Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
– S.T. Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
In the spring of 1798, the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge was walking in the Quantock Hills with his friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Their native Cumberland would have seemed far distant, a million miles away from these rolling green hills with their view over the rushy flatlands to the sea. They were friends taking the air together. We can imagine their hair, worn fashionably long for the period, flowing over their shoulders, their frock coats tugged open by the breeze, the animation of youth and exuberance on their faces.
As they walked, they talked; of books they had read of adventures on the southern seas, of a tale of a ship followed by a mysterious black albatross, of tutelary spirits and our relationship with the animal world. A poem began to take shape, its rhythm measured by the tempo of walking feet: di-dum, di-dum, di-dum-dum-dum/di-dum, di-dum, di-dum. By the end of the walk, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was born.
It is a haunting poem, almost mythological in its imagery. It was not received well critically on first publication, yet seems to speak to us now across the centuries; of our estrangement from the natural world, of the mysteries of the seas and an imperitive, promethean, sense of atonement. It prefigured the sins we were yet to commit.
The Ancient Mariner also emerged during the rise of Romanticism as a rural-based movement, a counterweight to the metropolitanism of Georgian society, a movement in which the sublime, the grandeur of the natural world played an important part. The locus of thought was moving westwards and northwards, towards the wild and unknown, the places of damp and mercurial weather. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, Cumberland had become the powerhouse for modern philosophical thought, in the way that Glasgow and Manchester had become the centres for scientific advances.
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
In the summer of 1818, John Keats and his friend, Charles Brown, began a walking tour of the Lake District from Kendal. He wanted to see landscape; the magnificent, the sublime. And he wanted to call on William Wordsworth, by now the grand old man of letters, the one whose revolutionary fervour had declined to a comfortable middle age in his Grasmere cottage.
The scenery left Keats awestruck. Never had he seen such waterfalls, such grand hills diappearing into the dizzying damp mist: “but the waterfall itself, which I came suddenly upon, gave me a pleasant twinge.” he wrote of Stock Ghyll Force in a letter to his brother. “First we stood a little below the head about halfway down the first fall, buried deep in trees, and saw it streaming down two more descents to the depth of near fifty feet. Then we went on a jut of rock nearly level with the second fall-head, where the first fall was above us, and the third below our feet still. At the same time we saw that the water was divided by a sort of cataract island on whose other side burst out a glorious stream — then the thunder and the freshness”. He went on to visit the fall at Rydal, where a small cabin had recently been built to frame the view, as though landscape was already a captured thing, pinned on the drawing-room walls of famous poets.
Within three years, Keats was dead. Charles Brown was with him in Italy as he faded into illness, racked by the bloody pains of tuberculosis. The bright star extinguished by one of the most virulent diseases of the day, the one for which fresh mountain air was prescribed as a cure. Keats, in his sweat-soaked rumpled sheets, must have dreamed of the soft Cumbrian rain falling on his face. Ever the poet, he composed his own epitaph during those final days. He wanted no name, no dates, only the words: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”
The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he, “The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.
One hundred years after Keats’ birth, after the publication of the Ancient Mariner, in October 1894, the Aldermen and engineers of the Manchester Water Corporation gathered for a municipal ceremony at Heaton park reservoir, in Prestwich. They were celebrating the arrival of the first water by aqueduct from the Lake District, its inexorable gravity-fed trickle, descending at twenty inches per mile, the hundred miles from Thirlmere to Manchester. No doubt Alderman Sir John James Harwood was there, his round belly and heavy gold chain since lost to memory, his name preserved only in the slate plaque on the dam at Thirlmere, its crisp Trajan capitals lending respectibility and purpose to his contribution. Water had become the lubricant for the industrial revolution; for mills and factories, for the rapidly increasing population, as a weapon in the battle for urban sanitation.
The damming of Thirlmere in 1890 had been strongly resisted by the people of the valley. It was seen as an act of urban enslavement of the countryside, driven by the desire for profit rather than respect for the land. The two former lakes which had occupied the valley, Leathes Water and Wythburn Water, had become ghosts; relics to a preindustrial age like the village of Mardale, sunk beneath Haweswater fifty years later. The reach of capitalism knew no boundaries. Around the same time as Thirlmere was dammed, others were being constructed at Lake Vyrnwy and in the Derwent valley in Derbyshire. The Peak District, the Lake District; these were merely suppliers for the voracious monster of the city, the mythical beast that must consume all before it merely to live.
But tell me, tell me! speak again,
Thy soft response renewing—
What makes that ship drive on so fast?
What is the OCEAN doing?
In November 2009, the heaviest rains ever recorded in Cumbria caused widespread flooding in the western part of the Lake District. The centre of the storm seared across the catchment of the Derwent river; the becks and streams which seam the fellsides fed by a large, upland area of boggy hills from Skiddaw to Helvellyn and Scafell. Thirlmere, already brim-full from a damp autumn, and kept at high levels for the needs of Manchester, could absorb no more; two hundred and twenty million litres of water overflowed from the dam’s spillway over the course of the 20th November. Below Robert Southey’s former home at Greta Hall in Keswick, the river burst its banks. Downstream, Wordsworth’s childhood home in Cockermouth was awash; over two metres of filthy water charged through the walled garden like a bulldozer. The parks and open spaces of the town were strewn with the intimate debris of people’s lives; a carriage clock, a coal scuttle, skeins of wool like the unravelling of our domestic existence.
The flooding was more terrifying, more extreme than anyone could remember. One-in-a-thousand-years, we were told, but these measures become meaningless as the world’s weather shifts. In a distorted parody of the water cycle, the reservoir which had been built to drive the needs of industrialisation and urbanisation, to power the incessant rise of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, was now awash with unnatural volumes of water. The water we hoarded to succour our cities was now tearing through homes and gardens, through coal cellars and courtyards.
I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach
It is autumn in Cumbria. It rains again, heavy downpours which sough from the gutters and leave trails of pebbles across the road like the traces of a former civilisation. In Cockermouth, a sense of doom accompanies any period of heavy rain, a fear that the river might yet again reclaim the town, that the one-in-a-thousand year flood might happen again this year, next year. We become inured to the strange weather events which bring us drought and floods, cold winters and wet summers. We try to make sense of the patterns, but they are too big for us, they will only be understood in hindsight.
Like the Ancient Mariner, I feel compelled to accost the guest at the wedding feast, grasping them with an urgency to tell the same message over and over again, to warn them of the retribution which ensues when we are out of kilter with the natural world. It may spoil the party, but, like the Ancient Mariner, I know that once we have shot the albatross, an awful toil of penance will follow.