Sunday, 30 September 2012

Photo Essay: Thoreau and Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Henry David Thoreau was an American author (essayist, poet and philosopher), surveyor, historian and naturalist.  He was a leading figure in the transcendentalist movement, which flourished in nineteenth-century New England. He is known best for his book Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) and his essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (also known as “Civil Disobedience”). He is considered a key figure in the development of modern environmentalism, and is often thought of as a proto-anarchist. His philosophy of civil disobedience influenced Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on 12 July, 1817. And he died there on 6 May, 1862. He studied at Harvard University in Boston and worked as a teacher in Concord. He met the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who introduced him to a wide circle of authors and thinkers who lived in and around Concord, including Ellery Channing. It was Channing who advised him – in March 1845 – to go out into the woods, build a hut, and “begin the grand process of devouring (himself) alive.” He decided to do just that.
On 4 July, 1845, Thoreau moved a couple of miles out of town and began to build his own hut on land owned by his friend and mentor Emerson. The fourteen acres contained a second-growth forest and were located beside Walden Pond.  After two years living in the woods, Thoreau left his hut at Walden on 6 September, 1847. He worked on the manuscript about his experiences there – and his thoughts about their significance – for many years. The resulting book, Walden, or Life in the Woods was finally published in 1854.

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."


A reconstruction of Thoreau's Walden one-room hut near the entry to Walden Pond State Reservation

On 22 August, 2012, my son Colin and I made a visit to Walden Pond, in order to see the place that had inspired this interesting character to write his influential book. It’s located in Walden Pond State Reservation. To get there, you drive south from Concord on Walden Street (Route 126). Right beside the main parking lot at the entrance to the park, they have built a copy of Thoreau’s Walden Pond hut – using the dimensions and details of its construction from the description he provides in his book.

"I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls."

Inside view of the reconstructed version of Thoreau's hut at Walden Pond

Thoreau’s home at Walden Pond was a one-room hut. It measured 15 feet long (4.5 m) and 10 feet wide (3 m). The door was located at one end of the longer side; the fireplace at the other. There was a window in each of the longer walls, opposite each other. Furnishings inside the hut included a bed, a desk, a chair, and a box for storing dry logs for the fire. The original bed, desk and chair from Thoreau’s hut are now located in the Concord Museum on Lexington Street. Outside the building, there was a woodshed nearby and a cooling cellar dug into the side of a hill. There was no running water, of course; Thoreau would have done his cleaning and washing in the lake.

"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." 

A statue of Thoreau in front of the replica hut
Thoreau would have built the hut from materials collected round about him (sand and stones from the edge of Walden Pond, and timber from trees he cut down), materials recycled from an abandoned shack in the vicinity, and supplies he got from town. A writer for a blog called Shelter Seeker has estimated that it cost Thoreau $28.13 to buy the materials he needed to build his hut – that would be about $2,800  converted into today’s money. Most of the construction was done by Thoreau, although he enlisted the help of a few friends when it was time to raise the roof.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms …”

Walden Pond is actually a sixty-acre kettle lake

Walden Pond is actually much larger than its name implies. It’s a lake of some substantial size. At its deepest point, it is 31 metres deep (102 feet). Walden Pond has an area of about 60 acres (250,000 square metres), and its perimeter measures 2.7 km (1.7 miles). It is a kettle lake, formed by retreating glaciers gouging a deep gash into the landscape about 11,000 years ago.
I was a bit concerned, as Colin and I approached Walden Pond, that Murphy’s Law would kick in, and the “Pond” would turn out to be a tiny, stagnant piece of over-hyped, over-ripe water. But as we crossed the road and hiked down to the lake, it quickly became apparent that this was an impressive spot – a quiet refuge of great beauty and repose.

“It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.”

There is a beautiful trail all around the perimeter of Walden Pond.

To hike around the lake takes about half an hour. But add on another ten minutes, or so, for a stop at the site of the original hut that Thoreau built near the north-west corner of the lake. It really is a lovely walk. The area is dominated by white pines, which provide shade from the sun, but do not create a dense canopy that filters out a great deal of light and warmth. Both sides of the trail – as you can see in the photo to the left – have a rudimentary wire fence that has been put up to protect the area from erosion. It runs around the entire perimeter of Walden Pond. But there still are regular gaps in the fence which allow access down to the water. And as we made our way around the lake, we encountered individuals and couples using these small access points as tiny beaches from which to enter the water.

"Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind."

A great blue heron in the northern inlet of Walden Pond near Thoreau's cabin

"The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly."

The site of Thoreau's cabin discovered in 1945 by Roland Robbins

The exact site of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond was discovered by the archaeologist Roland Robbins in 1945. He had a rough idea where it would have been from close reading of Thoreau’s book, Walden, or Life in the Woods, and notes made by Thoreau's friend, William Ellery Channing. He began digging in the likeliest spot, using a two-foot steel probe and a shovel. Within six inches of the surface he began finding bricks – lots of bricks. Then he found some bricks with white plaster attached. And on November 11 he found the proof he was after, the foundation stone of the hut’s chimney. Re-reading Walden later he realized that the date he completed his dig, 12 November, 1945, was exactly 100 years after the day Thoreau had completed the construction of his home in the woods.

“In any weather, at any hour of the day or night,
I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too;
to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future,
which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.”


Looking down the slope towards Walden Pond
The nine concrete posts you see in the photo to the left mark out the perimeter of Thoreau’s rectangular cabin. The site is at the bottom of a gentle slope, in amongst a stand of second-growth white pines. If you continue south from here, the land slopes down further for another hundred yards or so to the edge of the lake – a short walk to his source of water for drinking, washing and cleaning. To the left of the site is a mound of stones and a wooden plaque with the famous Walden quote explaining why Thoreau came to live in the woods. Nearby, he dug a cold-cellar into the hillside.

The spot inside the site of Thoreau's cabin where the chimney foundation was laid

A secluded access to the lake
When you walk down to Walden Pond from the road, the first thing you see is a public beach. During the summer months the beach is full of families enjoying a swim in the clean water of this attractive lake. But as you walk away from the beach and hike along the trail which winds around the edge of Walden Pond, you move into a quiet area of the park. There are small access points from the fenced trail to the lake at regular intervals; and every other one of these served as a mini-beach for individuals or couples who want to swim in a more private, quieter location. There were steps down to the water on the native rock. The whole mood, for me, in these spots, was one of quiet contemplation in a refreshing and invigorating scene of natural beauty. I couldn’t help thinking of devout hindus in Benares (Varanasi) stepping down the stone ghats into the sacred waters of the Ganges! For those who venerate Henry David Thoreau as a great soul and a wise philosopher, a dip in Walden Pond must conjure up a similar feeling of awe.

"I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

So our morning visit to Walden Pond was an inspiring event. After hiking along the trail to the site of the Thoreau’s cabin, I asked Colin if he wanted to retrace our steps back (the shorter option), or to continue on all around the lake. He chose to walk the entire trail. I was glad. And it seemed to me that, even though he didn’t have the historical and literary background to underpin the experience, he could feel the special aura of the place.

"However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names."

Thoreau's grave in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
In the early afternoon, we visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to see the final resting places of several famous Concord authors: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and, of course, Henry David Thoreau. Just as Westminster Abbey, in London, has its Poets’ Corner, so the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has its authors’ corner. And it’s an imposing spot – in the back of the place. After parking the car, you have to walk up a very steep pathway to a ridge. The graves of Alcott and Thoreau are very simple – Thoreau’s is marked with a tiny tombstone, around which are strewn mementoes left by his admirers. Lots of pencils and pens!

"As if you could kill time without injuring eternity."

Thoreau's bird book - Wilson's American Ornithology

Now, if you are really serious about covering all the angles on Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond, you will also have to visit the Concord Museum. It’s close to the cemetery. You come back into town and then drive a mere half-kilometre south-east on Lexington Road. There is a section in the museum devoted to the town’s eminent authors. This first photo taken at the Museum shows Thoreau’s copy of Wilson’s American Ornithology. He used this popular book on American birds all the time – citing it often in his Journal. He wrote lists of birds he had seen in the book’s margin, and pressed specimens of plants he had identified between its pages.

