It was around teatime on Thursday, 15 April 1802, that William and Dorothy Wordsworth first clapped eyes on them. The poet and his devoted, journal-writing sister had been staying with their friends Thomas Clarkson, the anti-slavery campaigner, and his wife Catherine, near Pooley Bridge on the eastern side of Ullswater, Cumbria, and were walking all the way home to Dove Cottage in Grasmere. They set off after lunch, at about 2.30pm. The wind was fierce, forcing them to shelter in boat-houses and bushes, but the Wordsworth siblings were used to striding long distances in foul weather, and pressed on. In her journal, Dorothy recalls avoiding some cattle (of which she was frightened) and seeing primroses, anemones and other flowers. And then it happened:
"When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up - But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing."
It's been argued that Dorothy's excited little rapture - a classic moment of "pathetic fallacy" in which the mind invests a landscape or a natural scene with human emotions - was a defining moment of early English Romanticism. From it came William's shared conviction, expressed throughout his poetry, that nature, far from being a neutral agglomeration of scenery, colours, plants, rocks, soil, water and air, is a living force that feels joy and sadness, shares and embodies human pain, and works in subtle, benign and moral strategies to educate the human consciousness. In "Lines Written a few Miles above Tintern Abbey", he had invoked "A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/ And rolls through all things". Later, in The Prelude, he would write at exhaustive length about the universe of benign influence that works on the poet's childhood soul. From his minute inspections of the natural world, his detection in it of huge movements of cosmic harmony, and from his constant assertion of the primacy of the human imagination, a whole European Romantic tradition would flow. For the moment, however, he was content simply to imagine the daffodils dancing for joy.
Unlike his sister, he didn't commit his thoughts to paper right away. In fact it was two years before he wrote "I wander'd lonely as a cloud". Wordsworth scholarship is hazy about its composition: it could have been at any time between March 1804 and April 1807 (the year it was first published). And at first it came in for much slighting criticism. Contemporary reviewers thought it self-indulgent, conceited and trivial - ooh, hark at the great poet thinking deep thoughts about teeny things. "He thinks it worth while to give a tame, matter-of-fact account of some daffodils blown about with the wind, because he thought of them afterwards," sneered The Satirist magazine in 1807. "Surely," wrote the Derby poet Anna Seward to Sir Walter Scott, "if his worst foe had chosen to caricature this egotistic manufacturer of metaphysical importance upon trivial themes, he could not have done it more effectively!" Posterity, however, forgave Wordsworth a certain vapid sentimentality in the poem (not to mention his using that ghastly word "jocund"), and proceeded to love, honour and memorise it for generations. Now, two centuries after its composition, it's being celebrated in a variety of ways.
The Wordsworth Trust, based at Dove Cottage under the direction of Robert Woof, has linked up with the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity to arrange a mass reading of the poem on 19 March. At 9.15am, hundreds of schoolchildren from Grasmere Primary and The Lakes secondary schools will recite "I wander'd lonely as a cloud" in chorus - and will be joined by 200,000 plus across the country. "Originally it was to be 150,000 children," said Allan King of the Wordsworth Trust, "because that's the number of people who die of cancer every year. But as the word spread, the number of participating schools kept climbing and now we've got 226,000 children involved. So far..."
The Trust and the charity have also organised sponsored walks along the trodden ways, past Rydal Water and Grasmere Lake, used by the endlessly peripatetic William while composing verse. The Trust people at Dove Cottage will also take fans on tours of the garden which William planted with wild flowers and which survived in his back yard even after they disappeared from the Cumberland valleys. "He always said that if he hadn't been a poet, he would have been a terrific landscape gardener," said Mr King, "and he was very proud of his garden. He called it 'a slip of domesticated mountain'."
The tours are conducted by Ann Lambert, custodian of Dove Cottage and seasoned horticulturalist, a woman rarely found without a trowel in her hand. She can explain that the daffs which the Wordsworths saw were the original narcissus pseudonarcissus, the native daffodils prevalent before the arrival of new, specially-bred, cross-pollinated monstrosities like February Gold or Peeping Tom in the 1850s and after.
