A pilgrimage to the place that inspired the Romantics

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.

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.

It's but a three-minute ride south on the A591 to Wordsworth's final home, Rydal Mount. The three-storied house crowns a sloping garden. The poet laureate and his family lived here between 1813 and 1850, and the home is still owned by his descendants. It boasts original dining- and sitting-room furniture, fixtures , and portraits. While literary devotees tend to gravitate to the poet's top-floor study - replete with first editions and letters - it's the terraced garden they should see. For it is here in his summer shed, with its view of Rydal Water, that he composed his poetry.

Wordsworth, it's said, walked 175,000 miles before he was 40. After a week in the Lake District, I can see why. It's a walker's paradise. Footpaths circle lakes edged with pine or fork doggedly up heather-covered fells. Before setting out on a marathon climb, I suggest visitors first do what I did: Take a one- to two-day tour to survey the area. Leaving my car behind, I elected to ride with an intrepid outfit called Mountain Goat Tours.

The 12-seat minivan awaited me in Ambleside. Inside, 11 English travelers chimed, ''Morning,'' in unison, and we were off on a tour, snaking over fell and dale on roads only the Romans had braved. It was one of the most enjoyable trips I've ever made. As the English passengers cooed, ''Ooh, lovely,'' and proceeded to name every flora and fauna in sight, I sat transfixed as the gentle landscape of Ambleside soon gave way to the steep grandeur of the mountains.

Our first stop was Friar's Crag, a promontory jutting over Derwentwater, the lake a quarter of a mile from the market town of Keswick. Preserved (as is almost all the Lake District) by the National Trust, Friar's Crag was celebrated by both Ruskin and Wordsworth as one of the most sublime spots they knew. From there, it's but a few minutes to Castlerigg stone circle, a pre-Druid monument Keats immortalized in his poem ''Hyperion.''

Soon the gentle fells of Buttermere and Crummock Water - which Wordsworth called ''one inseparable glory clad'' - gave way to the craggy splendor of Sca Fell Pike and Hardknott Pass. These sinuous mountain passes funneled us to the ruined Roman garrison of Medioregdum. Its southernmost edge commands an unparalleled view of the Eskdale Valley. Though lakeless, the valley offers a glimpse into what makes the Lake District unique. Here, within its cathedral of mountains, the gentlest of English countryside shimmers like green stained glass.

Descending into the valley, I watched as the slopes, patched with slate croppings, evened out to quiet farmland. The lakes gleamed into view, mist hanging heavily over the tiny islands floating on their surfaces. As I watched the light shift the water from slate to silver, I recalled Wordsworth's most famous definition of poetry. ''Poetry,'' he wrote, ''is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: It takes its origins from emotions recollected in tranquillity.'' Nowhere is that more possible or more desirable than in the landscape I was passing through all too quickly. Practical Information

Since the Lake District reads like a ''Who's Who'' of English literature, visitors will do well seeing just the homes of its resident writers. On the Wordsworth trail:

Take the A594 to Cockermouth. Wordsworth's birthplace, managed by the National Trust, is open April to October. His grammar school at Hawkshead, off the B5285, is open May to September. His three adult residences, open April to December, are: Dove Cottage, Rydal Mount (both off A591, Grasmere) and Allan Bank, 11/2 miles northwest of Grasmere. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his brother-in-law, poet laureate Robert Southey, lived at Gretta Hall, Keswick, off A591. John Ruskin's home, Brantwood, Coniston, is off the A593. Beatrix Potter's beautifully preserved Hilltop Farm is off the B5285 in Near Sawrey, Hawkshead. A National Trust domain, it's open April to October. For a more detailed literary guide, consult ''The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles,'' an indispensable book for travel. Michael's Nook:

As soon as I arrived at Michael's Nook, I realized why Egon Ronay cited it as one of Britain's top country-house hotels. Beautifully situated above Grasmere Village, this two-storied stone house is an elegant hideaway. Fastidiously overseen by owner Reg Gifford, Michael's Nook is renowned for its gourmet food and elegant ambiance. The hotel's small scale and its one-sitting dinner make staying here like staying in someone's home. The decor may be English antiques, but the atmosphere is decidedly informal. At dinner, Mr. Gifford, with the solicitous care of a village curate, makes his rounds to see if, indeed, the Stilton puffs and the fresh salmon are satisfactory. While the accommodation may not be for everyone's budget, I can't think of a hotel where the value is as high. Mountain Goat Tours:

Located at Victoria Street, Windermere, Cumbria, tel: (09662) 5161; Telex: 65294. The best way to see the Lake District before negotiating its roads on your own.

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