Wordsworth's world

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
The Lake District provided William Wordsworth with much inspiration for his poetry, and so it is no surprise that pupils in the area are familiarising themselves with his works in situ. Douglas Blane reports

In a dimly lit room lined with oak shelves and old books, a dark-haired man lovingly unfolds a red box to reveal three slim, marbled volumes. He opens the top one and reads in a reverent whisper: "My candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull, yellow eye of the creature open."

Allan King turns to the front cover of the first edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, one of 60,000 manuscripts, books and art works held by the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, Cumbria, and chuckles. "Look at that," says Allan, the Trust's press officer, pointing to a pencilled figure of Pounds 20,000 beside the name of the book's previous owner. "Imagine someone having a book that valuable and thinking it was a good idea to write on it.

"Actually, it's not worth pound;20,000 at all," he adds, gently closing the box and returning the treasure to the shelves of the reading room in the new Jerwood Centre. "It's worth considerably more than that."

Opened in June by the poet Seamus Heaney, who described it as "the finest literary museum in the world", the Jerwood Centre is modern architecture in traditional slate, blending beautifully into the little hamlet where William Wordsworth lived for a while and wrote many of his best-loved poems.

Built to house the Trust's collection and make it available for research and education, the centre is a huge improvement on what went before. "The collection used to be stored in an old barn, which was cold and damp in winter and hot and damp in summer," says interpretation officer Catherine Kay. "The worst environment for old books."

When school groups visit Dove Cottage (Wordsworth's home) and the Wordsworth Museum, they can take a guided tour of the centre and make contact with the works written and read by the Romantic poets. "If we show them a letter of Wordsworth's it slowly dawns on them that it is the original and not a copy," says Catherine. "You can see it on their faces, in their intake of breath."

There is something about the genuine article that engages young people, agrees Allan: "Nowadays, you can make a facsimile that is almost identical to an original. But it is not exciting. I remember being so disappointed when I discovered the dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum were made of plaster."

A guided tour of the centre touches aspects of the curriculum beyond language and literature, as it lifts the veil on the science that enables great art to be preserved. "We show them the dramatic effects on books of time, mould and sunlight," says Catherine.

"So they are not just hearing about it, they are seeing for themselves.

They don't do poetic, philosophical or abstract ideas. They like something they can see and touch."

For the same reason, educational walks around the hamlet work well: "We used to read Wordsworth's poetry, tell them what they were looking at, and move on. Now we get them to stop and notice what they can see and hear.

Then we read a bit of Dorothy's Journal (a diary kept by Wordsworth's wife, Dorothy) or Wordsworth's poetry. Often they will have noticed similar things, which they really like."

Across the lane from the rose covered facade of Dove Cottage, a little classroom is set among wild yellow poppies. With its walls decorated with illustrations from The Golden Store, a new Wordsworth collection for schoolchildren, the Foyle Room is an ideal base for educational visits to the Wordsworth Trust.

"In winter, when it's quiet, we take them from here to Dove Cottage. It's fun and inspirational. They sit and write poetry where Wordsworth composed much of his," says Allan King.

Jerwood Centre, tel: 015394 35544; www.wordsworth.org.uk; email: schools@wordsworth.org.uk. Educational visits: pound;2.90 per pupil, workshop pound;1.60, walk pound;2.10.The Golden Store, compiled and illustrated by Nancy Martin, pound;9.95. The Wordsworth Trust

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