New Cumbria (2)

Aerial view of Aconcagua, Argentina, the highest summit in the Andes, by Beatriz Moisset [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Aerial view of Aconcagua, Argentina, at nearly 7000 metres the highest summit in the Andes. Credit: Beatriz Moisset [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Yet more now on Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake, to the possible delight of fans of the Wolves Chronicles and the certain dismay of everyone else.

We left Dido Twite at the port of Tenby, at the mouth of the River Severn in Roman America. (New readers will no doubt be confused so it’s best they consult the previous post to discover what exactly is going on. Otherwise this post will make little or no sense.) Tenby being the only entry to New Cumbria, it will require a journey of some 200 miles to get to the country’s capital, Bath Regis. But trying to relate Roman America to its model, Latin America, will prove rather difficult — distances simply refuse to tally up — and therefore all linear measurements will need to be taken with a exceptionally liberal pinch of salt.

For example, from Bermuda to the equator is around 2000 miles as the crow flies, but the ship on which Dido sails is expected to travel this distance not only to the equator (where the Amazon meets the sea) but then further down the east coast to Tenby. The only correspondence to Tenby I can offer which matches most of the geographical clues in The Stolen Lake is either Montevideo or Buenos Aires on the Rio de la Plata, the River Plate. By my reckoning these are another three thousand miles sail south from the equator. How is one to reconcile these irreconcilables?

At one point Dido, before going ashore at Tenby, uses Captain Hughes’ telescope to see the Andes, even to the extent of being able to spot llamas travelling in convoy: all this supposedly at a distance of over two hundred miles! (In fact, she would have to travel even further south, to Rawson in Welsh-speaking Patagonia, for the Andes to be 200 miles from the coast.) It is clear that we shall have to not only imagine Captain Hughes as having equipment capable of such magnification, unsurprising perhaps in this early example of a steampunk novel, but also that South America — sorry, Roman America — has a proportionately different configuration in Dido’s world compared to our own.

Part of 'Roman America' superimposed on a physical map of South America. Not to scale.
Part of ‘Roman America’ superimposed on a physical map of South America. Not to scale. Lake Titicaca and the Iguazu Falls are marked with blue stars.

I shall be assuming here that the Severn corresponds to the rivers Pilcomayo, Paraguay and Paraná  flowing one into the other until they reach the estuary of the Plate, or Rio de la Plata; in our world this would be more than 1200 miles, not a mere 200. Like its nominal counterpart in Britain, Roman America’s River Severn has a tidal bore  (so do many other rivers including the Amazon itself). As with modern kayakers and surfers Dido is able to travel upriver on the bore, but her party travels instead by riverboat. The bore takes them, at around ten miles an hour, almost the whole hundred miles to Bewdley, though for the final few miles the boat has to be rowed using levers to turn a paddle wheel.

The river winds through the perilous Forest of Broceliande, named from the Breton woodland first referenced in the 12th century as Brecheliant. (Brocéliande might possibly translate as ‘wood-land’, much as the alternative Breton placename Argoat ‘by the wood’ does.) This jungle is even more dangerous than the magical forest of Arthurian legend where wonders lurked in every clearing and where Merlin was reputed to have been imprisoned by Nimue / Viviane / Nynevie: here all manner of fierce creatures abound and victims are prey to the Wild Hunt of Celtic legend or the poisoned arrows of the native Biruvians.

Blenkinsop's rack locomotive (1812) (credit: British Railway Locomotives 1803-1853, public domain)
Blenkinsop’s rack locomotive (1812) (credit: British Railway Locomotives 1803-1853, public domain)

When the travellers arrive at Bewdley they lodge at the Black Tree Tavern before transferring to a rack railway to journey the next 100 miles to Bath Regis. Rack railways, using toothed wheels to ascend steep gradients, had been around since 1812, and as the Severn is no longer navigable all visitors to the capital must of necessity change transport. Aiken chose this name (a town in Worcestershire) not only because it’s located on the Severn but perhaps also as it’s the home of the Severn Valley Railway, a heritage railway service founded in 1965. This Bewdley is also roughly halfway between the sea and the Severn’s source in the Cambrian Mountains of mid Wales; the New Cumbrian town of Bewdley is also situated midway along the Roman American Severn, which is also around 200 miles in length.

