This Royal-Watching Joules-Wearer Was On Tenterhooks To Visit Otterburn Mill

Chromolithograph of Alnwick Castle from County Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain (1869), by Alexander Francis Lydon, Wikimedia Commons

You might recognize it as Hogwarts from the first two Harry Potter films, or as Brancaster Castle, the home of Downton Abbey’s Lady Edith Crawley and her husband, Bertie Pelham, the Marquess of Hexham.

But to Northumbrians, it’s better known as Alnwick Castle, the 11th-century castle on the banks of the River Aln with a Capability Brown-designed park known as the Pastures. As the seat of the Duke of Northumberland and the home of the Percy family for over 700 years, Alnwick has been the destination for several royal visits, most recently by Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh in 2011.

While on a visit to Alnwick, the queen’s great-grandmother, Alexandra, was presented with a handmade traveling rug from nearby Otterburn Mill. Edward VII’s consort was so taken with her present that Otterburn tweeds soon became a royal favorite for hunting, shooting and fishing togs. When the current queen was born in 1926, Buckingham Palace contacted Otterburn Mill to make a rug for her pram, and the mill earned royal patronage. A Newcastle-based client of the mill asked to sell the pram rugs in his shop, and they sold out in two weeks. Since then, the Otterburn pram rug has become a British classic. It is still made from pure new lambswool, woven in a double-sided plain coordinating color on one side and a checked pattern on the reverse. Measuring 38 by 27 inches, the pram rug comes in four colorways: pink; blue; lemon and cream.

While a mill is believed to have operated on the same site in the town of Otterburn since the 15th century, Otterburn Mill’s most noted history dates to 1821, when William Waddell, a Jedburgh, Scotland weaver, brought his bride to Otterburn and leased a mill there. Waddell gave local farmers a credit for the value of the wool fleeces they provided; washed and dyed the wool; converted the wool into yarn; and sent the yarn to local weavers to create tweeds, blankets and rugs by hand in their homes. The finished products were sent back to the mill, where farmers used their credit to barter with Waddell for them.

Four generations of the Waddell family ran the mill, seeing it develop from a cottage industry into a mechanized factory with automatic carding machines, a spinning jenny, and diesel-powered looms. Otterburn Mill became a leading producer of woven cloth, famous for its quality, color and design. In fact, Otterburn produced tweeds during the 1930s for fashion houses such as Dior and Schiaparelli; the garments were often featured on the cover of Vogue magazine. However, post-World War II investment in the mill suffered and it was forced to stop manufacturing in 1976. In 1995, a member of the Pringle family, the famous Scottish woolen manufacturers, bought Otterburn Mill and redeveloped it as a combination of a visitor center and a retail outlet for British country clothing brands such as Joules. The old weaving shed was converted into Weavers, a coffee shop serving refreshments and home-baked snacks.

The mill’s old machinery still exists on the premises. Visitors can see the coal-fired Cornish boiler that was used during the early 20th century to produce steam and water for washing wool and cloth. A horizontal water turbine, installed in 1890, powered the mill until the 1950s; a water-cooled diesel engine powered the mill from 1926.

At the scouring machine, newly woven cloth was sewn together to form a loop and washed, or “scoured,” by being circulated repeatedly through hot, soapy water and a series or rollers, or “ringers.” After washing, the cloth was spun dry. Then, it was hooked onto outdoor tenter frames to dry in the sun. The bottom rail of hooks on the frame was released to stretch the cloth as it dried. The expression, “to be on tenterhooks” was created from this method of stretching the cloth. Dating to the early 18th century, Otterburn Mill’s tenter frames are believed to be the last remaining ones in the world.

In the last set of 19th-century fulling stocks in the United Kingdom, two heavy oak feet in the fulling box pounded the damp cloth for two or three hours, matting the cloth to give it a bulky, warm hand, or feel. A teazle gig, a machine used to raise the surface of fabric used in blankets and travel rugs, has been in place here since the late 19th century. Over 3,000 teazle heads in the machine pluck the surface of the cloth to make it fluffy.

Inside the retail store, you can spot original weaving looms…

and the line shaft, a power-driven rotating shaft for power transmission that was used from the Industrial Revolution until the early 20th century.

Visitors can also see the restored mill office and samples of cloth once produced by Otterburn Mill.

Otterburn Mill is surrounded by 25 acres of fields, through which the River Rede, a well-known spot for trout and salmon fishing, flows. A popular hiking trail starts and finishes at the mill.

The mill’s signature pram blankets are still sold here. To accompany them, it also offers Floss and Just Like Floss, children’s books by Kim Lewis about a Border collie who moves to a Northumberland farm and learns how to round up sheep.

