You can stride energetically across lonely crags, declaiming in a grand Tennysonian voice about “always roaming with a hungry heart”, or you might shuffle up High Holborn, thinking of Celia with “nothing on”, as did Adrian Henri. Poetry walks take many forms: some places demand epic stanzas; others respond to limericks. You can walk for a few minutes, or weeks. The point is that walking with poetry is great fun. Maybe it’s the rhythm thing: our language must have been invented and honed by miles of walking. In fact, as soon as we were walking long distances and trying to remember routes, poetry probably began to be useful as a navigational mnemonic. Walking does lend itself perfectly to learning lines and recitation, something kids are good at and enjoy. John Cooper Clarke said you learn the lines at 12 and find out what they mean 30 years later (he also said “I hate walking”, but we’ll step over that). If there is a prepared route, fine. Some of these 10 suggestions have that, and others make use of existing footpaths, but they all share a link between landscape and poet.
There are many more poetic walks available (try Simon Armitage’s brilliant Stanza Stones around the Pennine Way), but too few dedicated to female poets. Isn’t it time we had a Stevie Smith Way in north London, or a Barrett Browning Trail around Ledbury? The following collection features walks that are ready to roll, best done with headphones and an audio link to the poems where possible. Spotify has poetry from all these choices, sometimes read by the poets themselves. Other sources can also be found online.
Carol Ann Duffy, Forest of Bowland and Pendle, Lancashire
The best poetry walks match excellent verse, superb scenery and a good footpath, but there is an extra element that helps too: historical resonances. The 400th anniversary of the Pendle witch trials in 1612 was the perfect pretext to devise this 48-mile hike across Lancashire from Sabden via Pendle Hill and the Forest of Bowland to Lancaster. En route, Duffy’s atmospheric poem is inscribed on 10 posts.
Here, heavy storm-clouds, ill-will brewed,
Over fields, fells, farms, blighted woods.
On the wind’s breath, curse of crow and rook.
(from The Lancashire Witches)
Arriving in Lancaster, check out the castle where the witches were tried, then walk the half mile to The Golden Lion pub where the poor unfortunates had their last drop to drink. Finally, head up to Golgotha on Moor Lane where they were hanged.
John Cooper Clarke, Salford
I was walking down oxford road
Dressed in what they call the mode
I could hear them spinning all their smash hits
At the mecca of the modern dance, the Ritz
Few poets have hammered their colours (black in this case) so firmly into one place as John Cooper Clarke. His voice, grim with good-humoured contempt, has often nailed down Salford. Get the train up to Clifton, north-west of Manchester, then follow the Salford Way long-distance footpath as it niggles its way south along the banks of the River Irwell to Salford Quays. Take a spur up Great Cheetham Street. This land has Cooper Clarke’s cuban heels all over it. He grew up on the corner of Bury New Road. His secondary school was here: “It was quite tough,” he once said. “We had our own coroner.” Take a right and another down Camp Street, the greasy star of the poem Beasley Street (and its gentrification-skewering follow-up Beasley Boulevard). In the cafes of the Quays, take a seat and look up some other local alumni: Lemn Sissay, JB Barrington, Longfella and Mike Garry. Then go in the art gallery and see how Laurence Stephen Lowry painted thousands of John Cooper Clarkes into his pictures.
Walk: 9.5 miles, GPX route at osmaps.ordnancesurvey.co.uk
Eat: The Treehouse Cafe is en route
Stay: Salford Quays is all chained up on the hotel front: better to walk into Manchester for the YHA (dorm bed £30, private en suite from £40 room only)
Seamus Heaney, Bellaghy, County Londonderry
The lowland clays and waters of Lough Beg,
Church Island’s spire, its soft treeline of yew.
(from The Strand at Lough Beg)
The great Irish poet of his generation was born near Bellaghy, a few miles from the shores of Lough Beg. With the Seamus Heaney HomePlace centre in the village as a starting point, head down to Poet’s Corner coffee house and turn right past Bellaghy Bawn where there is a statue, The Turfman, inspired by Heaney’s poem Digging. From there it’s a half mile down to Lough Beg where a boardwalk takes you along the shore. In summer, when it’s dry underfoot, you can get out to Church Island, reputedly visited by Saint Patrick on his way down the River Bann and mentioned in Heaney’s poem The Strand at Lough Beg. Download the Seamus Heaney HomePlace app and hear the poems on your walk.
