Beneath an ampler sky

West of Duddon Sands, from Hodbarrow
West of Duddon Sands, from the lagoon at Hodbarrow

Between the former iron mines at Hodbarrow and the shipbuilding town of Barrow-in-Furness, the river Duddon completes its journey to the sea. Just off the coast lies one of the largest offshore windfarms in Europe, West of Duddon Sands, with 108 wind turbines generating power since their installation in 2014. Along the coastline to the North lies the large nuclear complex of Sellafield, with its ‘toadstool towers’, as the poet, Norman Nicholson, described them.[i] South of the estuary, the great halls of the submarine shipyard at Devonshire Dock in Barrow-in-Furness are visible along the skyline for miles around. The shores of the Duddon estuary and its adjoining coasts have been home to mining and heavy industry throughout the past two centuries. They have never been more than sparsely populated, have never attracted much interest from the tourists who flock to the Lake District, and have never lost a sense of geographical remoteness. A constant theme in local politics, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, has been the desire to bridge or reclaim land from the estuary, and consequently to make its coastal communities and industries more accessible for commercial and tourist traffic. Just as constant has been the history of failed or abandoned schemes to do so.[ii] The railway bridge across the Duddon lies five miles up the estuary; the road bridge a couple of miles further upriver. Crossing Duddon sands was never as difficult or treacherous as crossing Morecambe Bay – both lay along the old West Coast route from Lancaster to Whitehaven – but it did require knowledge of the tides and sands, and, as Nicholson writes, for most travellers before the nineteenth century, the route along these coastal bays, was ‘a nuisance to be endured as patiently as possible’.[iii] J.M.W. Turner passed along this route and sketched the Duddon estuary in 1809, returning later in the 1820s to a turbulent graphite and watercolour depiction of storm-shadowed sands.[iv]
J.M.W. Turner, ‘Duddon Sands’ (c.1825-32); © Tate; Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)); Tate Britain – Turner Bequest

The perceived remoteness of the Duddon estuary, from the perspective of potential tourists, at least, is evident in some of the earliest published guides. Ann Radcliffe’s account of her travels through England (1795) includes a panoramic vision of the Cumbria coast from the summit of Skiddaw: ‘We stood on a pinnacle, commanding the whole dome of the sky. The prospects below, each of which had been before considered separately as a great scene, were now miniature parts of the immense landscape’. The view encompasses the Solway Firth and Scottish mountains to the north, Whitehaven and Cockermouth, and the ‘vast tract of low country, which extends between Bassenthwaite and the Irish Channel’, the Isle of Man as a ‘long blackish line’ to the west, and then, to the south, ‘beyond all the fells of the lakes’, Lancaster sands, and ‘Duddon sands gleamed in a long line among the fells of High Furness’.[v] Radcliffe’s journey takes her southwards through Borrowdale, then to Windermere, Hawkshead, down to Ulverston, and then on to Furness Abbey. The coast was a view framed from the heights of the Fells, with few places along the shoreline worthy of the trouble it took to visit. Stephen Gill argues that this pattern was already entrenched in the most venerated guidebooks of the Lake District, by John Brown (1767), Thomas Gray (1769), Thomas West (1778), William Gilpin (1786), and by Radcliffe (1795), those which set the trend for tourism in the late eighteenth century:


“Following the routes that would include the unmissable sights, while travelling along decent roads served by tolerable inns, they mapped out the essential northern tour – Kendal to Keswick, taking in Windermere, Rydal Falls and Grasmere; from Keswick into sublime Borrowdale; from various directions into Patterdale and Ullswater. Expeditions along the south-western coastal strip might include the ruins of Furness Abbey and Piel Castle. Not one of the guides ventures into the Duddon valley.”[vi]


Even the first guide to encourage his readers along the Duddon valley, William Green, a friend and neighbour of William Wordsworth, begins his journey not at the coast but at Broughton, and offers no description of the estuary until he depicts it through the eyes of his fourteen-year-old daughter, Sarah, when they have walked together to Goats Water tarn near Coniston:


“The last ascent to the lake [Goats Water] is steep and craggy, and turning round after a considerable and uninterrupted exertion, Sarah espied the sands of Duddon, the sea, the Isle of Peel, and all the intervening landscape, on which the sun shone, though with a watery glory; her youthful mind was lost in wonder and astonishment at the scene before her; her hitherto visible horizon being the fells of Ambleside and Keswick, and the flats of Bassenthwaite and Windermere.”[vii]


This uplifting scene of the Duddon estuary conforms to the aesthetic taste for the picturesque which shaped many accounts of touring the Lake District, perhaps most characteristically in its depiction of a wondrous or awe-inspiring view earned as a reward for the exertion of climbing to a great height. The desire which this scene inspires in his daughter, ‘that on the following morning a journey might be made to Broughton and the sands’, however, is thwarted by Green who, ‘having other views’, presumably to press on into the fells and lakes he was sketching, persuades her to abandon the idea.

