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A pilgrimage to the place that inspired the Romantics

By Alexandra JohnsonSpecial To The Christian Science Monitor / November 29, 1983

For Wordsworth, it was ''unity sublime,'' for Coleridge, ''a cabinet of beauties.'' Visitors ever since have fumbled for epithets to celebrate England's Lake District, 900 square miles of rugged grandeur at the heart of Cumbria.

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With its fells and dales and mountains heaving out of a lake-scattered landscape, its scale - literally and figuratively - is heroic.

It's a truism in travel that one can't visit the Lake District without colliding with literature, nor travel to its literary haunts without being awed by the landscape that inspired so many English writers. The beauty of the district remains uncompromised. Today visitors see what Wordsworth and Ruskin saw 150 years ago: slate-faced cottages nestled in dales, sheep cropping on fells burnished with autumn bracken, stone walls cascading over those same fells. And always, the lakes themselves, their tear-shaped surfaces corrugated by wind.

Walking its trails, sailing its waters, we discover what Wordsworth knew instinctively: Nature is the last uncorrupted frontier of modern life. It's this purity, suggested in landscape, that we crave.

An equal, if not greater, lure is the Lake District's literary heritage. Most popular, of course, are the homes of the Lake poets - Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, and their adjuncts, De Quincey and Dorothy Wordsworth. Yet literary lore goes beyond the romantics. The list is overwhelming. It's here that Defoe tackled his journals; where Keats journeyed to meet Wordsworth; where Charlotte Bronte first met her biographer, Mrs. Gaskell; where Ruskin meditated on art; where Beatrix Potter, an ardent Lake District preservationist, wrote her children's books.

There are two strategies, then, for seeing the Lake District: as a literary pilgrim, and as a literal pilgrim trekking the breadth of its terrain. For me, the two are inextricably bound. Or so I rediscovered on a recent trip. Shooting up the M6 from Manchester, it's a two-hour drive to the Lake District. Exiting at Kendal, a town situated at the mouth of the Rothay Valley, I took the A591 north past Windermere, the largest and, regrettably, most commercial of the lakes, to Ambleside. Driving through that slate-fronted town poised at the foot of Loughrigg Fell, I continued on the A591 to Michael's Nook, which is tucked above the village of Grasmere, the perfect base for a literary and nature odyssey.

No writer is more indelibly associated with a place than William Wordsworth is with the Lake District. Born in Cockermouth, reared in Penrith, and schooled in the 17th-century grammar school at Hawkshead, the poet settled permanently in the Grasmere area in 1799. His identification with the Lake District transcends birthplace. Catalyst and muse to his creative powers, the Lake District shaped his literary credo: nature as spiritual instructor. An ideal focus, then, to seeing the Lake District is through his life and work. From Gowbarrow Park, Ullswater, where he first spotted that famous clump of daffodils, to Furness Abbey and the dozens of geographic sites that stud his epic autobiographical poem, ''The Prelude,'' he guides as no one else can.

A quarter-mile south of Grasmere center is Dove Cottage, a two-storied stone house set just off the main road. Wordsworth's residence between 1799 and 1807, it also enshrines three other writers: Coleridge, De Quincey (a ''guest'' for 20 years), and Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy. The latter's ''Grasmere Journals'' detail creative and domestic life at Dove Cottage. On June 10, 1810, for example , an entry notes: ''Coleridge came with a sack-full of books, etc., and a branch of Mountain ash. He had been attacked by a cow. He came over from Griesdale. A furious wind.''

Today, Dove Cottage is a beautifully preserved glimpse into their lives. Passing through the garden that Dorothy stocked with sweet peas and honeysuckle, you enter the wood-paneled parlor, off which splinter the kitchen and Dorothy's bedroom. Upstairs, on the left, is the sitting room where Coleridge or De Quincey read, careful not to waken Wordsworth's children in the newspaper-insulated room next door. Across from this is Wordsworth's study, a white-walled room decorated with its original furniture. On display are the poet's journals, as well as touching personal items, such as his wooden ice skates.

To get an overview of the Lake District and its poets, visitors should not miss the brilliantly laid-out Wordsworth Museum next door. Its ground floor details the area's history and geography; the upstairs guides one through the lives and works of the romantics. On display are original letters, journals, first editions, portraits, clothing, and personal artifacts. A fascinating time capsule concludes the tour: sketchbooks, letters, and journals of Victorian travelers.