Dove Cottage is a cynosure for any fan of the Romantic poets heading for the Lake District this spring. He or she will, of course, be joining a vast, lowing horde of tourists and energetic hikers; yompers and ramblers for whom the region's majestic valleys, languorous hills and sparkling lakes are simply hog heaven. Wordsworth himself was far from keen on tourists. He wanted outsiders to admire the local sights he enjoyed so much, but was afraid the district might be "damaged" by too many rubber-necking visitors. He opposed the coming of the trains, and campaigned in the 1840s against a plan to link Kendal, Windermere and Keswick by rail.
It's extraordinary to think that to get to Wordsworth Country from London you still have to catch a train to a one-horse village station called Oxenholme, and then change to the branch line to Windermere or fork out for a £25 taxi ride to Grasmere - and that the main reason is Mr Wordsworth himself.
Once you're there, however, all you can do is gaze and gaze at the place. I'd been to the Lakes when younger, and mostly remember the crowds in the streets of Kendal during Easter weekend. Fifteen years later, off-season, I discovered empty streets and hotels and a perfect landscape of valley, lake, mountain and blue sky; the sprawling, russet-and-olive-green hills that surround the alarming craggy eminence of snow-hatted Helvellyn; the sudden rainbows, wider and thicker than any rainbows I've seen, and the alarmingly solid-looking duvets of fat mist that settle on the Fells and Seats and Crags like giant, thoughtless nesting birds. The prevailing mode, while driving around or stalking across the fields beside Hawkshead, is of a slightly delirious surprise at how dramatically the landscape changes completely every few minutes.
Once you've committed yourself to a Lakes trip, the key hotel in the region - the ne plus ultra of Cumbrian comfort and chic - is the Samling. It's a gorgeous white building perched on the shores of Lake Windermere and the picture-postcard view from the front door (and, I'm happy to report, from my bedroom window as well) is stunning.
Like a modern country-house hotel (but without the heartiness and the chintz) it doesn't bother with a reception area or a typical hotel bar. You just get greeted, led to your suite, and advised to get back downstairs asap for a welcoming gin. The living-room redefines the concept of languor: the log fire sprawls; the wide sofas threaten to swallow you up; and even the long, luxurious brown curtains hanging by the window cascade their dark skirts wantonly all over the floor.
Exclusivity and pampering are the watchwords of this elegant temple to sybaritism. There are only 11 rooms, mostly suites, named after the dialect counting of sheep ("yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pym, hovera, lethera", and so on, though they steered clear of number 10, which is "dick"), and they're simply gorgeous. I had the Pym suite, next door to the one in which Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman once stayed. It's a dream of dovetailing angles and inglenooks. Its three windows and skylights fill the rooms with dancing lights in the morning and the decor and furnishings wouldn't disgrace an Ian Schrager hotel.
Every bathroom has its own giant bath sunk into black slate, and the mirrors are heated so they won't mist up. They even leave a teddy bear on your pillow, in case you're feeling miserable (fat chance). The chef is Chris Meredith, formerly at Gordon Ramsay's Aubergine; he has a nicely restrained touch with both seafood (barely-seared scallops served with "ginger-scented foam") and meat (best end of lamb, crusted with green herbs, pink inside and perfect). And some oenological superstar has written, in the whisky-tasting carte, some hilariously pretentious evocations of the hotel's Ardbeg and Islay malts, their tastes allegedly including "machine oil", "fresh cow pats" and "hands after gardening".
A white, gabled haven standing in 67 acres of bosky hillsides, the Samling is a 24-carat treat which you'll leave with a huge smile on your face.
Next stop: Dove Cottage in nearby Grasmere, a town full of not-very-good tourist impedimenta and themed restaurants, where the only thing that should divert you is a trip to Wordsworth's grave in St Oswald's Church, and a package of Grasmere Gingerbread. The cottage was once a pub called the Dove and Olive. William describes in Book One of The Prelude how he discovered it with his brother John and resolved to move in, with Dorothy, in November 1799. They stayed there for eight and a half years, an intense sibling idyll interrupted when William married Mary Hutchinson.
