The hills have inspired some great writing over the years, but the original might still be among the best. Ronald Turnbull traces the footsteps of a youthful Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a prolific walker, accidental scrambling pioneer and romantic idoliser of the wild and sublime.
Over Christmas 1799 William and Dorothy Wordsworth moved into Dove Cottage at Grasmere. Six months later, their friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge moved north as well, renting Greta Hall, a large villa on the edge of Keswick.
Reading STC can be, for other Lakeland writers, a wee bit demoralising...
Hillwalking was already part of the Romantic lifestyle, along with experiments with drugs and communal living, plus of course radical new forms of verse. The two poets (three if you count Dorothy, as you possibly should) had already ranged far and wide across Somerset. During a three day hike across the Quantocks and Exmoor they had roughed out Coleridge's masterpiece, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.
Visitors to the Coleridges' cottage at Nether Stowey might find themselves confronted with a 36-mile walk-and-talk along the coast path to the Valley of the Rocks, near Lynton. William Hazlitt wrote that "the light of his [Coleridge's] genius shone into my soul, like the sun's rays glittering in the puddles of the road." And their verse reflected their favoured style of hike. Wordsworth composed while strolling on grassland lawns; Coleridge while struggling up the steep, wooded combes of the Quantocks.
Wordsworth was Lakeland born and bred. But for Coleridge, coming from the West Country, Lakeland was a revelation. And aged 27, he was in his prime, both as poet and as fellwalker – the opium habit would eventually ruin his health, but not for a few years yet.
So during the next three years he went walking on the fells. And what walks! Within a couple of months, he was off to Grasmere by the ridgeline of Helvellyn. Overnight. Well he'd been a bit late getting away, and there was a full moon, so why not? No torch or lantern, of course; no map, just some routefinding hints from a shepherd; and his wife's besom broom with the twigs taken off again as a walking pole. He got to Dove Cottage well after midnight, woke up the Wordsworths, and they read their poems in the moonlight.
He noticed a fine waterfall of Moss Force, six miles out of Keswick – and waited for a really wet and stormy day to walk back out to that one, to get the proper amount of water in it.
By 1802 he was planning a serious walk. A nine-day hike, taking in Buttermere and St Bees, Scafell and upper Eskdale, and home by Duddon and Grasmere. Again with only the sketchiest of maps, compiled from hearsay route hints, he descended from Scafell by dropping from his hands over low crags, and ended up doing the first recorded descent of Broad Stand.
But Coleridge wasn't just a fine fellwalker. He recorded all that he saw, smelled and felt, in letters and in the personal notebook he carried with him. On Scafell he started a letter to his lover Sara Hutchinson at the summit of Scafell; carried it down his life-threatening descent; wrapped it up in oilskin through a thunderstorm at the Sampson Stones; and completed the account that evening in the kitchen at Taw Farm. All this was source material for future poems – poems which, in the event, were never written. But the letters survived – nobody threw away a letter from STC. And so did the notebooks, now preserved in the British Library. Put them together, and you get – quite simply – an account of fellwalking in the Lakes that's never been bettered. Not by Wordsworth, not by Wainwright, not even by Harry Griffin. Nobody, in all the following two centuries, has experienced Lakeland with the intensity and observation of Sam Coleridge.
Coleridge's notebooks were published in full by Princeton University Press – Vol 1 covers the fellwalking years 1794–1804. But in 1991 the Folio Society published 'Coleridge Among the Lakes & Mountains', a compendium from his notebooks, poems and letters, with lots of illustrations from paintings of the time including one or two of Turner and Constable. And it's all here: the ramblings on the Quantocks, the big walks out of Keswick, the expedition to the Harz Mountains when Wordsworth got so fed up, the hike up the West Highland Way.
Currently you can get this online, second-hand, for around £10. Though if a couple of thousand UKH readers all want it at once, the price may advance upwards towards the summit of Scafell... In the meantime, the 9-day expedition including the Scafell letter is online here; and his account of the Moss Force waterfall is here.
But stay off these sites if you're an aspiring outdoor writer. Reading STC can be, for other Lakeland writers, a wee bit demoralising...