William Wordsworth was fond of poetry, of course, but wandering lonely as a cloud had a practical spin-off too, when he turned his hand to guidebook writing. To mark the 250th anniversary of his birth, Ronald Turnbull peruses the Guide Through the District of the Lakes, the match that sparked a host of fellwalking books down the ages.
In 1810 appeared the first real Lake District guidebook, the one which was for fellwalkers. There had been earlier ones, but they'd been all about being terrified by the precipices of Borrowdale, or arranging the scenery into some picture by Claude Poussin while looking at it upside down in a convex mirror. This one was about enjoying the Lakes and fells – loving them, indeed – as places just to be. It was the also first to discover awkward-to-get-to Wastwater.
Among all the opinionated rhetoric on larch trees, and the proper way to look at a lake, there's one subject on which his guidebook remains strangely silent. Never once does it mention any daffodils.
The book was its author's single best-selling work. It was printed and reprinted, gaining in 1853 a geological introduction by the famous Adam Sedgwick of Dentdale, and still in print in many different editions today. Its concerns – the planting of non-native trees, inappropriate housing development, the very idea of a National Park – are still causing under-collar heating in the press releases of Friends of the Lake District. And some time around the 1840s, an elderly clergyman approached its author on the streets of Grasmere. "Tell me, Mr Wordsworth. Have you written any other works?"
Well yes. Mr Wordsworth, born 250 years ago this April, wrote about 1000 pages of poetry in very small print.
Some of it is of interest to fellwalkers: 'Tintern Abbey' is not just a good bit of long-distance walking up the Wye Valley Way, but also a serious exploration of what it means to be a person looking at a place. The long, autobiographical 'Prelude' has a little bit of rock climbing, a crossing of the Alps, and a splendid overnight ascent of Snowdon above a cloud inversion. However, as fellow-poet JK Stephen puts it, "Two voices are there: one is of the deep; and one is of an old half-witted sheep." 'We are Seven' had its title subverted by AA Milne. 'Resolution and Independence', the one about the lonely leech-gatherer, was comprehensively spoofed by Lewis Carroll as the 'White Knight's Song' without in fact making it any sillier than it was to start with.
And rather too much of it is just dull. Stop at Michael's Fold on the way up from Grasmere to Alcock Tarn and read the poem that gave it the name. Whatever the weather, 'Michael' will make you very glad indeed to be a fellwalker heading for Alcock Tarn rather than someone who has to sit at Michael's Fold reading Wordsworth. Plus, of course, there's the one about the daffodils.
So abandon any attempt to read through the 484 lines of 'Michael' and instead turn to Willie W's best-selling work. He stuffs all of the normal guidebook stuff about where to go and which way to get there into the first chapter. Indeed, the only specific route description is to go up to the Langdale Pikes out of the corner of Grasmere by way of Brim Fell – which is indeed a damn fine way to do the Langdale Pikes.
I'm sorry, that last bit isn't quite true. I've just spotted a detailed route description for Helvellyn. Here it is (page 45 in my edition): "Helvellyn may be conveniently ascended from the Inn at Wythburn." Who needs Wainwright?
But then you move on to chapters about the effects of light and shadow upon the vales. The colours in wintertime. The best direction to look at a lake (it's from the foot, except in the case of Loweswater). And a wonderful full-page diatribe against the larch tree, in which he disparages first its twigs and branches, then its landscape effect when planted in large blocks. He goes on to sneer at it specifically in spring (its green so peculiar and vivid); but also in summer (its dingy lifeless hue); in autumn (its spiritless unvaried yellow); and of course in winter (absolutely dead).
But after such lively invective, he – or she, as this bit is by his sister Dorothy – turns to something not noticed by any other of Lakeland's ten thousand guidebook writers: the weird beauty of the scattered rocks of the Kirkstone Pass, seen in thick mist on a wet morning in November. "In such a place, every scattered stone the size of one's head becomes a companion."
Among all the opinionated rhetoric, on larch trees, whitewashed cottages, railway lines, and the proper way to look at a lake, there's one subject on which his guidebook remains strangely silent.
Never once does it mention any damned daffodils.
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