Archive Spotlight: Visiting Dove Cottage, Town-End, Grasmere, in December 2021

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The COVID-19 pandemic lead to the temporary closure or restricted access to many of the archives and heritage sites we in the Romanticism community usually frequent for research or entertainment. In early 2022 things are gradually starting to open up again, but still many are understandably hesitant. With this in mind we at BARS have decided to expand the remit of our Archive Spotlight series to include more experiental reviews of heritage institutions, in addition to reports of archival research projects. If you would like to submit a piece for the Archive Spotlight series, or any of the other BARS Blog series’ please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, Jack Orchard, here

We are starting this series with a piece by Dr Lyn Dawes, on a visit to Dove Cottage in late 2019. Dr Lyn Dawes lives in Cockermouth and is an educational consultant in the field of children’s oracy. She writes books and articles for teachers with Oracy Cambridge and is currently interested in Writers’ House Museum reviews and poetry which responds to the environment, collected on her Blog.

Visiting Dove Cottage, Town-End, Grasmere, in December 2021

William Wordsworth 7th April 1770 – 23rd April 1850

When William, Mary and Dorothy Wordsworth lived in Dove Cottage, no road lay between their front door and Grasmere. No hotel and houses blocked the fields down to the fringe of the little lake; there was less of everything, food, warmth, light, possessions, distractions.

Perhaps the lack of things enabled a superfluity of human kindness, care and love in the family living there. Dove Cottage has few rooms, low ceilings, little windows, and it is restored now to the sparse furnishing of its day, everything made of natural materials, wood, iron, brass, linen, wool, hessian. Crockery. There would have been lots of books. The mechanisms of life are exposed here. The cast iron ranges are miraculously really lit, fire acting as direct source of heat for kettles and spits, and warming its adjoining ovens and the room. The kitchen range has a creel strung up in the ceiling, a contraption of iron, wood and rope that serves to hoist clothing, bedlinen and boots up to dry. Like the fells, it makes you look up. It’s hard to supress the modern feeling of seeing things and wanting them; can we get a creel on Amazon? Is this a need or greed? The cottage is truly beautiful but will never sell its special secrets, tantalisingly very apparent. You can ask questions of the attendants, and they explain everything professionally. Wordsworth was famously tranquil here. The atmosphere of the cottage is tranquil now. There is quiet and calm generated by old stone, pleasant voices, the shift of the fire in the grate, a sense that you are somewhere that thought grew – can grow.

Stone, wood, tallow, the little leaded lights of the windows, rag rugs made by prodding scraps of used fabric through hessian. Visiting in December, the house is dim and reading or writing seem like difficult things to do, while at the same time, the homely fires and candles glow in a reassuring way. Maybe there is nothing to do of an evening but sit by the fire, making the hearth a place to reflect and consider. Some simple activities seem possible; knitting, plain sewing, baking, playing instruments, playing with children. There must have been long evenings in the cottage with William, his wife Mary and sister Dorothy and a growing group of children, eating their supper by the firelight, washing the dishes, and waiting for Samuel Taylor Coleridge to come bounding over Dunmail Raise and breeze in talking in his ebullient way. He didn’t need light to walk or to read. He knew his own and Wordsworth’s poems by heart and was never short of things to say.

The entrance to the cottage is via the stable, a deeply symbolic space, chill and windowless, with a charming video to set the context for your visit. Even with ordinary photography the Lake District is enchanting, and this photography is excellent. William and Dorothy go around the real but unbelievable scenery noticing and responding to the life around them, the life of the local flora and fauna and of the people they chance upon.

The house has small, square rooms, that do look big enough to have a table, sofa or a scaled down double bed, until you try to think of the people in there too, the children, the books and voices, the work involved in making and maintaining wood fires, linen sheets, woollen clothing, in cooking food from simple raw ingredients that you must grow and harvest yourself. Fortunately Wordsworth seemed to thrive on oatmeal porridge, though his visitors found it quite an affront. The cottage as it is today offers a set of rooms for the imagination; you can see yourself there as you might have been, before radio, screens, plastics, effective medicines, the A591; the houses in between. Wordsworth, finally receiving his father’s legacy from the Lowther family, was able to set out as a poet, with his lived awareness of homesickness, loss, grief and joy to draw on, and his family and friends to support both his reflections and his ability to record and shape his (and their) thinking into poetry.

Perhaps this was the idyllic time to live in the Lake District. There was the railway which made travel possible (in the 1840’s Wordsworth wrote an impassioned poem objecting to the railway being extended from Kendal to Windermere: ‘Is then no nook of English ground secure / From rash assault?’). Largely horse-drawn transport brought some visitors but few tourists. When William, Mary and Dorothy Wordsworth lived in Dove Cottage, there were abundant local plants that flourished undisturbed and the insect and wild life dependent on them thrived. They created a little rocky garden with behind the house, grew their food and sat for hours in their hut lined with moss with its matchless view. William and Mary had five children, three of whom predeceased them.

The beautiful new building now next to Dove Cottage houses the Museum which is characterised by holding open books, letters and papers in Wordsworth’s hand. Contemporary voices bring the poems to life – the multi-sensory experience of poetry read aloud, coupled with amazing images of the nearby lakes and fells, is very powerful; it’s startling to hear Wordsworth’s ideas. He wrote in a way that made complex thinking immediately accessible, so that confronted with, for example, the Langdale Pikes, the grandeur of the mountains is matched by the words.

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Wordsworth published Lyrical Ballads with Coleridge in 1798 and was made Poet Laureate in 1843. In his years at Dove Cottage, then nearby Allan Bank and Rydal Mount, he wrote the poetry which expresses his ideas and uses his life here to generalise about Life, its essence; he offers us the chance to see that we can understand one another and the world we live in as unified, and that it is necessary that we do so. As engraved around the Lucy statue in Cockermouth, keeping watch outside William and Dorothy’s birthplace:

‘Who feels contempt for any living thing
Hath faculties that he has never used.’

Our entry tickets last a generous year. Thank goodness. There is so much to come back for, trying a quill pen, dressing in the bonnets and cloaks, and if it hadn’t been closing time, borrowing a mouth wateringly attractive sketch book and pencil case to draw some of the things. Most of all, to hear the words again, and to keep on with the task of learning to decipher the handwriting in the little books and cross-written letters.

It took William’s wife Mary (like the more famous Mary Shelley) to sort and publish his work after his death. His masterpiece The Prelude (or ‘Poem to Coleridge’ as he entitled it, making up a little for his cruelty to Coleridge, whose extreme genius coupled with ill health had made him unwontedly addicted to opium, and thus very difficult) – The Prelude distilled what he began to say. A prelude is an introduction. We are all invited to consider and suggest what comes next. The Wordsworth Museum is itself a prelude as powerful as the poem. All around, dark falls on the fells, spreads over the lake, and quietens the village. The beauty of this museum is that it illuminates Wordsworth’s writing in ways that indicate the strength of the past and its value for ourselves here now. Wordsworth, drawing on Dorothy’s journal and Coleridge’s conversation, persistently wrote in the firelight, surely imagining for himself an audience who would value him – us.