You don’t need to have detailed knowledge about William Wordsworth to know about his close association with the Lake District in north west England.
He and his sister Dorothy were born there but left when their mother died and their father sent them to different parts of the country. William to be educated in Lancashire, then Cambridge; and Dorothy to live with relatives in Yorkshire.
But the countryside of Cumberland and the lakes was a constant draw for William. In 1779, while on a walking tour of the Lake District he found a cottage for rent in the south east of the district, near the village and lake of of Grasmere. He and Dorothy settled there in December that year.
The cottage became their home for more than eight years. William Wordsworth described his new home and the garden surrounding it as “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found”.
He arrived having already published a collection of poems now recognised as a landmark in the Romantic movement: Lyrical Ballads. At Grasmere his work flourished, inspired by his proximity to the ever-changing landscape of the valleys and hills surrounding the cottage.
It was here that he he produced some of the most famous and best-loved of his poems: his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality“, “Ode to Duty“, “My Heart Leaps Up” and “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud“. He also wrote a new Prelude to Lyrical Ballads together with parts of his autobiographical epic, The Prelude.
Today, the home he occupied with first his sister, and then with his wife and three children, is open to the public, visited by more than 70,000 people each year.
I turned up one summer day in 2015, only to be disappointed because there were no admission tickets left that day. The cottage is tiny and such is the level of demand, that numbers have to be strictly controlled by the Wordsworth Trust that manages the building. Fortunately I was more successful on my second attempt.
“Dove Cottage” as it’s now called (it didn’t take that name until after Wordsworth’s time) is a solid looking two storey building with lime-washed walls and a slate roof. Inside there are four rooms on each floor, showing many of the original features and items owned by the Wordsworths. The collection of wooden sticks used by Dorothy to clean her teeth were an oddity. I was more taken with a beautiful wooden chest which contained a precious store of expensive tea leaves.
On the ground floor there are four rooms, with oak panels and slate floors typical of Lakeland buildings from the eighteenth century. One room next to the main door was a room which had multiple functions: it was used as a parlour or reception room but also had a cooking range. The main kitchen, was in a smaller space with an attached buttery or larder.
A smaller room next to the parlour was initially used as Dorothy’s bedroom. Such was her devotion to her brother, that when he married in 1802, she relinquished this room to the married couple because the ceiling of their own bedroom was leaking.
Upstairs were the bedrooms and a second parlour used for entertaining and light meals. Right at the front of the house is the room used by William Wordsworth as his study, with views over the meadows to Grasmere Lake. It was fun to imagine him in this chair watching the clouds rolling in over the hills or the light flickering in the fireplace.
It would be easy to romanticise the cottage. But it can’t have been easy to manage the domestic arrangements; there was no running water inside the house for one thing. It would have been quite crowded at times with three adults, three children and the numerous visitors that came to stay.
The Wordsworths employed a local girl as a maid to take care of their cooking and washing but Dorothy’s journal also makes it clear that she was not averse to rolling up her sleeves to get domestic chores done. In their first summer in the cottage, she records one Monday that she:
bound carpets, mended old clothes, read Timon of Athens, dried linen…
There were compensations however.
The house had a tiered garden and orchard at the rear that the Wordsworths set about arranging as a semi wild space. into a “little nook of mountain-ground” (The Farewell). Dorothy’s journal gives us a glimpse of the hours they devoted to the project.
In May 1800 she notes:
I brought home lemon-thyme, and several other plants, and planted them by moonlight.
Then the following month comes this entry:
In the morning W. cut down the winter cherry tree. I sowed French beans and weeded. … In the evening I stuck peas, watered the garden, and planted brocoli. (sic)
When they weren’t working or sitting in the garden, brother and sister spent their time walking or on the lake; all the time observing and reflecting on what lay around them. The results were captured in Dorothy’s Journal and in William’s poems. In one unpublished poem (later titled Home at Grasmere) he meditated on what it meant to make this environment his home.
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,
Its 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.
The family abandoned Dove Cottage in May 1808 to find more spacious accommodation. It was then occupied by one of their friends Thomas de Quincey who lived there for several years.
The cottage was acquired by the Wordsworth Trust in 1890 and opened to the public as a writer’s home museum in 1891. Its status and importance is preserved for the nation through its designation as a Grade 1 listed building,
If you’re ever in the vicinity of Grasmere, do make a point of visiting the cottage. I’d recommend you go as late in the afternoon as possible when the bulk of visitors will have left and you can sit in the arbour at the top of the garden, and enjoy the peace and solitude that William would have known.