Wiltshire Words

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To know a place for the first time is to read into its landscape the stories of its past.

To comprehend a place, to follow the meanders of its rivers and streams, to chart the growth of its ancient woodlands and meet the personal effects behind its facades, first, we must thumb through the pages of its literary landscape. Only then can we weave the observed comings and goings of the communities that ultimately embroider this landscape into a seamless tapestry. The lands opens up before us, not just in contours, but in pages.

Having lived in Cumbria nearly all my life, I knew that landscape intimately, and not only in a navigational sense. Amidst a place we truly know, we walk with a calmness and surefootedness absent in unfamiliar places. My family and I moved to Wiltshire in November 2022. I’d never set foot in the County before, nor understood its ancient past, never gazed over such wide-open fields under continental skies.

Devizes was our new home, three-hundred and fifty miles south from the Lake District, Hadrian’s Wall and the North Pennines. The Lakes are as rich in literary association as in natural beauty. Thomas Gray was the first traveller to instil in Lakeland an identity of its own. He wrote about the landscape with the traveller in mind, creating a multi-million pound industry in the process. His letters to his friend Thomas Warton, collated after Gray’s death, and published in 1775, fired the imaginations of the first tourists.

In Thomas Gray, we have the prelude of William Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes (1810) and Alfred Wainwright’s inimitable A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells (1995). A favourite of mine, Grevel Lindop’s A Literary Guide to the Lake District (1995) leads the reader on a prescribed journey through literary Lakeland reminiscent of the picturesque grand tours of the 18th Century.

With this last book in mind, I walked into the independent Devizes Books, established in 1981 and situated in an elegant Georgian listed building on Sidmouth Street. The Local Books section had plenty of choice: Guides to Avebury & Stonehenge, Barge the Kennet and Avon Canal, a History of Devizes, but nothing specifically relating to Wiltshire and its literature. I asked the assistant who lamented that Wiltshire is a forgotten county when it came to literary guides.

In those few words, the idea of a Literary Guide to Wiltshire took hold.