England: A host of golden memories

By Peter Calder

Peter Calder delights in the land of the Lake Poets.

William Wordsworth spent almost  half his life at Rydal Mount. Photo / Cumbria Tourism
William Wordsworth spent almost half his life at Rydal Mount. Photo / Cumbria Tourism

William Wordsworth's grave is surrounded by a crowd, a host of bedraggled daffodils. In the yard of St Oswald's Church in the postcard-pretty village of Grasmere in Cumbria, in England's northeast, it is part of an unremarkable family plot which escapes the description unkempt only because of the luminary status of the man buried there.

The moss makes the inscriptions hard to read and it's only the well-worn path leading to it that sets it apart from the other graves in the 14th-century church on the edge of the tiny River Rothay.

It's somehow apt and very English. The poet was so highly regarded in his lifetime that he might be seen as the Elvis of his day, but there are no garish Graceland-type tributes here, or concessions selling tacky memorabilia. Instead, Grasmere wears its Wordsworth heritage lightly. The most eloquent tribute the villagers pay to him is not to make a fuss.

In fact, the poet was here for barely eight years: almost half his life was spent at nearby Rydal Mount, a much grander dwelling set in a rambling romantic garden with views of the next lake, Rydal Water.

But tiny, cramped Dove Cottage, where he engaged in what he described as "plain living but high thinking [in] the fairest place on earth", held a special place in his heart. He is buried only a few paces from it.

It was here that he and his best mate, Coleridge, excitedly tried out their latest works on each other as they engaged in a process that amounted to reinventing poetry.

It must have been a bit of a party house, too, in its time. Thomas de Quincey, whose most famous literary legacy is Confessions of an English Opium Eater, was a frequent visitor and the house's occupant after WW and Coleridge himself had a weakness for the opium, as anyone who has read Kubla Khan can see.

Wordsworth may be known Downunder mainly by I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (incorrectly called "Daffodils") which was drummed into legions of mid-century schoolchildren by Anglophile teachers.

I have always much preferred the sonnet ("Surprized by joy - impatient as the wind") that he wrote after the death, at just 3, of his daughter Catherine; it's as perfect an evocation of grief as was ever committed to paper.

But even if those whose potential love of poetry was cauterised early by an English teacher will find it hard to remain unmoved by the living sense of the poet's spirit in the austere Dove Cottage and the much grander Rydal Mount.

Many of Wordsworth's books and documents, including his proclamation, at 73, as Poet Laureate (he is the only one to have written nothing in his tenure; he warned them as much but they wanted him anyway) are on display, as is the furniture he sat on. It's fun to stand at the window by the desk where he wrote for three decades, and gaze through the rippled glass to the distant peep of the lake beyond.

The lakes are, of course, much of the reason for coming to Cumbria. Wordsworth, Coleridge and the lesser-known Robert Southey were known as the Lake Poets. "A lake," Wordsworth wrote, "carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable." And the landscape is certainly inspiring - even when you can't see it.

An elderly woman on the train had commiserated with me about the weather as we entered the county from Lancashire. "I do hope it improves for you," she said, gazing mournfully at a landscape which rose barely above the height of the train windows before disappearing into a grey mist. But as I drove south from Carlisle into the park, it hardly seemed to matter.

If anything, the low cloud added to the brooding majesty of the views, which in any case would open unexpectedly - and close in just as fast. And, at moments, the sun would break through, inflating the contours of the muscular clouds and spotlighting a distant solitary farmhouse or picking out the craggy edge of a ridge.

Dramatically different from most of the undulating, tame English countryside, the county is home to a score of major lakes, only one of which is named as such; the suffixes "-water" or "-mere" are much commoner.

The area is popular among hikers and campers and it's not hard to see why. All the land in England higher than 1000m above sea level lies within this national park. A walk along one of the lake edges, under the flanks of the towering fells, which is what they call the mountains here, is a bracing experience.

Paths for hikers of widely different abilities can be accessed within a few kilometres of each other; the toughest walks are for rock climbers, but blue-rinsed grandmothers in rainjackets and running shoes were to be found on the track I walked along the edge of Ullswater.

I silently agreed to differ with the assessment of one that a fighter jet that burst from nowhere and roared the length of the lake every 20 minutes was "magnificent".

I suppose the Top Guns have to train somewhere, but why they didn't choose somewhere that was already noisy had me beat.

Still, in between the supersonic howls, the rocky path was a treat. And, best of all, no track-end is far from a pub with a fire and a £3.95 steaming bowl of soup.

Peter Calder explored the Lake District with the assistance of Cumbria Tourism, golakes.co.uk and Cathay Pacific Airways.

- Herald on Sunday

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