Chasing Coleridge

by Mark Patterson

It was after 12 noon on 1st August 1802 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge closed the front door of his home, Greta Hall in Keswick, and set off to walk to Buttermere and then Ennerdale, 16 miles to the west. This was the first stage of his planned nine-day walking tour of the Lakes and it’s probable that Coleridge had timed his trip to take advantage of good weather.

The route of Coleridge’s walk. Original map from Cumbria County Council



Certainly, it must have been a dry summer that year because when Coleridge reached the steep top of Newlands Pass, a mile or so above Buttermere, he found that the flow of water in Moss Force waterfall was much reduced. Perhaps pausing just briefly here, Coleridge descended to Buttermere, his half-way mark for the day, had a cup of tea at the Fish Inn, read most of Revelations, and then began the long ascent to the day’s second pass, Floutern Cop, which eventually brought him out over Ennerdale Water. As the light failed he kept walking a few more miles to reach his bed for the night, at the home of a friend-of-a-friend just beyond the village of Ennerdale Bridge.


Ascending to Newlands Pass and Moss Force

I’m describing Coleridge’s movements on this first day in some detail because when I set out to shadow his movements in August 2018 I soon found that I couldn’t match his distance without discomfort. In fact, having plodded up to Newlands Pass with a heavy rucksack on a hot shadeless day, and then down the other side to Buttermere, packed out with holiday-makers, I was happy to call a halt for the day by mid-afternoon. Ennerdale, Scale Force, Floutern Tarn and the magnificent wild glacial landscape leading up to Floutern Cop could wait until the next day.

Where Coleridge had walked 15 miles in a long day, I did eight and took the rest of the day off, bed secured at the youth hostel. Over the next week or so a few of my other daily walking distances also fell short of the Coleridgean ideal. Where Coleridge walked the last 16-mile stretch from Ambleside to Keswick in a day, pausing at Dove Cottage to make a meal, I stopped at Grasmere for the night and did the final 12 the next day. Was I ashamed of myself? A little. But, in truth, I wasn’t strictly seeking to replicate, step-by-step, Coleridge’s journey. That, after all, had already been done by the late Keswick rock climber and journalist Alan Hankinson, whose book Coleridge Walks the Fells (Ellenbank Press, 1991) recounts his attempt to follow the poet’s exact route, see what he saw and stay where he stayed. I was on a different mission, which was to gain a measure of insight into how Coleridge, and his circle, managed to regularly walk long distances with so little preparation or apparent discomfort. In essence, the subject of the walk, and my related research, can be summed up as, How did the Romantics Walk So Far with So Little? Their walking clothes, their food, their accommodation, the state of the roads and trails – this is what interests me.

As an inveterate long distance walker I find it impossible not to admire Coleridge. He may have been a poor husband and a frequently absent father, but he was in his element on the trail – intensely observant, curious, daring and blessed with tremendous physical stamina. Sixteen miles was his longest daily distance in the 1802 Lakes tour but he could do around twice that distance. In Scotland later that year he achieved an average of 30 miles a day (268 miles in nine days, at one point walking barefoot after accidentally burning his shoes at a fire). Earlier in the West Country he walked 90 miles in two days. Walking long distances over rough terrain in the dark held no terror for him. Nor did rock climbing, as we know from his celebrated descent of Broadstand on Scafell and frequent ascents of waterfalls. And that he was confident in his own speed and route-finding is shown by the fact that he often didn’t set out until after lunch. On at least two occasions on the nine-day tour of the Lakes, at Keswick and Eskdale, he wasn’t out of the door until after midday. Faced with a long day’s walk that might end in the dark, most of us try to set off after an early breakfast.


But Coleridge, while exceptional in so many ways (the most exceptional man of his generation, according to his publisher Joseph Cottle), was also typical of his circle and generation in the sense that these were people for whom walking was a daily necessity – and, increasingly, a sensual pleasure. William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s weekly trips to the post office in Ambleside were typical of their utilitarian journeys from Grasmere. Where many people in the western world today balk at the idea of walking a mile to anywhere, they regularly made six-mile round trips to collect their mail. On one occasion Dorothy mistakenly got to Ambleside in the morning, forgetting that the mail arrived in the evening, so walked back to Grasmere and returned to Ambleside at night. That was 12 miles just to get their mail. Of course, they walked because they had to; at that stage, living at Dove Cottage, they rarely hired a carriage. But what sets the Romantic generation off from previous ones was their delight in walking for its own sake, and their written articulation of that delight. Dorothy, no slacker herself when it came to distance walking, walked at every opportunity. That is abundantly evident in her Grasmere Journal and also the lesser-known journals of trips in Scotland and Europe. “I, being never at home, but where I can ramble on foot…” she wrote in her account of a tour of Switzerland in 1821.


