in the village just for the ambience and tourist shops don’t turn your nose up at the church just because it looks awful and is awash with selfie-taking tourists.
The oldest part of the present church, believe it or not, dates from 1250. Surprised? Then here’s something else to make you sit up: St Oswald - King Of Northumberland founded the first church here in AD642! Oswald chopped down a “sacred” oak and built a church, following a well-established policy of sequestering pagan sites for Christian purposes. Nobody is certain where this original church was situated despite considerable expenditure of time and intellect by local historians. So you see, Grasmere is not just the place that good ol’ Willie W happens to be buried. It’s an ancient place.
The nave and west tower both date from 1250. I am struggling, however, to think of a single feature that would tell you that. The windows are a grim mix of post-Reformation styles of no merit. To the north of the nave is the enormous “Langdale Aisle”. It was originally built as a separate building, a “Chapel of Ease” for people living at this end of Langdale. There was quite a lot of parish and patron politics involved in this sort of thing. See Swaffham in Cambridgeshire for a really extreme example The two buildings each had gabled roofs with the inevitable consequence that the gully between the two collected water and snow. For those who are not British or who have never visited Britain I should add at this point that the Lakeland area is the wettest and one of the coldest in England.
So in 1562 one John Benson of Baisbrown (in Langdale, I believe) bequeathed money for bringing it all under a single roof. Arches were cut through the existing dividing wall. The stone that had been removed was used to build the wall up higher so that there was now a single gable. What is bizarre is that the arcade is made of round headed arches and that a further arcade was added above it. I think it might have been Simon Jenkins who said that the outcome vaguely resembles the (Roman) Pont du Gard in Provence! Bizarre maybe, but also utterly charming and a welcome break with orthodox architectural practice. Crowning the whole interior what the Church Guide delightfully calls “A Tangle of Timbers”. Wordsworth himself was sufficiently charmed to write of it in one of his poems : “The Excursion”. See my footnote.
Obviously the big attraction here is the Wordsworth graves. It’s a bit bonkers really. What in earth do we all get out of looking at a very ordinary headstone? Why do people come from all over the world to see it? Is Wordsworth really that popular? I’m a Keats man myself. Yet I’ve been to Grasmere half a dozen times and guess what? I’ve been to see the darned gravestone every time!
There’s a lovely “feel” to this church that both delights and surprises you. For a start the floor is always covered in rushes. You might say it’s a bit cluttered with all the banners and knick-knacks but these are the signs that this church is not just a shrine to a famous poet but also the hub of a living community that is still there when the tourist buses have gone. There must have been a temptation to turn it into some kind of Wordsworth Museum but it’s a temptation the church has rejected. It’s kept its dignity.
One last thing. You might feel a bit sniffy about Grasmere. “Tourist trap”, did I hear you snort? Yet it’s a very pretty place with a wonderful backdrop. It’s only full of tourists because it’s worth seeing. Of course it’s commercialised. So is Petra. So is Venice. Get over it because Grasmere is a nice place.