Posted in England, History, Northumberland, Shopping, Travel | Leave a comment

Mandy’s Map Is A Great Conversation-Starter

Start a conversation with me about what’s new in Northumberland National Park and I’d have plenty to say.

I’d begin by announcing the return of Ratty, the loveable water vole in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, to Kielder Water and Forest Park, northern Europe’s largest man-made lake and England’s largest forest. The likes of Ratty have been gone from Kielder for 30 years, after the voracious American Mink contributed to its decline. However, the minks were run out of town and almost 700 of these endangered creatures were reintroduced to Kielder this summer.

Kielder is also home to England’s largest population of the endangered red squirrel, as well as to four pairs of ospreys who will soon be able to perch on A Levitated Mass, a large-scale sculpture installation that will appear to look like a boulder floating above the water.

Since 1956, Northumberland National Park has conserved and enhanced the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of this area stretching north to the Cheviot Hills and the Scottish Border, encompassing the central section of Hadrian’s Wall. In fact, it has so many special qualities to enjoy that a brand new visitor attraction recently opened to help people explore Northumberland’s landscape, culture, history and heritage.

The Sill: National Landscape Discovery Centre features exhibitions, learning and event spaces, a cafe serving local foods, a shop specializing in local crafts, and a youth hostel.

Named after the Great Whin Sill, the nearby geological feature of igneous rock that is noted for its steep, rocky cliffs, the building is mostly constructed of whin stone and other local stones. Its green roof, planted with local botanical specimens to replicate the surrounding grasslands, sweeps upwards like the Great Whin Sill, giving visitors a bird’s-eye view of the magnificent landscape.

Mandy Roberts, engagement officer for Northumberland National Park, had a brilliant idea to start a conversation with people about the tranquil moorland where grouse roam and heather blooms abundantly. It came in the form of a fabulous textile map.

During a two-year period, Newcastle-based fabric artist Clare Armstrong and Glare Satow of Bill Quay Fabric Workshop in Gateshead created a large wallhanging measuring almost 60 by 100 inches. They mapped out Northumberland’s rivers, forests, hills and valleys, screen-printing them on linen. Then, about 100 volunteer stitchers were invited to contribute embroidered interpretations of Northumberland’s native flora and fauna, together with local landmarks. Buildings and monuments were executed in blackwork.

Along the map’s lower edge, you can see minute representations of water crowfoot (an indicator of very clean rivers), sundew (a carniverous plant that lives on bogs), and other bogland sights like cottongrass and heath butterflies.

There are also embroidered examples of peregrine falcons, bats, Emperor moths, curlews, and the 50,000 Northumbrian Blackface and Cheviot sheep that call this place home.

It also includes abstract carvings of Bronze Age rock art at Rothbury…

…Hadrian’s Wall,

…and the Duergar, the ugly little dwarfs who wear lambskin coats, moleskin trousers and shoes, and a moss hat adorned with a feather. These dangerous characters from folklore lurk in the shadows of the Simonside Hills and come out at night, preying on lost travelers, enticing them with a light to make them come closer, then luring them into a bog or over the edge of a precipice.

Nighttime is exceptional in Northumberland National Park because it’s an International Dark Sky Park. At 572 miles, it’s Europe’s largest area of protected night sky. It’s also the best place in England for stargazing; it’s a prime spot for seeing meteor showers and up to 2,000 stars at any one time. The park has a world-class observatory and offers many stargazing programs.

There are many ways to get to The Sill, but the most ingenious may be the Hadrian’s Wall Country Bus AD122, which links major sites along the Hadrian’s Wall corridor between Newcastle and Carlisle. The bus, named for the year when Hadrian’s Wall was built, runs hourly between the Hexham Bus Station and Haltwhistle Rail Station via other destinations like Chesters Roman Fort, Housesteads Roman Fort, Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum. It operates daily from Good Friday until October 1.

Posted in England, Needlework, Northumberland, Travel | Leave a comment

Pink Skies, Blue Streets And Teal Sidewalks: That’s Carlisle In Technicolor!

While I was taking a hairdryer to three waterlogged Barbours, Cumbria-based artist Helen Walsh was showing a group of museumgoers how to embellish fabric with beads and sequins, I discovered.

Lovely 1920s purses provided the inspiration for the September session of “Tullie Textiles,” a program held the second Sunday afternoon of each month at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle, England. During the program, interested visitors take a closer look at costumes from the museum’s collection, try a new technique demonstrated by a professional textile artist, and work on their own project.

Green with envy was I for missing that. My consolation, however, was seeing Carlisle in glorious technicolor at Tullie House the next day.

Paul Leith: Technicolour Carlisle, a special exhibition at Tullie House, displays the creations of Paul Leith, a Carlisle-based artist who creates scenes of the city in colorful embellished felt collages.