But chief of the walkers among the ‘Wordsworth circle’ was Coleridge. How did he do it? Well, he travelled light – very light. Setting off from Greta Hall in 1802 he carried the shank of a besom broom for a walking stick, and a knapsack containing a spare shirt, cravat, two pairs of stockings, a book, paper and pens, tea and sugar, a night cap and an oilskin of some kind. So, with the shirt he was wearing, he had only two shirts for a journey of around 100 miles. He ate in inns but took no extra food or any cooking equipment.

His map, such as it could be called, and sketched on a single page in his journal, was really an illustrated aide memoire to the places he’d already visited or planned to visit on the coming tour. It wasn’t the kind of map that would help him get unlost with the aid of a compass. But then, he took no compass anyway. Yet Coleridge lost his way only once, on the way from Ulpha to Broughton Mills, and a local man soon put him on the right path.


There is a suggestion that he asked Wasdale shepherds for advice about the route up to Scafell but at no stage did he hire a mountain guide, which was a normal practice for gentlemen venturing into high places in those days. It wasn’t as if Coleridge didn’t have experience of using guides as he and Joseph Hucks hired two during their walking tour of Wales in 1794. It was the first guide, a lad of 17, who persuaded them not to indulge their mad idea of climbing Snowdon at 11pm. Eight years later, in the Lakes, Coleridge was still counting his pennies and not hiring guides may have been down to the need to economise.


All told, with just a coat and two shirts, lacking shelter, portable food or drink or the means to make fire, Coleridge appears to have been dangerously under-equipped for a nine day walk around the Lake District – judged by today’s safety-first standards, that is.


In his favour, he knew people and had connections in the area to secure beds and meals. On three occasions, in Ennerdale, Eskdale and Wasdale, he stayed overnight with friends-of-friends or people he had stayed with before. On a fourth occasion, while heading home to Keswick via Clappersgate, near Ambleside, he stayed over night at Brathay Hall, home of his friend and former pupil Charles Lloyd. At other times Coleridge relied on inns along the route for his bed and meals. And we know from his journal and letters a little about what he ate and drank. Buttermere: tea. St Bees: a glass of gin and water. Bonewood, near Gosforth: a pint of beer. Nether Wasdale: a “good dish” of tea (from his own stock). Eskdale: tea and “some excellent Salmonlings” brought from Ravenglass by his host. Broughton Mills: oatcake and cheese, with a pint of ale and two glasses of rum and water sweetened with preserved gooseberries. Dove Cottage, Grasmere; freshly shelled peas with a rasher of boiled bacon.

Entrance to Charles Lloyd’s former home, Brathay Hall, now a residential centre

Clearly, he didn’t worry about alcohol affecting his navigation skills. Nor did he feel the need to take any supplies of food to sustain his high-energy daily walking regime. In the 1860s, English adventurers such as Edward Whymper, conqueror of the Matterhorn, were sustained by specialist products such as bars of Fortnum & Mason ‘portable soup’, but such things were unknown in Coleridge’s time. In his day walking food meant stuffing everyday food such as bread, cheese or pieces of pork into knapsacks and pockets, as William and John Wordsworth did on their 118-mile walk from Grasmere to Yorkshire in 1800. Yet despite Coleridge’s untiring mileage over rough terrain in the Lakes he made only one brief comment about feeling hungry. This came at the top of Skafell where he wrote a letter to Sara Hutchinson in which he said he was “hunger’d & provisionless”. That was the only confession of want on his nine-day tour.


Hostels and civilian campsites were also unthought of in 1802, although there were inns, of varying standards. In Wales, Coleridge and Hucks encountered bad food, damp sheets and one place that was so stuffy they broke the windows to let air in. In the Lakes the worst place Coleridge admitted to was a “miserable Pot-house” in St Bees, where he slept in his clothes. Yet Coleridge’s willingness to ‘rough it’ (he happily slept in barns on his German walking tour) was an asset at a time when he was not well off. By contrast, it is arguably more difficult to rough it in the countryside today because security concerns and a general fear of strangers means that travellers are corralled into campsites, hostels and hotels. Who today dares ask a farmer for permission to sleep in his or her barn? Interestingly, Coleridge usually didn’t know where he was going to stay each night, trusting, just like many young backpackers do, that he would always find a bed somewhere. Alan Hankinson tried the same approach and got away with it, but only once managed to sleep under the same roof as Coleridge, at the Black Bull in Coniston. Hankinson, while not carrying a tent, food or cooking gear, still carried more weight than Coleridge. I, loaded down with tent, food, stove and gas in preparation for hostels and camping, carried more than Hankinson, which is why it was difficult to match Coleridge’s distances.