DH Lawrence, Eastwood, Nottinghamshire
Few poets pass into the august ranks of those who were banned, but Lawrence does. His collection Pansies was seized by Scotland Yard in 1929 and had to be privately printed after being smuggled into Britain. Arguably his best poetry is about nature, but not often the British kind: Hummingbird, Kangaroo and Snake are strange bedfellows on a stroll around Eastwood, Lawrence’s home town, but at least you get to wonder, in amazement, how these redbrick lanes spat out such a bright and shiny pip.
The quick sparks on the gorse-bushes are leaping
Little jets of sunlight texture imitating flame;
Above them, exultant, the peewits are sweeping:
They have triumphed again o’er the ages, their screamings proclaim.
(from The Wild Common)
The start of any walk is the DH Lawrence Birthplace Museum in the centre, heading out to the various houses he lived in. A pint in the Sun Inn is a worthy literary objective as the pub appears in both Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. A two-mile extension gets you into High Park Wood alongside Moorgreen Reservoir, a walk Lawrence did many times to visit his close friend, Jessie Chambers, who lived at Haggs Farm.
Philip Larkin, Hull
Philip Larkin is inextricably associated with the city of Hull, “this dreary dump, East Riding’s dirty rump”. For some, no doubt, the harsh critique remains true, but Hull is much altered since Larkin’s day (he lived there from 1955 until his death in 1985), and is slowly shaking off the legacy of being vandalised, first by the Luftwaffe, then by its own planning department. “I like it because… it’s on the road to nowhere,” said Larkin.
Sexual intercourse began,
In nineteen sixty-three,
(which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban,
And the Beatles’ first LP.
(from Annus Mirabilis)
Start at the poet’s statue in the railway station, then call in at the nearby Royal Station Hotel bar, a favourite haunt. From there, walk east to the City Hall, a memorable element in his poem Broadcast, passing many grand buildings, including Ferens Art Gallery – definitely worth a visit – before heading off into the superb old town with its famous street, Land of Green Ginger, and several fine Larkin-associated pubs. The trail finishes at Cottingham cemetery, where Larkin is buried.
Walk: 3 miles, map: Larkin Trail download available (pdf)
Eat: The White Hart. For cafe food, try Thieving Harry’s by the Humber Dock
Stay: Royal Station Hotel (doubles from £42 room only) was a Larkin favourite
Robert Frost and Edward Thomas, Dymock, Gloucestershire
This Gloucestershire village is best known today for Stinking Bishop cheese, but it was once home to an illustrious clutch of poetic talents. Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke and Robert Frost all stayed here in the years before the first world war, drawn by the bucolic splendour of the countryside, and the poets Wilfrid Gibson and Lascelles Abercrombie were both local residents. Frost and Thomas often walked together and Thomas’s indecision about which route to take inspired Frost to write The Road Not Taken.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
(from The Road Not Taken)
Two eight-mile poetry walks have been devised around the area, one circling north towards the Malvern Hills past Frost’s house, the second east towards the Forest of Dean. The Daffodil Way is also recommended, especially in springtime. Frost encouraged Thomas to concentrate on poetry, not criticism, and it worked. Thomas’s classic burst of nostalgia, Adlestrop, was conceived during a railway journey to Frost’s house in Dymock in June 1914. His evocations of winter are great for long, frosty forays through the woods, “Out in the dark over the snow, The fallow fawns invisible go.”
Walk: Daffodil Way and Poet’s Path I and II are about eight miles; map: OS Landranger 149 and 162
Eat and stay: Beauchamp Arms (in Dymock) is a lovely pub but has no rooms; Three Choirs Vineyard, two miles from Dymock, has lodges and rooms (doubles from £165 room only) in a glorious setting.
John Betjeman, Padstow, Cornwall
Come tourist bods of dear old Slough, have you never pondered how your dreary dive might take a bow, and cash in? But the Berkshire town has no Betjeman trail, perhaps still smarting from one of English literature’s greatest muggings. You have to go to Cornwall for a Betjeman trail, across the River Camel estuary from Padstow, where the poet laureate lived the last decade of his life, having spent boyhood summers here too.
Those moments, tasted once and never done,
Of long surf breaking in the mid-day sun.