Dorothy insisted that the newlyweds move into her larger bedroom upstairs - one of those moments of slightly ambiguous sexual transference at which she excelled. Her love for "dear William" seemed sometimes to stray beyond the sisterly, and the museum offers, in its cool and restrained way, some delicate hints at her quasi-incestuous longings.
Here, for instance, is an entry from October 1802, when Wordsworth displays the wedding ring he intends to slip on Mary's finger (he evidently bought it in France, presumably when visiting his ex-lover Annette Vallon and their daughter Caroline, but that's another story). Dorothy has borrowed it for a while and reports: "8 October. William had parted from me upstairs. I gave him the wedding ring, with how deep a blessing! I took it from my forefinger, where I had worn it the whole of the night before - he slipped it again over my finger and blessed me fervently..." Phew. These lines are crossed out in the journal, but brazenly deciphered by curatorial sleuthing.
In the cottage, the hothouse of these emotional flowerings, you bow your head beneath the low ceilings, marvel at how kempt and polished everything is, and wonder how William (five feet nine) and his wife Mary could possibly have fitted in the tiny doll's-house bed. Both places are well worth exploring, as is the adjacent gallery devoted to lively conceptual work by local Damien Hirsts, and, if you're lucky, you will encounter Robert Woof - the Trust's engagingly growly and argumentative director, and by some way the best reader of Wordsworth's poetry I've ever heard.
For lunch, you must make your way (having booked first, because it's terribly popular) to the Drunken Duck Inn, a really first-class pub-cum-hotel in Beatrix Potter country, south of Ambleside on the way to Hawkshead. It's a big, long, white stone building with a black roof, and is, frankly, a very welcome sight after hiking for an hour or two from Coniston or Langdale.
This bit of Cumbria is a gorgeous, if knackering, place for walkers, with sudden hills, bogs, streams and Wordsworthian ruined cottages appearing around every corner. The mountains sprawl and brood around you like lazy old dinosaurs, while massed choirs of young birch trees, their leaves like gauzy frocks of russet and magenta, sway and giggle on the lower slopes.
Inside, the Duck is phenomenally dark, the beams hung with ale jugs, the bar agleam with red tea-lights. Try a pint of the pale-orange local beer, Tag Lag, check out the day's specials written in chalk on the blackboard, and sit by the log fire and decide what to eat. You could try the saddle of rabbit with leeks and shitake mushrooms, or the deep-fried duck confit cake, but I had the smoked haddock, pea and crispy air-dried ham risotto and it was a knockout. So was the intensely-flavoured pot roasted duck breast and fennel with a blueberry glaze, which did you the rare compliment of not slicing the duck into a dozen limp slivers. It ain't cheap for a pub lunch (about £70 for two with pudding and wine) but was certainly the best meal I had during my Cumbrian weekend. In the afternoon, two options are open to you. Both start at Ambleside and both take you north. You can head up the A591, through the most characteristic scenery of the Lake District, on the way to Keswick and further to Bassenthwaite.
It's a fantastic drive, taking in the most dramatic mountain ranges - the stark, frightening Helvellyn, where unwary mountaineers are lost every year by falling off the precipitatous Striding Edge, and its attendant crags with mildly idiotic names like Lower Man and Dollywaggon Pike, the huge pile of Skiddaw with its attendant forest - and the three striking water features, Thirlmere, Derwent Water and Bassenthwaite.
Keswick itself is not a pretty town, but it's the jumping-off point for lake-centred activities. If all the camping and caravanning gets you down, keep on going to the top of Bassenthwaite Lake, where you'll find the Pheasant Inn, another attractive coaching inn re-invented as a pub/hotel.
