the lake district, part ii
(part i, here.)
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!
Our third day. Jonny wakes me with tea and kisses. We dawdle, and when we realise we've missed the bus to Ambleside we set out to walk there instead. The day is bright and the weather is glorious, and we have miles to go.
There is a new footpath next to the road, which a local tells us is "nothing too pretty" - but everything is relative here. Jonny lets me burble on about photography and Wordsworth. I am starting to think about the way Will thinks about poetry, and how it is like the way I think about photographs, but my meaning gets jumbled in my walking. The footpath is busy as it is such a lovely day, and everyone we pass says hello to us or gives a friendly nod and wave. (We both agree it's like being in Africa again!)
There is a church in a field that Jonny convinces me isn't abandoned (I want to take pictures) and a row of houses built into a hillside, whose stone steps lead to a little brook at the ends of their vertical gardens. We try playing poohsticks over a bridge and forget to check which way the river is flowing. I find places I want to live all the way to Ambleside.
It feels good to arrive, an hour or so later - not because I am tired (I am a bit) but because we beat the bus from Low Wray and because we have been self-sufficient, and because although walking around a lake is not really any kind of endurance feat I am still surprised at how easily I can get by on my own when I need to.
Our casual relationship with public transport ends here, though: we have a specific bus to catch to Grasmere. We are going to Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth and his family lived, and where other poets like de Quincey and Coleridge stayed for a time. I realise I have forgotten to bring Jonny's copy of selected poems, and he has to say, "you forgot" twice before I realise he has it in his bag. He snaps a picture of me at the bus stop while we wait.
The bus winds through the hills as the sky begins to drizzle. We pass Rydal Water and Grasmere Lake, which are both so beautiful I grip Jonny's hand and want to get off. On our way to Ambleside I had planned out my perfect summer holiday, and the more we see of the Lakes the more I want to make it real. I'd stay in a little cottage close to Coniston, and hire a bike for the week. I'd take Linden and summer dresses and pack a lunch every day, and cycle to all the places I am snatching glimpses of now, and take photographs all week. There's a set I've wanted to do for a long time, and I think maybe this is the place to make them.
the sun in heaven/Beheld not vales more beautiful than ours
We hop off the bus and walk up a lane, and a sign points us towards a cluster of cottages. The Wordsworth Trust takes care of Dove Cottage now, as well as the small museum next door and the brand new research library further down the lane. Jonny asks about how students might get into said research library, and the man at the ticket desk talks very earnestly to him about the procedures. (It's quite easy, by the way - but to handle the original copies I'd need a written reference from a university professor and, you know, an actual reason to see them. Apparently "they're just really cool" doesn't cut it.) The man talks to Jonny as though he is an English student, which makes me smile in a good way. Jonny studies Engineering, which is all calculations and correct answers. How unlikely, to have found a boy who finds equal interest in thermodynamics and photographs and literature.
Dove Cottage, white and windswept, is built into the hillside above an underground stream. Our guide explains how it was a pub before the Wordsworths bought it as a family home, and still boasts two enormous fireplaces on the ground floor. Because of the steep bank, downstairs is unusually dingy, and the stream makes the flagstone floor very cold. Upstairs is much lighter, though it's not hard to imagine just how cramped the cottage might have been when everyone was at home; William and his wife Mary, plus Will's sister Dorothy and the three children, and their endless stream of poetic lodgers. In her journal, Dorothy described it as being crammed edge full with people. Another reason, maybe, for Will to compose his poems on long walks?
(This picture isn't wonderful, but I like how the cottage is crammed into the frame in the same way the Wordsworth's were crammed into the cottage. The Lakes are full of awkward angles which somehow become beautiful.)