The travellers from Bewdley are soon presented with a magnificent sight. “A mile west of Bewdley the valley of the Severn was barred by a great semi-circle of cliffs over which the river came racing in a huge horse-shoe of boiling white water, full three-quarters of a mile from side to side …” This is the first in a series of seven majestic waterfalls; the author here perhaps conflated a number of well-known South American waterfalls. Most renowned are the Iguazu Falls between Argentina and Brazil, claimed as the largest such system in the world, but Joan may also have had in mind the former Guairá Falls between Brazil and Paraguay; also called Sete Quedas (‘seven falls’ in Portuguese) they were flooded when the Itaipu Dam was created in 1982, not insignificantly the year after The Stolen Lake was published.

Dido is told the cascades are named from “the seven witches who guard the secret land of Upper Cumbria,” and we’ll find that these ‘witches’ all have suggestive names. Hypha is from a Greek word meaning ‘web’, the name suggesting the Three Fates as well as the three dressmakers, Mme Ettarde, Mrs Morgan and Mrs Vavasour who kidnap Dido at various points in the tale. Stheino is the eldest Gorgon in Greek legend; Euryte is a Greek nymph but reminds us of Eurale, the second of the Gorgons; and Medusa is the most famous of the three. Minerva is named from the goddess who bore Medusa’s head on her shield, and also the classical deity identified with the Celtic goddess Sul, patron of the healing Roman springs at Bath. Sul Minerva’s temple in Bath must have suggested the sixth ‘witch’ Nemetone, from the Celtic nemeton which meant a sacred spot or site; finally Rhiannon, after whom the seventh cascade is named, is a Welsh goddess whose name may derive from the Celtic *Rīgantōna or ‘Divine Queen’.

Stories narrated by the storyteller Bran help pass the time for the travellers as the railway climbs “higher and higher, curving over mountainsides and through narrow passes, creeping along narrow rocky valleys, and yet again up and up, following the course of the river Severn, now transformed to a boulder-strewn torrent.” And then, before Dido realises it, they arrive at Bath Regis. This Bath proves to be the antithesis of the English Regency town, and Upper Cumbria turns out less hospitable than Wales (“We’ll keep a welcome in the hillsides”) or, as Wales is called by Welsh-speakers, Cymru (from the Brittonic Combrogi, meaning fellow countrymen).

Gorgon's head on Athena's shield, from pediment of Roman temple to Sulis Minerva, Bath
Gorgon’s head on Athena’s shield (Athena was equated with Roman Minerva) from the pediment of the Roman temple to Sulis Minerva, Bath; Medusa’s terrifying appearance was often accentuated by her being shown with a beard and moustache

• The final part of this exploration of New Cumbria will follow


19 thoughts on “New Cumbria (2)

    1. They do indeed, Daphne, so much so that some imagine the figure is actually the legendary Welsh giant Bran and not Medusa! However, not only is this visage carved in relief on a circular shield but there are also images on Greek vases of Perseus cutting off the head of a bearded Gorgon, the origin of which seems to be a mix of Asian lion and Mesopotamian demon.

      Glad you’re enjoying these posts and hope they’re informing your re-read!

      1. earthbalm

        We’re still coming to terms with my father-in-law passing away on the day of my retirement so I’m not there quite yet. Thanks for the thought though.

    1. Yay! Things will speedily become so infused with Arthuriana — from volcano names to swords from lakes — that I’m not sure I’ll be able to fit it all in amongst all the other details! I’ll try, of course …

  1. Lynn Love

    Loving the view of the Andes and the llamas, and the rack railway — of course, steampunk, it all makes sense now — and just the feel of this wonderful adventure. Thanks for taking us by the hand and leading the way, Chris — it’s wonderful.

  2. When the tide makes a river go the wrong way is it a bit of a bore?

    That telescope does stretch credulity a bit.

    Obviously, she was not fanatical about sticking to the exact model for her geography.

    1. In the grand scheme of things — unlikely coincidences, constant jeopardies, happy endings (mostly) — a super magnifying telescope somehow doesn’t appear so unbelievable, any more than a cannon that can accurately fire a projectile across the Atlantic to hit the Houses of Parliament! And as for a squished-in South America, that ceases to be at all surprising.

      And me, rather than just go with the flow, my nerdiness forces me to find the rationale of Dido’s world — believe me, there is some!

      1. In true life one gets loads of unlikely coincidences and (in South Africa at least) constant jeopardies. You do appear to have isolated plenty of rationale, or the irrational wouldn’t stand out.

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