We had entered the grounds of Bolton Abbey just beyond the ruined walls of the old Priory, and parked the car down by the River Wharfe close to the Cavendish tea room. It was one of those mixed days, windy and overcast with the odd spot of rain, but the trees alongside the path above the river gave us good cover as we walked upstream in the direction of the narrows of the river known as the Strid. Our first view of the famous stretch of the came from above, the path a little way up the hillside, and it was hard to make out quite the force of the water as it rushed through. In fact, it even looked a little tame, which is apparently half of the problem.
At its narrowest point in the Strid the river is barely two metres across. Just a short walk up or downstream will present you with a substantial river somewhat wider than that, and so the only logically conclusion is that if that amount of water is going to be forced through a gap that tight then it is going to be very deep, and very fast. So deep, in fact, that there is a hidden network of caverns and tunnels hidden down beneath the surface that have proved lethal over the centuries. Indeed, the more dramatic descriptions of the Strid make reference to the fact that no-one has ever gone in and survived… whether that is true or not I am not sure, but the fact is that there are warning signs on the trees and plenty of evidence of individuals slipping or attempting to make the leap across only to go under and never surface; this is a supremely dangerous stretch of river, and all the more so because those banks look tantalisingly close to each other…
One supposed victim of the Strid was the son of Lady Alice de Romilly, who supposedly gabe up the land to establish the Bolton Priory monastery in his honour in 1120. This is highly unlikely to be true, not least because her son’s name appears on the land deeds with which she granted the property to the Augustine monks who were to build the Priory, but it has remained a popular legend upon which Wordsworth based a poem called The Founding of Bolton Priory:
This striding-place is called THE STRID,
A name which it took of yore:
A thousand years hath it borne that name,
And shall a thousand more.
And hither is young Romilly come,
And what may now forbid
That he, perhaps for the hundredth time,
Shall bound across THE STRID?
He sprang in glee,- or what cared he’
That the river was strong, and the rocks were steep? –
But the greyhound in the leash hung back,
And checked him in his leap.
The Boy is in the arms of Wharf,
And strangled by a merciless force;
For never more was young Romilly seen
Till he rose a lifeless corse.
We came face to face with the waters that supposedly claimed young Romilly’s life almost nine hundred years ago after we had continued to walk upstream to the next bridge and then back down the opposite bank. Now we were much closer to the water, the slippery rocks and, indeed, the warning signs. I did not know the stories then – I only learned them later, after the walk had finished – but still you felt an instinctive pull to keep away from the mossy rocks beside the rushing water. At the same time, you could also understand why some brave-yet-foolhardy souls, in full knowledge of the stories of couples swept away to a watery demise would still be tempted to make the leap…
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig