by Sarah Doyle
As my husband, Allen Ashley, and I have each written a couple of articles for the Wordsworth Trust’s blog, we’d been invited to Rydal Hall in the Grasmere area of the Lake District, along with other blog contributors, for a weekend of talks, walks, and all things Wordsworth, kindly organised by one of the trustees, Lynn Shepherd.
I’d never visited the Lakes before, and even though I’d been told by friends and family who had done that it was an area of great natural beauty, I was unprepared for how powerfully the landscape would impact on me. There was something entirely magical about the solidity of the hills, with their dry stone walled lower pastures stippled with sheep, and their densely forested heights; the sparkle of water at every twist and turn; vast, ever-changing skies, alive with a brilliant wash of sunshine one minute, and heavy with dense, rolling clouds heaving with rain the next. One of the articles I’d written for the blog was a critical appreciation of Shelley’s meteorological masterpiece, ‘The Cloud’, which I chose in no small part because I’m a total weather obsessive. For me, weather is not the stuff of politely passing chit-chat, it is genuinely fascinating, and anyone who shares my nerdish appetite for a cumulonimbus or a stratocumulus would find themselves on (forgive me) cloud nine in the Lake District, where the vista is constantly renewed.
Our home for the weekend, Rydal Hall, is an extraordinary building, with magnificent symmetry, a glorious interior complete with dark wood panelling, and extensive grounds. It was the latter that was to form our first true experience of the weekend, as we met up on the Friday afternoon with a few other early arrivers and were treated to a short guided walk by Professor Stephen Gill. Despite being renowned and revered as a leading expert on Wordsworth, Stephen was thoroughly down to earth and could not have been more personable, approachable and yes, absolutely charming. He led our small group through the enchanting formal gardens at the front of the building, then further on into a shady wooded area where the flora has been allowed to grow altogether more freely. Beside us a fast-moving stream chattered over the rocks of its bed, and the air took on a new freshness.
At this point, Stephen suggested that we all closed our eyes and held hands, crocodile-fashion, while he led us along, as he had a special surprise for us. We must have looked rather strange, snaking our way slowly along the river bank! After a short while, and as the sound of churning water became increasingly insistent, Stephen told us to open our eyes. We found ourselves in a small, wood-lined grotto whose window looked out onto the thrilling sight of a waterfall. This, Stephen told us, was Lower Rydal Falls, and we were standing in a 17th-century sketching-hut once used by, among others, JMW Turner. The sight was mesmerising and the sound, exhilarating – full of shush and rush, as the water tumbled over its ledge. We spent some time taking in the atmosphere, before moving up to the stone bridge, from where we once again marvelled at the waterfall and grotto.
After a convivial dinner with fellow writers, Friday evening saw Stephen take centre-stage once again, this time giving the (now fully present) group an illuminating talk on Wordsworth, with readings from The Prelude and ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’. As a poet who gives readings of her own work, and as someone who uses metre on occasion, I’m always interested to hear how people present poetry as spoken word. I very much appreciated Stephen’s reading style, in which he brought out the natural rhythms of language, rather than emphasising the poems’ metrical structure, making the poetry feel fresh and accessible, enabling us to enjoy Wordsworth’s evocative image-making and to consider the themes he was exploring. Stephen sensibly left us wanting more, and concluded his talk and readings on the Saturday morning, giving us a great insight into Wordsworth – the man and the poet.
Saturday afternoon was spent at the Jerwood Centre, where the Wordsworth Trust’s generous and encyclopaedic curator, Jeff Cowton, treated us to a viewing of many rare and precious manuscripts. Highlights for me were first editions of Lyrical Ballads (one complete with ancient coffee-cup ring!), and touchingly fervent letters exchanged between William and Mary while he was away in the Alps. I find there is something very moving and intimate about seeing someone’s private words presented in their own hand-writing, it really brings the people to life, and it was a great privilege to be so close to these literary treasures.
As the afternoon progressed, however, I developed a strange desire to smell some of the books! What, I wondered, would a book from the early 1800s smell like? Jeff was very understanding and gracious about this, and humoured my odd request. Several of my fellow bloggers had a good sniff as well, so perhaps I’m not alone in being a book weirdo! The pages had that lovely old-book smell, but dry rather than mildewy, and quite subtle, which is a testament to how well the books are stored and maintained.
This was followed by a private visit to the Wordsworths’ nearby former residence, Dove Cottage. The windows here are small, giving the ground floor an almost subterranean feeling, and it’s incredibly dark inside, even on a June day, which makes the writing of any manuscript at all – let alone volumes of poetry or lengthy letters – quite a feat. It must have been crowded, too, with a growing family and William’s sister, Dorothy, also in residence! The cottage is fairly simple but homely, although it was chilly, and must have been very cold in winter if the fires weren’t lit.
By contrast, Saturday evening’s talk back at Rydal Hall took us to the balmy climate of Rome, when the congenial and knowledgeable curator of Keats-Shelley House, Giuseppe Albano, gave us an illustrated talk on another of the Romantics’ residences. I love Keats’s poetry and find his story such an interesting and tragic one, so this was a very engaging presentation for me. In fact, it had me thinking that perhaps we should all head off to Rome for our next group expedition!
That said, I can well understand why centuries of writers and artists have been drawn to and inspired by the Lake District’s breath-taking landscape. Our weekend in Grasmere really was fantastic and I feel so lucky to have had this experience. To spend time with like-minded people, to form new friendships, to view valuable manuscripts and to visit such meaningful places was a joy – and all in the company of those ever-present Cumbrian clouds, ensuring that I never wandered lonely, even once.
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Sarah Doyle is the Pre-Raphaelite Society’s Poet-in-Residence, and is currently in the final stages of a Creative Writing MA at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has been published widely in magazines such as Poetry News, Orbis, The Dawntreader and The Fenland Reed; and in many poetry anthologies. She won the William Blake Poetry Prize in 2015, and has been placed in poetry competitions such as The Frogmore Prize, Poetry on the Lake, Mslexia, Live Canon, Café Writers, York Mix, etc. She is co-author of Dreaming Spheres: Poems of the Solar System (PS Publishing, 2014). More at: www.sarahdoyle.co.uk