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

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