Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Did Wordsworth like gingerbread?

I’ve just spent a few days in the Lake District, staying only a few doors away from the Wordsworth House in Cockermouth, where Richard, William, Dorothy, John and Christopher Wordsworth were born. In 1937 the house was due to be demolished to make way for a bus station, but luckily it was rescued from the clutches of the bus company when the Wordsworth Memorial Fund bought it and gave it to the National Trust. The NT have done a good job of recreating a 1770s style house, complete with costumed servants. In 2009 it was rescued from yet another peril when Cockermouth was hit by floods, when its dedicated staff moved the house’s contents to safety on the upper floors and afterwards cleaned up the debris and floodwater (a horrible mucky job judging by the photographs).

I also went to Grasmere and visited the Wordsworth graves; my thoughts were with John particularly who died in a shipwreck only three days out from Portsmouth en route to India and China. The tragic story is well-told in Alethea Hayter’s The Wreck of the Abergavenny. While in Grasmere I bought some of its world-famous gingerbread. At the same time I carried away with me a leaflet about the shop and its sweet product which led me to wonder: did William Wordsworth like gingerbread?

The leaflet doesn’t say as much, which is hardly surprising because he was dead before Sarah Nelson’s gingerbread recipe was invented. Even so, it doesn’t miss an opportunity to associate the poet with the bread. We are told that Sarah Nelson worked in a house overlooking Ullswater “the lake beside which WILLIAM WORDSWORTH wrote his famous poem ‘Daffodils’”. Like the poet she was “inspired”; he wrote about daffs, she invented a cake. Sarah’s business was associated with him from the start, her earliest customers being Victorian pilgrims to Wordsworth's grave, which is only yards away from her shop. The current manager’s great great grandparents “entertained the Wordsworths for tea”, though they could not of course have given William Sarah Nelson’s gingerbread with his cuppa. Still, “Like the great Romantic poems, Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread has stood the test of time”.

So did William like gingerbread? Well, yes, it seems he did. His sister Dorothy mentions in her Grasmere journal going out to buy gingerbread and I’m allowing myself to speculate that she wouldn’t have bought anything William didn’t like. I haven’t been able to find the reference in her journal myself, so can’t tell you what type of gingerbread he liked to tuck into: there was more than one variety available in Grasmere. Nor can I tell you if he ever offered it to Coleridge when he called into Dove Cottage after a tramp from his house, Greta Hall, in Keswick. If he had perhaps Coleridge would have recorded somewhere in his journals, “Goes well with opium”.

Greta Hall was originally built as an astronomical observatory and converted into a three storey house by its owner Mr Jackson, who lived in the back of the house and let the front rooms to Coleridge and family. From his study windows Coleridge could see “Mountains & Lakes & Woods & Vales” across which “mists, & Clouds, & Sunshine make endless combinations, as if heaven & Earth were forever talking to each other”. (Quoted in Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions.) It was really Greta Hall that I wanted to see, although the house is not open to visitors (no costumed servants here). According to Richard Holmes:-

“To this day its white façade can be seen shining out of Keswick from almost every peak of the encircling fells – most impressively perhaps from Cat Bells across Derwent Water – a sort of landlocked lighthouse, upon which the lonely fell-walker can always get an accurate compass fix in his wanderings.”

Fell-walking might have been lonely in Coleridge’s day; I don’t suppose that is so much the case now in so busy a district as the Lakes. But the white façade of the house with its curiously curved wings can be seen from Cat Bells, and a wonderful sight it is on a brilliant sunny day with the blue beneath and above filled with shredding clouds and the sense that, just for a moment, you are gazing through a poet’s eyes.

