Volunteering at The Wordsworth Trust

Dove Cottage - the view from my bedroom window

Dove Cottage – the view from my bedroom window

On this day, two hundred and fifty years ago, the poet William Wordsworth was born. And in 2006, fourteen years ago, I began a seven-month stint of volunteering at The Wordsworth Trust. It is a museum based at Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth lived from 1799 to 1808. I had just completed my BA in English Literature and Creative Writing, and this was to be the beginning of a career in museum work, though it became far more than that…

Houses One, Two and Three (left to right)

Houses One, Two and Three (left to right)

Dove Cottage is a beautiful old building in Townend, a small hamlet just outside the village of Grasmere in the Lake District, and visiting the place is rather like going back in time. Most of the buildings in Townend are owned by the Trust, and many of their staff and volunteers live on site. This makes sense, in a location where the average museum salary wouldn’t buy you more than a small patch of grass. I lived in House One, opposite Dove Cottage.

As volunteers we were not paid a wage, but were allowed to live on site and were given a small weekly allowance to buy food. We also had use of the ‘golden tickets’ – bus tickets which allowed free travel anywhere in the Lake District. These golden tickets were invaluable, but we were limited in other ways. There were only two buses on a Sunday in winter, so advance planning was essential, even for a trip to Booths (the nearest supermarket) which was eight miles away in Windermere. There was a small Co-op on the other side of Grasmere, but on a busy day in August it took a long time to get there, due to the crowds of tourists getting in the way. And that was another thing. I soon got used to waking up in the morning and pulling back the curtains to find myself staring into the lens of a camera.

Part of Townened, showing the newly built collections store

Part of Townend, showing the newly built collections store

We hiked at every hour of the day and even at night. One memorable trip was spent walking all the way to Ambleside (four miles across rough terrain) to get fish and chips, and then back again in the rain and dark, with only two torches between the ten of us. Dorothy Wordsworth used to walk the same route twice a day, to fetch letters from the nearest post office.

I had always loved poetry and history, and here was a museum that brought these two things together. I relished the poetry readings which took place during the summer months. I would sit at the back with a notebook and just breathe in the atmosphere of poetic creativity, scribbling down my own ideas and working on them later.

Things I loved about the Trust:

  • Living with lots of other creative, arty people, who all loved history.
  • The fact that no two days were the same – one moment you’d be leading a guided tour with a translator and a group of Japanese tourists, the next moment you’d be transcribing the handwritten diaries of Wordsworth’s niece.
    Us volunteers sat at on the floor at the back of the room for the Seamus Heaney poetry reading

    Us volunteers sat on the floor at the back of the room for the Seamus Heaney poetry reading

  • Townend itself – I’ve never lived anywhere more beautiful than that small hamlet, even at night, when you could go dizzy looking up at the stars.
  • I’ve always loved old houses, and there is nothing more historically thrilling than sitting in the Houseplace (living room) of Dove Cottage on a winter’s afternoon, stoking the fire, knowing that this is the very place where Dorothy and William sat, all those years ago.
  • The closed period in January, when we had the immense privilege of handling the notebooks, letters and other priceless artefacts, as we cleaned the museum from top to bottom.
  • My first opportunity to run creative writing workshops, leading school groups around Dove Cottage.

Things I found frustrating:

  • The intense boredom of invigilating in the museum galleries during the winter months, when you’d find yourself relishing the task of checking the temperature and relative humidity for the tenth time that day.
  • The challenge of communicating with hundreds of Japanese tourists. We often resorted to hand signals and smiles.
  • Living with seven other people in one house, where fridge, freezer and cupboard space were at a high premium. Even a spot on the sofa was never guaranteed.
    Myself (right) with a fellow Trust volunteer on the path near Rydal

    Myself (right) with a fellow Trust volunteer on the path near Rydal

  • The cold calls from companies insisting that they must speak to Mr Wordsworth, certain that he will be interested in trying out their new broadband package.
  • The largest spiders I have ever encountered, in the porch of Dove Cottage.
  • The unrelenting rain.

And that led me to other museum roles in other places, from Hampton Court to the Ashmolean, and eventually to Cardiff, leaving my love of poetry behind. But now I’ve returned to those two things that have always inspired me: poetry and history. My PhD brings these together in a way I could not have imagined back then. I’m researching the use of ekphrastic poetry (poetry written in response to visual art) in museums.

While this research is not especially Wordsworth-related, Wordsworth did write a number of ekphrastic poems. ‘Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont’ was written a year after the tragic death of Wordsworth’s brother, Captain John Wordsworth, who drowned at sea. Wordsworth writes about his memory of visiting the real Peele Castle, at a time when the surrounding sea was ‘tranquil’ and ‘calm’, and he imagines the alternative painting that he would have painted himself. He then reflects on his change in mood, praising this vision of the stormy sea:

Peele Castle in a Storm

O ’tis a passionate Work!—yet wise and well,
Well chosen is the spirit that is here;
That Hulk which labours in the deadly swell,
This rueful sky, this pageantry of fear!

Wordsworth’s grief infuses both his recollections and the painting itself, taking over as the subject of the poem, ending with the line ‘Not without hope we suffer and we mourn’.

This intrigues me, as does all ekphrastic poetry, and the strange relationship we have with our own memories and our collective memory, our history. When we look at a painting, how much of what we see is influenced by our own memories of other things we’ve seen or experienced? When we read an ekphrastic poem, can it actually change our interpretation of the painting that inspired it? I can’t read Wordsworth’s poem without recalling my own memories of Dove Cottage and the time I spent volunteering at The Wordsworth Trust, and I think that much of what I write contains echoes of my own poetic past – the poems I’ve read, and other poems or drafts of poems that I’ve written. All poetry, I believe, is meta-poetry, in the sense that it is impossible not to be aware (at least on some kind of subconscious level) of everything that came before.

Visit The Wordsworth Trust website for more information about the poet himself and the museum. They still run a trainee programme, although this has changed in recent years.