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J U N E 2 0 0 0
THE reason most people come to the Lake District, though, is not to look at old houses but to walk in the countryside and take in the views. Pity the writer who is supposed to come up with a fresh description of its scenery; suffice it to say that the Lake District has all the sublimity that Wordsworth and Coleridge claimed for it in their poems. A lot of serious hiking goes on here, as well as gentler walks around the lakes and valleys. The Grasmere Tourist Information Centre (telephone 011-44-15394-35245), in the village, can supply maps of the walking trails. If you want to enhance your experience of the countryside further, the center can recommend a freelance Blue Badge Guide, who will lead the way and tell you about local history and the flora and fauna.
Something of a hiking boom occurred in the Lake District in the early twentieth century, when sizable numbers of English people began to have the money and leisure for holidays. Grasmere, with its exquisite landscape, charming village architecture, and literary shrine, became the cozy, idealized emblem of Britain's pastoral tradition (which the area's sheep farmers still stoutly defend). In Forster's A Passage to India, as Mrs. Moore steams through the bleak countryside on a train to the Marabar Hills, she says, sighing, to her friends, "'Ah, dearest Grasmere!'" Forster continued, "Its little lakes and mountains were beloved by them all. Romantic yet manageable, it sprang from a kindlier planet." John Betjeman's satire, in his poem "Lake District," was blunter.
Spirit of Grasmere, bells of Ambleside,
For the British a hiking holiday in Grasmere may savor of kitsch, but American visitors, unencumbered by local context and cliché, can savor the charms of frothing watercolor waterfalls and long stony lanes innocently. Anyway, the British are wonderfully inept at kitsch: their celebrated reserve doesn't let them do it with the requisite gusto. There are "Daffodils" samplers and coffee mugs on sale at the souvenir shops in the village, and Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle are for sale in every conceivable medium, but to an American eye it's understated. The quaintness and coziness in Grasmere isn't manufactured -- it's just the way they've been doing things here for a few hundred years. There have been some changes. The food here, as everywhere in Britain, has undergone a revolution. When I first came to Grasmere, twelve years ago, the food seemed to be at least a hundred years old: strictly cheese plates, Cumberland sausages, and kidney pies, with baked beans on the side -- and, yes, the ubiquitous ketchup bottle. At the nicer hotels you could get a good roast-beef dinner. On my most recent visit to Grasmere, earlier this year, I had dinner outside the village at Michael's Nook, a Michelin-starred restaurant in a gorgeous Victorian house converted to a small hotel of the same name -- a place wildly overdecorated in yards of floral chintz as only the English know how to do. The food was expertly cooked, if fancy in a slightly retro way, with foie gras and truffles showing up in several dishes. But I love foie gras and truffles, so I didn't complain.
However, the bill came as a bit of a shock: just over $100 per person for four courses with a cocktail before and a merely respectable bottle of Tasmanian wine. Great Britain in general is more expensive now than ever, and unlike the United States, it doesn't get much cheaper when you travel into the countryside. There are several fine hotels right in Grasmere, including the Wordsworth Hotel, which still serves a good roast-beef dinner. Though it's not exactly hectic in the village, which is well off the main road, it might be a more relaxing experience to stay in one of the small country inns around Grasmere. Michael's Nook, in a beautiful rural setting, has a reputation for being Grasmere's top hostelry, though its strong dose of quaintness verges on eccentricity. It's certainly a comfortable, even luxurious, place to stay. Double rooms range from about $320 to $480 a night, including dinner and a full English breakfast (telephone 011-44-15394-35496; fax 011-44-15394-35645).
Another charming country hotel is White Moss House, built in 1730 and bought by Wordsworth as a home for his son Willie. The house was occupied by the poet's descendants until the 1930s. Among the attractions of White Moss House are creative English cookery, pleasant gardens, and, not least, two splendid Victorian painted-porcelain toilets. A standard double room, including full breakfast and a five-course dinner, runs about $120 a night (telephone 011-44-15394-35295; fax 011-44-15394-35516; e-mail dixon @whitemoss.com). How Foot is one of the best budget accommodations in the area, and the English breakfast it lays on is unbeatable. If you stay at least three nights, a double room is about $75 a night (telephone/fax 011-44-15394-35366). The better hotels are often full in the high season, so early reservations are advisable.
Grasmere is beautiful year-round. In the summer it's crowded with walkers, and everything's a bit too uniformly green for my taste, but of course the weather is warm, if changeable. In late August they have the Grasmere Sports, with hound trails, Cumberland-style wrestling, and other traditional contests. If you're planning to be in England over the summer, you will enjoy spending a few days here, but I would recommend spring or autumn, when the landscape is changing and many hotels offer reduced-rate packages, known locally as bargain breaks. The village is romantic in winter, with the bracing scent of coal fires hanging in the frosty mist, but all the National Trust sites are closed (a policy that is more popular with the Trust's aristocratic directors than with the hundreds of local people who make a living from the tourist trade), as are Dove Cottage and many hotels and restaurants. English hikers take no notice of rain, but there's plenty of it and you never know when it's going to fall, so pack your tweeds and something made of Gore-Tex.
YOU certainly needn't be a fan of Wordsworth's poetry to enjoy a trip to Grasmere, but coming here can make one of you. I never gave much thought to Wordsworth until I began visiting Grasmere. No great literary figure was ever more unglamorous: Byron and Shelley had scandalous private lives, Keats died young, Coleridge smoked opium, but Wordsworth just went for walks and sat around the house with his sister and his wife, writing poems. Face it, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" will never have the box-office wallop of Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights.
But he's called a great poet for a reason. If you go to Grasmere, search for your inner dreamy college kid and give Wordsworth a try. The Prelude, running to well over 200 pages, is too long for any but the most dedicated enthusiast, but many of his shorter poems, particularly the narratives about country life, are just the right length to read while sitting on a rock to catch your breath and eat a bit of gingerbread. It makes a perfect day's walk to climb up the path running alongside Greenhead Gill to the spot where Wordsworth was inspired to write "Michael," a tragic ballad about an old shepherd whose only son runs off to the big city and turns bad. The place is still just as he described it in the poem:
If from the public way you turn your steps
The brook has lost none of its tumult, the valley none of its mysterious sense of seclusion. The landscape of Grasmere spoke eloquently to Wordsworth, and it will do the same to you.