History PhD  awarded in the University of Westminster.

He has written ten books, mostly novels, and has settled into historical fiction as his favoured genre. His work is based on real evidence, people and events contained in plausible narratives. He also gives talks and presentations on the topics about which he writes.

The Lost Boy was published in August 2020

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant read, Johns books are all worth reading.


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