The rooms are comfortable (remarkably, they give you a Roberts radio rather than a TV), the food is a little over-ambitious (fillet of monkfish wrapped in Parma ham on a Gruyère brandade with braised baby leeks and light curry sauce, anyone?) but the bar is just fantastic. It's a kind of Platonic ideal of a snug, with dark wood panels and blood-red gloss paint on walls and ceiling, a place where you feel instantly embedded, wedged and happily stuck for ever. "I wash the walls once a year whether they need it or not," the owner told me, "and every 20 years I get a man to put a fresh coat of varnish on. That's the secret. The rest is mostly nicotine."
To take the other option, the Wordsworth Memorial Drive, start at Ambleside, go north-east up a vertiginious hill called The Struggle, then head north up the A592, past Patterdale and Glenridding. On the right, above your head is Place Fell the massive, real-life, guilt-inducing crag you read about in The Prelude, the one that scares the boy when he steals the boat. And on the southernmost turn of Ullswater, where the A-road blithely whizzes past the lake and some thin, defeated-looking beech trees, that's where you must stop the car and get out.
The lake is wide and calm at this turning point and there's a bay where the trees have had their soil eroded by lake-water so that their roots are shockingly exposed. You walk along from tree to tree, hardly daring to breathe, because you are walking in the footprints of William and Dorothy from 202 years ago. The first clumps of daffodils appear, but they aren't tall yellow trumpets proudly swaying in the breeze. They're tiny wild narcissi pseudonarcissi, most of them still green and unopened, and they huddle in clumps of six or seven, then another six or seven, then ten or a dozen. They're grouped around individual trees rather than collecting together, mob-handed as it were.
But as you look north, from beside a huge ancient oak, looking perhaps 50 yards towards a dark hollybush, you realise this is what the Wordsworths saw: clump after clump of the things, spread out to left and right ("the width of a turnpike road") but coming together in your vision so that they form a beautiful, pale-yellow carpet. The wind whips in coldly from the lake, and the daffodils of 2004 seem rather to huddle sullenly than to toss their heads in glee. But what you're seeing at last is nature transformed by human sight and imagination, from a random set of clumps of flowers into a community, "a crowd, a host", in which the soul longs to join, and finally succeeds. For a second, you share that revelation of Dorothy and William Wordsworth's, the glimpse of pantheism, the central mystery of English Romanticism - standing there beside the quiet lake, as the cars whizz by on the A592, and history, for a moment, proceeds on its merry way without you.
'I WANDER'D LONELY AS A CLOUD'
I wander'd lonely as a cloud
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.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee: -
A poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company:
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought.
For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
For train times and prices contact National Train Enquiries (0845 7 484950). Most journeys can be booked on www.thetrainline.com. From Manchester Piccadilly you can catch the TransPennine Express direct to Windermere (£23.30 for a saver return). From London Euston, catch the train to Oxenholme and connect there to Windermere.
STAYING AND EATING THERE
John Walsh stayed at The Samling (01539 431922; www.thesamling.com), Ambleside Road, Windermere which has doubles from £175 including breakfast.
The Pheasant (01768 776234; www.the-pheasant.co.uk), Bassenthwaite Lake, near Cockermouth, has 13 individually decorated rooms, which start at £124 per night including breakfast.
The Drunken Duck Inn (01539 43634; www.drunkenduckinn.co.uk), Barnsgate near Ambleside has 16 rooms, which cost from £90 per night including breakfast and afternoon tea.
Sarah Nelson's Original Celebrated Grasmere Gingerbread celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. The recipe is still shrouded in secrecy, but you can buy a piece of the legend from the original shop (01539 435428; www.grasmeregingerbread.co.uk) at Church Cottage in Grasmere.
For tourist information contact the Cumbria Tourist Board (01539 444444; www.golakes.co.uk), Windermere Tourist Information Centre (01539 446499) and the Wordsworth Trust (01539 435544, www.wordsworth.org.uk).
The Lake District National Park Authority (01539 724555, www.lake-district.gov.uk).
By Sophie LamReuse content