Notes from family vacation to the UK: A Literary Pilgrimage

It was a literary pilgrimage, of sorts.

It had been over twenty years since I last set foot in Great Britain. I was a college student back then, in Cambridge for six weeks on a summer study-abroad program. I was taking courses in poetry. I was in love with the English Romantics, and I was in England for the first time.

Twenty-five years later, I was back with my husband and children. Our daughters’ first time in Europe. We wanted to do touristy things—the Tower of London, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey (we never did get to that last, but it’s another story). We took a boat ride on the River Thames. Became familiar with the Tube. Walked through Piccadilly Circus, Soho, Chinatown, and all over until our feet hurt. We saw the great contrasts of London, the startling juxtapositions of history: the ancient walls of the Tower of London, over a thousand years old, on one side of the Thames; the glittering Shard, that thrusting skyscraper of glass, on the other side.

We saw the ravens at the Tower of London. The kids and my husband climbed the steps to the top of St. Paul's Cathedral (I sat on the ground floor and enjoyed the view of the dome from there). At hotels we had the full English breakfast and high tea. We went on a foodie walking tour and sampled Scotch eggs from Fortnum and Mason and cheddar and Stilton from Paxton and Whitfield. On our own, we had doner kebab and chicken tikka masala.

But in addition to the food and usual sightseeing, I wanted to make the literary pilgrimages I didn’t do the last time. I dragged my family to Keats’ house in Hampstead. And on our itinerary was a stay in the Lake District, the home and inspiration for Wordsworth, Coleridge, and so many other famous writers and artists. 

The Keats House Museum in Hampstead, London.
You can see my family (well, the backs of their heads) in the corner.

The Keats House Museum was a ~20-minute Tube ride from our London hotel near Victoria Station. Known in Keats’ time as “Wentworth Place,” this is where John Keats lived with his friend Charles Brown after Keats’ brother Tom passed away from tuberculosis. This is where Keats fell in love with Fanny Brawne, who was literally the girl next door. This is where he wrote most of his greatest poetry, including “Ode to a Nightingale,” composed (according to Brown) under a plum tree in the garden of this house.

Keats' study
Keats' annotated copy of Paradise Lost

Keats and his friend Brown rented one half of the house; Fanny Brawne and her family rented the other half. It was a tiny living space that Keats had to himself, where he spent the happiest and most productive time of his life. Two years after first moving in, Keats coughed up blood one night in his bedroom, and realized that he would die of "consumption," the same disease that had killed his mother and brother. 

Keats' bedroom

The parlor on Brown's side of the house, where he and Keats entertained their friends.
As Keats' illness worsened, he grew tired of his bedroom and had a bed made up for himself
in the couch of this room, where he could look out the window.

It is an incredibly poignant experience to move through these rooms, to see the places where John Keats and Fanny and their friends once lived--where Keats wrote, loved, and suffered. 

                            Above: lines from "Ode on a Grecian Urn," quoted in the Keats House Museum guest book

One of my favorite parts was looking through the museum’s guest book and seeing the lines of Keats poetry quoted by other visitors. And the testimonials as to what Keats’ poetry meant to them.

He thought that his name "was writ in water." But it's been written in time. 

Later that week in London, my family and I went to experience the words of another writer and poet. We went to the Globe Theatre and saw a production of Shakespeare's As You Like It. It was a beautiful evening for outdoor theater, the sky a clear, deep blue; the summer air comfortably cool. I worried that the language would be difficult for my tween and teen daughters, but they both loved it. I looked over at my eldest beside me, and saw her laughing and laughing as the romantic comedy built to a fever-pitch of cross-dressing confusion and zaniness. The entire production was marvelous, a spectacle of humor, beauty, passion and song, and my daughters declared it the highlight of their visit to London.

          No photography of performances allowed! Camera shot before the play starts.

A train ride to the city of York in the north. More encounters with history. A tour through York Minster, that great Gothic cathedral built from the bones of a Norman church which was itself built on the foundations of a Roman fortress. 

And then on to the Lake District, a place I've been longing to see since first encountering it in Wordsworth's poetry. I was finally here, in his landscape of mountains and woods, fields and lakes and tumbling brooks.

 This picture was taken near the village of Near Sawrey in the Lake District (where Beatrix Potter's Hill Top house is located)

Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Wordsworth's most famous house, was unfortunately closed for renovations. However, we were able to take a "virtual" video tour of the cottage at the Wordsworth library next door. The library is itself amazing, an incredible archive that contains over 90% of William Wordsworth's verse manuscripts, the journals of his sister Dorothy, personal books from their household, and first edition books and writings of many of their contemporaries, including Coleridge, Keats, Mary Shelley, Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt, and more.

