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NWR Issue 111

Walking in Coleridge’s Footsteps: From Pandy to Hay Festival

Maverick opera singer Richard Parry led a public excursion from Pandy to Hay Literary Festival in May. The event marked the first of the Coleridge in Wales Festival events curated by Parry and his associate, the illustrator and graphic artist Chris Glynn. A participatory, one-of-its-kind event on the festival programme, the walk recreating Coleridge’s own soul-searching hike across Wales after he left Cambridge in 1794 was a unique way of experiencing the festival and offered unforgettable insights into the life of an extraordinary man and poet.

Anyone who has read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Kubla Khan, or is familiar with the author’s biography will know that Coleridge was not afraid of taking risks, either on the page or in person. His intellectual curiosity and appetite for adventure and surprise, all form part of the background to his walking tour in Wales. Coleridge came to Wales after absconding from Cambridge and being sent down from the army for enlisting under a false name. He had just met the poet Robert Southey in Oxford with whom he was in eager discussion about the possibility of establishing a new utopian society based on egalitarian and humanitarian principles, which he christened his ‘Pantisocrasy’. Therefore, when he decided to embark on a long walking tour of Wales before resuming studies at Cambridge, these political and social questions were at the forefront of his mind. Coleridge wanted to establish his new community in Wales, the only question was where.

Richard Parry related this story to us with characteristic aplomb the night before the walk at an old coaching inn in the village of Pandy, eighteen miles from the festival site. Here, the group was joined by one of Coleridge’s descendants, a locally-based documentary filmmaker and travel writer and pacific rower Elsa Hammond. I couldn’t help but feel that Coleridge would approve, not only of this unconventional gathering in his name, but the serendipity of complete strangers meeting to trade stories and insights with each other over a few pints of ale.

The following morning the walking group – numbering eight or nine of us altogether – was joined by Dan Peterson, mountain guide and war artist, who lead the challenging eighteen-mile ridge walk. We enjoyed excellent weather conditions throughout the day and our elevated position meant that we had unsurpassed views over the Black Mountains that reared up to our left and the Wye valley which scrolled down to our right. Such an incredible panorama reminded me of a passage from R.S. Thomas’s Autobiographies in which he describes the landscape that surrounds one of his early Welsh parishes as being ‘like a table set out for my pleasure’. Except that in our case, the national geographical boundary-line was not so clear cut: we were on the periphery of Wales, a place full of literary associations and not just because of Hay. Capel-y-ffin, a small hamlet nestling at the base of the Black Mountains beneath us, was once a favourite retreat of the poet and painter David Jones.

Eventually, feet aching, toes numbed with pain, our group descended down the bluff and into Hay itself. We made quite a striking procession striding into town with our hiking gear and binoculars at the ready. Once down, Richard Parry gave an hour-long talk in the festival’s Summer Pavilion in which he set out not only Coleridge’s achievements and accomplishments, but spoke about why his social and political visions are still relevant to a twenty-first century audience. Overall, the whole two-day event was a magical way of experiencing Hay for the first time – a haptic learning experience which evoked not only Coleridge’s poetry, but something of the enterprising spirit of the man himself.

Katya Johnson is a PhD Candidate in Creative & Critical Writing at Aberystwyth University

This post was written in May. Similar events are taking place throughout the Coleridge in Wales Festival which runs until the end of August.

       


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