How our famous writers helped fashion mountaineering

Samuel Taylor Coleridge had an addiction to the thrills of mountain climbing, John Keats scribed a sonnet on top of Ben Nevis and William Wordsworth made an ascent of Helvellyn at 70…

Britain’s Romantic poets played a key role in the invention of mountaineering.

And it was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who made the first recorded use of the word ‘mountaineering’ in 1802, after a pioneering tour of the Lake District.

Several of the major Romantic poets, including William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Lord Byron described themselves as ‘mountaineers’.

A new book, ‘Mountaineering and British Romanticism: The Literary Cultures of Climbing, 1770-1836′, written by Professor Simon Bainbridge , of Lancaster University and launched this month, provides the first research to show the poets’ central role.

Significant ascents were made by a number of the period’s female writers, including the Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe and the diarist Dorothy Wordsworth.

Through their works, these writers popularised the new activity, helping make it the leisure pursuit it had become by the 1830s.

The book, based on Professor Banbridge’s research, includes an array of fascinating and colourful stories including:

· Samuel Taylor Coleridge described himself as becoming ‘much addicted’ to the thrills of mountain adventure. His habit of descending mountains by the first available route often led him into dangerous situations, most notably when scrambling off Scafell when he feared ‘I must of necessity have fallen backwards and of course killed myself’.

· John Keats dreamed of climbing Mont Blanc and was the only Romantic poet to reach the top of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, writing a sonnet on the summit. A resident of London, he described the experience as like ‘mounting 10 Saint Pauls without the convenience of staircases’.

· William Wordsworth regularly climbed Helvellyn, close to his home at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, and made an ascent in 1840 when he was aged 70.

· Diarist and governess Ellen Weeton shocked onlookers by ascending Snowdon without a guide. She recalled in her diary how a local mountain guide was vexed ‘that anybody could ascend without him, – and a woman, too! And alone!’

· Walter Scott wrote one of the most celebrated accounts of climbing in ‘Anne of Geierstein’. The alpine mountaineer described it as the most accurate evocation of climbing, portrayed with ‘wonderful truth and feeling’, in his own ‘Narrative of an Ascent to the Summit of Mont Blanc’.

The book is published by Oxford University Press.

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