Novelists, poets and playwrights have long found inspiration in the power and glory of the landscapes of Britain says Rory Knight Bruce

One of the conundrums of the great and varied landscapes of Britain is whether or not the land is more important than the literature it inspired. Or is the literature at least of equal importance for guiding us back to the land with our hearts and minds full of yet further inspiration? We all accept that Dorset is Hardy Country, that Wordsworth wandered the Lake District and when you go to Warwickshire you are ‘Welcome to Shakespeare’s England’. Exmoor belongs to Lorna Doone, the north Cornish coast to John Betjeman’s poetry and the Highlands to Sir Walter Scott and John Buchan, whose John Macnab gave rise to The Field’s own Macnab Challenge. But almost every county has literature that can heighten our love of the landscapes of Britain and it is a worthwhile odyssey to seek out those lesser-known places and works for inspiration.


Sunset at Talla Reservoir, Tweedsmuir

Give a thought to Rowena Farre’s Seal Morning where, from a small Sutherland croft, a young girl and her aunt adopt a seal and train it to sleep on their bed. ‘Behind us we left a countryside of trim fields and tall elms, under which drowsed placid cattle, and we installed ourselves where… to fail to take one’s bearings in an oncoming mist could mean death,’ wrote Farre. She then travelled down to Northumberland and wrote about the Kirk Yetholm gypsies: where once thousands took casual employment as itinerant workers, the dramatic surrounding hills are now given over to Cheviot sheep and the occasional hardy shepherd. Charles Faa Blyth was the last man to be crowned King of the Gypsies there in 1898.

Nearby at Ecclefechan, where the village sign admittedly does say it’s the ‘Birthplace of Carlyle’, Craigenputtock House was the philosopher’s home from 1828 to 1834. Eminent visitors included Goethe, Charles Darwin (in the company of Lord Rosebery) and, unannounced, the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Goethe wrote: ‘Rousseau would have liked Craigenputtock almost as well as on his own island of St Pierre.’ Emerson admired ‘the wild and heathy, desolate hills’. Carlyle, who wrote Sartor Restartus and other tracts of philosophy there, said to his guests: “Go as far as you can see; when you get there, you’ll be able to see further.”

Thomas Carlyle’s birthplace, Ecclefechan in Dumfries & Galloway

Colin Carter Campbell bought Craigenputtock and the in-hand 800-acre farm 15 years ago. “It was terribly run down,” he says. “It was as it was. So the spirit of Carlyle still hovers over the place. I feel it. When I walk the hills, nothing has changed since the time that Carlyle and Emerson went walking.” In time, it is hoped Craigenputtock will also become a retreat for artists and writers, who will enjoy the tranquillity which, in the last days of his life, Carlyle looked back upon as his happiest years.

Not everywhere in the Scottish borderland is lucky enough to have an owner that keeps the literary flame alive. The Crook Inn at Tweedsmuir, near Moffat, has every claim to be the oldest inn in Scotland, having been granted a licence in 1604. It was here that Robert Burns wrote Willie Wastle’s Wife, in the backroom bar, and slept with her after closing time. His compatriot, James Hogg, ‘the Ettrick Shepherd’, penned his masterpiece, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, there. The inn is now in mournful dereliction, its Art Deco interiors ravaged by the elements, the back-room bar a remnant of broken chairs and fireside ash. Could anyone envisage such sacrilege being visited upon, say, Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Warwickshire or even Old Mother Hubbard’s bakery near Plymouth?

Robert Burns wrote Willie Wastle’s Wife at the Crook Inn at Tweedsmuir


While the Crook Inn is not beyond salvation, two literary hostelries have gone the way of all flesh. One is the Scholar Gypsy, between Radley and Kennington, near Oxford. Named after the Matthew Arnold poem, it tells the story of the poet as an undergraduate, going out into the fields of Oxfordshire to mingle happily with the local swains along the riverbanks and among hayricks. Another is the Fox at Juniper Hill, now a private house, where Flora Thompson was born in 1876 and whose memories gave us that bucolic masterpiece Lark Rise to Candleford. The ritual of eating jam suet before being allowed a slender mouthful of roast pig at Christmas speaks of different times. Here, because of urbanisation, literature undoubtedly triumphs over the landscapes of Britain.

For the real ale and literary experience, it is necessary to go to Gloucestershire and The Woolpack at Slad, immortalised by Laurie Lee, who is buried in the churchyard. In life, according to Valerie Grove’s evocative biography, when tourists came in asking for him, he would direct them to other regulars at the bar. Today, after a visit to the pub, it is possible to do the ‘Laurie Lee Walk’, a 10km meander through these ancient and deep-sided valleys.

