Although William Wordsworth is most closely associated with Rydal and Grasmere, his romantic ideas and poetic genius were formed by a Penrith childhood.
His mother Ann was brought up in a building where Arnisons' drapers stands today. His father served articles at Sockbridge and went on to work for the Earl of Lonsdale who tried to swindle him out of his savings. Their married life in Cockermouth was happy and produced five children. William was the second, after brother Richard and before beloved sister Dorothy.
For much of William's early life his parents dispatched him to his grandparents' house in Penrith. He started his education at Dame Birkett’s school in St Andrew's Place, an establishment for the children of upper-class families. Ann Birkett believed in a broad education, with academic and biblical learning accompanied by involvement in local festivals. At the school young William formed an attachment to Mary Hutchinson, who, a quarter century later, would become his wife.
Life outside school went badly for William. He resented his grandparents and constantly found himself in trouble, but we cannot know for sure whether he fully deserved his punishments or was harshly mistreated. Accounts from the time describe him variously as destroying a family portrait and dramatically grasping a fencing foil as he contemplated taking his own life.
His discontent spurred him to wander from home onto the moors above Penrith, either alone or with James, the family's groom. This time spent close to nature fired a poetic imagination that can be followed directly to The Prelude, one of his foremost works that describes the growth of his mind from childhood. In the poem William refers directly to his first hand experience of the rough and rugged Beacon with its extensive views and prominent summit tower. There he first experienced moments that transcended time and place, inspiring in him 'a spirit of pleasure and youth's golden gleam.'
William's early childhood was cut short by mother Ann's death from pneumonia, contracted by sleeping in a damp bed when visiting friends in London. Her grave in St Andrew's churchyard is unmarked. The last glimpses William had of his mother were of her lying in her death-bed, caught fleetingly by his nine year old eyes as he passed by the door of her room. Her death robbed him of ‘the props of his affections.’ Bereft of that support, sent away by his father and soon to be parted from Dorothy he turned his attention increasingly to the wild local landscape.
William's widowed father showed little interest in the children, and their interests were looked after by their uncles. But the offspring still felt the practical impact of his death, coming as it did before the scandal of his savings had been resolved. Uncles Richard and Christopher continued to promote William's education, this time at Hawkshead and then Cambridge University, from where he would return from time to time. On these visits he would stroll with his sister and Mary along the Eamont past Brougham Castle or to the summit of the Beacon.
A later visit, occurring in his early twenties proved both tragic and opportune for William. He and a friend, Raisley Calvert intended visiting Lisbon, making the first part of the journey from Calvert's Keswick home on foot. Arriving at Penrith William was concerned for the health of his younger companion and they halted at the Robin Hood Inn on King Street. Calvert ailed badly and William nursed his companion for some time, watching powerlessly as Calvert slowly succumbed, dying in January 1795. In his will he left £900 to William, a generous legacy that enabled William to pursue his poetic passion.
William's Penrith connections came full circle when in 1802 he and Mary Hutchinson wed. Like William and Dorothy, Mary had been orphaned and spent years farmed out to unsympathetic relations.
William's poetic counterpart and bosom friend Samuel Coleridge was an occasional visitor to Penrith, commissioning a Castlegate printer to produce his periodical essays. For William this was tricky as Coleridge's opium addiction became a source of local gossip and risked besmirching the Wordsworth family's reputation in the town. William's subsequent breach of confidence about this very issue caused an enduring rift between the poets. Years later William imagined an emotional reunion, not on the fells surrounding Grasmere but on the Beacon, for 'a power is on me, and a strong confusion, and I seem to plant thee there.'
Although much of the mass literary attention given to William passes quickly over his childhood, there can be no doubt that growing up beneath the Beacon did much to form the character of England's greatest ever poet.