Seamus Perry

Hilltop Thoughts

O Joy for me! Samuel Taylor Coleridge & the Origins of Fell-walking in the Lake District, 1790–1802


Wilmington Square Books 194pp £20 order from our bookshop

Historians used to say that Petrarch was the first post-classical person to do a literary climb of a mountain, toiling up Mont Ventoux in 1350 or so and then writing an elegant epistle about it, though I gather it is now doubted whether he ever really stirred from his chair. In his account, Petrarch states that he climbs not for a practical purpose but for the view. As he ascends, he gains a perspective on his life just as he gains one on Provence. This double sense of elevation broadly anticipates all mountain writing, and perhaps a good deal of mountain walking too. Traditionally you go up to the top to encounter God, as Moses did, but if God is not on offer then you may still expect to find yourself in the company of elevated thoughts of one kind or another. In a variation on the theme, Jesus was taken to the top of a mighty hill by Satan and offered all the earth beneath his gaze, a gift he brusquely declined. The fell walker willingly succumbs to a benign version of the same temptation, becoming momentarily and in imagination somehow master of all he or she surveys.

The modern discovery of mountains in the late 18th century is a chapter in literary history that has been described quite often, and the leading role played by the peaks of Cumberland and Westmorland is pretty well known. Keir Davidson’s book, however, is unusual in actually spelling out which paths his climbers trod and what their views would have been. He has included a lot of very clear maps, and he takes both inspiration and some pretty drawings from the guidebooks of Alfred Wainwright. You could use the book to tread where Coleridge trod if you felt sufficiently enterprising: some of the steps he took were pretty hair-raising.

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