Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
O Joy for Me: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Origins of Fellwalking in the Lake District 1790-1802 by Keir Edwards. Wilmington Square Books. £20.
In June 1800, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was standing on the top of Skiddaw “by a little Shed of Slatestones” and idly scribbling his name amongst other names on the stones, when another walker “a lean expressive faced Man came up the hill, stood beside me, a little while, and then running over the names, exclaimed, ‘Coleridge! I lay my life, that is the Poet Coleridge.’”
Coleridge was not the first person to climb the Lake District fells. The lean expressive faced man had climbed Skiddaw and all those others who had scratched their names in the slate stone had walked up the mountain.
Tourists had been visiting the Lakes since the 1750’s. Men such as William Gilpin and Thomas Gray found their pleasure in observing the sublimity of the mountains from the valleys, but some, like Coleridge’s fellow scribblers, had ventured to the heights. Joseph Palmer, a one-armed war-veteran, who took the aliases of Captain Joseph Budworth and ‘A Rambler’, wrote about his rambles over Fairfield and Helvellyn and elsewhere.
However, it was Coleridge, after he came to live at Greta Hall in Keswick, who made the roaming of the fells into something rapturous and ecstatic. As he walked he kept a ‘running’ notebook, scribbling down, seemingly spontaneously, in brief, staccato phrases, the excitement he felt as the landscape and cloudscape changed before his eyes.
At the age of 28, his great poems had already been written, and, perhaps, intimidated by criticism from his friend, William Wordsworth, he had largely stopped writing poetry, but the words and the feelings could not be repressed and he discovered a new subject and a new form of expression as he roamed the hills.
He looks down on Scales Tarn on Blencathra and sees “a round bason of vast depth, to the west an almost perpendic precipice of naked shelving crags”. To the north west there’s ‘a little sike’ and he observes how “at every fall the water fell off in little liquid Icicles” and that there was “no noise but that of the loose stones rolling away from the feet of the Sheep, that move slowly along these perilous Ledges.”
In April, 1802, he set out “to wander and wander for ever”. He “climbed & rested, rested & climbed till I gained the very summit of Sca Fell”. It was a moment of intense feeling: “All before is the dying away of all the fells”. He felt that: Nature has her proper interest: & he will know what it is, who feels and believes, that everything has a Life of its own, & that we are all one Life.”
The descent was not easy. Coleridge was walking without maps and without a guide – other walkers took a local guide from amongst the shepherds who, of course, for generations, had known the fells intimately. He found himself dropping down, ledge by ledge, and each “jolt of the Fall on my Feet, put my whole Limbs in a Tremble”. He could not go back and “so go on I must . . . but every Drop increased the palsy of my Limbs . . . I shook all over”.
Coleridge left Keswick in 1804. His health, partly due to his addiction to opium, decreased and he never walked the fells again.
His letters and notebooks were little known until the 1950s, but together they record one of the greatest of fell walking experiences. Keir Davidson’s useful exploration of the letters and notebooks enables us follow, in imagination at least, in the footsteps of the most rapturous of all fell walkers.