"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."

Keys from the Concord Jail

These keys come from the Concord Jail. About three weeks after Thoreau began his experiment in the Walden Pond woods – late-July, 1845 – he encountered the local tax collector, who demanded six years of delinquent poll taxes. Thoreau refused to pay, citing his opposition to slavery and the current Mexican-American War. He argued that he wasn’t going to give the government money that might be used to fund those immoral enterprises. He was thrown into jail overnight for his perceived impertinence. He was released the next day after an aunt, against his will, paid the overdue taxes on his behalf.
This event had a big impact on Thoreau’s thinking. In early 1848, he gave some lectures about “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government” – explaining the reasoning behind his tax revolt. He revised these lectures later into an influential essay called Resistance to Civil Government (also known as Civil Disobedience). The essay was published in book-from in May, 1849 and would have a significant influence on like-minded activists like Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

“So long as a man is faithful to himself, everything is in his favor, government, society, the very sun, moon, and stars.”

Items from Thoreau's Walden Pond cabin

Finally, here is the
actual bed, desk and chair from Thoreau’s small cabin at Walden Pond.
There are other interesting reasons to visit Concord, Massachussetts, besides the chance to investigate places associated with the life of Henry David Thoreau. But, if you are planning to visit just for the sake of all-things-Thoreau, you will not be disappointed. He  was the focus of only part of my day there, but it was, nevertheless, a definite highlight.

"To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust."

Sources "The Man Who Found Thoreau" by James Dodson in the May 1985 issue of Yankee; "Henry David Thoreau's Cabin" from the Shelter Seeker website.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

CD Review: Bob Dylan's "Tempest"

It’s hard to care about an album for which its creator seems not to care at all. For me, this is déjà vu – a re-run of my response to the disappointing album Together Through Life (2009); but this is an even more egregious example of Dylan’s shoddy and perfunctory attitude to record production. Hey, Bob; if you can’t be bothered to give it your best shot, why bother at all?

Tempest is Bob Dylan’s thirty-fifth studio album, released in the year that marks fifty years of his status as a recording artist (Bob Dylan, his debut effort, was released by Columbia Records in March 1962). It’s great to have him still around as a creative force, as a committed songwriter. I just wish he’d do a proper job producing his albums – or get someone in willing to exert the effort required to present the songs in a dynamic and interesting way.
Tempest features the core of the band that played on the last album: George Receli on drums, Tony Garnier on bass, Donnie Herron on steel guitar, banjo, violin and mandolin, and David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos) on accordion, guitar and violin. Added for this projct are guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball. The album was produced by Jack Frost (aka Bob Dylan), engineered by Scott Litt, and recorded and mixed by Scott Litt and Dana Nielsen.
This new album was released in Canada on September 11. I got it on the first day of release and have been listening to it constantly since. I liked the single that was released ahead of the album – “Duquesne  Whistle” (pronounced Ducane). But my initial response to the album was not favourable. A mediocre set of songs, I thought. And the sound of the recording is dreadful.

And then the reviews started coming in from the critics and pundits. Surprisingly – for me – it has been getting highly complimentary notices. Three-out-of-four stars; four-out-of-five stars. And lots of wishful thinking. But I kept listening. Maybe it would grow on me with time; maybe its dark secrets would be revealed? Nah.
It’s no surprise that “Duquesne Whistle” was released as the single.  It’s one of the shorter pieces; and it has an upbeat, spacious arrangement – unlike the rest of the stuff on the CD. Clearly, this track was recorded and mixed at a different time, and with a different production approach. It sounds good: starts with an old-timey western-swing introduction, and then switches into a breezy shuffle. It also features several tempo changes. An auspicious, unpretentious beginning.
But then things change. From now on in, all the tracks are virtually in mono. There’s very little stereo separation. The backing behind the dominant vocals sits dead-centre, with an occasional instrument panned primarily into one channel. As if that isn’t enough, there are almost no solo instruments featured. Most “arrangements” are nothing more than an endless riff laid down in unison by four or five instrumental parts. “Narrow Way”, for example, goes on for seven-and-a-half minutes with a single riff. As music it is mind-numbingly dull. And when an interesting instrument is introduced into a track for added colour – banjo, mandolin, fiddle – it is often buried in the mix, and given no opportunities to solo. Why bother, then? Strange!

