In search of the visionary gleam

16th June 1995 at 01:00
Jonathan Croall heads for the Lake District and the landscape that inspired Wordsworth, in the first of this summer series on great writers and their literary haunts. Of the six major poets whose houses are featured in this series of Literary Haunts Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron and Dylan Thomas perhaps none was more deeply affected and inspired by his surroundings than Wordsworth.

Most of his 80 years were spent in the Lake District, almost all of them under the same roof as his beloved sister Dorothy, who as is clear from Home at Grasmere inspired so much of his poetry. Happily, four places in what he saw as a "blended holiness of earth and sky" are open to the public.

His birthplace now Words-worth House is in Cockermouth, in the north-west of the Lakes, a handsome Georgian town house overlooking the river Derwent. Threatened with demolition in 1937, to make way for a bus station, it was saved by Wordsworth enthusiasts the world over, and given to the National Trust.

The house has a few of the poet's possessions two bookcases, a sofa, a chest of drawers but it's the outside that is most evocative. Alongside the terrace walk at the end of the garden flows that "fairest of all rivers". This, the fields opposite, and the nearby ruined castle, provided the settings for his and Dorothy's explorations so movingly described in The Prelude.

Although the children attended school in Cockermouth, most of William's education was at the well-established Hawkshead Grammar, to which he went at the age of nine. Here, in a two-room building below the village church, he and 90 other pupils learnt Latin, Greek, maths and science, as well as dancing and French from a peripatetic teacher.

If Cockermouth fostered his love of nature, Hawkshead gave him a love of books. As well as the prescribed Virgil, Ovid and Horace, he was soon reading Fielding, Swift, Cervantes and many others. But he still found time for "boyish sports" including carving his name deeply into the oak desk by the door.

The headmaster, William Taylor, lent him poetry books from his own library, and encouraged him to create poems in English rather than the normal Latin. His first extant poem, "Vale of Esthwaite", was written here at the age of 15, to celebrate the school's bicentenary. From then on he was hooked.

Even at this age he was a prodigious walker. Lodging with a local family, first in a cottage in Hawks head, then in a farm across the valley (both remaining, but not open to the public), he thought nothing of a five-mile walk round Esthwaite Water before starting the school day.

He left Hawkshead at 17 to go to Cambridge, returning to the Lakes with Dorothy in his 30th year. The modest whitewashed Dove Cottage, tucked into the hillside on the edge of Grasmere village, was their first permanent home, which the Wordsworth Trust has preserved much as it was in their day. Although the cottage originally the Dove and Olive pub had eight rooms, it soon became very crowded, as William and Dorothy were joined by Wordsworth's wife Mary, the first three of their children, their servant Molly, and any number of regular guests, most notably Coleridge, then living in Keswick.

In the study, from which he could see the fells reflected in Grasmere, Wordsworth created some of his best nature poetry.

Astonishingly, he could hold in his head 100 lines at a time, which he would then come down and dictate to either Dorothy or Mary in the stone-flagged living room below.

The cottage retains a wealth of the family's possessions, including Words-worth's tiny portmanteau, and the odd-shaped chair in which he wrote his poetry. Behind and to the side is the small but exquisite garden beloved by both brother and sister, now virtually restored to a state they would recognise.

Wordsworth said that if he had not been a poet he would have been a gardener. The garden at his final home, Rydal Mount, which he designed, shows this was no idle boast. A pleasing mixture of curving terraces, lawns and flower beds, dotted with beech, maple and oak trees, it gave him a fine view of Rydal Water.

The house itself, owned by the poet's descendants and still a family home, could hardly be less like Dove Cottage. Spacious, light, elegant Dorothy called it a "paradise", and "the nicest place in the world for children" it was suitably grand for the Poet Laureate that Wordsworth became in 1843.

It contains several portraits of family and friends, including the only existing one of Dorothy, aged 62 (Dove Cottage has an early silhouette). Wordsworth's study is now a small museum: among the exhibits are his prayer book, and a list of visitors Tennyson, Lamb, Hawthorne, Keats, Scott, Mrs Gaskell, Hawthorne, and both Arnolds all made the pilgrimage.

While all four properties welcome school groups, only Dove Cottage has an education service. Alongside the excellent museum next door, the Wordsworth Trust offers an exemplary range of resources and activities for all ages.

Wordsworth House, Cockermouth 01900 824805; Hawkshead School, Hawkshead 015394 35647; Dove Cottage, Grasmere 015394 35544 35547; Rydal Mount, Rydal 015394 33002.

Home at Grasmere: Extracts from the Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth and the Poems of William Wordsworth, Penguin (Pounds 6.99).

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