Wordsworth is of course familiar to all as one of the greatest of English poets, founder of the Romantic movement and Poet Laureate. What is less well known is that he was also a brilliant landscape gardener and his home Rydal Mount is testament to this genius.
In the tiny village of Rydal in Cumbria in the north of England is the beloved home where Wordsworth lived from 1813 until his death in 1850 at the age of 80. He never owned the house and land, but rented it from a local landowner. He lived there with his wife Mary and three of their children, John, Dora and William and with his sister Dorothy.
There he wrote many of his poems, and revised earlier works. It was from this home that he published his famous poem ‘Daffodils‘ and worked on his autobiographical masterpiece ‘The Prelude‘. Today the house is still owned by Wordsworth’s descendents, but is open to the public – visitors can see the poet’s study, his bedroom, the library and the room of his devoted sister, and can also explore the beautiful garden, considered an outstanding example of a ‘romantic style’ garden.
Sketches were made of the garden a few months after Wordsworth died, so today it can be kept as close as possible to his original design. He believed that a garden should be informal and should harmonise with the surrounding countryside. He felt every garden should consist of “lawn, and trees carefully planted so as not to obscure the view”. Today some of the fern-leaf beech trees and firs that he planted still grow in the garden.
The garden is a hilly one as part of it is on top of a Norse Mound, used in ancient times for beacon fires to warn of border invaders. The Mound offers stunning views of two lakes – Rydal Water and Lake Windermere. At the top of the garden, nearest to the house, is a sloping terrace walk, reached by stone steps which Wordsworth built himself, and the poet’s summerhouse.
Wordsworth did most of his poetic composition out of doors, working out a poem in his mind, before going indoors and dictating it to his wife or daughter who wrote it down. He often said that the garden was his ‘office’ as that is where most of his work was done. His mossy summerhouse is delightful and one can picture Wordsworth sitting there very happily on a warm day, inspired by the beauty around him to create lovely verse. Just below his summerhouse is Isabella’s Terrace, a walk created for a close family friend, Isabella Fenwick. He worked on all the terraces himself and in his letters mentions “draining spongy ground”, building the walls that supported the terraces and directing the flow of local streams into the rock pools he created.
To the west of the house is the lawn, a wonderful rich green when I visited recently, and bordered by fabulous trees. There is a magnificent sycamore, Scotch firs, a Smooth Japanese Maple, a Rowan Oak and a truly beautiful Japanese Red Cedar tree. Magnolias, skunk cabbage, wisteria, pampas grass, holly, bluebells and azaleas bring colour and variety to the garden. Wordsworth believed in using exotic plants close to the house, then gradually blending them with native plants towards the edges of the property.
He planted rhododendrons and laburnums, but was especially fond of wildflowers – primroses, wild geraniums, Lakeland poppies, lichens, ferns and mosses. In a letter he described the plantings of the sloping terrace:
“on the right side is shaded by laburnums, Portugal laurel, mountain ash, and fine walnut trees, and cherries; on the left it is flanked by a low stone wall, coped with rude slates, and covered with lichens, mosses and wild flowers. The fern waves on the walls, and at its base grows the wild strawberry and foxglove.”
South of the garden is a moving botanical tribute to Wordsworth’s daughter Dora. She was his favourite child and he was devastated when she died in 1847, aged only 43, from TB. Before her death he had given her a field adjacent to Rydal Mount, and after her death he and Mary planted the field with hundreds of daffodils in their daughter’s memory. The field is a joy to see every spring and of course is also a living reminder of his poem in which the daffodils are –
“fluttering and dancing in the breeze”.
Wordsworth’s legacy is today very much in evidence in this wonderful garden. His terraces have been repaired and beautifully maintained, the rock pools still burble with water, Dora’s field is a riot of yellow daffodils every spring, and the garden still attracts those with a love of literature and romantic landscapes, just as it did when Wordsworth lived and entertained there. There is still the “peaceful harmony of form and colour” which he planned. Rydal Mount is a fitting tribute to a man way ahead of his time in both his writings and his gardens – he was an environmentalist (eager to make his garden hospitable to local wildlife), he had a keen eye for natural beauty, and he believed in poetic expression both on paper and on the land. Rydal Mount is a place of creativity, peace and intense beauty – a fitting garden for a great poet.