Monday, 11 January 2010


Wordsworth left Dove Cottage at some point late in May 1808. The cottage is of a liberal size but not enormous. Coleridge wished to live with the family, Mary was pregnant with their fourth child and more and more visitors came to call and required lodging.

The family moved into Allan Bank, a large house over the other side of the lake. In 1805 when it was built Wordsworth had called this new addition to the village a "temple of abomination", but with no other house of a sufficient size on offer he ended up renting the property from its owner Mr Crump. It is much larger than Dove Cottage, more of a stately home, with a large square central foyer surrounded by a grand stairway and balcony. Wordsworth commented that you could see the house from anywhere in the village. You can see it today, the colour of a smoker's tooth. The family never really settled there. Coleridge was staying with them and drinking a great deal as well as taking large amounts of opium. It was at this point the friendship between the Wordsworths and Coleridge began to seriously deteriorate.

The Crumps had let Allan Bank on the condition they should have it back when they required it. Around June 1811, the family were forced to move again, this time to the Old Rectory in the centre of the village. The house was large and damp, Sara Hutchinson, who had left the group - in order it seems to escape the attentions of Coleridge - prophetically called the Rectory "a deathly house". Two of the Wordsworth children died there in 1812. First three-year old Catharine, who had always been sickly and suffered from convulsions, and then six-year old Thomas caught measles in the winter. They were buried next to each other in the churchyard, and their graves could be seen from the house. It was perhaps because this constant reminder was unbearable, along with a felicitous increase in income when Wordsworth was appointed Westmoreland Distributor of Stamps in 1813, that the family again rehomed themselves, this time permanently, in Rydal Mount, halfway between Grasmere and Ambleside.

Wordsworth's final home was a memorial even while he lived. Whereas only the most intrepid and enthusiastic admirers, such as De Quincey, had traced him to Dove Cottage, Rydal Mount was marked in guidebooks of the time as the home of the eminent Victorian. But I wish to leave the story in Grasmere, as I myself prepare to leave, along with the rest of the class of 2009. When Wordsworth left his little home in Town End its life continued. First De Quincey filled it with his 5,000 books. Then it was a guesthouse. And then the Trust was born and the house saved for prosperity. Had it not been bought in 1891 the chances are the building would have been demolished, to make way for the hotels that were springing up all around the village to accommodate the growing demands of tourists. How and why Dove Cottage became a literary shrine is a tale told in our current exhibition, Romantic Poets, Romantic Places.

For me, Dove Cottage is a wonderful place precisely because it is not what so many tourists want it to be: that is, where he was born, or where he died. It is where he lived and wrote, and where people continue to live and write. We have become so familiar with it, knowing which floorboards creak, where the notch in the banister that gathers dust is. I almost forget sometimes this was Wordsworth's home. I like that lack of reverence. I hope the sense of a living place is one that we manage to give to all our visitors by guiding them round on tours and thereby doing away with labels and barriers. These visitors will often ask if it was a happy home. Happy to me doesn't seem quite right. There was tragedy here, most obviously when Dorothy and William lost their brother John on his final sea voyage, and there were momentous occasions, such as the birth of the first three children. For those that live in Town End now there is precisely the same experience, life with as many ups and downs as the fells themselves. And yet it is different in Grasmere. I think I can say that have never been better than I am here, never more interested or aware, never more at home. Of course, Wordsworth writes best of the "power and protection for the mind" that "here abides":

Embrace me then, ye Hills, and close me in;
Now in the clear and open day I feel
Your guardianship; I take it to my heart;
'Tis like the solemn shelter of the night.
But I would call thee beautiful, for mild,
And soft, and gay, and beautiful thou art
Dear valley, having in thy face a smile
Though peaceful, full of gladness. Thou art pleased,
Pleased with thy crags and woody steeps, thy Lake,
It's one green island and its winding shores;
The multitude of little rocky hills,
Thy Church and cottages of mountain stone
Clustered like stars some few, but single most,
And lurking dimly in their shy retreats,
Or glancing at each other cheerful looks
Like separated stars with clouds between.
What want we? have we not perpetual streams,
Warm woods, and sunny hills, and fresh green fields,
And mountains not less green, and flocks and herds,
And thickets full of songsters, and the voice
Of lordly birds, an unexpected sound
Heard now and then from morn to latest eve,
Admonishing the man who walks below
Of solitude and silence in the sky?
These have we, and a thousand nooks of earth
Have also these, but nowhere else is found,
Nowhere (or is it fancy?) can be found
The one sensation that is here; 'tis here,
Here as it found its way into my heart
In childhood, here as it abides by day,
By night, here only; or in chosen minds
That take it with them hence, where'er they go.
-- 'Tis, but I cannot name it, 'tis the sense
Of majesty, and beauty, and repose,
A blended holiness of earth and sky,
Something that makes this individual spot,
This small abiding-place of many men,
A termination, and a last retreat,
A centre, come from wheresoe'er you will,
A whole without dependence or defect,
Made for itself, and happy in itself,
Perfect contentment, Unity entire.
('Home at Grasmere' or Book I of 'The Recluse' lines 110-151)

The village changed, and is still changing. There are many more buildings than the stellar formations Wordsworth records. But few now can afford to make this their "abiding-place". The price of properties in Cumbria has forced many locally born people to leave. I have been fortunate to meet many present day villagers and I want to thank them all for their friendship, and for providing ale and pasties. Whereas in Wordsworth's time the main employer of the village was farming, now it is tourism and the service industries. As a result, the people I have come to know hail from all over the globe and their presence here is transitory because of the nature of the work on offer. The accent is being lost, the traditional trades and crafts. However, the village inhabitants, come from whereso'er they do, are unusually marvellous. The accent may be dying, but I can still hear the sentiment behind this account by a local contemporary of Grasmere's famous bard:

Ay, what we a kenned auld Wordsworth, though at times we were capped to kna what to make on him. He'd ga trailing aboot t'roads, talkin' to hisself, poor fella, sometimes wi' his hat on and wi ' his hat off, i' peltin' rain; but happen if ye nobbut knew it, he likely had as mich sense as me or yersel...

I wish I could leave on that note, but I must add a couple more words of thanks. It's been an immense pleasure to be here and I have been privileged to work with many wonderful people and take advantage of great opportunities. I'd like to thank our curator Jeff Cowton and all the staff. I'd like to make a special mention of Andrew Forster, our literature officer, who I have been lucky enough to work with. I want to thank Mark Ward for liberality with wine and making the fire and everyone else I have lived and danced and drank with for putting up with me. There is so much I am going to miss. Like the tenth doctor, "I don't want to go".

1 comment:

  1. All good things... as they say! Very interesting and very well done.