“Long and Wasted Years” has an intriguing vocal performance, but the track fades in with a sloppy intro and rambles on with another boring riff. “Early Roman Kings” features David Hidalgo on accordion. The “Mannish Boy”-styled riff running through the track has no bite to it. And Hidalgo’s accordion part sounds tentative and unrealised. When it does sound as though a full-blooded solo was planned, we get aimless noodling instead, as though the arrangement was not clearly thought out in advance – which, given Dylan’s recording technique, would actually be no surprise.
The one track that grabs my interest is “Pay in Blood”. The music here gives the performance more momentum. The lyric is dark and brooding – featuring the ominous refrain: “I pay in blood, but not my own.” “Scarlet Town” is also effective – despite the uninteresting musical arrangement.
The final three tracks are very different and offer a varied coda to the album. “Tin Angel” is an atmospheric ballad, which tells a Matty Groves-styled story of a double murder/suicide. The song’s setting is strangely confusing: it starts off sounding medieval – one of the protagonists wears a helmet and carries a cross-handled sword (even though he asks his servant for “a coat and tie”). But later in the song, he cuts an electric wire and fires a hand gun. Instrumental solos between verses would add extra atmosphere to this track, but Dylan goes with drums, bass and banjo playing the same parts throughout.

The title-song, “Tempest” comes next. It is Dylan’s epic, 45-verse account of the Titanic disaster. One can admire the effort involved in telling the story in song, but the result is strangely unaffecting – as though Dylan is merely going through the motions, without anything significant to say, beyond the trite notion that “there is no understanding of the judgment of God’s hand.” One also wonders whether or not Dylan had a clear grasp of the time-line of the disaster. Seemingly just moments after the collision with the giant iceberg, he says that the quarterdeck was three-feet deep in water. It took much longer than that. The reference to the artist Leo seems to be an allusion to actor Leonardo Di Caprio – who plays the part of Jack Dawkins in the James Cameron version of the Titanic story. Maybe Bob just watched the movie, and didn’t bother with the book!
The final track on Tempest, “Roll On John” is a tribute to John Lennon. Nice idea. I was happy to hear that Dylan would do such a thing. But the song, ultimately, is quite the downer. Its pace is dirge-like. Bob’s voice is more cracked and shattered than any other effort on the album. And, as with the Titanic song, Tempest, Dylan really doesn’t have much of interest to say about the subject of this song. Just going through the motions, it seems.
Well, there it is. For me, a disappointing album. Much of the music here is monotonous. The songs often feature uninspired two-or-three note melodies. The arrangements generate no interest in the songs. There is little momentum to the album as a whole. As a producer, Dylan seems to hold no belief at all in the power of instrumentation and arrangements to add significant interest to the sounds of the songs he is presenting. He doesn’t use the music to decorate the songs; he uses it in a very utilitarian way – to underpin his vocals. And pretty much nothing more. Do us a favour, Bob. Bring in a real producer. Someone who is able to make the music in an album do justice to the songs they present. Let’s give Jack Frost the cold shoulder.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Photo Essay: Campfire Fireworks in Vermont

Every summer we go camping with the kids. And we gather around the fire-pit most evenings to enjoy a campfire. The kids and I seem to share the same pyromaniacal tendencies. And Gillian likes to “roast” (burn) marshmallows.

This year we were camping in Vermont at Ricker Pond Park. It’s one of several campsites set up in the Groton State Forest, about a forty-minute drive east of the state capital, Montpelier.

During one of the campfires, I invariably pull out my camera and take shots of the fire. It’s interesting taking pictures without the use of flash. I also leave the camera set to automatic and see what happens. My Nikon D7000 does an impressive job dealing with low-light situations. You can shoot away and check out the results.

The fire was very cooperative. A couple of the logs began to sputter – snap, crackle and pop! – shooting sparks up above the flames. The camera did a good job capturing the trace-lines. An interesting light show.

