Friday, 16 May 2014

In the footsteps of Coleridge.

Shortly after midday on Sunday 1st August 1802, Samuel Taylor Coleridge strode down the hill from Greta Hall, his Keswick home, a knapsack over one shoulder and a broom-handle for a walking-stick, at the start of a nine-day walk around the Lake District. On Sunday 13th August 1989 - 187 years and 12 days later I set off from the same spot to follow, as closely as possible, in his footsteps. Like Coleridge, I walked alone. Like him, I did not book accommodation ahead but advanced hopefully, trusting that I would find somewhere to lay my head each evening. I tried to do the journey in his daily stages, and succeeded – up to a point.

The ‘footsteps’ form has become a popular one with writers. In the summer of 1964 Richard Holmes  followed the route through the Cevennes that Robert Louis Stevenson had walked, with his recalcitrant donkey, 86 years before. Bernard Levin traced Hannibal’s path across southern France and over the Alps to produce a book and a television series made memorable by his ‘Big White Carstairs’ tropical shorts. Others, for various motives, have tracked the evangelising journeys of St Paul, the road to Canterbury that Chaucer’s pilgrims took,the trail that John Muir blazed across the Sierra Nevada of California. At least two writers - Geoffrey Moorhouse and Beryl Bainbridge - have toured the places that J. B. Priestley visited on his English journey, published in 1934, to update his report on the state of the nation.

My aim was different from any of theirs. The idea was to look out for all the things that Coleridge noted on his walk that are still to be seen, virtually unchanged; also the things he sawwhich are no longer there, and the things that are there now but were not when he passed by; and, in this way, to try to form some picture of what has happened to this unique corner of England in the intervening years. So this is an account of three journeys: the one that Coleridge made, which was an exploration and an escape; the one I made, which was more of an investigation; and the long, complex journey that the Lake District has made in almost two centuries.

Luckily, much is known about Coleridge’s walk. He carried a small notebook and stopped frequently to jot down, while they were still fresh in his mind, all his observations and adventures, the feelings they inspired, the responses they aroused in that teeming and tireless mind. He then used these notes to form the basis of long, vivid and more literary letters that he wrote to the woman he had fallen guiltily in love with, Sara Hutchinson. These primary sources have survived almost intact and, thanks to assiduous modern scholarship - much of it North American -they are available in published form. Coleridge, who enjoyed coining new words, called his waik a ‘circumcursion’.

He ended where he started. His route followed a wavering but roughly circular course, anti-clockwise in direction, well over 100 miles in distance, involving the ascent and descent of more than 10,000 vertical feet, often on steep and stony ground. He saw all the higher mountains of the Lake District and most of its lakes and valleys, though he missed out Ullswater and Hawes Water and the eastern fells. He passed through three counties, for at that time - and for a further 170 years, until the county boundaries were  redrawn - Keswick was in Cumberland, Coniston was in North Lancashire, Rydal and Grasmere were in Westmorland. He touched the shore of the Irish Sea at St Bees. He rested and wrote part of a letter on the summit of Scafell, the second highest point of land in England. Descending from there, he took a short cut that involved him in the first recorded rock-climb ever made in this country.

Mountains were still seen as dangerous and repellent places, treacherous and profitless. Even William Wordsworth, a Lake District man by birth and upbringing and a powerful pedestrian, hired a local guide when he wanted to go to the summit of Scafell Pike. Coleridge’s achievement is all the more remarkable in the light of his condition and circumstances. These could hardly have been more discouraging. He was nearly 30 years old and had long suffered from a variety of physical complaints, most notably rheumatism. To suppress the pain he had been taking ever-increasing doses of laudanum, a tincture of opium and alcohol. By 1802, according to most accounts, he was addicted.

He was a married man with two young sons and a third child on the way. But the marriage was in trouble. His love for Sara Hutchinson, at odds with his strong belief in the sanctity of Christian marriage, tormented him with guilt. The household, which was sometimes awakened in the middle of the night by his drug-induced nightmare screams, was often shattered during the day by fierce connubial shouting matches. In addition, the power of poetic creation, which he prized above all else, seemed to have deserted him. And this at a time when Wordsworth was writing more prolifically and more powerfully than ever. His long walk gave Coleridge an escape from all these problems and pressures.

The urge to escape has rarely been given the recognition it deserves as a motivating force among those who go off on adventurous expeditions. When they come to write it up afterwards, as they frequently do, these people - explorers, mountaineers, lone navigators - tend to play that aspect down, presumably because they do not want to further upset the loved ones left behind at home. So we read much about the call of the wilderness, the spirit of adventure and man’s instinct to explore. But man’s instinct to escape is also powerful, and has been intensified perhaps by the crowded conditions, rigid routines and nagging anxieties of modern life. It was the relatively new urban, industrialised society in Britain and Germany in the mid-nineteenth century that produced adventure sports .It is hard, nowadays, to appreciate the sheer boldness of his undertaking. It was a journey without precedent. No one before him, and no one but Coleridge in his time, dreamt of walking over and among the high fells, alone, in all weathers, getting off the shepherds’ tracks, for the sheer fun of it, mountaineering and rock-climbing, pot-holing and small boat sailing.

Greta Hall: Keswick

The idea of breaking out and ‘getting away from it all’ is perennially attractive. Nothing is more liberating and enlivening - for a while. Coleridge had always been a natural escaper. As a child he escaped into books and solitary reveries. When he ran into trouble at Cambridge he bolted to enlist as a trooper in a cavalry regiment. As a husband, even in the first happy years of the marriage, he was rarely at home at times of crisis. He could always find reasons for his derelictions, but the pattern was repeated too often for them to carry conviction.

In the summer of 1802 he certainly had much to want to escape from, and for the nine days of his walk he escaped completely. He was never many miles from home but he was, in effect, in a different world. The delight, the exultation of this shines through his writing. It made a marvellous break for him,stimulating and fascinating and exciting, perhaps the last time in his life when the whole of his being - mind and body, heart and soul and will - were working harmoniously and vigorously together, at full stretch.

Alan Hankinson 1993.

From-Coleridge Walks the Fells-A Lakeland Journey retraced.

Mapping the Lakes/Gray and Coleridge.