Sunday, October 18, 2009

Grace Darling

To me, one of the best, unexpected side-effects of living in Britain is that memories from my youth are often confronted with their reality here. And while reality can sometimes be disappointing, it is always a thrill to find myself walking down Drury Lane (where, if anyone had any sense they would open a pub called “The Muffin Man”) or playing “Pooh Sticks” on the actual Pooh bridge in the original Hundred Acre Wood, or standing on the bank of the river where Virginia Wolfe drowned herself.

Great Britain, it seems, figured large in my early life, which was likely due in equal parts to my grandfather having been born there and the fact that, until very recently, they ruled the greater part of the planet. In fact, I can’t think of any other country I might have moved to that played a more prominent role in my upbringing, with the possible exception of Israel (“Is that the REAL Sea of Galilee? Can I walk on it?”)

Accordingly, while we were on holiday in Craster, we took a jaunt up the coast to Bamburg where I came face-to-face with that quintessential heroine, Grace Darling.

I knew of this courageous, northern maiden from a song on the Limelighter’s Through Children’s Eyes album, which happened to be in my family’s meagre record collection and which I played nearly continuously from the age of 6 to about 13 when I took up cow-tipping (we didn’t have cable TV or Game Boys back then; you found your amusements where you could).

The specific song from the album was entitled, appropriately enough, “Grace Darling” and was a humorous, audience participation song about a young girl who braves a storm to rescue nine drowning sailors over the objections of her cowardly father. The song held a particular fascination for me because, despite the overtly humorous presentation, my mother told me it was true, which fired my imagination. At least until I took up cow-tipping.

Fast forward, um, a number of years. I’m in Bamburg, and there is Grace Darling, the original, the one and only. Not surprisingly, the truth of her story varies somewhat from the humorous song of my youth, but I was still pleased to meet her:

Grace Darling was born in Bamburg and, at a very young age, moved to the Longstone Lighthouse with her family. At 4 Am on the 7th of September, 1838, the Forfarshire—a 150-ton steamship—sank after crashing into the rocks offshore. At 7 AM Grace, who was 22 at the time, spotted nine survivors clinging to the rocks. She and her father then set out to rescue them.

If there was any truth to the idea that Mr. Darling was anything less than daring, it was probably due to his reluctance to put his daughter at risk. As it was, they both set out and rowed through the gale, reaching the men about an hour later. They took five of them back and then her father and two of the survivors rowed back out for the remaining four.

Although it wasn’t quite the single-handed rescue that modern myth espouses, it was enough to capture the admiration of a (one must suppose) fairly bored nation. Offers of gifts, money, proposals of marriage and opportunities to take her story on the road and perform it for audiences in London poured in. But Grace, a modest and shy girl, turned them all down, refusing to prostitute herself and her story. She continued to live with her family at the lighthouse and died four years later of tuberculosis.

The Grace Darling Memorial; notice the oar at her side.

Maybe she should have taken her chances with the road show.

Seems they made a prostitute out of her after all.


  1. What a fascinating story! I've never even heard of her or this song.

  2. Anonymous4:54 PM

    This is so true. I guess we never really think when we are young of the origins of these tales and myths that we listen to (and then repeat). I was fascinated to learn (on an open bus tour, I will admit), that the London Bridge has in fact, fallen down.

  3. Kristina: glad I was able to introduce you to Grace; she's a fascinating girl.

    Missamericaengland: nothing wrong with the open-top bus tour, except if it's raining ;)