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Wordsworth's Route Over the Simplon in 1790: A Reconstruction

Wordsworth's Route Over the Simplon in 1790: A Reconstruction

By Roger Meyenberg and Patrick Vincent


"At Brig we quitted the Valais and passed the Alps at the Semplon [sic] in order to visit part of Italy" (Letters I 33). Wordsworth's curt, matter-of-fact statement in a letter to his sister belies the importance his crossing would later assume in the poet's imaginative life and the daunting amount of often very fine criticism written in response. In August 2001, we hiked Wordsworth's route over the Simplon Pass in order to get a better sense of the experience described so splendidly in Book VI of The Prelude, but also to evaluate the condition of the trail today, and to establish, of several reconstructed versions of the hike, which route Wordsworth and Robert Jones most likely followed. [1] 


Wordsworth and Jones began their hike across the Simplon on the morning of August 17, 1790. They used what is today known as the Stockalper trail, named after Baron Stockalper, who controlled trade over the Alps in the late seventeenth century. Along much of the itinerary, the trail avoids both the old Napoleonic road, completed in 1805, and the 1970s road currently in use (see map). This mule track (“Strada vecchia” on Giuseppe Pozzi’s map of 1834) had been the standard route over the Simplon since the Middle Ages, during the lifetime of Stockalper (1609-1691) until the beginning of the nineteenth century when Nicolas Céard completed the present Napoleonic road in 1805. [2]  We were pleased to find out that much of the original route used by Wordsworth is still intact or in the process of being restored.


By the time they reached Brig, the two companions already had a month's walking in their legs, enabling them to ascend "the Simplon's steep and rugged road" (Prelude 1850 VI 563) to the pass in less than five hours, before the even longer walk down on the other side. The Stockalper trail has its start in Brig at Stockalper's castle (pic 1). Leaving Brig (678m) they ascended the Stockalper trail (pic 2) passing Brei (875m), finally reaching Schallberg (1316m) a good 90 minutes later. The trail descends down to a wooded valley (pic 3) where they came across the tiny hamlet Grund (1071m), later described by Dorothy as a "lovely spot, which could not breed a thought but of pastoral life, and peace, and contentment” (Journals II 266) (pic 4). From here the track rises steadily up a mountain glen encompassed by a picturesque larch forest (pic 5). All along the way they were accompanied by the monotonous sound of the Taferna, a mountain rivulet (pic 6) that merges with the Saltina at Grund. Francis Kinloch, who crossed the Alps in 1804 coming from Italy, recalled in his Letters from Switzerland and France (1821) how he descended "through a continued forest of pines, amid a number of clear and rapid streams, which rushing along to join the torrent that roared below, contributed to animate and diversify the scene" (70). Dorothy was similarly impressed by the pine forest and the Taferna when, 30 years later, William decided to follow the old trail "because he had travelled it before" (Journals II 263) rather than descending along the new Napoleonic road. The trail

led at once to the bed of a stream which was to be our Companion to the Valais; and we were in the shade of a pine forest. The stream now small, and sounding cheerfully, filled all the space at the bottom of the glen. Pine-trees cover the upright hills, seeming to touch the sky, yet the broad highway which we had quitted, though at the first wholly out of sight, is over still higher ground. It was a pleasing thought, after looking in vain to espy that road, that we were enclosed among the natural solitudes of the Alps unmastered by the equalizing contrivances of men. ... meanwhile the voice of the stream, never turbulent, might always be listened to. Larch trees among the pines, though less frequent than yesterday, when we had first the pleasure of seeing that tree in its native mountain fastnesses. Some of the pines are magnificently tall. (Journals II 263-264)


On their way up the Taferna ravine Wordsworth and Jones passed Mittubäch (1452m) before they reached the Taferna Inn (1597m), "Tavernette" on Pozzi's map, (pic 7) after a 3-hour hike. The inn was the usual halting place for travellers. [3]  Located on the trail and several hundred meters below the road, it is no longer in use and is therefore easily missed today. Like Stockalper's muleteers, Wordsworth and Jones perhaps stopped here for a rest (pic 8) and may even have had their famous "noon's repast" (Prelude 1805 VI 500) after which the muleteers abandoned them. The inn, a small stone building dating back to 1684 (pic 9), and Johannely Fy, the innkeeper in Stockalper's days notorious for watering down the wine she sold at the tavern, are both still part of the local folklore.


