That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
— I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, William Wordsworth, April, 1804
Springtime in Northern England is a time of inspired renewal. Lavender crocus and sun kissed daffodils peek from under moss-covered rocks and along the tufts of broken heather that interrupt the fells, crags, scars, hows and pastures of the Lake District. The weather is a fickle, undependable companion with four seasons visiting every day. The wind sweeps down from the northwest unfurling great banners of rain and swirling mist. Suddenly, a swath of cornflower blue appears and expands into a great chasm of sky bursting with unfiltered spring sun. The verdant landscape comes alive in a kaleidoscope of painter’s palette color accentuated by the natural light.
The shadows move slowly whispering and creeping toward you as the light stretches out of abbreviated winter hibernation. Each spring day is a reward for the incarceration of a bleak midwinter. It is a time for poets, writers and artists.
Dove Cottage is situated on the edge of Grasmere in the Lake District. William Wordsworth, his wife and his sister Dorothy, occupied the cottage in 1799. It was on a day of broken clouds and rambling near Lake Ullswater, that Wordsworth’s sister recorded in her diary the simple perfection of daffodils peeking through the muddy ground to welcome the sun. As he reflected on her entries later that evening by blazing firelight, the poet was inspired to record his famous serenade to the citrine harbingers of spring. The Lake District was Wordsworth’s joy. Until his family had literally outgrown their beloved cottage, increasing by three Wordsworth children in four years, they would not entertain leaving this mystical Eden. Ultimately, the family moved a few kilometers away to Rydal Mount where they remained for 37 years
Behind the cascading slate roofed cottage, John’s Wood stands silent – named for Wordsworth’s brother John, a sea captain who had perished at sea. The hill climbs sharply up the rock strewn Loughrigg Fell, a thousand foot outcrop of bracken-clad knoll. From the fell, poets looked north on the magnificent River Rothay that cascaded down through villages of Grasmere and Rydal Water. To the south, more midnight ribbons of blue water converge before feeding Lake Windermere.
The Lakes are terraced here with footpaths and low slate walls, hemming in great flocks of Swaledale sheep. It is lambing season. A restless knot of cotton white ewes swirls in a pasture disguising scores of small unsteady legs that stumble and stretch to catch their mothers for a morning meal. Hill fog spills into the steep draws and ridges that form like tendons bracing the massifs and peaks. With names like Scafell Pike, Great End, Skiddaw Little Man and Great Gable, the mountains draw thousands of hikers and ramblers each year. The Lakes derive their ubiquitous greenery from annual rainfall of over 80 inches but only an average of 2.5 hours of sun per day. When the sun appears, it is cause for celebration. Villagers and locals are suddenly still. They smile, squinting up to the heavens, basking in the precious warmth. Suddenly, everything is still again as shadows move like islands in the stream of a great malachite ocean.
Across the valley, lies Near Sawrey and Hill Top House – the summer farm of Beatrix Potter for 37 years. Aside the simple gardens, massive hedgerows climb, obscuring adjacent fields and tarns. Rabbits dart in and out of the thickets reminding us of a young girl who watched out a bedroom window sketching mice, geese, ducks and rabbits, meticulously weaving their shapes and movements into stories that would captivate an eternity of children.
There is something in the flat light that falls in this northeastern corner of the Western hemisphere –the emerald broken land above the 54th parallel. Pastoral artists like Constable, Watson and Cozzens labored across rock-strewn fields to paint in open air a soft palette of spring and summer colors. As the daylight advances, twilight suspends the day in a chrome blue light lasting for hours. Dusk finally yields to a black galaxy of night interrupted by the twinkling solitary lights of remote inns, pubs and small farms. For any artist, The Lakes are a compulsory corner of the Great maker’s garden, a watercolor combination of elements constantly combining to create new shades of rain, mist, mountains and sun.
If you travel to the Lakes to wrap yourself in an English Spring, consider stopping at the edges of Lake Windermere. On its southern edge, sits the Rothay Manor Hotel – an elegant country house run by the Nixon family for over 40 years. In a reassuring mahogany pub, springtime hikers and travelers recovering from their journeys among the scores of lakes and tumbling rivers can drink a pint of lager and contemplate a framed poem, The Ambleside Weather Glass, that hangs next to a gabled picture window:
When Wansfell weaves a cap of cloud,
The roar of Brathay will be loud.
When mists come down from Loughrigg fell,
A drenching day gray heads foretell.
When breezes blow from Coniston,
Twere best a mackintosh put on.
If down from Kirkstone pass they come,
You better go not far from home.
When Redscree frowns on Ambleside,
The rain will pour both far and wide.
When Wansfell smiles and Loughrigg’s bright,
Twill surely rain before the night.
Yet should in nets on Windermere,
Twelve pickled salmon do appear.
No rain will fall upon that day,
And men may safely make their way.
Wordsworth considered the Lake District a spiritual Mecca and a paradox of the highest order – a living, breathing place that never ceased to change and through its constant motion, like the sea and the seasons, it’s ceaseless energy was in itself a reassuring symbol of a divine hand that moved across the land. Spring it seemed was and remains a time when for a brief moment, the sun appears, breaking through the chill of winter and isolation. In its cascading beams of light, one might spy the face of God smiling in the swaying grace of a canary yellow daffodil or in the solitary journey of a single cloud.