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Lake District- a Poet’s Paradise

Before going to Antwerp, Belgium and France with a common visa, I obtained a British visa for I could not restrain my thirst for visiting England while visiting some other parts of Europe, mainly because of our (my father and forefathers) long standing relationship with the English, not only as the colonizers but also as partners of life in India. Though I visited London and some other parts of the country, my memory is still vivid about my visit to the Lake District, a Nature lover’s prime attraction. Further attractions were that it is a birthplace of many Nature-poetry, a poets’ habitat which inspired the two poets from India who were brought up there and were quite influenced by the lakes of Cumberland.

     Back to my room from the breakfast table, I suddenly remembered the words of my Professor Dr. Batabyal of Rabindra Bharati University; while lecturing on Coleridge he suddenly said in a high pitched voice, the context I do not remember, that if “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was valued at five pounds only, what was the value of the whole British Empire? Coleridge sparked the name of other Lakeists in my memory.

     Whether it was a school of hypochondriacs, as Jeffrey said, or the soul of Wordsworth’s moral being, as the poet himself said, it is fact that the lake district of England influenced the creation of a number of great poets, carrying its tradition in influencing Manmohan Ghose and his younger brother, Aurobindo Akroyd Ghose, later known throughout the world as Sri Aurobindo.

     However, to come to my journey to the Lake District, this I remember that the train took three hours from London to reach Oxenholme. Another train took me to Windermere. Reaching the hotel by a cab I ran to its rear side overlooking the vast lake abounding in water which stretched to both sides of a hillock beyond the discerning eyes. My attention was drawn to a number of swans, gulls, teals and terns, flying over the lake, floating and resting in it. They were the cynosure of all the visitors. Watching the birds was the beginning of my journey to the lakes.

   In the evening I moved round the roads and the bridge full of shops with memorabilia, restaurants and hotels. In the small lanes people were chatting, drinking or moving with familiar steps. I felt comfortable as in a cozy, small Indian hill town with all familiar figures around, as my elders were accustomed to live with them. I too saw them in my native city as some of them settled or stayed back even after the independence of the country. After the sunset the lake was more beautiful under the star and moonlit sky.

     Cumbria, the second largest county in the North-West of England, was formed in 1974 out of the former counties of Cumberland and Westmorland. Covering an area of 6808 square kilometers, Cumbria incorporates the lakes, dales and fells. 17 kilo meters long Windermere is the largest lake of England. It has the highest mountain, Scafell Pike (1978 metres) besides other hills.

     As I was cruising the lake with others in a big launch the next morning, the dales and fells on both sides of the lake charmed me as it had charmed the early nineteenth century poets, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Robert Southey, S.T. Coleridge and their friends. Big passenger launches, many ticket counters and tourist offices were surely not there at that time but small boats used to sail carrying the imaginative poets with philosophical nature. Reminiscing his childhood days, Wordsworth, in his “The Prelude” wrote-

When summer came,Our pastime was, on bright half-holidays,To sweep along the plain of WindermereWith rival oars; …

They enjoyed,

… an island musical with birdsThat sang and ceased not; … 

     Wordsworth was born in Cumberland and finally settled there in love with the lakes. Coleridge wrote his best when he was with or near Wordsworth. At one time the two poets and Dorothy, their inspiration, met daily in the lakes. They were, in Coleridge’s phrase, “Three persons and one soul”.

     It intoxicated the Indian poets Manmohan and Aurobindo Akroyd Ghose (born a hundred years hence and left the earth hundred years after Wordsworth) of St. Paul’s School, London, later. Manmohan wrote to his poet-friend, Lawrence Binyon, on 10 August 1886 from Keswick that Lake District and Derbyshire were “One of the loveliest countries in England…” 1 The two brothers stayed there during the holidays and walked in valleys. Sri Aurobindo reminisced later, “Manmohan used to have at times poetic illness. Once we were walking through Cumberland. We found that he had fallen half a mile behind, walking at a leisurely pace and moaning out poetry in a deep tone.’ 2

     From Ambleside I took a bus and went to Grasmere. There in a corner in ‘Dove Cottage’, in a serene atmosphere, lived William Wordsworth with his family from 1799 to 1808. His garden which was once tended by the poet’s own loving hands is still there. It is a two storied house; still maintained with care. A guide took us round every room and showed us all the furniture used by the poet. There is a museum dedicated to the poet in a nearby house. That too we visited. On display were many statues, photos, manuscripts, which bore the sensation of the poet’s touch. There were photos and manuscripts by other fellow poets. The house and the museum created a nostalgic atmosphere. I liked my visit as Wordsworth is still one of the loved poets in India. One would like to spend an hour more but the charges were rather on the high side.