Francis Kinloch's account of 1804 gives a useful description of the place, the food, and innkeepers which Wordsworth and Jones may have encountered 14 years earlier:

      We stopt for an hour at a solitary little inn, at a place called the Tavernette, about half way between Brieg and Simpelendorf, and F----, who had now walked nine miles, declared to me that he had never eaten anything so good since he had been in Europe, as the bread and cheese which the hostess put before us. She was a pretty little Vallaisan, without the least appearance of a goitre; and spoke French very well. Her husband and herself, she told me, remained there all the year, annoyed by the fall of rocks in the summer, and of avalanches in winter, but satisfied to gain a living by keeping accommodations for travellers, even in that dismal place. (20)


After Napoleon's new road was completed in 1805, travellers increasingly neglected the Taferna Inn. This may explain why Wordsworth significantly downgraded the "inn" (Prelude 1805 VI 498) to a mere "halting-place" (Prelude 1850 VI 565) in the 1850 text—if, indeed, it is the Taferna Inn where they had their lunch. The traditional candidate for Wordsworth's inn, and the hypothesis argued by Max Wildi, is the Old Spittel (“Ospitale” on Pozzi's map), also described by Francis Kinloch. Coming from Italy he first describes his stay at Simplon Village and then mentions the Old Spittel followed by the Hospice (“Ospizio” on Pozzi's map), then under construction. "At a mile or two from the village," Kinloch writes, "we passed a solitary house, which now serves as a hospice; I know no word for such a place in England. ... A new hospice is to be erected, as soon as the passage shall have been completely opened; and every traveller will be entitled to a pound of bread and a cup of wine, and to such other assistance as he may stand in need of" (20).


After leaving the Taferna Inn (1597m) the trail ascends quite dramatically for about 2 kilometers (bee-line) (pic 10) until they finally reached the pass itself (2006m). If the Taferna Inn is the place where Wordsworth and Jones had their lunch break, the line "Descending by the beaten road" (Prelude, 1805, VI 502) in the Prelude is problematic, clashing with the topographical evidence. A central key to the problem is the fact that the muleteers left them at the inn to continue their journey on their own. It is important at this point to reconsider the topography at the top of the pass. From there, the trail levels off (pic 11) and then descends quite considerably for 3 kilometers before one reaches the Old Spittel (1870m) (pic 12). If this is indeed where they had stopped, as Wildi argues, one might assume not only that the two hikers would have realized that they were walking downhill, but also that the muleteers would have told or at least somehow indicated to the young travellers that they had reached the summit. This would have saved Wordsworth a great deal of disappointment. [4]  And yet, a strong piece of textual evidence speaks against the Taferna Inn in favour of the Old Spittel in the following variant passage in Selincourt's 1926 edition of the Prelude:

Upturning with a band of Muleteers Along the steep and rugged road that leads Over the Simplon Pass to Italy We clomb, and when the ridge was crossed soon reached The wished for Inn where all together took Their noon-tide meal; in haste the Travellers rose Leaving us at the Board. Ere long we followed Descending by the beaten track that led (202)


Even though this manuscript version dates from c. 1828, a good 40 years later, Wordsworth seems to recall that the inn appeared after they had crossed the ridge. However, the poet might simply have condensed the whole experience into that handful of lines that we now have in the Prelude. As Bernhardt-Kabisch notes, "Wordsworth frequently took considerable liberties with his settings, adding, rearranging, and telescoping specific details of an observed or remembered landscape to suit his poetic purpose" (381). Furthermore, Bernhardt-Kabisch draws attention to Wordsworth's careful distinction between "inn" and "hospital", the former being "by definition commercial" (383, 384n7), which is certainly not the case with the Old Spittel. All things considered, the Taferna Inn remains a possible candidate for their lunch spot.