In the house is a display of de Quincey's opium scales, plus Will's passport and a pair of his ice skates. This excites me a lot. I find the spot of time in The Prelude for Jonny where Will remembers skating, all shod with steel, across a lake in the evening. After the tour we visit the little museum, and I talk to Jonny about Wordsworth's thinking on poetry. In his Lyrical Ballads, Will says good poetry is 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings', but 'recollected in tranquility'. Poems should be written 'in the real language of men', by which he meant, poetry isn't simply made out of flowery language, and also that poetry can be written on "un-poetic" subjects, like farm labourers and rural life, as well as kings and queens and knights in shining armour. (One bloke obviously forgot to read this bit; there's a letter on display which was sent to Wordsworth by an unhappy reader, admonishing him for his poor subject choice.)
I chew all this over while we look around the rest of the exhibition. I keep thinking about photographs. My favourite part of the museum is a letter written by Dorothy while she and Will and Coleridge were walking in Germany. Paper and postage were very expensive so she's crammed in as much as she can, writing sideways and upside-down. (Who knows how the receiver was meant to work it all out - I had to use the display guide!) At the bottom of one corner she's mentioned some poetry her brother has written that morning. It's the boat-stealing passage from The Prelude.
one evening, led by them,
I went alone into a Shepherd’s boat,
A skiff that to a willow-tree was tied
Within a rocky cave, its usual home ...
Pictures aren't allowed, and I take one anyway.
We eat our lunch in a cafe not far from the cottage (and enjoy the world's most enormous chocolate brownies, too.) Jonny finds a poem called Home at Grasmere which I haven't read, which I'm glad for. Discovering these things here are better than discovering them in a seminar class. It reads more like The Prelude than his other poems, and later I find out that it was meant to be the first book of his unfinished work The Recluse, of which The Prelude would have been, well, the prelude. The part about Mary made me smile.
Mine eyes did ne'er
Fix on a lovely object, nor my mind
Take pleasure in the midst of happy thoughts,
But either She whom now I have, who now
Divides with me this loved abode, was there,
Or not far off. Where'er my footsteps turned,
Her voice was like a hidden Bird that sang,
The thought of her was like a flash of light,
Or an unseen companionship, a breath
Of fragrance independent of the Wind.
We set off to walk from Dove Cottage to Grasmere, which only takes ten minutes or so. The clouds have blown in but the rain is holding, and the village is still quite busy. When I get home, Mum tells me about her time working in the Lakes on her gap year before university (a novel idea for a girl in the 1970s, which I think was part of the appeal.) She worked in a hotel, but she remembers coming to Grasmere on her days off. There was no museum at Dove Cottage back then, but the Trust still had a collection of Wordsworth's original manuscripts which they let her see from time to time. I buy her and Dad some gingerbread from the famous Grasmere Gingerbread Shop, because smell and taste often surpass photographs as the most potent catalysts for memory.
William and Mary, Dorothy, and four of Will's children, are buried in the churchyard in Grasmere. Jonny and I make the pilgrimage, but there are lots of people there talking loudly. We stand back for a long time, waiting for them all to go away. There's a moment early in The Prelude which echoes one of my favourite Shakespeare sonnets, where Will talks about summon[ing] back from lonesome banishment stories from poets now dead - and, I guess, in doing so, summoning back in some way those poets themselves. He hopes to make them dwellers in the hearts of men/Now living, or to live in future years. Wordsworth had a sense of how his work might live on when he was gone, preserving not just the poets he referenced but a legacy of his own.
Waiting for the other tourists to leave, I thought about the extent to which he dwells here still. His presence is undeniable, and tastefully but nonetheless relentlessly exploited. (How many "Wordsworth" hotels and restaurants and souvenirs had I seen in the last two days?) I didn't like the empty-headedness with which the group in front of us had come to see the gravestones; a tourist attraction seen for the sake of saying it had been seen. (This isn't about the fact that they knew nothing about Wordsworth, but to do with the fact that they didn't want to know anything about Wordsworth, even in front of his grave.) It occurred to me that although I had been adamant about coming to Dove Cottage this week, and although I'd enjoyed seeing the house and looking at the things in the museum, there hadn't really been any need. Will's presence is in his work, and his work is already in me and my books. The physical dwelling isn't really anything more than a photograph; the truth it shadows dwells, like Will prophesied, in the hearts of men.
