Clustered like stars some few, but single most,
And lurking dimly in their shy retreats,
Or glancing on each other cheerful looks,
Like separated stars with clouds between.
These lines from A description of the scenery of the lakes in the north of England, published in 1822, show William Wordsworth’s affection for the traditional lakeland cottage. By comparing cottages to stars in the night sky he suggests both their beauty, and the harmonious pattern formed by their interlinking networks in the landscape of the Lake District.
Wordsworth’s text was commissioned by the Rev Joseph Wilkinson, an amateur artist with a love for the Lakes, and it first appeared anonymously alongside Wilkinson’s engravings as Select Views in Cumberland, Westmoreland and Lancashire (1810). Later editions of the text were updated by Wordsworth and published without Wilkinson’s illustrations.
As well as a guide book for visitors, it discusses how the landscape should be managed sensitively so that natural and man made features co-exist without discord. In a plea which anticipates the creation of national parks and the National Trust, Wordsworth advocates the preservation of the Lake District as ‘a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy’.
Wordsworth’s cottages are described in detail, from the local stone used in their construction, the whitewashed exteriors, and their gardens. Cottages are generally passed down from father to son, and he notices that additions to the buildings made by each new generation give the cottages an organic, plant-like quality:
‘these humble dwellings remind the contemplative spectator of a production of nature, and may (using a strong expression) rather be said to have grown than to have been erected:- to have risen, by an instinct of their own out of the native rock – so little is there in them of formality, such is their wildness and beauty!’
Rough stone walls and roof slates provide shelter for plants such as lichens, mosses, ferns and flowers so that buildings appear clothed in ‘vegetable garb’. Doubtless, the wet climate also contributed to the abundance of plant life. The typical cottage garden described by Wordsworth matches the modesty of the cottage buildings and suggests an attractive (if idealised) way of life in complete harmony with nature:
‘.. the little garden with its shed for bee-hives, its small beds of pot-herbs, and its borders and patches of flowers for Sunday posies, with sometimes a choice few too much prized to be plucked; an orchard of proportioned size, a cheese press, often supported by some tree near the door; a cluster of embowering sycamores for summer shade; with a tall Scotch fir, through which the winds sing when other trees are leafless; the little rill or household spout murmuring in all seasons:- combine these incidents and images together, and you have the representative idea of a mountain-cottage in this country so beautifully formed in itself, and so richly adorned by the hand of nature.’
The section dedicated to ‘Planting’ indicates how significant Wordsworth considers plant choices to be (as well as the style of buildings) in preserving the character of the Lake District. He is especially concerned with the appearance of larch plantations which, he argues, jar with the landscape, and do not even produce good timber.
On a smaller scale, he is critical of gardens that use too many exotic species:
‘what shall we say to whole acres of artificial shrubbery and exotic trees among rocks and dashing torrents, with their own wild wood in sight – where we have the whole contents of the nurseryman’s catalogue jumbled together – colour at war with colour, and form with form – among the most peaceful subjects of Nature’s kingdom every where discord, distraction and bewilderment!’
His suggestion for planting a domestic garden in this context confines exotic plants to an area very close to the house and blends cultivated shrubs with native species to blur the line between the garden and the landscape beyond:
‘a transition should be contrived, without abruptness, from these foreigners to the rest of the shrubs, which ought to be of the kinds scattered by Nature through the woods – holly, broom, wild-rose, elder, dogberry, white and black thorn &c. either these only, or such as are carefully selected in consequence of their uniting in form,’
This radical approach, it could be suggested, precedes that of William Robinson, who published The Wild Garden sixty years later in 1870 and is usually credited with pioneering naturalistic planting schemes in English gardens.
While Wordsworth examines cottage dwellings and local farming activities very closely, he says little about specific cottage inhabitants. Cottage dwellers are portrayed, along with their buildings and sheep on the hillsides, as part of the landscape rather than individuals with ambitions and desires of their own.
Many of Wilkinson’s engravings (which Wordsworth is said to have disliked) do show people, although the figures don’t integrate particularly well into the mountainous landscapes. Wilkinson’s cottages (and gardens) are more successful, however, showing some of the character Wordsworth admired, and recording a way of life that was already disappearing with the advances of the industrial revolution.
A Description of the Scenery of the Lakes in the North of England by William Wordsworth (1822) here
All forty eight engravings of drawings by Rev Joseph Wilkinson featured in the 1810 version of the Guide, then entitled Select Views in Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancashire can be found on the Romantic Circles website here
Jenny Uglow’s interesting blog piece about Joseph Wilkinson for Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum here
More information about the various versions of Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes here