Monday, June 04, 2007

Lake District Holiday IV: Aira Force and Grasmere

Clara (sister) and Rob at Aira Force.

On Thursday morning, the Claras and I wandered lonely as a cloud down the A591 to the National Trust car park beside Aira Beck, a half a mile downstream from Aira Force, the Lake District’s most famous waterfall. The path up from the car park climbs through lovely parkland, among flowering purple azaleas and past an enormous Sitka spruce hanging out over the ravine (or “gill”) of Aira Beck. It was on a visit to Aira Force in April 1802 that William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy came upon a “field of golden daffodils” in Gowbarrow Park, along the shore just beyond where Aira Beck enters Ullswater. In her diary for April 15, 1802, Dorothy wrote: “I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.” Her brother William wrote:

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of the bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

It’s not surprising that William and Dorothy used the same words, and seem to have had the same thoughts. They were close. Dorothy’s journals probably helped jog William’s memory of experiences that he then turned into poetry. When the poems were written, Dorothy wrote out fair copies of them in her neat handwriting.

For a decade between 1799 and 1808, Dorothy and William lived together at Dove Cottage in the village of Grasmere, on the northern end of the lake of that name. Dove Cottage is small—four small rooms up and four down—and after Wordsworth’s marriage in 1802, the cottage quickly filled up with family and guests. Coleridge was a frequent visitor, as was Thomas De Quincey, who took up permanent residence in Dove Cottage after the Wordsworths moved out. William loved Dove Cottage and Grasmere. He called the hillside garden behind the cottage “of all the spots that are/The loveliest surely man has ever found.” But one of the things that particularly struck me as I stood in the garden was the acrid smell of coal smoke pouring from the chimneys.
Dove Cottage from the back garden, Wordsworth's "sweet garden-orchard."

William and Dorothy were prodigious walkers. Dorothy walked fourteen miles a day, to Ambleside and back, to fetch the mail. Unfortunately, I came to Grasmere with a sore knee, and could only walk a short distance along the shore of Grasmere, stopping briefly to sit on a stone and read a few lines of Wordsworth’s poetry. Back in the village, we found the Wordsworth graves behind St. Oswald’s church, surrounded by American students. There were William and his wife Mary and their daughter Dora, and there were sister Dorothy and brother John. The smell of Grasmere’s famous gingerbread floated across the churchyard from the nearby shop.

The grave of William and Mary Wordsworth

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