                The framing of the Duddon estuary as a picturesque scene – best viewed from a distance, but not worth visiting – is an important context for Wordsworth’s collection of sonnets, The River Duddon (1820). Wordsworth had been commending his readers to visit the Duddon valley as early as his first collection of poetry, An Evening Walk (1793), in which he wrote in a footnote that ‘Perhaps this poem may fall into the hands of some curious traveller, who may thank me for informing him, that up the Duddon, the river which forms the estuary at Broughton, may be found some of the most romantic scenery of these mountains’.[viii] Wordsworth was conscious from the beginning of his poetic career that in celebrating the virtues of hitherto remote and unknown localities in the Lake District, he was also making a case for tourism to those places. Yet this poetic championing of the local and the rural seemed to hamper his reputation as a poet, with many reviewers expressing the wish that he should not waste his talents on secluded hills and poor farmers. One reviewer of his River Duddon collection lamented that he should choose the Duddon, and not the ‘majestic Thames’.[ix] The poet, Lord Byron, expressed a similar lament in verse, when he wrote of Wordsworth’s celebration of the local: ‘There is a narrowness in such a notion/ Which makes me wish you’d change your lakes for ocean’.[x] Yet Wordsworth’s reputation was cemented by the collection he published in 1820 which not only chose as its title the least well-toured valley of the Lake District, but it also included his Topographical Description of the Country of the Lakes in the North of England. The poet and the tour guide were united in one volume, and the collection marked a transition in how Wordsworth was read. As Fiona Stafford writes, ‘The poems could hardly have been more specifically located, nor the location more obscure and, yet, the reception was surprisingly positive’.[xi] The Lake District had been ever present in his earlier verse, but as Christopher Donaldson argues, from 1820 onwards ‘it became increasingly fashionable to read Wordsworth not just for the sake of the moral principles that his verse contained, but also for the special insights it offered about his local landscape’.[xii] This began in the summer of 1820 with visitors calling at his home on their way through the landscapes he depicted in his poems, and continues to this day in the tourist industry which thrives in the Lake District and which largely depends upon the literary legacy of Wordsworth. Yet the Duddon estuary remains off the beaten track of modern day tourists, and even Wordsworth’s earliest followers rarely ventured beyond the valley to the sands of the Duddon coast.

                The reason for this might lie partly in the sonnets themselves, as well as the reputed remoteness of the estuary. Wordsworth traces the Duddon from its source down to the estuary in thirty-three sonnets. Indeed the sequence begins with a note explaining the course of the river: ‘The River Duddon rises upon Wrynose Fell, on the confines of Westmorland, Cumberland, and Lancashire; and, serving as a boundary to the two latter counties, for the space of about twenty-five miles, enters the Irish sea, between the isle of Walney and the Lordship of Millum’.[xiii] As the river reaches Broughton, Wordsworth sets out his vision of the estuary:


“Not hurled precipitous from steep to steep;

Lingering no more ‘mid flower-enamelled lands

And blooming thickets; nor by rocky bands

Held; but in radiant progress toward the Deep

Where mightiest rivers into powerless sleep

Sink, and forget their nature – now expands

Majestic Duddon, over smooth flat sands

Gliding in silence with unfettered sweep!

Beneath an ampler sky a region wide

Is opened round him: – hamlets, towers, and towns,

And blue-topped hills, behold him from afar;

In stately mien to sovereign Thames allied

Spreading his bosom under Kentish downs,

With commerce freighted, or triumphant war.


“But here no cannon thunders to the gale:

Upon the wave no haughty pendants cast

A crimson splendour: lowly is the mast

That rises here, and humbly spread, the sail;

While, less disturbed than in the narrow Vale

Through which with strange vicissitudes he passed,

The Wanderer seeks that receptacle vast

Where all his unambitious functions fail.

And may thy Poet, cloud-born Stream! be free –

The sweets of earth contentedly resigned,

And each tumultuous working left behind

At seemly distance – to advance like Thee;

Prepared, in peace of heart, in calm of mind

And soul, to mingle with Eternity!”[xiv]


As the river slows and widens, leaving behind the drama of its descent through rocks and thickets, the poet is drawn to an expanding vista of the ‘smooth flat sands’, of the ‘radiance’ of the river ‘Beneath an ampler sky’, and the disappearance of the river into the oblivion of the sea. Just as the river has been figured throughout the sonnets as analogous to the poet’s life, here at the estuary, it is figured as entering the ‘powerless sleep’ of death. This is where rivers ‘forget their nature’, or lose their identity, and become connected through the seas to all other rivers and all other lands. Indeed it is at this point that Wordsworth might be said to belie his critics for wishing him to choose greater rivers or oceans as his poetic subject, for in these sonnets he shows the Duddon to be both distinct from, and interconnected to, other places. The moral virtue of the ‘lowly’ and the ‘humble’ is associated with the local, lesser known places of England, and is shown through contrast with the commercial and martial power of the capital. But these sonnets also witness a change in perspective. No place names are given here, unlike the route he has traced down from Wrynose, and through Donnerdale, Seathwaite, and Ulpha. There are no details of the flora and fauna of the riverside along the estuary, and there is no encouragement to the traveller ‘who walks with Duddon for his guide’ to extend his journey beyond Broughton.[xv] The ‘ampler sky’ makes a spectacle of the river’s flow into the sea, but this is a view to behold ‘from afar’, at a ‘seemly distance’. Wordsworth holds the estuary within the realm of the picturesque, in other words, quite separate from his deep attachment to the intimate localities of the lakes and fells inland.

