‘I WANDERED LONELY… SOMEWHERE ELSE’
OTHER HISTORIC LITERARY GIANTS WHO FELL FOR THE HILLS.
Keats was a younger contemporary of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Robert Southey, though his death from tuberculosis at 25 meant he never achieved the prodigious output he seemed destined for. He did, however, pen a number of sonnets while exploring the high places of Britain – including an ascent of Ben Nevis on 26 July 1818 as part of a walking tour of Scotland. It’s thought to be this tour that kick-started the illness that killed him, though not before he wrote his ‘Sonnet written on the summit of Ben Nevis’, which begins:
‘Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud Upon the top of Nevis, blind in mist!
I look into the chasms, and a shroud Vapourous doth hide them, just so much I wist Mankind do know of hell’
Borrow was a depressive who obsessively walked to escape what he called the ‘horrors’ (he once walked from Norwich to London in 27 hours) and wrote his most lauded book, Wild Wales, after touring the country on foot. He climbed Snowdon from Bangor in a day with his step-daughter Henrietta, remarking beforehand:
‘‘Dacw Eryri,’ yonder is Snowdon. Let us try to get to the top. The Welsh have a proverb: ‘It is easy to say yonder is Snowdon; but not so easy to ascend it.’ Therefore I would advise you to brace up your nerves and sinews for the attempt.’
The Aberdeen-born writer, whose face now features on Scottish bank notes, filled her 1940s masterpiece The Living Mountain with more beautifully evocative quotes than its modest length suggests it could. An ode to hillwalking in the Cairngorms – given extra resonance by the freedom it afforded her as a woman constrained by society in rural Scotland – Shepherd didn’t publish The Living Mountain until 1977, a few years before her death. Since then it has won acclaim among modern nature writers and readers alike. Wisdom drips from the words, but often the simplest sentences carry the most truth:
‘To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain.’
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE (1772-1832)
Coleridge was Wordsworth’s rather more reckless, unpredictable poetic pal who could be considered one of the first mountain thrill-seekers. Addicted to all manner of opiates throughout his life, Coleridge took pleasure in exposing himself to lightning storms, walking by night on frozen ground, and most famously, descending Broad Stand on Scafell in 1802, which many consider the first recreational rock climb – though it was likely out of desperation due to an approaching storm. The resulting description breathlessly delivered in a letter to his muse (and his crush) Sarah Hutchinson is the first piece of Lakeland climbing literature. Fighting off a panic attack as the stepped ledges of Broad Stand became ever more hazardous, Coleridge began to feel something of a buzz:
‘…the sight of the Crags above me on each side, and the impetuous clouds just over them, posting so luridly and so rapidly northward, overawed me. I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance and Delight…’
GEORGE GORDON BYRON (1788-1824)
Lord Byron spent his childhood in Scotland, beneath the brooding cliffs and rounded summits of the Cairngorms. Byron would later go on to become a scandalous dandy, fathering several illegitimate children and haunting exotic European cities such as Venice, before joining the Greeks to fight the Ottoman Empire, dying there in 1824 from a fever. Byron never lost affection for his Highland home, however – and in 1807 he wrote the poem Lachin y Gair – better known as Dark Lochnagar.
‘Years have rolled on, Lochnagar, since I left you Years must roll on ere I see you again Though Nature of verdure and flowers bereft you Yet still art thou dearer than Albion’s plain England! thy beauties are tame and domestic To one who has roved on the mountains afar Oh for the crags that are wild and majestic
The steep frowning glories o’ wild Lochnagar’
Llanberis village in Gwynedd, north Wales, from the southern bank of Llyn Padarn and at the foot of Snowdon, circa 1840.