The Woolpack pub in Slad, Gloucestershire, is famed for its association with poet Laurie Lee

But it is not all about pints and poetry, and for anyone wishing to embark on a literary journey around the country there are two helpful guides. One is the Great British Literary Map, the other Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape by Oliver Tearle. Both will direct readers to literary monuments near their home or could, like the boiled sugar-drop sweets of old, be kept in the car glove compartment. But I make no apology in admitting that often my literary discoveries in the landscapes of Britain have been made on hunting visits.

On the Isle of Wight, one day in 2003, we broke with the hounds on to open downland. There before me was a sign saying ‘The Allingham Way’, which commemorates Irish poet William Allingham and his watercolourist wife, Helen, great friends of Tennyson (and, as it happens, my greatgreat grandfather), who were frequent visitors to the island. Today, he is now best remembered for his poem The Faeries:

‘Up the airy mountain,

Down the rushy glen.

We daren’t go a-hunting,

For fear of little men.’

His diaries, however, record not just dinners with Charles Kingsley (The Water-Babies), Tennyson and Rossetti but the landscape of hidden manor houses and settled farming. Of Freshwater, he wrote on 28 June 1863: ‘I crossed by the evening boat, walked over the bridge, and after two or three miles of beautiful green-sided roads, reached the enchanted realm of Farringford [Tennyson’s house]. In the dusk, I saw the “Noble Down” rising up, its Beacon against the sky… the Moon rose like a surprise.’ Other residents or visitors of note included Robert Graves, AA Milne and Charles Darwin. The Isle of Wight Literary Heroes Trail offers fascinating tours and walks.

the landscapes of Britain

Ludlow Castle, where Milton’s masque Comus was first performed in 1634

In Ludlow, perhaps the prettiest market town in England, there is the double discovery of Ludlow Castle, where Milton’s Comus was first performed in 1634, and, on an outside wall of the church of St Laurence, the headstone of AE Housman, whose A Shropshire Lad went with many men to the trenches in World War I.

‘To skies that knit their heartstrings right,

To fields that bred them brave,

The saviours come not home to-night:

Themselves they could not save.’

Housman never visited Shropshire, which he called ‘the land of lost content’, but his idealised imagery could not have better captured the mystical beauty of this county, then and now.

It was on a day out to the Golden Valley point-to-point at Bredwardine, in Herefordshire, that I crossed a packhorse bridge on the River Wye and first saw the white rectory that was the home of the Rev Francis Kilvert (1840-79). His diaries, published 50 years after his early death, brilliantly record the peace and order of a world before train or transport came. In 1976, Betjeman did a television programme about Kilvert and he told how, “in recording the humble and uneventful, he captured the ancient quietness of the countryside. He was a poet even in prose.” On Kilvert’s grave at Bredwardine church, it says: ‘He being dead, yet speaketh.’

the landscapes of Britain

A packhorse bridge in Bredwardine, near the home of the Rev Francis Kilvert


Nor is it just native writers who can see and capture in literature the landscapes of Britain. The German academic Max (WG) Sebald came to teach at the University of East Anglia in 1970 and brought fresh eyes to this Fenland flat terrain in The Emigrants. ‘We stopped for a moment. Three heavy greys were rounding a little clump of alders, snorting and throwing up clods of earth as they trotted… Dr Selwyn fed them from his trouser pocket, stroking their muzzles as he did so.’ Voltaire delighted in weekends in Dorset. Frederick Engels hunted with the Cheshire. Others were less fortunate: Émile Zola (whose The Earth is every bit as good as Thomas Hardy) spent a few months in Crystal Palace.

But perhaps the most unlikely English country resident was John Steinbeck, who spent six months in 1959 outside Bruton, in Somerset, looking for Camelot. As a child, he had read Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) and the power of its literature and landscape never left him. He found time to go to a Meet of the Seavington foxhounds. When asked why he was in England on this quest for the Holy Grail, he replied: “I believe in this thing. There is an unmistakable loneliness in it.”

the landscapes of Britain

US author John Steinbeck

Of course, the landscapes of Britain were there before literature and no one more clearly understood this, or committed it with greater felicity to his writing, than Thomas Hardy. Who cannot today drive in darkness through the Dorset countryside without thinking of the reddleman, Diggory Venn, crossing the forlorn expanse of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native? Just outside Abbotsbury, at the small village of Portesham, on the Dorset Ridgeway, is a 72ft Hardy memorial, from which it is possible to see for miles around. In 1991, I was hunting here with the Cattistock and a fox scampered past the base. “What a great sight and memorial to a great writer,” I said to a fellow foxhunter. “Oh, no,” she replied. “That’s a monument to Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, who kissed Nelson when he was dying in his arms at Trafalgar.” Whoever said that foxhunters could not put you right about landscape and literature?