Wordsworth's Lake District, 200 years on

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Romantic poet William Wordsworth's guide to the English Lake District, first published in 1810. Travel writer Simon Akam visits the district with the guide in hand to see what has changed in the past two centuries.
By Simon Akam
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 6, 2010

The yew trees at Seathwaite are great survivors.

Their hunched and ancient trunks stand north of a cluster of whitewashed farm buildings at the end of a road in the Borrowdale Valley in the English Lake District. Above them, old workings scar the hillside, shafts where, until the late 19th century, men mined a substance they called black lead, wad or plumbago, and we would call graphite.

I had come to Seathwaite bearing a 200-year-old description of the valley that gushed over the yews, claiming that "nothing of the kind can be conceived more solemn and impressive than the small gloomy grove." Yet I had nursed little hope that the trees were still standing. So when a farmer pointed them out -- still at large under banks of low cloud that hung like smoke in the air -- I was thrilled.

I clambered across the upper reaches of the River Derwent and scrambled up a steep bank. But when I reached the trees, it became clear that I had greatly underestimated the staying power of Taxus baccata. A neat plaque informed me that although one of the original four conifers had fallen in a storm in the 19th century, the survivors are now about 1,500 years old.

I realized then that for this "small gloomy grove," at least, two centuries is hardly any time at all.

Could the same be said of the rest of England's Lake District? This year marks the 200th anniversary of the first publication of the romantic poet William Wordsworth's guide to the region. Born in Cockermouth, on the fringe of the area, in 1770, Wordsworth lived in Lakeland for much of his life, and the country inspired perhaps his most celebrated verse. He wrote, of course, in a time when the sort of fatal shooting rampage that scarred the region's western reaches last week was unheard of. But such intrusions of modernity are rare. As I found on a recent visit with the poet's guide in hand, much of the Lake District that Wordsworth knew is still intact.

* * *

Before I could make the trip, I had to obtain the guide itself. This proved to be a considerable undertaking. There are modern editions in print, but they're of the expanded fifth edition of 1835. I needed the original 1810 text, written as an anonymous introduction to a volume of Lakeland engravings by a provincial cleric, the Rev. Joseph Wilkinson.

Wilkinson's book is now extremely rare, and I spent some time fruitlessly pursuing it. Eventually, though, I discovered that the great Bodleian Library at Oxford University, where I'd studied as an undergraduate, had a copy, and I was able to arrange for the specialist reprographic staff to make a series of scans for me.

As I waited for this electronic version to arrive, further research revealed the guide's curious gestation. It transpired that Wordsworth -- who in 1810 was 40, with a brood of young children -- was in fact underwhelmed by Wilkinson's engravings. In a letter dated May 10, 1810, he quipped that "they will please many who in all the arts are most taken with what is worthless." Given these sentiments, it appears that financial considerations may have played a role in the poet's acceptance of the commission.

Potboiler or not, when I finally obtained the text, I found an extraordinary document. Wordsworth describes the history and physical nature of the landscape and ranges far and wide on subjects from planting to architecture. The guide is also studded with extracts from the poet's verse, such as these lines that interrupt the description of tarns, or small mountain lakes.

"There sometimes doth a leaping fish
Send through the tarn a lonely chear;
The crags repeat the raven's croak
In symphony austere:"

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