In search of the Romantic landscape

Photo project The Wordsworth Project traces the Romantic landscape of William Wordsworth (1770-1850), the poet who is estimated to have walked over 150.000 miles through his native Lake District. Following the poet’s footsteps the project investigates the value of the Romantic landscape for our day and age.

Two hundred years after warning his contemporaries, Wordsworth is regaining attention, and is being hailed as an environmental activist avant la lettre:

‘We owe to him the idea that places of natural beauty should become ‘a sort of national property.’

From: ‘Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World’ by Jonathan Bate

As a young man, Wordsworth became a first hand witness of the great changes of his age: the French Revolution and the beginning of industrialisation. Newly built railroads in the North of England allowed the first tourists to explore the valleys and mountains of his native Lake District. As a Romantic poet, a lover of nature, and as a visionary, Wordsworth worried about the consequences of the changes that the 19th century would bring. Now, two centuries onwards, these consequences have become our harsh reality.

In my photo project I am searching for the landscape that Wordsworth left us. What is left of the untouched world of his days? And: is the notion of the Romantic landscape still valid?

While exploring the valleys and fells I try to uncover the lessons that the poet was trying to teach us. How can we learn to appreciate Nature as the poet once did? And, most urgently, how do we restore what we have lost: our connection to Nature? 

The Wordsworth Project is a long term photo project, which has started in 2021. In 2022 most of the field work will be done. In 2023 work will start on editing and writing, leading up to a photo book with the working title ‘A Child of Nature’, a travelling exhibition, and a Travel Diary, which you can follow online through my Substack channel. (Dutch only) 

Tourist @ The Lake District, Iphone photo ©Bas Jongerius

Travels

For The Wordsworth Project, the following trips to the UK will be undertaken:

The Wye Valley Spring trip:

  • April 30th- May 9th 2022.

The first trip, made in spring, focusses on the Wye Valley in Wales.  Here, Wordsworth’s walking tour towards the ruins of Tintern Abbey in 1798 led to one of his most famous poems:Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.’ 

Along the banks of the Wye Valley the poet found the words to express the sublime; the sense of awe that he experienced while observing the wonder of nature. The notion of the sublime, as well as its counterpart the picturesque, will be starting points for the photographic investigation of the Wordsworth Project.

In the Wye Valley the photographic subject is:

-these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape

that Wordsworth encountered. The touristic must-see of Tintern Abbey, the ruins that have become somewhat of a symbol of Romanticism, will be part of the photographic investigation.

The search for the sublime and the picturesque will also be the objective of a walking tour up the highest mountain of the UK. In Wordsworth’s epic poem The Prelude it is the ascent of Mount Snowdon which concludes his investigation into ‘The growth of a poet’s mind.’ Reliving the experience in his poetry, Wordsworth acknowledges that it is Nature which shapes creativity, by making sensations impress themselves upon us:

‘So, that even the grossest minds must see and hear / And cannot choose but feel.’

The Lake District Summer trip:

  • July-August 2022

For the Lake District summer Trip I travelled for four weeks through the Lake District. I strolled along the river Derwent, listening to the ‘sweet murmur’ that the poet remembered from his childhood. In the footsteps of the Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge I wandered extensively through the most beautiful valleys of the Lake District: Eskdale en Wasdale.

I climbed a series of peaks in Langdale, and found out what ‘The Sublime’ really means when I accidentally ended up in the footsteps of Wordsworth’s family friend and poetic companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  On a nine day walking tour around the Lakes the Junkie Poet Coleridge risked his life coming down the second highest mountain of the Lake District: Scafell.

The account Coleridge wrote after his descent came to be known as the one of the earliest pieces of mountain literature. Moreover, Coleridge’s story paved the way for the Romantic notion of The Sublime, in the modern sense that risking your life can be considered an epic adventure:

‘The sight of the Crags above me on each side, and the impetuous Clouds just over them, posting so luridly and so rapidly northward, overawed me. I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance and Delight.’

The Grasmere Autumn trip

  • October 15th to October 22nd 2022

For the Grasmere Autumn trip I undertook the daily walk that Wordsworth made with his sister Dorothy, from their home of Dove Cottage in Grasmere. Heading towards Rydal Water they would pass Rydal Mount, their future home. From there they would continue on to climb from Rydal Lake towards Loughrigg Fell, from where they would enjoy the picturesque view towards Grasmere Vale.

For five consecutive days I walked in their footsteps, experiencing the ability that Wordsworth and his sister had to see the beauty in every detail of their valley,

’the loveliest spot that man hath ever found.’ 

The poet loved to walk back and forth along the winding path along Loughrigg Terrace, where he would recite his poems, synchronising his lines to his walking pace. The rhythm of the iambic pentameter, in which the poet would write much of his verse, feels very natural once you find how it mimics the footsteps of the hill-walker.

Finding the ideal circumstances to enjoy the landscape, I started to understand why Wordsworth would love to walk around at unlikely hours. Setting off before sunset, the first light and early morning mist would lead to sensations that created the nature poetry Wordsworth became famous for:

‘Drinking in / A pure organic pleasure from the lines / Of curling Mist.’

The Snowdrop Winter trip

  • Winter 2022/2023 

For the last trip of the project I will revisit some of the most beautiful spots of the former trips, trying to find the sublime and picturesque in the wild skies and landscapes of winter. The first hope of spring will be symbolised by the happy flowers of spring: the snowdrop and the wild daffodils. Images of these through a 19th Century Claude Glass will complete my series of Romantic Flowers, which are part of the photographic project.

A special place to visit in this respect is Dora’s Field. Dora, Williams daughter, tragically died at a young age. Wordsworth, his wife and their gardener planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs in her memory.

Two hundred years later Dora’s Field was gifted to the National Trust for the benefit of the public.  The paths are now maintained to keep the open views by preventing the dense woodland from returning. 

Acknowledgments

So far, the project is growing and evolving thanks to the knowledge, interest and support of many colleagues, friends and collaborators. A big thank you goes out to these initial supporters, who have shown so much confidence in my earliest plans: Peter Delpeut, Jan Kuijper, Steunfonds Pictoright, stichting Beeldvoorziening, Marc Prüst, Jeroen Toirkens, Maartje van den Heuvel, Stefan Kuiper, Eike den Hertog, National Geographic Traveler, Dutch Culture on Tour, Judith van der Kooij, Vormwolf, J. & R. Clarke, Iwan van Steinvoorn, and all others who are sharing sympathy and love for to the project.