From the Simplon Pass (2006m) the trail descends gradually to the Old Spittel (1870m), then further down through delightful forests, meadows, and hamlets, such as Maschihüs (pic 13), through Simplon village (1572m) (pic 14) and down to the hamlet of Gabi (1228m) (pic 15). Right before Gabi, the trail fades off today. Based on Dorothy's Journals (260-261), it seems quite clear where Wordsworth and Jones lost their way — rather than dipping left into the Gondo ravine right after Gabi (pic 16), the original mule trail shoots straight up a second, lower range of mountains (pic 17). The reason why Wordsworth may have been misled into thinking that he had not yet crossed the Alps is that during the four hour walk from the pass to Gabi, one faces this mountain, which, in bad weather particularly, does indeed seem "lofty" (1850 VI 548). Picture 17 shows a clearing half-way up the mountain with the very "cottages, where they had first been warned of their mistake" (Journals II 261). The mountain is the Feerberg (“Colle di Forca” on Pozzi's map) where, as Max Wildi is right to suggest, they got lost. [5]  The route they were following goes up the Feerberg to the Furggu (1872m), then down to Zwischbergen (1435m) and Gondo (855m) — somewhat misleadingly called “Strada delle miniere d’Oro di Gondo" on Pozzi's map — was in fact the standard muleteer trail in 1790. So Wordsworth and Jones were not altogether lost: they were simply following the old, safer route that takes four hours longer to reach Gondo, which is why the local "peasant" (Prelude 1805 VI 513) told them to take the shortcut through the Gondo gorge. [6] 


The "trail" into the ravine is complicated to follow today, starting as in 1790 in the river-bed itself, then snaking higher and higher up along the right side of the Doveria. Much of it has been wiped out by rockfall, but one can still trace visually its vertiginous route. Until the Stockalper trail is fully restored, hikers must follow the Napoleonic road and even the new highway much of the way. Walking through the ravine while dodging the fast cars coming from Italy takes approximately two hours. Counting the hour-and-half it took Wordsworth and Jones to go up and back down the Feerberg, this time accounts for the "three hours" which produced such a strong impression on the poet (Letters I 33). Wordsworth's fine, precise rendering of the ravine itself obviates the need to add anything more to its description (pic 18).


The village of Gondo sits sandwiched between two mountains at the end of the ravine, right on the Italian border. Henry Coxe gives an accurate account of the village, and of the feeling it evokes in hikers coming out of the ravine:

Once more we behold the habitations of man, and a few straggling houses and a chapel constitute the dull and gloomy village of Gondo. One of these is the inn belonging to the barons of Stockalper, remarkable for its strange architecture; its eight stories, its little grated windows, and its gloomy situation give it more the air of a prison than the dwelling of a freeman. It is however in unison with the scenery of these stupendous heights, from which the thunder of the rushing tide is often heard with terror and amazement. (70)


Tragedy befell Gondo in October 2000 when the surrounding cliffs got saturated with water, and a landslide cut through the town, sweeping eleven people in its wake. It also cut off a good part of the "dreary mansion" (Prelude 1850 VI 645) where Wordsworth spent such a miserable night. However, the main tower of the odd-looking hospice (pic 19), also built by Stockalper, was just spared by the landslide. Now privately owned, the hospice remains an empty husk, but is in the process of being restored. As described by Dorothy Wordsworth (II 258-9), it does have eight floors each with "high and spacious rooms" which kept the poet lying "melancholy among weary bones" (Prelude 1850 VI 646-8). Perhaps it is here, more than anywhere else along the walk, that one can best understand how hiking the Simplon could have marked Wordsworth so indelibly. It is an experience one has to feel in the legs in order to accurately size it up.


If any reader is interested in walking the route, we would be happy to provide them with additional information.

Roger Meyenberg
Kollegium Spiritus Sanctus Brig

Patrick Vincent
University of Neuchâtel


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1 Wildi (1959), Bernard-Kabisch (1979), Hayden (1979), Johnston (1997). BACK

2 Most British travellers' accounts of the Simplon describe the Napoleonic road, which follows a significantly different route until the pass. Mourning the loss of the old mule track became almost a common place in the Swiss travel literature after 1805. Louis Simond wrote, for example, that "what with this road, and the road over Mont Cenis, all the glory, the poetry, or, if you please, the sport of crossing the Alps are lost ; one might as well travel in Flanders" (Simond, I, 504). However, despite the new road, the passage remained challenging, taking twelve to thirteen hours by post, and some travellers even found the addition of tunnels sublime. Henry Coxe, for instance, described the Gondo tunnel as the eighth wonder of world, where "art and nature seem to have combined in this place everything which is calculated to strike the imagination"(70). James Johnson was similarly impressed, calling the new road the "'seventh wonder' of the world" offering a "scene ... sublime, and even fearful" (59-60). BACK

