A century ago, with the smoke of the Great War only just clearing across an exhausted Europe, a writer of anti-war poetry was quickly becoming the most celebrated poet in Britain. But, sadly, he wasn’t alive to see it.
The writer of the best-selling book, called simply ‘Poems’ and costing six shillings, was Wilfred Owen, a 25-year-old lieutenant with the Manchester Regiment killed in Northern France seven days before the Armistice was signed. His poems are among the most vivid and frightening depictions of war ever written. Take his description of the trenches in Dulce Et Decorum Est (Latin for ‘It is sweet and fitting’)…
‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge/ Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,/ And towards our distant rest began to trudge…’ The words have lost none of their grim terror over the intervening century. In the week of Remembrance Day, we look at how the early lives of six great British poets, including Owen, are remembered across the country.
WALK IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF WILFRED OWEN
Shrewsbury Abbey, pictured above, is one of the stops on the Tracks To The Trenches walk inspired by Wilfred Owen
The Tracks To The Trenches walk starts at Shrewsbury station, where Wilfred’s father worked and where a young Owen left for war after joining the Artists Rifles. The last words he spoke to his brother, Harold, were from the window of a departing locomotive here.
The three-mile walk then meanders past the villas of Underdale Road where the Owen family lived and, as a boy, Wilfred grew potatoes in the garden. You then head to the grounds of Shrewsbury Abbey.
It was while the bells rang out to declare peace here in 1918 that Owen’s parents were informed of his death via telegram.
Now there’s a granite sculpture dedicated to his memory; its unveiling was marked by the release of 25 doves.
Download the route at shropshiresgreatoutdoors.co.uk.
WANDER WITH WORDSWORTH
Captivating: Grasmere in the Lake District, which was home to William Wordsworth
Wordsworth, pictured, is buried at St Oswald’s church in Grasmere, which features on the Walking With Wordsworth route
The future Poet Laureate moved to Grasmere in 1799 after a trip to Germany made him homesick for the Lake District he remembered as a boy.
This six-mile walk begins at Dove Cottage, where William and his sister, Dorothy, lived.
It’s been modelled to look just as it did in the early 1800s, including the (half-wild) garden about which Wordsworth wrote: ‘This plot of orchard-ground is ours; My trees they are, my Sister’s flowers; Here rest your wings when they are weary; Here lodge as in a sanctuary!’
From the cottage, the walk takes you past caves and along narrow trails that William and Dorothy would stroll, offering views over the vast Rydal Water and ending at St Oswald’s church in Grasmere, where Wordsworth is buried.
See the Walking With Wordsworth route and book tickets for Dove Cottage (£9.50 adults) at wordsworth.org.uk.
THE LITERARY LIFE OF PHILIP LARKIN
The city centre Larkin Trail guides poetry lovers through the streets of Hull, pictured above
‘Deprivation is for me, what daffodils were to Wordsworth,’ Larkin once wrote. It’s not clear if he was referring to Hull, the city he called home for the last 30 years of his life (seldom leaving the city while working as the University of Hull’s librarian, right up to his death in 1985), but the East Riding hub is in much ruder health today than it was in Larkin’s time.
Hull was even UK City of Culture in 2017.
The city centre Larkin Trail, which takes about two and a half hours, begins near the looming statue of him at Paragon railway station and takes in many of the locations that inspired his finest works, such as the Hull Royal Hotel, described as a place where ‘Light spreads darkly downwards from the high clusters of lights over empty chairs’ in his poem Friday Night At The Royal Station Hotel.
End the walk at the modern Hull History Centre, which houses his huge jazz record collection and original poem notebooks.
Download the route at thelarkintrail.co.uk.
ENJOY A STROLL AND A HAGGIS WITH BURNS
The Brig O’Doon, pictured in the background, is the 15th-century bridge that Robert Burns included in his Tam O’Shanter poem
The four-mile Burns Trail route starts at the cottage that Burns lived in until he was seven years old (pictured)
Born into abject poverty in the small town of Alloway, a leafy suburb just two miles from the seaside resort of Ayr, this walk starts at the cottage that Robert (the eldest of seven children) lived in until he was seven years old.
From here, it’s an easy stroll to the Poet’s Path, which features ten different weather vanes, which all reference Burns poems such as the ‘wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie’ rodent he describes in Ode To A Mouse.
From here, walk to the Burns Birthplace Museum, which houses his handwritten manuscripts and has a cafe serving haggis, neeps and tatties. The grand Burns Monument and Memorial Gardens is the next essential stop.
When open, you can climb the stairs to the top of the monument where you can look down upon the Brig O’Doon, the 15th-century bridge Burns included in his Tam O’Shanter poem as the place where Tam’s horse, Meg, lost her tail in his attempt to escape Nannie the witch. Or, as Burns puts it so uniquely, ‘the carlin caught her by the rump and left puir Meg wi’ scarce a stump’.
See the four-mile Burns Trail route at walkinghighlands.co.uk.
THE TED HUGHES PAPER TRAIL
Pictured is the Ferry Boat Inn, where an older Ted Hughes could often be found nursing a pint of Mackeson stout. Picture courtesy of Creative Commons
It’s hard to imagine this most gruff and smouldering of poets doing anything as mundane as a paper round. But a young Ted Hughes (whose parents owned a newsagent’s) did exactly that on weekends in the South Yorkshire town of Mexborough in the early 1940s.
This two-mile trail is inspired by his former route and will take you past the canal where he went fishing, the patch of ground where he was chased by a wild horse (inspiring the poem The Rain Horse) and the Ferry Boat Inn, where an older Ted could often be found nursing a pint of Mackeson stout. The final stop on Hughes’s paper round was Old Denaby, home to Manor Farm. This rural spot inspired many of his poems including the ‘brow like masonry, the deep-keeled neck’ of a cow in his piece The Bull Moses.
Follow the route at tedhughesproject.com/the-trail.
WINCHESTER TREATS OF LOVELORN KEATS
John Keats took daily walks when he moved to Winchester, starting at the imposing Winchester Cathedral (pictured)
When poets get lovesick, it tends to hit them harder than most. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats never really got over his love for Maud Gonne while John Keats’s anxiety over the countless party invitations from other men delivered to his beloved Fanny Brawne seemed only to exacerbate the tuberculosis that would kill him so prematurely in 1821, aged just 25.
In one bid to get well, John relocated to Winchester, where he took daily walks from the imposing cathedral along the water meadows and the medieval almshouses of St Cross. The walk in his footsteps takes two hours, during which you can see what inspired him to pen his poem To Autumn, where his love for Fanny bedded down, unforgettably, with the pathos of the season with the lines ‘thee sitting careless on a granary floor. Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind.’
You can download Keats’s walk at visit-hampshire.co.uk.