Astonishing effects. The camera doesn’t need to be placed on a tripod. Just hand-hold it; point at the fire; and wait for a burst of sparks before carefully squeezing the shutter. Even at this low light, the D7000 can shoot at about 1/30 of a second.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Photo Essay: Wordsworth's Lake District Homes

A pencil sketch of Willaim Wordsworth by Henry Eldridge (ca. 1807)

The great English poet William Wordsworth was born just outside the northern rim of the English Lake District,  in Cockermouth, Cumberland on 7 April, 1770. His sister Dorothy was born there the following year. William attended Hawkeshead Grammar School, near Windermere – meeting Mary Hutchinson there, his future wife. In 1787 Wordsworth entered St. John’s College in Cambridge University. After he gained a B.A. degree and did some extensive travelling in France, Italy and Switzerland, William and Dorothy rented a house together in Alfoxton House, Somerset in 1797. His friend and fellow-poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived nearby in Nether Stowey.

In 1798 Wordsworth and Coleridge produced a book of poetry together called Lyrical Ballads. In the 1802 edition of the book, Wordsworth wrote an influential Preface that served as a manifesto for the new kind of poetry that he and his friend were writing. Wordsworth became a seminal figure in English Romantic poetry, a major influence on the younger generation that followed (Keats, Shelley and Byron) – all of whom, surprisingly, he outlived.
In the autumn of 1798 William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Coleridge made an extended visit to Germany. When they returned to England, the Wordsworths decided to move back to the Lake District. They moved into Dove Cottage in December, 1799. William married Mary Hutchinson in 1802. They had several children.

As the family grew, and the Wordsworth household expanded (Dorothy continued to live with William and Mary; Mary’s sister Sara joined them; and the Wordsworths often had friends and family staying with them for lengthy periods), it became necessary for them to move several times into larger lodgings. But they stayed close to the location of their first home, Dove Cottage. So Wordsworth remained in the Lake District for the rest of his life. He became known as the figure-head of the so-called “Lake poets” – a group of like-minded writers who moved into the area to be near him.
Dove Cottage is on the A 591, just south of Grasmere village and north-east of Grasmere Water

On a recent two-week trip to England (primarily to attend a school reunion), I made a pilgrimage to the Lake District on July 12 with my good friend Tony, in order to visit houses and sites associated with William Wordsworth. What follows, in this photo essay, is a photographic record of our visits to Dove Cottage, Allan Bank, Rydal Mount and St. Oswald’s Churchyard - Wordsworth's Lake District Homes.

The front of Dove Cottage, the Wordsworths first home in the Lake District - it's now a museum

Dove Cottage

Dove Cottage is in the village of Grasmere, about four miles north-west of Ambleside, which is itself about the same distance north-west of Windermere. William first saw the house on a walking tour of the Lake District with Coleridge in 1799. When he and Dorothy wanted to establish a permanent home in the Lakes, he remembered the place. Dove Cottage had been empty for a while. They moved in on December 20, 1799 – paying £5 per year in rent to John Benson of Grasmere.

Front of Dove Cottage looking from the south - note the lime-washed walls

Dove Cottage, like most houses of its vintage is built of local stone. The external walls are coated with a limewash. And the roof tiles are made of slate. It was built in the early 1600s.

A north view of Dove Cottage showing some of the stone-work and the slate roof

Dove Cottage was probably purpose-built as a public house. The first historical record of the place was made in 1617 – listed as a pub in Westmoreland called the “Dove and Olive”. It stayed a pub for over a century-and-a-half – closing in 1793. Wordsworth refers to the history of the building in his 1806 poem “The Waggoner”:
“For at the bottom of the brow,
Where once the DOVE and OLIVE-BOUGH
Offered a greeting of good ale
To all who entered Grasmere Vale;
And called on him who must depart
To leave it with a jovial heart;
There, where the DOVE and OLIVE-BOUGH
Once hung, a Poet harbours now,
A simple water-drinking Bard”

The "houseplace" or "kitchen-parlour" on the lower floor

Unfortunately (for me), photography is not allowed inside Dove Cottage. So I could only capture images of the outside. But I did find a few pictures of the inside posted to the internet. The picture above is from a 1907 postcard which shows the main reception room. It’s the first room you see upon entering the house. It was called the “houseplace” or “kitchen-parlour”. It was used for the main daily meal. This woud have been one of the main drinking rooms when the building was used as a pub. It retains the oak panels and slate floors that are typical of well-built Lakeland houses of the period.