Born in 1946 in South Shields, a coastal town in northeast England, Leith developed a fascination for the eye-catching displays and colorful packaging of products that stocked the shelves of the grocery his father managed. His love of color and drawing led him to study art at both the Sunderland College of Art and the Royal College of Art. During a five-week tour of Europe, he visited the Bauhaus archive in Stuttgart, Germany, leaving with an appreciation for the geometric forms and primary colors that define this modern design style.

Leith settled in London, creating packaging for shirts while working as an illustrator for an advertising agency. Throughout his 30-year career, he contributed to newspapers and publications like Radio Times, a weekly television and radio program listings magazine.  He designed book covers for Penguin…

and advertisements, including some for British Rail.

In the 1980s, Leith transitioned from his preferred media of graphite pencils and Derwent color pencils to masking fluid and acrylic paint. His style evolved too, from realistic drawings to simple geometric shapes and bold colors. Stencils helped the award-winning artist keep up with demand for his work. Changing tastes led him to trade stencils for collages crafted from tissue paper and wallpaper.

A 1998 move to Appleby-in-Westmorland brought Leith and his family to Cumbria, where he started doing more work for himself. Following a relocation to Carlisle, Leith injured his knee; while it was healing, he began making sketches of the city.

For the past seven years, he has transformed those sketches into murals, enlarging the original sketch to create a template from which pieces are cut out of 72 different colors of felt, sewn together to recreate the scene, and often embellished with embroidery…

and buttons.

The results are a vibrant depiction of Carlisle’s landmarks, such as the magnificent Carlisle Cathedral and neighborhoods like Close Street and Broad Street.

Queen Victoria reigns over Bitts Park in springtime…

while characters clothed in varying shades of carmine and a button-leaved tree complement the iconic red stone walls of Carlisle Castle.

Special exhibition-related activities for visitors included creating felt pictures and collages using the Tullie House art collection for inspiration, as well as taking home coloring pages of some of Leith’s drawings of Carlisle landmarks.  

Posted in Art, Cumbria, England, Museums, Needlework, Travel | Leave a comment

My Cherished Dream Was Seeing Brockhole, Even In The Pouring Rain

Heavy and persistent rainfall throughout Cumbria isn’t ideal for sightseeing, but when I’ve traveled 3,674 miles to see a beautiful site with Beatrix Potter connections on the east bank of Lake Windermere, I’ll persevere as long as I can.

That was my plan when we boarded the steamer for a day of cruising on Lake Windermere. After all, it was just cloudy when we started.

White Cross Bay, Lake Windermere

The steamer set sail, and we were surrounded by dozens of tourists so intent on smartphone scrolling that they were oblivious to the unfolding sights. They paid no attention to the island inhabited only by a community of cormorants whose acidic droppings strip tree branches. They missed seeing Cragwood, a magnificent Edwardian country house-turned-hotel. And they sailed right past White Cross Bay, where a World War II-era factory made Sunderland seaplanes and a memorial inscribed “Watch therefore for ye know neither the day nor the hour” was dedicated to two cousins who drowned there in September 1853.

And then the much-anticipated Brockhole came into view.

Brockhole was the summer home of a Manchester silk merchant named William Henry Adolphus Gaddum. His wife, Edith Potter Gaddum, was Beatrix Potter’s cousin. A frequent visitor to Brockhole, “Cousin B” wrote the Gaddum children, Molly and Jim, her famed illustrated letters, telling them tales about a frog named Jeremy Fisher and the red-furred Squirrel Nutkin.

Just as the boat docked at the Brockhole pier long enough for us to disembark, it started raining. Hard.

The deluge eased into a steady rain as we made our way up the sloping hill and through the gardens.  Both were the creation of a self-taught Lakeland landscape designer named Thomas Mawson.

“Life to me from my very early years was one of set purpose,” Mawson wrote in his autobiography, The Life and Work of an English Landscape Architect. “My cherished dream was landscape architecture.”

Mawson began his career by studying arboriculture in London nurseries, looking carefully at notable area landscapes, sketching from nature, asking local artists to help him improve his draftsmanship, and reading classic texts by John Claudius Loudon, Humphry Repton and John Ruskin. While honeymooning in the Lake District in August 1884, Mawson and his wife, Anna, decided to start a nursery and contract landscaping business there. The following January, Mawson’s mother and two brothers, Robert and Isaac, joined them there in Windermere and the Lakeland Nurseries opened for business.

The Mawsons produced annual catalogues of seeds, bulbs, perennials and trees for sale in their nursery. They partnered with another local business to create garden ornaments like trellises, pergolas, gates and garden houses. While Robert and Isaac focused on the nursery, Thomas offered his services in planting and remodeling gardens and parks; creating waterfalls, rockeries and ornamental lakes; and even draining land and making roads.

After a slow start, Ruskin’s niece, Joan Severn, recommended Mawson to a local gentleman who was looking for advice on laying out the garden at his new home. That led to several other commissions by wealthy industrialists and businessmen who built holiday homes in the Lake District.

Five years later, Mawson’s talent for using the landscape to its best advantage, tailoring its features to individual properties, was in demand. Knowing just what his clients wanted, he created Arts and Crafts-style gardens featuring topiaries, herbaceous borders, expanses of grass, formal beds close to the house, and tree-lined avenues, all complemented by handcrafted local stone steps, wooden trellises, wrought-iron gates and walls with intricate brick and tile designs. Brockhole was one of them.

Dan Gibson designed Brockhole for the Gaddums in 1897, employing Lakeland pitched slate roofs, chunky chimneys with rounded tops and locally quarried stone to create an Arts and Crafts-style home. The north end of the property afforded beautiful mountain views, while the home’s living spaces faced Lake Windermere. The Gaddums took up permanent residence at Brockhole in 1900.

Sloping terraces of local stone and slate transition from geometrically planted flowerbeds near the house, then to meadows and woodland, and finally to the lakeshore. 

Mawson saw terraces as a series of changing gardens, each with its own particular charm, connected to the best parts of the house. Mass plantings of perennials were irrigated with a series of underground water tanks that collected rainwater from the house’s gutters. Hedges not only divided the garden into compartments, but also shielded a kitchen garden from view, creating a sheltered, sunny site where fruit, vegetables and espaliered apple and pear trees grew. A lawn was groomed on which to play croquet and tennis.

Quarried stone from nearby was employed to make sundials, garden houses where the Gaddums could admire the view, and dry stone walls with plant-filled crevices, common throughout the Lake District. Mawson provided instructions on how to make those walls in his book, The Art and Craft of Garden Making. Further down the slope, walls were constructed with locally found boulders.

Mawson planted copper beech and lime trees along the entrance drive, as well as oak and ash trees in the parkland. Conifers around the boundaries of the property to shelter the house and grounds from wind and driving rain, just like we experienced.

Much of Mawson’s original garden layout and plantings at Brockhole have been preserved, such as clipped yew and boxwood hedges, rhododendrons, wisteria and magnolias. Roses, scented plants and ornamental trees and shrubs have been added to provide interest throughout the seasons.

Mawson also designed the gardens at Blackwell, a nearby Arts and Crafts paradise that was the holiday home of another Manchester merchant named Edward Holt.

Mawson also was responsible for the terracing and balustrading of Skibo Castle, Andrew Carnegie’s summer home in Scotland. Later, Mawson designed parks in keeping with the City Beautiful Movement, in which beautiful surroundings were created to help people live contented lives. He was most proud of his work for the King of Greece in designing palace gardens and parks in Athens.  Mawson died on November 14, 1933 and is buried at Bowness Cemetery, Windermere.

Today, Brockhole serves as the Lake District Visitor Center, featuring educational displays, a café and a shop that sells locally produced foods, ales and other products, including Herdy merchandise inspired by the area’s Herdwick sheep.

Back on the steamer, we saw rowers trying to practice on Lake Windermere as determinedly as we tried to sightsee.  Rain-covered windows and fog-obscured shores got the better of us, though, so I admitted defeat.  We scrapped our plans and spent the rest of the day drying out back at Lindeth Howe.  The sun came out after everything had closed for the day. 

Windermere Lake Cruise steamers and launches run daily to Brockhole during the main tourist season from Easter through October.

For more on Thomas Mawson, read Thomas Mawson: Life, Gardens and Landscapes, by Janet Waymark. Also check out Mawson’s autobiography, The Life and Work of an English Landscape Architect, as well as his book, The Art and Craft of Garden Making.

Posted in Architecture, England, Gardens, History, Lake District, Travel | 1 Comment

How Did Mr. Sedgwick’s Dog Stand Still For That?

When a railway line was proposed for the Lake District in 1844, William Wordsworth was beside himself. Thoughts of trains intruding on the area’s natural beauty — and uncertainty about the moral character of the strangers they carried — were so distressing that he wrote poems and letters against the introduction of the line for newspaper publication, hoping to rally people to his side.

But his protests were for naught, and the Kendal and Windermere Railway opened in 1847. Tourists of all classes started flocking to the Lake District to experience Wordsworth’s world. The local economy flourished as resort towns cropped up along Lake Windermere, catering to tourists who arrived on steam-powered trains, sailed the lake in the opulent Steam Yacht Gondola, and ate picnic lunches while admiring the landscape from the Claife Viewing Station. Church Sunday schools and temperance groups organized day excursions for working-class visitors to experience the Lakes. Well-to-do city-dwellers rented lodgings for weeks on end, even for the entire summer, like Beatrix Potter’s parents did.

Whatever their social situation, they were the perfect audience for a pair of brothers who were on hand to take their picture. I saw a charming selection of these photographic portraits on view in Still Lives: Photographs from the Brunskill Collection at the Armitt, an Ambleside museum that is one of Britain’s finest independent cultural heritage organizations.

Born in the 1820s in the Cumbrian town of Sedbergh, the Brunskill brothers caught the photography bug in the late 1850s. They moved to Bowness-on-Windermere in the early 1860s to capitalize on the seasonal tourist trade and established a photographic studio called “Brunskills’ Wood-shed.” It wasn’t long before they could build a home that also featured a studio, darkroom and shop. From 1865 to 1906, the Brunskills captured the likenesses of Lake District tourists and locals alike. One hundred years later, the Armitt acquired 17,800 glass plate negatives of the Brunskills’ work…

…along with ephemera documenting their business.

The beautiful Miss Midgely served as the poster girl for the exhibition; in fact, her grandson recognized her likeness while passing the Armitt and catching a glimpse of the poster.

My other favorite subjects include a straw-boater topped lad named Luigard who posed with a toy sailboat…

and a bespectacled, pipe-smoking Jack Russell terrier belonging to a Mr. Sedgwick.

Genealogists and historians will be glad to know that the Armitt is digitizing and capturing metadata of the Brunskills’ photographs for research through its “In the Picture” project.

If you’d like to experience the Lake District like the early tourists did, check out the National Trust’s Grand Victorian Circular Tour.

Posted in England, Lake District, Museums, Special Collections, Travel | Leave a comment

Take An Umbrella And Stout Boots To Wordsworthshire

One of the loveliest let-downs I’ve ever received came in the form of an e-mail from Michael.

The retail operations manager at The Wordsworth Shop at Dove Cottage answered my enquiry about the “Knit Your Own Dove Cottage” kit I had passed up during my 2015 pilgrimage to the Grasmere home of the poet William Wordsworth.

“I am ever so sorry but we do not stock the kit any more,” he wrote. “I’m afraid the costs went up rather alarmingly and, given the number of sales, it would have made it too expensive to sell. I am very sorry to have to disappoint you. However, do come and say hello when you do come to visit in September. We have a lot of new products this year, and whilst they won’t take the place of the kit, I hope that you might enjoy browsing what we do have.”

So, whilst I was not able to leave with that much-coveted kit, I did continue on to claim a Little Herdy hefted to Keswick, armed with seven fabulous finds from Wordsworth Country.

One was a magnet depicting Pepper, the Dandie Dinmont terrier that Sir Walter Scott, an amateur breeder who named his dogs according to their spice-colored furs, gifted to Wordsworth during his visit to Dove Cottage. In the great tradition of the version of the poet’s knitted knee rug I made after my first visit, my second find prompted me to plan making a replica of the postbag that Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet’s sister, carried on her walks to Ambleside to collect the mail.

Two volumes from the “Cottonian Library” of Wordsworth’s friend, poet Robert Southey, came in third. The author of Goldilocks and the Three Bears had his daughters cover his tattered books to give them a more respectable appearance. Using flowered chintz from their old dresses, they bound between 1,200 and 1,400 volumes, completely filling one room of the family home. Southey called this room his “Cottonian Library,” naming it after Sir Robert Bruce Cotton’s 17th-century library, which later formed the basis of the British Library’s collection.

Fourth came in the form of Jane and Dorothy: A True Tale of Sense and Sensibility, a must-read new book by Marian Veevers, a volunteer at the Wordsworth Trust who gave an insightful lecture about Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet’s sister, during my visit to Dove Cottage last month.  In the book, she compares the upbringing and education, home lives and emotional and creative worlds of Dorothy and Jane Austen, who were born four years apart.

Fifth was Wordsworth Country – Lakes, Mountains & Waterfalls, an exhibition at the Wordsworth Trust exploring how Wordsworth’s words attracted tens of thousands of tourists to the Lake District’s inspiring landscape. Guidebooks and maps popped up to help these tourists who wanted to stand where Wordsworth had stood in order to experience the landscape as he did. Before long, the Lake District was known as “Wordsworthshire” or “Wordsworth Country.”

“To see the Lakes, go afoot,” Henry Frith advised in his 1881 essay, “Wanderings in Wordsworthshire.” “Take an umbrella and stout boots, a haversack and waterproof…and walk like a Briton.”

Walk they did. For example, a Mrs. Johnson made a two-week visit to Wordsworth Country in late August-early September 1844, accompanied by her son and four daughters. Noting in her diary that a reliable pair of shoes were essential, she describes the shoes “universally worn” by the locals, which had “a piece of brass nailed round the edge of the sole to preserve the wood, & are always fastened by a brass buckle & have a very clumsy look but must be very durable & strong.”

In her diary, she describes meeting Wordsworth “walking down the steep descent by the side of a 4-wheeled chaise, in which was his wife. He was a sort [corrected to tall] active man with a broad brimmed straw hat & green spectacles. He looked at us with a most goodnatured expression of countenance. We should not have known him, if our donkey boy had not enlightened us, with “that’s Wordsworth & that’s his Maria.” Wordsworth’s very hat and spectacles are on view in the exhibition.

While Dove Cottage may be the place most associated with Wordsworth today, Rydal Mount, the poet’s home from 1813 until his death in 1850, was known far and wide as the crown jewel of a Victorian-era literary pilgrimage to Wordsworth Country. Tourists even peeped in the windows of Rydal Mount hoping for a chance to meet him. Its publicly accessible garden, itself the product of Wordsworth’s hands, even became the subject of rummaging by tourists eager to snatch a souvenir sprig from the poet’s home. At the height of Wordsworth’s fame, it was estimated that 800 strangers called at Rydal Mount in the course of the season.

Rydal Mount’s beautiful gardens and historic interior brought me there two years ago, but this time I was most looking forward to seeing friendly Peter Elkington, the home’s curator, who lives there with his wife, Marian. I crossed the threshold, where this time I noticed a faint “Salve” spelled out in the tile, reminiscent of a similar greeting I saw on the threshold of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Weimar, Germany home. I led the way to the dining room, where I had time to really inspect another familiar sight – the needlepoint chair seats made by Mary and Dorothy Wordsworth, just waiting for me to get to work on my own version of them. 

Describing Wordsworth’s talent as a gardener, Peter shared some lines from the poet that all weeders can relate to: “Defend us from the tyranny of trimness and neatness, showing itself in this way!….True taste has an eye for both. Weeds have been called flowers out of place. I fear the place most people would assign to them is too limited….”

He also pointed out a new attraction in this room that became my sixth fabulous find in Wordsworthshire: a recent portrait of Wordsworth that is the first new likeness of him since he died. It’s based on a life mask of Wordsworth’s face that artist Benjamin Robert Haydon made in June 1815, the year that his most famous work, “Daffodils,” was published. According to Haydon’s diary, Wordsworth sat with his face covered in plaster, with straws up his nose to allow him to breathe while the mould was made. He bore it “like a philosopher,” Haydon wrote. The mask is now held by St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge. Click here to see an image of it in the National Portrait Gallery’s online archive.

Hideyuki Sobue, a Japanese artist who makes his home in the Lake District, wanted to portray Wordsworth not as a Romantic, but as an outdoorsman who loved to spend time walking and gardening. Besides relying on the digital image of the life mask to make Wordsworth’s likeness, Sobue searched for images of people with facial structures similar to Wordsworth’s, particularly with his distinctive nose. He found it in an actor he saw while watching television one evening.

A series of photographs displayed underneath the painting shows how Sobue created his portrait, from beginning studies in graphite to the completed portrait, executed in acrylic paint and sumi ink, traditionally used in East Asian calligraphy. The result is a much younger and finer likeness of Wordsworth than has existed before.

Portrait of William Wordsworth outside Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere gingerbread shop

Later, as I sat in Rydal Mount’s living room, savoring every bite of a steak pie Marian made, Peter described Ralph Waldo Emerson’s visit with Wordsworth at Rydal Mount in August 1833. After they discussed education and American society over tea, they walked through the gardens as Wordsworth recited some of his newly composed poetry. Emerson is said to have commented, “I am in the company of one of the greatest Romantics. I should stop and listen.”

Over tea and Grasmere gingerbread, Peter also relayed some hot news that became my seventh and final find. Dorothy Wordsworth is included in What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, a new book by Laura Shapiro.

To revive literary tourism in the Lake District, an online guide has been created to pinpoint and enlighten modern-day pilgrims about the landmarks and vantage points that inspired some of the best-known verses in the English language. Lines of poetry appear alongside vintage tourist illustrations of over 40 locations associated with Wordsworth’s works.

For more on literary tourism in Wordsworthshire, read “Geographical Text Analysis: Digital Cartographies of Lake District Literature,” by Ian Gregory and Christopher Donaldson, in Literary Mapping in the Digital Age, edited by David Cooper, Christopher Donaldson and Patricia Murrieta-Flores.  Donaldson, Gregory and Murrietta-Flores also wrote “Mapping ‘Wordsworthshire’: A GIS Study of Literary Tourism in Victorian Lakeland,” in the Journal of Victorian Culture, volume 20, number 3 (2015), pages 287-307.

