As we all discovered during lockdown, going for a walk is one of the best things you can do to keep your mind and body in good working order, and for me it’s even better if there’s some artistic or literary interest en route. Some of my favourite outings over these last few years have been spent following in the footsteps of artists and writers, and now Britain is opening up again it’s the ideal time to get back on the cultural trail. Here are a few of my favourite arty walks. I’d love to hear about some of yours.
Simon Armitage, The Pennines
Back in 2010, those clever, creative folk at Ilkley Literature Festival had the bright idea of asking Simon Armitage to write some poems for a poetry trail between his hometown, Marsden, and Ilkley. The result was a fifty-mile trek across the Pennines, punctuated by six site-specific poems, carved into stone slabs and boulders in scenic spots along the way (there’s also a seventh poem in a secret location, which isn’t marked on any maps). I’ve only done a bit of it so far, between Haworth and Mytholmroyd – both celebrated literary sites, Haworth for the Brontes and Mytholmroyd for Ted Hughes. I can’t wait to do the rest. These Stanza Stones are artworks as much as works of literature, sited by landscape architect Tom Lonsdale, and carved by Pip Hall.
Vanessa Bell, The South Downs
The South Downs was home from home for the Bloomsbury Group, those progressive eggheads who revolutionised the arts and literature between the wars. Virginia Woolf lived at Monk’s House, a quaint old cottage in the sleepy village of Rodmell. Her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, lived at Charleston, a picturesque farmhouse near Firle, about seven miles away. Both houses are full of artworks, the gardens that surround them are divine, and if you’re feeling really fit you can walk between the two, like Vanessa and Virginia used to do. There are several other scenic walks - from Rodmell into Lewes along the River Ouse, and from Charleston to Berwick, where the ancient parish church boasts some splendid paintings by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. Spend the night at Bo Peep Farmhouse, a charming B&B on the South Downs Way, where Bloomsbury artist Roger Fry used to stay.
John Constable, Dedham Vale
Britain’s greatest landscape painter grew up in Dedham Vale, and a walk along this river valley takes you to the place where he painted the most iconic scene in British art. The best starting point is Manningtree station, on the main line between London and Norwich (even if you aren’t coming by train, it’s a good place to park your car). From here you can walk along the River Stour to Flatford Mill, three miles away, where Constable painted The Haywain. Two hundred years since he painted it the view has hardly changed. Continue along the riverbank for two miles to Dedham, the handsome Georgian town where he went to school. The imposing parish church houses one of his rare religious scenes. Return to Manningtree the way you came, or across the hills along the Essex Way, a hiking trail which runs right across the county.
Joan Eardley, Glasgow and Catterline
Joan Eardley is hardly known in England but in Scotland she’s a household name, beloved for her unsentimental portraits of Glaswegian children and her powerful depictions of the Aberdeenshire coast. Born and raised in England, she spent her adult life in Scotland, and to celebrate her centenary there are a couple of short walks you can do which take in some of the key locations in her brief life (she died of cancer in 1963, aged just 42). In Glasgow, walk from Glasgow School of Art, where she trained, along Sauchiehall Street, through Kelvingrove Park to Kelvingrove Museum & Art Gallery, which has a fine collection of her Glaswegian street scenes. If you’re anywhere near Aberdeen, head for Catterline, an atmospheric little fishing village about six miles south of Stonehaven, where she used to live, and painted so many of her dynamic landscapes and seascapes. Walk along the clifftop and the beach below, and refuel at the Creel Inn, a cosy pub with great seafood.
L.S. Lowry, Berwick upon Tweed
L.S. Lowry is famous for his industrial cityscapes, in and around his native Manchester, but from the 1930s until the 1970s he spent his summer holidays in Berwick upon Tweed, and he left behind dozens of paintings of this rugged seaside town. There’s a Lowry Trail which takes you all around the town, along the Elizabethan Walls and across the River Tweed. Allow about three hours for the entire hike. There are interpretation boards along the way, featuring reproductions of the scenes he painted and lots of interesting info, but my favourite Lowry anecdote is word of mouth (and so may possibly be apocryphal). Apparently, he took a shine to the pretty receptionist at the hotel where he stayed and used to give her drawings, which would now be worth a tidy sum. Unfortunately, this woman had no idea who he was and threw them all away.
Stanley Spencer, Cookham
Stanley Spencer was born and raised in Cookham, on one of the loveliest stretches of the River Thames, and many of his finest paintings depict this ‘village in heaven’ where he spent almost all his days. The Stanley Spencer Gallery, a delightful little museum in the historic heart of the village, has devised a compact walking trail which takes you past many of the spots he painted: Cookham Bridge, Cookham High Street, Cookham Moor… What’s so enthralling about these pictures is that although the realistic settings are meticulously rendered (and instantly recognisable) the treatment is surreal and magical, encapsulated in religious masterpieces like The Resurrection, set in Cookham Churchyard, and Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta.
Alfred Wallis, St Ives
An artistic enclave ever since the 19th Century, St Ives is a nirvana for arty hikers. Tate St Ives has put together a walking tour which takes in the main locations, but this is one place where you don’t have to have a map – you simply need to wander round. Barbara Hepworth’s studio and garden is a must (she lived and worked here for the last 25 years of her life) and Bernard Leach’s pottery workshop is fascinating, still turning out beautiful, practical crockery (you can buy some to take away). The list of artists who’ve lived and worked here reads like a Who’s Who of 20th Century British Art (Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood…) but the most intriguing name is Alfred Wallis, a mariner, boat repairer, ice cream salesman and rag and bone man, who only turned to painting in retirement, after his wife died. His house is still here, by Porthmeor Beach, and the graveyard where he’s buried is a wonderful vantage point.