A day in the reading room

This post was originally published over on the By Duddon’s Side project blog: http://byduddonsside.wordpress.com

To complement the reseach I’m doing in the Duddon Valley itself, I’ve also been working with the Wordsworth Trust’s archive to find a way in from that angle.

Naturally the weather was much better than when I was out on the fells the day before!

library view

Strategically positioned so I couldn’t see out of the window, I spent a day in the Jerwood Centre’s reading room where I was able to read Wordsworth’s sonnets relating to the River Duddon, as well as various people’s responses to them. Many thanks also to Anna the Assistant Curator for feeding me with items from the archive and with her own experiences and recollections.


In the February 1822 issue of the Lonsdale Magazine, there’s an article called Beauties of the North. Focusing on Duddon Grove (later to become known as Duddon Hall), it describes the improvement of the romantic glens and vales, and the rearing of lordly mansions in “places incomparably superior to any that have yet been selected”.

The Lake mountains abound with vales, each of which would amply furnish convenience for one gentleman’s seat. Their general character is this:—They open upon some large ale or lake—they are narrow and fenced on each side by rugged and lofty hills—they are enlivened by a rough tumbling brook—they are well wooded at the entrance—and they loose themselves behind among rugged mountain heads, abounding with game. A house would stand beautifully at the entrance of one of these glens, and fields would easily be redeemed from the smoother part of the woodlands, while the wood itself might be taught to climb the precipitous steeps on every side. The sweet retirement which places like these would furnish, and the beauty they would add to the country, is indescribable. Such places are Glencoyn—Glenridding—Grisdale—Deepdale—etc, at the head of Ullswater. Some of these have been improved; but there are numbers in all parts of the country waiting the mandate of taste, to start into paradisiacal existence.

I’m fascinated by the themes running through this article: of seeking out wild, open space in which to have freedom to move; of finding charming and picturesque locations in which to build your home; of ‘improving’ these locations through landscape design on a grand scale; and of the ideas of right and of possession and of good taste that underpin it all.

Flash forward to today when I see ‘NO PYLONS’ signs and also the Forestry Commission working to return areas of conifer plantation back to native mixed woodland. Anna also told me about projects such as this one to re-meander Swindale Beck.

It’s made me curious about how much of the landscape we revere as being wild and natural is actually a consequence of human interference?

In Stephen Gill’s writing on Wordsworth and Duddon, there’s a nice paragraph that feels like it might speak to this project:

Local specificity, local pride, loving attention to the unsung and little known are the keynotes not just of the sonnet sequence but of the whole volume.

I’m not encountering many people as I explore the valley (practically no-one, in fact), so I think it’s going to be challenging to get at what the Duddon means to people in terms of specificity and pride. On the other hand, those here in February possibly have a stronger connection to the place compared to the flow of day visitors I imagine the valley might experience in the summer months?


I’d arranged to meet up and walk with Ed who had spent a few years living at the foot of the valley, so I also made use of the large library tables to plan an itinerary from a list of suggestions that he had sent me.