The smaller room next to this "houseplace" became Dorothy's bedroom. Also found on the groundfloor is a separate kitchen used for the heavy-duty domestic chores. And there is a small "buttery" used as a larder. The Wordsworths employed a neighbour, Molly Fisher, to serve as their maid - doing most of the washing and the cooking. The fireplaces in the cottage were altered in the 1790s so that coal could be burned, instead of the traditional lakeland peat.
The Sitting Room and Study on the upper floor

The photograph above (not mine, since photography inside Dove Cottage is not permitted) shows the room on the upper floor (above the “houseplace”) which Wordsworth used as his study. It was also used as a second parlour for light meals and entertaining. In the Wordsworths’ time there were no buildings on the opposite side of the lane, so they enjoyed an uninterrupted view from the window in this room over the meadows to Grasmere Water. The other three rooms on the upper floor were used as bedrooms. The smallest bedroom (above the "buttery") became the nursery for William amd Mary's children. Without a fireplace, the room was cold in the winter; so Dorothy covered the nursery walls with varnished newspapers in 1800 as an attempt to insulate the room. This newspaper wall-covering was later removed, but the museum added copies of those nineteenth-century papers in the 1970s.

The guest bedroom at the back of the upper floor

The photo above (again, not one of mine) shows a bedroom at the back of the cottage on the upper floor. It was used as the guest bedroom. The window provides a good view of the garden.  The Wordsworths' many guests would have slept in this room, including Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles and Mary Lamb, Robert Southey, and Thomas De Quincey. When not being used as a bedroom, it was often used for storage. Dorothy refers to it in her Journal as “a sort of lumber room”.
Looking down towards the back of Dove Cottage from the back of the garden

There was no running water inside Dove Cottage during Wordsworth’s residence there. And the toilet was in a small outhouse. William and Dorothy took a special joy in the garden and orchard they established behind the house: “the work of our own hands”, Wordsworth proudly wrote. They arranged it in an informal “wild” state. Later, of course, this became the familiar style of the English country-cottage garden. They called it their “little nook of mountain-ground”.

This is me at the very back of the garden reading a binder full of thoughts, comments and snippets of poetry left by visitors

During his time here at Dove Cottage, Wordsworth wrote much of his most famous poetry: “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”, “Ode to Duty”, “My Heart Leaps Up”, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and some parts of his epic autobiographical poem The Prelude. His sister Dorothy kept a fascinating journal during their long residence in this house. It was eventually published in 1897 as The Grasmere Journal. It showed that William must have read it on a regular basis, or Dorothy might have often read it aloud to him. He clearly borrowed ideas and sentiments from her Journal: an entry in 1802, for example, describes a glorious field of daffodils they came across near Ullswater. Almost two years later, William composed his famous daffodil poem: “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”.

My good friend Tony Grant sitting on a garden bench at the back of Dove Cottage

William and Mary’s first three children were born in Dove Cottage within four years. Eventually the place became too small to hold the growing family and its permanent guests. So they moved to Allan Bank in May 1808. Wordsworth’s literary friend Thomas De Quincey (author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater  - 1822) moved into Dove Cottage and lived there from 1809-1820. The house was eventually acquired by the Wordsworth Trust for £650 in 1890. The following year it was opened to the public. It now receives about 70,000 visitors each year. The Wordsworth Museum was opened next-door in 1943 and then moved to a nearby coach-house in 1981. Finally, a new building was opened in 2005, called the Jerwood Centre – it houses the large collection of Wordsworth memorabilia collected over the years by the Wordsworth Trust.

For details about admission prices, opening hours throughout the year, and directions to Dove Cottage, visit the Wordsworth Trust's Dove Cottage website.

Gate at the entrance to Allan Bank in Grasmere
Allan Bank

The Wordsworth family moved into Allan Bank in May, 1808. It was an ironic move, because Wordsworth had condemned the house as an “eyesore” when it was first built. Allan Bank is a large Georgian villa built by a Liverpudlian attorney called John Gregory Crump between 1805 and 1806. The house has a prominent position overlooking Easedale Valley, near the southern face of Helm Crag. Wordsworth didn’t like the fact that Crump was a newcomer to the Lake District; and he was building a large mansion that obstructed his view north from Dove Cottage – “belching”  smoke from its poorly constructed chimneys. He called it a “temple of abomination”.

Approaching "the temple of abomination"  - Allan Bank - from the south-east
Wordsworth’s reference to Allan Bank “belching” smoke proved prophetic. When he, Mary, Dorothy, and the rest of the Wordsworth tribe were ensconced in their new home, they suffered endless problems with smoking chimneys during their first winter in the place. Smoke often filled rooms in the house and, because of a persistent down-draught, also hung about the garden and grounds. On top of that, the house had incurably damp walls.

Looking south-west towards Grasmere Water from the grounds of Allan Bank

Changes have been made to the house over the years. The Wordsworths had a beautiful bow window added to the front of the house in 1809. When Thomas Dawson bought the house in 1834 for £4,100, he significantly extended and altered it. Not only did he remodel the main house; he also built a lodge nearby on the Easedale Road.

Looking east from Allan Bank
The major problems the Wordsworths encountered with Allan Bank – the fireplaces, the damp walls, and the falling-out they’d had with their landlord – pushed them into abandoning the place in 1813 and setting up home for a while at The Rectory in Grasmere. They had been in Allan Bank for a couple of years and William and Mary had two more children. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey had spent long periods living with them.

Historic document - a map of Allan Bank and environs
After Wordsworth left Allan Bank, it went through other ownership before being bought by Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley in 1915. This interesting man was a clergyman. He was also a literary man: he wrote many hymns and was constantly writing sonnets. He wrote them as poetry; he also wrote letters to the newspapers in the form of sonnets. In the course of his life he wrote 30,000 sonnets! Obsessed, or what? Rawnsley also helped form the association that became known as The National Trust. After he moved into the house in 1917, he became active locally in defending properties from inappropriate development. He became incensed when the island in the centre of Grasmere Water was sold to an individual who then restricted access to the public. At his death in 1920, Rawnsley bequeathed Allan Bank to The National Trust.
This is me on the central oak staircase in Allan Bank house

Allan Bank has been owned by The National Trust for many years, but has also been rented out regularly to residents. There have been two serious fires in the house - one in the fifties, and the other quite recently, back in March of last year. This recent fire was thought to be caused by electrical failure. The National Trust took back control of the house. Major restoration was done to ceilings and walls. But a lot of comprehensive decorative work has been delayed whilst the Trust decides on what the house will be used for. In the early stages after the fire, school groups, special visitors, and the general public have been given access into the house and encouraged to suggest different roles that the house might play. Various rooms have been set aside for different themes – reading, art work, history, etc.
One of the unfinished rooms at Allan Bank being used as an art space for visiting school children

So Allan Bank is now a work in progress. It will be interesting to see what evolves there. To read details about the current situation at the house and what is being considered for the future, visit The National Trust’s Allan Bank web page. There is also an Allan Bank Facebook page that you van visit.

Entry into Rydal Mount

Rydal Mount

The Wordsworth family moved into Rydal Mount in 1813. The house is located half way between Grasmere and Ambleside, just off the A 591 and close to Rydal Water. Wordsworth rented his new home from Lady Le Fleming of nearby Rydal Hall for 46 years – until his wife’s death in 1859 (William died in 1850).

Me at the east side of Rydal Mount

In Rydal Mount, the Wordsworths had a large house that could hold the extended tribe of family and friends that now clustered around the famous poet. True, it wasn’t as big as Allan Bank, but that made it cosier and warmer. And in their current conditions, the lived-in atmosphere of this more modest house is a really attractive sight after the run-down, hollowed-out condition of the fire-damaged mansion at Allan Bank.

