In Wordsworth Country

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Me on the slopes of Helm Crag above Grasmere (taken by Sarah, another girl on the trip)

Last spring break, I begged off Florida 2.0 with the team and jetted off to England instead. And not just any part of England, but the Lake District—a place I’ve wanted to go ever since I can remember. It was a trip through the English Department to study Wordsworth with Professor Engell. We’d be staying in Grasmere and working with the Wordsworth Trust—studying manuscripts, making pilgrimages to the sacred sites of Wordsworthiana (with a few nods to other Lake District literati thrown in), taking walks, reading, writing, and—almost certainly—falling in love.

The trip was far from a sure thing. I applied just after Christmas desperate for the trip to happen, but at that point all we’d received was an email from the department saying that maybe-perhaps this trip Professor Engell would like to do might happen and if it were to actually be approved would any of us like to go? There was no maybe-perhaps about my answer. My application was off a day later with my fingers crossed—both for my acceptance and for the trip to happen.

In the end—of course—it did, but we didn’t know it was all going to actually work out until 3 weeks before we were to leave (it was all a bit harrying for my coach). And those 8 or so days were some of the most magical of my life. I fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with the Lake District often find myself wondering how I could contrive to get myself back there. This post—brimming with photographs of my time there—is long overdue and has only brought on a wave of nostalgia (thoughts of dropping it all and hiding myself away in Grasmere abound).

My application essay for the trip

(because it really gets to the heart of what this meant to me)

Any explanation of my wish to go to the Lake District must begin with Arthur Ransome, the Swallows and Amazons, and six-or-so-year-old me. To say that I grew up on Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons—a series of books about the adventures of a bunch of seaworthy children in the Lake District in the ’30’s—doesn’t quite capture the extent to which they governed my childhood. Perhaps it was because my brothers and I spent our summers on a lake  in the Adirondacks and so could live the books that we loved them so: we named our landmarks after those in Ransome’s Lake District, assigned one another the roles of captain, mate, able seaman, and ship’s boy (luckily, there are four of us), learned to sail purely from the details in Ransome’s books, wrote ship’s articles for every lake-worthy craft we could get ur hands on, called lemonade “Jamaica rum,” shouted “aye, aye, captain!” and “stir your stumps!” at one another, and even, sometimes, insisted upon referring to our parents as “the natives.” We were Swallows and Amazons, as close as we could make it. My parents read our favorites to us over and over and—as soon as I was able—I read all of them many, many times myself. I still reread them. But it was through those that I first met the Lake District and I think I must have been about six when I determined that someday I would go and walk the paths of the Swallows and Amazons and discover the Lake District for myself.

Swallows and Amazons didn’t just introduce me to the Lake District, though. It was through those books that I first encountered—and fell in love with—Keats. I had memorized Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” at 6 or 7 simply because my favorite Swallow had learnt it at school and named a promontory after Keats’ Darien. As I grew up, my affinity for and interest in Keats grew as well and, gradually, that love spread outwards to a few other Romantics—particularly Shelley and Wordsworth and, through Wordsworth, back to the Lake District. Though (perhaps surprisingly) Wordsworth is never mentioned in Ransome’s books, I discovered—as I dipped my toe into his poetry—that part of what I loved (and love!) in Swallows and Amazons was a particular Wordsworthian sensibility—an awareness of and love for the surrounding landscape, for childhood, for imagination. I had not read much Wordsworth, though, before I took Professor Engell’s Romantic Poetry course my sophomore year. I read most of the Wordsworth for that course aloud, pacing my room, hearing the rhythms of imagined footsteps on the fells and seeing before me the moors, fells, hills, and lakes that had comprised my vision of England since I was little (thanks to Arthur Ransome). After the course, I ended up reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, too, and discovered that her precision of detail (so like the detail of Beatrix Potter’s naturalist illustrations), her Lake District, felt even more familiar to me than Wordsworth’s had.

I’d been interested in landscape and literature and writers and walking since early encounters with Keats and Victor Hugo and the Wordsworth siblings slotted right into these fascinations. The metrical possibilities of wandering footsteps on the fells, the sense of place that arises from roaming, the capacity of nature to reflect the self. . . all of these I know abstractly, but  feel that to completely understand and know the poetry they produced I, too, need to walk the paths and feel their rhythms, to know the poetry through the place as well as the place through the poetry. Reading Wordsworth, reading Dorothy Wordsworth, reading Arthur Ransome, I feel somehow at home, in a familiar world. Though I’ve never been to the Lake District, I’ve always felt as if I know it intimately. To know it in reality, to walk the paths of the Swallows, the Amazons, and the Wordsworths would, besides being the fulfillment of a dream I’ve had since I was six, be the discovery of something I feel as if I’ve had all my life and never been completely able to access.

 

(Most of the) places visited: Grasmere, Dove Cottage, Rydal Water, Rydal Mount, Rydal Hall, Easedale Tarn, Sourmilk Gill, Alcock Tarn, Greenhead Gill, Michael’s Fold, Coniston Water, Hawkshead, Lake Windermere, Brantwood (Ruskin’s house on Coniston), Keswick, Castelrigg Stone Circle, Derwentwater, the coffin path between Rydal and Grasmere, Silver Howe, Helm’s Crag, and Hill Top (one of Beatrix Potter’s houses).

Walks taken: up to Easdale Tarn, up to Alcock Tarn, up Silver Howe, from Grasmere to Rydal along the coffin path and back to Grasmere all the way around the other side of the lake, up Silver Howe, up Helm’s Crag. (The walks may have been my favorite part—I woke up at 5:45 in the morning every day to take them with a couple other girls on the trip. We had to be back by 9:00 to bolt down some breakfast and start the day with the group.)

Brilliant things worth mentioning (a select few—and only things the lists above don’t include): Grasmere ginger bread (I have contemplated ordering some to be sent home to LA. That is how good it is.), the mist (only see the photos to get some sense of what I mean though the full effect can’t be gleaned just from a picture), the lambs (it was lambing season when I was there and there were little lambs gamboling and flopping everywhere you looked), the daffodils and snowdrops blanketing everything, handling manuscripts in the Wordsworth Trust’s library. . . .

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