Ponies of Caldbeck Commons

D. J. Lee


On July 23rd, 2010, the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald, an English Lake District newspaper, reported on the case of Alan Brough. That morning, a group of local constables stormed Brough’s house and arrested him. The number of officers—six of them—and their defensive dress—blue helmets, bulletproof vests—was odd. Brough was 68 with no criminal record. Far from dangerous, he’d spent his life and personal fortune caring for animals, whose company he preferred to people. He owned, at various times, a fox, a badger, a leopard, greyhounds, and several lions. But it was his ponies that were “his family,” his daughter said. The constables cuffed Brough and threw him in jail on charges of animal cruelty. “But my ponies are my life,” he must have said, or given what he did a short time later, he must at least have thought.

Brough’s story with the ponies began when his four daughters were toddlers and he bought them a couple of Shetlands. The daughters grew up, married, and had children. The ponies also grew and reproduced, but instead of selling them, he let them graze on land known as Caldbeck Commons, 9,000 acres of rolling hills covered in native grasses near the small village of Caldbeck. There, they grew to a herd of over one hundred. To stabilize the herd, Brough hired local vets to spay and neuter the animals. The herd quit growing, but Brough continued to care for them, rising at 5 o’clock every morning to feed and groom them. “His day was for his horses,” his daughter said. The ponies eventually became a point of interest. Travelers of the Lake District—one of the most iconic tourist sites in the world—came to Caldbeck to see “the ponies of Caldbeck Commons.”

Unbeknownst to Brough, that day in July 2010, the police were working in conjunction with the local Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). As soon as he was in jail, RSPCA members drove out to Caldbeck Commons, gathered up the ponies, led them into trailers, and transported them to an undisclosed location.

Hours after seizing the ponies, the police released Brough from jail. His granddaughter Natasha picked him up. He told her to take him directly to Caldbeck Commons. “I can’t go on without my ponies,” he said. But her gas tank was empty. She stopped at a filling station, and when she walked in to pay, Brough got behind the wheel and sped away. A few hours later, she found him on the banks of the River Eamont. He had hung himself from a bridge.


In 2002, the year I lived in England, suicide intruded first as a shocking thought, and then I got used to the idea. My mood improved when I read about famous suicides like Thomas Chatterton, who poisoned himself with arsenic, and Sylvia Plath, who stuck her head in a gas oven. I started imagining different methods I might use: throwing myself from a high place or stepping in front of a bus. That possibility was all too real for an American from a rural college town in Washington State dodging traffic in central London.

I came to London in early summer on a research grant to study the little-known histories of some of the most downtrodden characters in British literature: poor, illiterate women in the British Romantic period, the era of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I moved into a London flat in Bloomsbury and set up in the British Library. In the beginning, full of hope, I charged full steam ahead. But as months went by, the self I’d brought with me slipped away. The library was dimly lit and cavernous. The dark wood, neutral carpet, green table lamps, and dour-faced employees began to feel like a cardboard replica of a world, lifeless and flat.

In the library, each seat faced a partner across a narrow table. All day, I made intimate eye contact with people I would never even speak to. Sometimes, an older man sweating through a cotton shirt settled down opposite me, and I’d see in his hard eyes a desperation I recognized in myself. To get by, I lived through the make-believe lives of other patrons. I stared at an American woman with peroxide-blonde hair and a muscly British man ten years her junior who worked together a few tables over. I decided they were secret lovers who met in the library so as not to raise suspicion. My vicariousness made me ashamed, but I couldn’t stop.

At home at night in my flat on Marchmont Street near the library, I gazed out at the chimneyed sky, pink turning inky blue. Directly across the street stood the dilapidated Salvation Army, a temporary housing unit for homeless people, and in one of the windows, I often saw a middle-aged man in a cotton tank and blue jeans. He sat at a desk facing the window, spotlighted by a myopic, bare bulb hanging from the ceiling by a single cord. I watched his hunched-over sadness night after night as he sat doing nothing.

Other times I looked out at a massive apartment complex kitty-corner to me. The woman in the top south corner left her curtains open. She had long, dark hair and was usually scantily clad in skimpy lingerie. One night she had a male visitor. He stood in the window totally naked as he unclasped her bra and touched her shoulders with his large hands. His penis pointed toward her belly. It also pointed to how barren my life was, my husband thousands of miles away, my daughter growing up in my absence. I was trapped in the concrete landscape of London and the sterile library full of dead people’s words. I had the option of going home, but I was on a scholarship and would have to give up both the money and my project. Besides, it was bred into me to press on, never quit.

