We had been driving around Lake Ullswater in the picturesque part of northern Britain matter-of-factly described as the Lake District, admiring the hills and woods, stopping at parking areas to climb the velvety green hills, and then returning to quaint inns for lunch. The landscape was dotted with sheep posing for photographs, the menus at the inns with boasts of rare, juicy varieties of Cumberland sausage.
My sons were keen to see Scafell Pike, the highest fell in England, because at their primary school, the House to which they belonged was named after that peak. We reached a spot surrounded on all sides by hills and valleys, and somewhere in the distance was Scafell. It was hard to tell, and the others who had made it to the top of a hill with us vaguely pointed us in one direction, saying “that’s Scafell”. So be it. For good measure, I took a wide-angled photograph of the hills.
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On the way back, our car had broken down; we spent 2 hours at a pub with wilderness surrounding us, and more sausages keeping us company, until help arrived. The car fixed, we were back on the road in a race to beat the sunset. Susan Cheever was to title her memoir about her father John Home Before Dark. At a place like this, it was good advice, for the roads were unlit, without signs, and it was raining lightly, reducing visibility.
The following day we drove even further, taking breaks near quiet sites along the lake. There was no purpose to the journey, no plan; there were no maps to follow. There were no sounds along the road, and only a few cars drove by. The woods were quiet too. The sun’s rays snaked their way through the gaps between the leaves of the trees along the road, resting lightly on the ground. The lake was clear and blue; occasionally we’d hear the sound of the engine of a boat as it carried visitors across the lake. There are 14 lakes in the district, and their names—Coniston and Rydal, Thirlmere and Derwentwater, Grasmere and Windermere—greet you unexpectedly in far-flung corners of the former British empire, as names of streets, houses, cottages, inns, pubs, and sometimes entire villages.
Golden words: (clockwise from far left) A field of daffodils (Euchiasmus/Wikimedia Commons); poet William Wordsworth (National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons); and Lake Ullswater. (Cross Lanes, US/Wikimedia Commons)
Along Lake Ullswater, more than 200 years ago this month, Dorothy Wordsworth had gone for a walk with her brother William. In the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park, they saw daffodils alongside the lake. As they walked closer, they saw there were many of them, like a long belt along the shore.
Dorothy hadn’t seen anything quite so cheerful as that before. Later, she was to write in her journal about the flowers she discovered among mossy stones: “Some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever dancing ever changing.”
Many of those words and feelings were to permeate into her brother’s thinking and imagination, but it took two years. In 1804 Wordsworth wrote one of the most widely quoted poems in English literature:
All at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils
We were there during Easter, with schools on vacation: the businesses along the lakes waking up from the long slumber winter imposed, anticipating tourists in their Wellingtons, walking through the slush in the surrounding countryside. We made our way to Dove Cottage near Grasmere, which was the Wordsworths’ home in the first decade of the 19th century. When the Wordsworths lived there, they would have had an uninterrupted view of the lake, as the cottage faced the main road, and there were no buildings between the cottage and the tranquil lake.
Tranquillity mattered. Wordsworth described poetry as “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotions recollected in tranquillity”. Wordsworth had seen those flowers on a walk with his sister. The flowers had left a deep impression in his mind. But he didn’t write his thoughts immediately. It took time, more than two years, when the experience stopped dripping into his subconscious, condensed, and transformed into the inspiration that spurred him to write a poem to recollect those spontaneous feelings, and he found the words that encapsulated that experience.
When we were driving along the lakes, we were dimly aware of that story, but we had no idea of the precise spot, if there was one, where the Wordsworths paused. We didn’t want to be literary detectives, and fortunately, there were no signs announcing “Wordsworths’ Daffodils—5 miles”, with a cross marking where you could see the flowers as they saw them, with a café and a petrol pump standing by.
But we knew the time was right, as was the place; that we were likely to have an accidental encounter with freshly sprung daffodils emerging in the green; they’d flutter and dance merrily, like alert Australian fielders in their prime.
That’s just how it happened. We walked towards the lake, towards the thick foliage, and by the patch of grass, which met the gently trembling lake, swaying happily, were hundreds of golden daffodils.
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