AI PROFILE Dove Cottage and Wordsworth, the modern man

Michael McGregor, director, Wordsworth Trust/Wordsworth Grasmere

Once again, 250 years after this birth, William Wordsworth is a man of his time, and our time. 

He was the advocate of oneness with the environment, for whom to commune with nature was to be rooted in reality, as we rediscover the importance and joys of nature; and he was a proponent of mindfulness, of being “in the moment” and not allowing the reckless speed of modern life to spoil it, as we are learning to do once more.

                                                                                                                                   That inward eye

                                                                                                                                   Which is the bliss of solitude.

And the new relevance of Wordsworth Romanticism has been the guide for Michael McGregor, director of the Wordsworth Trust based in the place most associated with the poet, Grasmere and Dove Cottage, as he puts into effect the changes there that are marking the anniversary.

“Our key themes are people, poetry and place, and particularly to reinstate Wordsworth’s importance but also to emphasise his relevance to the way in which we live our lives today” he says.

The £6.2m programme, most of which will be completed by Wordsworth’s birthday on April 7, will make subtle but profound changes to the environment in which he flourished.

Using Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy’s fastidiously kept diaries as the original source, the cottage itself is being returned more to the way she and William knew it when they lived there between 1799 and 1808, without changes to the building but with an added veneer of authenticity: the wallpaper has been changed to the grey and ochre research has revealed was there at the time; the kitchen has now been furnished with the implements and crockery Dorothy, according to her notes, would have been familiar with; the lighting will be more authentic, with visitors given lanterns to light their way; a sound artist has created an  ambient murmer, revealing how thin the interior walls were and how outside noises intruded at day time; a temporary campaign bed has arrived, necessary for the many visitors the tiny cottage often had to accommodate.

But the exterior of this part of Grasmere – Town End, now largely owned by the Wordsworth Trust – will also be opened up. In the garden the orchard the Wordsworths so loved is to return, and the Moss Hut Wordsworth liked to escape to when the cottage hubbub got too much for him is being recreated as a community project. The woodland he liked to stroll in beside the cottage is being opened to the public.

The museum in Town End is also being enlarged and rationalised to make it more tangibly part of the landscape so much of its archives depend upon – “embracing the continuing relevance of Wordsworth and bringing in different voices to enable us to do that – not just the curatorial voice saying this is what Wordsworth means” McGregor says - and that work will be completed later in the summer.

Brother and sister came to live here while the poet was still uncelebrated, and they were respectively 29 and 28. In 1802 Wordsworth married his childhood sweetheart Mary Hutchinson, and four of their five children were born in Dove Cottage. They left, McGregor says, after two of the children had died aged six and four and they could no longer bear to look out of the window across the graveyard where they were buried. It was taken on by their friend Thomas de Quincey, who used it largely as a bookstore, and then occupied by a series of tenants, but in 1890 it was acquired by the new Wordsworth Trust and opened to the public just as it was.

In 1935 the trust received the bequest of 90% of Wordsworth’s papers in the will of his last surviving grandson, Gordon, and it converted a nearby barn into the first museum, opened by a successor of Wordsworth’s as Poet Laureate, John Masefield. In the 80s the archive was shifted into a converted coachhouse.

But the biggest changes came after the appointment of the trust’s first director, Dr Robert Woof, a Newcastle University academic who determined to turn the Dove Cottage group of buildings into a study centre for British Romantic poetry – Coleridge, Southey and De Quincey were all habitués on Dorothy’s camp beds. He came as a volunteer in the 1970s but was eventually appointed to run it as director in 1992, and transformed its profile into an international attraction for lovers of Wordsworth and the Romantic poets, indefatigably raising funds to grow the collection of relevant papers and literature but also to collect visual arts associated with the poet and the movement. Buildings in Town End were acquired to accommodate the growing the operation, and with security and conservation environments brought to standard he was also able to encourage loans from national institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery. His final achievement was to open the Jerwood Centre, a purpose-built research centre which was opened by Seamus Heaney in 2005, five months before Woof’s death.

As a student Michael McGregor had also been a volunteer at Grasmere whose experiences led him into a career of heritage project fundraising. In 2001 he was invited by Woof to return as the trust’s first full time development director, which he was until he became director in 2008.

In 2012 a masterplan was devised, and the resulting changes have a series of purposes, one being to increase visitor numbers which have been in decline – between 2000 and 2017 they fell from 75,000 to 45,000 a year. Next, McGregor wants to re-emphasise the Wordsworthian connection with nature. “We are surrounded by astonishing landscape” he says “and when people go out into it from the museum I want them to take the poetry with them”.

He also wants to put a new importance on the connection with the community, another trope of the Wordsworths’ stay here, where they were very much a part of the town. McGregor relates the tragic story of the Greens: early in 1808 George and Sarah Green had been visiting Langdale in the next valley and on their way home were caught in a blizzard and died, orphaning their six children. The Wordsworths led a national appeal to help the beleaguered family raising the enormous sum of £536, worth about £45,000 today. Descendants of the Greens still live in Grasmere. To reflect that acknowledgement, the trust is to become the Grasmere Wordsworth Trust.

“We need to make sure that while we increase visitor numbers we ensure that local people are a part of the project” McGregor says. “But we must also remember why Wordsworth was here and what was important about it for him. I want poetry at the heart of the place.”

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