Poet climbs Scafell

In August 1802, poet, scholar and journalist Samuel Taylor Coleridge set off on a tough 9-day walking and climbing tour of the Lake District, which would include Scafell, the second highest peak in England.  It’s interesting to see how he went equipped. For a walking stick he dismantled a broom, to the annoyance of his wife. His knapsack was made of a square of green oilskin, closed by string, and inside

. . . he carried a spare shirt, stockings, cravat, and night-cap (which seems to have been Coleridge’s equivalent of a sleeping bag), together with paper twists of tea and sugar, his Notebook, and half a dozen quills with a portable inkwell.”  – Early Visions by Richard Holmes

Coleridge is said to be the first “outsider” to climb Scafell and his descent is hailed as the first ever recreational rock climb.  It was a memorable piece of improvisation. Threatened by an approaching storm, he chose a way down, without any idea of what lay below.  He found himself descending a series of ledges, a kind of giant’s staircase, known today as Broad Stand. As the ledges grew further apart, he lowered himself over them and let himself drop.  The succession of jolts soon “put my whole Limbs in a Tremble, and  . . . I began to suspect that I ought not to go on . . “

But he no longer had any choice.  It was a route that without a rope or assistance he could never retrace. Looking down, Coleridge saw he had only two more drops, but

the first was tremendous – it was twice my own height, & the Ledge at the bottom was [so] exceedingly narrow, that if I dropt down upon it I must of necessity have fallen backwards & of course killed myself.

Anyone else might have panicked or despaired.  But Coleridge, whose first impulse was to laugh at his own madness, was overcome by the sublimity of his position:

the sight of the Crags above me on each side, & the impetuous clouds just over them, posting so luridly & so rapidly northward, overawed me.  I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance & Delight

Having stayed calm, he suddenly noticed a way out of the predicament: a narrow gully or chimney – since christened Fat Man’s Agony – that he could slide down “without any danger or difficulty”.

These extracts are taken from a letter to Sarah Hutchinson, written the day after, in which Coleridge clearly enjoys the drama of his experience.  It is hailed as one of the earliest pieces of mountain literature.  He returned home with his boots and clothes in tatters, and was scolded by an unimpressed Mrs. Coleridge.

This photo of well-equipped climbers on Broad Stand comes from the livefortheoutdoors forum.

Early Visions is a highly recommended biography of the young Coleridge by Richard Holms

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