Such is the dominance of William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter in this holiday that I have started joining them together in some kind of celebrity mash-up, just like the tabloids do with movie star couples. Mind you, I can’t decide whether I prefer Wordster or Potsworth! Or maybe I should stick to first names and use Wiltrix or Bealiam?
Anyway, while I almost got away from Wiltrix yesterday (although Potter still managed to crowbar her way into Townend’s history), today there was no getting away from Wordsworth as I headed off to his childhood home in Cockermouth. Just outside the Lake District boundary, Cockermouth was about an hour’s drive from my cottage but it was a beautiful drive along the shores of Windermere, Rydal Water, Grasmere, Thirlmere and Bassenthwaite Lake, with a few views of Derwent Water thrown in for good measure.
Now, Wordsworth House and Garden was one of the properties featured in the recent ‘Inside the National Trust’ documentary series on the BBC so I almost felt like I knew the place before I even got there. In fact, later in the day I bumped into Head Gardener, Amanda (or ‘her off the telly’), who felt like an old friend! We had a nice chat about the garden, the other NT gardens I am due to visit over the next few days and what has been done to protect the town and this particularly important part of it since the devastating floods of 2009. The flood came just five years after the garden had been given a facelift and replanted with more authentically Georgian plants, so the poor lady and her team had to start again almost from scratch. Mind you, it actually sounds like she quite enjoyed the challenge and her passion for the garden is infectious. Although there was no garden tour on offer today, I would recommend that you sign up to spend some time with Amanda’s enthusiasm if you get the opportunity on your own visit.
As I arrived early before the house itself was open, I had a cuppa and a slice of cake in the small café and then headed out into the sunshine to sit in the peaceful garden and read my guidebook. Although it is a fairly compact garden, it is just the kind I like, with a mix of herbs, fruit and vegetables and more decorative borders. There are also three chickens who got quite excited when I reached in my bag for my camera, no doubt thinking it was lunchtime. Another fixture in the garden is Fletch the Perchcrow (so called because he’s not very scary!). He actually has his very own blog on WordPress (fletchtheperchcrow.wordpress.com) so it was nice to meet a fellow scribe.
While I was waiting for my ‘At Home with the Wordsworths’ tour to start, I had a look at the front of the house where there are a couple of stakes showing the flood level of 2009 (you can just about see one alongside the front steps in the top photo). While the garden and the cellars suffered considerably and part of the front wall collapsed, the show rooms were just about high enough to escape damage, although it looks like it was a close-run thing. I’m not sure if the current roadworks on Main Street outside the house are anything to do with ongoing repairs to flood damage, but they made it very difficult to get a picture of the front of the house without including fences or diggers. I bought a postcard to photograph instead but in the end I think my own picture, although a little close up and taken over a wall, just about passes muster.
The tour was certainly a good idea (as usual), with a talk that aimed to bring 1770 to life. Competition for genuine Wordsworth furnishings is understandably fierce so there is very little belonging to William inside the house, but he only lived there during his childhood anyway so it wouldn’t really be fitting to stuff it full of Wordsworth memorabilia. Instead, the house simply looks to bring his childhood to life, using furnishings that are consistent with the period and highlighting what day-to-day life would have been like for the future Poet Laureate (who I incidentally discovered at Dove Cottage is still the only Poet Laureate never to have actually written a poem for the monarch during his tenure; he only took the post on condition that he wouldn’t have to write anything unless inspiration struck… and it clearly never did!)
The Wordsworth family never actually owned the house in Cockermouth as it was a ‘tied’ house that came with John Wordsworth’s job as land agent for local bigwig Sir James Lowther. Lowther is not generally spoken well of and was supposedly renowned for being ruthless and mean, so much so that a debt he owed John Wordsworth (and then his descendants) was never paid during his own lifetime and was only settled by his successor. This same story is mentioned in the Wordsworth museum alongside Dove Cottage in Grasmere and there is a painting there of a rather imperious-looking Lowther that certainly does nothing to refute the accepted assessment of his character.
Sadly, Wordsworth’s mother Ann died when he was only eight and he was sent away to boarding school so his time at the house was then limited to the holiday periods. Just five years later, his father also passed away, thus severing the family’s connections to the Cockermouth house completely. So, it was a fairly sad end to life in Cockermouth for William and his brothers and sister. However, not wanting to send us on our way on this gloomy note, my tour guide made sure to emphasise what a happy childhood they had had leading up to this. And so I took one last look at the garden to imagine the young William and Dorothy chasing butterflies in the sunshine (as described in one of his poems) before heading home.
Highlights: Bringing Georgian times to life (and meeting Amanda off the telly!)
Refreshments: Tea with Date, Orange & Walnut Loaf; Carrot & Cumin Soup and bread
NT Connections: The Wordsworth connection links this property to Allan Bank in Grasmere
NB: I stopped off in Ambleside on my way back and added two more NT sights to my kitty. Although neither qualifies for the full list, I thought I would mention them both. The first is Bridge House, a quirky little 17th century building that stands over the Stock Beck in Ambleside village. It was built as a way for a local family to access their land on the other side of the beck and to store their apples, while at some time after this it is said to have housed a family of eight! I’m not sure how that worked but it certainly would have been cosy. After that, I dropped in on Stagshaw Gardens. The NT website warned me that parking was limited, but it also doesn’t help that the very small car park is on a cliff! Okay, more of a hill, but it felt very steep when trying to turn round on loose gravel and soggy verges. Still, I managed to find a more solid spot and walked up the hill to look at the beautiful azaleas and rhododendrons and to take in the views of Windermere below. It was a very pleasant stroll up the hillside and then down again (well, it is the Lake District) and there is also a babbling brook tumbling alongside the path as gentle background music.