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Cockermouth - the birthplace of poet William Wordsworth

PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 January 2018

A member of NT staff dressed in costume outside the front of Wordsworth House and Garden, Cockermouth

A member of NT staff dressed in costume outside the front of Wordsworth House and Garden, Cockermouth

©National Trust Images/John Millar

History is all around you in Cockermouth, but the town has a bustling present and an exciting future too.

Bust of William Wordsworth opposite Wordsworth HouseBust of William Wordsworth opposite Wordsworth House

IT is no wonder that Cockermouth was once named one of the United Kingdom’s 51 gem towns. It has a special blend of historic buildings, streets, nooks and crannies, riverside walks and famous sons. Restaurants, cafes and an excellent variety of independent retailers ensure this is a bustling community worth visiting. It has its own arts centre and theatre and enough antique and retro stores to satisfy TV’s appetite for auction house programmes.

The town, on the fringes of the Lake District, is the birth-place of William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Fletcher Christian, who led the renowned mutiny on the Bounty. John Dalton, the noted scientist and father of the atomic theory, and Fearon Fallows, HM Astronomer Royal, were born in or near the town.

It even nurtured the blooming talents of New Zealand-born England all-round cricketer Ben Stokes, whose international career has been on hold.

The first port of call for visitors is often Wordsworth House, birthplace of romantic poet William Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and their siblings who grew up in Cockermouth acquiring their love of literature and nature.

Wordsworth House house steward Rachel PainterWordsworth House house steward Rachel Painter

It opens to the public in March, but in the winter months it is a hive of activity involving National Trust staff and the dozens of volunteers who keep both the house and the gardens exactly as they would have been during the Georgian era.

Head gardener Amanda Thackeray has supervised a team of 16 volunteer gardeners and guides for 14 years, growing and harvesting fruit and vegetables that would have graced the kitchens of the original Wordsworth family.

And inside, the house steward Rachel Painter oversees the storage, cleaning and presentation of all the household furnishings so visitors can see exactly how the family lived, and even play the replica harpsichord in one of the sitting rooms.

Situated on the Main Street, the house built in 1744, had its busiest visitor season for five years in 2017, welcoming more than 29,000 people between mid-March and the end of October, when it closed for the winter. That was more than 2,000 ahead of target and 15 per cent up on the previous year.

Cockermouth streetsCockermouth streets

Alex Morgan, interpretation and communications manager said the special exhibitions, which received publicity as far away as New York, helped attract people from all over the world.

This year the main exhibition is Where Poppies Blow, commemorating the centenary of the end of the Great War and celebrating the role of nature in helping sustain Britain’s troops. The guest curator is historian, farmer and Wainwright prize-winning author, John Lewis-Stempel.

The exhibition comes in two phases, both showcasing artefacts from the war. The first from March 10 to July 8 features the original manuscript of Edward Thomas’s poem Adelstrop; and the second from July 16 to October 28 has his war diary notebook that was in his pocket when he died in battle, the pages still showing the wrinkling from the shock waves from the explosion which killed him.

In the garden there will be a hanging wall of poppies and cornflowers, part of a nationwide ribbon of blooms to mark the ending of the Great War.

Dressing up at Wordsworth HouseDressing up at Wordsworth House

As part of a linked season of evening talks, on Thursday June 7, former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion will share his love of Thomas and read from his own forthcoming verse memoir, Essex Clay.

Wordsworth House, like most of the rest of the town, has twice been devastated by floods this millennium, first when an eight foot high wall of water and debris swept down the main street in 2009.

Again in December 2015, the water from the rivers Cocker and Derwent, which flow through the town and give it its name, was chest high in the riverside properties.

No doubt there are still scars, and even residents in the town who are yet to return to their homes two years after the event, but the odd water mark commemoration apart, there are no signs of the devastation.

Amanda Thackeray with visitors in the Wordsworth House gardenAmanda Thackeray with visitors in the Wordsworth House garden

The Main Street thrives with pubs, cafes and independent shops. One relative new-comer is returning globe-traveller Stephen Kidd. Now aged 36, he was born and bred in the town and in 2016 put an end to his world-wide journeys to build a business based on his love and talent for coffees.

He opened his coffee and cake shop Moon & Sixpence, named after the school outfitters which occupied the property, during his schooldays in the town. The former proprietor Joyce Garrard is still the owner and Stephen’s landlord.

He uses a network of fellow-minded artisans to supply the latest fresh produce: bread and pastry maker Kevin McTiernan; Teddy Kemp a fellow coffee freak; Mikail Contes, who makes fermented tea drinks like Kefir and Kombucha; and Melissa Wong who makes the cakes.

‘They are all friends who club together,’ said Stephen, who also sells soup made from vegetables grown at the local organic farm and cooked by Sam Elvin who also picks them. Another farm worker, Susi Seward, supplies fresh cut flowers in the summer and makes material ones in winter.

Sue Seekings owner of Daschund Vintage InteriorsSue Seekings owner of Daschund Vintage Interiors

This month, Mikail is holding training courses on making the fermented teas, as part of a regular round of evening workshops at the cafe.

It is tempting for visitors to get to the old police station at the end of the Main Street and turn back quite satisfied by the experience, but they are missing out on more treasures across the bridge over the Cocker.

New signage is being created to extol the virtues of Market Place which has a variety of businesses, new and old.

Among the newest is Daschund Vintage Interiors, where Sue Seekings has a shop and workshop to up-cycle old furniture. Four years ago she took an upholstery course and started touring local markets.

‘People kept asking where my shop was and when this property came up I jumped at the chance,’ she said, explaining the unusual name came from her 12-year-old daughter Millie’s obsession with stamping a daschund shape on everything.

For lovers of times gone by, a real treasure is J B Banks & Sons, an ironmongers and hardware store established in 1836. It includes a museum which must house some of the original stock. It is just the sort of place to buy four candles, or even fork handles.

Nearby is the oldest building in town, the Percy House gallery, some of which dates back to the 1390s. It was built as a bailiff’s home for the Percys of Northumberland.

For decades it had become disused and dilapidated before Vivien Austin and Karen Cottier restored it 15 years ago. It now displays paintings, textiles, jewellery, ceramics and other works produced by local artists.

So Cockermouth has no shortage of famous characters, heritage and thriving retail and hospitality sectors. But it has something else as well: a truly inspiring community spirit that means it has bounced back from the floods.

Back at Wordsworth House, Alex Morgan said: ‘Cockermouth is such a lovely and lively friendly place. There is so much going on. I moved here from Scotland 12 years ago and cannot imagine living anywhere else.’

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