The tourists leave, eventually, and I decide not to take any pictures of the graves. A girl and her parents stand next to us, and she frowns deeply and says, "Who is William Wordsworth?", and it makes me smile mostly because she asked and partly because she asked in the present tense.
I feel a bit sad, mostly because I haven't yet worked out most of my thinking on Will's different dwellings. We walk back to the street but I wait behind while Jonny goes to find a cash machine, and walk around the little memorial garden next to the churchyard. While I am sitting on a bench a little bird sings very loudly on a branch next to me, and looks at me with its tilted head, and then flies a little further on and waits. I follow it up the path, smiling at the fancy that it is Will in reincarnated bird form, leading me somewhere. As I am following the bird I spot a cluster of little daffodils next to the river. They seems like a much better photograph to memorialise this place than an image of the gravestones, so I pick my way down the bank and sit on my knees, and take a picture. When I get up, the bird is gone.
When Jonny comes back I feel much better. We hop along to the bus stop in the centre of town and catch one heading back to Ambleside. The top deck is uncovered, and although it has been raining and the seats are soaked I want to take photographs while we drive through the hills, so Jonny chivalrously sacrifices his coat as a seat-cover to keep us dry. We walk the last couple of miles from the road back to the campsite in the peaceful late-afternoon light.
Back home I have plans for photographs. There is a dusky blue hue over the lake and soft light, and nobody around. While I shoot Jonny prepares dinner further along the bank, and when I'm done I catch him making friends with the resident swan and whittling something out of wood. I am very full with love.
(Whittling was the first of many skills I found Jonny possessed, which picked him out as different from everybody else I knew. Others which quickly followed were: sailing, salsa dancing, and origami making. In time he introduces me to each one. I think this is one of the best things about love; becoming expanded, and finding a shared joy in things. Wordsworth thought so too.)
There is a picture I've been waiting to take. We paddle barefoot into the water with my camera set up on the bank, and piece by piece I pull together an image which I hope is close to the one in my head. The next day, home on Camelot, I edit solidly for three hours and see it come together, exactly as I imagined. This is special, because translating an image from my imagination into reality rarely happens, and I am so pleased with the final outcome.
Yet, at the same time I still feel that there was something of the moment which my camera couldn't capture. In Lines Above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth admits,
I cannot paint
What then I was
and I feel something of that in my photographs from that afternoon. They are all beautiful, but the one which comes closest to encompassing what then I was is the instax I stole of Jonny when we'd finished shooting together. I think this is because it goes beyond the aesthetic. There is beauty in it, but there is also sound, in the rippled water and the birdsong, and touch, against Jonny's bare ankles. My digital expansion is flawless in its serene beauty, but there is a danger - an untruth - in creating something too perfect. Film is better at capturing truth, maybe, because of its inherent flaws.
It's in this that I think photography - especially film photograph - shares something in common with Wordsworth's beliefs on poetry. Just like poetry, good photographs come from the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. Unlike the poem, though, the photograph is made in that moment, rather than during the later recollect[ion] in tranquility. On the other hand, I often think that my images only come into their full life when I have looked at them for a little while. It always takes me a few days to put together a film diary, because it takes time for the images to form themselves into their stories. Perhaps, then, my photographs really are "made" in their recollection, rather than in the moment of their capture. It takes powerful feeling for me to click the shutter, but tranquility for me to make the images coherent.
Wordsworth also wanted his poems to depict incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them [...] in a selection of language really used by men. Poems should turn everyday life into art or - better - uncover the art inherent in everyday life. What do my film diaries do, if not this? Equally, this everyday reality should be presented in a way which is easily recognised. For Will, this meant a special kind of language. For me, I think it translates as: sooc. Straight Out Of Camera. My photographs should be unedited; that they are stencilled off reality [Sontag] should be evident.
