On the trail of William Wordsworth

Grasmere in Cumbria
Grasmere in Cumbria. Credit: Getty

Following in the footsteps of William Wordsworth, Lawrence Alexander explores the poet’s beloved Grasmere and other Lake District haunts

On the evening of 15 April 1802, Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the poet William, wrote her journal as usual. They had enjoyed a wonderful day. Walking home from visiting friends, the pair had passed through Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater, and witnessed a now-famous sight.

Dorothy recalled that the daffodils “tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake”. That day became a seed for one of the most famous poems in the English language: William Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, written in 1804.

Dorothy's diary
Dorothy’s diary

Although well-travelled, Wordsworth never ceased to be inspired by his native Cumbria. He was born in Cockermouth on 7 April 1770, in what is now Wordsworth House.

His father was a land agent, and his early years were happy. He, his two brothers and his sister Dorothy developed a passion for nature in their back garden. The house now belongs to the National Trust after narrowly avoiding demolition to make way for a bus garage, and is presented in a way the poet himself would recognise. A fire burns in the grate, while food is prepared in the kitchen. Upstairs, the children’s bedroom is filled with toys and laughter.

Wordsworth’s laughter wasn’t to last. His mother died when he was eight; his father five years later. The young boy went to school in Hawkshead, a classic Lakes village that has hardly changed since his day. Cobbled streets lined with higgledy-piggledy whitewashed cottages lead through arches into tiny courtyards and flower-filled squares.

A portrait of Wordsworth at Dove Cottage
A portrait of Wordsworth at Dove Cottage. Credit: VisitBritain/Britain on View

Hawkshead Grammar School, founded in 1585 and now a museum, makes for a fascinating visit, and not just for its most famous pupil – the desks alone, etched by generations of schoolboys, speak down through the ages. Hawkshead is a car-free zone so it’s possible to wander as Wordsworth himself would have done, albeit not ‘lonely as a cloud’: it’s extremely popular in peak season.

In 1795, after studying at St John’s College, Cambridge, Wordsworth received a bequest of £900, allowing him to pursue his dream: a literary career. He and Dorothy went travelling in Dorset, where they met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who went on to become a close friend and literary collaborator.

Touring the Lake District, William and Dorothy happened upon an abandoned inn in Grasmere. Smitten, they moved in, in December 1799. Dove Cottage, as they named it, was no palace. Built in the early 17th century from local stone, it had plain, lime-washed walls, slate floors and roof, and no running water.

Dove Cottage in Grasmere, featuring a painting of Wordsworth's dog, Pepper
Dove Cottage in Grasmere, featuring a painting of Wordsworth’s dog, Pepper

However, the cottage’s bucolic surroundings energised the pair. Dorothy acted as William’s secretary as he dictated poetry. She also wrote for herself, an intimate account of their lives: the Grasmere Journals. The steep fell-side garden was “a little domestic slip of mountain” to the nature-loving Wordsworths, filled with bluebells, foxgloves and, of course, daffodils.

The Wordsworth Trust was founded in 1891, early enough to preserve Dove Cottage as it was. A guided tour reveals the living room, kitchen and buttery, Dorothy’s bedroom and William’s study. A museum houses manuscripts, books and paintings.

Next door, the Jerwood Gallery is the long-term home for a collection that comprises 90 percent of Wordsworth’s letters, journals and poems. This year a £4.1m grant for the major Reimagining Wordsworth project has ensured that by 2020 – the 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth – the cottage and collection will be presented in their most authentic manner yet.

In the eyes of the Wordsworths, Dove Cottage had but one fault: it was tiny. William had married his childhood sweetheart Mary Hutchinson in October 1802 and the couple would have three of their five children in the cottage. Dorothy had continued to live with them and in addition, a steady stream of friends came to stay: Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, Thomas de Quincey and Robert Southey were all house guests here. Dove Cottage was “crammed edge-full”. Something had to give; that something was the Wordsworths.

Allan Bank was not love at first sight – William had called it an eyesore while the Georgian house was still under construction. The family lived there for two years, but the chimneys smoked and the couple fell out with the landlord. They had always loved the views more than the house itself. Allan Bank was given to the National Trust in 1920 but suffered a terrible fire in 2011. Today, semi-restored, it is presented in an unfinished state, inviting visitors to suggest what they would like to see here, including paint colours for the interior and planting designs for the garden.