But my research began to seem meaningless. For hours, I sat at the library desk, computer in front of me, trying to write, but the whole structure of language—sentences, phrases, parts of speech, and punctuation—seemed shrouded in fog. I was saturated in language and yet it was completely inaccessible to me. That terrified me. Words were my medium. Without them, I fell into a vacuum.

Sometime in November I quit going to the library. I was in the full grip of a melancholy deeper than I’d ever known. The pain of life seemed worse than the pain of death. As I lay in bed day after day, one story I had been researching spun in my head.


Mary Robinson’s life seemed simple. She was the only daughter of an elderly couple who ran the Fish Inn, a guesthouse in Buttermere, one of the most secluded communities in the English Lake District in the late eighteenth century. She worked as a barmaid, serving the few customers who came to Buttermere.

But the sudden onrush of Lake District tourism at the turn of the century complicated Mary’s life. She may not have even known that there were over forty tourist guides published about the Lake District during her lifetime, including Wordsworth’s “Guide to the Lakes,” and hundreds of poems, paintings, and drawings. But she certainly found out about the craze for travel books about the area when one tourist, Captain Budworth, stayed at the Fish Inn in 1796. He became as smitten by Mary Robinson as he was by the landscape. He wrote about Mary and the landscape in the same breath, comparing her to a lily and mountain sheep, describing her bewitching eyes and long, flowing hair. He told anyone visiting this obscure place to come see the “Beauty of Buttermere.”

Budworth’s book turned Mary into a tourist attraction, someone who symbolized the purity and authenticity of the Lake District. People came from as far away as France and Greece. Among her visitors were Wordsworth and Coleridge, as well as the essayist Thomas DeQuincey, and the artist James Gillray. No one knows how many people shuffled through the Fish Inn—hundreds at least—including lechers and womanizers. In 1802, a poor drapery salesman pretending to be an aristocratic landowner checked into the Fish Inn. He managed to convince Mary to marry him, and the two set off for his fake estate in Scotland with the savings her parents had worked a lifetime to acquire. But they didn’t make it far. Authorities intercepted the couple and revealed to Mary she had been duped. The man was hanged. Mary gave birth to his child, and it died in infancy. She joined Wordsworth’s list of tragic characters: shepherds, soldiers, vagrants, lunatics, grieving parents, and ghostly children with whom I felt such affinity.

When I woke in the night, as I often did, and walked onto the roof of the building, looking at the lights, I thought of Mary. I wondered what happened to her. She felt more real to me than the people I passed on London streets and in the library. Even the gray-haired man with the withered legs. He used a walker sometimes; other times he was in a wheelchair. The library staff carried his books to his desk for him, propped them on the bookstand, and because he couldn’t manipulate his fingers, the staff carefully untied the little cotton cord that secured disintegrating rare books. I envied them the task. Once, after a particularly bleak day when I was still going to the library regularly, he asked me to walk over to the elevator with him and press the buttons. He couldn’t reach. That’s all he asked of me, but I was happy to have walked somewhere with someone, that one moment of connection with another person.

On the rooftop, images of Scafell, the highest mountain in the English Lake District, where travelers hiked when they stayed at the Fish Inn in Buttermere, rose before me. I became obsessed with one thought: I needed to sleep in Mary’s bed, to dine at her table. I needed to be grounded in her place, to feel the wind cut through my coat, to inhale the loamy scent of the dales. That might help me rise above my melancholy. I mustered all the energy I had, rented a car, and drove to the Lake District.


Buttermere, the village, is wedged between the lakes of Buttermere and Crummock Water. A little knot of buildings—a church and two guesthouses, the Fish Inn being one—sits at its center. The Fish Inn is a squat, square building made of local stone. It appeared unchanged from Mary Robinson’s day, which mattered because I wanted to step into her world, to be intimate with it. “I’m here to find out about Mary Robinson,” I said to the proprietor, a large, balding man, when I checked in. He pointed to a wall opposite, where three plaques hung. They were articles from Victorian-era newspapers. I thought I’d dug up every piece of information about her, but I hadn’t read these.

In the restaurant attached to the inn, a young man with broad shoulders and a crooked smile brought me an order of local fish and cider. He was no Mary Robinson. A group of twenty-something men walked in, smelling of sweat. They sprawled across a large wooden table, ordered beer and chips, and talked loudly about their hike in the hills above Buttermere. Somehow, I had expected the inn to have frozen in time.

I summoned the courage to talk to them. “Excuse me,” I said, “where are the good hiking spots?” Their politeness surprised me. One of them spread a map and traced a line with his finger that started at the inn, skirted Buttermere Lake, and rose to a ridge. “Haystacks Peak,” he said. “Gorgeous views.”

