The Lake District is perhaps England’s most hyped scenic area, and for good reason. Within an area a mere thirty miles across, sixteen major lakes are squeezed between the steeply pitched faces of England’s highest mountains, an almost alpine landscape that is augmented by waterfalls and picturesque stone-built villages packed into the valleys. Two factors spurred the first waves of Lake District tourism: the re-appraisal of the landscape brought about by such painters as Constable and the writings of William Wordsworth and his contemporaries. Wordsworth was not the first writer to praise the Lake District – Thomas Gray wrote appreciatively of his visit in 1769 – but he dominates its literary landscape, not solely through his poetry but also through his still useful Guide to the Lakes (1810). Worsdworth and his fellow poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey formed a clique that become known as the ‘Lake Poets’, a label based more on their fluctuating friendships and their shared passion for the region than on any common subject matter in their literary output. The one subject which did overlap in their writings was the infamous episode of the ‘Maid of Buttermere’, which also inspired Melvyn Bragg’s best-selling novel of the same name in the 1980s.
Born in Cockermouth in Cumberland in 1770, Wordsworth differed from many of the poets who came before him, who wrote elegant and clever poetry but often used words that were neither natural nor ordinary. Wordsworth altered this, for he wrote his poems in plain words and from everyday speech; in this way he made the scenes and feelings that he described seem real to his readers. Even more importantly, he opened people’s eyes to the beauty and grandeur of nature, of the fields, rivers and mountains, and of the joy of living among them. It helped that he spent most of his own life in some of the most magnificent countryside in England. As his mother died when he was very young, he was sent to school at Hawkshead in the Lake District. Here, after school, he used to run wild, swimming in the lake in summer, skating in winter, and taking long walks into the mountains or to the shores of Morecambe Bay. Here, too, he used to talk to the dalesman, the farmers and the shepherds, and he learned to admire their sturdy independence and the hard, simple life they lived. In 1799 he returned to the Lake District, where he spent the last two-thirds of his life with his sister Dorothy, who not only transcribed his poems but was an accomplished diarist as well. His greatest work, The Prelude, is a long poem telling the story of his boyhood and early manhood. In it he makes reference to Mary Robinson, the Maid of Buttermere.
Mary Robinson was a shepherdess and the daughter of the landlord of the Fish Inn in the village of Buttermere in the Lake District. She was married bigamously in 1802 to John Hatfield (1758–1803), who presented himself as ‘Colonel Hope’. The marriage of the celebrated local beauty to the brother of an earl (as he claimed) was widely reported, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in the London Morning Post of the romantic marriage. Hatfield was exposed as an impostor, bigamist and forger, was arrested, escaped, was captured in South Wales, and was tried at Carlisle for forgery and hanged in 1803. Mary’s story captured the public imagination, and subscriptions were raised on her behalf. She married a local farmer Richard Harrison in 1807 and had four children. Her death was mentioned in the Annual Register and she is buried in the churchyard at St Kentigern’s Church at Caldbeck (St Kentigern is also known as St Mungo). Much later, she became the subject of Melvyn Bragg’s 1987 novel The Maid of Buttermere, which was adapted into a play by Lisa Evans and premiered at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake in 2009. In the novel Bragg, himself a Cumbrian from Wigton near Carlisle, tells how Coleridge, Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and Thomas de Quincey all became involved in the case.
De Quincey, chiefly known today for his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, was one of the first to fully appreciate the revolutionary nature of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s collaboration, a books of poems called Lyrical Ballads. De Quincey became a long-term guest of the Wordsworths in 1807, taking over Dove Cottage – their home in Grasmere – in 1809. He stayed there until 1820, but it was only in the 1830s that he started writing his Lake reminiscences, offending both Wordsworth and Coleridge in the process. Meanwhile, after short spells at Allan Bank and The Vicarage, both also in Grasmere, the Wordsworths made Rydal Mount their home, supported largely by William’s position as Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland and his later stipend as Poet Laureate. After his death in 1850, William’s body was interred in St Oswald’s churchyard in Grasmere, to be joined five years later by Dorothy and by his wife Mary four years after that. Close by is Dora’s field, the small meadow Wordsworth bought and named for his daughter, now filled with daffodils every spring in eternal memory of the Lake Poets.