Climbing England's highest mountain is often seen as a personal challenge.

Combine it with climbs of the highest mountains in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and it's called the Five Peaks Challenge.

And once upon a time there was an attitude that challenges like this weren't for girls.

If attitudes are more enlightened now then we have one of Cumbria's extraordinary women to thank - Dorothy Wordsworth.

Exactly 200 years ago on October 7, she and her friend the artist Mary Barker set off to climb to the top of Scafell Pike.

They may be the first women ever to have done it. They're certainly the first we know about.

Their feat, their experiences and the account Dorothy wrote of it are at the centre of an exhibition, film and art installation which opens in two weeks' time and runs until Christmasr, called This Girl Did .

It's being held at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, the house where the poet William Wordsworth, his wife Mary and sister Dorothy lived, and which is now a museum in William's memory.

The exhibition is one of the series being held across museums in Cumbria this year to mark the centenary of votes for women, and to commemorate some of Cumbrian women's achievements.

In 1818 walking up mountains wasn't really a major leisure activity. Shepherds would have ascended the hills but few people did it for fun.

Women certainly didn't. But Dorothy Wordsworth was no ordinary woman.

She is usually discussed in relation to her more famous brother. But Melissa Mitchell, one of the curators at Dove Cottage, finds that these days it's not just about William.

"More and more people are considering Dorothy in her own right," she notes.

"William and Dorothy were on an equal footing. He appreciated her intelligence and her creativity.

"I think you can see her as a pioneer."

When mountain climbing did gradually begin to become popular, no-one really thought of climbing Scafell Pike.

"People would climb Skiddaw and Helvellyn for leisure," Melissa explains.

"Skiddaw was very popular because you could ride up there on horseback. Helvellyn was more challenging."

But Scafell Pike wasn't even contemplated. "It wasn't mentioned in maps and guidebooks. We've got a lot of maps from that time and it's just left off them.

"It had been established as England's highest mountain in 1790. People knew it existed - but they didn't want to go up it."

Its hugeness seems to have intimidated walkers.

"By all accounts it looked colossal and terrifying. A lot of people described it as quite frightening to see.

"Dorothy is quite special in that she is one of the people who did climb it."

And given the attitudes of the time, the idea that two women might tackle it would have been unthinkable.

Melissa says: "It was a time when social norms dictated that women didn't go out alone or take strenuous exercise.

"But Dorothy did. She'd go out walking all the time, every day, for hours on her own."

There were no children or husband to tether her to the home.

"Remaining unmarried, she experienced a lot of freedom. She wasn't bound - she could do what she wanted."

We know about it because of the account she wrote of the experience. Some details are absent. But it can't have been easy.

Dorothy was 46 when she climbed Scafell Pike and Mary was two years younger - so they weren't in the first flush of youth.

And the clothes women wore at the time didn't lend themselves to mountaineering.

"They would just have worn their everyday clothes, probably a woollen dress or skirt," Melissa reckons. "She had a sturdy pair of boots but they wouldn't have been like today's.

"She mentions bringing 'food wrapped in paper' with her, although we don't know exactly what it was.

"We also know she took paper and ink with her so she could write letters from the summit. She wrote one to William's wife Mary, but sadly it doesn't survive."

However the weather was on their side. "It was October but it was an uncommonly good day."

That meant great views. "She could see for miles and miles. They saw the sea and Duddon sands, and on the way up they saw Keswick, Bassenthwaite, the Solway Firth, the mountains of Scotland, Windermere, even Ingleborough in Yorkshire."

Dorothy's account was published in the 1822 edition of William's Guide to the Lakes but she isn't named as its author. And Melissa observes: "If you were to read it at the time you would assume that William had completed it, not her."

It wasn't that William was trying to take the credit for it. But it was an era when women were not expected to write anything other than light romances. Any other kind of writing would be unlikely to sell and may have been ignored.

Another 19th century author, Mary-Ann Evans, used the pen-name George Eliot - suspecting that her novels would be taken more seriously if their author was believed to be a man.

Melissa adds: "The same year as the climb, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein anonymously. It was generally difficult for women to get published."

Dorothy describes her friend Mary as "an active climber of the hills" but little else is known about her.

"She lived in Borrowdale and was part of the Wordsworth circle, and by all accounts she was quite a pioneering lady.

"She was a painter but not much of her work survives."

What's notable about their climb was the different attitude they brought to it. The idea that Scafell Pike was a test of endurance, a foe to conquer, may be in the minds of some of today's climbers, but didn't feature much in Dorothy's.

While conquerors look upwards to the summit, she looked around.

"I think Dorothy probably did like the challenge," Melissa speculates. "But it wasn't just about getting to the top.

"She appreciated walking and she enjoyed looking at all the small details, the mosses growing there or the wildlife higher up."

Her enjoyment of walking and nature made it all the more tragic that for many of her last years she was bed-bound by illness.

"When she was a young woman she was always walking, and then all she could do was look out the window at the garden," says Melissa.

"It occupied her thoughts a lot of the time. It's very, very sad."

The exhibition invites visitors to think of new ways of looking at mountains.

It features maps, artworks, walking guides by women and Dorothy’s own manuscript of her account of the climb - and some modern responses to it.

Artist Louise Ann Wilson has created an installation called "Women’s Walks to Remember".

She has talked to other Lake District women about walks they used to be able to do, and has retraced their footsteps, bringing back items - whether photographs or rocks - that allow them to relive it.

A film called Scafell Pike is going to be premiered at Kendal Mountain Festival in November before moving to Dove Cottage.

It re-imagines Dorothy’s ascent of the mountain, and like her it focuses on the journey more than a desire to conquer it.

Two talks by academics from Lancaster University also feature. On Saturday, September 1 Dr Joanna Taylor will open the exhibition with a talk entitled "The very mountains' child: Dorothy Wordsworth, mountaineering pioneer" from 4pm to 5pm.

On Saturday, December 22 from 3pm to 4pm Simon Bainbridge will discuss "Active Climbers of the Hills: Women in the Mountains", describing other pioneering women climbers and their adventurous ascents.

And there will be a commemorative walk - not up Scafell Pike but up Skiddaw.

It will take place on Saturday, September 29 and will begin at 10.30am from Latrigg Carriage. It commemorates a walk that some of Dorothy's friends were doing on the same day in 1818 that she climbed Scafell Pike. All are welcome.

Dove Cottage is open every day until Sunday, December 23. Opening hours are from 9.30am to 5.30pm until Wednesday, October 31 and from 10am to 4.30pm from Thursday, November 1.

Admission costs £8.95 for adults, £7.25 for students and is free to children. It costs £7.95 for a disabled people with a carer.

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