UK for better or for verse

Poets’ trails are a fine way to get to know Britain better.

By Anthea Gerrie, November 4, 2010
Hull’s Royal Hotel: subject of a Philip Larkin poem, with a £1.5m makeover, and no overflowing ashtrays

Hull’s Royal Hotel: subject of a Philip Larkin poem, with a £1.5m makeover, and no overflowing ashtrays

Hull is not Britain's most obvious tourist destination, but Philip Larkin has put it firmly on the map. Several buildings closely associated with the controversial poet - who lived in this coastal city for the last half of his life - have been highlighted on a trail recently launched to mark the 25th anniversary of his death.

A logical place to start is Paragon Station, where a statue of the writer, born in 1922, will be unveiled on December 2. He took many rail journeys and was a regular at the nearby Royal Hotel, where he enjoyed many a lunch in the Brigantine Room.

Although Larkin rarely named buildings in his work, he made an exception in 1966 for Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel. Don't expect any of the overflowing ashtrays he wrote about: indoor smoking has been abolished and it's had a £1.5million refurbishment.

There is, of course, a blue plaque outside the attic flat on Pearson Park where Larkin lived for 32 years. But more surprising, urban landmarks include Marks & Spencer, immortalised in his poem The Large Cool Store, with tales of "Bri-nylon Babydolls" and Hull Infirmary, which he wrote about after a visit, and where, poignantly, his final illness was diagnosed in 1985. But it was at the Nuffield where he was treated that year and where he uttered his famous last words: "I am going to the inevitable."

City Hall was invested with hidden meaning for Larkin; it was where he fulfilled another side of his creative life as a jazz critic, attending concerts by Count Basie, Chris Barber and Acker Bilk. He often hung out with musicians at Ye Olde Black Boy in the High Street, commenting: "Listening to new jazz records for an hour with a pint of gin and tonic is the best remedy for a day's work I know."

The trail, which includes the university where Larkin worked as a librarian for 30 years, stretches far beyond the centre of Hull - dubbed the Land of Green Ginger by playwright Alan Plater - heading north to Beverley, south-east to Spurn Point and west through villages along the Humber estuary. As David Hockney's paintings show, the landscape of the East Riding is quietly glorious, and Larkin himself described the Victoria Pier -from where he used to cross the Humber by ferry - as "magnificent pilings of cloud, all golden and rosy".

Getting there

Double rooms with breakfast: Royal Hotel, Hull (01482 325087) from £100; Seaham Hall (0191 516 1400) from £195; Trigony House Hotel (01848 331211) from £165, including dinner. Rentals: Greta Hall (01228 5999960) from £480 per week; Treasure Island Cottage (01835 822277) from £295 per week. Details of the principal landmarks on the Larkin train

Had Larkin survived the Millennium, he would surely have written an ode to The Deep, Hull's magnificent aquarium on the Humber. It opened in 2002 and should not be missed, especially if children are in tow. Also worth a look is the Wilberforce Museum dedicated to slavery and its great abolitionist.

Larkin, of course, was not the only poet in 20th-century Yorkshire: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes lived in the west of the county in the beautiful Calder Valley. You can see Hughes' house at Mytholmroyd, visit the couple's local in nearby beautiful Hebden Bridge, and Plath's grave at Heptonstall.

Neighbouring County Durham has associations with Lord Byron, who married at Seaham Hall, now a fabulous five-star hotel and spa. It's also where the poet wrote his Hebrew Melodies, actually lyrics set to tunes from synagogue services of the time provided by his friend Isaac Nathan (they include the now famous poem She Walks In Beauty).

Byron actually hailed from Nottingham, where he lived at Newstead Abbey until his marriage. Today, it's a stop on the Byron Trail, as is Nottingham Castle, which has a bronze bust.

The poet is also strongly connected to Hucknall, which holds a Byron festival every July. The sweetheart of his youth, Mary Ann Chaworth, lived at Annesley Hall, and he was buried by the church of St Mary Magdalene.

The spectacular beauty of the landscape on both sides of the Pennines has drawn poets over the ages, notably the Lake District, where Grasmere was home for 37 years to Wordsworth, visited at the now-famous Dove Cottage by both Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott. Coleridge had his own home, Greta Hall, which has been converted into three holiday homes, one of which contains Coleridge's study.

There is also no shortage of poets' trails in the south, where Cornwall will be forever associated with Sir John Betjeman. A centre dedicated to him, packed with books and memorabilia at Wadebridge, is worth a visit, and one of the most beautiful walks in the county is through the dell which runs parallel to the lovely little beach of Daymer Bay and ends at half-hidden St Enodoc's Church, where Betjeman is buried. But perhaps the most poetic site in Cornwall is ruined Tintagel Castle to the north, which hangs over crashing waves and was immortalised in Tennyson's poem, Guinevere.

Dorset inevitably has a Hardy Trail, while Winchester has its own Keats Walking Trail. Keats, who spent several years in this handsome cathedral town, used to take a daily walk along the river to St Cross, which inspired his Ode To Autumn. There's a leaflet to trace his daily route around the town.

East Sussex was Rudyard Kipling's domain. He moved to Rottingdean in 1897 following a broiges with his brother in-law. Kipling's aunt, Georgina Burne-Jones had a holiday home, North End House there. During his Rottingdean period, Kipling produced some of his most memorable works including Kim and the Just So stories.

Rottingdean's Grange museum has a room dedicated to the writer, which includes a reconstruction of his study. In 1902, he moved to the magnificent pile, Batemans at Burwash, now owned by the National Trust and an easy run from Brighton or Eastbourne.

As one might expect, there is a Burns Trail through Dumfriesshire, where the poet lived and died, and a nice boutique hotel, Trigony House, at the heart of it. From here it's possible to visit Burns's house and Ellisland Farm, where he lived for a time.

But he was not Scotland's only poet and Dumfriesshire is not the country's most picturesque county. Deeside is home to "Treasure Island Cottage", the property where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote some of the eponymous book in 1881. In the pretty village of Braemar, it can be rented by holidaymakers. .

Likewise, Swansea, where Dylan Thomas lived, is not the prettiest part of Wales - even he described it as "the ugly lovely town". Yet Thomas is the great Welsh poet, and there is much beauty in West Wales, which inspired much of his writing.

Fans should not miss the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea before continuing to the ancient and atmospheric townships of Laugharne, where Dylan and Caitlin are buried in the graveyard of a Norman church. The Boat House, with breathtaking views over the Tâf estuary, was his home from 1949 until his death in 1953, and his writing shed can be seen by visitors.

Last updated: 2:24pm, November 5 2010