The story of Foxie - the loyal Irish Terrier on Helvellyn

Landseer's chocolate box version of the story (copyright St Louis Art Museum)

Landseer's chocolate box version of the story (copyright St Louis Art Museum) - Credit: Archant

In the latest of our tales of remarkable dogs, Emily Rothery recounts the story a terrier commemorated on a mountainside for showing incredible loyalty.

The Dixon Memorial on Striding Edge

The Dixon Memorial on Striding Edge - Credit: Archant

‘Histories are more full of examples of the fidelity of dogs than of friends,’ wrote Alexander Pope. Man’s bond with dogs is a remarkable one and has been well documented for thousands of years. Stories abound of loyal four-legged friends that have stayed by their owner’s side through thick and thin.

The Lake District has its fair share of remarkable dogs – from sheepdogs to mountain rescue dogs; dogs that willingly support people with disabilities to hound dogs that run for the pure joy of the race. But, for unwavering loyalty, one companion that stayed with her master on the icy slopes of Helvellyn for months must surely take the dog biscuit.

The magnificent Helvellyn is the Lake District’s third highest peak and probably one of the best known. On a good day, those that make it to the top are rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views including down to the two precarious famed ridges – Striding Edge to the south and Swirral Edge to the north which lead down to the tranquil waters of Red Tarn above Ullswater.

Helvellyn is a popular mountain walk and, on some days, it seems that the whole world, his wife and canine companions are up there. However, traversing the two ridges is not without danger, especially in challenging weather.

The Gough Memorial on Helvellyn

The Gough Memorial on Helvellyn - Credit: Archant

There are many ways to climb up this great fell but the ascent of Striding Edge is considered the most spectacular. It is a route of lofty exposure requiring a good head for heights, sure-footedness and some scrambling skills. It is while traversing the ridge that the walker comes upon a timely reminder of the seriousness of the walk. A small plaque reads: ‘In memory of Robert Dixon of Rooking, Patterdale, who was killed on the 27th day of November 1858 following the Patterdale Foxhounds’. Critically injured, the young man was taken home but sadly died in the early hours of the next morning aged 33.

Next, along the ridge, comes a descent down a 15 to 20 foot rocky ‘chimney’, colloquially known as the Bad Step. Having negotiated the climb down the rocks with care, the final steep ascent takes you to the summit where a larger memorial stands. The Gough Memorial commemorates a fatal fall down the east face in wintry conditions in the spring of 1805. Charles Gough was a Manchester artist who set out to climb Helvellyn with only his faithful dog, Foxie, for company. He failed to return. At the beginning of the 19th century, fell-walking and mountaineering for pleasure were relatively new pursuits and Gough, alone on the mountains, had no specialist clothing or kit. Three months later a shepherd came upon across a dog barking. Beside her lay the remains of her unfortunate master.

Foxie, an Irish Terrier, loyal to the end, had remained with her master and some accounts report that, not only had the dog survived but had a pup that didn’t make it. A Carlisle newspaper had reported: ‘The bitch had pupped in a furze near the body of her master.’

On a darker note, the same report concluded that the dog ‘shocking to relate, had torn the clothes from his body and eaten him to a perfect skeleton.’ Some reports speculated that ravens had attacked the body, while others stated that the body was untouched by mountain animal or bird.

One of today's canine visitors to Helvellyn

One of today's canine visitors to Helvellyn - Credit: Archant

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This image of canine fidelity, however, was irresistible to the romantics who refuted these ghoulish rumours. The story captured the imagination of poets and artists and lived on through their works.

Wordsworth penned the poem Fidelity that celebrated the romantic nature of the young artist’s death and extolled the virtues of such a loyal companion, even suggesting that the dog had been ‘nourished’ by a higher power. Walter Scott too wrote a poem entitled ‘Helvellyn’ and in 1892, inspired by the poem, Edwin Landseer, painter of the Queen’s dogs, created a sentimental image of the devoted dog keeping vigil over his dead master.

Foxie’s faithful vigil became the stuff of legend and is even commemorated today in a beer, Charles Gough’s Old Faithful, made by the Tirril Brewery, near Penrith.

Although romanticised, the story of Foxie and other legends such as Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal terrier who guarded his masters tomb in Edinburgh for 14 years, still hold appeal for dog lovers today which shows that there is simply no competition for the status of man’s best friend.

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