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A sculpture of a tortured looking man with a large bird chained around his neck is not quite what you expect to find on the quay of a sleepy Somerset fishing port. Is this something misplaced from the set of an old Hitchcock horror movie? No, it tells us that even a sleepy town like Watchet has succumbed to the popular trend of literary tourism.

 

Across the quay the Bell Tavern, a battered old pub that has looked out over the sea for generations, is where Samuel Taylor Coleridge started penning the immortal first lines of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ Coleridge was on a walking holiday in 1797 when he started writing the poem. The route Coleridge followed across the West Country with its rolling green hills, glades of bluebells and wide seascapes has recently been named the Coleridge Way by the local tourist authority.

 

We arrive by rental car, travelling along country lanes so narrow that at times the hedgerows brushed both sides of the car simultaneously. My wife and I were keen to soak up the atmosphere that had inspired one of the few poems whose opening lines we could still remember from our school days. There were no wild-eyed ancient mariners on the quay or bird life larger than a seagull in evidence but the nearby nautical museum and some expensive looking yachts moored in the town basin testified to Watchet’s seagoing past and present.

 

A visit to England and Ireland can easily become a pilgrimage to the locales of one’s favourite authors and poets, as local authorities and tourist boards have realised the interest and the cash that thousands of tourists can bring as they follow in these literary footsteps. Whole areas are being given new catchy names and maps produced, as anything remotely connected to a famous artistic figure is identified, signposted and given a lick of paint.

 

As we headed further south we found we could hardly avoid running into the haunts of famous writers or their fictitious characters. North Devon is now labelled Tarka Country. Visitors with fond memories of Henry Williamson’s story can obtain a map from the local tourist authority and head off to Exmoor to follow in the paw prints of the famous otter. Jamaica Inn

Cornwall with its colourful history of smugglers and its picturesque rocky coves and quaint villages has long attracted writers and tourists alike. One writer whose work is synonymous with Cornwall was Daphne du Maurier. Memories of watching Alfred Hitchcock’s classic version of ‘Jamaica Inn’ led us to the fishing town of Fowey with its white cottages clinging like limpets to the steep hillside. Down below in the narrow twisting streets near the harbour we found the Daphne du Maurier museum housing a large collection of memorabilia about the writer’s life and many books. Driving inland soon brought us to rugged Bodmin Moor. It was a wet and miserable day and as the old stone building of Jamaica Inn loomed out of the mist we could easily imagine that smugglers and excise men were still lurking about the moor. Inside the hotel the souvenir shop and restaurant were doing a roaring trade with passing motorists and we were quickly thrust back into the twenty-first century.

 

If some of our literary finds in England had come from impulsive detours our trip across the Irish Sea was inspired by generally fond memories of Stage One English at university and the study of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats, that had awakened some old and hitherto latent Irish genes. Writer's Museum Dublin

A visit to the Dublin Writer’s museum was a good starting place for our search. Situated in a well-restored eighteenth century mansion, with magnificent ornate plasterwork around its ceilings, the museum contains an extensive collection of manuscripts, letters, rare editions and other memorabilia of famous Irish writers who have lived and written in Dublin over the past three hundred years. Around the corner the James Joyce Centre was unfortunately closed on our arrival and we had to be content instead listening to an almost Joycean stream of consciousness rant from a nearby Dubliner whose car had just been wheel-clamped. We finally found the gaunt but jaunty James Joyce, complete with hat and stick, standing immortalised in bronze in O’Connell Street looking like a painted street actor who was about to burst into life and join the passing pedestrians.

 

However, to catch up with Yeats, the man whose poetry is synonymous with Ireland, it was a case of “go west not so young man” and we headed the rental car across country towards the mountains and lakes around Sligo. In commemoration of Yeats spending boyhood holidays there the area is now called ‘Yeats Country.’ Fond memories of sitting in a lecture theatre in Wellington forty years ago listening to a scratchy old vinyl 78 rpm recording of the great man reading ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ meant that a trip out to Lough Gill, the region’s largest lake, to see the famous little island, was essential. The day was blustery and on our arrival small waves were lashing rather than lapping the lakeshore and it was unlikely that any bees were able to hover let alone hum in Yeats’ bee-loud glade. Travellers, like poets sometimes need good imaginations.Yeat's grave site

No trip to Yeats Country would be complete without visiting the poet’s grave at Drumcliff churchyard. As Yeats directed his grave lies under the nearby towering mass of Ben Bulben and the famous words, “Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman ride by!” are engraved on his simple headstone. Instead of horsemen, hordes of tourists were jostling to photograph the words before filing back to their large air-conditioned coaches. We cast an interested eye and drove on - our pilgrimage complete.

 

For keen readers, walking in the footsteps of well-known authors and their characters has never been easier. Literary tourism can stimulate the imagination and bring the pages of your favourite books to life.

 

Terry Carson
November 2005

 

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