Contributor: Jeff Cowton
Location: The old Grasmere – Rydal Turnpike Road, Grasmere
Description: ‘Wordsworth’s Wishing-gate’, and what remains of it, tells a paradigmatic Romantic story of literary tourism in the heart of the English Lake District in the mid nineteenth century.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, literary pilgrimages around Britain were already popular with tourists from home and abroad. As Nicola J. Watson writes: ‘The French poet and scholar Auguste Angellier remarked on the huge numbers of literary pilgrims who came to Britain from the four corners of the world to pay homage to the country’s writers.’ From the 1820s, such tourists came to the Lakes in search of Wordsworth: the man himself and the places associated with his poetry. ‘Strangers’, as tourists were then addressed, were encouraged by published guidebooks to call on the poet at his Rydal Mount home for personal tours of his garden. An image showing Wordsworth standing in his library was included in a popular set of prints in the 1830s; by the 1850s his name was synonymous with the area: ‘Wordsworth Country’. One particular place of pilgrimage was ‘The Wishing Gate’, a humble farm gate on the old turnpike road overlooking Grasmere lake, just five minutes’ walk from Dove Cottage which the Wordsworths had made their home between 1799 and 1808.
A modern guidebook will tell you that the Wordsworths themselves called this gate ‘Sara’s Gate’, after Sara Hutchinson, the poet’s sister in law. The family often named places after each other as a way of making the valley home. Dorothy Wordsworth writes on 31st Oct 1801 that ‘I was much affected when I stood upon the 2nd bar of Sara’s Gate. The lake was perfectly still, the Sun shone on Hill & vale, the distant Birch trees looked like large golden Flowers.’ However, the nineteenth-century tourist did not know of the gate’s connection to Sara. Their interest lay in its associations with Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Wishing Gate’, first published in the literary annual, The Keepsake, of 1829.
The preface to the poem reads ‘In the vale of Grasmere, by the side of an old highway leading to Ambleside, is a gate, which, from time out of mind, has been called the Wishing-gate, from a belief that wishes formed or indulged there have a favourable issue.’ The poem itself begins by stating the opinion that it is pointless to make a wish – but Wordsworth goes on to say that he can understand the human need to do so: people wishing to be forgiven or to have success in battle, or to have a relationship renewed. He believes that the world would be the poorer without such ‘superstitions of the heart’, and that the spirit of the place can ‘infect’ even tourists:
Yea! even the Stranger from afar,
Reclining on this moss-grown bar,
Unknowing and unknown,
The infection of the ground partakes,
Longing for his Beloved—who makes
All happiness her own.
In 1830, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published a short story based on Wordsworth’s poem, and the gate and poem became known in American periodicals thanks to verses written by L.E. Landon (1802-1838) and Charles MacKay (1814-1889) who came looking for the gate on his own tour to the Lakes. Images of the gate appeared as prints, postcards, and lantern slides from the mid nineteenth century onwards. It became known through these media as ‘Wordsworth’s Wishing Gate’.
Victorian locals and visitors alike made good use of its purported powers to grant wishes. A governess living in Grasmere records in her journal: ‘After tea though late, we still persevered in going for a walk and for the last time paid a visit to the “Wishing Gate”. I wished a wish of long standing, but did not tell it. Mr Grundy did, and though he enjoined me not to repeat it to any one did not forbid me to journalize it, it was that he might always feel as contented, as he then did’ (July 25th 1847). The out-of-towner John Hudson made a literary pilgrimage in 1857:
And I, a Poet-pilgrim come
From a far town to-day;
Gaze fondly on the Laureate’s home,
With him in spirit stray.
And wrote that
I ask’d each maid whose path I cross’d,
In that delightful hour,
If their mysterious Gate has lost
Aught of its eldern power?
Those who visited, including John Hudson, left their mark:
On every bar of that rude Gate,
Initials, – many a score, –
Were carv’d, as if a lover’s fate
Each quaint inscription bore.
I scored two letters in the crowd –
No matter what they were;
Then, uttering one fond name aloud,
Left the memento there.
With the passage of time, the wooden gate rotted. Having heard ‘on good authority’ that the gate had been destroyed, Wordsworth wrote a poem of lament. However, he was misinformed – and Murray’s Handbook of 1866 stated that it had been replaced. But the celebrity status of the gate meant that its original latch was preserved. It is now safely housed in Grasmere’s Wordsworth Museum, bearing an old label: ‘Latch from the original wishing gate…’ (1) The latch features in the new Wordsworth Museum which opened in 2020.
The current gate is still visited and wishes are still made; graffiti made by earlier tourists can be seen on the stone gateposts. The gate’s celebrity status will be maintained by its use as a stopping point on one of the Wordsworth-themed walks available for today’s literary tourists from around the world. Visitors will thus be enabled to reiterate a Wordsworthian experience now some 200 years old:
I stood by Wordsworth’s “Wishing Gate,”
On Grasmere’s lovely side;
The glorious mountains, small and great,
Rose round me in their pride.
John Holland, Grasmere June 26 1857 (Westmorland Gazette)
Date: unknown, pre 1800
Subject: William Wordsworth (1770-1850); Grasmere; literary tourism; ‘The Wishing Gate’ (poem)
Media: Theopilus Lindsey Aspland’s (1807-1890) Grasmere from near the Wishing Gate, published in Views of the Lakes and Mountains (London: Hamilton and Co.; Windermere: J. Garnett, between 1875 and 1900).
Media rights: The Wordsworth Trust
Object type: the surviving bar of The Wishing Gate now in the collection of the Wordsworth Trust
Related objects: Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal
Publisher: The Wordsworth Trust
- The label goes on to state that it was ‘bought at the sale of Miss Quillinan’. Miss Quillinan was Jemima Katherine Quillinan, daughter of Edward Quillinan from his first marriage. Quillinan would make a second marriage to Wordsworth’s daughter, Dora. Jemima died in 1891, and sales of her property took place in the 1890s. The latch was given to the Wordsworth Trust before 1938 by an antique seller, T.H. Telford who was then living a few yards from Dove Cottage.