The Black Bull, Coniston


In a letter Coleridge once described his gait and walking style as “awkward” and as “indolence capable of energies” but, in contrast to my plodding with a heavy pack, Coleridge must have virtually flown across the fells. Of course, it is not possible now to talk of Coleridge without some acknowledgement of how his thoughts and actions may have been affected by opium addiction. The poet was a ‘user’ by 1802 and would be for many years afterwards. Did opium use suppress his hunger while he was walking? Yet if he was a user on this long walk he made no mention of it in his notes or letters – and he was no stranger to confessing his addiction to those close to him. Walking, it is true, does not magically rid one of drug or alcohol addiction. But it may be that the exuberance of sustained physical effort allowed Coleridge to keep his addiction at bay, even if for just for nine days.


Here then was Coleridge the ideal long-distance walker, a man capable of long daily distances with easy accommodation needs. On top of this, Lakeland residents and visitors must surely be amazed by Coleridge’s apparent immunity to bad weather. Yet only once did he actually experience rain and that was on the descent from Skafell to Eskdale when a thunderstorm caused him to seek shelter in the lee of a large rock near the river Esk. One brief rainstorm in nine days? He was fortunate. In August 1989 a heatwave broke on the very day that Alan Hankinson began his walk. He was soaked from head to foot by the time he reached Buttermere. The 2018 heatwave broke two days into my walk and good weather didn’t resume until the end. The intervening days were all drizzle and mist, and at Wasdale there was heavy rain driven by gale force winds.


Yet even had Coleridge suffered the same ‘Lakes weather’ as the rest of us there is good reason to believe he wouldn’t have packed up and gone home, and that’s because he loved the thrill and challenge of wild, bad weather. Hazlitt described how Coleridge had run bareheaded into a Quantocks thunderstorm to “enjoy the commotion of the elements”, and Coleridge later told how he walked stolidly on into a Lakeland storm for the sheer wild pleasure of it. Even drizzle had an aesthetic benefit as it “exhibits the mountains better than any”, as he told Southey in 1802.

Bad weather coming in across Wastwater in August 2018


One other aspect of the Lakeland landscape meant he could walk quickly and safely, and that was the quiet nature of the roads and tracks. The roads may have been narrow in his day (the single lane which runs past Dove Cottage, a remnant of the original road from Ambleside to Keswick, is a good example) but they were fit for the traffic of the day, when the fastest regular object was the mail coach. Itinerant beggars, tradespeople, horses and carts – this was the usual traffic on the Lakeland roads, as we know from Wordsworth’s poetry. Other routes trodden by Coleridge were basically as yet unpaved tracks. Contemporary prints show that the route along the side of Wastwater, for example, was still a rough track; neither was there yet a road fit for coaches along the Newlands valley to Buttermere; nor over the moors between Eskdale and Ulpha, a route which Coleridge found gloomy.


Across the moors to Ulpha


Contrast that with today’s situation, where most of Coleridge’s route is followed by busy roads and where walkers risk their lives. Even the narrow lane running along Eskdale, a route which Coleridge followed after descending from Skafell, is dangerous because of the volume of local and holiday traffic. But there is much worse for walkers than this; a large section of the road between Coniston and Hawkshead, for example, is horrible because of its blind corners and absence of pavements. And who today would willingly walk the fast road from Ambleside to Keswick? All this forces the modern walker to use caution or simply find alternative routes. If you want to follow Coleridge’s way in its purest, and safest, form you must skip the roads altogether and follow in his footsteps up from Buttermere to Floutern Tarn and over the top to Ennerdale; walk the old ‘coffin route’ from Wastwater to Burnmoor Tarn to Eskdale, not forgetting to ascend Skafell on the way; find his path from Eskdale up to Devoke Water; and tread the old narrow lane north from Ambleside which terminates outside Dove Cottage.


The stone boat house at Devoke Water, mentioned by Coleridge in his notes


The old ‘coffin road’ from Wasdale to Eskdale via Burnmoor Tarn


It is on these well-worn routes that Coleridge the walker can best be imagined. Poor, but with some money in his pockets, travelling light, unweighted by maps, spare food, spare this and spare that, and brought up in a tough physical culture where people walked long distances because they had to, Coleridge the exceptional writer and thinker became Coleridge the exceptional, pioneering, risk-taking, rock-climbing, ultra-lightweight, long-distance backpacker – the polar opposite of today’s cosseted, safety-conscious, expensively clad, leisure walker.



Mark Patterson is a freelance writer and journalist who has worked in newspapers, PR and marketing. He has written two books on Roman archaeology and is currently working on a series of essays and articles exploring various aspects of walking and walking culture including the influence of the Romantics.