The front (south side) of Rydal Mount

One of the quirky facts about the three Wordsworth homes that I am featuring here is that they are all controlled by different organisations: Dove Cottage is operated by the Wordsworth Trust (established in 1890 specifically to preserve the cottage); Allan Bank is run by The National Trust; and Rydal Mount is owned and operated as a tourist site by descendants of the Wordsworth family. Mary Henderson (neé Wordsworth) re-acquired Rydal Mount for the family in 1969. She is William Wordsworth’s great, great granddaughter. The house was opened to the public in 1970.

The front door of Rydal Mount - part of the original Tudor cottage

Rydal Mount is a house built in different periods. The dining room is part of the old Tudor cottage, with the original flagstone floors and oak beams. The impressive drawing room and library were added in 1750. They are now decorated in a comfy 60s/70s style, with lots of contemporary Wordsworth family photographs.

Looking north-east at the house from the extensive gardens

William Wordsworth was a keen landscape gardener. Soon after moving in, he set about designing the four acres of grounds which surround the house. The gardens today remain pretty much as he set them up back in the early eighteenth century. In season, the garden’s various blooms – bluebells, daffodils, rhododendrons – produce a spectacular display of colour.

Looking south-west from the edge of the grounds toward Rydal Water

 Wordsworth often said that the gardens of Rydal Mount were his real office, not the office/study he set up in the attic of the house. In fact, he eventually built a small “writing hut” in a secluded spot of the garden, with just a bench and roof to keep away the rain. He did most of his serious writing there.

The fence in front of Dora's Field on the main road (the A 591)
Close to Rydal Mount - on the lane leading up to the house – sits St. Mary’s Church. Beside the churchyard is a substantial field - the Rash field - which Wordsworth bought with the intention of building a house there for his daughter Dora. The project was never completed. When Dora died in 1847, William, Mary, Dorothy and the gardener planted hundreds of daffodils as a memorial on that land. This plot became known as Dora’s Field, and it now belongs to The National Trust. In the spring the area is completely covered with daffodil blooms. You can't help thinking of William's famous daffodil poem inspired by Dorothy's journal entry in 1802.

An impressive panoramic photo of Rydal Mount I found on the internet (in the public domain)
To see a full-screen version of this image, click on this link.

Final Home: Grave at St. Oswald’s Church, Grasmere

St. Oswald's Church in Grasmere

William Wordsworth caught a bad cold during a walk in the country, re-aggravating a case of pleurisy he had recently suffered. He died on April 23 – St. George’s Day – in 1850, aged 80.

He was buried in the village of Grasmere, near Dove Cottage, in St. Oswald’s Church. St. Oswald, a seventh-century Christian king in Northumberland is said to have preached on the site of the church. This is the parish church for Grasmere, Rydal and Langdale.

The thirteenth-century nave of St. Oswald's Church

Inside St. Oswald’s Church, the thirteenth-century nave contains several memorials to the Le Fleming family – it was Lady Le Fleming who had originally rented Rydal Mount to Wordsworth back in 1813.

But most visitors inside the church gravitate to the two Wordsworth memorials. There is a glass case set up next to the organ which contains Wordsworth’s own prayer book. And on the wall of the nave shown to the left is a formal memorial of William Wordsworth carved in marble.

The Wordsworth family graves at the back of St. Oswald's churchyard in Grasmere

Wordsworth himself planted eight of the yew trees growing in St. Oswald’s churchyard. One of them sits beside the grave of William and his wife Mary. Nearby lie the graves of many other family members – including those of his sister Dorothy, his children Dora, William, Thomas and Catherine, and Sara Hutchinson, Mary’s sister.

Wordsworth's grave
Surprised by joy -impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport - Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind -
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss? - That thought's return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn, Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn,
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Tony Grant in Grasmere
Here’s my friend Tony Grant sitting behind St. Oswald’s Church. Just behind the stone wall are the Wordsworth family graves. In front of Tony are individual little paving stones with the names carved of those who have donated money for the upkeep of the Wordsworth park and memorials here.

Tony accompanied me throughout this long day of pilgrimage to the homes of William Wordsworth in the area of Grasmere and Ambleside. He did all the driving, too. Thanks, Tony!

Memorial to Wordsworth beside River Rothay in Grasmere

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.