Wordsworth in Leicestershire

by Jeanne Rae
Coleorton is an unremarkable village in North West Leicestershire, where the landscape was defined for almost 500 years by a coal industry that’s long since gone. The old colliery site has been planted over by the National Forest and Coleorton Hall, a Grade II listed building that once hosted a buzzing hive of Coal Board offices, is now an apartment complex. Rewind a couple of centuries, however, and Coleorton had a very different story to tell.

Coleorton Hall by John Constable, c 1823

Coleorton Hall by John Constable, c 1823

In 1804, Sir George Beaumont was busy building a new hall in grounds that had been owned by his family since the 1400s. Beaumont was an important patron of the arts and many of the creative celebrities of the day visited Coleorton Hall, such as Southey, Reynolds, Mrs Siddons and Lord Byron. Scott began Ivanhoe there, and Constable drew in the grounds. Although opposed to new trends in art, Beaumont’s delight in poetry was forward looking. He was a friend to the Lake Poets, especially William Wordsworth, whom he saw as a kindred spirit. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was also a visitor but Beaumont didn’t establish the same rapport with him. Wordsworth, however, remained a lifelong friend.
Sir George Beaumont by Thomas Lawrence

Sir George Beaumont by Thomas Lawrence

In1806, when their home at Dove Cottage proved too crowded, Beaumont invited Wordsworth, his wife Mary, sister Dorothy, and their family, to stay at Hall Farm, part of his estate. Creating the new gardens at Coleorton Hall, Beaumont felt that the large number of mine works in the area spoiled his view of Charnwood. Therefore he had his gardener plant trees in strategic places in order to hide the mines. Lady Beaumont invited Wordsworth to help with the planning of a winter garden within the grounds, and William wrote poetry inspired by it. In a letter to Lady Beaumont he set out extensive plans for the new garden, which incorporated an old quarry, recently used as a builder’s dump. Features included a grotto with shell work by Dorothy Wordsworth and an early 19th-century pedimented ashlar monument incorporating a verse by Wordsworth.
Wordsworth’s brother John, a ship’s captain, had recently drowned after his ship ran aground and sank off Weymouth Sands, and the family was still deeply affected by his loss. On Christmas Eve, Samuel Taylor Coleridge joined them in Coleorton, bringing with him his own demons, most of them caused by his addiction to opium.
Writer and Director of Mantle Arts, Matthew Pegg, was drawn to this fascinating period in Leicestershire history.

What interested me was the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were friends for much of their lives but in many ways very dissimilar characters. Wordsworth led a very domestic life, supported by family: his wife, her sister, his children and Dorothy. Coleridge had an unhappy marriage, from which he tried to escape, and was prone to addiction, relying heavily on drink and opium. My radio play focussed on the two men, their friendship, and the tensions between them. Coleridge envied Wordsworth’s family and fell in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, Sarah Hutchinson. Paul Conneally, a Leicestershire poet, told us a scurrilous story about a vision of Sarah that Coleridge had in a pub at Thringstone. That incident also found its way into the play. The other theme in the script was the way Wordsworth reacted to the death of his brother, and the idea that, in creating the winter garden at Coleorton, he was working through his grief. In the script he calls it ‘a place to walk in winter,’ and Coleridge says ‘A walk for melancholy times. Yet when we emerge, it will be spring.’ By the end of the play he is able to say goodbye to his brother, though the experience has changed his poetry forever. We were very lucky to get project funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to make this forgotten piece of North West Leicestershire history more widely known.

Using Matthew’s script, Mantle Arts created a community audio drama with a cast drawn from Ashby-de-la-Zouch, the nearest town to Coleorton Hall, and the surrounding areas of Leicestershire. Ashby Museum supported the project offering access to books and material from their archives as well as donating crucial rehearsal space. The play was directed by East Midlands-based director Julian Hanby. After a public rehearsed reading at the Venture Theatre in Ashby, accompanied by an illustrated talk on the background to the play from local poet and Wordsworth expert, Paul Conneally, it was recorded over two weekends at Aspect Studios in Loughborough, with the recording process directed by Martin Berry. The final recording is available on CD from Ashby Museum and can be streamed or downloaded from http://www.red-lighthouse.org.uk/events-and-projects/wordsworth-in-leicestershire/
If you would like a copy of the CD please visit http://www.ashbymuseum.org.uk/shop. You can also read more about the play and listen to some clips here