Posted by: robbedlyric | January 11, 2012

Cleaning Wordsworth’s Socks

I moved up to Grasmere from Lancaster on Saturday. I’m here a whole two weeks before the other nine interns arrive and the Museum is currently closed for cleaning which means it is very, very quiet here right now.

Fortunately I’m not alone or out in the sticks. Town End, where the museum is situated is a little hamlet just outside Grasmere almost entirely owned by the Wordsworth Trust meaning that there are several employees living on site including the curator. The interns are housed in two adjoining terraced houses, one slightly bigger than the other, and (thank god!) I’m not alone here either. Some of last year’s interns are still here to help with the cleaning and preparations for the upcoming Arts & Books Festival. Also living with me is Mark who works in the Cottage and grounds as well as being a poet.

The room I’ve been assigned is in the slightly smaller of the two houses but from the window I can see Grasmere Lake (not technically a lake but for the purposes of differentiating it from the village that’s what I’m calling it) and a small herd of Herdwick sheep who are living in a field across the road. These sheep are native to the Lake District and are particularly hardy and intelligent. This particular herd like to line up and stare at passersby (or at least me) as they walk into the village, like rows of woolly old ladies nebbing over the walls.

As it is already Wednesday night I ought to write about what I’ve actually been doing for the last four days. I have not just been strolling round the village being stared out by sheep! In fact I have been helping to clean some of the exhibits and items in the museum.

Monday meant the Life Room complete with scary mannequins that seem to loom at you when you least expect it. This room is a mock up of a typical Cumbrian house-place of the early nineteenth century. Since most houses in the area were humble two roomed cottages the house-place would be the family’s main living space and would have also been the place where women would have carried out work such as carding wool and spinning thread. The education team use this room to teach school groups about the Cumbrian way of life and it’s filled with objects such as spinning wheels, cooking implements, lanterns, candle moulds and other essential everyday items. All of which need taking out, gently cleaning and putting back in the exact same place.

The two large, solid wooden mannequins are extremely heavy and the clothing they’re wearing is fragile so we cleaned these in situ using a hog’s hair brush to gently brush down the fabric. These formidable ladies were apparently modelled on real Grasmere ladies in the late 1930’s and constructed in Germany. Rumour has it that they had to be shipped out of Nazi Germany. Being solid wood, they are very heavy and it was thought that they were in fact hollow and being used to smuggle items out of the country. The museum opened in 1943 so this might not be too far-fetched!

Next up was the “Cockerel” life cabinet which sits at the top of the first staircase opposite the Life Room. This cabinet contains items used in daily life and celebrations during Wordsworth’s lifetime. There is a beautiful collection of decorated Pace Eggs made by the Wordsworth’s servant John Dixon whilst they were living at Rydal Mount. The items that really grabbed my attention in this cabinet though were the two sets of lethal looking cockspurs complete in their own decorated boxes.

For those who don’t know cockspurs are long, metal talons which were strapped to the legs of fighting cocks to make sure they inflicted more damage on one another, in some parts of the world where cock-fighting still continues they still are.  These eighteenth century bad boys are up to two inches long with leather straps. One of the boxes has an intricate painted wooden inlay of a fighting cock resplendent, his feathers blue, gold and red on the lid. These were aristocratic cockspurs, well made and in their own way oddly compelling. Someone went to a lot of trouble to arm his prized game cock.

So, to this morning and the Possessions Case. The items here were actually owned and used by William Wordsworth and his family. Sadly not much here dates from their residency at Dove Cottage, instead most dates from Wordsworth’s later life. This is hardly surprising as he had become at this point rather famous and collectors sought items like these as relics of their hero. In much the same way Graceland remains a shrine to the later excess of Elvis Presley yet early items are much rarer.

There is a certain thrill to be had handling items worn or used or even made by a great person even if you have no particular interest in that person’s work. Here we have Wordsworth’s waistcoat, his umbrella, pairs of his spectacles, even his socks. Imagine that, a pair of socks over 160 years old! Look at your socks and imagine someone gently lifting them out of a glass case, checking them for any sign of deterioration and cleaning them gently with a soft brush. Some people might wonder whether looking at and handling something as intimate as a pair of socks takes away from or adds to the mystique of genius?

Is looking at Wordsworth’s socks or Elvis’s underwear reverential or voyeuristic? Does it add to our sense of understanding or would we do better to examine the inner thoughts and feelings left to us in poetry and letters? Or should we be thankful that one man’s fame preserved such everyday items which give us insight into lives beyond his own?


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