Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Portable ecstasies – Wordsworth's spectacles and square oranges

Derwentwater (c) Tony Gillam
Perhaps the more dramatic the landscape you inhabit, the more romantic the literature you produce. Think of the Brontës and their West Yorkshire moors ... and, of course, the Wordsworths – William and his sister Dorothy – (not forgetting their good friend Coleridge) and the English Lake District. The grandeur of Derwentwater and Grasmere, even in chilly February, is always inspirational but it was the small domestic details of Wordsworth's life on display at Dove Cottage and the adjoining museum that captured my imagination. Here you can see the poet's special writing chair which had flat armrests to use as a writing surface – because Wordsworth hated sitting at a desk. And here, also, his blue-lensed spectacles, more redolent somehow of John Lennon than of the author of The Prelude. It's easy to imagine, with the heady Lakeland air all around and an opium-induced haze (courtesy of friends like Coleridge and De Quincey), Wordsworth squinting at the world through blue-tinted glasses and inadvertently laying the foundations not only of Romanticism but of psychedelia too.

Thomas de Quincey, fan and friend of Wordsworth, memorably celebrated opium in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater:“here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered; happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint-bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail.”

Now, I should explain that no opium or related substances were involved in our recent trip to the Lake District but we did enjoy more innocent delights, some of which de Quincey also appreciated: “Surely everyone is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a wintry fireside; candles at four o'clock, warm hearthrugs, tea, a fair tea-maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies to the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without.”

Village School, Grasmere (c) Tony Gillam
There is something ineffably cosy about a stay in the Lake District and the area is reinvigorating in so many ways. Being surrounded by so much natural beauty and bracing weather is restorative enough, but it's an area rich in sensory not to say sometimes psychedelic-sounding pleasures. For example, the scent alone – not to mention the taste – of fresh gingerbread, made in the tiny village school building in Grasmere where William and Dorothy once taught local children (convinced, as the Wordsworths were, that universal education was the means to escape poverty and ignorance.) Then there is the craft bakery and tea rooms Bryson's of Keswick selling, alongside their gorgeous fresh loaves and cakes, bottles of toffee vodka.  Yes.  Toffee vodka. ('It goes very well with Prosecco,' said the sales assistant, conspiratorially.) 

The Square Orange, Keswick
Or perhaps you'd like to try a rhubarb cheesecake with your coffee at Keswick's Square Orange Cafe Bar, or be brave enough to order a glass of Kwak (a Belgian beer that appears to be served in an hourglass-shaped glass.) It was at the Square Orange that we caught a live performance by Lancaster-based singer-songwriter Felicity Harris who just stood up and played (completely unamplified) a selection of her own songs and some very unexpected cover versions, including Laurel & Hardy's Blue Ridge Mountains Of Virginia.

Unlike de Quincey's opium, it's not always so easy to bottle the pleasures of a stay in the Lake District: the landscape that inspired the Romantic poets, good Cumberland beer in friendly, cosy pubs, miles and miles of walking. But perhaps a visit there every now and then, and the memory of the place, will keep at bay what Coleridge called Dejection and those attendant feelings Wordsworth described of "sorrow, disappointment, vexing thoughts, /Confusion of the judgment, zeal decayed, /And, lastly, utter loss of hope itself/ And things to hope for!" As Wordsworth reminds us in The Prelude: "Not with these began/Our song, and not with these our song must end."


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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton and Visiting Lecturer at the University of Worcester. An award-winning mental health nurse, he is also a freelance writer and musician, has published numerous articles and is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing'.