There is nothing unusual about Keats’ excursion through the Lake District, except, perhaps, for his mode of travel—on foot. Like many a Londoner, he and Charles Brown arrived from the south, walking along the path of the modern A65 from Lancaster to Endmoor, where they spent the night. Next morning early, they passed through the Westmoreland town of Kendal, and having noted its ruined castle, and crossed over the river Kent by one of its impressive bridges, they headed west on what is now the B5284 to Bowness-on-Windermere.
It is from this road that Keats caught his first views “of the Lake and Mountains of Winander” (Rollins, 298), which to him were beautiful beyond description. This stereograph, taken by Thomas Ogle in the early 1860s, shows the approach to Bowness that Keats must have taken, and the sights that impressed him. The jutting points of land are the Ferry Nab, where William Wordsworth would often cross as a boy, and the White Lion Inn, where Keats ate trout fetched directly from the lake, can be seen along the shore of the lake. One wonders if Keats and Brown might have been tempted by the bowling green, built on elevated ground behind the Inn, and praised by James Clarke and others in their tour guides.
Unfortunately, the “winding lane” (Rollins, 300) along the edge of Windermere that Keats took to Ambleside, is gone now, displaced by “World of Beatrix Potter” exhibits (she would have hated them) and other tourist kitsch. But there are places where glimpses of the lake and mountains are still possible, such as this view up the Langdale valley from above the Lowwood Inn, which appears much the same today as it did in 1860.
On the far right in the distance is Loughrigg, a hill Keats admired; his sighting of Kirkstone, even in the clouds, however, was pure fantasy. An 1858 stereograph gives some sense of what the walk along the “beautiful shady lane” might have felt like, “wooded on each side, and green overhead, and full of Foxgloves” (Rollins, 300).
Their evening destination on 26 June was the Salutation Inn in Ambleside, the small town at the head of Windermere where the Brathay and Rothay rivers conjoin to form the lake, or mere, as it is more properly denominated. Stereographs like this one, taken by the Ambleside photographer, R. J. Sproat, are the forerunners of the hotel postcards commonly found in almost every hotel lobby today.
Before breakfast the next morning they arose to seek out Ambleside’s chief natural attraction: Stock Ghyll Force, a 50-foot waterfall buried in the woods behind the Salutation Inn. The walk is easy, although, as Thomas West complained in the 1770s, the falls itself are so obscured by trees and vegetation that one finds it more by sound than by sight—and that was the case for Keats. “We, I may say, fortunately, missed the direct path, and after wandering a little, found it out by the noise,” he wrote to Tom (Rollins, 300). It was his first sight of a waterfall, and it is remarkable how little falls have changed over the centuries. The “jut of rock” where Keats stood and viewed the “water … divided by a sort of cataract island” must be exactly where Thomas Ogle stood in the late 1850s, and where I stood myself just months ago (Rollins, 300).
And on his return walk, Keats must also have seen the old mill on the Stock, still in operation in the 1850s, and now a pub with unsightly outdoor umbrella tables—the “miasma of London” has indeed polluted the Lakes, far beyond Keats’s imaginings (Rollins, 299).
After breakfast the two men headed to Rydal, where Keats hoped to pay his respects to Wordsworth at his Rydal Mount home. The two had met the previous December at Haydon’s “Immortal Dinner,” and Keats was already annoyed when he heard, at Bowness, that the great poet was out campaigning for the Lowther interests. So when no one was home, he left a note on the mantle and left in something of a huff—but not before visiting the two waterfalls in Rydal Park: the Lower Falls, with its viewing house, and the Upper Falls as well, both of which even today, in spite of the interventions of a water company, look very much as they did when Thomas Ogle photographed them.
From Rydal, Keats and Brown followed the post road by Rydal Lake and Grasmere, and ascended up Dunmail Raise, before heading gently downward to Wythburn, where they spent the night. Keats’s head was full of Wordsworth’s “To Joanna” (which may also explain why he thought he might see the Kirkstone), and he delighted to recognize Silver How and the “ancient woman seated on Helm Crag,” before settling in to sleep at an inn near the base of Helvellyn.
Wythburn is no more, a victim of the water needs of the city of Manchester, although its roofs can occasionally be seen in the Thirlmere reservoir during periods of drought. But Wythburn Chapel remains, and one would like to think that Keats and Brown had a pint or two at the local pub, the same pub where Benjamin the Waggoner had a pint or five. Not that Keats could have known the literary association: The Waggoner would not appear in print for another year, and by that time Keats was too ill for a return visit, even if he had wanted to.
The next day, Keats and Brown arose early and walked the 8 miles north to Keswick and Derwentwater, Thomas Gray’s “Vale of Elysium.” “The approach to Derwent Water,” wrote Keats to his brother Tom, “surpassed Winandermere—it is richly wooded & shut in with rich-toned Mountains” (Rollins, 306).
They stayed two days, first circumambulating the lake, a walk that Keats estimated at about 10 miles, and on their way saw the waterfall of Lodore, subject of the famous children’s poem by Robert Southey. There Keats climbed “about the fragments of Rocks & should have got I think to the summit, but unfortunately I was damped by slipping into a squashy hole” (Rollins, 306).
From Lodore, he would have crossed the Derwent at Grange Bridge, then circled around the back of the lake, along Brandelhow and under Catbells, before crossing the Derwent again at Portinscale, and returning to Keswick.
Just at the end, as Keats put it, “we had a fag up hill, rather too near dinner time,” in order “to see the Druid temple,” the Castlerigg Stone Circle, here seen in an anonymous stereograph, as well as a recent photograph of my own (Rollins, 306).
The vigorous walk “rather fatigued” the pair, “but not so much as to hinder us getting up [the next] morning, to mount Skiddaw.” The views, until the mists rolled in, were spectacular: “the coast of Scotland; the Irish sea; the hills beyond Lancaster; & nearly all the large one of Cumberland & Westmoreland, particularly Helvellyn & Scawfell.” And all this, he wrote proudly to Tom, “before Breakfast” (Rollins, 306).
It was his last breakfast in the Lakes, for afterwards they headed north to Ireby, where they saw Morris dancers, and then to the cathedral town of Carlisle. “The difference between our country dances & these scotch figures,” wrote Keats, “is about the same as leisurely stirring a cup o’ Tea & heating up a batter pudding.” The dancers impressed him, even more than the Cumbrian mountains: “I never felt so near the glory of Patriotism, the glory of making by any means a country happier. This is what I like better than scenery” (Rollins, 307).
Bruce Graver is Professor of English and Department Chair (for two more years only) at Providence College. He has been walking the Lake District for over 30 years, on junkets billed as research trips, scholarly conferences, and even a couple of class trips.