In 1813, the Wordsworths moved to tranquil Rydal Mount, where they would live for the rest of their lives. With its glorious views of Rydal Water, the setting of the house was endlessly inspiring.

Rydal Mount
Rydal Mount has stunning views. Credit: Judy Thomas

By the 1820s, critical acclaim for Wordsworth’s poetry had grown, and tourists travelled to the area clutching books of his works. In 1843, he received the ultimate literary accolade when he was made the nation’s poet laureate – official poet to the Royal household.

Still owned by the Wordsworth family, Rydal Mount retains a lived-in atmosphere, with personal possessions and portraits dotted throughout. Five acres of gardens burst with rare shrubs, terraces, lawns and rock pools.

After the tragic death of their daughter Dora in 1847 – the third of their five children to die young – William and Mary planted hundreds of daffodils in her memory, on a patch of land next to St Mary’s church in Rydal. Every spring, Dora’s Field still shimmers with gold.

Almost everywhere in the Lake District claims a link with Wordsworth. With 70,000 lines of verse, so many of which celebrate the natural history of his beloved home county, his cultural legacy is widely felt. In 2017, the region was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status, thanks in no small part to the inspiration its beauty has provided to artists and writers, most notably William Wordsworth.

St Oswald's Church in Grasmere
Wordsworth is buried in St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere. Credit: John Davidson Photos/Alamy

Perhaps the most-visited site is Wordsworth’s final resting place. In the poet’s time, St Oswald’s Church, Grasmere, was “almost wholly free/From interruption of sepulchral stones”. It was not so for long. After Wordsworth caught a cold while taking a walk, he died on 23 April 1850, St George’s Day. William, his wife Mary, his sister Dorothy and three of his children are buried together in the peaceful churchyard, in the shade of one of the yew trees planted by the poet himself.

The planner

Getting there

The closest station to Grasmere is Windermere, served by the branch rail line from Oxenholme, which has direct services from London Euston (journey time 3-4 hours). The 555 bus stops at Windermere and Grasmere. Alternatively, once a year in late June you can travel to the region in vintage style on the iconic Flying Scotsman steam engine.

Where to stay

“Who does not know the famous Swan?” asked Wordsworth in his poem The Waggoner. Built as a coaching inn in 1650, the Swan is one of the region’s oldest hotels. After a day’s exploring, hikers can enjoy a glass of local ale by the fireside in the cosy bar.

What to do
Wordsworth House

Bustling with costumed servants, this handsome Georgian townhouse, once Wordsworth’s childhood home, is full of atmosphere. Regular tours, talks and exhibitions are organised too. Open Saturday to Thursday, 11am-5pm.

Hawkshead Grammar School

A lively guided tour tells the story behind the artefacts, including original desks etched with the initials of Wordsworth and his schoolmates. Open April-September, Monday-Saturday, 10.30am-1pm and 1.30pm-5pm.

Dove Cottage and Wordsworth Museum

Dove Cottage
Dove Cottage is adorned with bright flowers

A packed schedule of events means there’s always something going on at Dove Cottage, from night poetry readings to garden tours. Open daily, March-October 9.30am-5.30pm, November and December 10am-4.30pm.

Allan Bank

Stroll round the gardens, spot native red squirrels or have a go at weaving in the crafts room. Open daily, 10.30am-5pm; shorter hours in winter.

Rydal Mount

After pottering round the poet’s house, wander through his garden: a keen landscape gardener, Wordsworth delighted in the house’s five-acre plot, which remains much as he designed it.

Grasmere gingerbread

Sadly, William Wordsworth never tasted Grasmere’s most famous sweet treat, gingerbread; it was invented in 1854, two years after his death. Its creator, Sarah Nelson, lived in Grasmere, baking for the area’s larger houses, while her husband Wilfred dug graves in St Oswald’s Church (where Wordsworth lies). Her chewy, spiced half-cake-half-biscuit, sold from a tabletop on top of a tree stump outside her front door, was an instant hit. The secret recipe, known to just one person, is still baked daily from the same shop.