Posted in Art, England, History, Lake District, Museums, Travel | Leave a comment

“Epic Scenery! Epic Road Runs! And Perhaps The Occasional Squally Shower!”: More Reasons to Roam The Lake District And Northumberland

Mountains green. Pleasant pastures. Clouded hills.

These descriptions of “England’s green and pleasant land” were written in verse by William Blake in 1804, then set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 to sustain Britain’s resolve during World War I.  Since then, Jerusalem has become England’s unofficial anthem, so popular that it has been sung at rugby matches, the Last Night of the Proms and the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Jerusalem sustained my resolve as I planned and executed the sequel to my fortnight in the Lake District and Northumberland – a plot hatched as soon as I landed back home in October 2015. I counted down the months until I could reboard a Mountain Goat Mercedes Sprinter and roam those steep roads that meander through beautiful scenery as they lead to legendary destinations. I looked forward to returning to several favorite spots, to checking off some leftover to-do’s from my sightseeing list, and to experiencing some new things. To begin, here’s a roundup of several more reasons to return to this part of England again and again.

Finally having just been granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status — it’s been trying for the honor since 1986 — the Lake District is a stunning National Park that attracts 18 million people each year. I wanted to avoid the summer-holiday crowds, so I chose to return in September. My research gave that decision an enthusiastic endorsement.

“The first two weeks in September, though not so sunny, are when the Lake District is most beautiful,” James Bunting advised in his Batsford guide to the Lake District. “The golds and reds and russet-browns of the brackens and earlier fading trees blend with the evergreens and lush grass to present a picture of unparalleled magnificence and the whole landscape acquires a strange luminosity.”

I soon realized that the phrase, “though not so sunny,” was a genteel way of saying “damp and chilly.” Pulling my Barbour closer to ward off the constant rain and penetrating breezes, I reminded myself of what Mr. Bunting had also written: “The rainfall gives zest to the waterfalls, adds clarity and sparkle to the lakes, clothes the fells in brilliant green and keeps the air wholesome and pure.” Perhaps that’s what Blake meant by writing, “O clouds, unfold!”

To keep the chill at bay, I threw myself into executing my first plan: Eating my fill of my favorite English food. Once more, I indulged in creamy vegetable soups. Ham, cheddar and Hawkshead piccalilli “toasties” on malted sliced bloomer with crisps. Cumberland sausage and scrambled eggs. Porridge. “Posh” fish served with chips and mushy peas. Oven-baked “jacket tatties” filled with heaping piles of cheddar cheese, tuna and sweetcorn, prawns, and even baked beans, all served with rocket salad. Bacon butties with HP sauce. Dried apricots and prunes poached in Earl Grey syrup. Electric tea kettle-brewed Farrer’s “Lakeland Special Blend” tea, accompanied by Brontë Fruit Shrewsbury Biscuits. Chocolate and orange scones. St. Cuthbert Slices. Ice cream in Roman Britain-inspired flavors from the Doddington Dairy, one of the few dairy farms left in Northumberland.  And Windermere char, a trout-like fish introduced to the cold waters of Lake Windermere by Roman soldiers and traditionally served in a glazed earthenware “char pot” painted with a circle of fishes (although mine just came on a plate).  

And then, at long last, came the much-anticipated Eccles cake. Named after the town of Eccles, just outside Manchester, the treat has been a regional specialty since 1793. A flaky, buttery pastry is filled with currants, nutmeg and candied citrus peel, then topped with demerara sugar.

I indulged in my Eccles cake at The Bluebird Cafe in Coniston, the former workshop for one of the boats used by Lake District legend Donald Campbell in setting seven World Water Speed records. While attempting to raise his own record to over 300 mph, he lost control of Bluebird K7 and was killed on Coniston Water on January 4, 1967; after several failed searches, both his body and his jet-powered craft were finally found and recovered in 2001. Campbell was buried in Coniston cemetery and his boat is being restored for exhibition in the Ruskin Museum in the village of Coniston. I just finished watching “Across the Lake,” a 1988 movie starring Anthony Hopkins as Donald Campbell.

Other new “confections” I ticked off on this trip included drive-bys of St. Mary’s Church in Ambleside, designed in the 1850s by Sir George Gilbert Scott, the creator of the Albert Memorial in London, with a rocket-shaped spire that sets it apart from other Lake District churches. The 300-year-old Honister Slate Mine, which produces Westmorland green slate with both smooth and “harassed” edges. Green Rigg wind farm. Herterton House Gardens, a 16th-century farmhouse in Morpeth with a formal topiary garden, a nursery garden, a physic garden, a flower garden, and a fancy garden with a two-story gazebo. And a lovely surprise in the form of the Lanercost Tea Room and gift shop, housed in a restored outbuilding of the farm neighboring the 12th-century Lanercost Priory.

