Houseboats-Off-Grasmere

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Composed By The Side of Grasmere Lake 1806

Clouds, lingering yet, extend in solid bars
Through the grey west; and lo! these waters, steeled
By breezeless air to smoothest polish, yield
A vivid repetition of the stars;
Jove, Venus, and the ruddy crest of Mars
Amid his fellows beauteously revealed
At happy distance from earth’s groaning field,
Where ruthless mortals wage incessant wars.
Is it a mirror?–or the nether Sphere
Opening to view the abyss in which she feeds 10 
Her own calm fires?–But list! a voice is near;
Great Pan himself low-whispering through the reeds,
“Be thankful, thou; for, if unholy deeds
Ravage the world, tranquillity is here!”

These words were composed by William Wordsworth in 1806 about Grasmere where Wordsworth resided with his sister Dorothy from 1799 until 1808 at Dove Cottage.  The sonnet form of the poem is universally synonymous with love indicating Wordsworth’s passion for the area before a line is even read.  Wordsworth espouses the metaphysical qualities of the lake throughout the initial octave describing how its waters reflect the stars whilst Jupiter, Venus and Mars are revealed at a safe distance from ‘earth’s groaning field // Where ruthless mortals wage incessant wars’.  Wordsworth was perhaps thinking here more about the French Revolution which raged from 1789 until 1799, but he overtly expresses through the God of nature the ‘Great Pan’ that ‘if unholy deeds // Ravage the world, tranquillity is here!” in reference to Grasmere.  Over four hundred years later the ‘tranquillity’ found at the lake by Wordsworth and thousand’s others since is being threatened by the capitalistic greed which is becoming ominously ubiquitous across the Lake District since the park was awarded UNESCO Heritage status in 2017.

The latest threat is posed by the Lowther Estate who own the lake at Grasmere. They are seeking permission from the Lake District National Park planning team to moor up to ten electric-motored holiday cruisers on the lake.  The proposed vessels will be equipped with a kitchen, toilet and sleeping quarters for up to six people and will measure up to 40 feet long.  Guests would board the yachts by rowing boat and could stay for up to a week.  Local residents are vehemently opposed to the plan and have created the protest group ‘Houseboats-off-Grasmere’ to fight the Lowther Estate in order to maintain the beauty, tranquillity, integrity and peaceful environment Grasmere has become renowned for locally and across the world.  The Chief executive of the Lowther Estate believes however that the ten houseboats will “fit in with the landscape just as they do on Ullswater and Windermere”, the underlining suggestion being that houseboats moored on Grasmere will be continuing a tradition seen elsewhere in the lakes where steamers and pleasure boats have been operating for almost two hundred years.  Their assumption however disregards the nuances of place and local tradition. Ullswater and Windermere are both noticeably larger bodies of water; Windermere is 14.8 square kilometres dwarfing the second largest Ullswater which is 8.9 square kilometres.  In comparison Grasmere is a tiny 0.6 square kilometres. Furthermore, the tradition of steamers and boats on Windermere and Ullswater developed out of necessity and on the former originally supported commercial traffic associated with slate and copper mining, timber, wool and fishing.  Similarly, the first reported steamer on Ullswater dates back to 1859 and its main purpose was to carry passengers but also to serve the Royal Mail and to carry slate and lead from nearby mines.  Cruising on the lakes for pleasure became popular during the Victorian period when people began to visit the area as an alternative to the European Grand Tour. Therefore, the proposal that the vessels suggested for Grasmere will ‘fit in with the landscape’ as they have elsewhere is misleading and untrue.  The size of Windermere and Ullswater, the local industry and historic draw of tourists does not translate to Grasmere.

Local residents opposed to the houseboats wish to maintain “the peace and tranquillity” Grasmere has always offered and avoid “potential pollution” in regards to noise and litter an enterprise such as this will attract.  For Dorothy Wordsworth Grasmere was a place of quiet contemplation where she often found empathy and understanding reflected back to her from nature.  In her Grasmere Journal from May 1800 she writes after waving off her brothers William and John who were bound for Yorkshire that she “sate a long time upon a stone at the margin of the lake, & after a flood of tears my heart was easier. The lake looked to me I knew not why dull and melancholy, the weltering on the shores seemed a heavy sound”.  In the twentieth century the painter William Heaton Cooper built his studio in Grasmere and captured the beautiful tranquillity of the lake across numerous seasons, rarely depicting anything more than the natural change of light upon the landscape early morning, in morning light or after sunset.  Grasmere has always been and remains a place of beauty and peace, but it is also a hive of activity.  Fell walkers, swimmers, cyclists, families, school trips, international tourists all flock to Grasmere throughout the year.  Local residents and supporters have no wish for the area to become stagnant, they are striving to maintain the integrity of Grasmere for the future and oppose the houseboats as the enterprise is solely couched in the commercial exploitation of the area. 

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The group ‘Houseboats-Off-Grasmere’ are organising a day of resistance on Saturday 1 February with activities scheduled to highlight the diverse range of options the area has to offer and speeches to communicate why opposition to this enterprise is necessary and vital.  More information can be found on the groups facebook page and the online petition to the Lowther Estate can be found here. 

If you are a resident of Grasmere, the surrounding area, a frequent visitor or have future plans to visit please sign the petition, spread the word, and if possible, attend the day of resistance. 

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