With 25 years exploring the UK on foot under his belt, Christopher Somerville has a plethora of tales from the various landscapes he’s walked. To celebrate his new guide, ‘The Times Britain’s Best Walks’, Christopher recalls a wildly blustery walk in the Duddon,Valley where the words of Wordworth guided his way…
Walking ‘long-loved Duddon’ with Wordsworth
I’ve used the little weather-resistant guides published by Frances Lincoln in various locations, and learned to trust them. So setting out into a roaring gale from Seathwaite (the Duddon Valley one, not the one under Scafell Pike) with Norman and June Buckley’s guide, Walking with Wordsworth in the Lake District, promised a great afternoon’s walking in the river valley that Wordsworth explored as a boy.
‘Duddon, long-loved Duddon, is my theme!’ the poet declared in the first of his 32 sonnets extolling the river and its landscapes, and the river about which he rhapsodises, from mountain rill to stately estuary, is especially seductive in its lower reaches where:
‘The struggling Rill insensibly is grown
Into a Brook of loud and stately march,
Crossed ever and anon by plank or arch.’
Not that it was easy to step from the Newfield Inn with its cheerful fire, friendly folk and snoring dogs into the spit and bluster of a wet old day. The Tarn Beck rushed noisily under its hazels and alders. The tops of the Seathwaite Fells were misted over, the trees dripped and the road was slick with water rills. The blustering wind pushed me along northwards, past whitewashed Tongue House and up a stony path onto the open moor between High Tongue and Troutal Tongue.
The Duddon’s vale is full of tongues – high rocky knolls that give the valley a wild character unique in the Lake District. Along the wet grasses the golden busbies of bog asphodel shivered to the wind in their tens of thousands. What rhymes with asphodel? Wordsworth would have found something to encapsulate the damp shimmer of buttery bronze up here in the wind and rain.
Gradually the weather relented: the mist shredded off the Seathwaite Fells, revealing their high spine against patches of intense blue sky. The rain-swollen River Duddon came leaping and churning through a dark slit of a gorge, to jostle in a surge of bubbles under the single arch of Birks Bridge.
I lingered on the bridge, listening to the crashing of the river, then turned downstream. Pied wagtails bobbed on the rocks. A whinchat squeaked and clicked up the bank. The path rose and fell, a tricky stumble among slippery tree roots and rocks. One moment the Duddon was sluicing over flooded stepping stones at my elbow; the next it was hissing between rock walls 200 feet below.
I threaded a cathedral-like pine forest, skidded across a scree slope of red and grey boulders, and recrossed the roaring Duddon to follow its east bank down to Seathwaite. On the outskirts of the village I passed a pebbly strand where a couple of boys were skinny-dipping in the rampant river.
‘Here the Child
Puts, when the high-swoln Flood runs fierce and wild,
His budding courage to the proof.’
Wordsworth knew all about country boys, risking life and limb in wild water as these were doing, as youngsters have done ever since Noah – let alone William Wordsworth – was a lad.
Choosing 200 walks for The Times Britain’s Best Walks was always going to be a challenge – I’ve done nearly double that number for The Times now, and how on earth can you say which is your favourite of so many walks through so many glorious landscapes? But the image of Wordsworth’s rain-swollen River Duddon charging through the forest under the misty fells of Seathwaite keeps recurring to my inner eye. It may not be a sun-kissed chocolate box snapshot of the British Isles, but in its dampness and greenness, its vigour and potency, this short, outstanding hike remains one of the truest examples of a walk through the very best of our British landscapes.
*‘The Times Britain’s Best Walks’ by Christopher Somerville (Harper Collins) – 200 walks from the ‘A Good Walk’ column – is published 6 October 2016.