No visit to the Lake District is complete without some must-do Beatrix Potter pilgrimages. First came a beautiful walk around Tarn Hows. Norse for “teardrop,” the small mountain lake that was part of the eight-acre Monk Coniston estate was gifted by Beatrix Potter to the National Trust in 1930.

At the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, I browsed a little shop selling a range of locally produced items, like those made from Herdwick wool, and souvenirs related to the work of the beloved artist and author. The gallery is housed in a 17th-century building that was once the law office of Beatrix’s husband, William Heelis, and is furnished with some of the original desks and other pieces Heelis used.

The gallery presents changing exhibitions of original Potter sketches, illustrations and possessions; I was thrilled to happen upon the Pace eggs that Beatrix painted. She was so taken with the Lakeland tradition of the “pace-eggers,” in which village children went from house to house, performing an Easter mummers’ play in exchange for pennies and Pace eggs, that she submitted an article to Country Life magazine, but it was returned to her as being “not topical.” View digital images of thousands of Potter treasures at the gallery, as well as at Beatrix’s Hill Top home, here.

I’ve been called out for not being devoted to exercise, but I was victorious in running right into a couple of classic British sporting events.

Bicycles painted red and yellow – the colors of Northumberland – marked the route for Stage Two of the Tour of Britain cycle race, the premier road cycling event that started in Edinburgh on September 3 and finished in Cardiff on September 10. At just over 211 kilometers, the Northumberland stage was the longest of the 2017 tour, beginning at the Kielder Water & Forest Park and continuing through Rothbury, Alnwick, Bamburgh, Morpeth and the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

“Epic scenery! Epic road runs! And perhaps the occasional squally shower!,” proclaimed the flyer for the 43rd International MicroCar Rally, held September 6-10 at Grasmere Sports Field and hosted by the Scottish MicroCar Club. MicroCars are vehicles designed for economy motoring which have no more than three cylinders, often have just three wheels, and have clear plastic canopy windows. Economical MicroCars were most popular after World War II, when steel and fuel were at a premium. Featuring classic MicroCars made from before World War II through the 1960s, the rally included road-runs and a display lineup.  Where else but Britain would these two passengers ride in such a race?

Britain is a nation of gardeners. In Durham, I spotted three-dimensional floral examples from County Durham in Bloom, part of the annual Royal Horticultural Society’s Northumbria in Bloom competition focusing on community engagement, improving the environment and rewarding horticultural excellence. The Market Place featured a Bishop’s Mitre commemorating how, in 1075, the Bishop of Durham became a Prince Bishop with power to raise armies and mint coins in return for protecting England’s northern frontier. Adjacent to Palace Green, three St. Cuthbert’s Crosses pay homage to the shrine of St. Cuthbert within Durham Cathedral. The sculptures were created from sub-tropical plants and other foliage, such as palms, banana, New Zealand flax and red dahlias, and were surrounded with ornamental grasses.

And then there’s the telly. I’d bestow an Emmy on “100 Year Old Driving School,” a fabulous three-part ITV documentary highlighting drivers aged between 90 and 102 who agree to participate in an assessment of their driving abilities by examiners from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Equally deserving is “Gardeners’ World,” a BBC Two television program filled with ideas, tips, advice from experts and timely gardening reminders. Also, watch the Cumbria episode of Penelope Keith’s Hidden Villages, a television series in which the actress tours Britain’s villages to discover what makes them unique, with the help of vintage Batsford travel guides.

Looking for something good to read? Try these titles to be featured at this year’s Borderlines Book Festival, celebrating the written and spoken word in Carlisle. Taking place October 6-8, this year’s festival highlights works by some of the best regional and national authors, including A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess, by Amanda Owen; Towards Mellbreak, a novel by Marie-Elsa Bragg that was inspired by Cumbrian folklore, traditions and landscapes; There Is No Map in Hell: The Record-Breaking Run Across the Lake District Fells, by Steve Birkinshaw; Traditional Food in Cumbria, by Peter Brears; Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsensea new book from Jenny Uglow, author of The Pinecone; and One Man and His Mule: Across England with a Pack Mule, by Hugh Thomson. Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey, Thomson takes his mule, Jethro, from the Lake District to the Yorkshire Moors, using old drovers’ roads and mule tracks once used to transport goods across Britain.

That’s just the beginning. Up next: What’s new in Wordsworthshire.

Posted in England, Food, Gardens, History, Lake District, Museums, Northumberland, Sports, Travel | Leave a comment