From there, we walked to St Oswald’s Church, where William Wordsworth, his wife Mary, his sister Dorothy, four of his children, and other family members are buried.

                   The grave markers for the Wordsworth family, in the village of Grasmere

 We continued our poetic pilgrimage with a visit to nearby Rydal Mount, where Wordsworth moved his family later in life. It’s where he spent the bulk of his years and where he died.

Wordsworth's later home, known as Rydal Mount in the village of Rydal. As our tour guide said, this large house (which he rented) was a significant upgrade from his little cottage in Grasmere.

The gardens of Rydal Mount are absolutely beautiful, and in much the same state as when Wordsworth lived.

                                    Top: view of one portion of Wordsworth's garden. 
                                   Bottom: view of Rydal Water from Wordsworth's garden. 

Unlike Dove Cottage, Rydal Mount was bought and is now owned by Wordsworth’s direct descendants. It’s not part of the National Trust or Wordsworth Trust. It’s a private residence which the Wordsworth family has lovingly maintained and opened to the public. One of the Wordsworth descendants was actually there during our visit--a great-great-great-something-number-of-greats-grandson. He greeted us as we had tea in the Wordsworth dining room (where our children were introduced to the pleasures of scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam) and offered to read us the poem of our choice. I chose “Tintern Abbey.” As it's rather a long poem, he read us his favorite stanzas (which are also my favorite).

—I cannot paint 
What then I was. The sounding cataract 
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock, 
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood, 
Their colours and their forms, were then to me 
An appetite; a feeling and a love, 
That had no need of a remoter charm, 
By thought supplied, not any interest 
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past, 
And all its aching joys are now no more, 
And all its dizzy raptures. . .

    Much as I love Wordworth’s poetry, however, I found myself drawn more strongly to the artifacts of Dorothy’s life on this visit. That “exquisite sister,” as Coleridge called her, who so completely devoted herself to her brother, who made such an impression on all her brother’s friends, and who so sensitively recorded the details of their day-to-day life, the charms of the Lake District, the spinning of a leaf and the dance of daffodils, in her journals which have achieved their own immortality. 

                                 Dorothy Wordsworth's bedroom

                                      Dorothy Wordworth's actual needlework

 What difference does poetry make to the world? Of what use, in the end, is art? It’s a question I’ve wrestled with all my life. It’s a question that seems these days, in this time of political upheaval and fear and rage, more urgent than ever.

In the garden of William Wordsworth, our tour guide read us Wordsworth’s sonnet, “London, 1802.” It’s a sonnet Wordsworth wrote after witnessing the French revolution, in despair of what he saw as his own country’s stagnant and selfish politics. Our guide read it to us with the current politics of the UK in mind. We spoke briefly with him about our distress over both our countries’ fates, on each side of the Atlantic.

I am reminded of something the writer Alexander Chee wrote in an essay. He wrote that he can’t recall the emperors of China as well as he does the philosopher Mencius, who wrote of them. That “. . . art endures past governments, countries, and emperors, and their would-be replacements.”*  

The Romantic poets were deeply absorbed in politics. Yet it is not for their politics, by and large, that we now remember them.

I came to England seeking artifacts of the writers who’ve touched me. Physical remnants of their lives. A connection to the places they lived and wrote. Their words continue centuries later, independent of any physical embodiment. Words first written in ink on scraps of paper were copied out cleanly by hand, copied again, printed in books, and now reproduced countless times in the digital ether. Their words are committed to memory and carried on toward the future. The original Globe Theatre is no more. But Shakespeare’s plays are staged in a reproduction Globe Theatre in London, and his plays are produced and read throughout the world.

I stood in rooms where the writers I loved once stood. It was quiet; there were few other guests in Keats’ house when I visited, and my family and I were the only ones on the guided tour at Wordsworth’s Rydal Mount home. It was good to see these physical structures and remnants preserved—a beloved book, a chair, Dorothy Wordsworth’s needlework. The view from a garden, looking out at a lake. It was good to see something physical enduring, to hope that these might continue to endure as physical anchors to the poets’ work—even as the poems themselves, the work, soar body-less into the future. It was raining the morning of our Wordsworth pilgrimage. The rain had stopped by the time we left his house; the summer air was washed and cool. There were tourists and cars where they weren't in Wordsworth's time, but his beloved Lake District was still beautiful.

*from Alexander Chee's essay, "On Becoming an American Writer," published in his collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.


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