     While returning, I remembered having read a story about the presence of Wordsworth in a subtle body in ‘Rydal Mount’, another cottage with a similar appearance as the ‘Dove Cottage’, on the fringes of Ambleside, six years after he was gone. In that house the poet had lived for long with his sister, wife and sister-in-law. It also opens for public view.

     Mary, a young girl, who was taken there to live with the poet’s widow in 1856, felt the poet’s presence in a room where Dorothy Wordsworth had lived.

      “I can still recollect the childish feeling…that a presence still haunted it.” Wrote Mary, now Mrs. Humphry Ward, in her “A Writer’s Recollections.”- published in 1918. 3

     52 years later she again lived there joined by her daughter, Dorothy, whose weird story of beholding the poet sitting in his old used chair in the dead of a moonlit night, was recounted by the mother in her above book.

     Let us hear what Dorothy had exactly said, “I slept soundly, but woke quite suddenly, at what hour I do not know, and found myself sitting bolt upright in bed looking towards the window…. I saw perfectly clearly the figure of an old man sitting in the armchair by the window.

     “I said to myself - ‘That’s Wordsworth!’

     “He was sitting with either hand resting on the arms of the chair, leaning back, his head rather bent as he seemed to be looking down, straight in front of him with a rapt expression. He was not looking at me, nor out the window. The moonlight lit up the top of his head and the silvery hair and I noticed the hair was very thin. The whole impression was of something solemn and beautiful and I was not in the least frightened. As I looked- I cannot say when I looked again, for I have no recollection of ceasing to look or looking away - the figure disappeared and I became aware of the empty chair.

     “I lay back again and thought for a moment in a contented way- ‘That was Wordsworth!’

     “I became nostalgic again. If he lives in ‘Rydal Mount’ still, he must be visiting the ‘Dove Cottage’ also from time to time.” 4

     The Lake District is a nice place to remain for three, four days and enjoy the serene nature. One may hire a boat, cruise in a launch, visit the aquarium, hire a cycle and move round places or he may simply walk through the dales and fells. Bird watchers may take the chance of watching the rare and beautiful Osprey in flight or plunge-diving with outstretched talons and catching a big fish from the ‘Dodd wood Osprey View Point’ or ‘Bassenthwaite Lake’, where they migrate from the far away South Africa in spring.

     There are a number of other places to visit like ‘Beatrix Potter’s Hilltop, Art Gallery and Museum’. One may spend a night or two in the countryside in the deep of quiet nature.

     While going I had lesser trouble but while coming, I had enough. Five times I had to change trains due to misinformation and uncertainty about the movement of trains as some work was going on in the tracks, they said. I was given to understand that such things happened often. Such things are usually imponderable in a developed country where only disciplined services are expected. But the people were friendly. They helped. I reached London City Airport only 15 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time of the flight to Antwerp. I was specially allowed to run through the small runway and helped to get into the plane, even without usual security check. The small plane was roaring with running engine, ready to run and fly. As I hopped in helped by a fellow passenger, it began its journey. Few pairs of eyes brushed my face as I must have been excused for my delay. The plane was waiting as a matter of extreme courtesy. I was certainly grateful to all, more to the cause of all, the Divine.

 Notes

1 Sujata Nahar. Mother’s Chronicle. Mysore; Mira Aditi. Book-4. p.145

2 Nahar. p.147

3 Humphry Ward. “A Writer’s Recollections”. ‘Cumbria and Lake District Life’. Carlisle, UK. April, 2003

4 Ward.