Wordsworth, Storm Desmond and the A591

Saeko Yoshikawa is the author of William Wordsworth and Modern Travel, a cultural history of the poet in the age of railways, motoring and the First World War, and the latest in our Romantic Reconfigurations series. In this blog post, she examines how ‘Lakeland’s oldest highway’, the A591, helped construct the cultural landscape of the Lake District.

Storm Desmond will long be remembered as one of the most destructive weather events in English history. Its impact in December 2015 was particularly acute in the Lake District, where many roads, including the busy main A591 route between Kendal and Keswick, were badly damaged or destroyed. On the northern side of Dunmail Raise—that is, the pass that separates Grasmere Vale from Thirlmere reservoir—the A591 was almost completely washed away by water raging down the flanks of Helvellyn. Through traffic was impossible, and detours could add an hour or more to journeys in either direction—at a stroke, the road’s vital significance to the local and wider economy was demonstrated, and repairs took a full five months before the road reopened in May 2016.

Two hundred years earlier the A591 was not the smooth-surfaced, metalled trunk road that we know today but, then as now, it was the principal route linking the northern and southern areas of the Lake District. Unsurprisingly, then, it featured in William Wordsworth’s poems and Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, as they wrote about the many travellers—tourists, discharged soldiers and sailors, tradesmen and vagrants—who passed along ‘Lakeland’s oldest highway’. The Waggoner may not be Wordsworth’s best-known poem now, but it was an extract from it—evoking the scene where Benjamin makes his difficult way up Dunmail Raise in stormy weather—that was read aloud in May 2016 to celebrate the reopening of the A591:

But soon large drops on his head

Fell with the weight of drops of lead; —

He starts—and, at the admonition,

Takes a survey of his condition.

The road is black before his eyes,

Glimmering faintly where it lies;

Black is the sky—and every hill,

Up to the sky, is blacker still;

A huge and melancholy room,

Hung round and overhung with gloom!

Save that above a single height

Is to be seen a lurid light, —

Above Helm-crag—a streak half dead, …

(The Waggoner, 1819, Canto I, lines 156–68)

Composed in 1806, first published in 1819, The Waggoner proved to be a key text in nineteenth-century Lake District tourism. It was first quoted in Black’s Picturesque Guide to the English Lakes of 1841 to describe the conspicuous crest of Helm Crag with its rocky figures and ‘the famous Swan’ public house on the Grasmere side of Dunmail Raise. Many later guidebooks also mined the poem for extracts.

With railway tourism burgeoning in the 1840s, The Waggoner became increasingly popular just as horse-drawn ‘waggoning’ was being replaced by swifter and more comfortable forms of transport: four-in-hand coaches, express trains and, later, motor vehicles. After the opening of the Kendal and Windermere Railway in 1847, and the Cockermouth, Keswick, and Penrith Railway in 1865, the main road between Windermere and Keswick—the present A591—was increasingly busy with coaches plying from the stations at Windermere and Keswick. As they drove across Dunmail Raise visitors could populate the landscape with figures from The Waggoner, seeing on the crest of Helm Crag ‘the ASTROLOGER … at his desk’ and ‘the ANCIENT WOMAN’ shaped by rocks, ‘Dread pair, that, spite of wind and weather, / Still sit upon Helm-crag together!’ The poem mentions the ‘DOVE and OLIVE-BOUGH’ (i.e. Dove Cottage), its ‘simple water-drinking Bard’, ‘the famous SWAN’ inn, and a merry night of carousing at ‘The Cherry Tree’ in Wythburn—still visible, then, before the rising waters of the new Thirlmere reservoir drowned it.

The story of The Waggoner was featured, quoted or alluded to in guidebooks and travel writings for most of the nineteenth and a good part of the twentieth century. To take a single example, Pearson’s Gossipy Guide to the English Lakes and Neighbouring District of 1902 introduced its readers to the A591 as ‘the route of Wordsworth’s “Waggoner”’. Although Wordsworth’s poem does not explain where Benjamin’s journey started, Pearson’s conjectured that he had set off from Kendal or Ambleside and was going to Keswick via Dunmail Raise; thus, having passed ‘the banks of Rydal Mere’, he had to ascend ‘up the craggy hill’ (The Waggoner, Canto I, lines 30, 35). Here Pearson’s Guide reminds tourists that ‘those who make the same journey with the book in their pocket … must remember that in those times the new road by the south-east corner of Grasmere—“Radical reform”—was as yet unmade and that Benjamin had to climb with his team and mastiff up the rugged bit of slope by the “Wishing Gate”’ (p.130). The label ‘Radical Reform’, mentioned here, alluded to a new section of road between White Moss and Grasmere, opened in 1826. Thomas Arnold had named this bold innovation ‘Radical Reform’, whereas the two ancient twisty roads connecting Rydal and Grasmere were ‘Bit-by-bit Reform’ and ‘Old Corruption’ respectively. The Pearson’s remark shows us that although the road connecting Kendal and Keswick underwent considerable modifications during the nineteenth century, Wordsworth’s poem from 1819 maintained its appeal for those travelling along the road; and remarkably, it continued to do so in the age of motorcars and well into the mid-twentieth century.

The A591 has played a pivotal role in constructing the cultural landscape of the Lake District; Wordsworth and other Romantic writers such as Southey, S. T. Coleridge, De Quincey, Hartley Coleridge, Thomas Arnold, Harriet Martineau, Felicia Hemans, and John Wilson, all took up residence along the road, which, for them, brought news, letters, books, friends, and visitors from outside, and carried their letters, manuscripts and thoughts away to the wider world. Attracted by these literary figures, many tourists have journeyed along the road on foot, by coach, by bicycle, and in motor vehicles. Wordsworth, Ruskin, Rawnsley and many other ‘protectionists’ fought, often effectively, against Victorian railway projectors and their influence continued into the age of motoring; although it was impossible entirely to stop motor tourism, a plan for making a new by-pass on the A591 along the shore of Rydal Water was withdrawn largely because of international concerns about adjacent Wordsworth sites and associations. That said, at the end of the nineteenth century Dove Cottage was made into a museum that catered explicitly for tourists who drove along the A591. Today, Wordsworth’s home is fronted by a huge car park.

In many respects the central axis of the region, the A591 is also a principal site in my new book, William Wordsworth and Modern Travel: Railways, Motorcars, and the Lake District 1830-1940. Spanning the Victorian era and early twentieth century, William Wordsworth and Modern Travel reveals how Wordsworth’s reputation has been re-booted again and again through successive forms of tourism and by multiple conservation movements and campaigns. As long as the A591 continues to be the main road of the Lake District, one might say, Wordsworth will remain the centre of its tourist landscape. We can only hope that the cultural landscape of the Lake District, its poet, and its visitors will continue to reinvent each other productively in the century ahead.

For more information on William Wordsworth and Modern Travel visit our website.

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