You can make your own Grasmere-style gingerbread by following BBC Good Food’s recipe at http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/10774/grasmere-gingerbread-style

And Jamie Oliver has a go with his modestly-named “Ultimate Gingerbread” at http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/bread-recipes/ultimate-gingerbread

There’s a nice 2005 article (with two gingerbread recipes) at the Baking For Britain blog – see http://bakingforbritain.blogspot.com/2005/11/grasmere-gingerbread-from-cumbria.html

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Quintessential British Novels

Emma Taylor of Accreditedonlinecolleges.com has drawn my attention to a blog on their website (16 March 2011) listing 50 Quintessential British Novels. I know nothing about accredited on line colleges, but I did enjoy reading the list which includes many of my own favourites, and one book that I had never heard of but now plan to read – Flatland by Edwin A Abbott. I particularly enjoyed the breezy outlines – Darcy’s “legions of screaming fangirls” in Pride and Prejudice especially springs to mind. If you want to compare it to your own list of Quintessential British Novels the blog is at


With thanks to Emma for taking an interest in my literary ramblings!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Refusing to be counted

Yesterday (2 April 2011) was the anniversary of the women’s boycott of the 1911 Census and I marked the event by joining historians Jill Liddington and Tara Morton on their “Artists and Evaders” walk around Kensington. As a suffrage demonstration, the refusal of many militant and non-militant suffrage campaigners to fill in their Census forms was far from being the most spectacular or successful of the protests made by disenfranchised women. According to the Registrar in a letter to The Times on 1 April 1911, if the suffragists hoped that the Census would be seriously affected they would be proved wrong. Even if 100,000 women were “bold enough to defy the law”, he said, in an overall population which “will no doubt be found to exceed 40 millions” (in fact he overestimated by half a million) their absence would make little difference. In the event, many evasion attempts simply did not work: women were counted anyway.

Even so, Christabel Pankhurst hailed the demonstration as a success, and in one way at least it was: it gained publicity for the cause. “Until women count as people for the purpose of representation…as well as for purposes of taxation, we shall refuse to be numbered”, said Mrs Pankhurst. It was this message that the Census protest managed to convey to the public in newspaper articles, speeches, posters and gatherings such as that held in Trafalgar Square on Census night. As Jill Liddington and Tara Morton explained during our walk though Kensington’s magnolia-scented streets, the Census evasion had its origins in Kensington, since it was the brain child of artist and women’s suffrage supporter Laurence Housman who lived with his sister Clemence at 1 Pembroke Gardens, Edwardes Square.

Laurence Housman was a founder member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and with his sister Clemence Housman a co-founder in 1909 of the Suffrage Atelier. This was a group of artists whose aim was to use their work to support the campaign for the women’s vote. The Atelier was based in the studio at the bottom of the Housman’s garden, where they produced banners, postcards, cartoons, and posters. Kensington was home to a number of artists and suffragists, many of whom produced art for the cause either independently or within the Atelier. They included jeweller Ernestine Mills who designed badges for the Women’s Social and Political Union; artist Olive Hockin whose studio equipment included hammers, paraffin, stones, and wire cutters for use in militant attacks; and Louise Joplin Rowe who let the Atelier use her studio at 7 Pembroke Gardens for exhibitions. Writer May Sinclair was Olive Hockin’s neighbour in Edwardes Square Studios, and novelist Evelyn Sharp, who was the Kensington WSPU Branch Secretary, lived in a flat in Duke’s Lane.

We had a lovely day: the weather was kind and never have the streets and squares of London looked so lovely. We stood on the corner of Phillimore Gardens and Kensington High Street with the Kensington contingent of the great suffragette procession on 21 June 1908. We wore white dresses and sashes in the colours and in front of us fluttered the banner designed by Laurence Housman and embroidered under Clemence’s direction: From Prison to Citizenship. In Pembroke Gardens we listened to the “ker chunk ker chunk” of the Atelier’s printing press as it churned out caricatures of the Liberal politicians responsible for the imprisonment and torture of unenfranchised women. Rather than stay at home and be counted on the night of 2 April, we knocked at the door of Number 1 and spent the night with other evaders while Laurence gallantly slept in the studio (though we were disappointed that only three other women joined us). And we sat on the floor of the studio labouring from dawn to dusk with Clemence, embroidering those beautiful banners behind which so many women marched in order to win for us our right to vote.

Read Sonia Lambert’s article about the Census boycott in The Guardian, 1 April 2011 -

Visit the 1911 Census site - http://www.1911census.co.uk/

See some of the beautiful suffrage banners and designs from the Women’s Library collection on line at VADS: the online resource for the visual arts - http://tinyurl.com/3nh643a

See Laurence Housman’s From Prison to Citizenship banner - http://tinyurl.com/4ynmlxr