Swimming through the air

The following is often described as the first ever written description of a mountain walk. In this respect, the author was establishing a fine tradition: hot-headed Englishman storms up a mountain – gets into difficulty – escapes by a hair’s breath – lives to tell a great tale. It’s pretty flowery stuff in places, but still a classic account:

There is one sort of gambling, to which I am much addicted; and that not of the least criminal kind for a man who has children & a concern. It is this. When I find it convenient to descend from a mountain, I am too confident & too indolent to look round about & wind about ’till I find a track or other symptom of safety; but I wander on, & where it is first possible to descend, there I go-relying upon fortune for how far down this possibility will continue. So it was yesterday afternoon. I passed down from Broadcrag, skirted the Precipices, and found myself cut off from a most sublime Crag-summit, that seemed to rival Sca’ Fell Man in height, & to outdo it in fierceness. A Ridge of Hill lay low down, & divided this Crag (called Doe-crag) & Broad-crag-even as the Hyphen divides the words broad & crag. I determined to go thither; the first place I came to, that was not direct Rock, I slipped down, & went on for a while with tolerable ease-but now I came (it was midway down) to a smooth perpendicular Rock about 7 feet high-this was nothing-I put my hands on the Ledge, & dropped down / in a few yards came just such another / I dropped that too / and yet another, seemed not higher-I would not stand for a trifle / so I dropped that too / but the stretching of the muscle of my hands & arms, & the jolt of the Fall on my Feet, put my whole Limbs in a Tremble, and I paused, & looking down, saw that I had little else to encounter but a succession of these little Precipices-it was in truth a Path that in a very hard Rain is, no doubt, the channel of a most splendid Waterfall.

So I began to suspect that I ought not to go on / but then unfortunately tho’ I could with ease drop down a smooth Rock 7 feet high, I could not climb it / so go on I must / and on I went / the next 3 drops were not half a Foot, at least not a foot more than my own height / but every Drop increased the Palsy of my Limbs-I shook all over, Heaven knows without the least influence of Fear / and now I had only two more to drop down / to return was impossible-but of these two the first was tremendous / it was twice my own height, & the Ledge at the bottom was exceedingly narrow, that if I dropt down upon it I must of necessity have fallen backwards & of course killed myself. My Limbs were all in a tremble-I lay upon my Back to rest myself, & was beginning according to my Custom to laugh at myself for a Madman, when the sight of the Crags above me on each side, & the impestuous Clouds just over them, posting so luridly & so rapidly northward, overawed me / I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance & Delight-& blessed God aloud, for the powers of Reason & of the Will, which remaining no Danger can overpower us! O God, I exclaimed aloud-how calm, how blessed am I now / I know not how to proceed, how to return / but if I am calm & fearless & confident / if this Reality were a Dream, if I were asleep, what agonies had I suffered! what screams!-When the Reason & the Will are away, what remain to us but Darkness & Dimness & a bewildering shame, and Pain that is utterly Lord over us, or fantastic Pleasure, that draws the Soul along swimming through the air in many shapes, even as a Flight of Starlings in a Wind.

– I arose, & looking down saw at the bottom a heap of Stones-which had fallen abroad-and rendered the narrow Ledge on which they had been piled, doubly dangerous / at the bottom of the third Rock that I dropt from, I met a dead Sheep quite rotten-This heap of Stones, I guessed, & have since found that I guessed aright, had been piled up by the Shepherd to enable him to climb up & free the poor creature whom he had observed to be crag-fast-but seeing nothing but rock over rock, he had desisted & gone for help-& in the mean time the poor creature had fallen down & killed itself.-As I was looking at these I glanced my eye to my left, & observed that the Rock was rent from top to bottom-I measured the breadth of the Rent, and found that there was no danger of my being wedged in / so I put my Knap-sack round to my side, & slipped down as between two walls, without any danger or difficulty-the next Drop brought me down on the Ridge…

The date of this escapade was 5 August 1802, and the author was the Romantic Poet (and wayward genius) Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge was on a 9-day walking tour of the Lake District and the extract is taken from his written account of it, a letter to his muse Sara Hutchinson (full text on the University of Lancaster website). The route he describes is now known as Broad Stand, which is the direct line between the two highest mountains in England – Scafell Pike and Scafell.

As befits a great writer, Coleridge could spin a good tale all right. What of course is missing from the story is how indeed he did get down to safety. The “out of body” stuff towards the end of para 2 suggests strongly of divine intervention – well, I suppose you could get away with that as an explanation in 1802. But he must have got down somehow. Perhaps he exaggerated the danger, a bit of poetic licence?, but all the guidebooks these days tell walkers to avoid Broad Stand like the plague – it should be the preserve of rock climbers only. How best to find out?

Take a look, of course. Fortunately, it’s possible to visit Broad Stand safely without putting yourself through Coleridge’s perilous descent, and that’s by looking up at it from the ridge at the bottom (known as Mickledore). I recently ticked a big one off the bucket list and climbed Scafell Pike for the first time, so went via the steep pass to Mickledore to look at Broad Stand on the way. Here it is:DSC03577The sheep on the grassy platform in the middle of the photo gives some idea of scale. Coleridge’s route would have started around here and gone diagonally down to the left, down the numerous ledges he describes, finishing at the visible vertical split in the rock mentioned at the end of his account.

Put simply, the guidebooks are right. A solo climb up Broad Stand would be foolhardy at the very least – the whole scene is overpowering and I wasn’t tempted to go anywhere near the rocks. A descent – like Coleridge’s – would be a positive invitation to disaster. Note how the ridge itself falls away steeply to the left – any fall from Broad Stand would have you come to rest several hundred feet below.

The answer for lovers of Romantic Poetry was clear to me. Coleridge – only 29 at the time (he lived to 61) got away with it – to use his own words – simply by relying on fortune.

One thought on “Swimming through the air

  1. Pingback: 24 hours round the Lakes – Meanwood Rambler

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