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The Rock of Names

Professor Simon Bainbridge talks to Kate Ingle about 'The Rock of Names' - carvings in a rock by the Wordsworth, Coleridge and Mary and Sara Hutchin.
I’ve come up to an area of land behind the Jerwood Centre, and I’ve come to look at a remarkable object that’s cared for by the Wordsworth Trust. I’m joined by Kate Ingle, who’s a PhD student working on the writing of Dorothy Wordsworth. So Kate, can you tell me what this remarkable object is? This object was known as the rock of names to the Wordsworths. And in the summer of 1802, William, Dorothy, and their closest friends inscribed their initials into this very rock. Wow, so 1802, they’ve been here about 18 months at that stage, they’re getting to know the area. Yes.
And as well as it being a particularly happy summer, marking local objects becomes important for the Wordsworths in developing their sense of home, which is what we’ll think about today. So if we look at this rock, we can actually see their initials carved into it. Can you talk us through this, Kate? Tell us whose initials stand for whom. Yes, so here we have a WW, which is William Wordsworth. And we have his sister, Dorothy, there. You can see a DW. We have underneath here, there’s John Wordsworth, which is their younger brother. Then we have STC, which is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet and their very good friend.
And then down here, we have Sara Hutchinson, who was one of the Wordsworths’ closest friends. And then we also have MH for Mary Hutchinson, who was to become Wordsworth’s wife. So what a fantastic collection of carvings from the whole community there. So they just come out here from Dove Cottage and carve their names on the rock, did they? No this rock was actually located five miles away up at Wythburn alongside the tarn Thirlmere. Right, so how does how does a rock move five miles down here to the back garden as it were, of Dove Cottage? Well, it’s a fascinating story. In the 1870s, the Manchester authorities were enlarging Thirlmere into the reservoir that we know today.
And they blew up the rock, and fortunately, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley collected the fragments of the blown up rock. So who was Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley? He’s a local conservationist who was one of the founding members of the National Trust. And he was also a member of the Wordsworth Society, which was set up to promote and protect Wordsworth’s work and poetry. So a very important man, a major figure in the kind of conservation of the area by the sounds of things. So when does the rock get here into the back of the Jerwood Centre? Well, the fragments were reset into this rock face in about 1984. Right, and so why this particular rock.
You mentioned that it was five miles up the road from here, near the reservoir. Now why did they choose to choose that site to carve their initials on? Well, it was actually a meeting point between the two houses, and it was approximately halfway between Dove Cottage here in Grasmere and Coleridge’s lodgings at Greta Hall over in Keswick. And the two poets and their friends would meet as they were walking over to see one another. Right, so it’s a sort of personal landmark in the landscape if you like. Yes, exactly. It’s exactly a literal meeting place, and it shows how they use this landscape. But it also becomes symbolic of their friendship. The place becomes invested with emotion.
Right, so would you say this is the main example of that kind of relationship to landscape? Are there other examples of places that take on these special meanings? Yes, there are plenty across Grasmere. There is Sara’s Gate, which is named after Sara Hutchinson. There is also John’s Grove named after William and Dorothy’s younger brother. And Wordsworth also wrote a set of poems called the “Poems on the Naming of Places”. So what kind of place names do they have? Well, they might mark a local object and name it at a particular site where they can see a very nice view of the landscape. It might be along a favourite walking route.
Or it might be where a particular memorable incident has happened. So for example, in the poem “To Joanna,” which recalls Joanna Hutchinson’s first visit over to Grasmere, which was Sara and Mary’s younger sister. The poem opens with the poet carving her name into a rock, which they had stopped at. So we’ve seen quite a lot of this carving from Wordsworth. When we were at Hawkshead the other day, we looked at his school desk, which had W. Wordsworth carved in it. You just mentioned a poem which involves carving onto the rock, and now we’ve got the rock of names. Is this graffiti? Is this vandalism? Yes and no.
It is in the sense that we might mark our being in a particular place at a particular time, and it is in the sense that graffiti celebrates a code of the private known to a few. And the Wordsworths, when they marked these places, it is a kind of possession of the local that strengthens their bonds as a group. The significance of these markings rely on the fact that people won’t know them. However, this does differ from graffiti because it isn’t about vandalism, and it’s not about protest. The Wordsworths’ project is about settling in Grasmere, and it’s about personalising place.
And if we think about the objects, the choice of objects that they’re choosing to mark such as a gate and a rock, these are all very ordinary objects that could be easily overlooked much like the unhewn stones in the poem “Michael” that you’ve been looking at in earlier weeks. And Remember, this landscape would have been filled with markers, such as milestones, that were made for and known to the local people and for those that use this landscape. And so the Wordsworths are doing this on a much more smaller and more private scale. How interesting. And that link back to “Michael” is really helpful I think. So their relationship between landscape and writing is operating at a number of levels here.
They’re marking the landscape, carving their names into it. They’re naming the landscape, giving these particular places special names, and they’re also writing about the landscape. What does that tell us about the relationship between the Wordsworths and landscape? Well, I think for the Wordsworths, a sense of place and particularly home is something that has to be made, and it has to be practised. And it also has to be shared by a very close group of friends, and it requires a very active relationship between the landscape and those that use it.
And so a shared use of landscape can enhance friendship, and at the same time, friendly experiences in place can bring forth these feelings of togetherness, community, and a sense of home. So these special names that they had for particular places, did they actually use them in their everyday lives? Yes, they did. Coleridge uses them in his notebooks. Dorothy uses them in her journals, and she also uses them in correspondence. And for Dorothy, these names are particularly important because she uses them in a very specific way to recollect feelings of friendship. So for example, in the summer of 1802, Mary and Sara Hutchinson are absent from Grasmere, and William and Dorothy write them a joint letter.
And in Dorothy’s portion of the letter, she recalls that her and William have been walking in John’s Grove at night. And she writes to them, “we thought of you, dear friends. Dear friends, we shall be together before the next full moon”. So the names then become just as important as the places. Well, what a lovely point to end on. The names are as important as the places. Thank you very much, Kate, for showing us this fantastic engaging object and for explaining its significance as well. It’s a really good symbol, I think, of the relationship between the Wordsworths and the landscape and writing. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

In this short video, Professor Simon Bainbridge talks to Kate Ingle, a research student at Lancaster University, about ‘The Rock of Names’, a remarkable object which is cared for by The Wordsworth Trust.

In the summer of 1802, William, Dorothy and their close friends, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mary and Sara Hutchinson carved their initials into a rock face. Simon and Kate discuss the importance of inscription and the naming of places to William and Dorothy as they settled into Grasmere.

William and his friends are generally referred to as ‘The Wordsworth Circle’ and this video mentions several members of the Circle.

If you want to find out more about the different members, you can find their biographies in the downloads section below.

After watching this video, reflect on whether you have created any names, or nick-names for special places? Think about the type of places you named, how you named them and who uses these names.

Then turn to the next step which examines Wordsworthian place naming more closely.

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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

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