A far-off blow-hole booming like a gun.
(from Cornish Cliffs)
Start at Rock (where the Padstow ferry lands) and walk north along the South West Coast Path to Daymer Bay, “sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea”, then looping back to St Enodoc Church where Betjeman is buried, surrounded by the golf club links immortalised in poems such as Hon. Sec. and Seaside Golf: “Lark song and sea sounds in the air, And splendour, splendour everywhere.” There is a lot to enjoy along the way, from SSSI sand dunes to bronze age burial mounds and a holy well said to have been visited by Jesus.
William Blake, London and Felpham, Sussex
The true apostle of the “Christ came to the West Country” school was impoverished book illustrator William Blake. Artist, engraver, poet, lunatic – if it was hard to pin down Blake’s genius in his own time, it’s just as hard to decide which “trail” should be his. London was his uneasy home for most of his life. You could walk from Tate Britain (after viewing his paintings) to St Paul’s along the Thames Path, then cross the Millennium Bridge and head north-east for Bunhill Fields, where he’s buried.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
Blake was happier, for a while at least, when he moved to Felpham, near Bognor Regis, on the south coast, taking up residence in a cottage near the Fox inn. There’s a short walk that connects the cottage, Hotham Park and other landmarks. The house where Blake wrote his most celebrated poem, about building paradise in England, is permanently closed, awaiting funds for restoration. We can only hope the great man would appreciate the irony.
Walk: London 3.4 miles; Felpham: 2.5 miles; map: OS Explorer OL 10
Eat: Carlyle’s Cafe is close to Blake’s Cottage and the beach
Stay: The Old Priory (doubles from £92 B&B) is a couple of miles inland from Bognor Regis in bucolic countryside
Hardy Way, Dorset
Devised by local teacher Margaret Marande, this magnificent epic starts at Hardy’s birthplace in Higher Bockhampton and finishes 217 miles later at Stinsford churchyard where his heart is buried (the rest of him is in Westminster Abbey). The two places are actually only about a mile apart as the crow flies. In between you get the Jurassic coast, Corfe Castle, Lulworth Cove and plenty of fine ridgeways, woodlands and rivers too.
Had I but lived a hundred years ago
I might have gone, as I have gone this year,
By Warmwell Cross on to a Cove I know,
And Time have placed his finger on me there
(from At Lulworth Cove a Century Back)
Better known for his novels, Hardy actually gave up writing anything but poetry over his last three decades and published more than 900 poems in his lifetime. References to the landscape and rural life abound in classics such as Wessex Heights, A Sheep Fair and Afterwards, but it’s Hardy’s bittersweet tone and sceptical outlook that separate him from his contemporaries.
Walk: 217-mile circuit. Map: OL Explorer 15, 116, 117, 118 and 129
Eat: The Boat Shed in Lulworth Cove
Stay: Inntravel offers a six-night walk along the route with accommodation in guest houses and inns from £720pp, incl breakfast, two dinners and two picnics
WH Davies (and Dylan Thomas)
Perhaps the greatest walking poet of them all was Welshman William Henry Davies, who spent his early years wandering Britain and the US, usually in a state of abject poverty and latterly in pain – his leg was crushed when jumping a freight train en route to the Klondike. Before the first world war, it was Edward Thomas who did more than anyone to promote this unusual poet, writing about Davies: “In subtlety he abounds, and where else today shall we find simplicity like this?” The Autobiography of a Super Tramp (1908) made his name, followed by A Poet’s Pilgrimage (1918), an engaging picaresque stroll around South Wales.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
It would be difficult, if not suicidal, to replicate the same journey now, as Davies used the main roads, but his literary technique wears well: walk all day, reach a town and head for the pub(s), engage locals in conversation and write it down. Better to use the coastal footpath these days: start from Carmarthen and head for Laugharne, stopping if you require in Llansteffan and St Clears. Dylan Thomas didn’t think much of Davies, but they both liked a drink. Finish off at Browns Hotel. Thomas did, plenty of times.
Walk: Carmarthen-Llansteffan 10 miles; Llansteffan-Laugharne 15 miles; map: OS Explorer 177
Eat and stay: Llansteffan has Inn at the Sticks (doubles from £90 B&B); Laugharne has Brown’s Hotel (from £110 room only)