Yet, Will also pointed out that in his poetry he should, at the same time, [...] throw over [these depictions of common life] a certain colouring of the imagination. In the way photographs are framed and exposed, the photographer's imagination can't help but throw its own colouring over their work.
I am sure there is more to the idea of a photographer-poet, or a poet-photographer, but the light leaves and the mountains dim, and Jonny cooks us dinner while I take a shower and curl up with my book, both of us exhausted in the best kind of way.
It is our last day. We set off from the campsite with our rucksacks shouldered - considerably less heavy than before - and walk up the hill to Wray Castle. It's an impressive, mock-gothic monstrosity, owned now by the National Trust and presented as a family-friendly stately home. We don't have long before our minibus, so I wait in the gardens with our rucksacks while Jonny takes a quick peek around inside.
From my spot behind the castle there are beautiful views of Windermere, and a walking trail which can take us all the way to Ferry House - the place we're headed this morning by minibus. A family with small twins and a pair of huskies set off down the hill, one little boy holding mum's hand and one on dad's shoulders. I have a quiet moment of wanting very desperately to be further along in my life than I am. Usually this means wanting travel and adventure and a career with a camera, so I am a little surprised that it is a family on a walk in the Lake District which tugs at my self-impatience. I forget, sometimes, that I want that too.
Jonny returns. He describes the unfurnished castle as a kid's fantasy; lots of empty rooms and places to dress up and make noise. There's a tour for the parents every hour or so, too, which I guess talks about the architecture and the history. Something for next time. Our minibus arrives, and we load up and head for the lake.
Our driver is the same one who picked Jonny up from the ferry landing two years ago. (How Jonny remembers this I don't know!) He puts Eva Cassidy on the radio for me, and tells us about life as a bus driver in the Lakes. At Ferry House we hop into a boat, and make the last leg of our journey by water over Lake Windermere. We sit at the front and Jonny chooses which boats he'd like to own from the selection cruising past us. It reminds me of summers when we sailed on the Norfolk Broads; there are parts of him which only surface when we're afloat with the sound of the wind in strong sails. Perhaps boats are to him what cameras can be to me.
Then sought with quiet heart my distant home
The sun is bright. We have lunch by the train station, and I am sad to leave. The train home is quiet; Jonny falls asleep on my shoulder for a time, and when he wakes up we listen to Jackson Browne on my iPod until the London skyscrapers appear out the window. At Euston we buy pasties for dinner, and stroll out in the rain to the underground station where we find the Metropolitan line doesn't seem to be running. We take a chance and catch a train to Baker Street in the hope of catching one further down the line, both of us in unusually good spirits. I wonder where people think we have been, returning with our big rucksacks and our laughter. Our gamble pays off and we catch a tube homeward, entertained by a Mum retelling Hansel and Gretel to her three kids on the seats behind us.
The next day the sky is clear and I have three rolls of film to be developed. We laze on the water for most of the morning, enjoying home comforts and a slower pace of life. In the early afternoon we walk to town along the canal in the sunshine and taste the first breath of summer on the wind.
We go to our favourite coffeeshop for lunch and iced lattes. Tomorrow morning I have to head home, and it will mark the start of our hectic revision schedules. From here there is a month of work and anxiety in the run up to our second-year exams, and we are still not sure whether there will be space in the midst of it all for contact with one another. Skype and phonecalls are no substitute for the touch of a hand in your own. Four weeks feels like an awfully long time.
But for now I have an hour to fill while I wait for my films to be developed, the alchemists in the lab mixing chemicals and shining dark lights. It is a wonderful kind of anticipation. The same kind of anticipation, I think, as I'll feel at Canterbury station in four week's time, standing in front of the arrivals board, waiting for the train from London to pull in.