In the footsteps of William Blake

20 Jul|Elizabeth Corcoran

Elizabeth Corcoran reports on an inspiring walk with the poet Niall McDevitt celebrating William Blake and the visionary poets of Hampstead, which marked the beginning of the Idler Festival at Fenton House last weekend.

A warm, balmy afternoon, the threat of a thunderstorm looming. We meet the golden-shoed McDevitt at the Holly Bush pub in Hampstead, ready for our lesson in Blakeian alchemy. Our main destination on this two hour walk: the farmhouse home of Blake’s great friend and patron, the painter John Linnell.

We walk at a pace, on from Holly Hill to Holly Mount, winding our way around Hampstead’s pretty lanes. First stop is painter George Romney’s House – Blake and Romney connected, we are told, through the art world and their support of the French Revolution. Then onto the childhood home of visionary poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in leafy Oak Hill.

Niall McDevitt at the tomb of John Constable

Along the way we learn of The Ancients, Blake’s young admirers who befriended him in his later years. We skirt the graveyard of Hampstead Parish Church and drop in to pay homage to Keats by way of memorial bust donated by American admirers in 1894. In the graveyard, there is painter John Constable’s tomb. Blake, McDevitt tells us, found his landscapes an inspiration.

On past Pentameters Theatre, with a nod to the late great Heathcote Williams, author of Whale Nation, and then along Flask Walk to Constable’s House. At the old parish lock-up nearby, McDevitt pauses to read movingly from Blake’s America: A Prophecy before taking us on to the alleyways of the Vale of Health. Here we imagine Leigh Hunt encountering Shelley – though Hunt’s house is now long gone – and pause too at the home of DH Lawrence.

And then we are at the Heath, stretches of long parched grass broken by leafy canopies and welcome shade, walking in Blake’s footsteps as he would have, winding his way from his home in the Strand to Hampstead. We scramble up a slope through nettles and brambles, hearing McDevitt’s voice beckoning us to safety and civilisation at the Whitestone Pond above. As we emerge, panting, McDevitt regales us with a quote from Blake on the poet Wordsworth: “Wordsworth loves nature,” he says, “and nature is the work of the devil.” There is a twinkle in his eye.

The house of John Linnell

It is a delight to finally arrive at John Linnell’s home, at Old Wylde’s – the property is sublime, weatherboarded and fronted with a pretty, gated garden. A plaque on the wall commemorates the painter, and notes Blake as a guest at the farmhouse. And it is here we leave the poet – he died some months after turning down an offer to stay at the property with Linnell’s family – and turn back towards Fenton House and the promise of wine, salons, music and dancing.

More information about Niall McDevitt’s walks can be found here.