‘Homes at Grasmere’: The inspiration behind a new play about William Wordsworth

by David Ward

If you are going to stage a play about Wordsworth, it has to be in the Lake District. And if you are going to stage it in the Lake District, it has to be at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick which is roughly half way between Cockermouth, where Wordsworth was born, and Grasmere where, if you bend the rules to include Rydal, he lived for more than 50 years.

Which is a rambling way of explaining that Theatre by the Lake will present the world première of William Wordsworth by Nicholas Pierpan in a co-production with English Touring Theatre from 1 April to 22 April.
The play is set in 1812, not a happy year for the poet but it would give away too much of the plot away to say why. But it won’t spoil things too much to say that he was hard up that year.  With little cash coming in, his desire to be free to write, but not sell, his poetry is at odds with his need to provide for his extended family.  Part of my job at Theatre by the Lake is to write programme notes. After some time spent footling around and staring into space (I’m glad to see, Alan Bennett does quite a bit of staring too), I chanced upon a reference to Allan Bank, where the Wordsworths lived from 1808 to 1810. Allan Bank? I thought. Where’s that? I’d never heard of the house; didn’t know the National Trust owned it; didn’t know about the fire that gutted it in 2011. Please excuse my ignorance.
Separate footling led me to Dorothy’s letters, which again I didn’t know, although I know and love the journals, and which I found in the New York Public Library; not that I was in New York, though I once sat in Bryant Park above the library’s stacks to watch an open-air showing of High Noon.
The library has very helpfully digitised the two volumes of Wordsworth family letters published in 1907 and they gave many hours of happy serendipity. When I started to concentrate on the task in hand, I found that Dorothy had written often about her homes and I needed to look no further for a programme note.
William and Dorothy moved into Dove Cottage in Grasmere late in 1799 and ten months later Dorothy told her friend Jane Marshall it was now “neat and comfortable” though very small. She also refers to “a small low unceiled room which I have papered with newspapers”, a space that fascinates anyone who squeezes into it today.


Conservation work on the ‘newspaper room’

Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson in 1802 and three of their five children, John, Dora and Thomas (who appears in Nicholas Pierpan’s play) were born in Dove Cottage. Mary’s sister Sara also lived with the family and the writer Thomas de Quincy became a permanent guest; the small 17th century home eventually became too crowded for comfort.
So off they went in 1808 to Allan Bank, which William had described as “a temple of abomination” when it was being built on a fellside outside Grasmere. Late that year, Dorothy told Catherine Clarkson that the house, with smoky chimneys and wet cellars, was giving them “grievous troubles”. It was apparently overrun by builders trying to sort out “these evils”.

Allan Bank, sketched by Sarah Hutchinson in 1857

Allan Bank, sketched by Sarah Hutchinson in 1857

“This house is at present literally not habitable,” she complained. “You can have no idea of the inconvenience we have suffered. There was one stormy day in which we could have no fire but in my brother’s study, and that chimney smoked so much that we were obliged to go to bed.”
How familiar, how ordinary, this sounds; my heart went out to Dorothy. I wanted to tell her that as I writing about her troubles, I was confronting my own: a plumber who came to inspect a leak in our bathroom told me the only, and rather drastic, way to get at the problem was to cut a hole in my kitchen ceiling.
In 1810, the Wordsworths (William and Mary now had two more children) decided to move to the Old Rectory in Grasmere, where William Wordsworth is set. But the house needed a lot of work and in a letter to Mrs Clarkson Dorothy was sceptical about her brother’s skills as a project manager.

“William has undertaken the whole charge of getting the business done, and you know how unfit he is for any task of this kind. Mary and I are, however, determined not to enter upon it till it is finished completely; for we were thoroughly sickened of workmen when we first came hither.”

At once I bonded with William; I have a long history of being baffled by builders who instantly recognise my incompetence.
The family did not stop long at the Old Rectory and were on the move again in 1813, this time to Rydal Mount a couple of miles down the road to Ambleside. Dorothy told Mrs Clarkson it was “a paradise” and in another letter explained that she had been shopping. Like many of us, she tries to justify a bit of extravagance:

“Now I must tell you of our grandeur. We are going to have a Turkey carpet in the dining-room, and a Brussels in William’s study…The Turkey carpet (it is a large room) will cost twenty-two guineas, and a Scotch carpet would cost nine or ten. The Turkey will last out four Scotch, therefore will be the cheaper, and will never be shabby…The house is very comfortable, and most convenient, though far from being as good a house as we expected.”

Room at Rydal Mount
Rydal Mount may not have lived up to Dorothy’s hopes but there were no more moves. William died at Rydal Mount in 1850, Dorothy, free at last of builders and smoking chimneys, in 1855 and Mary in 1859.

William Wordsworth runs at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick from 1-22 April. For tickets phone 017687 74411 or book online at www.theatrebythelake.com
Wordsworth play banner
David Ward is Theatre by the Lake’s literary consultant.