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  • Writer's pictureMarian Veevers

"Little Langdale looked bare and unlovely"

So wrote Dorothy Wordsworth in her journal on 16th June 1800, and it is a comment for which I find it difficult to forgive her. Little Langdale has been my home for nearly 30 years, and this is what this Lake District valley looks like in mid-June.

Bare and unlovely? I beg to differ, Dorothy!


But I wonder why we disagree. Has the valley changed since 1800? Is my perception of beauty different from Miss Wordsworth's?


Perhaps both factors play their part. There has been change – many of the houses seen here have been built since Dorothy's day. Some of the fields which are now pasture would have had crops (barley, oats) growing in them when she looked across the same scene over two hundred years ago. And on the fells at the back there might well have been small scale slate quarries.


This picture, looking up into the head of the valley, shows, on the left, the remains of other quarries.

And it may have been these evidences of quarrying, together with a water-powered forge operating further down the valley, that upset Dorothy – though she says nothing about them in the journal entry.


In fact Dorothy is curiously silent on such subjects. It seems as if she wanted to ignore them. The Lake District presented in her journals is essentially agricultural. But this was far from accurate; rural Westmorland was not untouched by industrialisation at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The countryside was dotted with quarries, mines and lime-kilns. Ambleside, just four miles from Grasmere, a town which Dorothy visited regularly, had already undergone a minor industrial revolution of its own and boasted about a dozen water powered mills that sawed wood, ground grain and manufactured woollen cloth. But none of these activities find their way into the pages of the Grasmere journal. There are no mill-workers among the local characters Dorothy writes about; instead there are folk whose working lives have remained unchanged for centuries: farmers and waggoners, pedlars and peat cutters…


Dorothy saw some people cutting peat about a mile down the road from Little Langdale, on the same day that she had found my favourite valley so disappointing. The scene here at Colwith (or Collath as Dorothy spells it) pleased her much better. It was 'wild and interesting, from the Peat carts and peat gatherers – the valley all perfumed with the Gale [bog-myrtle] and wild thyme. The woods about the waterfall veined with rich yellow Broom.'


It is the presence of those human figures which seems to be the catalyst that can transform 'bare and unlovely' into 'wild and interesting' for Dorothy.  Dorothy liked to see people in a landscape. In her Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, she particularly admired the 'inhabited solitudes' of that country. And at Inverary she made a similar criticism to the one she had levelled at Little Langdale. 'The valley' she said was 'cold and naked'. And the reason for this nakedness? Apparently it 'wanted hedgerows and comfortable houses'. So perhaps it was the lack of this human touch that made my home valley seem 'bare' to Dorothy.


But whether it was the spoil tips, the lack of 'comfortable houses', or both that displeased her when she looked across this lovely valley on that June day, I wish very much that I could go back, lay my hand on her arm and say, 'No, Dorothy. Please look again.'

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