The path was wide as road, gravelly, lined with trees filtering sunlight. Dozens of others walked the path, couples and families. As the trail headed up a hill, the crowd thinned. A monstrous block of stone called Fleetwith Pike rose from the lake. It was overwhelming and inspiring. The further I went, the fewer people followed, until I was alone. The path took me closer and closer to the rough outcrops of the peak, a mass of ripply folds and bends created by ancient lava flows, and I felt exhilarated at the thought of climbing to the top, when a man shot out from behind a rock. “What a hike!” he said in an American accent. He wore a belt holding various electrolyte drinks in small bottles. I started to tell him why I was there, but he interrupted. “Gotta run,” he said. “Gotta flush out my adrenaline.” And off he went. But his appearance unnerved me. I hadn’t wanted to meet an American jock in Mary’s mountains.

Dark clouds had blown in and the temperature dropped. I knew Lake District weather could change in an instant. The thought of continuing with no warm clothes, giving myself to the elements on the craggy peak, passed quickly through my mind. I turned and made my way down the path and I stood for a moment at the lake, watching the waves lapping at my feet, one replacing the other and then disappearing.

Back at the inn, rain pounded the windows of twelve rooms. I couldn’t be sure if I was in Mary’s room as I had hoped to be. I felt like a foreign guest. I put out the light early, but I tossed, chilled and damp, the thin floral bedspread wrapped around me.

Early the next morning over breakfast, it seemed I hadn’t touched her life at all. The proprietor shuffled by with a coffeepot and must have seen my downcast eyes. “You know, Mary Robinson is buried up at Caldbeck,” he said and drew me a map.

I got on the road to Caldbeck. I was bleary-eyed and drank my coffee in silence. The lanes, choked with hawthorn, hazel, and oak, were tunnellike, and I sped through them without meeting another car. I’ll never forget how I came out on top of fields of the deepest green dressed with faint mist in fragile light and found St. Kentigern’s churchyard filled with gray and white stones.

Mary’s grave was easy to find. Larger than I’d expected, the stone was scrolled with ornamental vines and buds. I sat on the grass in front of it, giving myself some time. The epitaph said she was the wife of John Harrison and the mother of five children and grandchildren. There was no mention of her former identity as the Beauty of Buttermere or her marriage to the imposter. Presumably this was how she wanted to be remembered: as the wife of a Lake farmer, a mother, a grandmother, connected through generations and connected to the land. I wanted to leave something of myself, a button, an earring, a piece of my own writing, something, but nothing felt right. I got in the car.

I drove maybe a quarter of a mile when, out of nowhere, a Shetland pony appeared in the road. I slammed the brakes and screamed. When I recovered from the shock, I looked out to see a great herd of over fifty Shetlands. I leapt out of the car. There was no fence, so I was able to walk right up to them. One of them nuzzled me with its soft nose, and more gathered around so that morning and evening seemed to merge in one luminous moment, and my body relaxed. I stroked their rough manes. I stood in the middle of the herd, arms outstretched, fingers on their corduroy coats, inhaling their earthy life. I felt incredible relief. It was one perfect, delicate moment, a fleeting rightness of time and place that has stayed with me ever since.


Wordsworth wrote about Mary when she was strung between selves, the one she had in secluded Buttermere, the one splattered across England’s newspapers after her story went viral, and the one she would become when her notoriety faded. But Wordsworth didn’t follow up on what happened to her in Caldbeck, as she became an ordinary wife, mother, and grandmother. As far as I know, Wordsworth never wrote about Caldbeck, though he could have. He was so tuned in to those who lived on the edge of grief and loss, he could have written about Alan Brough had Brough lived in 1802 instead of 2010.

Of course, I didn’t know anything about Brough when I stood on Caldbeck Commons with his ponies. But I saw in them the same thing he did: connection, purpose, a reason to live. I had come to the Lake District to assuage my emptiness by touching the story of Mary, a young woman who quietly put her life together after a tragedy in hopes of putting my own life back together. In the process, I had touched the ponies.

I left London a few weeks later, returned to my family, and got well. The English Lake District faded with the stiff winds and icy sidewalks of Chicago, and, in the spring, it seemed a dream. Through the years, the memory of all the lonely days in the library and crushing nights in my London flat all but disappeared. But I often thought about the ponies. Yet I never knew what they meant until a few years ago, when on a whim, I pulled up an article online in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald and read about Alan Brough. Why had I been drawn to Caldbeck Commons at my most desperate time? Were my, Mary’s, and Brough’s lives a geographic collision of fates? Or was it simply chance? Whatever the reason, I have not stopped grieving for the man who took his own life long after his ponies saved mine.