                Perhaps Wordsworth set a pattern for later visitors in his distinction between close attention to the land and a distant vista of the estuary. In his 1844 guide, Rambles by Rivers, for example, James Thorne tracked the course of the Duddon using Wordsworth’s sonnet sequence as his guide: ‘he must be dull indeed who could wander without emotion along one [a river] that has been sung of by a great poet; or not have the feeling its natural beauty may arouse deepened by association with the genius it has inspired’.[xvi] As the river descends to the flat lands of the estuary, however, Thorne struggles to find the widening and taming Duddon as attractive as its upper course, and strains against Wordsworth’s comparison of the estuary to the Thames, of which he says ‘it must be confessed it requires all fancy’s help to sustain the resemblance’.[xvii] But the picturesque view of the estuary remains to be cherished:


“Still it is a noble sight, when the full tide has laid the whole stretch of sand, a mile and half across, under water, to gaze from some elevated spot over it as it mingles its waters with the mighty ocean, the setting sun meantime blending all into a glow of golden splendour, while thousands of waterfowl, darting in every direction with the swiftness almost of the lightning, and baffling the keenest eye to follow their rapid evolutions, impart an air of liveliness to a scene that might else perhaps be too sombre from its uniformity.”[xviii]

For Norman Nicholson, this picturesque view of the Duddon imparted a difficult legacy. In one of his earliest poems, Nicholson surveys the same river, tracing Wordsworth’s route and asking if the river remembers the poet ‘with a nose like a pony’s nose’.[xix] Nicholson’s ‘To the River Duddon’ is a tribute to Wordsworth, but it is also a rebuke. He recalls Wordsworth’s line from the second Duddon sonnet, hailing the river as ‘remote from every taint/ Of sordid industry’.[xx] The Duddon Nicholson knows from his own upbringing in Millom, however, is the estuarine river, banked with slagheaps, and ‘the tide purple with ore’.[xxi] In looking over the estuary, it seems to Nicholson, Wordsworth overlooked its less picturesque history of mining and industry. Ironically, of course, the slagheaps and iron workings of Hodbarrow are no more: the mines are flooded beneath a lagoon which is a haven for terns, plovers, and great crested grebes. Look down the estuary now from Broughton, or from the hills above, and it is the wind turbines, power stations, and shipyards of the Cumbrian coast which disturb the uniformity of the skyline.

Barrow-in-Furness, across the Duddon estuary
Barrow-in-Furness, across the Duddon estuary


[i] Norman Nicholson, ‘Windscale’, A Local Habitation. London: Faber, 1972, 31.

[ii] William Rollinson, ‘Schemes for the Reclamation of Land from the Sea in North Lancashire during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Cheshire and Lancashire, 115 (1963), 133-45.

[iii] Norman Nicholson, The Lakers: The Adventures of the First Tourists. Milnthorpe: Cicerone Press, 1995, 70.

[iv] See Turner’s sketchbooks at the Tate Gallery website:

[v] Ann Radcliffe, A Journey made in the summer of 1794, through Holland and the western frontier of Germany, with a return down the Rhine; to which are added, observations during a tour to the lakes of Lancashire, Westmoreland, and Cumberland, Vol.II. London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 1795, 336-9.

[vi] Stephen Gill, ‘Wordsworth and the River Duddon’, Essays in Criticism, 57.1 (2007), 22-41 (26).

[vii] William Green, The Tourist’s New Guide: Containing a Description of the Lakes, Mountains and Scenery in Cumberland, Westmorland, and Lancashire. Kendal: R. Lough and co., 1819, 104.

[viii] William Wordsworth, An Evening Walk: An Epistle in Verse Addressed to a Young Lady, from the Lakes of the North of England. London: J. Johnson, 1793, 11.

[ix] See Gill, ‘Wordsworth and the River Duddon’, 24.

[x] Lord Byron, Don Juan, in The Major Works. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000, 374.

[xi] Fiona Stafford, Local Attachments: The Province of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, 70.

[xii] Christopher Donaldson, ‘Down the Duddon: Wordsworth and his Literary Pilgrims’, Literary Imagination, 15.2 (2013), 186-209 (189).

[xiii] William Wordsworth, The River Duddon: A Series of Sonnets; Vaudracour and Julia; and Other Poems, to which is appended a Topographical Description of the Country of the Lakes in the North of England. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1820, 2.

[xiv] Ibid., 33-4.

[xv] Ibid., 14.

[xvi] James Thorne, Rambles by Rivers. London: Charles Knight, 1844, 9.

[xvii] Ibid., 37.

[xviii] Ibid., 37.

[xix] Norman Nicholson, Collected Poems. London: Faber, 2008, 24.

[xx] Wordsworth, The River Duddon, 4.

[xxi] Nicholson, Collected Poems, 25.

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