We visited Dove Cottage last month, a small damp cottage at Town End, Grasmere, world famous for being home to William and Dorothy Wordsworth. I’ve never been a fan of Romantic poetry but given his reputation, and the fact he was one of the first to promote the grandeur of Cumberland (now part of Cumbria, my home county) for its wild mountain scenery and ‘savage’ natives (I’m told it means un-contaminated) I felt it was time I learned a little more about him than his famous reflections on spring bulbs.
Orphaned before he reached his teens William was flailing for a profession when a small legacy meant he had money enough to support his ambition to write poetry. In late 1799 he rented the former Dove and Olive Bough public house, a native-built stone cottage set beside the main road from Keswick to Kendal, and moved in with his sister Dorothy, who he hadn’t lived with since childhood. But she shared equal aspirations for William’s genius and managed to supply all the practical support he required, which was essential because Will preferred to recite his thoughts while someone else did the writing. They lived in the tiny cottage for eight years, squeezing in with William’s new wife and her sister and then, by-turns, three children, as well as many famous and frequent visitors. When Walter Scott came he gave them one of his dogs, Pepper, whose portrait greets visitors when they first enter the cottage.
Men such as Coleridge, Southey and de Quincey, would call for afternoon tea and emerge weeks later bowled over by the Wordsworth’s hospitality. And when the Wordsworth clan moved to Allan Bank in 1808 De Quincey became the tenant of Dove Cottage, a tenancy he held for the next twenty-eight years. It seems strange the Wordsworth’s eight years trumped poor De Quincey but he failed to be respectable after publishing his Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The publicity machine which drove Wordsworth’s popularity meant the former public house was bought by the Wordsworth Trust in 1890 and opened to the public the following year as Dove Cottage.
It was during his very first stay in Grasmere that De Quincey noted, when the lake froze over, how William embarked on his other great passion, ice skating. William was particularly proud of his great skill on the ice but his friend was less impressed and wrote in his diary, ‘he sprawled upon the ice like a cow dancing a cotilion’.
Taken from ‘The Prelude’ by William Wordsworth
And in the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and visible for many a mile
The cottage windows through the twilight blaz’d,
I heeded not the summons:—happy time
It was, indeed, for all of us; to me
It was a time of rapture: clear and loud
The village clock toll’d six; I wheel’d about,
Proud and exulting, like an untired horse,
That cares not for its home.—All shod with steel,
We hiss’d along the polish’d ice, in games
Confederate, imitative of the chase
And woodland pleasures, the resounding horn,
The Pack loud bellowing, and the hunted hare.
So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
And not a voice was idle; with the din,
Meanwhile, the precipices rang aloud,
The leafless trees, and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron, while the distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy, not unnoticed, while the stars,
Eastward, were sparkling clear, and in the west
The orange sky of evening died away.
Next-door to Dove Cottage a dedicated museum displays artefacts relating to William’s life
and times. While I truly hope he didn’t actually use the cock-spurs the basket full of
pace-eggs was a delight. At Easter many children (and adults) still go pace-egging in this part of the world and it was interesting such beautifully-decorated (and very delicate) hard-boiled eggs had survived. But what really caught my attention were William’s ice skates. Not one pair but several! The man really did love to skate, as illustrated by his words. And I share his passion.
Taken From The Prelude, Memories of Ice Skating on EsthwaiteLake
Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
To cut across the image of a star
That gleam’d upon the ice: and oftentimes
When we had given our bodies to the wind,
And all the shadowy banks, on either side,
Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
The rapid line of motion; then at once
Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
Stopp’d short, yet still the solitary Cliffs
Wheeled by me, even as if the earth had roll’d
With visible motion her diurnal round;
Behind me did they stretch in solemn train
Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watch’d
Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep.
William’s giddy words define the peculiar exuberance of ice skating – as pertinent now as when he composed them, and obviously based on first-hand experience of skating by star-light on a frozen lake. But I wonder if Dorothy was skating right behind him with her notebook and pencil?