3 Traveling up the pass in 1814 on the Napoleonic road, Henry Coxe noted that "below the Schalbet [a gallery built for the road] are the two houses called Tavernettes, where travellers who keep the old road stop for refreshment" (66). BACK

4 Kenneth Johnston also notes this anomaly, noting that the two men, used to mountain walking, "could hardly have misinterpreted the relief they felt in their muscles" and that "by the time you reach the spittal, it is quite clear that one has crossed the Alps" (206-7) Although Johnston writes that the exact place where Wordsworth and Jones had lunch that day "is a matter of some critical importance" (206), whether or not they ate at the Taferna or at the Spittal and why they failed to understand they had already reached the pass remain biographical conundrums but do not change the way we interpret the poem. BACK

5 Johnston's remark that "nearly a quarter of their time and distance on this day was taken up with wandering around, lost, near the top of the pass" (205) is inexact. Wordsworth and Jones got lost four hours after and over a thousand meters down from the actual pass. As Wildi has noted, they could not have been lost more than an hour and a half (181), while the whole walk takes approximately ten to twelve hours. BACK

6 There are a couple of details about the mistaken-path episode that emerge in Wordsworth's first draft of the passage (in the second volume of The Thirteen-book Prelude, ed. Mark L. Reed, Cornell U. P., 1991, pp. 254-255 [25v-26r of the manuscript concerned]), that he eliminated from later versions. While the walkers were proceeding on the mistaken (or rather less-preferable) path, they were overtaken by a heavy shower, and took shelter in one of the rude sheds or outhouses on picture 17; and it was while they were sheltering there that the peasant passed who gave them the perplexing information about the other way. BACK

Selected Bibliography

Bernhardt-Kabisch, Ernest. "Wordsworth and the Simplon Revisited." Wordsworth Circle 10 (1979) : 381-384.

Coxe, Henry. The Traveller's Guide in Switzerland. London: Sherwood, Neely and Jones, 1816.

Hayden, Donald E. Wordsworth's Walking tour of 1790. Tulsa: University of Tulsa, 1983.

Johnson, James. Change of Air, or the Pursuit of Health ; a Autumnal Excursion through France, Switzerland, and Italy, in the Year 1829. London : S. Highley, 1831.

Johnston, Kenneth. The Hidden Wordsworth, Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy. New York: Norton, 1998.

Kinloch, Francis. Letters from Switzerland and France; Written During a Residence of Between Two and Three Years in Different Parts of Those Countries. London : Richard Phillips, 1821.

Miall, David. "The Alps Deferred : Wordsworth at the Simplon Pass." European Romantic Review 9 (1998): 87-102.

Owen, W.J.B. "Crossing the Alps Again." The Wordsworth Circle 25 (1994) : 100-107.

Pozzi, Guiseppe. Strada del Sempione. Milan: Luigi Zucoli, 1834. (map only)

Simond, Louis. Switzerland, or a Journal of a Tour and Residence in that Country in the Years 1817, 1818 and 1819. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1822.

Schoberl, Frederic. Picturesque Tour from Geneva to Milan by way of the Simplon. London: R. Ackermann, 1820. (engravings only, no text)

Wildi, Max. "Wordsworth and the Simplon Pass. " English Studies 40 (1959) : 224-232 and English Studies 43 (1962): 259-277, rpt. in Der englische Frauenroman und andere Aufsätze. Swiss Studies in English 88. Berne: Francke, 1976, 176-208.

Wordsworth, Dorothy. Journals. Ed. E. de Selincourt. 2 vols. London : MacMillan, 1941.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude or Growth of a Poet's Mind. Ed. Ernest De Selincourt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926.

_________________ The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850. Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M.H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. New York: Norton, 1979.

_________________ and Dorothy. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt. 2nd ed. Vol. I. Rev. Ed. Chester Shaver. Oxford : Oxford UP, 1967.

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Published @ RC

August 2001